Every now and again, readers email and ask me tricky questions like, "Why did Stan Lee create Spider-Man?" Often, the question arises when somebody decides to do a school or college project of some kind and chooses "Spider-Man" or "Comics" as a topic. Of course the real answer is "to make money!"
While that is absolutely true, it's not usually what people wanted to know. What they meant to ask is normally something like this: "Discuss in 3,000 words the sociological background which caused [your chosen topic] to arise in American Culture at the time it did so."
Fortunately I now have a new stock answer, which goes like this: "Buy a copy of Bradfor W. Wright's excellent book - Comic Book Nation, and that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how comics books both reflected and affected popular American Culture from 1933 to the modern day." No, truly. This books is fantastic.
Subtitled "The Transformation of Youth Culture in America", this work by Bradford W. Wright is published by the John Hopkins University Press. Clearly, it is attempting to be a serious book about the cultural impact of comics, and the cultural factors which shaped comics in the recent history of the United States of Americal.
A serious sociology book about comics? Is he serious? Either it's bound to be complete rubbish. Or if it is actually scholarly, it's surely completely abstract, unreadable, and irrelevant? Well no. I'm going to give the ending away here by saying right here and now that this book is without doubt the best-written, most complete, relevant, interesting, well-structured book on the cultural history of comics that I have seen.
Of course, there isn't that much competition. There are other books out there, perhaps the closest I have encountered is Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers by J. Pustz. However despite the similarity in the two titles, the focus of Pustz's book is very different from the Wright book we're discussing here. "Fanboys" is concerned with the "sub-culture" of the comic book readers, whereas "Comic Book Nation" is concerned with the broader context of the general American culture which shaped and moulded the comics industry and helped drive and select the comics which survived and thrived.
This book took me a long time to read. I don't want to even suggest that the book is hard to read at all. It's not. Sure, it's not written for kids, this one is for your college-types. But hey, just because we read comic books doesn't mean we're illiterate! The reason for my slow pace was that even well-written as it is, the depth and insight contained here is pretty hard to take in. I really wanted to get the most out of this book, rather than skim-read it. There's so much here which is relevant and fascinating.
It's impossible to give a detailed coverage of the topics that come under discussion here, but I'll summarise the sections. The book is arranged chronologically, which works very well, as each key phase in the history of American comics affects the next. The book is very well-balanced, and very rarely takes sides. The points are illustrated where necessary with quotes and references, in fact the reference section and index is superb. This is a great book to have on a shelf as a backup if ever find yourself involved in writing about or debating comics.
Chapter One: "Superheroes for the Common Man", 1933-1941. Discusses the origins of "modern" comics, specifically Superman - and how he and the other creations of the time can be tied to the "new deal", and linked to the aftermath of the great depression.
Chapter Two: "Race, Politics, and Propaganda - Comics Books go to War", 1939-1945. Discusses the enthusiastic support of comic book characters for the U.S. role in the second world war, and conversely how the demographic and social changes caused by the war impacted comics and the comic industry - from the draft to paper shortages to G.I. comic book readers.
Chapter Three: "Confronting Success, Comics and Postwar America", 1945-1950. What happened after the war, how post-war attitudes affected comics. After the war, comic books faced challenges just as returning GI's did. Crime and Jungle-Girl comics florish.
Chapter Four: "Youth Crisis", 1947-1950. The first backlash against comics, the role of Dr. Wertham. Comic books survive attempts to regulate them, but the victory seems far from permanent.
Chapter Five: "Reds, Romance & Renegades", 1947-1954. The cold war, the Korean War. Comic books struggle to deal with this new type of conflict. Romance comic books become popular, and reinforce narrow social stereotypes.
Chapter Six: "Turning Point", 1954-1955. The popular rise of EC's horror comics, the senate inquiry, the conflict between Dr. Wertham and William M. Gaines, and the subsequent near-destruction of EC. The comics code, and the beginning of the dark ages.
Chapter Seven: "Great Power and Great Responsibility", 1956-1967. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko inspire the resurrection of the super-hero genre, the fabulous success of Marvel, and a new "acceptable" direction for comics. All this set against the continuing cold war and the perils and promises of the nuclear age.
Chapter Eight: "Questioning Authority", 1968-1979. The rise of social justice, race and social issues, the Vietnam War. The struggle between the restrictive comics code and the desire of comic books to address topical but sensitive areas in their stories.
Chapter Nine: "Direct to the Fans", 1980-1992. Declining popularity and sales of comics in the face of TV, videogames and other media. Increasing perception of comic books as "trash for kids". Arrival of the direct market, the rise of the Fan Clubs, and the entry of fans into the industry. Comic book superstars, speculation, stock listings, and far too many variant covers.
Epilogue: "Must there be a comic book industry?"
Postscript: "9-11, Spider-Man at Ground Zero."
Honestly, this really only scratches the surface of the issues that are covered in this book. If you are truly, genuinely interested in learning the big picture about how comics came to be the way they are, then this is utterly the book you need.
Of course, with all the analysis of comic books in modern culture, there's a lot that is not in here, and it's worth mentioning. There's no detail about the actual comic book characters. There's not even anything really about individual creators. Some are mentioned by name - Stan Lee of course, because of his tremendous contribution. Todd McFarlane and others of his ilk are named as examples of "comic artist rock stars" that changed the face of things in the 90's. But in general, it's the Publishers, Lawmakers, Activists and such like who really matter when telling this story.
If you're interested in the specific "Story of Marvel", then you should read Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades. If you want to know about the folks who created Spider-Man, then read Comics Creators on Spider-Man. If you're interested specifically about the "Fan Culture" that Marvel inspired in the seventies then try Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. But for all the kinds of things I've mentioned above, this book is fantastic.
I can't give this work less than five webs. If you give a damn about comics, where they've been, and where they're going, then you need to know about the U.S. comic book industry. Sure, the European and Asian comic industries are influential too. But I'm presuming that since you're visiting a Spider-Man site that this is where your background is, and so I'm strongly recommending this as the best place to start your education.