Yesterday I finished reading Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. I highly recommend this title for anyone interested in comic-book history, or even interested in cultural American history in general. One of the big strengths of this book is that Wright brings a historical perspective to his subject matter. The vast majority of the comics-related titles out there are written by scholars trained in literary studies or the visual arts. Or they are comics artists/writers themselves. And while these writerly contexts are fine, there’s something to be said for a book written from the perspective of a trained historian, someone who brings more of the long view to his reading of American popular culture. By the author’s own admission, his “is not an aesthetic history of comics books. Because I am concerned primarily with comics books as a cultural representation, not as an art form, I emphasize narrative content over graphic qualities.” The same could be said of literary aesthetics. The difference between his take on the “narrative content” and that of many other works out there is that he doesn’t approach that content from the perspective of an English professor–something that I would do, reading the text in ways similar to ways I’d read more traditional forms of narrative–but as a manifestation or reflection of the various political and cultural phenomena that have cropped up over the years.
The book is divided into nine main chapters (along with an epilogue and 9/11-related postscript), each of which discusses a particular period of comic-book history in America. Over half of the book, or the first six and a half chapters, are devoted to the first twenty years of comics. These are some of the most successful parts of the text, and Wright does a wonderful job at discussing the early days of comic books as means of cultural production, the challenges they faced with the Depression and the Second World War, and the various controversies and crises comics underwent in the immediate post-war years. The final third of the book, while captivating as well, covers a wider spread of time, and seems to quickly cover a lot of ground. The earlier chapters read thicker with more in-depth analysis. Much of the chapter, “Great Power and Great Responsibility,” provides a great overview of the 1960s as the “Marvel Age” of comics. And the last chapter of the book, “Direct to the Fans,” although very interesting, at times seems more about the economics of the industry than it does a cultural history and the way the medium reflects national trends or youth interests. But even the economics is related to the cultural, and while the strongest part of this book resides in the first two thirds, the entire text is a fascinating read that sets out what it intended to accomplish. There are other good histories out there, such as David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, but this one stands out as about the best introduction to comic books and their impact on our culture.