Arriving at a time of tremendous growth and change in the North American comics market, American Comics: A History by Jeremy Dauber, released by Norton November 16, is a lively historical survey of the American comics medium across 150 years of literary and commercial development.
Deeply researched and accessible, Dauber’s historical review focuses on the development of the art of sequential storytelling in America, beginning with influential 19th century editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose drawings satirized the corrupt tenure of Bill “Boss” Tweed and political powerbrokers of New York City’s Tammany Hall in the 1870s. (He also reveals Nast’s wife Sarah and her unsung role writing captions for many of Nast’s most powerful cartoons).
Dauber, who is a professor of Yiddish language, literature, and American culture at Columbia University, takes the reader from the beginnings of the American comics strip through every era of the medium’s creative and commercial development, deftly marking trends, both positive and negative, as comics evolved into the major pop culture phenomenon it is today.
Publishers Weekly: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Jeremy Dauber: Trying to figure out what to keep in and what had to come out; this is a massive story, and I tried to put as much of that in as I possibly could in a way that was sort of coherent, interesting, significant, narratively fun, while at the same time giving this kind of panoramic view of great books that I think people would enjoy. But there was still all sorts of stuff that I loved, that was interesting, that you couldn't keep in because otherwise, the book would have been three times as long as it already is. So the hardest part was cutting.
Has the change to publishing comics in collected trade book editions, or graphic novels, affected their content?
Absolutely. There's that period in the 1990s, when you have people like comics writer Neil Gaiman really saying, ‘I know this is going to come out as a trade paperback, I know there are going to be a lot of people, maybe even more people, reading this as a trade book, so I'm going to tell this story in a way that really is designed for you to be able to flip back and forth, and you have the whole thing in front of you to be able to see a visual payoff that comes several issues later on.’
As you researched the book, was there something that really surprised you?
I really set out to tell what I felt was the whole story of comics. I loved superhero comics growing up, but I didn't know that much about other kinds of comic books. And I had this sort of feeling that maybe there could be a book that really wove the stories of the creation and development of different kinds of comics together and just how deeply interwoven these creators were with each other, with these different traditions, and different ideas.
A lot of the independent and alternative comics creators started out as huge Marvel superhero fans or EC comics fans or Archie fans. And their work takes that stuff, and takes it in a different direction. Then, there were artists in the 1980s and 1990s creating superhero comics for Marvel and DC, but looking at independent, alternative comics creators [such as the Hernandez brothers and their acclaimed Love and Rockets series], and at other alternative comics. And they were able to say, “Wow, you know, I want to try and smuggle these preoccupations into my comic books, too. I'm seeing comics that are dealing with homosexuality. I want to bring some of that into superhero comics.” All of this becomes a kind of river with all sorts of branches. And that was a happy thing to find how connected all this really was.
You also point out that comics can act as a cultural blinder, allowing readers to block out the world as it is. What did you mean?
I'll use a historical example, which was when the first great wave of superhero comics [such as Superman and Batman] comes out in the late 1930s, early 1940s. There are a lot of people who say these superheroes are really Fascists. Their creators, who were Jews, by and large, and who had relatives who were still in Europe at the time, were not Fascists and begged to differ. But the idea that these characters disregard due process of law in order to solve problems through violence—that's true, right? That's not an unfair critique of those comics. Are they predisposed towards an ideology of violence as a solution, and a narrative that engages ultimately in an explosive conflict? That was one of the things that led to some really exaggerated criticisms [as well as censorship of comics in the late 1950s]. That if you read too many of these comics, you're going to become a juvenile delinquent.
It really took deconstructive comics published in the 1980s, to be able to sit down and really ask should we do these stories? It is a kind of blinding to say that all we need to solve problems is a good old American sock on the jaw. There was also a different kind of cancel culture of that time. Comics publishers saying we're not going to have leading characters in an interracial romance, or who are not white. That’s a very important part of the story that I wanted to tell; remembering those gaps and absences. Compared to 15, 25 years ago, there's a lot more comfort with telling a wider variety of stories, and there is a lot more accessibility for different kinds of people to tell a lot of different kinds of stories.
Do you have a favorite obscure comics character?
I have to say that I do have a soft spot, but it's not for a character, it's for a team. In the 1980s, when I was an adolescent, there was a Marvel comic about a group called Damage Control, [a fictional construction/salvage firm that repaired the vast damage caused by the battles between superheroes and super villains.] There were all these huge superhero fights, and Damage Control were the ordinary working class joes who had to clean up the mess after The Fantastic Four levelled Manhattan during some battle. That kind of characterization was rare in comics at that time. Now it's almost a commonplace to pay attention to the social interstices of these grand comics narratives. What happens to the little guy in an age of gods and heroes. But back then, you know, Superman just kind of flew off. So I have a very soft spot in my heart for them.