Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: 'The Comic Book History of Comics'


The history of comics told in comic format is such a simple concept that it seems deceptively obvious, yet there’s little that’s simple about that history and little that’s obvious about The Comic Book History of Comics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book (which collects a previously published six-issue comic series) is how much stuff writer Fred Van Lente crams into its 150 pages, tracing the history of storytelling through pictures all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings through the first political cartoons to “The Yellow Kid” to cinematic animation to the superhero era to the congressional inquiry on the effects of comics on juvenile delinquency to the pop-art sixties and finally ending with the underground comics of the seventies. Within this story is genuine drama as Max Fleischer and Walt Disney vie for the crown of animation king and the clash between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Van Lente’s storytelling has a definite perspective, and one that may rankle comics freaks as he sneers at some of the medium’s more revered figures (Stan Lee; William Gaines) while taking an unfashionably even view of the man who may be its easiest-target villain, noting the numerous accomplishments of Fredric Wertham that have nothing to do with that guy’s dopey crusade against comic books. Most welcome is the isolated profiles of a number of women in the comics industry, since women are generally shut out of this story’s primary arch for the usual patriarchal reasons.

Ryan Dunlavey’s artwork is sometimes a bit too cutesy for my tastes, but I liked his outlandish tendency to fuse creators with creations, as when he imagines Disney as a mutant man-faced Mickey Mouse, and there are some clever visual references and in jokes. The cutesiness also gets downright subversive when Dunlavey depicts beheadings, lynchings, and Adam West and Frank Gorshin yucking it up at an orgy.
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