America's Funny Book Filter: 'Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology'

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: An Anthology

Price: $29.95
Publisher: Continuum
Length: 296 pages
Editor: Matthew Pustz
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-02

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.