'Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present' is a Quick, Smart Look at Comics History

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

Some people are absolutely insane. Who would ever want to write the history of the last 45 years of world comics in one slim 300-page volume? I'm just wrapping up work on a 280-page book about the comics industry in the 1970s in America and the work nearly killed me, I swear. Between all the fact checking and trimming of content, the rewriting for clarity and the constant worry about neglecting essential material, I've flipped between euphoria and despair like a madman while writing The American Comic Book Chronicles.

But Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner are up for the considerable job that they set for themselves. Though there are some omissions and a handful of errors in Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, they do an admirable job with a nearly impossible task: providing an encyclopedic overview of important comics throughout the world during that era – popular comics and alternative comics, comics from Japan, Europe and the United States, comics from different schools of thought and design, comics using diverse styles, comics presented sometimes in dramatically diverse ways – and Mazur and Danner do so with a smart focus.

Kevin O’Neill, cover, 2000 AD #1, 1977 © Rebellion A/S 2013. All rights reserved

 

Though I've been reading comics, along with histories and criticisms of the medium for decades now, Comics: A Global History does a wonderful job of putting that history in context for me. For instance, though I'd heard of the French magazines À Suivre and Métal Hurlant and am a big fan of two of their most prominent creators (Jacques Tardi and Jean Giraud/Moebius, respectively), I didn't have the sociopolitical context necessary to understand where those magazines fit into the framework of their times.

For anyone who had never heard of these historic collections before reading this book, Mazur and Danner provide valuable context for new discoveries. And as they hit other countries – Spain in the case of El Vibora – the context becomes even deeper.

Javier Mariscal, Una Noche Particular, El Vibora #65, 1985. Courtesy Javier Mariscal

They also deliver readers a good sense of the international cross-currents involved in the industry worldwide. We read about the rebellion of the 1960s, the increased corporatization of the 1980s and the emergence into a critically-acclaimed medium in our decade. For most of the time covered in this book, those events happened discretely from each other, in parallel, but also echoed each other in surprising ways.

That was especially exciting for me in the chapters about manga and other Japanese comics. Mazur and Danner do a fine job of describing the different types of manga, presenting in loving detail the diversity of approaches to storytelling and design as well as some of the high points in the industry. In doing so, the writers do two significant things: they spend time on the underground tradition in Japan – the important Garo isn't usually part of the common histories of manga that I've read– and they provide context for the more popular manga that has come to America over the last decade or so.

P. Craig Russell, The Avatar and the Chimera, Imagine #2, 1978. Courtesy P. Craig Russell

My major complaint about this Mazur and Danner’s work here is also its most obvious flaw; because they are required to move so quickly, most creators only get a quick blurb. Many comics are basically just mentioned in passing, and a handful of errors slipped in (for instance, the different versions of Swamp Thing are mixed up). But that's inevitable in any history that covers as much ground as this does; any book that (to select a letter at random from the index) covers Rabbit Bodyguard (Usagi Yojimbo), Ranma ½, Ranxerox, RAW, Raw Meat, Real, The Realist and Red Colored Elegy (Akairo Elegy) is going to have a handful of errors slip in.

One thing that's obvious from even a quick flip through this book is that the creators have selected a tremendously diverse set of material, and do so in a way that describes why those comics are notable with an admirable lack of value judgment. I admire the terse and intelligent descriptions they give to the material they discuss. For instance (chosen more or less at random):

Howard Chaykin, American Flagg! #2, 1983. © Howard Chaykin, Inc.

Chaykin's visual style emphasizes strong page design – always structured around narrative purpose – over loveliness of rendering, and he made particularly exciting use of "sound effects" as a graphic element. Chaykin incorporated constant media commentary from TV news anchors (the rebels' chief weapon is a pirate cable station), establishing a postmodern vision of the future as a parody of the present.

This level of commentary is like porno for critics, a kind of poetic clarity and insightful focus that brings insight into the familiar or unusual while also hitting the important points that need to be stated. Considering that Comics: A Global History was released by Thames & Hudson, a publisher best known for their art criticism books, the quality should not be a surprise.

As a critic and historian myself, I can truly appreciate the care and craftsmanship that went into this volume. It's a high-level survey of this wonderful artform in one book, from the rebelliousness of Steranko and R. Crumb all the way up the acclaimed comics of Alison Bechdel and Jordan Crane. This notable history covers the famous and obscure, the internationally beloved creators and the creators whose careers are long forgotten. In doing so, they taught me a lot about comics that I never knew before.

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