Comic books played an important role in my childhood. I loved reading the illustrated stories about Superman and other superheroes. Yet my mother deplored comic books and refused to permit them in our house. I had to resort to reading them in the homes of my friends or at summer camp. Comic Book Nation by Bradford W. Wright provides a compelling explanation of the popularity of comics and of the opposition they have often aroused in the US in the past 75 years.
Wright, a young faculty member at the University of Maryland University College, European Division, establishes his focus clearly at the start. In the very first sentence of his introduction, he observes that "few enduring expressions of American popular culture are so instantly recognisable and still so poorly understood as comic books".
Wright's aim is to understand the forces shaping youth culture and the historical pressures that have caused that culture to change. While comic books often follow a formulaic pattern, they still tell us a great deal, particularly before the advent of television and rock 'n' roll.
Wright provides a clear and crisp historical overview of the comic book world. He describes the origins of Superman in the first issue of Action Comics in 1938, and Batman, who followed two years later. As the US dealt with the ravages of the great depression, these figures were "superheroes for the common man", and comic books, by targeting corporate greed, underscored many of the assumptions of the New Deal.
Comics played an important role in the second world war as well. In an entertaining chapter, Wright notes how Superman's creators wanted their character to participate in the war, but worried that he might upstage America's real-life fighting forces. To that end, they had him fail his physical examination, by mistakenly using his X-ray vision to read the eye chart in the next room and name the wrong letters. Declared unfit for military service, Superman dedicated himself to assisting the war effort by policing the American home front.
In equally engaging chapters about the postwar years, Wright notes the growing attacks on comic books. Critics claimed that they "caused eyestrain, promoted illiteracy, celebrated bad taste and encouraged anti-social behavior in children". Hearings before a Senate subcommittee to investigate juvenile delinquency in 1954 highlighted some of the more lurid stories and led to a code for self-regulation like that adopted by the movie industry.
Television complicated the comic book world, Wright argues, and led to efforts to recapture the market. In Vietnam, "the grim conflict simply did not lend itself well to superhero fantasies". But in 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics introduced first The Incredible Hulk and then Spider-Man, both of whom acquired super-powers after exposure to radiation. Spider-Man became the archetype for the industry.
Later in the 1960s, Wright notes, the counterculture appropriated some of the comic book heroes. In the film Easy Rider , Peter Fonda's character went by the name of comic book character Captain America. And folk-singer Jerry Jeff Walker called one song on his Mr Bojangles album "Ballad of the Hulk."
In recent years, the industry has again encountered hard times. As the overall consumer culture has come to dwell on the perpetuation of adolescence, Wright asks: "Is there a place for comic books in an America that has become a comic book parody of itself?"
Whatever the fate of comics in the future, Comic Book Nation is a readable, sophisticated and well-illustrated account of popular culture in the American past.
Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University, Ohio, US.
Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America
Author - Bradford W. Wright
ISBN - 0 8018 6514 X
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £24.00
Pages - 336