American Comics: A History is “the sweeping story of cartoons, comic strips, and graphic novels and their hold on the American imagination.” A non-fiction analysis of how cartoons and comic books have been influenced and indeed influenced the path of American culture.
If someone told me that this book was written by a professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture and director of Columbia University’s Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies who made New York his home, I would simply say, “Yup, that makes sense.” As it was New York where the comic book industry as we know it was built by a comic book Hall of Fame cast of Jewish writers, artists, and editors. Lee, Simon, Kirby, Gaines, Shuster, Siegel, Goodman and Kurtzman are just a drop in the bucket of talented creators that brought us the multi-billion-dollar cinematic superhero genre of characters.
Jeremy Dauber, the professor mentioned above, director, historian and New Yorker, “takes readers through their incredible but little-known history, starting with the Civil War and cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the lasting and iconic images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus; the golden age of newspaper comic strips and the first great superhero boom; the moral panic of the Eisenhower era, the Marvel Comics revolution, and the underground comix movement of the 1960s and ’70s; and finally into the twenty-first century, taking in the grim and gritty Dark Knights and Watchmen alongside the brilliant rise of the graphic novel by acclaimed practitioners like Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel.”
Comic book characters are the American beings of lore. The American Mythology. Be it the record-breaking movie box office sales or most watched television shows, one cannot escape the pop culture boom in popularity of Iron Man, Superman, or The Walking Dead. But it isn’t all just spandex and muscles as comic storytelling can take many shapes. Dauber touches on the political side with discussions on political cartoons in newspapers, the infamous Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which lead to the “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary,” and the Underground Comix counterculture movement.
It is an academic history book, not a gripping spy novel, but Jeremy Dauber’s writing style is engaging and the analysis intriguing. The book is devoid of the gossip element found in some recent non-fiction books on the business. Dauber eschews such sensationalism. Plenty of reference notes as expected in academic work like this, allowing readers to hunt down additional information if they like.
I would recommend American Comics: A History to anyone interested in history and the comic book medium. And look at that; it’s almost the holiday season if you are looking for gift ideas. Available at Chapters Indigo and Amazon.