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Book Review: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

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Ingeniously conceived and executed, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics (IDW) charts the history of comics utilizing the medium itself. Originally published as a six-issue mini-series as Comic Book Comics, the trade collection depicts the medium’s storytelling evolution, its rocky course as a business, as well as its creative touchstones. Throughout the book, attention is paid to both the creative talents who added to the medium as well as the occasionally more dubious types who bankrolled what was first seen as a “fly-by-night” business. Certain figures, familiar to most longtime comics lovers, regularly appear in the book–Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kurtzberg/Kirby, Will Eisner, and a young hyperactive kid named Stan Lieber (who would later, of course, shorten that name to Lee)–first seen scrambling to make a place for themselves in a profession that was initially considered “a couple of steps below digging ditches.”

Van Lente and Dunlavey follow the art and industry from its earliest Depression Era days as a cheap collection of reprint comic strips through its Golden Age blossoming with the creation of Superman and the development of various post-war comic book genres (romance, crime and, ultimately, horror comics) then into the fifties Silver Age which brought a rekindled interest in superheroes. If there’s any area where the duo fall short in the first half of their volume, it’s in the scant mention given to actual funnybooks: animal comics that brought us the work of Carl Barks and his cohorts as well as the earliest incarnation of Walt Kelly’s classic Pogo–and the teen funnies like Archie–though I suspect for many mainstream fans this isn’t an issue. I do wonder why there’s no mention of Jack Cole’s revolutionary wise-guy superhero Plastic Man, though.

The second half of the volume moves us into the sixties, with both the Marvel Age and the underground comix movement, then into the development of the direct market distribution system and the graphic novel. The growth of European comics and Japanese manga are also given their own chapters, but these prove relatively slight. The focus of Comic Book History remains on the American industry. Fair enough: a Manga History of Manga would provide enough material for its own full volume.

Where this book excels is in using its own medium to depict the changes in art and graphic storytelling that occurred through comics history. The book’s opening chapter cannily demonstrates how sequential panel-to-panel narrative developed using the classic Abbott and Costello dialog “Who’s on second?” while a later entry shows Dunlavey beautifully parodying and explicating the development of Jack Kirby’s groundbreaking style. Writer Fred Van Lente also has a sharp eye for the shady mistreatment that so many of these “work-for-hire” creators received over the years. He doesn’t, for instance, let Stan “The Man” Lee off the hook for lapping up the “auteur’s” credit for “creating” the characters in the Marvel Universe when in fact the work was a collaborative one with artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko.

Both writer and artist present their material fairly and with a large amount of verbal and visual humor. An accounting of the infamous Air Pirates case (where a rag-tag group of counter-cultural artists were sued by the Disney Corporation for producing underground comics that used their characters) depicts both the Disney and Air Pirates’ versions of Mickey Mouse facing off against each other with Roy Orbison and the members of Two Live Crew standing in the background, for instance, illustrating how different the copyright infringement case might have gone in the aftermath of more recent music sampling decisions.

Comic Book History’s greatest achievement, though, lies in humanizing a creative community that historically has been obscured through company hype and fannish mythologizing. (Recently, while watching an episode of Ken Smith’s Comic Book Men on television, for instance, I watched both Smith and his cohorts blithely echo the assertion that Stan Lee was entirely responsible for the Marvel Universe.) Paying attention to a group of inventive storytellers who frequently worked in crappy conditions for insufficient credit or money, this book provides an invaluable history. Both loving and knowing, it’s one that the medium well deserves.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.