The internet was set alight with the announcement of Before Watchmen, a series of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book from 1986-87. Fans took to their keyboards to hurl their opinions, for and against, into the maelstrom of information. There were well-reasoned blog posts, publicity-hack “news” stories, and angry tweets. There was some thought and deliberation on the part of this constituency, but fans aren’t supposed to be thoughtful. “Fan” is short for fanatic, after all. These people are zealots, anonymous agents with funny screen names and a parade of pop culture avatars.
Thank goodness for academia. Academics think hard on things the rest of us barely think of at all, and while they’re certainly not immune to controversy, they at least have bibliography to back up their claims. The comics medium has long been as broad as fiction, a mode of expression which reflects the deepest parts of an artist’s self to a corporation cashing in on a trend. Comic Books and American Cultural History is an anthology which recognizes this spectrum not just in terms of the medium’s versatility, but also its status as a standard-bearer of American culture.
In his introduction, editor Matthew Pustz writes, “...Spider-man was one of my first history teachers…[because] the first time I remember thinking about the past, and how it was different from the present, happened when I was reading a Spider-man comic book.” That comic (Marvel Team-Up #42) provided Pustz with an introduction to the Salem Witch Trials through what he calls “casual learning”. People, especially children, pick things up from the culture they consume—like comics, video games and movies—even when those things aren’t designed to teach.
The selections in this anthology are written to help educators learn to use comics to teach history. Jessamyn Neuhaus’s lead off essay, “How Wonder Woman Helped My Students ‘Join the Conversation’: Comic Books as Teaching Tools in a History Methodology Course” details the problems inherent with comics as vehicles for teaching: students see them as mere entertainment, something they view as unimportant to serious historical research. The students, she writes, faced a bit of “unlearning” before they were able to move ahead with their research, but many were able to see how their professor’s unconventional thinking might apply to their future research. Neuhaus’s essay is breezy and accessible, but more than anything her class sounds like a lot of fun.
Bridget M. Marshall uses George O’Connor’s 2006 Journey Into Mohawk Country, an adaptation of 17th century Dutch explorer Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert’s journal, to show how any historical event is subject to the interpretation of whomever records the event. Elsewhere, Pustz explores the cultural and social malaise of the ‘70s as seen through American super hero comics. It’s a dark and fascinating journey which makes one want to dig through back issue bins for copies of Deathlok. The book’s final essays focus on 9/11, a cultural and historical event so large the reverberations are still being felt.
In the vacuum of private reading, outside of academia, many of these essays feel dry, with little of the action or color of their subjects. Still, there’s life to be found, here. These essays will provoke discussion in a classroom or online, though probably not when a coworker at the day job asks what you’re reading in the break room. The by-now cliché idea of comics “growing up” isn’t strengthened by academic attention, just as it isn’t weakened by 1,500 comments on a blog post. Instead, books of this quality help the ongoing normalization of comics, an industry, a hobby, and an art form long burdened by inadequacies both real and imaginary.