The history of the comics industry is a fascinating subject, full of unique characters and interesting incidents, so why not use the form of comics itself to tell it? Thatís exactly what Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey are doing with Comic Book Comics, using a similar style as in their previous book, Action Philosophers! As with that series, Van Lente recounts incidents and provides information and quotes through narrative captions, and Dunlavey fills the pages with humorous images that illustrate the stories, often having comics characters show up to ďact outĒ the words or interact with real-life people, and using plenty of cartoon shorthand to liven things up. It makes for great reading, being both informative and hilarious.
By this third issue, the creators have reached the 1950s and the era of the ďgreat comic book scareĒ. A lot of the information here is fairly well known, especially the crusade by Dr. Fredric Wertham to censor the comic books that he and many others believed was a cause of juvenile delinquency, but itís nice to see it all laid out and easy to understand, and also to comprehend what was going on with comics creators at the time. For instance, seeing what prompted Harvey Kurtzman to create MAD, or how William M. Gaines reacted to the senate hearings, or the way creators like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were horrified at what was going on is a revelation.
But thatís only one chapter of the issue. We also learn about pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warholís use of comics imagery, and the way that art and the Batman TV show helped comics seep into the culture at large. And later, we see the rise of fan culture and the dawn of the Silver Age of comics, with a cliffhanger of a sort seeing Jack Kirby about to return to Marvel Comics and begin working with Stan Lee. Again, this isnít really anything new, but the presentation strings it all together perfectly, grippingly plunking us right down into the story.
And of course, as mentioned above, itís hilarious. The inventiveness that Dunlavey shows in enlightening moments and quotes is breathtaking; highlights include the illustration of Werthamís assertion that Wonder Woman is a lesbian by depicting her with a mullet, cutoff t-shirt, baggy shorts, combat boots, unshaven legs, and carrying an Indigo Girls CD; the public shame following the Senate hearings through a litany of famous comics characters hiding from news cameras by pulling shirts or capes above their heads; and MADís influence on future generations of comedy by portraying Alfred E. Neuman acting as a delivery nurse in a nursery filled with future comedy icons like Bart Simpson and Master Shake.
Van Lente and Dunlavey are quickly becoming the current masters of non-fiction comics, enlightening readers with their wit and ability to convey information memorably and humorously. For those interested in comics history, this series is unmissable. There might be books that deliver this information more comprehensibly, but nobody is going to make the material more entertaining.
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