Funny story: A few weeks ago, I got a message on Facebook from an old friend from college. He asked me if I was still blogging, because the publishing company he now works for had a comics history book coming out that took a global view of comics history from 1968 onwards, and would I like a review copy? “Hold up,” I said. “Is this Mazur and Danner’s book?” Oh, had I already heard about it? “I heard about it when they were writing it, Mazur and I talked extensively about French feminist comics of the 1970s. I’ve known these guys for years from the Boston Comics Roundtable.”
So there’s my full disclosure, and also some kind of commentary about my life choices.
That said, I would have wanted to review this book even if it didn’t also qualify as a favor for three friends. Most comics histories cover a very discrete group of comics– American, mainstream (superheroes, EC, a smattering of other genres during the Golden Age), with a cursory look at undergrounds and the early alternatives. I’ve longed for a comics equivalent of David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, that covers the zoëtrope and magic lantern all the way up through Lord of the Rings, spanning the globe and hitting all the major and some minor film movements– even if they never had any bearing on Hollywood blockbusters.
Mazur and Danner have written Volume III of my dream book. The subtitle betrays the main limitation, covering only after 1968, but that is still a substantial time span. What is covered is ample and quite relevant to my interests. It opens with the standard overview of American superhero comics of the late 1960s before plunging into the underground scene. From there, it primarily rotates between the major geographical nexuses of comics– Japan, France, and the United States, though both the artistic and geographical scopes expanded with every subsequent decade.
For the first time, I was able to put creators I’ve heard of and maybe was familiar with some of their work (e.g. Moëbius, Pratt, Tezuka, Otomo, etc.) into a broader context– not just in terms of which Americans had influenced them, but surprising connections like how post-WWII Italian creators were influenced by Argentinian creators, due to the vast number of Italian refugees who spent the war there. I also appreciated for the first time how the British Invasion of the 1980s had its roots in the synthesis of both American and Continental approaches to comics.
A certain pattern began to emerge that I found amusing: Young [American/French/Japanese] creators rebelled against [superheroes/ligne claire/Tezuka] for a few years via [aggressively obscene, politically subversive, etc.] works, until [superheroes/ligne claire/Tezuka] made a comeback after creators metabolized the merits of the ‘rebellious’ approach; interest in other genres also grew and small boutique publishers sprang up until they went out of business or were acquired by larger companies. Lather, rinse, repeat.
While the book does not presuppose any particular knowledge of American comics history, by necessity the authors had to make decisive executive action to pare it down to its essentials. I felt their ultimate selections of influential creators and books were plenty comprehensive, but others may fuss over their pet omissions. If I have one criticism of their coverage of American comics, it’s their focus on the market. While finances destroyed many a BD and manga publisher, but American comics are more explicitly presented in the Venn diagram of “innovative/influential” and “financially successful”. While understandable that American creators would show concern for their local market, it puts a damper on those chapters that their European and Asian counterparts don’t show.
There’s a good balance of information and images, allowing the art being discussed to speak for itself without coming off as padding the page count. It also avoids the pitfall of becoming a mere catalog of names and titles, thought some are given only cursory context or analysis. It was also pretty obvious that the chapters were written separately and collected without much thought given to transitional flow. Even two back-to-back chapters about the same country could end abruptly and open seemingly at random. Also, there are indices by creator and by title, but not by subject/keyword. But these are pedantic niggles.
One assumes a major reason histories like this are not common is because of language barriers and a dearth of translations. While Mazur is reasonably literate in French and recruited some Japanese-speaking friends for help (as well as taking advantage of manga that has been translated in to French), the authors still had to rely heavily on translated editions and bootleg scanlations. This book likely could not have been written 10-15 years ago, before the US manga boom and the efforts of the likes of the late Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics and NBM to bring more European comics to the Anglophonic audience brought the amount of comics of foreign origin to an academically significant saturation point. I hope that many future histories will follow in this one’s footsteps as access (legal or otherwise) to foreign material continues to grow.
Comics: A Global History is an ambitious and largely successful overview of the evolution of comics from a much-needed fresh perspective. I look forward to the discussions it will spark, the imports and translations it may encourage, but especially the future comics histories that follow in its comprehensive footsteps.
Alexa Dickman is a blogger who runs Ladies Making Comics and maintains her own ambitious comics history project over at the Women in Comics Wiki.
The Beat Staff is an elite group of trained ninjas.