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Subject The Vigilante World of Comic Books
Date December 25, 2021 2:25 AM
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[A sweeping new history of American comics traces the rise of
characters caught in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. ]
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THE VIGILANTE WORLD OF COMIC BOOKS  
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Scott Bradfield
December 16, 2021
The New Republic
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_ A sweeping new history of American comics traces the rise of
characters caught in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. _

, DC Comics

 

For those of us who grew up enjoying (and have grown old
romanticizing) the bright, resplendent four-color pleasures of comic
books, it may be time to admit we’ve been had. It may once have
seemed that comics offered intelligent young men and women an escape
from the awfulness of middle-American life. But seeing today how
thoroughly those serial fantasies have infiltrated every aspect of
modern culture, it’s beginning to look as if comics largely
reinforced our worst impulses and instincts.

American Comics: A History
by Jeremy Dauber
Buy on Bookshop [[link removed]]
W.W. Norton & Company, 592 pp., $35.00

From their early days, comic books taught kids about a Manichaean
universe in which subterranean, irrational, and irredeemably evil
forces continually threatened society’s superficial order. The
popular, early detective strip _Dick Tracy_ envisions criminals as
creatures from the “lower orders,” such as a “tramp” who
flagrantly steals rides on trains (and murders the hard-working guard
who tries to stop him). Later they develop into genetically twisted,
born-bad mutant-freaks such as Mumbles, Pruneface, Flattop, and the
Mole—a rogues’ gallery often referred to as “the Grotesques.”
Their collective homicidal methods include stabbing, shooting,
immolation, and freezing people to death in refrigerator cars or
scalding them in steam baths. To stop these evil-mutant types from
taking over the world, Dick Tracy and his square-jawed fellow cops
meet force with force, firepower with firepower. And they always,
always win. As one newspaper editorial replied to complaints about the
violence in Dick Tracy: “The sooner a child finds out what kind of
world it is, the better he or she is equipped to get along in it.”

What children “learned” from early crime comics was that people
with lots of money were at the endless mercy of people without any.
From the time The Batman first appeared in _Detective Comics_ in
1939, his enemies were, like Tracy’s, noted for their
disfigurements—such as the Joker, Two-Face, and Clayface. And in a
typical story, “crime” was something usually committed by people
with nothing, against those with too much—often by means of
jewel-thievery and house-breaking, or by robbing banks and trains. In
The Batman’s first appearance, Commissioner Gordon enlists Bruce
Wayne to investigate the murder of “old Lambert … at his
mansion”; and “victims” of the next two issues include both the
Van Smiths _and_ the Vander Smiths. The Batman routinely hangs men
outside high skyscraper windows or pummels them senseless in order to
obtain confessions. No Miranda rights for _these_ creeps. They were
born bad and deserved everything they got.

Comic villains disputed the very idea of “civilization” with
Tommy-gun bursts of animated nihilism—memorably dramatized by the
Joker’s staccato “HA HA HA”s. Or, like Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus,
by devising diabolical scientific machinery for enslaving the world.
As comics “evolved” over the next 50 years, these humanoid but
deeply inhumane monsters grew only more irrational, sadistic, and
destructive, slaughtering wider and wider swathes of humanity, until
eventually the likes of Galactus and Thanatos were annihilating
thousands, millions, and billions of sentient life forms at a time. 

Jeremy Dauber’s_ American Comics: A History
[[link removed]]_ is an entertaining, big,
and (sometimes too) comprehensive survey of the comics industry, from
its inception in early twentieth-century newspapers to the
latest Marvel Cinematic Universe megamovie crossover empire
[[link removed]]. What
quickly grows clear is how adroitly a simple format—sequences of
narrative panels, dialog bubbles, and a story line that might take
many months, years, or even decades to reach a conclusion—thrived in
almost every commercial medium that came along, spreading rapidly to
magazines, radio, movie serials, television, film, and games. But
despite this facility to span media and cultures, most comic books
continued to dispense the same nonsense they started with, depicting a
universe in which people are defined by the brute exercise of power.
Not to mention the unbelievably exaggerated ways their bodies always
seem about to burst out of their Spandex.

It didn’t have to get so ugly. From the beginning, comics offered
many bright alternatives to their own superhero nonsense, with a wide
range of pleasing and still unusual comics, such as the surreal and
anarchic dream-comedies, _Little Nemo in Slumberland _and George
Herriman’s_ Krazy Kat, _and later the lush, resplendent marvels of
Hal Foster’s _Prince Valiant,_ a series of panel illustrations
thrumming with color and vitality that rivaled only Alex
Raymond’s _Flash Gordon _as one of the most beautiful Sunday color
strips ever produced.

The first 16-page, book-length comics were assembled from daily
sequences of popular strips like _Mutt and Jeff_ and _Foxy
Grandpa_; but soon the printing presses of New York were working
overnight to produce some of the first regularly published comic
books, notably _The Funnies_ and _Comic Monthly._ As more books
were produced, their readership grew, challenging the predominance of
pulp magazines like _Doc Savage_ at the newsstands and occupying
restless children in the decades before TV.

It was probably due to the extraordinary success of _The
Shadow_—about a masked crime-fighter sliding his way through New
York’s mean streets—that comics began developing their own
“costumed characters” (as they were originally called). The first
of these, The Phantom, didn’t possess special strengths or powers
but only the illusion of them. Wearing the purple costume passed down
by his father and living in the same broody, candlelit cave, The
Phantom’s special quality was an ability to pose as a white immortal
watching over Africa like a strict but caring colonial parent. 
   

Only when Superman came along did the characters acquire superhuman
powers. Drawn and written into existence by two teenage Jewish kids
from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the original Superman
script took several months to find a venue in the June 1938 issue
of _Action Comics._ And when it finally appeared, it established
three important notions in the marketing of superheroes: The
super-character might well carry on super- dupering for many, many
decades to come; the “origin” issue would eventually skyrocket in
value; and the creators could sell all rights to their characters for
as little as $130 and spend the rest of their lives in litigation.
(Many years after creating Superman, Siegel was still writing for
pay-per-page rates at DC, while Shuster was being arrested for
vagrancy in Central Park and illustrating “kinky tales of adventure,
bondage and torture” with characters that looked suspiciously like
Jimmy and Lex Luthor.)

As Dauber argues, the “super-powers” were not on their own the
secret of Superman’s success. What was more appealing was the idea
that such powers might secretly reside in a clumsy, thickly
bespectacled, blue-haired, all-round average guy like Clark Kent.
Siegel himself later explained:

As a high school student … I had crushes on several attractive girls
who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. It
occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something
special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars
around, or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me.

Siegel had understood why young boys were so gripped by these colorful
characters in their ridiculous costumes emblazoned with thunderbolts,
hourglasses, and American flags—they _knew_ what it felt like to
be Clark Kent. But they wanted to imagine being somebody a lot better.

Dauber’s previous books concern Jewish comedy and the work of Sholem
Aleichem, so it’s understandable why the early comics industry might
attract him. From Harry Hershfield’s long-running _Abie the
Agent,_ about a Jewish car salesman who promoted the pleasures of
assimilation, comics were, like the Hollywood movie industry,
disproportionately owned and operated by young Jewish men—from Stan
Lee (born Stanley Martin Leiber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) to
Bill (Milton) Finger (Bob Kane’s collaborator on the creation of The
Batman, who only received posthumous credit in 2015) and, perhaps most
notably of all, Will Eisner, the most visually inventive comic writer,
artist, and editor of his generation. Eisner may have best summed up
the prevalence of Jewish talent in comics when he said: “There were
Jews in this medium because it was a crap medium … it was an easy
medium to get into.” Whatever the reason, it’s hard to consider
the birth of commercial comic books without recognizing its deep debt
to immigrant Jewish culture—a history that would eventually inspire
Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, _The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
[[link removed]]_ (2000).

What these young, largely self-taught talents recognized was that
living in America required submerging who you felt yourself to be in
order to be accepted by a culture that increasingly respected
obedience, repetition, and conformity. In such a country, everybody
must have felt they harbored a secret identity. 

Strangely, the fact that comics described an imaginary world presided
over by violent masked vigilantes didn’t raise many eyebrows. What
finally concerned psychologists and sociologists was the medium’s
depictions of two cultural taboos that have always seemed especially
worrisome to Americans: sex and death. In the 1950s, the great rogue
publisher William Gaines caught the brunt of a crusade led by Dr.
Fredric Wertham, whose influential 1954 indictment of comics, _The
Seduction of the Innocent,_ argued that superhero and horror comics
were leading children “into nightmares, into anxieties, into moral
confusion. The influence, however great or small, was _never_ a good
one.” He was especially concerned that some “comic panels
contained hidden pictures of genitalia, which you could see if you
squinted.” 

In 1954, in an effort to stave off direct government oversight of
their industry, comics publishers established a self-regulating body
called the Comics Code Authority. Very soon, it proved to have a
restraining effect on many comic artists and writers, and even brought
many popular comic lines (especially the more violent ones) to an end.
Of all the comic producers who would be put largely out of business by
the Comic Code (“Respect for parents, the moral code, and for
honorable behavior shall be fostered”), Gaines seemed the most
personally offended. His favorite productions at EC, or Educational
Comics, such as _Vault of Horror_ and _Tales From the
Crypt,_ reveled in gross-out humor and depictions of a non-Manichaean
world where the line between good and evil was hard to
distinguish—if it existed at all. In these comics, bad men seemed to
drive the engine of their own destruction; and the notion of “family
values” dissolved in a view of humanity as a sex-obsessed, immoral
jungle of wife-murderers and husband-stabbers. The gnarly old Crypt
Keeper and his big, hungry cemetery were out there waiting for all of
us.            

EC comics, like Gaines’s later venture into humor
publishing, _Mad _magazine_,_ produced wildly comic caricatures of
everything that was vain, foolish, and self-aggrandizing about
American consumer culture; and they strenuously avoided presenting
anything that looked like a “moral lesson.” (Except maybe this
one: “Don’t be a total idiot like most people.”) And in
retrospect, this refusal to moralize makes its comics sort of heroic.
As Dauber writes, they “suggested a certain moral commonality with
the monstrous.” One story about an abusive stepfather being run
through a meat grinder was presented as “Grounds … for Horror!”
and another, concerning a seller of bad meat who ends up displayed in
his own butcher case, was captioned: “Taint the Meat, It’s the
Humanity!”

While most comic publishers quickly fell in line behind the “Comic
Code Authority,” Gaines defended his books before Senator Estes
Kefauver’s committee investigating the influence of comics on
juvenile delinquency and delivered possibly the most enjoyably
rereadable testimony ever delivered to Congress—especially when he
offered his opinion on the most “tasteful” way of displaying a
severed human head on a comic cover.

The greatest strength (and problem) with comic books has got to be
their almost octopus-like ability to grab onto any form of
storytelling and make it theirs. They have thrived as pornography in
cheap “Tijuana Bibles”; as educational materials in Classics
Illustrated adaptations of _Moby Dick;_ and as intro-level summaries
of Heidegger and Foucault; as speculations on the Holocaust in Art
Speigelman’s acclaimed _Maus_ books; as multicultural
autobiography in Alison Bechdel’s _Fun Home_ (2006), Marjane
Satrapi’s _Persepolis_ (2000), and Gene Luen Yang’s _American
Born Chinese_ (2006); and even as formidable muckraking exposés,
such as Joel Andreas’s _Addicted to War_ (which includes detailed
footnotes and an index).

In fact, iterations of comic formats have spread so widely that it’s
difficult to enter any home or bookstore in the world without
encountering them. This has resulted in two qualities of comics that
have both frustrated their creative development and intensified their
production: Dauber describes these as “continuity exhaustion” and
“brand expansionism.” And in today’s mega-conglomerate world,
it’s hard to have one without the other.

“Continuity exhaustion” refers to the way some comics, after
decades of serial publication, began carrying too much excess baggage.
Characters had trouble jettisoning their outdated fashion sense, so
they often appeared to be living in a 1940s time bubble; and the
serial events of their story lines grew so complicated and
contradictory that it was hard for readers (and writers) to keep up.
For example, Jimmy Olsen’s career as a “cub reporter” started to
look like a dead end after 50 years of nonadvancement; and after
decades of flirtation, Lois still didn’t know how she felt about the
two most important men in her life, Superman and Clark Kent, or
understand why one of them always left a room just before the other
one entered.

Then there was “brand expansionism,” leading the more successful
comics (_Batman_, _The Avengers_, _Spider-Man_) to spin off
characters into their own comics (Venom, Robin/Nightstalker, Hawkeye);
and while the “crossover” potential of these interconnected story
lines might boost sales, they also erected quandaries of plot
complications. Meanwhile, the same villains endlessly came and went
like shoppers in the Bloomingdale’s revolving door. It grew hard for
the readers to keep up; and possibly even harder for the writers. 

Today our century-old comic culture is owned and operated by toy
manufacturers and hedge fund billionaires—pretty much the same sort
of people who own and operate everything else.

To break through these entanglements, the major chains began
“restarting” their old comics and movie franchises over and over
again. So fresh versions of baby Superman landed on Earth in the
1980s, the 1990s, and so on. Peter Parker kept getting bitten by that
same radioactive spider—whether he was Tobey Maguire in 2000, or
Andrew Garfield in 2012, or Tom Holland in 2017. And then various
“limited series” comics appeared, set in alternate universes. In
one, the entire Avengers cast became flesh-eating zombies. In another,
Kal-El’s baby ship lands in Russia and he fights alongside his
comrades against capitalist America. Familiar heroes were reimagined
as old and wrinkly, as in _The Dark Knight Rises_ and _Batman: Year
100._ Or as combatants in Elizabethan England. There were futuristic
versions and MAX-rated adult-only versions and versions where they
fought each other to the death in demolition-derby-style contests. But
despite this overabundance of alternate universes, and the
labyrinthine complications of the story lines, the only thing none of
the major superheroes ever did was just finally die and go away. There
was always some new embodiment, or some new film franchise, coming
along to make them whole again.

At the height of comics expansionism in the early 1980s, Spidey and
Superman began appearing on school lunch boxes, barbecue aprons,
baseball caps, and computer mouse pads; they performed as
bobble-headed sports team mascots and were developed into television
shows, films, and even some Broadway musicals. (Sure, everybody
remembers the disaster that was _Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark_, but
what about 1966’s _It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s
Superman_?) Eventually, when turn-of-the-millennium CGI technology
caught up with all that web-swinging and Hulk-smashing, the
blockbuster movies arrived, and now nobody can make them stop.

Today our century-old comic culture is owned and operated by toy
manufacturers and hedge fund billionaires—pretty much the same sort
of people who own and operate everything else. And now that they know
how to sell us all the same old crap we bought before, they will never
stop selling it, and we will never stop buying it. The “eternal
return” of comic book culture will continue presenting the
“birth” and “rebirth” of the same superheroes until it’s
impossible to tell one big “issue number one collectible!” from
another. 

For all its strengths, _American Comics: A History_ often feels more
like advocacy for the medium than an analysis of it. Many pages are
filled with quick synopses and appraisals of notable comics that came
along over the last hundred years, along with reflections on how the
once-family-owned companies that invented comics were eventually
subsumed by megagiants. At times, reading Dauber’s warm,
appreciative comments on everything from Neil
Gaiman’s _Sandman_ to Moebius’s _Heavy Metal_ feels like
strolling through Roger Angell’s essays on baseball, where every
game in the sun is entangled with the memory of every other game ever
played in a sort of eternal blissful childhood of sunny bleachers and
savory, dripping hotdogs. 

But comics are a more duplicitous and all-devouring game than
baseball. They have climbed up out of every venue they conquered and
oozed into our shopping plazas and schools, infecting our national
conversations and body politic, and even emblazoned themselves across
the fuselages of death-dispensing tanks and planes. Comics—the
commercial, corporate-owned and multi-commodifiable ones—have
affected the way Americans, and other nations, think about America to
a degree that may be far more destructive than any ideology. They
reinforce the idea that power is the greatest thing we can imagine for
ourselves; that the “bad guys” are unregenerate serial predators
who need to be locked up so deep they won’t ever be seen again; and
that the “best” person wins only if they bring the most weaponry
to the game.

There have been many genuine pleasures in comic books over the
decades, from the pure narrative joy of Carl Barks’s _Donald Duck
and Uncle Scrooge_ to Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar’s minimalist
tales of untidy, barely-middle-class sadnesses in _American
Splendor._ And yet corporate greed has commodified the superhero
metaphysic until it permeates almost every inch of our lives with
visions of irredeemable urban decay. Meanwhile, the signposts of decay
have hardly changed at all—rainy neon XXX-rated porn theaters and
homeless people standing around flaming garbage bins to keep
warm—just the sorts of places where no sensible culture would want
to see masked vigilante superheroes running around kicking ass.

_Scott Bradfield’s most recent book is The Millennial’s Guide to
Death: Stories [[link removed]]._

_Want more on art, books, and culture?
Sign up for TNR’s Critical Mass weekly newsletter.
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