cover image American Comics: A History

American Comics: A History

Jeremy Dauber. Norton, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-0-393-63560-7

Columbia professor Dauber (Jewish Comedy) covers the entire landscape of American comics in this outstanding encyclopedic survey intelligently analyzing how “comics have shaped wars and inspired movements” and even “conquered pop culture.” The roots of today’s blockbuster movies date back centuries, but the author focuses on the American experience, which began with the late 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose lampooning of the corrupt Tammany Hall was so scathing that he was offered what would today be a multimillion-dollar payoff to stop. Dauber uses Nast to underscore how the medium is replete with erasures that for decades have left creators either ignored or robbed of credit (Nast’s wife, Sarah, for instance, wrote most of the most-memorable captions for her spouse’s art). Other themes recur throughout the 150 years he chronicles in thrilling detail—including the medium’s troubling history of racist and sexist depictions “perpetuated by an overwhelmingly white, male body of cartoonists”; the invention of superheroes, the backlash against comics as supposed corrupting influences on the young, and the expansion of the types of genres depicted in comics beyond action, adventure, and sci-fi. In doing so, he skillfully charts “the story of a changing American audience... American ideals and American anxieties... a perfect vehicle for addressing contemporary issues.” It’s a thorough—and thoroughly entertaining—work. (Nov.)