As a result there are only a few libraries in North America that can boast collections of comic books of a size that would be of use to the communications scholar interested in surveying the history of the medium. The primary result of this ongoing archival neglect has been to limit scholarship in the area of comic books to academics who have a long-standing interest in comics as a communicative form, often as current or former fans.
The corollary outcome has meant that those few academic books which have been produced to date often bear the markers of fannish interest in the promotion and justification of particular reading practices--whether they are related to costumed superheroes, underground artists, or the medium as a whole. In short, most examples of research into comic books begin from a defensive theoretical or critical position which attempts to justify the scholar's interest in the topic by arguing, as seemingly all books on comics do, that the medium has been unjustly neglected by scholars and the general public and that comic books really do have artistic or communicative merit beyond their status as historical artifacts.
Two recent books bring this issue to the fore in differing ways and to differing degrees by focusing their attention on that era generally regarded by comics fans as having been the turning point for the medium and the industry in the United States and by implicit extension, Canada : the s. Savage, Jr. Savage is, in fact, a historian and Nyberg is a communications professor whose work has been primarily archival. Released almost simultaneously, these two books offer a quick glimpse into the current state of scholarly writing on comic books; in particular, the ongoing fascination with a mythology of the s as a lost moment in which the potentialities of the medium were squandered by public disapprobation and publisher short-sightedness.
Savage's Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens is actually a re-release of his book Comic Books and America, from a new publisher and with a title more likely to attract the interest of casual browsers in the cultural studies sections of major chain bookstores. The book is quite short, consisting of eight chapters, most of which include a reprint of a sample comic book story from the period.
In total there are only about 80 pages of original text in the book to accompany the more than 40 pages of comic book reprints. In some cases the stories are longer than the chapters which they accompany. Savage's sections are broken down primarily along generic lines and he looks in turn at comic books about the bomb, communism, the Korean War, and cowboys before turning briefly to other genres. Savage's choices are strange for a number of reasons.
In the first instance, his thesis is that comic books in the immediate postwar era became less concerned with escapist adventure and more interested in contemporary realism, a suggestion that would seem to mitigate against his attention to the western.
Moreover, with the exception of the western and--to a lesser degree--the war comics, he has ignored the most popular and most discussed genres from the period. Certainly the most significant genres in the postwar years were real crime, horror, romance, and children's humour, but Savage has grouped all of these together in one chapter alongside the more marginal genre of jungle comics , devoting a scant 10 pages to them. From its very organization, Savage's book, therefore, comes across as a justification of his own interests in comic books of the period rather than as a serious history of the production and reception of comic books following the war.
Savage's thesis is confusing as well.
He begins with the untenable suggestion that the s generally were not an era marked by social criticism in popular culture and suggests that it was only in the s that culture took on a critical voice. He attempts to demonstrate that critical outlook through reference to a series of escapist adventure stories which depicted such things as nuclear grenades from which one could escape unharmed and jungle comics featuring characters with names such as "Nigah," although it remains unclear how either of these comic books could be seriously considered as having addressed serious contemporary concerns.
Throughout the volume Savage introduces a handful of stories within a general contextual framework and provides little in the way of substantive analysis. The workings of the industry at the level of production and distribution are completely absent. In their place stand narrow textual readings which do not go so far as to attempt to identify the writers and artists of the stories in question.
As a result, Savage's portrait of the comic book industry is a monolithic image wherein no distinctions are made between artists or publishers.
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To this degree the comic book industry may as well have been the product of a single entity, which is the way that Savage unfortunately presents it. The result, therefore, is a book which is little more than a hodge-podge of anecdotal observations on the topic of comic book stories selected with little discernible rhyme or reason.
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It is difficult to see how Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens could be of any value to anyone seeking a better understanding of comic books or even of media representations of various social concerns following the Second World War. Nyberg's history of the development and changes to the comics code is superior in every conceivable fashion, despite the fact that it too shares a number of the same problems. The comics code was a self-regulatory code adopted by the majority of American comic book publishers in in an effort to quash the ongoing negative public image of the industry.
Seal of Approval, therefore, deals with the history of anti-comic book sentiment in the United States and industry efforts to combat that sentiment, rather than with the comic books themselves.
This narrower focus allows for a far greater attention to historical detail than is evidenced in the Savage book. Indeed, the greatest contribution Nyberg's book makes to the study of comic books is the critical compilation, for the first time, of various commentaries on comics from the s through to the s. Equally important is her research conducted in the archives of the Comic Magazine Association of America the administrators of the code and in the archives of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency which investigated comic books in Throughout the book Nyberg points to the major and minor figures in the comic book controversy of the postwar period and provides a more solid foundation for understanding that particular moral panic than had previously existed.
These efforts shed a great deal of light on areas which had previously been illuminated solely by fannish histories and the recollections of various players from the period. Despite the ground-breaking nature of her archival research Nyberg's book is not as strong when it comes to converting that research into critical analyses.
Nyberg's book has two primary theses: that the comics code did not destroy the comic book industry in America and that the most noteworthy critic of the American comic book, Fredric Wertham, has been largely misinterpreted by subsequent readers and historians looking back on the criticisms which he leveled at the industry. Nyberg makes the case for both of these arguments very forcefully and clearly and there can be no doubt that she has erased the possibility of returning to earlier understandings of the period.
Nonetheless, she might have strengthened her argument by extending it beyond the discursive battle over comics' presumed effects on their audience and into, for instance, economics. Nyberg argues, for instance, that some publishers were put out of business by the implementation of the code in the fall of but that others suffered from the distribution crisis that rocked the magazine industry in the and Greater attention to this distribution crisis would have greatly enhanced her argument that the code itself was not the proximate cause of the decline of many comics publishers.
In the same vein, Nyberg would have been well advised to pay greater attention to the two publishers who refused to adopt the comics code but who continued to publish comic books nonetheless.
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Neither Dell, the industry's clear sales leader which was known primarily for its humour comics featuring Disney characters, nor Gilberton, the publisher of the highly profitable Classics Illustrated book adaptations and who is erroneously identified as Gilbertson throughout the book , ever joined the organization.
This crucial counterpoint to the history of the code is downplayed insofar as it does not tend to support Nyberg's conclusion that the adoption of the code was the only option open to publishers at the time. Similarly, an international comparison would help to clarify much. Nyberg mentions Canada's criminalization of crime comic books only in passing despite the fact that the bill's proponent, E. Fulton, was an important player in legislative efforts against comic books in the United States.
Nyberg succeeds in highlighting the writings of key figures in this early, mostly pre-Wertham discourse, such as Sterling North and in the pro-comics minority Harvey Zorbaugh, editor of the Journal of Educational Sociology. Names like Josette Frank and Lauretta Bender all but forgotten now stand out. There is a wealth of detail here, but Nyberg organizes it into a series of concerns, trends, and contrastive positions; the result is, if not a narrative of early comics criticism, then at least a clear exposition of dominant trends.
For ex. Nyberg's analysis of dominant trends replays to some extent what I learned from McAllister, but McAllister was not her source: there's much evidence here of excellent historical spadework, well organized into readable form. Also on the side of detail, censorship activities both legal and volunteer efforts are described minutely, with precision, suggesting a ton of primary research; in addition, the ins and outs of legislative committee hearings, and meetings of the Comics Magazine Association of America, are fully described.
The use of the CMAA's archives marks one important novelty of this study.
There's a lot of circumstantial detail about how the Code Authority office was run, by whom, and how the traffic was managed, and what it cost. A number of nagging questions are raised by the book. For one, Nyberg implicitly upholds the superhero genre's preeminence in comics: "Except for a brief time in postwar America, the superhero genre has dominated comic book publishing" Yet her own writing seems to contradict this, pointing several times to the waning of the superhero's popularity and the predominance of other popular genres. Also, the text does not consider the degree to which the superhero revival of the ss was, not simply a matter of publishers searching for novelty, but a byproduct of the Code's strict moralism.
Also, Wertham is held to be a fellow traveler of the Frankfurt school of mass culture criticism , a view partly inherited from Gilbert which seems to make intuitive sense but which begs for further documentation and debate. The book's one shortcoming, if I may say so, is the lack of attention to the way the content of non-Code comic books esp.
In many ways, today's comics culture, via the undergrounds, is a result of aggravated response to resistance to the Code and everything it represents. Many underground comix referenced the Code, and mocked it, using the Code Seal insignia and Code precepts in a satiric way. From this rebellion springs the civil libertarian POV of today's alternative comics scene, a movement insufficiently dealt with here as Nyberg concentrates on the internecine frictions within the CMAA.
More broadly, Nyberg's cursory treatment of undergrounds prerequisite to the direct market, which she highlights at some length in Ch. For the uninitiated, the crucial link between undergrounds and the later direct market would seem unclear. It is on these issues, which enlarge comics culture beyond the NY-based CMAA establishment, that Nyberg most needs to be complemented by other, counter-valent studies. Some will take issue with the book's claim that self-censorship was a justifiable course of action in the mids; we all should ponder the book's conclusion, which argues that some sort of Code remains a necessity unless and until "the comic book is able to recreate itself as a legitimate art form"
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