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The Classic Era of American Comics by Nicky Wright

01/03/2011. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy The Classic Era of American Comics in the USA - or Buy The Classic Era of American Comics in the UK

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pub: Prion. 230 page large softcover. Price GBP 16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-85375-694-8.

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In 'The Classic Era Of American Comics', Nicky Wright examines the history of comicbooks from their origins in the early 1930s through to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Within that time period, Wright looks at all the major genres including the humorous titles, the super-hero comics, true crime comics and, of course, the notorious horror comics that more than anything else provoked the US government into forcing the comicbook publishers to self-censor their content under the Comic Code.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each tackling a particular aspect of the comicbook story. The first focuses on the so-called 'funnies', the light-hearted comics largely spun out of popular strips featured in the newspapers. Many of these are long since forgotten, but some, like 'Little Orphan Annie' and 'The Katzenjammer Kids' are still fondly remembered today. Also discussed in this chapter are the early crime and super-hero titles including 'Dick Tracy', 'Batman' and 'Superman', three titles that would go on to spawn countless imitators.

The super-hero craze of the 30s and 40s is the subject of the second and third chapters and Wright unearths not just the obvious characters and their creators, but many of the more obscure ones, too. It's worth making the point here that Wright doesn't really delve into the fictional histories much - don't come to 'The Classic Era Of American Comics' expecting to learn about Superman's backstory or the life and loves of Bruce Wayne but instead concentrates on the people who created the comicbooks. Mostly the artists had working class roots and more than a few came from immigrant, particularly Jewish backgrounds, as well. Often the publishers had different goals to the creative talent and that's an issue Wright alludes to again and again. It's very easy to look back at the comics' Golden Age as some sort of golden age, but the reality was very different.

The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly interesting, covering wartime comics and the female comicbook titles respectively. During the Second World War, many of the comicbooks felt obliged to tap into contemporary events, with the likes of Superman and Sub-Mariner being involved in anti-German or anti-Japanese activities. By modern standards, these stories often look pretty clunky but though they may be propaganda in all but name, there's no question that they were avidly read by servicemen abroad and did much to boost morale at home. Comics with female lead characters really only became common by the mid-40s, perhaps most famous of all being Wonder Woman, first published in 1941. Her creator was, surprisingly as Wright points out, a psychologist named William Moulton Marston. One of the fascinating aspects of the early Wonder Woman stories are the frequent and not-so-subtle bondage scenes apparently playing up to Marston's own kinks. Perhaps inevitably, some degree of eroticism was typical of the comicbooks with female lead characters and that, as much as anything else, helped to ensure their popularity.

Later chapters look at the comics about anthropomorphic animals, the Wild West, horror and crime respectively, before settling into a review of the more realistic, often rather gritty comics of the 50s in chapter nine. But it's chapters ten and eleven where Wright take the story to its crescendo, with a detailed look at the gruesome horror and crime comics that became so strongly associated with juvenile delinquency. It was these comicbooks that many at the time thought had crossed the line, their sheer bloodiness and disregard for authority prompting, it was argued, many of the social ills of age. Such were the pressures that caused the Comics Code Authority to come into being and soon afterwards, a dramatic contraction in the size of the comicbook industry and the diversity of material being published.

As a simple compendium of comicbook art 'The Classic Era Of American Comics' works remarkably well, though for the most part individual panels from comicbooks are reproduced rather than strips or pages. That's a bit of a shame because so much of the quality of a good comicbook doesn't come from the static art in a single panel but in the fluidity and pacing of the story as it passes from one panel to the next. But that nitpick aside, the full-colour reproduction throughout the book is mostly excellent, making this book a pleasure to browse through as well as to read.

Rounding out the book is a thorough bibliography and a full index of characters, comicbooks, writers, artists and publishers. In short, for the price this large-format coffee table quality book is a steal and highly recommended to all fans of American comics.

Neale Monks

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