It’s a terrible kind of pleasure. Romantic literature, Norwegian death metal records, and especially comics: no matter what your cultural obsession may be, you’ll always hunger for more.
These days, though, one will never go hungry for long. Today, big chain bookstores and mom-and-pop comic shops are filled with nuggets from out of the past, lost classics, and forgotten oddities that have maintained some kind of cultural cache through the years thanks to a faithful few. Now, those few are running things, and they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of consumers. For every contemporary comic book packaged as a trade paperback there are a dozen anthologies landing in the hot little hands of readers desperate to take a peak between the hidden seams of history.
In 2006 Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time collected stories from “unknown” comics artists ranging from 1900 to 1969. The work of those artists, like Fletcher Hanks and Herbert Crowley, haunt the pages of contemporary and canonized artists alike. Reading those stories is like discovering a lost mythology. The book is full of a mystical charm that is truly out of time. It springs forth from the collapsing coil of the past to land here in the present both as an important historical marker and an artistic oddity.
Nadel’s new collection, Art in Time is more of the same, but that’s a good thing. The title implies heroics, as if the book is here to save us from something — drudgery, wheel-spinning continuity, mediocrity — but it’s also a way of framing the selections. Instead of starting with the earliest stories and moving ahead, the stories are presented on a level playing field, the strengths of an older story supported by those of a newer one.
Thematically they’re all the same. These are adventure stories spanning the years 1940 to 1980, a time which saw the initial rise of the comic book, Senate investigations into their effect on young readers, Marvel’s ascendance as a publishing powerhouse and the beginnings of the cross promotional blitz of the Hollywood blockbuster.
With such a broad time period to work with, who and what should be included? In academia and popular history alike there are ideological battles over bias and intellectual canon, and comics are no different. Nadel writes he deliberately avoided greats like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby because their work is already widely anthologized. The artists in this collection who are widely known, like Harry Lucey, are not represented by their best-known material, but rather by the departures from the norm caused by creative and financial impulses.
There are some kinds of stories you’d expect to find in a book like this. Kona is a Tarzan-like jungle lord with a mane of shaggy hair and monosyllabic vocabulary, but “Cave of Mutations” by Sam J. Glanzman is anything but typical. There are giant sharks and huge single-panel pages in which dinosaurs and people are tangled together in a struggle to the death. The text is a kind of philosophical treatise on war and desperation that’s impenetrable at times, but the art is full of awful beauty and action throughout.
Harry Lucey, whose work defined Archie from the ’50s to the ’60s, offers detective Sam Hill, a milk-drinking private eye who says “dame” and runs into the usual femmes fatale and gangsters one would expect, but the story’s tone that’s playful and fun with a dark streak of cynicism running underneath.
The most recent stories in the book stand out not just because of their unusual styles and subject matter but also for the simple fact that they’re in black and white. Sharon Rudahl’s 1980 story The Adventures of Crystal Night is a futuristic tale in which the poor pawn their organs for food and cartels of the idle rich fight for power and influence. Theirs is literally a layered society where the lower class occupies the bottom of a multilevel city and the rich fly above on expensive machines. Beyond the lack of color there isn’t much difference between Rudahl’s art and that of H.G. Peter’s, whose “Man O’Metal” stories precede Crystal Night in the book. Peter’s stories, however, were published in 1942, a time in which themes like race, reproductive rights, and sex were not the subjects of comic books.
That juxtaposition is at the heart of what makes this book great. In his introduction, Nadel writes that the history of comics is “really the story of the slow march toward a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic”. On every page of this book we see that idea in action, and it’s exciting to know there are more examples out there waiting to be discovered.