Comics Are Not Just an American Artform…

by J.C. Macek III

4 December 2014

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is an informative and well-written exploration of worldwide comics. Yet it attempts to cover too much, and it will leave you wanting more.
 
cover art

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present

Dan Mazur & Alexander Danner

(Thames & Hudson)
US: Jun 2014

Back in September of this year, I reviewed a book called American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69 by John Wells, an in-depth volume about a very specific (and important) part of American Comic Book History. The book certainly lived up to its title in that is explored specifically American comics during those particular years, without a focus on the global comics industry.

Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner’s Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present takes a very different approach, even where there is overlap. As the title indicates, this book explores a much longer amount of time on a much more global scale in only 32 more pages than the other book’s 288. Sound good? Well, it certainly can be, even and especially as it avoids the narrow focus of American Comic Book Chronicles. That said, with a wider focus, depth is also sacrificed to a degree.

Still, the authors go further than expected, and certainly farther back than the stated year of 1968. The preface begins with the ongoing debate over the origins of comics. The single phrase, “no single culture or country can claim ownership of the medium” is both accurate and something of a thesis statement for the entire book.

Comics are not a uniquely American form of entertainment, although American comics do control a large percentage of the industry. Smartly, Mazur and Danner do not ignore American comics and solely focus on the rest of the world. The attractive cover begins with frames from an Italian comic, merges into a Japanese Manga frame, gives way to a splash from a French strip, all atop a detail of the American icon The Shadow, punching out a couple of bad guys.

Similarly the first interior images are of Belgian, Japanese and underground American comics before giving way to a stunning, full color page of Jack Kirby drawing from The Mighty Thor. If that’s not enough, Thor himself is mocked in a French comic just a few pages later.

After the aforementioned preface, Comics is led by an intro that catches up readers in a very “comic book-esque” way. Although scholarly and almost professorial in tone, the introduction almost feels like a “previously on” or “last issue of” style recap, reaching back with subheadings like “Postwar European and British Comics”, “Postwar Manga”, “Postwar Comics in America”, “The 1960s and Adult Comics”, “Japanese Comics in the 1960s”, “European Comics, 1959-1968” and “American Comics to 1968”. This is an informative and very balanced read that leads directly into the first chapter which deals, most appropriately, with the underground comics that grew to popularity starting in 1968.

While the preface argues that children’s comics do not “have less inherently less artistic value than those aimed at adults”, the first chapter is decidedly adult, as were most of the “underground comics” of the day. Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and other “adult intellectual” themes are all explored (as they were in the comics) to varying degrees of “intellectuality” (though with undeniable lengths of “adult” content). Violence and nudity are hardly spared, here. In short, it’s exactly the kind of book most kids would love to “accidentally” find in dad’s stash.

Comics isn’t merely a recap or reprint of past prurience, however. Mazur and Danner are studious in their research and analysis of the works of Robert Crumb, Dan Spiegelman, Richard Corben and so many other artists from that era. They are just as studious in their second chapter, concerning “American Mainstream Comics”. Brilliantly, the authors kick off with the work of the amazing artist Neal Adams before delving into the evolution of Jack Kirby and his influential style (that contributed to Pop Art). Gil Kane and Joe Kubert are also given their due here, but this second chapter deserved to be much longer. To be sure, the authors have many more years to cover (and the rest of the world), but as indicated previously, the wider lens look causes a lack of depth in focus.

Chapter 3 is another stunning (and equally uncensored) look at the ‘70s of the American mainstream, while the fourth chapter smartly delves into the mainstream of Japanese Manga. The images here range from the simplistic to the cartoonish to the absolutely terrifying in a successful attempt to show the diversity of the Japanese artform. This continues in the fifth chapter’s deep discussion of Alternative Manga, which echoes the Underground comics of the USA with a decidedly Rising Sun flare in the art, both modern and historical. A sixth chapter focuses specifically on the impactful artist Osamu Tezuka before the authors stretch across the seas to discuss European comics in the seventh chapter.

As explored in the next chapter, what makes the European comics so vital can almost be summed up in one word: Mobius. The artist (born as Jean Giraud) captured the most epic, dark and fantastic levels of comics up to this point, and helped create the visual style that came to be best known in the pages of Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant).

This is where Danner and Mazur wisely break off into an unexpected direction. As comics hit a new cinematic and enthralling peak in the ‘70s, they began to grow worldwide in popularity and influenced artists everywhere. The next several chapters travel through Europe sampling their gridded pages almost like fine cuisine and detailing their influences on each other. This naturally gives way to a stop in the UK, where surprising successes like Warrior and 2000 AD (featuring one Judge Dredd) helped give rise to the British Invasion of American comics. These comics, in turn, became some of the most influential of all time, not only on the gridded page but in film and television, as well.

The duo continues their world tour in attempts to cover the maturing of Manga, the incredible new mature comics like Alan Moore’s Watchmenand Neil Gaiman’s Sandman through the new black and white alternative comics that sprung up in the USA. Comics continues to globe trot throughout the ‘90s to the present, often re-exploring genres previously touched upon (Manga’s evolution is revisited multiple times in many chapters). This is all against the backdrop of some very good research and reporting throughout all 19 chapters.

Comics can be a beautiful book filled with glorious reprints in color and black and white (always where appropriate, considering original printings). When closer looks are warranted, the authors know when to fill an entire page of the book with an entire page from the comics they are discussing, and when to provide detail for the reader to explore. As a cover-to-cover read, Comics is informative and interesting with a lot of solid (and well researched facts). As a reference book, Comics is graced by a thorough and accurate index allowing for quick references to creators, companies and titles.

Published in 2014, Comics attempts to explore 46 years of comics the world over (plus prefaces covering summaries of prior years). This is a lot of material to address in only 320 pages. To a great degree, Mazur and Danner are successful in this and they have given us a thorough, well-written and well-researched documentary tome. However, I must add the phrase “for what it is”. Many chapters presented a great deal of information that was completely new to me and educated me (unpretentiously) on how ignorant I was of many types of comics from other countries in other languages.

However, some of the chapters are simply too light and form merely a syllabus, not an education. Do I expect these writers to cover everything? No. However, there are notable omissions that are relatively vital to the history of comics. Before Mobius there must be Kirby, before Watchmen there must be 2000 AD. These are covered, but what was missed? For example, America’s Captain Marvel begat the UK’s Marvelman before Captain Marvel was revived in the ‘70s and Marvelman became Miracleman during comics’ British Invasion of the ‘80s. Where is this mention, when so many other fallen dominoes are covered? And considering the global reach of this book, what might have been left out in total? If this book is supposed to represent comics globally, what about comics outside of Europe, North America and Japan? For example, Argentina’s comics industry has thrived for years (with both reprints and original work) and there is scant mention of anything South American in this otherwise representative book.

To be sure, Mazur and Danner have created a fine book with some very good research and writing which leaves the reader wanting more. But in a documentary, needing more implies incompleteness. Perhaps future editions could be broken out into varied decades for a deeper exploration. As it stands, this book is a very informative companion piece to other comics-based reference volumes and is certainly worth reading for historians and fans alike.

It’s strange to ask for “more” when a title purports to cover 46 years on multiple continents. That said, I’m happy to put on my best Oliver Twist adaptation and say “Please, sirs. I want some more.”

Splash image from interior of Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present

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