Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Review: 'American Comic Book Chronicles: 1940-1944'


The lingering aftermath of the Great Depression, a rise in organized crime, and especially, the country’s entry into World War II ensured that the early 1940s was a tumultuous time for the U.S. With such grim business rushing around them, many Americans found solace in escapist entertainment, and few entertainment mediums exploded as comics did between 1940 and 1944.

A timeline of this period is like a checklist of the most important developments in comics. These brief five years saw the debuts of Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Archie and his gang, Captain America, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, Hawkman and Hawkwoman, Sub-Mariner, Aquaman, Plastic Man, The Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, Pogo (before moving to newspapers), and many more of comics’ most celebrated characters. While we’d have to extend the timeline back just a year or two to include the medium’s two-most famous heroes, we would not have to in order to account for such foes and friends as Robin, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, Alfred the Butler, Lex Luthor, Perry White, Clay Face, Hugo Strange, Scarecrow, and Two Face. This period also saw the first significant rumblings of a major backlash against funny books with Wonder Woman as the most frequent whipping-girl. Was there ever a more crucial half-decade for comics?

Interestingly, TwoMorrows Publishings’ American Comic Book Chronicles series has been issuing volumes for six years but is only now getting around to this key period of 1940-1944. Because so much happened during these years, the storytelling seems to rush through the material faster than a speeding bullet, but Kurt F. Mitchell and Roy Thomas actually make the tale reasonably thorough, reasonably critical, and politically sharp. Along with the cavalcade of legendary characters, the writers make room to name-check such forgotten oddballs as Supermouse, Kangaroo Man, super-witch Spider Widow, and Snowbird, the Strangler’s coke-addicted lackey. Mitchell and Thomas refuse to succumb to the thoughtless jingoism that defined so many of the comics of the era they cover. Like all volumes in this series, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1940-1944 is also a gorgeous, hardcover package, swelling with tons of full-color art beautifully and authentically reproduced.

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