Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America
Wright, Bradford W. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 2001. 336 p., $34.95, hardcover. ISBN: 080186514X.
The history of comic books has thus far been written tangentially in other studies of comics, and slanted toward the individual theses of the given author's work; only by splicing histories from a variety of sources could the history of comics be achieved, thus causing an impediment to understand the history of the medium for new scholars approaching the field. Bradford W. Wright's Comic Book Nation should provide new comic book scholars with an appropriate historical understanding of a complex medium, and while it may prove to be repetitive for readers familiar with the history of comic books, for scholars new to the field, Comic Book Nation is indispensable as a single-volume study. Ron Goulart's Great History of Comic Books (1986) was marred with inaccuracies; Richard Reynolds' Superheroes: A Modern Mythology (1992), while theoretically vital to the study of the field, largely eschewed historical analysis; William Savage's Comic Books and America: 1945-1954 (1990), which Wright acknowledges his debt to, focused too narrowly on an anomalous era of comic book publishing (at the end of the Golden Age typified by the comics published during the Second World War and previous to the Silver Age, embodied by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's work at Marvel Comics), much like Amy Nyberg's Seal of Approval (1998), which focused on the era of comic book censorship in the 1950s. Wright approaches the whole of comic book history, and while he suffers from lack of analytical depth, he provides future scholars with an indispensable point of analytical departure.
The greatest flaw I find in Wright's work is that his history largely ignores the developments of post-1960s comic book publishing, wholly excising both DC Comic's "mature" imprint Vertigo and the conglomeration of capital-minded artists that formed Image Comics in the early 1990s. The vast majority of Comic Book Nation takes place prior to 1960 (179 pages by my count, chapters 1-6), relegating the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to their own chapters, with the events of the 1990s piggybacking the 1980s in single chapter: Considering the great upheavals that occurred in the 1990s, Wright's avoidance of these issues mars his attempted history. The British invasion of comics, largely evidenced in the comics released through Vertigo, marked an ideological shift in popularity: Neil Gaiman's widely acknowledged Sandman series solidified the High Art qualities for comics that Alan Moore had earlier explored in Miracleman, Watchmen, and Swamp Thing (the latter receiving no mention whatsoever); within fandom, Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man are seen as essential deconstructive approaches to superheroes; Garth Ennis's Preacher divorced itself from limiting superhero narratives to explore the genre implications of horror and the western while scathingly critiquing American culture (as Ennis's Hellblazer had done previously); and Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan imagined a future America, spoiled by consumerism and bleakly sardonic. All of these titles were widely popular, and Wright mentions none of them. Similarly, the omission of Image Comics belies an ignorance of the growing importance that artists attributed to themselves, priding themselves over the content of the stories or even the iconic heroes that they drew. Spawn, Todd McFarlane's initial series with Image Comics, was so widely popular as to facilitate an HBO cartoon, a movie, numerous toys, and spin-off series, all based upon the art of the series, which featured dismally written stories. What, it seems fair to ask in a cultural history of comic books, is the cultural implication of prizing artists over writers or the superheroes themselves? Unfortunately, Wright doesn't ask this question or bother to answer it.
Additionally, Wright makes broad historical claims throughout his study, and while he takes the time to properly cite the comics that he thoroughly summarizes, he rarely, if ever, cites historical texts for informing his critique of history. Claims such as "Yet even DC's sales dropped significantly after the [CMAA] code (which censored comics), largely due to competition from television" (182) are common occurrences and play with the reader's understanding of history: Historians might find Wright's cultural history of comic books more a study of individual comics than the cultural forces that conspired to inform such -- and find themselves rather aggravated at Wright's constant summarization of American history (his sweeping historical claims also include non-comic related events, which, although I question them, have little relation to my studies and are thus more difficult to refute). It would be impossible to claim that the declining popularity in comics was attributed to a single factor, like television, and while Wright explains that comics competed for recreational time that was growing more scarce (cinema, music, and traditional reading materials all struggling for dominance), he fails to make mention of the changes in DC's editorial policy that effected the content of the comics, making them much more light-hearted than their war time predecessors.
Rather than providing a bibliography for comic book scholars to adopt in their future studies, Wright closes his study with a brief note on his sources which reads more like a list of personal favorites than a proper bibliography; due to the diasporic publishing of such, and their often cryptic titles, a bibliography of published scholarly articles on comic books would helpfully progress the study of comic books and provide interested scholars with sufficient foundational knowledge. Scholars interested in studying comics will greatly benefit from reading Comic Book Nation, but rather than the equivalent of Brian Aldiss' history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, readers will find only a starting point for their own studies rather than an authoritative reference tool.