An Inky, Well-Paneled Place: Comics and the Cold War
More significant is Hajdu's inability to anchor his material historically. At first he seems to be going for the class angle: "Unlike movements in the fine arts that crossed class lines to evoke the lives of working people, newspaper comics were proletarian in a contained, inclusive way." Later on, having established the middle-class, even suburban, aspirations of most comics artists, he describes "the sentiment against comics [as] a kind of anti-anti-elitism, a campaign by protectors of rarified ideals of literacy, sophistication and virtue to rein in the practitioners of a wild, homegrown form of vernacular American expression." Though the prose is characteristically felicitous, this description seems amiss as a reckoning of either the Catholic Church or the book burners--or of practitioners like Mickey Spillane (who told Hajdu "a kid's dime buys the same cup of coffee") and the often cynical businessmen who employed them. At least Hajdu mentions the Zoot Suit riots--street fights between servicemen and Mexican-American civilians in East Los Angeles in 1943. But apart from a nod to Marlon Brando in The Wild One, America's periodic hand-wringing about juvenile delinquency, and the underlying anxiety over race and class, remain offstage.
Also missing is a sense of the cultural context. The Comic Book Scare is only one round in a contest that stretches back to the temperance crusaders of the nineteenth century. In their wake came polite revulsion over "scandal sheets" like The Police Gazette, Progressive reformers' concerns about nickelodeons and concert saloons and the crackdown on burlesque, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, the furor over Elvis Presley's pelvis and Chuck Berry's mixed-race audience, and today's campaigns against violent computer games and obscene rap lyrics. Hajdu vividly conveys how a Dexedrine-fueled Bill Gaines at EC Comics vowed to defy the censors and in the process nearly destroyed his company, which was saved, ironically, by the decision to skirt the Comics Code and publish Mad as a magazine--meaning that unsold copies, unlike comic books, could be returned. But why each generation seems to produce its own Tipper Gore, and whether the rest of us really need to applaud the use of such powerful lures as sex and violence to enlist teenagers in consumer culture, are not questions Hajdu asks. Nor does he recognize that the same American jitters that made and unmade EC's fortunes also animated film noir: 1944, the historical peak of comic book sales, was also the year of Double Indemnity. Anyone seeking a clued-up look at how the beginnings of the cold war registered in popular culture would still do better to pick up Peter Biskind's Seeing Is Believing (1983) or, for those with some tolerance for sociology, Warren Susman's equally durable essay "Did Success Spoil the United States?"
Despite its subtitle, Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Meanis not really a work of theory. Like his previous book, James Brown's "Live at the Apollo," a 117-page commentary on the live album of a concert that took place eight years before Wolk was born, it is, rather, an act of critical devotion. As a critic, Wolk isn't particularly interested in the ironies of history; nor does his reading of comics pretend to much interest in the world outside the panel borders. His concern is with what Harold Bloom called "the questions of good and bad and how and why."
The practice of asking such questions about comics is as old as the funnies. Rodolphe Topffer, the nineteenth-century Swiss artist usually cited as the originator of the comic strip, was also the author of "Essay on Physiognomy," an attempt to explain his creation. Will Eisner, a legendary figure whose career stretched from superhero comics in the 1930s to The Spirit, the first modern comic for adults, in the 1940s (when he was assisted by the young Jules Feiffer) to a graphic novel about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 2005, also wrote his own manifesto, Comics and Sequential Art. Wolk, like Hajdu, clearly worships Eisner, and also tips his hat to cartoonist Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1993). But Wolk's focus, as he says, is "the reader's side of the comics experience: figuring out how we experience them in general and looking carefully at particular artists and works."
Wolk has smart, intelligible things to say about how we make sense of comics--not as a genre or literary form but as a medium in its own right. His remarks on the relationship between "the cartoonist's line, [which] defines the shape of the comics image," and a cartoonist's visual style demonstrate an attractive willingness to get down to the mechanics. And if his insight that "virtually every major superhero franchise...can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories" doesn't quite make him the Stanley Fish of the pen-and-ink pantheon, it does allow him some engaging riffs, like his observation that X-Men, with its perpetual arguments between the assimilationist mutants and the militant separatists, is "on some level" an allegory "about difference and identity politics." Best of all, having developed this little "superhero as metaphor" scheme, Wolk admits it doesn't really apply to Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman--which is like developing a law of planetary motion that doesn't apply to Earth, Jupiter or Saturn.
Wolk is, in other words, an honest critic, and one who reminds me of two other honest critics of a once-new form: Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. Like Marcus, Wolk is unafraid of ideas, even theoretical ideas; like Christgau, whose sheer enthusiasm for rock 'n' roll I find infectious even though it has been years since I've had any idea what the bands he's writing about sound like, Wolk seems willing to persist in his devotion to this upstart medium long after his peers have moved on to more prestigious pursuits.
Perhaps because he's still writing from inside it, Wolk adeptly explains comics as a subculture. He doesn't let the self-perpetuating male "comics guy" mentality off the hook, either--for a time he wrote a web column in drag just to bait the misogynists. But he shows that for both male and female adherents, the self-referential sense of tribal belonging is at least as important to the pleasure of comic books as the wish fulfillment of superhero stories or the bohemian frisson of "outsider" books like Ghost World and Love & Rockets. As Wolk points out, comics "that are incomprehensible to anyone not already immersed in their culture aren't just the norm now; they're the point. If you pick up a story crammed full of insider references, and you're enough of an insider to catch them all, you're going to feel like it was made just for you, and it will intensify the sense of difference between you and non-comics readers."
The last half of Reading Comics is a selection of (mostly) picks and a few pans--comics that Wolk wants to introduce or to think about in greater depth. Many of these seem to be recycled reviews, with the regular reviewer's vices of hype and hypertrophied identification. Or it may just be that I don't share Wolk's taste for Alan Moore's pseudo-profundities or Hope Larson's sub-Chagall dreamscapes. But Wolk is refreshingly irreverent about Will Eisner's weakness for shmaltz-soaked pieties and convincingly scathing about Alex Ross's airbrushed epic pretension. Wolk's reading of Black Hole, Charles Burns's body-horror chronicle of a sexually transmitted "bug" that turns mid-1970s Seattle high school students into monsters with tails, or extra mouths, or insectoid heads, is sharp and persuasive and sent me right to Amazon.