"Comic Book Nation" by Bradford W. Wright

Before movies and rock 'n' roll, comics invented youth culture. But can they survive?

Published May 25, 2001 7:07PM (EDT)

Bradford W. Wright's "Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America" contains no dominant hero, no good vs. evil subplot and a genuine disdain for the melodramatic mood that has made comics and their characters so popular since the 1930s.

Yet comics fans ought to rejoice over this book. At a time of transition, with underground comics proliferating on the Web while major companies like Marvel try to pull themselves out of bankruptcy, "Comic Book Nation" offers a much-needed historical perspective. Tracing the industry's rise, Wright gives comics the scholarly attention they deserve, diligently filling in the back story of a medium that has both reflected and shaped American values for generations.

It all started with Superman. In 1938, Detective Comics (DC) bought rights to the caped crusader from a pair of young wannabe comic strip writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The purchase immediately paid off. Superman's first chronicles flew off the racks, selling 900,000 copies per issue -- three to four times the sales of the closest competition. And while the nerve the character struck may be difficult to pinpoint -- could it have been the tights? -- Wright gets to the heart of the matter: Superman, like other bestselling characters who would come after him, fit his times perfectly. A tough and cynical wiseguy who fought for the common man, "a progressive super-reformer" who railed against the slums and saved miners from companies that were too cheap to keep their employees safe, Superman was exactly what the public wanted and needed. He was the Depression's wet dream.

Once Superman succeeded, comics took off. Dozens of new publishers entered the game, offering their own costumed crime-fighting heroes. The villains that superheroes attacked, however, shifted with the times. When World War II became the nation's dominant political concern, Superman rooted out fascists at home while G.I. Joe fought for American values abroad. More than a year before the United States declared war, Captain America was slugging Adolf Hitler in the face. Instead of fighting for the common American man, comics started fighting for America itself.

The formula came with problems. Wright smartly points out the moral flaws of 1930s and 1940s comics that encouraged Western imperialism, sexism and especially racism. Comics contained no black superheroes until the '60s, few women who didn't need a good man and, during the '40s, no Asian character who wasn't a "slimy Jap" or a "yellow dog." Americans bought them anyway. In the early '40s, comics became big business --15 million comic books were sold each week. More than 125 titles graced magazine racks. Superman had a regular radio show, and at least 35,000 copies of Superman alone were sent to soldiers each month. By 1943, retail sales of comics hit $30 million, a huge number for a 5-year-old industry.

Looking back, Wright notes that the '40s kicked off a "golden age of comics." But could it last?

After the war, Superman moved to the suburbs and sales languished as comics succumbed to what Wright calls "American triumphalism." Then, in 1948, a public backlash started to catch on. With juvenile delinquency on the rise, police, parents and some scientists argued that comics were a "national disgrace" that "glorified criminals" and turned kids against their parents.

Some publishers tried to deal with the outrage and dwindling sales by addressing the new Atomic Age. But characters like Atoman -- an atomic scientist with special powers who fights to make sure that all countries have access to nuclear power -- missed the mark. Other publishers moved away from controversy entirely. They launched a new kind of comic -- soft romances for softer times. Solving the problem of both moral outrage and lagging interest in good vs. evil story lines, Archie Comics, Jughead and others traced the silly life in the suburbs. The humor caught on, and the comics audience started growing once again.

Around 1950, true-crime titles that claimed to instill good values in readers began to appear, with titles like "Crime Does Not Pay." But their lurid artwork and graphic stories included violence and criminals who seemed to enjoy life right up until the last page of the book.

Wright maintains that these lowbrow titles revealed that the industry was growing up. "By demonstrating that successful comic books need not be confined to juvenile adventure stories, fatuous teen humor, and talking animals, they expanded the creative possibility of the medium considerably," he writes. Specifically, they opened the door to a new, challenging genre that Wright holds in high esteem -- horror comics. Created by William Gaines, founder of EC Comics, horrors trafficked in grim tales that dealt directly with problems in America. Titles such as "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror," though often graphic, did more than titillate. With sharp artwork and complex story lines, they showed the underbelly of American values.

Wright provides striking examples. In "The Guilty," a black man accused of killing a white woman suffers the fate of American segregation. Though the case against him is only circumstantial, the story ends with the town sheriff killing the black man before he goes to trial. Another story, "Confession," touches on similar themes of injustice. It opens with a motorist killed in a hit-and-run. The dead woman turns out to be the wife of a cop, who interrogates a black suspect with the intensity of a madman. When the suspect confesses, the lieutenant returns home -- where he cleans his wife's blood off his car, which he had used to murder her.

Horror comics like these "spoke bluntly to readers' feelings that evil existed in America, without offering the slightest pretense of resolution," Wright writes. They sold well, he claims, because they shined a mirror onto a nation that denied its troubles, a "society at war with itself." But if children loved them, parents surely did not. By 1954 -- a year when comic sales topped $1 billion -- a second backlash was beginning. An anti-comics book by a psychiatrist titled "Seduction of the Innocent" inspired Congress to hold hearings. Responding to the growing sense of disgust with lurid comics and parental fears that comics publishers were preying on American children -- not to mention ruining their moral fiber -- publishers reined themselves in, creating an independent watchdog group and imposing a "comics code" that essentially banned horror comics.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Rock 'n' roll, television and movies were starting to eat away at their market, but because of the code, the comics industry didn't have much room to maneuver, and the late '50s became a time of shrinkage. By 1962, fewer than a dozen publishers accounted for a total industry output of 350 million comics, a drop of 50 percent from the previous decade.

The companies that survived -- especially DC and Marvel -- responded with an old favorite, superheroes. Marvel took the lead. Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Marvel veterans since the '40s, developed a new formula characterized by grim endings and tragic antiheroes. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk -- they all grew out of Lee's sense that readers wanted to see "human" characters with not just superpowers but also doubts, fears and insecurities.

Spider-Man became Lee's signature creation and Marvel's best seller. Spidey's genius, Wright argues, lay in his alter ego, Peter Parker. An insecure adolescent who gains a host of special powers after a radioactive accident with a spider, Parker was a character that kids could relate to. He wasn't perfect: He first uses his superpowers to make money, tends to be selfish and even gets picked on at school. With ideas of the generation gap just forming, Parker was an early role model. And Lee didn't stop there. Throughout the early '60s, he cultivated the counterculture with inside jokes and self-deprecating humor that attracted kids longing to be in the know. His characters attacked hypocrites who claimed to be righteous but couldn't see past the grotesque looks of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four. Instead of physical realism -- the blood, guts and tragedies of horror comics -- Lee offered psychological truth. He gave readers an America they recognized, a place that refused to tolerate difference, a world where people struggled to find where they belonged.

The formula worked. Children and young adults made Marvel the dominant publisher of the time. Overall sales never reached what they had been in the '50s, but comics' influence remained strong, particularly among college students. One 1965 survey even found that college radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons.

The love affair lasted into the early '70s, but once the '80s came around, comics were forced to shift gears once again. With Republicans in office, a new form of conservatism ushered in comics like the X-Men. The angry vigilantism of Wolverine and the other mutants -- an outgrowth of their frustration with an inept government's ability to deal with crime -- fit perfectly with Reagan-era America.

By this time, though, comics had already started sliding toward the fringe. Wright spends a good deal of time explaining how fan culture took over the comics industry in the '80s, spawning convoluted narratives, tiny cult audiences and comics-specific stores. He reveals that there were advantages to direct distribution -- publishers could raise prices more quickly, for example -- but he also shows how the industry quickly shrunk. Licensing deals started bringing in more cash than the books themselves did, the number of titles dwindled and comics' influence became minimal at best. The long, lustrous era of comic books, Wright concludes, started to fade. Two deaths signaled the finale: Superman, who was killed off (briefly) in 1992, and Marvel, which went public in 1991 but filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

Are comics doomed, then? Probably not. Wright seems to suffer from a cultural blind spot -- he's unable to register that comic books were not created in an entertainment vacuum. In praising Marvel's originality, for example, he throws in a passing reference to "The Twilight Zone," acknowledging that Lee's story lines resembled the TV show's "twisted tales about the moral and emotional fragility of human beings." But he never digs deeper. Did Lee watch "The Twilight Zone"? What about other shows, movies, music and books? Did they fertilize his thinking or the thinking of any comics creators?

Wright also doesn't seem to have noticed the growing mass of comics and animation activity on the Web, and the wild success of movies like "X-Men" and "The Matrix," which reveal that superhero tendencies are still alive and well. And he misses the chance to address how the comics backlash relates to others like it, to everything from Tipper Gore's anti-rap crusade to the correlation many commentators assumed between video games and the Columbine killings. This may be intentional: "I believe that there are intellectual pitfalls in analyzing something like comic books too deeply," he writes in his introduction. But it does the book a disservice. If the history of comics, as he argues, "helps to trace the emergence, challenge and triumph of adolescence as both a market and a cultural obsession," one would expect to see Wright glean a few larger lessons. Instead, he comes across as someone whose head is too far buried in comic books to notice that comics culture extends beyond the page.

Still, these flaws are not fatal. Wright deserves credit for tackling the breadth of comics history, and he succeeds commendably in creating a testament to the genre's power. "For anyone who has ever read comics or wanted to leap a building in a single bound, "Comic Book Nation" is worth a look.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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