Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

Article excerpt

Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Bradford W. Wright. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001. 336 pp. $34.95 hbk.

Newcomers to the field of comic book history will find Comic Book Nation a highly readable overview of the history of mainstream comic books, with an emphasis on those of the two leading publishers, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The book is arranged chronologically and takes the reader from the beginnings of the modern comic book in the late 1930s into the early 1990s. Black-and-white illustrations of comic book covers and pages supplement the text.

Wright approaches comics books as cultural history, modeling his study on the work of William Savage, Comic Books and America 1945-1954, published in 1990. He combines a history of the comic books themselves with a discussion of the business history of comic book publishing, imbedding this survey within the larger context of American history. His primary sources are the comic books themselves, and he adds narrative summaries of comic book stories to support his conclusions about the ways in which American society, and particularly youth culture, are reflected in the comic books of the time.

Most of Wright's history traces the evolution of the superhero comics, examining their origins, the role of superhero comics as World War 11 propaganda, the decline of the genre in postwar America, the rise of the "flawed superhero" in the 1960s, and the changes in the industry in the last two decades that gave rise to a new breed of creators who both deconstructed and revitalized the superhero genre. He also devotes considerable time to tracing the rise of crime and horror comics as well, detailing the campaign against comics spearheaded by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham. He touches on other genres, including jungle comics, war comics, and romance comics, which he suggests prepared girls for domestic life. But it is the superhero that remains central to Wright's history. In his epilogue, he writes that comic books will have a place in American culture "so long as they bring out the superhero in us all."

Comic book scholars, however, may be somewhat disappointed with Wright's history. It is largely derivative, condensing material from the popular histories such as Mike Benton's multivolume work and books by Les Daniels and Ron Goulart. Likewise, his history of American culture, even with its focus on consumer and youth culture, draws on secondary sources. He spends a third of the book, three overlapping chapters, on the decade following World War II, unarguably the period of comic book history that has attracted the most scholarly attention, and he simply duplicates the findings of these earlier studies. …