American culture is now dominated by the influence of the world of comic books and their derivatives. Five of the six highest-grossing films of the year have at least some relationship to Marvel Comics. Netflix, the biggest streaming company in the world, bought out rights to creator Mark Millar’s Millarworld for a deal in the low-to-mid eight figures. The second-largest streaming company, Disney+, is staking its future in part on Marvel Cinematic Universe–related shows such as Hawkeye, Loki, Wandavision, and What If? The biggest hit on Amazon’s Prime Video service, arguably, has been its deconstruction of superheroics, The Boys. The most audacious Warner Bros. gambit might have been putting its theatrical lineup (including the $185-million-budgeted DC property The Suicide Squad) in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously; a close second was committing an additional $70 million to complete Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which was dumped in theaters in 2017 following a series of disastrous reshoots by Joss Whedon.
We live in a world of comic books, and we have for some time. But as Jeremy Dauber makes abundantly clear in American Comics: A History, comic books—particularly the brand of spandexed and masked and muscled comic books favored by the big two, Marvel and DC—are only a small part of the story of comics in general, even comic books in particular. Caricatures and comic strips have a long history; even Martin Luther dabbled in the form, highlighting the wickedness of the papacy by comparing Jesus’s goodness with papal devilry. During the Civil War, “the visual equivalent[s] of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Dauber writes, “were crucial to the galvanization of political morale essential for the totalizing Civil War.” Lincoln later claimed that pioneering anti-Tammany Hall cartoonist Thomas Nast “‘has been our best recruiting sergeant’; Grant claimed he ‘did as much as any one man to preserve the union.’”
It was the newspaper comic strip that cemented the medium. Strips would become immensely popular—and profitable for the artists behind them, who, after some legal wrangling, were granted ownership of their characters and ideas by the courts. More or less.
The big question, as always, was: Won’t someone please think of the children? Dauber recounts that in 1908, “the president of the National Association of Newspaper Circulation Managers wrote, ‘The crude coloring, slap-dash drawing, and very cheap and obvious funniness of the comic supplement cannot fail to debase the taste of readers and render them to a certain extent incapable of appreciating the finer forms of art.’” It’s a vaguely ironic point, given that a decade or so earlier, Joseph Pulitzer, whose papers inaugurated the form, had scrapped plans to run great works of Western art with a new color press in favor of a funnies supplement on Sundays aimed at kids.
The concern about the moral corruption of children would wax and wane as comic strips were collected into books and sold, first as newspaper supplements and then on their own. After a dime sticker was slapped on some excess copies that then sold out on newsstands, it was clear that there was business to be done in this regard. By the late 1930s, the enormous popularity of Superman, and then the Hitler-socking Captain America, would spin the industry toward superheroes; when the books were included with care kits sent to GIs, the industry aged up a bit.
The question of who constitutes the intended audience for comic books is, perhaps, the biggest running story in the controversies that have surrounded them over the past 80 years. In an attempt to retain audiences as they aged out of Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s misadventures, savvy publishers in the 1940s leaned into horror and crime comics. But the severed heads and dripping gore and wives repaying cheating hubbies with murder made these pulpy products easy targets for crusaders such as Frederic Wertham, the psychiatrist who almost single-handedly brought down the industry through the publication of his famous book, The Seduction of the Innocent.
Comics would survive a Freudian quack who couldn’t handle the fact that sometimes a Robin is just a sidekick. Indeed, boom times were just around the corner. But the question remained: Who, exactly, were comics for? Marvel’s run of books in the 1960s, including Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Uncanny X-Men—stewarded by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko—found a college-aged and educated audience almost by accident, giving the industry new cachet and acclaim, as well as thematic concerns to toy with, like racism and drug abuse. But it was the so-called comix underground where the boundaries would be pushed furthest.
Counterculture and subculture artists such as Robert Crumb and Denis Kitchen experimented with more adult subject matter—both in terms of language and the graphic depiction of genitalia. (Or maybe “adult”; there’s something perpetually adolescent about the nose-thumbing nature of it all.) Crumb would almost immediately come under fire then and throughout the years for cartoons that were clearly intended to satire racism and sexism yet came across as racist and sexist themselves.
Crumb’s sophomoric pushback to his critics would spark a backlash of its own, as Dauber details: “A later Roberta Gregory story, ‘Crazy Bitches,’ had a more confrontational response, depicting women angrily reading R. Crumb; when a husband objects it’s ‘classic American culture,’ they bite off his [member], stuff it in his mouth, and then [defecate] on his head.” We’re not dealing with the Algonquin Round Table here.
As a history, Dauber’s book is consistently interesting, if a hair unwieldy. He condenses the entirety of the American art form into 445 pages—from anti-Tammany comic strips, to the daily funnies that buoyed the newspaper industry and were read by as many as 100 million people in the 1960s, to the rise of standalone books that include every genre from superhero to super-neurotic. I was shocked to note that Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side merit only a single paragraph combined and no real discussion of the influence of either on the art or the business of comics, but surely these two masterly works of American popular culture—arguably the greatest achievements in the history of the newspaper-strip form—deserve more attention.
There are some odd omissions, such as the lack of reference to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—which spent much of the 1980s and 1990s defending artists and comic-book store owners from overzealous local officials. And there are moments, particularly toward the end of the book, when it feels as though Dauber is simply rattling off names and titles so no one will feel snubbed—as when he highlights a series of comics based on the Western canon by modern artists.
No one will come away from this work questioning Dauber’s progressive bona fides, even if it skews some of the work within. One small thing that jumped out to me as someone who watched the sentence in question play out in real time: “Writer Chuck Wendig was abruptly fired by Marvel after tweeting opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court candidacy,” Dauber writes in the epilogue. That’s true-ish, though the “opposition” was couched by Wendig writing of elected Republicans: “They can eat s—t. All of them. They can eat a boot covered in s—t. Winter is coming you callous f—necks, you prolapsed a—holes, you grotesque monsters, you racists and rapists and wretched abusers.” I tend to think that people shouldn’t be fired for what they tweet, but a Disney-owned property like Marvel is unlikely to smile upon one of its writers suggesting that half the marketplace should eat a boot covered in feces. If mundane opposition to GOP politicians were enough to end someone’s employment, Disney wouldn’t be able to staff its parks, let alone its movies. And as its handling of the conservative darling Gina Carano showed—she was fired by Disney too, from the Star Wars show The Mandalorian—the unwillingness of Disney brass to tolerate headaches on social media was a bipartisan phenomenon.
Dauber, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University who has written for Commentary, properly raises the highly problematic issues, on page and off, that have plagued the world of comic books and their creators. At one point, he asks, “Was the superhero business inherently toxic?” The real question his book raises is this: What part of comic-book history wasn’t inherently toxic? From whitewashing the early history of comic strips to the racism of the Comics Code Authority to the sexism of the underground comics to the toxic fandoms that congregated in comic-book shops and festered online, the world of comics has been dominated by unpleasantnesses and weirdnesses from the beginning.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.