Comic Book Comics #6
This self-referential series, a history of comics in comic form, ends with this issue. It’s a mixed bag, looking both forward and backward.
The first chapter tackles the question of identifying the first graphic novel. As someone interested in comic history — that’s why I’m reading this comic — I’d already heard most of this information, so I found myself skimming. Various titles, including Gil Kane’s Blackmark and It Rhymes With Lust, are mentioned in a panel or two each. There’s also an odd deviation of style on the second page, an inconsistency in line and lettering font that makes it look unfinished. It may be intentional, but it seems out of place with the rest of the story.
My favorite part was the short history of Classics Illustrated that’s included in the middle. It has little connection to the rest of the piece, but Ryan Dunlavey’s illustrations, especially, capture the sense of humor and absurdity I like best about this title.
As with the first, the second chapter contained material I was already familiar with, the story of Osamu Tezuka, but the cartooning made the history fresh. It was especially interesting seeing the mash-ups of a Tezuka-styled caricature with his creation Kimba the White Lion or meeting a Walt Disney-faced Mickey Mouse. (That’s the stuff of nightmares if you focus on it too much.) This piece really builds as it goes, with the final section pondering differences between Japanese and American comic styles, accompanied by amusing cross-cultural images. That’s when this series is most worth reading, when the creators hit on just the right picture to summarize the history in a visual way that will stick with the reader.
The final chapter attempts to take the series out with a bang, starting with how hard it was to be a comic fan before the direct market. There are fascinating numbers included, tracing the formation of the dedicated comic retailer and the specialty market. Van Lente isn’t shy about blaming stupid (or just short-sighted) business practices for the booms and busts over the decades, and Dunlavey draws a great bearded ex-retailer in a barrel. It’s weird, reading an accelerated list of the events you’ve lived through, from the rise and fall of Image to the distribution wars.
The story ends with six pages on the internet and scanned comics. Van Lente has a clear position, and he doesn’t make an argument to support it so much as appeal to emotion. At one point, he asserts that it’s just “common sense” that free online comics are responsible for declining sales. He’s a writer, so those are the tools he uses to sway the reader — not logic, but assumption that of course the reader will agree with the narrative voice that so far has stuck to the facts. Since this assertion comes after reiterated examples of ever-skyrocketing prices, the attentive reader might draw other conclusions.
He also doesn’t acknowledge that, while the direct market kept the superhero comic alive, it was a horrible thing for other types of books. (An odd oversight, given the previous paen to diversity in the Tezuka chapter.) Still, these are small bobbles in a chapter that’s reaching widely to consider many of the possible futures for comics. I appreciate his overall positive take on the various potential paths. Ultimately, Comic Book Comics doesn’t have the answer. It’s only been telling us where we’ve been, not where we can go, and we learn history so we don’t have to repeat it.