Book review

Of comics and men: A cultural history of American comic books, by Jean-Paul Gabilliet

Drew Morton

Texas A&M University, Texarkana, Texas, United States

[0.1] Keywords—American history; Comic book industry; Comics studies; Industrial history

Morton, Drew. 2013. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, by Jean-Paul Gabilliet, trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen [book review]. In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13.

Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Of comics and men: A cultural history of American comic books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010, hardcover, $55.00 (390p), ISBN 978-1604732672.

[1] The field of comics studies has witnessed a massive expansion over the past five years, driven in particular by the efforts of the University Press of Mississippi and its line of titles in the area. The year 2007, which marked a watershed moment, saw the release of Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen's English-language translation of French scholar Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics. Groensteen's study successfully elaborated upon Scott McCloud's seminal text Understanding Comics (1994) by infusing formal analysis with semiotics. This expansion has also spread beyond this single publisher to the creation of two new print journals: the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge) and Studies in Comics (Intellect). Given the central role comics have played in the culture and academy of France, Beaty and Nguyen have productively returned to the well to translate another French work: Jean-Paul Gabilliet's Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, originally published in French in 2005.

[2] With Of Comics and Men, Gabilliet—a professor of American studies at the University of Bordeaux, France—attempts to produce "a cultural, not an aesthetic, history: as its title indicates, it does not aim to assess the intrinsic value of any particular comic book or creator. Rather, it means to observe individuals and the conditions in which they engineer a given cultural production but also respond to it, no matter how inferior it may subjectively appear in relation to consecrated art forms" (xix). Despite this stated objective and the author's desire to draw upon the theoretical models established by Pierre Bourdieu, Gabilliet's book is only tangentially a cultural history. Unlike Bradford Wright, whose Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (2001) extensively intersected analyses of individual comic titles with occurrences and shifts in American culture, Gabilliet never utilizes extensive textual analysis to elaborate on his portrait of the American comic's cultural history. However, the author does succeed in producing one of most definitive historical accounts of the industry behind the American comic book.

[3] Gabilliet divides his book into three sections. The first part serves as an historical survey of the comic, rendered in broad stokes. The second section, covering the producers and consumers, builds on the historical survey by analyzing some of the previously discussed historical moments with more rigor to provide a vividly realized portrait of the industry, its creators, and its readers. Finally, Gabilliet accounts for the significant cultural shifts the medium has witnessed over the past century.

[4] As a result of its short length ("Seventy Years' Worth of Images" is covered in 104 pages), Gabilliet's account of the medium's history hits many familiar notes. The American comic book found its origins in the form of the newspaper comic strip and came into its own by initially offering reprints of those newspaper strips. As the cost of the rights for reprints rose, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided it would be more feasible to publish original content; this gave birth to DC Comics. This original content spread across genres from the superhero comic to adult genres like crime, horror, and romance comics by the 1950s. These genres ultimately raised the ire of social progressives, who blamed comics for the post–World War II rise in juvenile delinquency. This outrage, fed by the shoddy psychological scholarship of Dr. Fredric Wertham, climaxed in a series of government hearings that ultimately resulted in the formation of the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954 and decades' worth of self-censorship, powered by the Comics Code.

[5] Yet despite its brevity, Gabilliet's historical account is able to leap minor histories with a single bound precisely because the author never allows brevity to result in generalization. For instance, when analyzing the effects of the Comics Code on the industry, the author provides a complicated and nuanced narrative. He notes that the mid-1950s decline of comics actually began one year before the Comics Code crisis. Moreover, the decline had less to do with the code and more to do with an unstable market that had overexpanded beyond actual demand, the rise of television, and the end of tie-in sales distribution practices (comics, like the films of the Golden Age, had to be purchased by distributors on an all-or-nothing basis).

[6] When the author returns to the same crisis in the second section of the book, which is focused more intensely on the industrial forces at work, he further elaborates on the element of television. Gabilliet uses sample studies to inform us that 75 percent of fourth graders read nine comics a month in 1950. By 1960, that number dropped to 41 percent as television expanded its reach into American households (201–2). By the end of the chapter on "The Readers," the author's utilization of data sources ranging from a survey commissioned by Marvel Comics, to the American Library Association, to retailer questionnaires, make his concluding argument clear. He concludes, "At the dawn of the 1980s, comic books were no longer a mass medium, but were a sector of the cultural industry that was increasingly structured around a 'fan' audience, in the strongest sense of that term" (204). In cutting through the prevailing myths and origin stories of the American comic book industry with hard, quantifiable, data, Gabilliet's monograph exhibits its greatest strength in its elaborative role.

[7] For instance, Gabilliet succeeds in providing nuance to the portrait of the contemporary comic book audience, offering up some frightening statistics focused on the gender divide in readership that should prove fruitful to the fan studies scholar. Specifically, his dissection of quantifiable data (approached "with caution" from sources ranging from surveys produced by Comics Retailer and marketing firms like Melchoir Thompson) makes it depressingly clear that the demographic data the industry has access to shows an audience that is only six percent to 13 percent female (208). The author goes on to trace this gender divide to the predominance of superhero titles that provided masculine escapism, the industry's abandonment of the romance genre, and the "masculine cultural practices of collecting and speculation" that came to fruition with the direct market system (209). He notes that these demographics have probably experienced a "radical shift" thanks to the link between the general bookstore and the graphic novel but that the specifics "are still unclear" (211).

[8] In the third section, Gabilliet finally circles back to Bourdieu when he argues that "Comics…can be analyzed as a 'field,'…as a social space seen through the prism of relations between the agents who participate in it" (248). He then goes on to chart the different areas of "consecration" the form has witnessed, both internal (prizes, fans, conventions, and specialty magazines) and external (how comics are viewed and written about by cultural critics like Gilbert Seldes and Harold E. Stearns and by academics). The book is structured to climax with this section, but instead it deflates, primarily because of the lack of signposts bringing us back to Bourdieu. By the time the reader finally reaches the discussion of cultural legitimation, they have long forgotten the objective of the monograph stated 244 pages earlier.

[9] The book is not without a handful of minor flaws that should be noted. First, the elliptical structure matches Gabilliet's desired objective, but admittedly the nonlinear approach results in some inevitable duplication. More significantly, Gabilliet undercites some sources. In a paragraph explaining DC and Marvel's jockeying for the top position among the publishers in 1986, the author notes that Marvel had fallen into second place for the first time in 20 years and contrasts DC's Alan Moore and Frank Miller's successes with the "commercial failure" of Marvel's Elektra: Assassin (93). Yet Gabilliet never gives us any quantifiable figures or a source for why he has such an impression. In a book that includes an essay on bibliographic sources and is at its best when it avoids generalizations and provides nuance to the grand history of American comics with concrete data, such an omission is all the more glaring.

[10] Thus, while Gabilliet ultimately only half-fulfills his objective of providing a cultural history of American comic books, he does provide a fairly definitive institutional history of the form. Gabilliet's book is also an achievement because his balance of rigorous research and accessible prose is capable of engaging both scholar and comic book fan alike. This should put the author—who laments that the integration of comics on the campus "did not give rise to remarkable scholarly works" and that the field has yet to expand across the pages of the Journal of Popular Culture (298–99)—at ease. The field has come a long way since he initially put his pen to paper in the early 2000s. With works like Of Comics and Men providing comics studies scholars with a model, the field will continue to evolve faster than Professor X's students.

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