Book review

Comic books and American cultural history: An anthology, edited by Matthew Pustz

Daniel Stein

Georg-August-University, Göttingen, Germany

[0.1] Keywords—American culture; Comics; Historical analysis

Stein, Daniel. 2013. Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology, edited by Matthew Pustz [book review]. In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13.

Matthew Pustz, ed., Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology. London: Continuum, 2012. hardcover $110 (296p) ISBN 978-1441163196.

[1] Scholars working in fan studies, and specifically on American comic book fandom, will be familiar with Matthew Pustz's Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (1999). This important book appeared years before the current boom in comics studies, and it traced the interactive and participatory dynamics of American comics, and superhero comic books in particular, throughout the second half of the 20th century. Pustz's most recent comics-related work, the edited essay volume Comic Books and American Cultural History, is also interested in historical investigation. As Pustz writes in the introduction, its first goal is to "demonstrate how comic books can function as dynamic primary sources that can help scholars, teachers, and students to understand various periods of modern American history" (4); its second goal is to take "another step in the integration of comic books into the field of history" (8). Both of these goals are crucial. They remind us that comic books are popular artifacts whose impact on American culture warrants close critical attention, and they emphasize the power of comic books to teach scholars, students, and fans important lessons about American history.

[2] With close to 300 pages, the volume is of substantial length, subdividing its 16 essays by mostly American scholars into four sections that each contain between three and six essays. More than half of these essays are accompanied by black-and-white illustrations; these illustrations (a total of 19) contribute to the appealing look and design of the volume, and they allow readers to relate specific arguments to their primary sources. Comics scholars will be familiar with a few of the contributors (Alison Mandaville, Matthew J. Costello, A. David Lewis), while the presence of many unfamiliar names attests to the healthy influx of new voices into the field of comics studies.

[3] The first section, "Doing Cultural History through Comic Books," begins with two essays that focus on teaching methodology. In the first of these essays, Jessamyn Neuhaus discusses her experience as a history professor teaching a methodology course with comic books as primary and secondary sources. Neuhaus shows that comic books can be utilized to foster active engagement with history—for instance, by raising the students' awareness about their own consumption of and involvement with popular culture as historically situated and culturally significant practices. She smartly conceives of comic books as material artifacts that feature not only serial stories but also editorial columns, letters pages, and advertisements, all of which can and should be subjected to critical examination. Bridget M. Marshall's "Comics as Primary Sources: The Case of Journey into Mohawk Country" focuses on the transhistorical "collaboration" (37) between the 17th-century Dutch explorer Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert and the 21st-century comics artist George O'Connor. Indicating critical discrepancies and creative gaps between the verbal narrative of Journey into Mohawk Country, which is based on a translation of van den Bogaert's historical diary, and its modern visual adaptation in the comics form, Marshall encourages 21st-century "readers to contemplate the complicated ways in which we make history" (37). The formal makeup of O'Connor's visual narrative, she suggests, foregrounds the constructed nature of historical emplotment, including the conflicted depiction of interracial contact and gender relations among early settlers and the native population. William Grady's "Transcending the Frontier Myth: Dime Novel Narration and (Jesse) Custer's Last Stand in Preacher" deals with the myth of the American West as it was popularized in 19th-century dime novels. Grady argues that Garth Ennis's 1990s Preacher series revives and mobilizes dime novel myth-making strategies, and he ponders the ideological implications of the frontier myth for late-20th-century readers. Alison Mandaville's "Duel. I'll Give You a DUEL: Intimacy and History in Megan Kelso's Alexander Hamilton Trilogy" illustrates the didactic potentials of Kelso's comic by emphasizing the need for a gender-balanced perspective on comics history. Mandaville's analysis of the female narrator's creative engagement with historical figures and events makes a central connection between comics as a participatory medium that involves heightened reader involvement and the equally participatory making and remaking of the American past.

[4] The second section, "Comic Books as Cultural Artifacts," is organized chronologically, opening with Martin Lund's essay on the impact of the New Deal on Shuster and Siegel's Superman ("American Golem: Reading America through Super–New Dealers and the 'Melting Pot'") and ending with Matthew J. Costello's reading of American Flagg! as a reflection and satire of postmodern American politics ("The Shopping Malls of Empire: Cultural Fragmentation, the New Media, and Consumerism in Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!"). Sandwiched between these essays are instructive investigations of gender conflicts in romance comics (Jeanne Emerson Gardner, "'Dreams May End, but Love Never Does': Marriage and Materialism in American Romance Comics, 1947–1954"), of parody as a means of propagating anticommunist messages in 1950s war comics (John Donovan, "Parody and Propaganda: Fighting American and the Battle against Crime and Communism in the 1950s"), of 1970s kung fu comics as a response to the rise of a self-conscious Asian American (sub-)culture (Peter Lee, "Grasping for Identity: The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu"), and of the reflection of the so-called American malaise in the superhero genre (Matthew Pustz, "'Paralysis and Stagnation and Drift': America's Malaise as Demonstrated in Comic Books of the 1970s"). I find these essays most convincing when they provide historically sensitive textual analyses: Lund identifies elements of FDR's social justice rhetoric in the first issue of Action Comics, and Pustz suggests that the depiction of powerlessness and lost purpose in the superhero comics of the 1970s helped ready readers for Ronald Reagan's electoral promise of a new morning in America.

[5] Section 3 turns to "Comic Books and Historical Identity," starting with Todd S. Munson's "Transformers and Monkey Kings: Gene Yang's American Born Chinese and the Quest for Identity." Munson provides background information on the history of Chinese immigration into the United States and argues that the transformer theme in Yang's graphic novel may be read as a pledge for the cultural hybridity of Asian Americans. Philip G. Payne and Paul J. Spaeth's "Agent of Change: The Evolution and Enculturation of Nick Fury" regards Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's popular character as "part of the process of war commemoration in popular culture" (184). Ben Bolling's "The US HIV/AIDS Crisis and the Negotiation of Queer Identity in Superhero Comics, or Is Northstar Still a Fairy?" is also concerned with a serial character, but it moves from the issue of war commemoration to the narrative emplotment of the HIV/AIDS crisis. This crisis is narrated through the life story of a homosexual character (Northstar) whose experiences resonate with popular narratives about the outbreak and treatment of the virus. Bolling's essay is strongest when it considers the role of readers and fans in the negotiation of a character's serial trajectory, suggesting that we can only fully appreciate the historical significance of the character if we are willing to trace the paratextual debate about the series' treatment of homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS crisis through letter columns and fan protests.

[6] The volume concludes with section 4, "Comic Books and Contemporary History," which turns to the impact of 9/11 on the American comic book. A. David Lewis's "The Militarism of American Superheroes after 9/11" and Jeff Geers's "'The Great Machine Doesn't Wear a Cape!' American Cultural Anxiety and the Post-9/11 Superhero" nicely illustrate how the narrative possibilities of superhero comics shifted after the terrorist attacks and the wars that followed, including new doubts about the superheroes' authority as national figures of identification and their uneasy roles as imperfect fighters in wars in which no clear distinctions between good and evil exist. However, both essays rather uncritically embrace the notion of 9/11 as a collective national trauma and thus miss the chance to reflect critically on one of the most dearly held fictions of recent American history. It is the essay of a French contributor, Yves Davo's "September 11, 2001: Witnessing History, Demythifying the Story in American Widow," that deconstructs this national myth in its analysis of Alissa Torres's graphic memoir about her husband's death in the World Trade Center (illustrated by Sungyoon Choi).

[7] But how do these essays fare in comparison with other comics scholarship, and do they fulfill the objectives formulated in Pustz's introduction? I think it is fair to say the essays allow scholars, teachers, students, and fans to get a better sense of specific aspects of American history. Neuhaus and Marshall offer useful suggestions about how to teach which comics and how to achieve specific didactic goals. Moreover, while Mandaville's discussion is not very explicit about the didactic possibilities of Kelso's Alexander Hamilton Trilogy, it connects the participatory dynamics of Kelso's comic with the participatory demands of the political process and the interactive making of national history. The other essays in the volume, however, remain mute about the teachability of the primary sources they analyze; instead, they offer case studies that are instructive in and of themselves but add little to our understanding of how comic books can be used to teach American history. Thus, the volume only partially fulfills its didactic aims (note 1).

[8] Whether the volume achieves its second goal, to facilitate the integration of comic books into the field of history, is difficult to gauge. All of the essays deliver pertinent analyses of their source texts, and they do a good job of embedding individual comics and genres in their historical contexts. But this kind of historical contextualization does not seem entirely sufficient. If we really want to take comic books seriously as "dynamic primary sources," we should venture beyond arguments about how comic books "reflect" or "illustrate" (both terms that appear frequently across essays) historical developments or discourses: we should treat them as truly active artifacts that perform specific cultural work by offering material as well as imaginative spaces for the production and negotiation of historical meaning. Not all of the essays in this volume subscribe to a notion of comics as mere reflectors of history, but it is noteworthy that only a small number consider comic books as actual makers of history.

[9] As a volume that aims to bring American comic books into the realm of historical analysis, Comic Books and American Cultural History walks a fine line between the kind of theory-heavy writing that academic readers might expect and the detailed close readings of individual comics that might attract teachers, students, and fans. There certainly is enough theory here to satisfy academic readers interested in learning more about comic books and their historical contexts, but what is sometimes missing is a sustained engagement with the intricacies of historical analysis and the many complexities we confront when we approach comics as primary and secondary historical sources (note 2). Moreover, a more focused treatment of a specific aspect of American cultural history might have created a more cohesive volume with a stronger overarching narrative; upon finishing the final essay, one has a sense of being left hanging in the balance, of confronting unresolved questions that might have been addressed in an afterword.

[10] My final critique of Comic Books and American Cultural History addresses more than this single text. It is a critique that pertains to many other books in the field of American comics studies that, like Pustz's volume, conceive of comics as a largely American cultural form and of its history in almost exclusively American terms. Indeed, some of Pustz's contributors speak of "our history," "our allies," and so on. I realize that the very point of Comic Books and American Cultural History is to investigate different aspects of the nation's history and the role of comic books within that history, but I do believe that comics studies can benefit much from an infusion of international and transnational perspectives. As John A. Lent's International Journal of Comic Art (1999–) and essay collections edited by scholars from outside of the United States underscore, to look at the history of comics through an overwhelmingly American lens always entails the danger of reaffirming dominant national myths and exceptionalist self-images at the expense of marginalized perspectives both from the inside and outside (note 3).

[11] All in all, I can recommend Comic Books and American Cultural History, albeit with the reservations expressed above. The book will be most rewarding for those interested in specific comic books and historical issues as they are covered in individual essays. While I do think that the volume as a whole would have benefited from a stronger theoretical frame and more a rigorous understanding of comics as dynamic artifacts and active historical agents, I very much appreciate the fact that it covers a range of intriguing primary sources and presents a series of valuable case studies, all of which will surely encourage further historical investigations of comic books.


1. For an essay collection that focuses more fully on the didactic and pedagogical potentials of comics and graphic narratives, see Dong (2012).

2. One attempt to provide this kind of engagement within the field of American studies is Stein, Meyer, and Edlich (2011).

3. Two books edited by German scholars foreground such international and transnational perspectives; see Berninger, Ecke, and Haberkorn (2010) and Denson, Meyer, and Stein (2013).

Works cited

Berninger, Mark, Jochen Ecke, and Gideon Haberkorn, eds. 2010. Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Essays on the Interplay of Media, Disciplines, and International Perspectives. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Denson, Shane, Christina Meyer, and Daniel Stein, eds. 2013. Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives: Comics at the Crossroads. London: Bloomsbury.

Dong, Lan, ed. 2012. Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy, and Practice. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Stein, Daniel, Christina Meyer, and Micha Edlich, eds. 2011. American Comic Books and Graphic Novels, special issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies 56, no. 4.

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