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Review of Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation

By Jeremiah Massengale

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Since the earliest days of the medium, comic books have provided an engaging platform from which to study the shifts in American culture. Since Superman’s earliest Depression-era battles against corrupt businessmen and crooked politicians, comics have often reflected historic events, prevailing attitudes, and contemporary social problems. More often than not, comics scholarship has dealt with the art form’s aesthetic conventions. Few scholarly books about comics have paid significant attention to historical context in regards to the interaction between politics, social change, and comic books. However, in a heroic single bound, Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation provides a much-needed comprehensive historical perspective that is serious enough and yet entertaining enough to further legitimatize the study of the medium. In his fascinating text, by meticulously researching how the pressing events in American history influenced comics’ storylines, Wright gives comics the scholarly attention they deserve as vital cultural artifacts.

In his introduction, Wright admits that while comic books are frequently dismissed as trivial entertainment, since they are often a generational experience, comics have helped shape a worldview for millions of readers, which should not be ignored. As he admits early on in Comic Book Nation, the work is heavily influenced by William W. Savage Jr.’s Comic Books and America, 1945-1954, which was especially interested in comic books as a cultural representation. Using comics as a primary source, Wright takes a narrative approach that looks at the interplay between politics, social change, and popular culture as depicted in mainstream comic pages. Wright explores and thoroughly documents the themes and values presented in the narrative content of prevalent titles without being too concerned with graphic qualities. With its expansive scope, readers will find that while Wright emphasizes DC and Marvel storylines when most appropriate, he often looks beyond the “big two” major comic publishers to include analysis of the cultural influences in books by often-forgotten publishers like Charlton Publications, Dell Publications, EC Comics, Fawcett Publications, Fiction House, and Lev Gleason Publications. While Wright documents the widespread popularity of the medium across demographics, he also attempts to pay special attention to the perceptible effects of the industry on its primary audience, young people. His history continually highlights the controversy spawned by the medium by quoting articles from as early as 1940 that branded comics a national disgrace.

Wright acknowledges the intellectual pitfalls in analyzing stories often considered the lowest of low culture too closely. Still, the author does a wonderful job in taking the medium and its influence seriously. He focuses on discussing meanings either clearly intended by creators or suggestive enough to be apparent to audiences. Notable examples include Captain America’s one-man war against the Nazis, vicious caricatures of the Japanese in the years following the bombing at Pearl Harbor, 1950s romance comics’ affirmation of the virtues of domesticity, EC’s use of science fiction to attack racial prejudice, and Marvel heroes’ agreements with protestors and liberal ideas. It might disappoint some comics scholars to learn that he makes relatively few assumptions about how comics directly influenced culture.

Organized chronologically, the book is divided into nine chapters, plus an epilogue and a postscript. Most chapters cover at least half-a-decade and concentrate on a handful of prevalent themes that were reoccurring in printed colorful panels during the specified time period. The comic book superhero titles do make up the bulk of his study, but Wright additionally documents overarching cultural messages that appeared in once popular genres like crime, jungle, romance, and horror comics. The overwhelming majority of Comic Book Nation covers the industry prior to the 1960s, with six of the nine chapters covering the era that predates highly influential Marvel icons like Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.

Chapter 1 covers the birth of the industry with special attention paid to how countless comics followed the Superman formula for success. There is an interesting critique about how the era’s heroes underscored key assumptions of the New Deal by battling against villains that personified corporate greed. Chapter 2 describes how during World War II, heroes like Captain America made political statements by joining the war effort long before the American national government. Chapter 3, “Confronting Success,” jumbles together an array of topics like the imperialist nature of jungle comics, the affirmation of suburban values in teen-humor books like Archie, the deconstruction of the American dream found in perverse late-1940s crime comics, and the anxieties about the atomic age seen in titles like Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Adventures. Chapter 4 looks less at cultural representation in comics and more about how an increasing number of observers branded comics a menace to youth culture.

Chapter 5, “Reds, Romance, and Renegades,” covers how 1950s-era comics became caught up in a complicated, politically charged Cold War culture and reaffirmed traditional gender roles. It is also in this chapter that Wright provides an effective analysis of William Gaines’ EC Comics, which irreverently tackled taboo topics with blunt social commentary about racial segregation, mob violence, bigotry, and the danger of ignorance. With fervent exposition and the corresponding inclusion of relatively more images of panels and covers, Wright gives those unfamiliar with EC titles time to appreciate the visual quality of the controversial work and gain a greater understanding of the extraordinarily subversive messages.

Chapter 6 continues its discussion of Gaines’s influence while focusing on Dr. Frederick Wertham’s much publicized indictment of the comic book industry and the subsequent Senate hearings about comics in 1954. Through exhaustive research, Wright includes numerous excerpts from Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, exchanges from the Senate hearings, and quotations from journals, newspapers, and articles that weighed in on Wertham’s belief that comic books caused juvenile delinquency.

Chapters 7 and 8 collectively attempt to cover a span of 23 years (1956-1979). Wright primarily focuses on the ability of Marvel Comics to be culturally relevant during the era’s sociocultural upheavals because Marvel’s heroes were persecuted, flawed, searching for meaning, and otherwise especially “human,” just like their readers. While there are many examples of panels included to support Wright’s commentary, like Peter Parker’s discussions with student protestors or Iron Man’s forthright questioning of the Vietnam War, these chapters are lacking in complexity. For example, the discussion about the integration of minority characters or independent women in comics during the 1960s and 1970s is a mere four pages.

Chapter 9, “Direct to the Fans,” analyzes the industry’s move to direct market distribution and the deconstruction of superheroes in dark graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Wright also mentions the popularity of books starring brooding, ruthless vigilantes. The epilogue uses 1992’s “Death of Superman” storyline as a metaphor for the overall decline of comic readership.

A postscript is included to explore the ramifications of a storyline featuring Spider-Man at Ground Zero and to consider the relevance of the comic book medium to adolescent readers in the new millennium. In both the epilogue and postscript Wright asks several good questions about the challenges facing the industry today, but his own perspective is unfortunately brief.

With Comic Book Nation, Wright deserves credit for tackling the breadth of comics history, so it is understandable there is a lack of analytical complexity at times. It should be said that the second half of the book is not as thorough or in-depth as the first. In an appendix, Wright does include a lengthy, although now-dated, suggested reading list of books that have provided analyses of comics but this does not remedy the depth problem.

For a book published in 2001, Comic Book Nation covers hardly anything about the messages present in comics during the 1990s, when the speculator’s market led to a significant boom in sales. By doing so, it does nothing to dispel the thought in academic circles that nothing significant in the medium has happened in the past 25 years, since iconic works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were published. A significant flaw in ignoring this era of comic book history is the absence of Image Comics, whose success with creator-owned titles was a tremendous step-forward for the industry in terms of artists’ rights. Popular Image Comics titles like Spawn and Savage Dragon were intense, brash, violent comics drawn by superstar artists who pushed the envelope and featured both men and women with exceptionally over-exaggerated physiques. There are other unexpected omissions in the text, with influential, award-winning publications like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and the works from popular publisher Dark Horse Comics entirely excluded from Wright’s history. There is also surprisingly little discussion about how the backlash against the speculator’s market almost destroyed the entire industry. Yet, despite these few objections, this text thoroughly chronicles a captivating overview of the medium’s history.

Wright’s writing carries the book with its authoritative yet entertaining, conversational style. The few textbooks that attempt to cover a brief history of comics are either too rigid for casual readers or too informal for academics to take the subject matter seriously. Comic Book Nation is likely to hold the interest of academic and general audiences alike. Comic Book Nation should provide those new to studying comics with a proper historical understanding of a complex medium, while there will understandably be some familiar material for readers more acquainted with the industry’s past. Scholars who possess an understanding of comic book history can still find plenty of trenchant, carefully analyzed material in this illuminating study. Since he tackles the whole of comics history, there is an overall lack of visual examples of panels to accompany Wright’s evaluations but the direct, intelligent analysis is consistently engaging and well written.

The material is meticulously researched and well documented. I could only imagine the amount of time-consuming, intense research Wright must have gone through to uncover and clearly cite the material in this volume. Outside of comics there are numerous valuable examples of dated comic book criticism found in archived magazine articles, newspaper editorials, and academic journals. For almost each comic referenced, the footnotes include the title of each feature, the title of the comic book from which it appears, the series number, the publisher, and the issue’s publication date. Hundreds of footnotes are included, as well as a convenient, exhaustive index. If anything, because readers are exposed to a plethora of new information that is so well-cited, they are likely to admire the amount of hard-to-find archived comics Wright obtained and critiqued.

By creating such a comprehensive volume, Wright’s efforts should provoke a further interest in serious cultural criticism of the medium. Readers can easily find in the book a starting point for their own studies. It paves the way for more exhaustive study of comics during specific historical periods and especially during his relatively untapped analysis of the cultural representation in comics during the 1990s and beyond. There are plenty of questions that remain concerning cultivation effects and the agenda-setting nature of the comic book narratives Wright summarizes.

Wright begins and ends his study acknowledging his love for the comic book industry, insisting that his work has been enjoyable, and his enthusiasm for the material both as a fan and a researcher is clear. The balanced, entertaining presentation makes the book easy to embrace. While it has its faults, especially the condensed nature of its analysis of the past few decades of comics, it is a benchmark text for comics scholarship, with its trustworthy summary of comic narratives as significant representations of history and culture. Scholars new to the field of comic analysis will particularly find Comic Book Nation to be a crucial and insightful single-volume study. Wright has accomplished a heroic feat with Comic Book Nation by creating the most comprehensive account of the comic book industry.

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