Critical Takes: Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner

by Derek Royal

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner (Thames and Hudson)

If you’re interested in reading a history of comics, there are a variety of texts to choose from. There are the classic surveys of comics, such as Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (1947) and Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). For highly research general overviews, there are David Kunzle’s two-volume History of the Comic Strip (1973, 1990), M. Thomas Inge’s Comics as Culture (1990), Robert C. Harvey’s The Art of the Funnies (1994) and The Art of the Comic Book (1996), Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs’s The Comic Book Heroes (1996), Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation (2001), Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow (2004), Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s Of Comics and Men (2010, discussed here in a previous review), Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics (2012), and the TwoMorrows Publishing’s multi-volumed American Comic Book Chronicles (2013-present). Insightful histories that are oversized and could double as beautiful coffee table books include Roger Sabin’s Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (1996), Ron Goulart’s Great American Comic Books (2001), and Paul Gravett’s Comic Art (2013, reviewed here previously). And for more specialized or targeted histories, there are Mark James Estren’s A History of Underground Comics (1993), Patrick Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions (2002), and Dez Skinn’s Comix (2004, histories of the underground comix movement); Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinée (2007) and Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture (2007, histories of Franco-Belgian or European comics), Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish (2004) and Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics (2012, histories of Marvel Comics), Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval (1998) and David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (2008, histories of censorship and the Comics Code), Larry Tye’s Superman (2012) and Brad Ricca’s Super Boys (2013, histories of DC Comics and Superman, the latter previously reviewed on this blog), Matthew J. Costello’s Secret Identity Crisis (2009, comics and the Cold War), and Trina Robbins’s Pretty in Ink (2013, women in comics). And these are not the only histories of comics, by far.

What makes Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner’s recent Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present stand out in this crowded field is its geographical and comprehensive ambitions. While most histories, such as those listed above, limit their scope to comics in the United States, or to some other specific national culture, Mazur and Danner’s reaches far beyond American shores. As the subtitle suggests, Comics is broad look at the medium world-wide, although it primarily focuses on three particular geographical regions: North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Occasionally the ComicsGlobal1authors will bring in a discussion of comics produced outside of these areas, but as they point out in the book’s preface, these regions are the three main wellsprings of comics production.  Even though Mazur and Danner limit themselves to comics published since 1968 — with any history, you have to draw the line somewhere — they have nonetheless written one of the most complete, interconnected histories of comics currently available.

Mazur and Danner provide a very quick introduction, setting the context for their study, and then plunge into the history. Comics: A Global History is divided into three temporal sections covering comics produced between 1968 and 1978, between 1978 and 1990, and from 1990 to the present. Each of the three geographical regions covered are given fairly equal treatment, and the authors avoid putting too much emphasis on U.S. or English-language comics. For example, Part One begins with three chapters on U.S. underground comics, American mainstream comics, and then a convergence of those two creative trajectories. After that the authors devote three more chapters to mainstream manga, alternative manga, and a special focus on Osamu Tezuka. This section ends with two chapters on Western European comics, one focusing on l’age adult and another on new publishing practices in the U.K. and the continent. The remainder of the book follows this general format, with the remaining two sections dividing its chapter layout among these three broad cultures. The authors maintain a fair balance throughout — although in the final third of the book there does seem to be more emphasis placed on American comics — and in the concluding two chapters, focusing on technological innovations and comics in the new millennium, they bring together these various cultural strands to underscore the international cross-pollination within the medium.

As with any comprehensive history of comics, the emphasis is on the broader picture more than it is on detailed readings. As such, Mazur and Danner provide an overview of the stylistic schools and movements that defined the last four decades, and they briefly discuss representatives figures of these various trends. For example, in tracing the development of Japanese comics they emphasize mainstream creators of of the 1970s (looking at artists such as Kazuo Umezu, Leiji Matsumoto, Kazuo Koike, Moto Hagio, and Yumiko Ōshima), the impact of Garo magazine (discussions of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Maki Sasaki) and watakushi manga (Yoshiharu Tsuge and Shin’ichi Abe), the growth of realistic manga and josei in the 1980s (Hinako Sugiura, Katsuhiro Otomo, Masamune Shirow, Suehiro Maruo, Kyoko Okazaki, and Akimi Yoshida), the extremes of the heta-uma style (Takashi Nemoto and Yusaku Hanakuma), and the quest for a more “respectable” manga after public outrage over morality — not dissimilar to censorship arguments in 1950s America — during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. And in their discussion of European comics, they move seamlessly from ligne claire to the impact of Pilote and L’Echo des Savanes magazines, to fumetti d’autore, to Moebius and Métal Hurlant, to the British undergrounds, to Nouveau Réalisme, to the German-Swiss avant garde, to L’Association. And that speaks to one of the great strengths of Mazur and Danner: their ability to weave together diverse artists and movements into a smooth-flowing narrative.

And of course, Comics: A Global History provides a substantive overview of comics in the United States from the late 1960s to the present. The authors give a balanced assessment of both mainstream and underground/alternative/indie comics, although at times they privilege more the non-mainstream titles and creators. Indeed, there are occasions when Mazur and Danner almost shortchange American mainstream history. Most of the corporate ups and downs of DC and Marvel are absent from this text. And while there’s some discussion of the speculator boom of the 1990s, there’s almost nothing about the changes in distribution, the direct market, and the large impact those had on the industry. Then again, Mazur and Danner are less interested in the economics surrounding comics than they are in the stylistic movements and aesthetic lineages that make up American comics history…or any national comics history, for that matter. The authors are clear when it comes to the influence of a particular artist or a particular publication philosophy, but are much less forthcoming on the impact of economics and industry practices. In this sense, Comics may have been better subtitled as “A Global Aesthetic History.”

The shortcomings of this historical focus are most apparent in the last chapter of the book. And again, it occurs at the expense of mainstream comics. While the authors are right to highlight much of the growth and innovation outside of the mainstream over the past decade — e.g., the rise of the graphic novel, the emphasis on autobiographical comics, the impact on the industry of young adult graphic novels, and the growing presence of webcomics — they are relatively dismissive of the changes, and challenges, facing DC, Marvel, and other premiere comic-book publishers. The current state of the mainstream is yoked to the recent rise in big-budget comics-related motion pictures, and that’s about it. Yet, despite these minor elusions or omissions, Mazur and Danner manage to generate a compelling history made up of the various aesthetic strands that have grown out of, and in many cases have transcended, their national/cultural origins. In fact, their final chapters underscore the international and intercultural state of comics today. For fans and scholars wanting a more comprehensive history of the medium, one that doesn’t begin and end with the American comic book, Comics: A Global History should be the first place that they turn.

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Be sure to read Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present as well as other works of comics history mentioned in this review:

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