Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

Jeremy Dauber offers the reader an expansive and fascinating read with his new book, American Comics: A History, published by W.W. Norton & Co. I recently reviewed it and now I present to you this interview with the book’s author. Jeremy 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. We navigate our way through quite a lot of material and have a great time chatting about a subject we all seem to have something to say about.


HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: As I say in my review of your book, the reader can choose their own adventure by going to subjects that interest them the most first. I think the book invites jumping around chapters. Would you agree with that?

JEREMY DAUBER: That’s right. On the one hand, I present a story that develops through history and how people react to events. On the other hand, everyone has their own connections to comics and comes to it from a different place. So, if people want to start at one point and then move backwards and forwards, I think that’s great too.

Most young readers, without a doubt, gravitate to manga which is actually a perfect place to focus. As you describe in your book, manga played a significant role for such masters of comics as Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller.

You’re absolutely right. One of the big themes in the book is comics in America. That said, so much of the story of comics is what creators learned from an American tradition as well as from other national and international traditions. Manga is a very important part of that. As I say in the book, manga, interestingly enough, was influenced by an American tradition. Walt Disney was important to what we now think of as manga. And then that turns back to Japanese artists, like Osamu Tezuka, to influence American artists. As I point out in the book, gradually manga became more and more prominent in American reading habits. When Frank Miller seeks out manga, there is very little of it available in English translation. However, Miller states in interviews that he’d scan through a hundred pages at a time with no difficulty in understanding since it was so wonderfully designed. In the ’80s and ’90s, attempts are made to import manga until finally the floodgates are opened in the 21st century and it’s very hard to talk about American comic book reader’s habits without talking about manga.

In your book, the inclusion of single panel work with comics is very interesting as these are two very separate worlds. However, it can be useful to have them together. Of course, we have the Columbia University Comics and Cartoons collection.

At the beginning of the book, I talk about how vexed a definition we have for this project we’re talking about, what exactly comics are. Maybe it’s funny for an academic. I’ve never been as fussed, as some other people, about the precise boundaries for these sort of definitions. I’m more interested in a bottom-up and user-focused sense of a definition. What creators focus on when making a mental map is more important to me than a taxonomical definition. I’d rather leave it as a fruitful question than come down hard on an answer. As you mention, quite correctly, the Columbia University title for its collection is putting it out there–and having a good time with it.

The goal of your book is to define what American comics are through American politics and culture. The Cold War is an excellent point of departure. Would you share with us your thoughts on how it permeated comics and how comics were used during that era, for example, as a propaganda tool by the U.S. State department?

One of the most fun things to try to think through in telling the story of comics is about the way we think about politics. You can think about it in very explicit ways and implicit ways. There is explicit political rhetoric that will crop up in comics. It can be used, as you say, by the State department to try to put out democratic messages to other countries. Or, more close to home, the early Marvel Comics are all very Manichaean with the Communists as the bad guys and the Americans as the good guys. They’re Cold Warriors in many different kinds of ways. In a more subtle fashion, during this time, romance comics are political. This is a phenomena from the ’40s into the ’50s. It is a white picket fence nuclear family model: a heterosexual male dominated family model. That’s a political statement these comics are making even if we don’t think of that explicitly in the same way we see the fight against the Communists with Tony Stark leading the way.

Would you talk about how your personal interest in comics became an academic interest as well?

My interest in comics dates back to as far back as I can remember. Before anything else, I was a fan, for the most part, of superhero comics. And, for a long time, I was a Marvel zombie. Growing up, I would collect literally everything that Marvel would put out. And I was lucky to have an uncle who had an amazing collection of Silver Age DC and Marvel comics and, bizarrely, allowed his nephews to read them. Then, just a I was becoming a teenager, and maybe I was outgrowing comics, we have that miracle year of 1986 when Dark Knight comes out, then Watchmen, and Maus is released as a book. On the strength of those three, I recognized comics was really something. By the time I went to grad school, Vertigo comics was really hitting its peak, making this wonderful corpus for a comparative literature person like myself. When I came to Columbia I decided comics could be discussed as material for a course and I’ve been lucky for over the last ten years to teach that course with Paul Levitz, who I’m sure your audience will recognize the name.

Since the advent of superhero comics, going back to Superman, there’s been a pushback by competitors and independent creators to this very day. There’s this frenzied effort to re-invent the superhero that began just as the superhero was invented in the first place.

This gets to many of the important aspects of the story of comics. In a lot of ways, this is the story of a commercial medium. It has its ancestors but essentially Superman bursts like a bomb shell upon the commercial public. Of course, the natural instinct in the business world is to react to the gold rush. The old Hollywood adage being here, “Nobody wants to be first but everybody wants to be second.” DC Comics, or National, at the time, went out to sue Wonder Man and Captain Marvel, or Shazam, to knock out any competition.

Another side to it comes from those interested in satirizing the superhero or those who find the superhero morally problematic or disturbing. The first group gives us Inferior Man and Superduperman. We see this humorous take all the way to the present day with The Boys by Garth Ennis.

But then there is this other track that we associate with Fredric Wertham and the 1950s Cold War attack on superheroes as causing juvenile delinquency. We move on to this Dark Age in the 1980s when the superhero is seen as predisposed to conflict, against due process, and prone to punch things. It really wasn’t an issue during the days of the Comics Code. But then, by the ’80s, you have people taking a closer look at violence in comics and approach it in different ways which I discuss in the book.

We have heard wave after wave of pronouncements that comics aren’t just for kids. In fact, there’s always been this duality in comics: a medium for kids but also a medium for adults. A perfect example is Will Eisner’s The Spirit, something that could be enjoyed by all ages and sophisticated to genuinely appeal to adults.

That’s right. I really wanted to start the story of comics with comic strips in a very fundamental way and not only because so much of that early comic book material came from the strips. After all, the dream of Siegel and Shuster was to have Superman as a comic strip and comic books were more of a Plan B. Beginning with comic strips, it reminds the reader just how much of an adult medium comics was, while also a kid’s medium. Everyone, from the average reader to presidents and supreme court justices, were reading comic strips. If you were to ask if comics were for all Americans, it would have been hard to dispute that in, say, the first eight or nine decades of the 20th century.

Those of us growing up with comics in the ’80s and ’90s, thinking about our childhoods with superhero comics, we might wonder if there is still a space for kids left. You end up with this strange phenomena of an aging readership and DC and Marvel having to deliberately make sure they’re still in the kid’s business. For another generation, that would have been an impossible idea to process.

Lastly, you don’t really have to ask if comics are still for kids when you have such great talents as Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier and so many others. These are millions of copies of work being read by kids. And available in schools, bookstores and libraries. A development that might have surprised us growing up as kids.

Let’s focus back to the independent creators. Would you share your thoughts on the Hernandez Brothers?

One of the things that the Hernandez Brothers are best known for is a long-running series, Love and Rockets. They’re from California and have a Hispanic background. It is divided roughly into two tracks. One is a more realistic set of adventures of some women in a town like Oxnard, where they grew up, and then there’s a more magical realist setting in Palomar. One of the things that I love re-reading these book is observing how much the Hernandez Brothers soaked up influences from things that came before them in a wide variety of ways. They are one of the leading voices of the independent alternative comics movement. And they love Archie comics. You clearly see the influence of Dan DeCarlo in Jaime’s work. They love EC comics and science fiction. There’s a reason why they include rockets in their title.

The enormity of their talents comes from the depth of character that they invest in the work. The complicated milieus that they put together. And the very lovely use of language, both verbal and visual, that they use. I urge anyone not familiar with their work to seek it out. Fantagraphics has done a tremendous job with releasing these massive volumes, like the Locas stories, along with very particular volumes.

Sticking with the theme of independent creators, please share your thoughts on the evolution of creator rights. Publishers are still catching up with contracts and still at odds with ownership rights. For example, Alan Moore may technically own rights to Watchmen but, as long as Warner Entertainment makes the book available, the publisher retains the rights to print it.

The story behind Watchmen is interesting, writ large, of changing technologies, changing cultural mores and institutions that change everyone’s expectations. Moore and Gibbons made the reasonable assumption that eventually Watchmen would go out of print. That’s what eventually happened to comics back in 1986. But, just at this time, the idea of comics in book form really took hold so these comics could remain stocked in bookstores forever. Just in terms of the thought processes that go into these contracts, who could have anticipated rights related to the internet ahead of time?

You’re right that there’s been a big change in the business arrangement. One of the stories that I tell in the book is about how underground cartoonists wanted the same rights of ownership as enjoyed by comic strip artists in the past and how those ideas gradually made their way into the mainstream.

We have to talk about the elephant in the room, Marvel Comics. I can’t keep up with all the movies but I’m grateful they’re out there. We have definitely moved well beyond the traditional American comic book movie that never went much past an origin story. Marvel gave us movies that closely followed what was actually going on in comic books.

There would be another Batman or Superman movie and I’d want to go but I knew I’d have to sit through the usual origin story. You’re absolutely right that Marvel Comics came along and said it would embrace all the complexity and continuity of comics. Marvel gave us movies that actually relied on other movies, or TV shows, for significant plot points.

I don’t believe we’ve ever had a franchise like the Marvel Universe in movies before. One of the things that helps this come together is the development of streaming. So, you have a platform, Disney Plus, that allows you to easily catch up on movies that you may have missed. Everything is nicely laid out. And you have these hub and spoke models which allow for wider diversity and experimentation. It would have been very hard to have made a WandaVision movie in the past but having it on Disney Plus allows for taking a chance.

And we really need to talk about Scott McCloud. His book on comics theory, Understanding Comics, is vastly influential. He has made a significant contribution to our appreciating that comics has a language and a grammar.

Scott, who I know personally, had three remarkable innovations. The first was as a cartoonist with his work, Zot, which he uses to do a number of things. He was influenced by manga. There’s visual dynamism here and very emotional sweet stories. Second, of course, and most monumental, is as a comics theorist and to do that in the comics form. Paul and I use Understanding Comics, as many others do, in our class. And his third act has been in his role as a visionary of comics on the internet. He was an internet evangelist long before others.

McCloud was spot on about the internet being the platform for new talent. Anyone can post their comic on the web and they have a chance at connecting with readers anywhere in the world. We’ll still have to wait and see about some of McCloud’s more involved ideas like interactive comics. It will be interesting to see what develops in the coming years.

It’s interesting to try to tell the story of some of the things that did and didn’t work out. As cultural historians, it’s our duty to talk about how things could have gone another way. So, the most famous example of this is the experiment with 3-D comics in 1952. Were we going to read comics with red and green glasses? No. With the internet, we keep trying different things. Will we read comics on our phones, one panel at a time, or on someone’s newsletter? As you say, we don’t really know what will shake out. And, as you point out, what we do know is that we now have this democratization effect. Anyone can put their comics on the web now. And, if you have millions of people grooving to your comics, that’s going to matter and I think that’s amazing. For all sorts of reasons, that was not the case for most of comics history. You had to be part of a very small set of geographic locations in order to be part of the conversation. That’s just not the case anymore.

One final question to round things out. My own experience with your book began with Chapter 8 which spoke to me because of the focus on Seattle. I’d mentioned earlier to you that we share similar sensibilities. This all leads me to ask you how did you happen to discover one particular Seattle cartoonist that you include in your book, Jennifer Daydreamer?

You had mentioned Karen Green before we started the interview. Karen is Columbia’s comics and graphic novels librarian. One of the things I did for the book was work with Karen with this marvelous collection that she’s assembled. And Jennifer Daydreamer’s work is part of it. I thought, wow, this is work that I really admire and I wanted to make sure it was represented. So, the combination of Karen’s collection and a lot of things mentioned in the press, like in The Comics Journal, added up. If I can give someone a bit of a megaphone who really deserves it, I am delighted if that helps.

I’m so happy to hear that. Well, full disclosure, Jennifer Daydreamer and I have been together going back to the early aughts. As I was saying, the chapter that features Seattle really took me back. Jen and I have many tales we could tell and it all adds up to cherished memories. And so it will be for readers of your book as they make their own connections.

Coming from someone who really knows, like yourself, I really take that compliment to heart. Thank you so much for these kinds words and this interview.

Thank you


Filed under Comics, Interviews

4 responses to “Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

  1. selizabryangmailcom

    Realizing comics were fodder for university courses…. genius!!!
    Hey, happy holidays to you and yours, Henry!

  2. selizabryangmailcom

    Yeah, of course he’s not the only one. I was just thinking of the concept by itself, when that light bulb went off. Thinking out of the box; it fascinates me ’cause I hardly ever do it myself, lol !!

    • Ha! I get it. Actually, Jeremy Dauber’s book is probably the first time that the whole spectrum of American Comics, from the earliest strips to today, has been discussed in a book quite like this. And there’s still plenty more to dig into.

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