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Review of Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books

By Matthew Pustz
Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

At the end of his book Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, Jean-Paul Gabilliet argues that the academic study of comic books in the United States is not as well developed as it should be. He notes that although recent years have seen "a notable growth in works written by academics who bracketed their fannish enthusiasms in order to produce rigorous studies," the field has yet to achieve "institutionalization in the form of textbooks" (304, 305). Given the fact that comic books achieved cultural legitimacy in France decades ago, it makes sense that a scholar from there—Gabilliet teaches American Studies at the University of Bordeaux—would recognize this gap and try to fill it by writing a book-length study that attempts to relate the entire history of this publishing format in a thorough, balanced, analytical fashion. In doing so, Gabilliet takes an important step toward achieving the institutionalization that he noted was missing from American comics scholarship.

If Gabilliet is, in fact, trying to create that first textbook for the field of Comics Studies, he achieves moderate success. However, even though this book was originally published in French in 2005, the author might have been beaten to the punch by other works. Most prominent among these is Bradford W. Wright's Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (2001), which covers much of the same ground as Of Comics and Men. More importantly, perhaps, Gabilliet's book is not exactly the "cultural" history that it promises to be. It does, however, fulfill an important role in the burgeoning field of comics studies by putting the existing knowledge about the institutional history of the publishing format into a very thorough, clearly written text that will serve generations of scholars very well.

Of Comics and Men traces the history of American comic books from their beginning in 1842, with reprints of the work of Swiss illustrator Rudolphe Töpffer, to more or less the present day. The book is divided into three parts, with the first focusing on this basic historical narrative. The second section of the book examines the producers and consumers of comic books. The last section analyzes how comic books have been the targets of censorship while at the same time moving toward (but not quite achieving) cultural legitimacy. The book ends with an appendix featuring the various regulation codes the industry adopted as well as a useful bibliographic essay that maps out the ways in which comic books have been written about in the decades prior to the translation and publication of this book.

Gabilliet's historical narrative will be familiar to scholars who have studied the evolution of the comic book. There are a handful of things that Gabilliet does, though, that make his book stand out from others with a similar purpose. First, he begins the story of the development of comic books earlier than many other historians who often begin with The Yellow Kid in the 1890s. Instead, Gabilliet argues that the comic book began in Europe in the first half of the 19th century. He goes on to establish the connections between comic books and other 19th and early 20th century publications like newspapers and dime novels. These are the two roots of the American comic book: newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction. Unlike other scholars, Gabilliet emphasizes the pulp fiction element, suggesting that these magazines helped to establish the audience for comic books.

One of the major topics addressed throughout Gabilliet's book is the important role of distribution and sales in the evolution of comic books and their readers. This role began to be significant as early as the 1930s when publishing entrepreneurs tried to figure out how they could make money by collecting previously published comic strips into cheaply bound pamphlets that could then be sold to children. Later, during the 1970s, distributor corruption hurt the industry and distorted the sales figures of well-regarded series that were being siphoned off to the early collectors' market. Gabilliet reports that one result of this system was that "in 1974, as little as a quarter of all printed comic books were physically placed for sale at retailers" (141). Distribution was also an issue in the 1950s when censorship codes and laws governing the sale of comics to minors were effectively enforced by the people selling comics. Retail outlets are a central part of Gabilliet's story, too, and by focusing on them he is able to squash some of the most important fan-inspired myths of comics history, namely those related to Frederic Wertham and the introduction of the Comics Code. From the fan perspective, it was Wertham, his testimony before Congress, and the publication of his book Seduction of the Innocent that ruined comic books in the 1950s. While Gabilliet does not deny that this was an element contributing to the decline of comics sales in the second half of the 1950s, he emphasizes more sociological factors, namely the increasing popularity of television and the growth of suburbs which went hand-in-hand with the shrinking number of retail outlets for comic books.

Developing a complex explanation for the decline of comic book sales beginning in the 1950s is one of the important services Of Comics and Men performs for the field of comics studies, but there are others as well. First, Gabilliet brings together a great deal of fundamental data that will be useful to a wide variety of comics scholars. For example, the book provides readers with some specific statistics as to the numbers of comic book stores in the North America. This information was certainly available elsewhere in bits and pieces, but Gabilliet pulls it all together to give us a clearer picture of the rise and fall of the direct market. Knowing that there were 100,000 retailers selling comic books in 1952 (139) and that there were 2300 comic book stores in 2002 (152) gives readers a clear sense that comic books have moved from being a mass medium to a niche form of entertainment. Gabilliet also creates a balanced portrayal of Frederic Wertham, a person who is normally demonized in more fannish accounts of comic book history. In Gabilliet's interpretation, Wertham was a progressive, much like the turn of the century crusaders who saw corruption and wanted to reform society to help get rid of it, even if that meant, for example, banning the sale of alcohol. Gabilliet is critical of Wertham for sloppy science and for appropriating the rhetoric of people more conservative than he, but he also reminds us that Wertham had good intentions and that the plan he advocated—the labeling of comics to control children's access to certain titles—was essentially what was put into practice years later.

One additional strength of Of Comics and Men is the inclusion of a chapter on comic book readers. It is easy to write the history of comic books focusing on the publishers and the creators by emphasizing what title was published by which company with stories by which particular creators. Gabilliet's book does that (in its weakest moments, the historical narrative becomes bogged down in laundry lists of creators and publishers rather than doing real analysis), but it also emphasizes that comic books were made to be read and enjoyed, and that the formation of fandom is an important element in determining what stories are told as well as how and where the comic books themselves are sold. Devoting a chapter to fans gives them the respect that they deserve. He performs a similar service for the production side by devoting a chapter to a detailed explanation of how the industry has functioned since the 1930s up to the present. But while including these chapters is an important step forward, Gabilliet could have made it even more clear that producers and consumers are central to the history of comic books by integrating the discussion of these topics into his main chronological narrative.

Separating topically-related discussions from the historical narrative also causes some awkward transitions, especially in Chapter 4 where the focus is on the post-World War II period when comic books achieve their greatest popularity but also experience their fall from grace. Here, Gabilliet writes about the different genres that were popular during this period and argues persuasively that EC was not really a major player in the industry during the early 1950s. And then the chapter pretty much ends. The next chapter picks up with a discussion of the impact of the Comics Code and the consequences of a "moral panic" that damaged the industry (41). But there's no explanation of what that "panic" was all about or what might have caused it. It feels like there's a chapter missing here where Gabilliet should have discussed Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, and the whole anti-comics crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. That discussion shows up eventually, more than 150 pages later, in a chapter that consolidates his analysis of a variety of attempts to either censor or control children's access to comic books. It's a good chapter, and in some ways it makes sense to address this issue all at once, but it really takes away from the linear historical narrative that makes up the first part of the book. In fact, it undermines the chronological organization of the book by suggesting that it might have been better organized with thematically or topically unified chapters instead.

Gabilliet ends Of Comics and Men with two chapters on "consecration," or the extent to which comic books have achieved legitimacy both within the community of readers and beyond in the larger realm of the American culture. While these discussions are interesting, and I think that Gabilliet means for all of the chapters of the book to lead up to this analysis, they allude to the idea that "consecration" is the only way of judging or establishing the value of comic books. The tone of these chapters suggests that Gabilliet feels that, without broad cultural legitimacy, comic books cannot be worthy of (or produce) rigorous academic study. Near the end of the book, Gabilliet scoffs at the notion, common in "American 'cultural democracy,'" that a text or material object "can derive legitimacy from its simple participation in the construction of a collective national identity (as an incontrovertible element of the American way of life)" (299). What Gabilliet is missing, though, is that legitimacy and the significance of a text as a cultural document have almost nothing to do with each other. Comic books are, in fact, cultural texts that can "legitimately" teach us about American life and American history. This, ultimately, is what "cultural history" as a field is all about.

Or, perhaps it is only what "cultural history" is all about in the United States. This is, after all, a work of French scholarship originally published in France in 2005. It is possible that the scholarly tradition there focuses more on the idea of cultural legitimacy than analysis of particular cultural texts. We get that idea from the tone that Gabilliet takes when describing "American 'cultural democracy.'" He seems appalled at the notion that American scholars of comics (and perhaps of anything else) would give the honor of scholarship to something that they did not see as culturally "worthy" of respect or legitimacy. His focus on the economic forces shaping the comic book industry might be a more standard French historiographical approach, and it's actually a very useful addition to traditional American scholarship about comic books. But for an American scholar looking for a work of cultural history, as the book's subtitle promises, Of Comics and Men is a bit of a disappointment.

From this perspective, one of the biggest problems with the book is that it rarely makes connections to any sort of wider cultural context. For example, he tells us that the hysteria over comic books in the late 1940s and early 1950s "unfolded at the beginning of the cold war," but there's no sense of what the connection is between these two events or why the Cold War would have had any effect on why people were reacting so strongly to comic books during this period (217). Gabilliet does write about the broader cultural concerns about juvenile delinquency and the fact that the opinions of scientific-sounding experts "were held in very high esteem by Americans during the Cold War" (227), but there is still no sense of why these ideas would have come about during this period or what their connections to comic books might be.

Gabilliet also simply does not do very much cultural analysis. He almost never does any interpretation of any comic books, characters, genres, or themes. He writes about the boom in superhero comics during the late 1930s and early 1940s, for example, but he never speculates about why they were becoming popular. A close reading of an early Batman or Superman story, for example, would have helped to shed some light on this question, and it also would have helped us to better understand that particular historical period. Doing this kind of cultural analysis of actual comic books—and perhaps even including some images, of which there are none here—might have lengthened his historical survey, but it would also have enriched his cultural history by fully demonstrating some of the points that he is trying to make in the book. A parallel work of cultural history, Robert Sklar's classic Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (1975), demonstrates what Gabilliet's book might have included. Sklar's book is an institutional history of movie studios and film audiences, but it goes beyond this. In analyzing many of the films that he mentions, Sklar gives us a rich understanding of why people would actually be going to the movies in the first place. In contrast, Gabilliet gives us no sense of what has historically attracted people to comics; there is nothing about the connections that readers made with the crazy mythological images of Jack Kirby or the intimate autobiographical stream-of-consciousness of Robert Crumb. Comic books here are just things that people spent money on and time with, for reasons that are never examined. Gabilliet rarely writes about their broader cultural significance, either. This is a particular weakness when Of Comics and Men is compared to its most similar counterpart, Bradford W. Wright's Comic Book Nation. Wright's focus might be on the evolution of youth culture, but his close analysis of specific stories and characters allows readers to see how comic books reflect American culture and can at times even reveal unexpected truths about American life and American values. Gabilliet's book simply does not do that.

Considering his focus on the cultural legitimacy of comic books and his discussion of the academic field of comics studies as a means for achieving that legitimacy, it is surprising that Gabilliet does not directly engage with established works of comics scholarship. Although he does include a very useful bibliographic essay, there is little analysis of the work of his predecessors in the main part of the book. Bradford Wright, for example, is mentioned twice—once in a list of works that he praises and once to note that Wright analyzed the ways in which the Vietnam War was portrayed in comics from the 1960s. Amy Kiste Nyberg, the author of Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (1998), perhaps the most important study of the evolution of the Comics Code, is mentioned only in the aforementioned list and in a handful of endnotes. Gabilliet would position himself more confidently in the emerging field of Comics Studies if he participated in a dialogue with the work that came before Of Comics and Men. As such, this book may not be the groundbreaking work that Gabilliet and his publisher, the University Press of Mississippi, want it to be, but it is nevertheless an important clearinghouse of information that will be very useful for other scholars who want to use comic books to address questions of cultural history.

References

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. Print.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. NY: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.

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