Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Comic Book Nation by Bradford Wright

Description: As American as jazz or rock and roll, comic books have been central in the nation's popular culture since Superman's 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. Selling in the millions each year for the past six decades, comic books have figured prominently in the childhoods of most Americans alive today. In Comic Book Nation, Bradford W. Wright offers an engaging, illuminating, and often provocative history of the comic book industry within the context of twentieth-century American society.

From Batman's Depression-era battles against corrupt local politicians and Captain America's one-man war against Nazi Germany to Iron Man's Cold War exploits in Vietnam and Spider-Man's confrontations with student protestors and drug use in the early 1970s, comic books have continually reflected the national mood, as Wright's imaginative reading of thousands of titles from the 1930s to the 1980s makes clear. In every genre—superhero, war, romance, crime, and horror comic books—Wright finds that writers and illustrators used the medium to address a variety of serious issues, including racism, economic injustice, fascism, the threat of nuclear war, drug abuse, and teenage alienation. At the same time, xenophobic wartime series proved that comic books could be as reactionary as any medium.

My Thoughts: Loved it without reservation. It would be obvious that Wright is a lively and sincere comics fan even if the preface had been omitted, and it's because he loves them that he's able to give such an insightful, expansive history and occasional critique of the medium across its eighty-year history. He rejects as hardly worth debate the notion that comics are juvenile and inconsequential, but ground his observations in the larger trends rather than jargon-laden "decoding." (Which I appreciated a great deal: to paraphrase Jim Carrey, the pen is blue, the pen is blue, sometimes the goddamned pen is just blue, all right?) He's blunt about the medium's flaws when it comes to gender, race, and sexuality (and inadvertently answered Marvel's own question about why they can't consistently snag a large percentage of female readers, as X-Men's female readership shot up with the inclusion of a multiplicity of complex female characters) and enthusiastic and thoughtful about its strengths. Most pleasing to me: in addition to focusing on what comic book heroes and villains can tell us about our ourselves, he spends a fair amount of time talking about the way that they can also shape our society. We need our heroes, the ones in the firefighters' helmets and the ones who wear capes.

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