I am a history buff, and I enjoy reading about American political and cultural history, including pop cultural history. More specifically, I enjoy reading about comics history and its political resonances. Lately I’ve read, or have been in the process of reading, two pretty good books dealing with these topics. Matthew J. Pustz’s Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers is a thorough analysis of fandom and the niche culture surrounding comics. Throughout the text, he maintains a balance between two critical strategies: discussing comics culture in a broad and objective manner, and using his (at least at the time) local comic book store, Daydreams Comics and Cards, and its patrons as case studies of his more general analysis. And the book is successful. In focusing in on the local, more personal perspectives of the comic book store, Pustz ran the risk of becoming too enmeshed in first-person commentary and personal investment in his subject matter. But he doesn’t let this happen. Instead, he uses the words of Daydreams’ patrons and employees to illustrate the various points he makes in the book. Quite a useful approach.
One of the themes that dominate the book is the division between “alternative” and mainstream comic readers. This is split you can find discussed in several books on comics and comic book culture–Douglas Wolk makes this one of his main points early in his book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean–but Pustz goes into more detail on this topic than any other author I’ve read. Whereas someone like Wolk, for instance, will acknowledge and briefly discuss the alternative-mainstream divide, Pustz latches onto that topic and doesn’t let up. Indeed, he gives abundant explanations–or at least speculations–as to why this split exists and the history behind it. One of the arguments he makes, and one that Wolk discusses in his book as well, concerns the insularity of superhero comics and its readers. Since the 1980s mainstream, mainly superhero, comics have emphasized continuity and interlocking story lines, which is what you’ll find in the DC and Marvel Universes. Marvel began this in the 1960s with their ground-breaking line of titles, but this kind of narrative cohesiveness and world-building has greatly intensified since then. As Pustz points out, now the necessity of knowing the histories and backstories has become so important that many readers entering the Marvel or DC Universes will feel lost or ignorant, and as a result won’t continue reading the various superhero titles. Only the “true believers” (in the case of Marvel) or fanboys will continue delving into the various stories, bringing with them their vast knowledge of a particular character’s or super team’s world. This becomes a kind of cultural ghetto, where only certain kinds of comic book readers fit in or feel welcome. This kind of exclusivity of knowledge also helps to explain the shrinkage of comic book readers and comics sales, according to Pustz. And along with this, the growth of the direct market has also limited potential comic book audiences. Of course, one of the ways to get around the vast backstories surrounding mainstream superhero comics–and a strategy I use often–is to use some kind of encyclopedia or condensed synopsis to get you up to speed on a particular character, cross-over event, or narrative arc. I grew up reading DC comics primarily, and I really didn’t get into the Marvel Universe. Now I read and enjoy a number of Marvel titles, but since I lack that “institutional knowledge” of the Marvel Universe, I find myself constantly visiting Wikipedia for background information on a character or event. (Wikipedia certainly isn’t without its problems of accuracy, but at least it’s something to turn to for preliminary supplementary information.) I also like how Pustz discusses the different types of comic book fans, from avid fanboys, to casual readers, to collecting speculators, to comic book snobs, as he puts it. This latter type, the snobs, I know all too well, having experience in academia. There are many who teach comics who turn their noses up at the more mainstream stuff, or if they don’t turn up their noses, then they are blind to or ignorant of comic book history and the significance of the really popular titles…that is, the mainstream or superhero comics.
Pustz also devotes a lot of pages to the various means though which fans have networked and communicated. He does a great job at tracing the way that technology has had such an impact on these forms of linking to other fans, from the letters pages in the earlier days of comics, to the publication of fans’ addresses in some comic book letter pages, to the publication of fanzines, to the growth of organizing small gatherings and cons, to the more contemporary uses of the Internet, listservs, and emails. In some ways, Comic Book Culture is a little dated–the book was originally published in 1999–in that Pustz doesn’t, and couldn’t, discuss phenomena such as the growth of blogs, the predominance of social networking websites, or the uses of podcasts to generate and sustain a common subculture. It would be interesting to see a new edition of this book and how Pustz would figure recent technological innovations and media outlets into his analysis.
A book I’m currently reading, Matthew J. Costello’s Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books and the Unmasking of Cold War America, is fascinating as well. Whereas Pustz, a scholar in American studies, looked at the cultural facets of comics, Costello, a professor of political science, makes his analysis…well, more political. Specifically, Costello discusses a number of superhero titles that reflect, comment on, or even resist the U.S. political climate between the late 1940s and into the 2000s. This includes the aftermath of World War II and comics’ continued emphasis on fighting Nazis, the growing menace of the USSR and the perceived threat of communist infiltration into our political system, the lack of faith and feelings of betrayal that were generated by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the cultural retreat inward and an emphasis on character psychology, and Reagan’s jingoistic mumbo jumbo and its affects on America’s subsequent trajectory. Although Costello is primarily concerned with the political import and the story lines of various superhero title, specifically those with Iron Man and Captain America, he does occasionally consider the aesthetics or form as function of the book’s politics. He does this rarely, but when he considers a comic’s visual construction, the results are interesting. For example, in discussing the comics of the mid- to late 1980s and pointing out the vigilantism inherent in many titles, he reveals how the art and the page layouts suggest a kind of disordered, chaotic, and ambiguous visual, mirroring the cultural state of mind and blurring the line between hero and villain.
The subtitle of the book is a little misleading, in that he doesn’t really look at “comic books” as a whole. Instead, he limits himself to Marvel titles and how they have been influenced by Cold War politics and culture. I have no problem with this, focusing your analysis on just one publisher–especially one as prominent and as revealing as Marvel–but perhaps Costello should have specified Marvel in his subtitle. Was he afraid that it would be too off-putting or limiting to some readers? If someone bought this book and was wanting, say, an analysis of the ways that the various Batman titles have reflected or given illustrative voice to certain Cold War politics, s/he would be greatly disappointed. No discussion of any DC title or character exists in this book, except perhaps in a passing reference. But even then, one would be hard pressed to find anything about a non-Marvel title. (In the book’s index there are only five page references for “DC Comics,” and two of these are in the notes section. There are fewer than that for “National Periodicals.”)
But I don’t fault Costello for his focus on Marvel. In fact, I think it strengthens his study. (Now if only the book’s title reflected this critical framework.) He uses primarily two characters, Captain America and Iron Man, for most of his analysis. He’s quite convincing in demonstrating how the titles surrounding both characters have basically “kept up” with the political times and the cultural climates they have created. He also looks at various other superheroes and titles–e.g., the Hulk, Spider-Man, the Punisher, and Nick Fury–as well as the villains that populate the Marvel universe (his analysis of Red Skull is particular useful). At times Costello tends to repeat himself, making a certain point multiple times by way of emphasis, but even in those cases the repetition doesn’t deter from my reading and appreciation. Perhaps more problematic is the “loose” editing that apparently took place with this book. I’ve found a couple of typos, and there are some things in the book that just aren’t consistent. An example of the latter is that in the first part of the book, Costello specifically refers the reader to figures and charts, but later in the book there’s no mention at all of the illustrations he includes in the text. He just plops then down in the middle of his discussion and, apparently, expects the image to speak for itself. I don’t so much fault Costello for this lack of consistency and grammatical thoroughness–although as author, the buck should stop there–as I do the book’s editor(s). This also might be part of a larger problem with Continuum Press. I’ve noticed similar problems with a couple of their other books, not necessarily concerning comics. Still, despite these minor issues, I’m enjoying Secret Identity Crisis and feel that it’s well worth reading.
There are some other recent titles, similar to the two I’ve been discussing, that might be worth checking out: War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, by Marc Dipaolo (McFarland 2011); Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology, edited by Matthew Pustz (Continuum 2012); Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present, by Jeffrey K. Johnson (McFarland 2012); Comic Books and the Cold War, 1946-1962: Essays on Graphic Treatment of Communism, the Code and Social Concerns, edited by Chris York and Rafe York (McFarland 2012); and The Meaning of Superhero Comic Books, by Terrence R. Wandtke (McFarland 2012). I’m curious about these books, but at the same time I’m not sure what to expect. I’m sure Pustz’s new edited collection will stand out, but I’m iffy about the others. If you’ll notice, four of these titles have come out in the past year from McFarland–and that’s not, by far, all of the books on comics that they’ve published in that time–and with an output such as this, it makes you wonder about the quality of the publications. (Just considering Wandtke’s title, The Meaning of Superhero Comic Books…what the hell does that mean? The meaning of superhero comics? Could this guy have chosen a broader, more meaningless title for his book?) I know from experience how relatively easy it is for someone to get published by McFarland–compared to other publishers, such as a few university presses that publish books on comics studies–since I’ve seen McFarland folk actively soliciting potential authors at various pop culture conferences. You won’t find this with most other publishers of critical/scholarly texts. It makes you wonder. And some of the McFarland titles I’ve read really haven’t been the most critically demanding I’ve ever experienced. I don’t want to suggest that all McFarland books are suspect–especially since I have essays in two other McFarland publications that have come out this year, Lan Dong’s Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice and Robert G. Weiner and Robert Moses Peaslee’s Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man–but I just wonder about the amount of stuff they actually publish and the quality that goes into some of their titles. Personally, I’ve found many McFarland books to be good resources when it comes to cataloging, categorizing, and collecting. (A good example of this would be Michael A. Sheyahshe’s Native Americans in Comic Books or William B. Jones’s Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History.) But when it comes to good, in-depth critical analysis, the jury’s still out.