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Review of American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s

By Derek Parker Royal

Jason Sacks. American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s. Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2014.

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In his introduction to American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s, the latest in TwoMorrows Publishing’s ambitious historical survey series, Jason Sacks begins with a personal reminiscence. He writes about riding his bike to the local drugstore to buy comics, playing with his Evel Knievel action figure, and talking with friends about the latest episode of SWAT. This brief biographical context is anything but self-indulgent, and, in fact, it sets a cultural (and emotional) tone that will resonate throughout the rest of the book. Readers around Sacks’s age — and I count myself among that group — will instantly connect with his references to 1970s comics and their surrounding culture, and younger readers will find a discerning historical compass to help them navigate through the decade. As with all the previously published American Comic Book Chronicles volumes, Sacks’s is a fascinating mixture of comic-book history, critical assessment, and pop-culture cataloging.

For those unfamiliar with the title, American Comic Book Chronicles is a multivolume, full-color, hardcover series providing a decade-by-decade overview of comics in the United States. Within each volume — and there have been five so far, one covering the 1950s, another for the 1980s, two for the 1960s, and the current installment — the chapters are arranged chronologically, each highlighting a particular year’s significant publications, discernible trends, creator news, notable comics events, and accompanying cultural/political happenings. Indeed, the latter may have nothing at all to do with comics culture, but such information provides necessary historical context. Each chapter begins with a colorful timeline for temporal orientation. For example, in the 1974 chapter of Sacks’s volume, readers can chronologically place the death of Bill Finger, the debut of The Six Million Dollar Man, the first issue of Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie, the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Nomad phase of Captain America, the premiere of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first publications of Martin Goodman’s Atlas/Seaboard line, and the end of DC Comics’ 100-Page Super Spectacular format. Such juxtapositions are more than mere curiosity or nostalgic chronicling. They construct a linear narrative that provides a cohesive and compelling story. The effects of Sacks’s historiography extend beyond the neat, encapsulating timelines that visually adorn each chapter. The author secures a variety of pop cultural anchors throughout his writing — citing films, television programs, media trends, political events, and international incidents — and the result is a thickening of context that demonstrates both the generative and the reactive (or reflective) roles of the medium. In comics scholarship, especially that of the literary variety, it is all too easy to overlook the popular and the mundane when finding purpose within a text. The American Comic Book Chronicles never lets the reader forget the broader cultural wellspring from which the stories spring.

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The structure of the 1970s volume is consistent with others in the series, each chapter starting off with a general overview of the year in question, especially as it relates to news and publications from the Big Two comics companies. Most of the ten chapters begin with a focus on Marvel Comics, such as 1972 and the introduction of Marvel’s horror line in the wake of a laxer Comics Code, 1973 and the death of Gwen Stacy, and 1977 with the inauguration of Star Wars comics. As the decade opens, though, and in the immediate aftermath of Kirby’s departure from Marvel, DC is primarily Sacks’s starting point. This is underscored by thorough discussions of the legendary Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil team up on Green Lantern in 1970 and the revamp of Superman (also by O’Neil) in 1971. At other times, however, Sacks starts off his annual coverage by focusing on Goodman’s Atlas Comics (in 1975) or the industry-wide celebration of America’s bicentennial in 1976. But for the most part, each chapter begins with coverage of Marvel and DC events and follows with discussions of output from smaller publishers such as Charlton, Archie, Harvey, Warren, Gold Key, and various underground releases. What is most notable about Sacks’s history, and what marks it as different from the previous American Comic Book Chronicles volumes, is the diminishing presence of smaller-press titles as the decade progresses, and this is reflected progressively in each of the chapter surveys. This trend anticipates the demise of Charlton, Gold Key, and Warren in the 1980s, and Harvey in the following decade. Indeed, and in contrast to what readers will find in the 1950s and 1960s volumes, Sacks’s emphasis on DC and Marvel demonstrates the major shift toward a more consolidated corporate-based publishing model that we see playing out today. This is not only apparent in the Big Two’s obvious ties to Warner Brothers and Disney, but also in the growing role that major trade publishers, such as Random House, have in the “alternative” market.

But as well-established titles and publishers wane over the course of the 1970s, the text highlights newer endeavors that come to the fore. Sacks gives significant page space to such phenomena as Spire Christian Comics, the rise of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and similar autobiographical comics, Charlton’s Modern Comics imprint, the beginnings of Dave Sim’s CerebusHeavy Metal magazine and its more explicit wannabe 1984, Will Eisner’s unusual (at the time) endeavor with A Contract with God, and “groundlevel comics” (Trina Robbins’s phrase) such as Fredrich’s Star*Reach, Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre, and Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest. In fact, Sacks’s overview comprises individual histories of various names defining the 1970s American comics scene. For example, readers will find discussions on Kirby’s ambitious (albeit truncated) Forth World; O’Neil and Adams’s attempts to “de-camp” Batman; Stan Lee’s efforts, with the help of Gil Kane and John Romita, to circumvent the Comics Code with drug references in issue #96 of The Amazing Spider-Man; Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s run on Swamp Thing; the rising (and falling) stars of Marvel’s younger bullpen, including Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, and Steve Gerber; and creative voices from the margins, as can be found in Jack Jackson’s Comanche Moon and Denis Kitchen’s attempts to make the underground more mainstream in Comix Book. Given the broad sweep of his history, Sacks provides a fairly even-handed coverage of the names, titles, and events that defined the decade. At times, though, readers may feel that the author should have lingered longer on a particular topic, or that his coverage is not consistent throughout.

An example of this may be found in Sacks’s treatment of fandom (which gets ample coverage in the 1960s American Comic Book Chronicles volumes) and the underground. In the first half of the 1970s volume, especially, Sacks devotes ample attention to fanzines, the nascent convention scene, and the maturity (and eventual demise) of the underground comix movement. The latter receives significant attention in terms of both its highs and lows, such as Denis Kitchen’s “undergrounding” of Eisner’s The Spirit, the legal drama surrounding Air Pirates Funnies, and the 1973 Supreme Court decision on obscenity that helped inaugurate the end of the movement. However, in the latter half of the book, Sacks spends almost no time on anything outside of the mainstream, instead focusing more on comics’ ties to mass media and licensed properties. Significantly enough, the last real discussion of underground comics appears in the 1975 chapter where Sacks briefly discusses the short-lived project from Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman, Arcade: The Comics Revue. Many view this title as the underground era’s last stand, an attempt to take comix out of the head shops with a more mature boutique format. The author implies, but never directly states, that Arcade‘s success may be defined more as transitional, anticipating Crumb’s Weirdo and Spiegelman’s own Raw, as well as helping make way for what would later be called “alternative comics,” all of which transpired the following decade.

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What punctuates the last half of American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s are the temporal-cultural markers that defined Sacks’s childhood and, by extension, went on to inform the critical sensibilities of today’s comics journalists and scholars. For example, readers can sense the economic volatility of the decade by noting the continued dominance of Marvel Comics, exemplified by Kirby’s return to the house and the debut of Howard the Duck and Giant-Size X-Men, juxtaposed to DC’s 1978 near-death implosion. Licensing and cross-media pollination take center stage in discussions of MicronautsROM, and the popular band, Kiss, making its “superhero” debut. Indeed, Sacks is at his best when highlighting the many inroads that comics made into TV and film — e.g., Super FriendsShazam!The Secrets of IsisWonder WomanThe Amazing Spider-ManThe Incredible HulkSuperman: The Movie, and the train wreck that was the two-part live-action 1979 special on NBC, Legends of the Superheroes — and vice versa in the form of Marvel’s Star WarsStar Trek, and Battlestar Galactica comics; Close Encounter of the Third Kind spoofs in MadCracked, and Crazy; DC and Marvel’s first-ever joint venture in the tabloid-sized The Wizard of Oz; and Heavy Metal‘s adaptations of Ridley Scott’s Alien and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. So while certain facets of American comics history, such as fan culture and the increasingly problematic nature of pricing and distribution, receive little attention in the final chapters of the book, Sacks brings other, and perhaps more culturally defining, aspects to the fore.

The potential dangers in a series such as the American Comic Book Chronicles are embedded within its very form: that the coverage of medium-defining events will be cursory, at best, and that the text will lapse into, even luxuriate in, a comfortable nostalgia at the expense of critical inquiry. But in this latest volume, Sacks is able to balance encyclopedic coverage with insightful analysis, curating the diverse pieces of 1970s American comics history into a coherent, readable narrative. While he may not deliver the kind of explication or thoroughness found in other scholarly tomes — for example, he is never able to devote more than a page to a particular title, and the book’s index appears halfhearted and lacks rigor — Sacks provides a detailed bird’s-eye view of a decade that, arguably, laid the cultural groundwork for current comics scholarship. As such, the American Comic Book Chronicles series is a valuable resource for fans and comics scholars alike, especially those with myopic critical tendencies who may privilege the “graphic novel” or more “literary” comics at the expense of mainstream appreciation or historical context. Indeed, one of the biggest takeaways from Jason Sacks’s work is the necessity of meticulously researched longitudinal awareness. Taken altogether, this is what the American Comic Book Chronicles promises to deliver once the entire project is completed. Over the next two or three years, TwoMorrows Publishing will continue rounding out the series with a volume devoted to the 1990s, one to the 1930s, and two that explore the tumultuous 1940s.

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