This is not something I plan to do often, but I feel this book is something anyone who reads this site should check out.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the Goodreads.com First Reads program in which the winner recieves a copy of the book in exchange for a review. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, see the Goodreads First Reads terms for all the details)
I love reading these types of histories about culture. I have read similar books about photography and animation published by Taschen. This isn’t my first time reading about the history of comics, I also read 10 Cent Scare and Grant Morrison’s Supergods. Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while knows that I love comics and actually run a comics analysis site, www.comicpow.com.
The best thing about this book is that it starts from the 1960s. So far everything I’d read about comics can be compared to the way I learned US history growing up. Every year we’d start with Christopher Columbus. We’d learn about the Pilgrims and Jamestown and so on. Every year, when February rolled around we’d learn about the Civil War. We rarely made it past World War I. As a result I barely know anything but the pop history version of events from the 60s to now. I know more about America’s founding than I do about the decade in which I was born. The same often happens with comics. We start off learning about newspaper comics and The Yellow Kid. We learn about the 1930s and how revolutionary Superman and Batman were. Then there’s the creation of Marvel. Then some Brits came over and things got edgy in the 80s.
What this book does, by starting at the 1960s, is to give a lot more weight to the silver and bronze age as well as giving some nice, important perspective into the 80s and 90s. Perhaps more importantly, the book explores each decade by looking at America, Europe, and Asia. Every history I’ve read until now has operated as if only America and England mattered when it comes to comics. Until reading this book I had no idea that Europe had such a rich comics history. (Other than hearing about Tin Tin and The Smurfs) This also allows the authors to explore how each region influenced the other. It is true that Europe hasn’t had as much of an influence in this direction as England and Japan, but it has had some influences and that was nice to see.
Overall, I think the biggest weakness of this book is that it’s a physical book. As such it was limited in many ways and, as even as someone who didn’t have regular internet access until about age 14, I just kept thinking the book had so much more potential. This book is amazing, but it really brings into relief the power of the Internet over a book when it comes to a huge tome just like this one. The text is amazing, but the images leave me wishing for more examples. Also, I’d like the images to be closer to where the artist and/or writer is being discussed. But this is much more easily done online than in a book. Also, I think links between related topics would be awesome in this book. Finally, links to buy the awesome works I’m reading about. This book crossed with wikia would be a dream come true for any true fan of the medium who wants to know about the creators, not just the characters. It’s the ultimate irony that the breadth could easily be surpassed by a wiki, but what makes this book worth buying is that the authors use their research to draw a through-line of trends that would be lacking from the anyone-can-edit environment of a wiki. Perhaps the growth of the Internet and technology will eventually lead to a situation where people can provide a wiki-like experience but gain the money needed to pay for the research.
And while my main complaint was with the images, there were some glaring omissions in the text for space reasons. In the 60s the Kirby and Adams text was pretty sparse for such important titans in the industry. The chapter on manga through the 80s clearly proves my point about how, while the research is phenomenal, it suffers from being a book (rather than a website) as many landmark manga are left unillustrated in the book. Another limitation of the book format, the following only get one sentence: 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, and Fables. One last complaint – it focused a LOT on art trends and less on storyline trends. The line had to be drawn somewhere (no pun intended), but I’d love a companion book that looks more closely into that aspect of comics history.
For examples of what I found neat within each chapter, check the status updates which (at the time of this writing) are included at the bottom of the review page on Goodreads.com. I would recommend doing as I did and reading it sequentially at least once because that gives the reader the best chance of understanding how the trends evolved through the decades. After that, I’d use it as a reference to look up certain periods and I would definitely recommend using it as a recommendation engine equivalent to those lists of movies or books that you MUST read. Despite the limitations of its form factor, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of comics and how we got here.