I had The Comic Book History of Comics on my wishlist for a while. I really wanted to read it this summer.
The book runs a little over 200 pages and is written in comic book form with drawings by Ryan Dunlavey. They pack a lot of information into those pages and cover comics humble beginnings to digital downloads with everything in between. Even though very little space is wasted, it is a very quick read. Lente and Dunlavey assert that this is a creator’s medium even if they are controlled and exploited by the companies. Without the creators, the companies wouldn’t have had the characters and stories to build their empires.
The book takes you through waves the comic book industry has ridden over the years. People want superheroes, and then they want romance, and then crime and horror, etc. The comic creators had to follow supply and demand.
By focusing on the creators, often you see their struggle. Upfront is their struggle to control their own artwork. Van Lente and Dunlavey do a great job of explaining work for hire and copyright laws. So good, that if I was teaching civics instead of computer science, I would use those chapters to explain those concepts. Of course, the artists are often going up against the big companies, but the authors don’t shrink away from creator vs. creator struggles. More than any other account I’ve read, they have told the Ditko-Kirby-Lee story in the most nuanced manner. Ditko and Kirby are definitely given their due in this account. Lee, here, gets the most balanced treatment I’ve read in a while. For those of you that just know Stan Lee from the movies and think he created all those characters, read this book. Then do some more research. It’s not as cut and dry as you would believe.
Nor do they just focus on DC and Marvel creators. Robert Crumb and the underground comics movement get a good share of panels. This was an area I really haven’t shown much interest in, but after reading this, I know want to read his illustrated version of Genesis.
The authors also do a great job of showing how comic books have gained respect as their own art form. They do point out that in the US this isn’t as true as it in such countries as France, but you can seek the arc of how they went from lowbrow entertainment to where it reaches the heights of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
Thankfully, this is not just a fact only history book. Like any good historians, they provide their opinions based on the facts. They don’t shy away from criticizing their subject matter when it needs criticizing such as the economics of comics since the 90s. They also show the creators as they were and don’t romanticize any of them (now I know why Wonder Woman gets tied up so often). They also don’t make this overly academic. In other words, it is always interesting…even the anime chapter.
Biggest complaint: the book is too short. There are too many stories to tell that are left untold. Each chapter deserves its own book. This is a compliment to Van Lente and Dunlavey, especially since I want them to tell these stories.
In the final chapter, they discuss how comic books help us make sense of the world. I really wish they would have taken it further. In fact, I really wish more people from other disciplines would follow this book’s lead. As an educator, I feel the comic book is an untapped form for learning. As they state how a comic book can make the Theory of the Cave understandable, comics could do these across many mediums. By writing their history of comic books, Van Lente and Dunlavey prove that comic books can be a viable medium for any academic field.