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The Vigilante World of Comic Books

American Comics: A History by Jeremy Dauber

For those of us who grew up enjoying (and have grown old romanticizing) the bright, resplendent four-color pleasures of comic books, it may be time to admit we’ve been had. It may once have seemed that comics offered intelligent young men and women an escape from the awfulness of middle-American life. But seeing today how thoroughly those serial fantasies have infiltrated every aspect of modern culture, it’s beginning to look as if comics largely reinforced our worst impulses and instincts.

From their early days, comic books taught kids about a Manichaean universe in which subterranean, irrational, and irredeemably evil forces continually threatened society’s superficial order. The popular, early detective strip Dick Tracy envisions criminals as creatures from the “lower orders,” such as a “tramp” who flagrantly steals rides on trains (and murders the hard-working guard who tries to stop him). Later they develop into genetically twisted, born-bad mutant-freaks such as Mumbles, Pruneface, Flattop, and the Mole—a rogues’ gallery often referred to as “the Grotesques.” Their collective homicidal methods include stabbing, shooting, immolation, and freezing people to death in refrigerator cars or scalding them in steam baths. To stop these evil-mutant types from taking over the world, Dick Tracy and his square-jawed fellow cops meet force with force, firepower with firepower. And they always, always win. As one newspaper editorial replied to complaints about the violence in Dick Tracy: “The sooner a child finds out what kind of world it is, the better he or she is equipped to get along in it.”

What children “learned” from early crime comics was that people with lots of money were at the endless mercy of people without any. From the time The Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939, his enemies were, like Tracy’s, noted for their disfigurements—such as the Joker, Two-Face, and Clayface. And in a typical story, “crime” was something usually committed by people with nothing, against those with too much—often by means of jewel-thievery and house-breaking, or by robbing banks and trains. In The Batman’s first appearance, Commissioner Gordon enlists Bruce Wayne to investigate the murder of “old Lambert … at his mansion”; and “victims” of the next two issues include both the Van Smiths and the Vander Smiths. The Batman routinely hangs men outside high skyscraper windows or pummels them senseless in order to obtain confessions. No Miranda rights for these creeps. They were born bad and deserved everything they got.

Comic villains disputed the very idea of “civilization” with Tommy-gun bursts of animated nihilism—memorably dramatized by the Joker’s staccato “HA HA HA”s. Or, like Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus, by devising diabolical scientific machinery for enslaving the world. As comics “evolved” over the next 50 years, these humanoid but deeply inhumane monsters grew only more irrational, sadistic, and destructive, slaughtering wider and wider swathes of humanity, until eventually the likes of Galactus and Thanatos were annihilating thousands, millions, and billions of sentient life forms at a time. 

Jeremy Dauber’s American Comics: A History is an entertaining, big, and (sometimes too) comprehensive survey of the comics industry, from its inception in early twentieth-century newspapers to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe megamovie crossover empire. What quickly grows clear is how adroitly a simple format—sequences of narrative panels, dialog bubbles, and a story line that might take many months, years, or even decades to reach a conclusion—thrived in almost every commercial medium that came along, spreading rapidly to magazines, radio, movie serials, television, film, and games. But despite this facility to span media and cultures, most comic books continued to dispense the same nonsense they started with, depicting a universe in which people are defined by the brute exercise of power. Not to mention the unbelievably exaggerated ways their bodies always seem about to burst out of their Spandex.

It didn’t have to get so ugly. From the beginning, comics offered many bright alternatives to their own superhero nonsense, with a wide range of pleasing and still unusual comics, such as the surreal and anarchic dream-comedies, Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and later the lush, resplendent marvels of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, a series of panel illustrations thrumming with color and vitality that rivaled only Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon as one of the most beautiful Sunday color strips ever produced.

Read entire article at The New Republic