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Review of Gwen Athene Tarbox’s Children’s and Young Adult Comics

By Emily Hunsaker

Tarbox, Gwen Athene. Children’s and Young Adult Comics, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Gwen Athene Tarbox works toward two central goals in her 2020 text Children’s and Young Adult Comics. The first stems from the text’s position within the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series. As series editor Derek Parker Royal states in the preface, texts in the series aim to provide a counterweight against scholarly works that “assume a specialized audience with an often-rarefied rhetoric,” and instead provide “a more democratic approach to comics studies (x). In other words, these texts should both be “accessible to general readers” and rigorous enough to “resonate with specialists in the field” (x). To address these two audiences, authors of texts in this series must balance foundational information with novel insight. They must present new ideas that seasoned scholars would appreciate without alienating an audience new to their content. This is a bold aim for a single text, but one that Tarbox effectively executes.

Were Tarbox’s contribution to the series simply an overview of children’s literature layered with comics studies, it would function well as a primer to the two fields. However, it would fail to be useful to seasoned scholars. Although Tarbox clearly addresses these two fields, she moves beyond simply overviewing. Instead, she synthesizes the two, creating a text that a scholar of either field will find useful if they are not already exceptionally well versed in the intersections and influences between the genres. The scope of the project, however, still limits its depth. For instance, topics to which scholars might devote their entire careers span merely a few pages each, yet the breadth of information contained within the text generally counterbalances these limitations.

The second goal Tarbox presents in her introduction consists of aiming to bring children’s comics into the realm of children’s literature scholarship by “providing a revised history of children’s literature that moves comics from the periphery to the center of the discussion” (3). As she argues, this is a valuable contribution to children’s literature scholarship considering comics’ long history of youth readership. The perspective of this fundamental goal also indicates a limitation of Tarbox’s work; Tarbox approaches the intersection primarily from the perspective of children’s literature. Although her work contributes to comics scholarship, children’s literature is her focus. Within these parameters, Tarbox develops her project, effectively constructing an overarching narrative of comics’ contributions to the field of children’s literature, accessible both to established children’s literature scholars and readers just entering the fray. This is not to dismiss the text’s value to readers whose primary interest is comics scholarship. Although the text anticipates an audience primarily composed of children’s literature scholars, it provides context and content that will be of use to comics scholars who wish to expand their own field.

After establishing these goals and outlining the organization of the book in the Introduction, Tarbox shifts to providing historical context in the second chapter. This chapter recounts two historical narratives that will be familiar to many readers. First, Tarbox describes the history of children’s literature beginning with Johann Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus, a commonly cited early picture book. She then tells the parallel history of comics, diving in at “the first breakout success for a comics strip,” Richard Fenton Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley (21). Although neither of these texts is inarguably the first in either history, they are both key, well-known titles in their fields. Tarbox does not aim to pinpoint the precise start of either history—an endeavor that might easily overrun the text—but to provide a brief and functional overview for the unfamiliar reader. Her overviews of these histories span just over three pages each. Tarbox’s objective, then, is not to offer thorough histories of each medium, but rather to re-entwine those two histories which have often been told separately. This work is her most valuable contribution, especially to those who have extensive experience within the field(s). After the brief overviews of each history, Tarbox begins this re-entwining, exploring how the two mediums developed together and in response to each other. She untangles the shared production and publication histories of the two fields, addressing popular attitudes that contributed to their trajectories.  She cites specific publishers and the roles they played in the development of the publication landscape, whilst paying particular attention to the way in which adult ideological and educational interests shaped the market. Although the Introduction frames this narrative as one primarily of children’s literature, her narrative here does not grant children’s literature primacy. Instead, it rewrites both fields, emphasizing how neither can stand entirely free from the other.

Scholars of either field will also be delighted to find that Tarbox does not rely on canonical and familiar texts and authors. In this space between comics studies and children’s literature, Tarbox instead maintains a dedication to representation, diversity, and the expansion of the canons of both comics and children’s literature. Although she necessarily addresses a few popularly and critically acclaimed texts, from the Archie franchise to Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, respectively, she significantly dedicates considerably more space to lesser-known titles like Joel Christian Gill’s Tales of the Talented Tenth and Jerret J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction. When she does address more widely known texts, she does so with a focus on diversity. In her third chapter, “Social and Cultural Impact,” Tarbox explores some of the successes in youth comics diversification—such as increased attention to “authenticity and accuracy” in how popular Marvel comics address diverse representations of characters (52)—but also stresses the continued need for further diversity. She particularly addresses institutional systems affecting diversity in children’s and YA comics, stating, “The problem is structural, beginning with the publishing industry itself” (64). She goes on to unpack this structure, providing concrete examples of instances when publishers have helped or hindered inclusion and diversity. This investigation provides an often-overlooked element of literary analysis, prompting readers to not simply analyze texts in a vacuum, but also to interrogate their contexts.

To further help scholars in either field develop their own work, Tarbox’s fourth chapter, “Critical Uses,” provides an overview of the critical conversations surrounding children’s and young adult comics. Tarbox begins the chapter by synthesizing a variety of secondary sources from both fields. She first outlines relevant children’s literature scholarship, then moves into comics, identifying scholars who work at the intersection of the two fields and their interventions between the fields, crafting a critical narrative of those overlaps. She then integrates the works of a collection of key scholars, from Thierry Groensteen and Scott McCloud to Charles Hatfield and even Fredric Wertham, outlining a web of interventions fundamental to children’s comics scholarship.

The rest of the “Critical Uses” chapter will be of particular use to readers unfamiliar with comics scholarship as it provides much-needed explanations of concepts like closure and braiding. Tarbox makes a concerted and effective effort to describe braiding in particular—a concept that Thierry Groensteen describes in detail but rather opaquely. Tarbox uses clear prose to define the term, then follows this definition with a close reading of Barry Deutsch’s Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. In this close reading, Tarbox indicates not only what braiding is, but also what it does. She effectively outlines how braiding contributes to the story, leaving readers with a concrete understanding of why braiding matters and how they might draw upon the concept in their own work. Although this section will be of particular use to readers unfamiliar with comics scholarship and vocabulary, its uses will be limited for more seasoned scholars.

Although Tarbox draws upon a variety of primary texts to identify trends and explain concepts throughout the volume, primary texts are most densely packed in the “Key Texts” chapter. Tarbox chooses to organize these texts by genre, a choice which allows her to effectively explore trends within such groups. While this is an effective organizational choice for a broad overview like this text, the genre-titled subsections do raise questions about the choices Tarbox makes about what to include and, perhaps more importantly, what to omit. For instance, superhero comics are rarely mentioned outside of the “Historical Overview” section, and then are mostly referenced as a genre whose conventions further the discussion of non-superhero comics titles. Most notably, there is no “Superhero” subsection among the genres in the “Key Texts” chapter. Of course, space is severely limited in a constrained text. Tarbox chose only seven genre headings, so it might be unfair to point to any absence as a deficiency. However, in the development of children’s and YA comics, superhero comics have played a pivotal role. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear comics equated with the superhero genre. All too often, comics scholars distance their work from this association, focusing on graphic novels and other comics works that might appear more serious than the pulpy superhero volumes historically most read by children. This distancing is all too reminiscent of the fraught history of children’s literature scholarship wherein scholars refused to take children’s literature seriously because of its association with youth, fearing, perhaps, that their work would be viewed as less legitimate. Tarbox recounts this history of children’s literature, yet she, too, does not address superhero comics at length. Through this omission, Tarbox risks furthering the misconception that superhero comics are not worthy of serious scholarship. However, another Bloomsbury Comics Studies title, Christopher Gavaler’s Superhero Comics, tackles the superhero genre exclusively, perhaps filling the niche. More scholars are also embracing the superhero genre, further limiting the potential negative impact of this omission. By limiting her discussion of superhero comics, Tarbox also gains valuable space in which she platforms less well-known authors. Considering Gavaler’s volume and the growing body of superhero scholarship, the way Tarbox chooses to use this space might be more valuable than contributing further to the discussion of superhero comics.  

According to Royal’s preface, texts in the series aim “to satisfy the needs of novices and experts alike, in addition to the many fans and aficionados upon whom the [comics’] popularly rests” (x). This aim leads to limitations. Superhero comics do not occupy significant space in the text, despite their significant role in children’s comics’ history, and other areas are also severely lacking. Manga, for instance, takes up a bare four pages in the Case Studies section, although it is a large enough topic to form its own field of study. These absences and abbreviations are a necessary side effect of the broad scope of the work. They certainly limit the text’s impact, but brevity allows Tarbox to cover an immense breadth of information in such a short text. In fact, not only does Tarbox effectively craft a text useful for an audience of both comics “fans and aficionados” as Royal claims, but also for those of children’s literature. The “Historical Overview” does not simply recount the history of both fields, but also re-entwines them. For this reason, even readers who are well versed in each history independent of the other will find useful content in this chapter. “Structural and Cultural Impact” provides a useful framework to consider how institutional structures impact the texts that get published and promoted. “Critical Uses” functions well as a primer to key scholars’ contributions, but it also collects these ideas into a succinct section and will therefore serve well as a reference text even for well-read scholars. Finally, the “Key Texts” section, even with its limitations, outlines important trends, providing concrete examples in a broad collection of texts. This presentation is ideal for readers wondering where to start, but it also synthesizes these texts in ways that will inform even seasoned scholars. The broad scope of the intended audience does impact the depth of content that Tarbox can address, somewhat limiting the text’s use to scholars deeply ingrained in the comics field, yet she still manages to balance historical overview and concept definitions with close readings and original arguments. This balance is the text’s greatest strength. It allows readers of all levels of familiarity to come away having learned something.

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