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From the Margins of the Margin: Seeing Educational Comics

By Joseph Witek

This prodigious bibliography of educational and non-fictional comics compiled by pioneering comics researcher Sol Davidson supplies scholars with the first detailed and methodically organized description of a significant but largely unexamined region within the vast terrain of comics. Reliable tools for finding and identifying obscure or unusual comics are always welcome, but here Davidson provides much more than that; this bibliography constitutes an indispensable map for the exploration of some important questions about comics history that until now could hardly have been articulated let alone answered.

For example, the conventional narrative of how comics have shifted from the margins of popular culture to become an accepted contemporary art form has long contained an apparent paradox: many of the seminal figures in that story of growing artistic ambition are also closely connected to the story of educational and non-fictional comics, perhaps the most marginalized and culturally invisible comics category of all. The very inventor of the comic-book pamphlet format, Max C. Gaines, nearly went broke trying to sell educational comic books to school systems, and after his sudden death his son and successor, William Gaines, morphed his father’s failing “Educational Comics” into the celebrated and notorious “Entertaining Comics.” Yet the publisher of some of the most outrageous horror and crime comics of the 1950s simultaneously produced historical and non-fiction comics that set the highest standards for research and meticulous craftsmanship. The very man responsible for those comics, Harvey Kurtzman, was also one of the earliest advocates of comics as an art form; as the creator of the satiric Mad he first inspired and then as editor of his post-EC humor magazines he directly mentored many of the cartoonists who would contribute to the underground comix movement. That movement produced notable non-fiction and didactic comics by many artists, most famously Art Spiegelman, whose celebrated Maus helped to create the cultural climate which made possible the contemporary work of Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, and many others. Kurtzman himself had been inspired by the work of Will Eisner, perhaps the earliest spokesman for comics as a legitimate art form and the first cartoonist to thoroughly analyze the formal properties of comics storytelling. Yet Eisner devoted what is chronologically the majority of his professional career to the business of creating technical manuals in comic book form and various other instructional materials for the US government and other industrial clients; his masterpiece The Spirit most likely had fewer readers in its day than did his comics showing soldiers how to maintain military equipment in the field. Any endeavor to see such connections between non-fiction comics and the form’s most ambitious figures as something other than a mere series of coincidences can only begin with the primary texts in this bibliography.

If the standard histories of comics and analyses of comics genres have had relatively little to say about the kinds of comics listed here, some of that neglect has been unavoidable. Many of these examples are exceedingly rare, and collectors like Sol Davidson to preserve and document them are even rarer. Some were produced in very small numbers to be marketed to specific groups, and many titles enjoyed only limited distribution. Even those much more widely available comics were often a low priority for preservation among their target audience; I myself thought nothing of tossing out my copies of Treasure Chest to make room for Spider-Man or Tales to Astonish. Furthermore, though such individual titles as True Comics and the Classics Illustrated series are easy to see as noteworthy in themselves, they have rarely been considered as part of a larger whole. As Sol Davidson describes, the boundaries of that “larger whole” can be porous at best and at times simply impossible to locate. Though their disparate provenance as to purpose and intended audience can be nearly bewildering, the comics in this bibliography take seriously the classical conception of the purpose of art: to delight and instruct simultaneously. Those comics most fully committed to a didactic project are relatively easy to identify; those which lean toward capturing the imagination of their readers shade by degrees into just about everything else. Scholars have now been given the opportunity to test the viability and to refine the boundaries of the categories Davidson has drawn, and because even the rarest of texts now can become available in digital form, the plausible rationales for ignoring these comics are fast fading away. Sol Davidson’s bibliography reveals the contours of a previously little-known area of comics and shows that it contains a great many things worth knowing.

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