Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture. New York, NY; London, UK: Continuum, 2009. Print.
It is difficult to know exactly how to evaluate Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith’s The Power of Comics. The back of the book proclaims that this is “the first introductory textbook for comic art studies courses.” Leaving aside the dubiousness of this claim, it is also difficult to know who this book is intended for. I am not exactly sure what a “comic art studies course” is and what discipline it would be taught under. Drs. Duncan and Smith are both professors of communications and obviously must teach comics within the perspective of their own discipline. But the back of the book also tells the reader that this text can be shelved under “literary studies” and so it is fair to evaluate the book as a teaching tool for the English classroom. While I was impressed with the amount of information in this book, The Power of Comics is a textbook and it needs to be evaluated as such. As a teaching tool, this text is impressive in scope and detail but fails to prioritize its information, giving a lot of space to questionable material while short-changing some important subjects.
Let me begin by saying that I learned a great deal from this book. Although I have been studying comics for several years, I was still surprised and often delighted by the wealth of information presented on the history and culture of the comics industry. Duncan and Smith do an excellent job of discussing the history of the medium, distribution networks, and the effect of censorship and the Comics Code. More than just a history lesson, the authors provide detailed analysis of how these factors have affected comics as a product. In particular, the authors demonstrate how various trends in Hollywood affected the subject and content of various companies’ comics. I found the sections on Western and Kung Fu comics particularly interesting, especially since these areas do not get a lot of focus in comics scholarship. I was also impressed with the section entitled “Roots of the Superhero Concept” which uses meticulous research to explore the antecedents of both Superman and Batman, explaining not only the origins of their powers but also the tendency towards costumes, secret identities, and moral codes. Although I occasionally teach superhero comics, I have never been a big reader of this genre and Duncan and Smith’s text gives me a firmer footing for discussing its conventions.
While The Power of Comics contains a wealth of information, the rhetoric of the text is problematic on several levels. The title of the text proclaims comics’ “power” in a bombastic font that shoots forward off the cover. The cover art itself is a pastiche of various supercharged comics images, mostly tending toward superhero and supernatural imagery. The overall effect harkens back to the “zap! pow!” aesthetic of early comic books. The title betrays a certain insecurity on the part of either the authors or the publisher, perhaps a need to prove comics’ value and impact. This trend continues in the first chapter, which predictably begins with Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The very first line of the book mentions Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize and goes on to explain how the Pulitzer is “considered to be one of the highest honors in writing,” a previously “unthinkable” accomplishment for a graphic novel. For me and my colleagues, the literary merit of comics is old news. The students I teach might not share my perspective, but I would be reluctant to assign them a textbook that seems to be trying so hard to prove the value of the form, so concerned that its subject might not be taken seriously. My concern is especially relevant given that soberly-titled texts like Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics have been around for years. These texts take the value of comics as a given and get right on with discussing how they function.
The Power of Comics is richly illustrated and hardly a page passes without a relevant example from a comic or graphic novel. The authors’ dedication to finding and using appropriate examples is admirable and genuinely improves the text. At the same time, there are some significant issues with the illustrations and the general layout of the text. The quality of the images is inconsistent throughout the book. There are many high-quality reproductions of art work with subtle shading and gray tones. However, some of the images have a blurry, pixilated quality even when they are reproducing relatively clear-line work like Maus. The authors also include a number of other graphics, like charts and lists, which are generally successful in breaking up long spans of text. But there are times, like on pages 6 and 7, where the mix of text, comics, lists, and charts is overwhelming and disrupts reading. The authors tend to include informative captions along with their images, but the placement of images within text is not always logical. On page 133, for instance, the authors engage in an informative discussion of the difference between synecdoche and metonymy, but the illustration for synecdoche appears on the following page, directly next to the bolded heading for “metonymy.” In reviewing a textbook on any other subject, I might ignore such a glitch and attribute it to the challenges of layout. But in a textbook about comics, image-text placement is essential and can easily lead to confusion if it is not logical and consistent.
Duncan and Smith’s book is subtitled “History, Form & Culture” and I applaud the authors for their ample and thoughtful coverage of both history and culture, but I cannot be so enthusiastic about their discussion of form. Most of the formal consideration in the book comes in two chapters, totaling forty pages. This is not a lot of space to devote to such a complex concept as form in comics, especially in a 310 page book. Many books on comics are devoted entirely (or nearly so) to the discussion of form. As a teacher, I find formal considerations to be the most challenging for students and ultimately the most valuable as they explore the frequently unfamiliar landscape of comics study. Duncan and Smith cover a wide range of valuable formal considerations like time, sound, and color, but for the most part, the level of detail is not sufficient to give students the tools for academic formal analysis. A concept like “time in comics” would be the subject of an entire chapter in another book. Instead of giving chapters to individual formal concerns, the authors devote a whole chapter to comics fans and fan culture. While I would never discount the importance of fan culture to the overall world of comics, I cannot agree that fan culture requires so much space. I do not see the relevance of the authors’ relatively lengthy discussion of comics conventions like the Comicon or their detailed profile of a prominent comics retailer on page 102. This focus on subjects of sometimes questionable value also reveals itself in the activities that the authors include at the end of each chapter. An early activity suggests that students “Conduct a small informal survey about knowledge of comic books” (18). Another one encourages students to “Compare and contrast comic book storytelling as conducted in one of the areas described in this chapter with more recent publications… Write a brief essay in which you explain at least two ways the storytelling is similar… and at least two ways the techniques are different” (49). Examining the evolution of graphic storytelling from one era to another is certainly valuable, but the “compare and contrast” approach suggested by the authors is far too simplistic for a college English class.
In closing, I would like to commend the authors for their excellent chapter on comics and ideology. This section of the book achieves a good balance between detail and readability. It conducts a solid historical survey, and absolutely challenges students to look for unquestioned ideological structures in comics. In its strength, this chapter typifies the main criticisms I have of the text. Individual sections of the book are extremely strong and provide good context and examples. But these sections are included among many others that seem questionable in their value for college-level comics study. Ultimately, this book simply tries to do too much. The Power of Comics might have been better off focusing on history and culture and leaving form to the book-length studies that already exist. In its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, this book tries to be all things to all comics students. Nevertheless, I am glad that I own this book. I will refer to it often, and probably teach sections of it, but I will not be ordering it as a textbook for my classes.