Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America
Pop culture scholarship is too often met with the raised eyebrows and slight twist of the lip for apparent oxymoron. Those raising their eyebrows skeptically need not, therefore, read past the first few pages of Bradford W. Wright's Comic Book Nation. Unless you already believe that the popular texts produced by a culture both reflect and condition that culture, you're not going to accept Wright's primary premise. In fact your skeptical reaction, if you make it to the very last page of his monograph, will only be reinforced by the author's mention of what music he was listening to as he compiled his book. He adds, pointedly, "Immersion into the guilty pleasures of popular culture may remind scholars in this field that in analyzing the creation of fun, we need not neglect the fun in what we study" (p. 337). It's a fitting closing statement for a work of tremendous scholarship and novelty. From beginning to end, Wright's accomplishment is significant. Just skimming through a few dozen pages of endnotes is enough to convince the reader that Wright knows his subject well. That he makes it interesting, enjoyable, enlightening, and flat out necessary is just a bonus.
Comic books were born in the early 1930s, combining the genes of the newspaper "funnies" and the format of pulp magazines to produce quick, cheap, undemanding entertainment. It took two young men from New York, however, to move the comic book into a form we would recognize now: after years of refusals, in 1938 a little story by Joe Schuster and Jerry Seigel, about "a savior from the planet Krypton" [p. 7], was published in Action Comics. America's first, but definitely not its last, superhero spoke to, as Wright puts it, "the common man" mired deep in the disillusion of the Depression. Superman was "a champion of the oppressed […] devoted to helping those in need!" [p. 11]. He rescued miners trapped in cave-ins and forced corrupt business owners to enforce safety regulations. He worked to defeat government corruption and took pride in not just stopping injustice but also making someone pay restitution for it. Superman was a hero. In fact, a superhero. He was exactly what the industry needed to jumpstart its heart, which has beaten for superheroes ever since. The explosion in similar superhero types among the various comic book publishers was inevitable, and the runaway growth of a new art form was unstoppable.
By the early 1940s the comic book industry had woven itself into American culture more deeply than perhaps anyone really understood. Comic books, Wright points out, could and did speak loudly, sometimes crudely, rarely subtly, about politics, about race, about agendas. The "jungle" comic books, for instance, "championed Western interests and sensibilities in savage lands plagued by internal chaos and external threats" [p. 36]. When World War II looked inevitable, the comic books led the way with the ultimate patriot, Captain America, smashing Adolf Hitler right in the face on the cover of Captain America Comics Number 1. And this was well before the United States declared war on the Axis. American soldiers ate up the comic books like candy, and at home, a fuss started about the influence of the industry on the culture of youth.
From then on, the history Wright reports seems to be driven by the same cultural influences as any other pop art form: because the messages and the narratives were often graphic and brutal, children loved them; because children loved them, parents were concerned about them. Attempts to control or censor the industry were made, usually in vain, and as the genre diversified in response, it increased its overall power. On the personal level, it became clear that the war might have been good for business, but it proved problematic in the aftermath: by 1959, comic book sales were declining as the same rate as the need for wartime heroes [p. 57]. The industry needed to adapt, and to do that, it needed to reexamine what American youth, still the primary market, wanted to read. In short, "comic book makers who underestimated the maturing tastes of postwar youth denied themselves an increasingly lucrative market" [p. 59].
The writers, artists, and publishing houses took creative action. Rather than a single minded jingoism, stories began to crop up about reconciling differences with other cultures. Superheroes no long fought an obvious social or political evil; rather, they fought the more insidious ones of bigotry and prejudice. Rather than the extreme left-wing or extreme right-wing answers to social or global problems, comic books recommended compromise, mediation, negotiation. Wright notes that on the subject of atomic war, the comic books were united in their message: the power of the atom was far, far too strong, and using it in a bomb was playing global Russian roulette with five bullets. In fact, even superheroes themselves could not deal with the atom bomb, and that threatened to put them right out of a job, taking with them a whole entertainment industry. The complexities of the culture had exceeded the complexities of the comic books.
It's not surprising that in response to a declining interest in superheroes, new genres of comic books formed. The innocuous Archie Comic Books were born at this time, with "America's favorite teenager" smiling from the cover as he humorously leers at Veronica. So also, of course, were born the sexy sidekicks to superheroes, such as Captain America's Golden Girl and the Asbestos Lady, companion to the Human Torch [p. 73]. Post war business for the crime genre of comic books was astounding, starting with "true crime" stories. As Wright puts it somewhat disapprovingly, though, "these lurid tales delved into violence, brutality, and sadism to a graphic degree never before seen in comic books" [p. 81]. For instance, a story called "The Woman Who Wouldn't Die":
The high load of violence, however innocently couched in its controlling narrative that crime does not pay, incensed enough social critics that a substantial censorship movement arose. Led by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, the charge against comic books rested on the claim that they encouraged juvenile delinquency at the least and fostered an anarchist society at the worst. Starting in the late 1940s, increasingly restrictive controls started to be put in place as a result of "hostile public opinion" [p. 103], ranging from state and federal legislation to entire publishing houses shutting down.
Consistent with negative public reaction to excessive violence and gore was an increased emphasis on domesticity in the traditional flavor. The romance comic book debuted and reinforced values of female chastity and fidelity. And in response to the outright sadism came the subtler appeal of twisted horror comics, initiated by the groundbreaking EC Comics: in 1950, EC titles like Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science were sold next to satiric humor in the immortal (and sadly untreated in this book) Mad Stories told of killers "being southern-fried in grease melted down from the fat of [an] obese accomplice's corpse," and of a husband who jealously refuses to let his wife model clothes and instead boils her in plastic and puts her body on display [pp. 148-149]. Governed by industry newcomer William Gaines, EC comic books
Unfortunately, conservative public opinion, still led by the zealot Wertham, soon had Gaines defending the indefensible, and not doing it very well. Ultimately called to testify before the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Gaines was backed into a rather tenuous position:
That Gaines could for one moment have thought that he was making a good case for his comics speaks for itself.
Wright depicts the battle for power over comic book content as a "postwar struggle to control commercial youth culture" [p. 178], noting the irony that the very lifestyle Americans had fought to achieve and maintain had bred the alienated children they were currently trying to protect from it. And as comic books increasingly found ways to tap into the target generation's disaffectedness, the superheroes like Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man) began to develop. Spider-Man, Batman, the Thing, and the Hulk all played on the notion of a reluctant superhero, one forced into his position more or less by accident and determined to do good for society regardless of the personal costs involved. All of them alienated and harassed, they were the precursors of the antihero, whose ambiguous sensibility would dominate the industry henceforth.
Once the antihero makes his presence known, the rest of the tale of America as a comic book nation is easily told. Wright relates the growth of authority-challenging youth politics in the 1960s to concurrent developments in comic book marketing, as both Marvel and DC Comics became "corporate properties" [p. 230] and in the process let their superheroes reassess their worth in a turbulent decade. As Wright puts it,
Wright's argument here seems to be that fandom (made somehow distinct from "comic book fans, fan clubs, and fan publications" [p. 252]) developed in the 1970s, as comic book fan culture became a "cottage industry" right down to conventions, fanzines, and speculators who bought comic books as an investment. Rather than remaining a broad-cultural "text," then, Wright suggests that a hardcore body of fans began to drive the industry. This conclusion follows John Fiske's famous definition of "fandom," which Wright quotes at length, emphasizing the parts about disaffection and disenfranchisement caused by "any combination of gender, age, class, or race" [p. 252]. In conjunction with innovative direct-marketing techniques, the growth of hardcore fandom served to change the industry.
For one example, superheroes really changed. From a relatively uncomplicated idealist character devoted to helping society, the superhero turned introspective and thoughtful and, too often, apparently psychotically depressed. Rorschach, for instance, the most disturbing of the new breed, was unprecedented:
Ultimately, however, comic books seem to be fighting a losing battle with television, film, and video games. Why, as Wright asks, buy comic books about superhero vigilantes when any number of computer games let the player be the superhero? In other words, the qualities that created an artistic genre are no longer unique to that genre. "Comic books," Wright says somewhat sadly, "are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture but because American culture has finally caught up with them […]. Is there a place for comic books in an America that has become a comic book parody of itself?" [p. 284]. Wright seems to think so, and certainly his arguments are compelling. One hopes that comic books will survive. Somehow.
That Wright took the opportunity between the 2001 publication of the hardback and the 2003 paperback to comment on the superhero reaction to the September 11 attacks speaks well for his thorough attention to detail. The reaction, of course, was mixed—but ultimately, it was clear that fantasy superheroes could do nothing about Osama bin Laden. As a mournful Superman put it, "the one thing I cannot do […] is right the wrongs of an unjust world. A world fortunately protected by heroes of its own." Artist Frank Miller's reaction, however, was rather more striking, as Wright says: "In a terse commentary accompanied only by three abstract images of a star, a cross, and the wreckage of the towers, he stated simply, 'I'm sick of flags. I'm sick of God. I've seen the power of faith'" [p. 289].
Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America is
both educational and entertaining. It is extensively researched, well
developed, organized and written with an authority born of Wright's
own historian's expertise. Stepping back from it to assess its "worth"
is somewhat more challenging. For true fans of comics, Wright's attention
to the artists themselves is rather lacking; whole comic book houses
are ignored, and some titles (such as Mad) are sadly undertreated.
For academics in pop culture, the story is somewhat different. For
what it does accomplish I can think of no words strong enough for
the praise I intend. It's hard to imagine that comic books as cultural
icons have never been much studied by academics before; one of Wright's
few predecessors, William W. Savage Jr. and his 1990 text Comic
Books and America, 1945-1954, is one the rare scholarly studies
of a literary form that's been with us for nearly a century. Obviously
scholarly attention is deserved, and Wright's treatment of it, taken
as a whole, is superbly done.