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Author: Bradford W. Wright
Publisher: John’s Hopkins University Press
Publication Year: 2001
WHAT IS IT?
Comic Book Nation is a well-researched, well-written and jargon-free look at American comic books of the 20th century. Wright begins his exploration in the late 1930s, when comics started to become a big part of the lives of children and young adults in America and closes with a reflection on the “Death of Superman” event from 1992.
Wright looks at the rise and fall of genres, examines controversies and economic calamities that rocked the comic industry, and details the rise of comic fandom, comic shops, and the direct market.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Wright makes the case that comic books are a unique look into the tastes of young people in the years when American consumer culture was first developing and that, as such, comics provide a window into a world where children were able to bypass their parents’ control and make their own entertainment choices. This made comics a particularly threatening medium for parents and others who wanted to control what American kids consumed for entertainment, and the fallout from that battle for control has echoed down to the present day.
Wright is trained as a historian, and he declares in the introduction that he is “concerned primarily with comic books as a cultural representation, not as an art form...” He follows through on that by creating a history of comics that is grouped into chapters focusing on particular historical periods. Within each of these, Wright examines social and political developments in American society during the chosen timeframe and then draws connections to trends and events in the comic book industry. He is careful not to claim too great a tie between comics and culture, and he almost completely ignores individual comic stories or arcs. This is because Wright’s interest is in larger trends, such as fluctuations in genre popularity, or the prevalence of certain formulaic story elements during his chosen time periods.
This book is an excellent introduction to comic book history that is accessible to those who are not steeped in comic book culture, yet it’s detailed and rich enough to satisfy lifelong fans as well.
Wright does a nice job of showing how comic books can be used to introduce and interpret historical events and eras. When looking at the 1950s, for instance, he uses romance comics to illustrate the pressure put on women to return to domestic roles, and superhero books to show the importance placed on order and obedience to authority.
Wright’s chapters are relatively short, considering all they cover. He packs in a lot of information and analysis, and then moves on to another topic, while writing in a style that keeps you interested and moving forward.
I believe that Bradford Wright’s background is a big part of why this book works. He read comics as a kid, but then left them behind as he got older. Even so, he obviously maintained an affection for the medium, and years away gave him the ability to take a more objective and detached look at his childhood hobby while still letting his love for the subject shine through.
Wright can entertain us, indulge in a bit of nostalgia, and still deal effectively with important issues of identity, youth culture, and the economic and commercial relationship between comic books and American culture.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The turn of the millennium is an unfortunate place to leave off a study of American comics. The late 1990s and early 2000s were a low point creatively and economically for the industry. This book therefore closes with a relatively pessimistic outlook on the future of comics.
Many of the most popular topics of research and reflection in comics today – including race, gender, and underrepresented groups – are only very lightly dealt with by Wright. Comic Book Nation is an excellent survey-level mainstream cultural history of comic books, but its failure to be more inclusive and expansive is jarring when looked through a modern lens.
There are two editions of this book. The 2nd edition (from 2003) includes a 9-11 related postscript. Entitled "Spider-Man at Ground Zero" it is emotionally charged and hurried, and feels out of place both in its analysis and its tone.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Comic Book Nation is well-written, aimed at a general audience and is an enjoyable read. It is still a regularly cited resource for modern comic scholars, and remains one of the most entertaining and readable histories of major comic book eras and events.
Who It’s For: If you are new to comic book scholarship and are interested in learning more about the history of the comic book industry, Comic Book Nation is for you. It provides a good baseline “traditional” interpretation of how comics evolved and grew with American society during the 20th century, and as such is a great foundational history.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like this, but think it would be better with cartoons: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
If you like this, but thought it should have more pages, fewer images, and be less accessible: Of Comics and Men by Jean-Paul Gabillet
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(s)
Bradford Wright is a professor of History at Imperial Valley College in California. He received his Ph.D. in American History with a dissertation entitled “The American comic book: A cultural history” which served as the basis for Comic Book Nation.
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This book is © 2001 The Johns Hopkins University Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED