Law and Conversation

September 29, 2011

The fascinating history of comic books

The other day I posted about Banned Books Week here in the US. In the mid-20th century there was a powerful movement against comic books in this country, complete with public burnings. I’ve noticed, though, that comic books don’t usually rate mentions during Banned Books Week. Indeed, though I’ve always loved comics, until just a few years ago, when I happened to be listening to podcasts reviewing David Hajdu’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” I had no idea about that interesting and appalling part of US history.

Jeet Heer’s article in Slate, “The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books,” reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Hajdu’s book for some time and ought to move it up on my list. Now that I know that Wertham and his partisans succeeded in whipping even Congress up into a frenzy over comic books, I understand why, when I was a child a couple of decades later, my parents didn’t want me to tell anyone I had my own subscription to MAD magazine. But Heer’s nuanced treatment of Wertham, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, also reminds us that many comics of that period contained story lines and imagery that even those of us who oppose banning books would find shocking and repugnant today.

I mentioned Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novelization of the mid-20th century’s comic book age, in my last post. The fictional storyline of Chabon’s novel reminded me strongly of longtime MAD magazine artist Al Jaffee’s real life story, which Mary Lou Weisman tells in collaboration with her subject in “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.” (What, you don’t remember which cartoons Jaffee drew? He invented the brilliant Fold-Ins back in 1964; NOW do you remember?) You can read more about Jaffee and Weisman’s book, including the entire prologue, complete with some of Jaffee’s wonderful illustrations, on HEEB’s website.

To summarize, here are three reading recommendations for books about the fascinating history of comic books:

1) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu

2) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

3) Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, by Mary Lou Weisman

As always, I’d love to hear other recommendations for further reading in the comments.

UPDATED: Neatorama has a great post on the history of comic books. Hat tip: Judex Jones.

November 17, 2010

Three graphic memoirs worth reading

I mentioned last week that I’ve been on a graphic novel kick on and off this year.  The combination of dialogue, occasional narration, and often stylized cartoons to tell great stories never ceases to fascinate me.

The relatively recently coined term, “graphic novel,” not to mention the Pulitzer Prize that Art Spiegelman won for “Maus” in 1992, is an indication of the respect comic books have gained since I was growing up, when my parents admonished me against revealing that I had a subscription to Mad magazine.

My parents’ admonitions notwithstanding, until recently, I didn’t realize just how controversial comics once were, condemned by no less than Sterling North, the author of Rascal, and Frederic Wortham, the Comic Book VillainDavid Hajdu recounts that interesting and scary history in his nonfiction “The Ten Cent Plague:  The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America,” which is reviewed here and here.  Hajdu discussed his book and the history of comic book persecution and burning in a number of podcast interviews, including this one from Maximum Fun and this one from NPR.

Here are three other graphic memoirs worth reading:

1)  Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, which got me started on graphic novels earlier this year, is the story of the Iranian revolution of 1979 from the vantage point of a young girl in Tehran as she grows from a small child into a rebellious teenager.  Her parents ultimately send her to Vienna for her own safety and for more opportunities.  (Satrapi now lives in France.)  Satrapi also wrote “Embroideries” and “Chicken With Plums,” both of which I enjoyed, but not as much as “Persepolis,” which was made into a movie.  Like “Maus”, “Persepolis” is a two-volume work, and, also like “Maus,” the first volume so enthralled me that once I’d finished it, I RAN to the library to check out the second. 

2)  Stitches:  A Memoir.  David Small’s remarkably nonbitter account of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his radiologist father’s unwittingly planting the seeds of cancer by treating his breathing difficulties with massive amounts of x-rays during the 1950s.

3) Fun House, Alison Bechdel‘s memoir of coming to terms with her father’s and her own homosexuality, and with her relationship with her complex father.  Bechdel drew and wrote the comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” for years; I thought she’d stopped, but her website seems to suggest that she may still be drawing it.

I have more graphic memoirs and novels and books relating to comics on my near-term reading list, including Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” and Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay.”  With so many great stories, fiction and nonfiction, in graphic novel format, and with even more stories about the history of comic book controversy and censorship, there’s no lack of material for future posts.

What comics or graphic novels have you enjoyed?

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