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REVIEW: Of Comics And Men

Regrettable title aside, Jean-Paul Gabilliet's Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books is the best history of American comics I've come across.

Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books
Jean-Paul Gabilliet
Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, translators
University Press of Mississippi, 2009 (original French edition 2005)
publisher site | WorldCat

The first aspect of this book to praise is its explicit acknowledgement that it addresses 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, and barely more than superhero works, as if they're the only comics worth mentioning. The author makes a solid case that the US really has dominated the medium, for better and/or worse, but not in a way that ignores or devalues other countries' work. As Tintin cartoonist Hergé says, quoted on pg. 277 of Of Comics and Men, "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."

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 the recent past.  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 (where I believe this is more common than with popular works), 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 Internet images at will is pretty essential to keeping the book from being an abstract catalog of events and names.

My only other complaint is that the book doesn't address changes in comics art styles. I understand why Gabilliet would draw the line at this massive topic, but, if visual art is part of culture, I think it makes sense to want 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 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."

As I mention above, this would be a difficult initial exposure to comics history, American or otherwise, but if you have a basic idea of the history, this book will make your understanding deeper and more complex. I'd say it's a must for academic librarians and archivists, though public librarians will also benefit because it avoids the fawning that most comics histories get into, and school librarians will find the portions on censorship and alleged delinquency-promotion useful as well.

Thanks to Ben Bolling and Will Hansen for suggesting this title.