Book Review: ‘American Comics: A History’ by Jeremy Dauber


American Comics: A History. Jeremy Dauber. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2021. 592pp. $35.

Jeremy Dauber’s narrative resembles a rocket ship as it blasts through page after page which is ideal for a book covering the entirety of American comics, from its early days to the present. Arbuably, this is the first survey of its kind and it proves to be compelling stuff. For myself, a Gen X cartoonist based in Seattle, I couldn’t help but begin with Chapter 8: Between Spandex and Seattle. Dauber dutifully recreates the scene leading up to the rise of indie comics in the early ’90s and, in the process, provides a window into the ever-evolving world of alienated youth. If Andy Hardy movies from the ’30s and ’40s helped to invent the American teenager, then comics, specifically indie, played a significant role in a more recent iteration of youth culture, one with a more nuanced argument for perpetual arrested development. Why not remain snarky, callow, self-deprecating, the whole immature shebang, all the way to the grave? The work of leading cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns made nihilism seem cool again, picking up where the sixties underground left off. If these cartoonists never meant for anyone to take them literally, it was besides the point. The impact of comics was never in doubt.

Indeed, concise and strategic combinations of words and images have intrigued people going as far back in human history as you care to go. There’s plenty to debate over the origins of comics but we all seem to agree that various elements contributed. Dauber makes a case for political cartoons laying the groundwork for comics in America and begins his survey with our first notable cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who you may know from his cartoons that stirred up a public outcry over the corruption of Boss Tweed and his cronies at Tammany Hall in the 1870s. But you might not know that Nast refused a hefty bribe ($10 million in today’s dollars) to stop making cartoons about Tweed. Nast is an interesting point of departure as his work does not really belong with comics but does speak to some of the aspects to comics that have appealed to adults from the very beginning, long before comics became associated with children.

In fact, the comics medium has proven to be far more sophisticated and complex than commonly believed to be. It’s a tool and an art form capable of both high and low culture, and content suitable for children, adults or both. Dauber’s overview of the American comic strip demonstrates how comics was never meant to appeal to just one demographic. It’s just too multi-faceted– even if kids did bring in a lot of dollars. Comics, by its very nature, leans towards the weird, surreal, whimsical and subversive. It did not just one day become attractive to adults, not when you’ve got Little Nemo and Krazy Kat running around or such complicated examples of the man-child as Lil’ Abner and Dagwood Bumstead.

You won’t find one illustration, chart or photograph in this book. And why should you? Examples from landmark works are easily obtained elsewhere. What you get here is one person’s passionate discourse, in the best academic tradition. Mr. Dauber is a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Jewish Comedy and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. As I suggested earlier, this book moves at a very fast and steady clip. It’s all covered here, all your favorites, including Fredric Wertham. That’s a joke. He’s secured his place in comics infamy. Seriously, there’s something for everyone: from Harvey Kurtzman to Gary Panter to Alison Bechdel. In fact, no sooner have you arrived at Bechdel than you move right along to a new generation of cartoonists pushing back on Bechdel only to find your way back to Bechdel who has returned to the top with her landmark work, Fun Home. Dauber’s unique narrative framework invites the reader to choose their own adventure, as they follow their favorite themes and subjects and inevitably learn a score of new information along the way. Dauber is constantly alternating between mini-profile, fascinating factoid, and rapid comparison and contrast. This platform offers up to the reader a unique perspective and brings to the fore beloved figures, revered by the comics cognoscenti, folks like Jerome Charyn, Jennifer Daydreamer and Megan Kelso, making them available to a whole new wave of readers. This is a fascinating work of connecting the dots and an essential resource in comics scholarship.

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