Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Comic Book History of Comics review

In approximately 220 pages, Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey somehow manage to write and draw the history of comic books. This was a huge undertaking and anybody even slightly familiar with the history contained in this comic will know that. For those who didn’t know just how audacious a project this one, looking at the sources index organized by chapters will surely go a long way in helping you understand. The history of comics is long and rich enough that there have been books published that focused narrowly on even just one of the many subjects Van Lente and Dunlavey present in The Comic Book History of Comics. Still, the creative team did have to concentrate their efforts a bit and they do put the focus mostly on the development of American comics. Nevertheless, they take the time to highlight the importance and the contributions of outside markets and sometimes even concentrate on the importance of specific creators such as Osamu Tezuka.

Two things really stuck out to me while reading. The first is that it was a regular practice for most publishers since the early days of comics to print and sell as many issues and titles of whatever appeared to be popular at the present time. Because of this you got large booms in particular genres for a relatively short period of time only to see them vanish just as quickly. The rise and fall of romance comics is but one example of this. After learning that it’s discomforting to notice that the trend still seems to be going on today.

The second thing that stuck out was that creators regularly mistreated one another, sometimes in public and often in public locals, most notably courts of law. It saddens me as someone who regularly reads and enjoys comics and believes the creator rights that there has been, and unfortunately continues to be, numerous battles (often legal in nature) between creators. I'm aware that not all of them fought so much but it's upsetting to know that Stan Lee has his little cameo in all the Marvel studio movies and that his name is widely known. His name is often dropped in episodes of The Big Bang Theory and he's appeared on the show at least once. But how many of the show’s non-comics-reading fans even know who Jack Kirby is and how many of those are aware of the constant mistreatment he faced during the entire length of his prolific and influential career in comics?  

It can be far too easy to enjoy reading comics in a vacuum within considering what goes on behind the scenes but I appreciate being given a reminder of the hardships some of the comic creators faced. It makes you appreciate their body of work more and it also makes you think a little about who you’re giving your money to when you buy your comics. I’d much rather purchase a comic such The Comic Book History of Comics than the 9 batman titles they sell each month. Both of those frustrations seem to primarily affect the American comics industry. It's quite nice that Van Lente and Dunlavey showed why there didn’t seem to be the same issues in the European market.

Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey are unapologetic in their approach to the history of the medium they clearly love. They provide a balanced view of comic book history, sometimes including things like the Walt Disney and Max Fleischer animation war, which I wouldn’t automatically related to comics works well in the context. Van Lenteand Dunlavey are clear in their explanation as to why the animation war played an important role in the development of comics and creator rights legal battles.

The Comic Book History of Comics makes me feel bad for having ignored or neglected to read some important comics work. I mean, I’ve never even read Maus. Pretty shameful, I know. Still, I’m grateful for the creative team’s push to explore more classic comic works.

The ending is spot on. Despite the fact that the comics industry has faced numerous issues and setbacks in its history, the book ends on a positive note. I’m sure if we looked at the history of film we would find as much in-fighting and lawsuits and idea stealing as we did here. It’s part of the entertainment industry and it’s easy to understand why creators defend their ideas so vehemently. One of the strengths of this important work is that the creative team accepts the good along with the bad and presents all of these to the reader. As a bonus to us, they do so with wit, humour and sharp criticism. It’s an absolute delight to read and, perhaps surprisingly, incredibly informative.

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