Mazur, Dan and Alexander Danner. Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present. Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2014.
Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner’s survey of graphic narrative/sequential art, Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, is an encyclopedic work that offers readers a broad survey of comics (a term that the authors use to refer collectively to “bande dessinée, manga, fumetti, tebeos, historietas, and komiks“) since 1968. Mazur and Danner divide that longer period into three shorter eras: “1968-78,” “1978-90,” and then “1990 Onward” to serve as sections for the book. The historical coverage includes nearly 300 high-quality illustrations, in color and in black and white, to exemplify a diverse catalog of authors and artists.
As Mazur and Danner make clear in their preface, however, the “global” aspect of their study does not truly reflect an all-encompassing and international approach to the history of comics. Rather, the authors note that, “While comics developed to a large degree independently in cultures separated by oceans and language barriers, there have always been cross-cultural and transnational influences,” but that three centers—North America, Japan, and Western Europe—dominate the textual discussion (7). This does make sense, as the authors are focusing on post-World War II comics, and those three focal points did dominate the political and the cultural conversations on an international scale. However, this approach also lends an aspect of colonialism to works that developed outside of this nationalistic triangle, suggesting that those comics were only a postcolonial response to dominant forces.
In the preface, the authors identify 1968 as a “watershed” year, when they claim that creators were appearing in all three of those centers whose work demonstrated that comics were not just for children. Mazur and Danner note in particular the publication of Robert Crumb’s Zap as almost the theological point of ex nihilo for modern comics. The preface also lays out the authors’ admittedly “imprecise” categorization of mainstream and underground comics, which the authors claim corresponds with the general move from “comics-as-products” that are targeted to the broadest audiences possible to comics as artistic expressions. This is, perhaps, a bit elitist, but Mazur and Danner do follow through with their intent; this necessitates reading the volume in tandem with other histories of comics that do focus on the superhero genre.
Part One covers the years 1968-1978, and the fact that the very first chapter addresses “The Undergrounds and After,” reiterates the authors’ overall orientation, where mainstream American comics—the aboveground industry survivors of the 1954 Comics Code—receive often cursory coverage throughout the text. Rather, the authors focus on underground/alternative comics, adult comics in Western Europe, and on manga. When Mazur and Danner do examine mainstream comics, as in the following two chapters, “American Mainstream Comics” and “American Mainstream Comics: A New Generation,” they often take the perspective that “mainstream” comics had come to rely on “Kirby’s successful formula,” and so the comic style became simplified and “homogeneous” (45). As a result, there is much less consideration of the superhero comic book industry of the 1970s, than of artists who worked to introduce what the authors consider to be more complex characters and mature themes, to break the superhero mold with more artistic craft, and to adjust both comic formats and themes into a “higher-status artistic tradition” (54). This strikes me as reactionary to both the Comics Code and to a house style of artwork, which stifled individual creativity. The authors note the resulting movement away from the superhero to science fiction and horror in the underground traditions, and even to the anti-hero, accomplished in “an expressionistic, noir style, full of patterned shadows and exaggerated angles, and populated with gnarled, ugly characters” (57).
That quote is typical of many that appear throughout the text, which come across as isolated sound bites of artistic/literary criticism, rather than in-depth visual analysis of individual panels or pages. Comics criticism has grown increasingly sophisticated, with excellent examples of “close reading” image and text together, but too often in Comics: A Global History, the image that supports a claim in the text is not placed in proximity to that claim—and sometimes, the authors provide no image at all to substantiate their analysis.
In Chapter 4, “Mainstream Manga,” and Chapter 5, “Garo and Alternative Manga,” the authors lay out the state of manga in the 1960s, and how improvement in the Japanese economy contributed to the great diversification in the types of manga being printed, as well as to the increased frequency of publication. According to Mazur and Danner, “action and dramatic genres became darker and more violent, the page layouts more extravagantly dynamic” (63). The authors also spend some discussion on the importance of Garo magazine, which was founded in 1964 as an “alternative” manga journal. Chapter 6, “Tezuka,” is the only chapter dedicated solely to one author, Osamu Tesuka, whom the authors refer to as the “most influential manga creator of the postwar period” (89), particularly as he experimented with panel shapes and page layouts, including “full-page vertical and narrow horizontal panels that divide the page into narrow slices, diagonal panels that cascade down the page. . . as well as open, borderless panels” (91).
In Chapter 7, “L’Age Adulte in Bande Dessinée and Other European Comics,” and Chapter 8, “The New European Publishing,” Mazur and Danner work to identify important venues for comics authors/artists, such as the popular comics magazine Pilote printed in France, and Linus, an important Italian comics journal that published fumetti d’autore. And with this chapter, the authors commence their strong focus on a few particular publishing houses that issued such comics anthologies/magazines, such as Pilote, and later À Suivre, Métal Hurlant, and RAW. Mazur and Danner place such importance on these publications as seminal works, that their appearance on the comics scene becomes the cutting edge with which the authors mark new eras in comics creation.
For example, following Chapter 8, Part Two covers the years from 1978 to 1990, and Mazur and Danner mark the entry into this period with the appearance of the comics magazine À Suivre, which appeared in February 1978. For the authors, À Suivre, and other similar publications ushered in a new era of comics; one in which authors/artists expanded “their storytelling to novelistic scope” with a move “toward more structured storytelling,” and “experimented with striking new approaches to visual narrative” (131, 132). Many of these publications were short-lived, and I am somewhat skeptical about the nature of their artistic and thematic influence, but one great feature of this volume is that it offers suggestions about further research and investigation. I will definitely be examining comics magazines/anthologies more.
In Chapter 9, “À Suivre and the Wild Invasion,” and in Chapter 10, “New Trends in Italian and Spanish Comics,” the authors note an increasing legitimization of comics during this period in France, Italy, and Spain, along with an increasing political influences as well. In Spain and Italy, the effect of Marxist “cultural arbiters” becomes apparent in the Spanish historieta and Italian fumetti, published in the late 1970s and 1980s (155). Again, the authors dispense with a few more sound bites of criticism here when they note that “members of the Cannibale/Frigidaire collective were generally more formalist, in tune with the postmodern cynicism and ironic eclecticism of the times”, and that “comics was a unique space in which techniques that were no longer cutting edge in fine art could renew their power by allying with a sequential narrative form” (156, 161). However, again, there is not effective use of illustrations together with commentary to demonstrate how artistic styles were more formalist or cutting edge.
Chapter 11, “Mainstream Rebels in the U.S. and U.K.” focuses on the decade of 1980s. According to the authors, during this period the British science-fiction comics anthologies, such as 2000 AD, Judge Dredd, and The Ballad of Halo Jones, were major influences on styles and themes in American comics. While the authors do not identify clearly what those styles and themes are, they do observe that what is perhaps most important about these anthologies is that they saw the early works of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, whose enormous and fantastical created worlds have certain been influential. The authors point to other important developments during this period, including the Marvel reboot of the X-Men series in 1975, which favored longer story arcs about the “outsiders” who were more human than previously depicted, and the DC storyline, Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-6), which strove to reconcile the many contradictory DC storylines into “one consistent history” (173).
Other important developments in this period that the authors discuss include the evolution of superhero characters into much darker directions, such as Frank Miller’s depiction of Daredevil as a “humanized superhero capable of failure, self-doubt and moral weakness” (174). Miller also portrays Batman as more “brooding and righteously militant” in The Dark Knight Returns (1986) (174). Daredevil, Batman, Wolverine, and the Punisher all reveal the influence of newly available manga, with its higher level of brutalism, according to the authors. However, the authors move rather quickly away from American mainstream to what they refer to as the “first wave” of the British invasion—the appearance of works by Alan Moore, including Swamp Thing (1984) and Watchmen (1986-7). Only now, assert Mazur and Danner, “for the first time, the writing itself was seen as the driving force in comics storytelling, with an emphasis not just on plot, but on cohesive theme,” suggesting that only a non-American could demonstrate “that the genre was capable of unexpected complexity” (175, 176). This to me definitely does not take into consideration the rich heritage of thematic and character tropes found in American westerns and criminal noir films. I would have liked to see a deeper discussion of how the work of these British creators changed when they encountered epic, mythological American narratives and images.
In Chapter 12, “The Dawn of the Graphic Novel, the RAW Generation and Punk Comix,” the authors observe the “successful novelistic incarnation of the comics medium” that occurred at the end of the 1970s and attribute the success of the graphic novel format to Will Eisner, in particular his book, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, from 1978 (181). With Eisner’s accomplishments, the authors see some alternative comics becoming more mainstream and sophisticated, while others turned more to the styles and themes of underground comics to create a “Newave [sic] mini comic movement,” which specialized in “undersized, informally produced and distributed comics” (182, 193-4).
In addition, the authors take note of what they call the “punk comics movement,” which they find is best represented by the comics anthology magazine RAW, originally edited and published by Art Spiegelman and FranÃ§oise Mouly. RAW was developed as a magazine anthology that would be printed in a smaller size, to suggest a publication more like a literary magazine, but as the authors write, the work was often “purposefully ugly, non-linear and difficult to read” (184). While RAW specialized in widely diverse styles and encouraged more alternative artists to become involved and contribute to comics, other anthologies, such as Robert Crumb’s Weirdo, addressed political and social issues.
Mazur and Danner examine the aging character of the manga audience—”youth grew into responsible working adults”—and how that change in readership elicited “The Growth of Realism in Manga,” as laid out in Chapter 13 (199). A new genre of joho or “information” manga emerged and was heavily employed by businesses, which issued manga that included business news and even financial broadsheets. This genre of “wrapping useful factual information within an entertaining frame story,” evolved to cover topics on health and medicine, sports, and even culinary competitions that mirror television’s Iron Chef.
Typically, the characters in a joho‘s framing narrative are depicted quite simplistically—the remarkable artistic details are found in the procedures being described and explained. For example, in Oishinbo (The Gourmet), creators Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki draw the characters in a “minimalist cartoon style,” while “the fish being prepared as nigiri is rendered in far greater detail” (200). The authors note the influence of European postmodern ligne Claire revival on manga at this time, but also contrast that style with the heta-uma or “bad-good” manga style that is “purposely de-skilled drawing, combined with vulgar or infantile content,” utilized to depict the “crudest and most offensive imagery” (208).
Part Three, “1990 Onward,” like the previous two sections, moves from a brief consideration of American mainstream comics after 1990 to alternative comics in the U.S., to European comics, “respectable” manga (manga that did not feature so much of the “bad-good” treatment of sex and violence content, up to web comics. Chapter 14, “American Mainstream Comics in the 1990s” observes that the year 1986 “profoundly transformed” superhero comics and that comics in the United States now ran completely without the Comics Code. The year 1993 saw the formation of Vertigo, an imprint under DC Comics, which featured much more horror and fantasy without the threat of censorship. Mazur and Danner then recognize the “second British wave” that arrived through the work of Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Mark Millar. These writers and artists, in the authors’ opinion, “reinvented the superhero genre” through such works as The Sandman, Preacher, Saviour, and Kick-Ass.
Moving on from mainstream American comics, in Chapter 15, the authors examine the “self-publishing phenomenon” that supported the growth of American alternative comics in the 1990s. Mazur and Danner look at Dave Sim, who drew the figures for his fantasy epic Cerebus (1977-2004), as he collaborated with Gerhard who drew the detailed backgrounds and designed complex layouts for the series. Cerberus, which Sim and Gerhard had planned to run for exactly 300 issues, included some issues that consisted of long text pieces. Other alternative, post-underground comics flourished in the 1990s, especially after some notable alternative comics publishers appeared, including Fantagraphics in Seattle and Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal.
The authors observe the increasing number of graphic autobiographies and memoirs, as well as the development of comics journalism, such as that by author Joe Sacco. This chapter concludes with the following observation about the prevalent tone in alternative American comics:
“What made sadness and depression such a powerful gravitational force for this group of talented artists? It was for the most part a tone peculiar of North American comics, which lagged behind Europe and Asia in cultural acceptance, the medium still weighed down with half a century of marginalization of childish fluff” (238-9).
This quote seems, in my reading, to sum up the authors’ general attitude toward mainstream American comics, which is tellingly revealed throughout the text. Mazur and Danner are possibly blind enough that they perpetuate the idea of comics in general as “unworthy.” Christopher Pizzino’s new book, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature (2017), addresses this attitude in greater depth, as he investigates how our acceptance of certain cultural statuses create deep divisions in what is considered to be “important” art or literature, and how comics creators still labor under the attitude that comics are merely for children.
As described in Chapter 16, “European Comics in the 1990s,” many of the smaller houses that printed bandes dessinées went out of business, due in part to a “bubble-driven glut” of comics magazines, or were consolidated into just a few publishers, who tended to emphasize more profitable “popular series and commercial genres” (162, 247). But even with limited venues for distribution, the authors observe some new movements in comics in the German-speaking countries and in Spain. There had not been much of a tradition of comics in twentieth-century Germany and Switzerland, as the authors state. That made way for fresh, new creators who were greatly influenced by underground comics and by German Expressionism. For example, the journal Strapazin, which was founded in Munich in 1984, started by translating western European and American underground comics into German. Mazur and Danner claim that such new journals were more inspired by RAW, with its “focus on visual expression over prose or linear narrative” (248).
Chapter 17, “The Quest for ‘Respectable’ Manga,” reviews the growing concern in Japan about “harmful” manga that depicted graphic sexual content and violence. This concern led government officials to call for editors to play a stronger role in proposing story lines, doing research, and hiring artists. This shift in responsibilities from writer and artist to editor accounts for the rise of the “magical girl” genre of manga, according to the authors. To further signal the end of more creative styles and formats, the magazine Garo, which had published alternative manga, closed with the death of its publisher.
The chapters on manga throughout the book offer the authors’ most important contribution to comics studies. While many of us may only be familiar with manga available in English translations, it is quite obvious that Mazur and Danner have access to a far greater range of texts and are therefore able to provide more detailed discussions of the different types of manga. They go beyond the distinction between manga for boys (shonen), for girls (shojo), for young men (seinen) and for the ladies (josei); to the horror genre of manga; to European and American influences on style and themes; to “bad-good” manga; and finally to “respectable” manga, with many stops in between. Some of the secondary sources that the authors make good use of are the website “The Hooded Utilitarian,” (hoodedutilitarian.com) and Matt Thorn’s website/blog, “Committee for the Revival and Promotion of Shojo Manga” (matt-thorn.com).
In the book’s conclusion, as Mazur and Danner look at the comics industry in the early twenty-first century, they consider the main direction for comics now to be the complete, single-issue, book-length graphic novel. Many popular comics authors/artists, such as Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Jessica Abel gained renown only when their serialized work appeared in a single book form. The authors briefly consider web comics, which they feel bring together several different types of comics: humor strips, narratives, memoirs, and even short stories that make use of an alternative “navigation mechanism” (307). That such scant attention is given to web comics attests to the emphasis the authors have put throughout on the underground/alternative comics magazine/anthology. I taught an early hypertext visual narrative, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, back in the mid-1990s, and over the past twenty years, the quantity and quality of electronic or digital literature has greatly expanded to include distinct genres, both long-running and short-term.
I’d like to reiterate that Mazur and Danner have produced a valuable resource for those interested in comics. They clearly have a command of the body of works published in French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, and so contribute important insights about comics literature that has not yet been translated into English. But I wonder if, rather than continuing to publish well-illustrated, but still text-heavy, critical studies, we need to explore how comics can help us develop a new sort of scholarship that weds commentary with image more happily. For example, as I read through the book, I kept thinking of an illustration that Matt Madden had done to accompany the article, “Taking Comics Seriously: The Birth of the American Graphic Novel,” which was written by Colgate University professor Paul Lopes for the university alumni magazine in 2012. The title of the illustrations is “History of American Comic Books in Six Panels,” and with the six panels, Madden takes one scene and quite effectively reworks it into the styles that represent different eras in comics history, all without extensive textual commentary.1 Other multimodal scholarly works include Greg Sousanis’ dissertation in comics format, which examines the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning (see “Behind the Scenes of a Dissertation in Comics Form” at digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/4/000234/000234.html), as well as the University of Florida’s new online journal Sequentials, which offers scholarship drawn in comic form (see http://www.english.ufl.edu/sequentials/).
I want to conclude with what I believe to be the strongest aspect of Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present: in this volume, Mazur and Danner have made great strides in recognizing and commenting upon a wide range of the components involved in creating, publishing, distributing, and critically responding to comics, and in doing so have brought comics studies into some of the established methodologies of book history. In a seminal book history article that appeared in 1982, Robert Darnton proposed a general model for “analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society.” Darnton referred to this model as a “communications circuit,” that ran from author to publisher to printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader, who “influences the author both before and after the act of composition.”2
Mazur and Danner have amply illustrated for us the type of communications circuit that comics creators and publishers have developed for effective creation, distribution, and popularization of their works. The authors acknowledge the early “pre-existing network of ‘head shops'” as an “already-proven distribution route,” while noting that other authors/artists looked to a “new distribution system of specialty comic books stores” that “grew out of and replaced the underground head shops” (40, 57). They inform us of how the content of manga magazines was “largely dictated by the results of weekly reader surveys,” which encouraged authors and publishers to try new ideas. They look at the rise and fall of comics publishing houses, such as Les Humanoïdes Associés and Futuropolis, both in France. Futuropolis was one of the first used bookstores in Paris to specialize in bande dessinée—but it evolved into a small publisher that challenged “predominant publishing models, privileging the book over the periodical, and oriented toward artistic rather than commercial considerations” (123).
Once comics publishers began to run longer story arcs that played out over multiple issues, the authors inform us that readers became increasingly interested in acquiring the entire run as collectibles. They write that,
“While the simultaneously burgeoning direct market made such collecting a more accessible hobby, the increasing complexity of the stories had the opposite effect; as each series’ backstory became more convoluted, the barrier to entry for new readers rose steadily higher, helping to cement mainstream comics’ fandom as an insular subculture” (170).
And at the other end from multi-issue stories were newave publications, such as those which came out of Fort Thunder and Highwater Books. Comics from these houses were “initially printed as single page one-sheets, although they quickly evolved into tiny eight-page booklets created by folding, stapling and cutting a single eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch sheet of paper” that were often traded informally through the mail (195).
With his communications circuit, Darnton created a model, now widely employed by book historians, that demands close examination not only of the creative processes involved in producing a physical book, but also of the cultural, economic, and political processes that determined the publication, distribution, and reception of those texts, and of how each component played against the others. In their comprehensive consideration of comics since 1968, Mazur and Danner have limned a similar circuit as they recount the rise and fall of comics publishing houses, the roles of headshops and specialty comics stores, the demands of productions, and even the dictates of reader surveys.
So, given the comprehensiveness of this global history, which is amply illustrated and which offers thoughtful analysis, where do we go from here? I tend to feel that, once we have such a masterful study of comics on an international basis, we need to either go small or go interdisciplinary. By that I mean that further scholarship might build both on some questions that Mazur and Danner raise and also on some of their omissions. As I mentioned earlier, I would like to study smaller, more in-depth research of the “British invasion” of comics creators as they came to work for American publishers. What impact did their encounter with American film imagery and stereotypes have on their work? Similarly, I’d appreciate a similar study of European creators who immigrated to South America and any assimilation of native art and narratives. I would certainly appreciate a more detailed and systematic examination of web comics. In the area of manga, how has the joho genre influenced graphic works on health and medicine, where we now have graduate programs that offer coursework on that topic?
By interdisciplinary, I am suggesting that comics studies might also benefit from looking at theories and methodologies of related disciplines, such as book history. A greater understanding of the communications circuit would indicate that when a magazine folds, it does not necessarily mark the end of a movement, as the authors would have us think. Along the circuit, thematic and artistic movements do not end; rather, they evolve into ensuing ideas and publications and they generate new production and distribution outlets. Finally, given the ongoing question about the “status” of comics (for adults or children? high or low art?), we could take much from sociological studies of cultural capital, such as that by Pierre Bourdieu, who looks at how judgments in “taste” about literature, art, etc., are related to social status and to power.3 Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is in many ways quite an inspiring work that will certainly lead to new areas of exploration in comics studies.
 This can be accessed through many websites. I found it at timemachinego.com/linkmachinego/2013/11/07/matt-maddens-history-of-american-comic-books-in-six-panels/.