Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Power of Comics - Book Review

Let's immediately address the first and most important thing about Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith's The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture (Continuum). Comic Book Guy does make an appearance. Can you imagine a book about comic culture that somehow doesn't include a reference to that beloved Simpsons stand-in for every socially inept, minutia-memorizing, annoyingly ultra-geek collector? Certainly, Duncan and Smith understand the irony of their book, and I'm delighted, both with their insight and with their creation - perhaps a bit too much.

While I hope never to be confused with Comic Book Guy, I share some vague similarities with the character (see Full Disclosure below this review). As a kid, I devoured the Marvel Bullpen Bulletin almost as religiously as I read my favorite titles, I bought my first Overstreet Guide before I hit puberty, and I still panic at the thought of dinging the corner of a comic. No cheap, ephemeral stuff, this topic; it's serious fun. Thus for reasons owing more to personal passion than academic duty, I opened this new textbook with gleeful anticipation. So, can I recommend the book? Let me answer that question with another question: Was Captain Marvel nicknamed The Big Red Cheese?

Of course!

And of course this book is worth a purchase. I recommend The Power of Comics as an ambitious piece of scholarship that will please the most discriminating fan while still reaching a larger audience that dwarfs the imaginary universe of pop culture students and comic book geeks. With accessible language and an eye for vivid detail, Duncan and Smith demonstrate an encyclopedic understanding of sophisticated theory, key figures, and fascinating history.

Their book stretches from an era of invention (preceding the Yellow Kid as the medium's oft-cited starting point) through an era the authors label "retrenchment," epitomized by the creation of the Comics Code Authority (a response to overzealous government watchdogs and their efforts to police public morals), to contemporary times in which auteurs simultaneously reconstruct and deconstruct the mythical origins of the medium. Even if your interest in comics expands no further than Tobey Maguire's Hollywood turn as Peter Parker, you'll be amazed by the material covered in this book.

Much of the pleasure contained in The Power of Comics lies in the authors' gathering of a rich and impressive range of images to depict their history, examples, and arguments. Yes, they wrangled with United Features Syndicate to include a Peanuts strip (one that manages to be both illustrative and perfectly chosen, given the book's topic). But they also dug up an 1837 strip by Rodolphe Töpffer whose contributions to comic history were heretofore unknown to me. All told, the book contains some 150 illustrations. I can only imagine the fearsome task of navigating the shoals of permissions necessary to pull this project together. But since the authors managed to get no less an industry luminary than Paul Levitz (President and Publisher of DC Comics) to pen their introduction, they clearly have the pull to do the job. From illustrations to interviews, they get this book right.

Reading The Power of Comics, you'll learn much about the comic industry and how this complex world influences our lives. Duncan and Smith's theoretical and practical expertise ensures that their book delves deeply into the production and distribution sides of the medium. One example? Their choice to feature Chuck Rozanski: a name likely to be unknown to most readers of this book, but whose impact on collectors is hard to overstate. Indeed, I remember my first glimpse of Rozanski's Mile High Comics advertisements during my teen years, the sense those ads provided that my little collection might be worth something one day. Just knowing that Mile High would sell me an ancient 10-cent back-issue, no matter where in the country I lived, inspired my identity with something larger than my own small group of local pals who cared about these silly pieces of pulp. I was part of a comics community!

And yes, I'm one of those sad cases who bought multiple issues of Wolverine #1 at a premium cost (from a much more astute collector) when I was a young adult, speculating that my brilliance (purchasing five of nearly a million produced) would reap rapid profits. I remember laying five ten dollar bills on a table at the seller's porch and gingerly acquiring my copies. He wasn't there, but he trusted me to leave the cash. And why not? I was crazy enough to buy five comics for fifty bucks, right? I had to chuckle when I found that the authors of The Power of Comics know this part of the industry as well. Such is the pleasure of reading this book, seeing how the little pieces add up to a whopping story of American popular culture. Now I can't look at the cover of Duncan and Smith's volume without remembering their story of Robert Crumb and his wife Dana selling issues of Zap Comix while strolling the streets of San Francisco, distributing their art from a baby carriage.

The book evokes nostalgia but still works to teach students in a practical way. Along with vocabulary-keywords, discussion questions, and personal profiles, The Power of Comics boasts an impressive collection of activities that challenge readers to engage comic culture outside of the classroom. It's one thing to recommend that a student analyze the historical power of the Big Two publishers in the abstract. It's another thing altogether to ask the reader, as this book does, to study the layout and shelf space of her/his neighborhood funny book shop, to see how big publishers shape the comic landscape. I can imagine a new generation of undergraduate comics-scholars reading this book and applying classroom principles to places, people, and texts that once seemed beneath academic notice. Thanks to the remarkable scholarship shaped by Duncan and Smith, such intellectual provincialism can hardly endure.

The Power of Comics shines most brightly with its chapters, "Creating the Story" and "Experiencing the Story." Paying due respect to predecessors in the theory of encoding and decoding comics -- Will Eisner and Scott McCloud come most obviously to mind, and both are well respected in this book -- Duncan and Smith craft a two-chapter master class in semiotics that alone merits the purchase price. Concepts like encapsulation, hermeneutics, and intertextuality will test the patience of some readers, but these terms provide indispensable tools for analyzing how comics work at the level of perception, cognition, and interpretation.

A later chapter, "Comic Books and Ideology," ably extends from this foundation to explore how comics reflect contemporary struggles regarding foreign policy, gender, or race, and can even push readers to reconsider dominant ideologies in manners more profound than those found in other media. Reading The Power of Comics, I look back on my own encounters with post-King/semi-blacksploitation characters like "Luke Cage" with new appreciation. I think you too will see comics with more depth and pleasure after reading this book.

Duncan and Smith have provided any college instructor seeking to teach a course on comic culture an essential book (one that even includes a succinct chapter on research methods). The authors have also created a selection of primary and secondary sources that enable the construction of a class that reveals the history, pleasures, and implications of this medium. While their book mostly focuses on the U.S., it is augmented by a fine concluding chapter on various comic cultures worldwide. Altogether, it's an impressive package.

Have no illusions: this is a textbook, not a coffee table book. Reading this text takes some work. Still, anyone who wishes to be a student of the medium, even a reader without access to a college classroom, can start with this book (and its swell ancillary website, powerofcomics.com) and learn from two passionate instructors. If you know that comics mean so much more than funny animals and men in tights, you know what to do. Add The Power of Comics to your reading list. Comic Book Guy would have it no other way.

Amazon Link: The Power of Comics

Full Disclosure: I co-authored two books with one of The Power of Comics' co-authors, Matthew J. Smith. However, I observed the process that led to this book from afar. I would have cheerfully employed Comic Book Guy's "Worst [fill in the blank] Ever!" epithet if Duncan and Smith had done a poor job. Happily, such a review could hardly be imagined after reading this pre-release version.

Note: The image above is from Matt Groening, © Fox and its related entities. The "cartoon text" associated with the image is, of course, not meant to imply any endorsement from Groening or Fox.

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