A Comic Book History of the Comic Book's History : Monkey See Comic books about the history of comic books: Form, meet Function.
NPR logo A Comic Book History of the Comic Book's History

A Comic Book History of the Comic Book's History

Comic Book Comics: The history of the comic book is certainly interesting enough to inspire...a comic book. Evil Twin Comics hide caption

toggle caption
Evil Twin Comics

The American funnybook boasts a long but as-yet-not-particularly-storied history. Only relatively recently have cultural historians and biographers begun to train their gaze on the men and women behind the comics medium.

Which is odd because they're, you know, a colorful bunch.

Take, for instance, the whole gang of cigar-chomping, mobbed-up publishers who decided, in the '30s, to switch from churning out porn to churning out comic books, to avoid getting hassled by the Feds.

Or the bondage-lovin', polyamorous psychologist/inventor who created:

1. Wonder Woman,
2. Her magic lasso (which compels people to tell the truth), and
3. The modern polygraph machine (or anyway a precursor thereof.)

Or the screwed-over co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, who gradually retreated into the life of a Pynchonesque recluse. (If you can imagine Pynchon really, really digging the collected works of Ayn Rand.)

Or the celebrity psychiatrist who blamed juvenile delinquency on comic books, and thus ushered in a new era of comic publishers .... getting hassled by the Feds. The guy made some fair points (yes, a decidedly creepy injury-to-the-eye-motif did in fact pervade the comics of the time). But his stubborn tendency to mistake the subtext for the text caused him to make a series of assertions (Batman and Robin = gay lovers, Wonder Woman = lesbian) that would go on to inspire generations of hacky stand-up comics.

After the jump: Comic Book Comics, funnybooks about funnybooks that are actually, you know, pretty funny books.

A handful of good books have been written about this motley collection of hucksters, naifs, criminals and craftsmen. But it seems only fitting, and long overdue (and yeah, more than a little meta) that the history of comics should be chronicled in comic book form.

Enter the exhaustively researched — and seriously goofy Comic Book Comics, by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.

The third issue came out in February. So far, Van Lente and Dunlavey have taken us up to the 1960s, having guided us through the industry's birth pangs, the war years, and the co-opting of comic book imagery by the pop-art movement (which, as you might imagine, still rubs comics types the wrong way).

All along the way, they've captured the ... ah, dynamic personalities that write, draw, edit and publish the comics and characters we know and love. And they've done it with wit, energy, a healthy dose of insolence and a dedication to getting it right.

In-jokes abound, but what strikes you about Comic Book Comics is how rigorously clear and accessible the creators have made the discussion of a given creator's style.

Dunlavey's art doesn't simply tell us that Jack Kirby's work was bold and dynamic — it allows us to see how it differed from what went before. We learn what Will Eisner could accomplish that others couldn't, and why Jack Cole's Plastic Man work is still hailed for its imagination — and deep, abiding weirdness.

Issue 4 will be out soonish, its subject the emergence of "Face Front, True Believers!"-era Marvel Comics, along with the underground comics scene of the '60s. Me, I can't hardly wait.

Poke around some pages from Issue One, or Issue Two, to see why.