October 28, 2012

New Shelf: Of Comics And Men

Regrettable title aside, Jean-Paul Gabilliet's Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books is an excellent book that I heartily recommend. It was first brought to my attention by Will Hansen and Ben Bolling during their talk at NC Comicon last year and again during their panel discussion at this year's Comics Fest. Because it's definitely an academic title, I ordered a copy through interlibrary loan, but there were plenty of libraries with a copy, so that shouldn't be too difficult a prospect for anyone in particular.

Besides Will and Ben's recommendations, I was drawn to the book by its explicit acknowledgement that it covers only American comics. Perhaps I've gotten a bad sample, but I'm used to books and documentary films claiming to be histories of comics in general but covering only American works, as if they're the only comics worth mentioning. It made me skeptical at first, but, as the author demonstrates, the US really has historically dominated the medium, for better and/or worse, making this kind of treatment justified. As Tintin cartoonist Hergé said, "One of the essential qualities of the American comics, like the American cinema, seems to me to be its great clarity. In general, the Americans know how to tell a story, even if that story is twaddle." (Quoted on page 277.)

The book frames itself as a cultural history, which is to say it is an examination of the place of the comic book within American culture. The first and largest section retells the general timeline of events, from their "invention" with plagiarized European imports in the 1840s, through various ups and downs (popularity, profitability, hype, content scope, etc.), to today.  Next, Gabilliet looks at historical developments in the production, business, authorship, and readership of comics. Finally, he looks at comics' journey toward internal and external legitimacy, including the misunderstood history of comics censorship, one of the most enlightening portions of the book.

That the book consists exclusively of prose is noteworthy only because its subject is a visual medium. If it were not an academic work, I'd say that it suffers from its lack of illustrations; instead I'll just suggest that it shouldn't be anyone's introduction to the history of comics. I benefited heavily from my exposure to the books and stories it mentions, and I think the ability to call up images at will is pretty essential to keeping the book from being an abstract catalog of events and names. The only other downside (though it's related) is that it doesn't address changes in comics's artwork. I understand why Gabilliet would draw the line at this massive topic, but, if visual art is part of culture, it is a logical expectation to see this addressed in the discussion. Change in narrative (the other "half" of comics) is covered somewhat it the form of notes on genre, theme, and tone, but this aspect of the history is also mostly missing. Or maybe I misunderstand what "cultural history" is supposed to mean. Either way, I'd love to see books that address these aspects of comics as they've changed through time.

This notable but forgivable gap aside, the book is as thorough a history of American comics as you could want. I was fascinated to learn how the studio system worked, why credited authorship had been resisted by publishers and artists alike, and that censorship of comics was a much more complicated situation than is conventionally understood. Finally, I was happy to find the goldmine at the end: a bibliographic essay that presents "an overview of the main bibliographic sources enabling an approach to the study of comic books from a cultural history perspective." (So good I photocopied it for later!)

I highly recommend  Of Comics and Men for anyone interested in the history of American comics, even if they think, as I had, that they already know the whole story.  I'd even go so far as to call it required reading for aspiring comics librarians (like me).  Skip it for now if you haven't had a look at less academic books and films, but definitely keep it on your list for later.

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