The American Monomyth - Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence (Pt.1 - An Introduction)

As consumers of popular culture, looking back to the past from 2008, the pattern should be familiar to us now;
An idyllic heaven is threatened by some external force, against which the hard-working, honest townsfolk is helpless. A selfless hero of superhuman capabilities and dedication comes to save the day and restores the harmony by violently dealing with the external threat.

Most recognizable from superhero comics, this pattern has pervaded to every outlet of popular culture and has become a major force in forming our expectations towards problem resolution.
But where does it come from and how does it work?
In their 1977 volume The Amerian Monomyth, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence aim to decipher this phenomenon, which they call the American Monomyth.

In his introduction to the book, Isaac Asimov states that despite the scientific and technological advances of the past centuries, American society has not moved beyond mythical consciousness, but has replaced the classical monomyth with a distinctively American one. Asimov argues that the central theme of the American monomyth is redemption, whereas the classical pattern was centered around a rite of initiation. The theme of redemption is a secularized adoption from the Judeo-Christian dramas, where a selfless servent impassively gives his life to serving others and zealously destroys evil that threatens them. Asimov further argues that, in such a setting, these supersaviors function as a replacement for the Christ figure and the fan loyalties that these stories invoke should be compared to traditional religious following.
Asimov warns that such a perspective imparts the relaxing feeling that society can actually be redeemed by anti-democratic means.

In order to elaborate the basic premise outlined by Asimov in his introduction, the authors Jewett and Lawrence take up some of the most influential popular culture icons of the 20th century and demonstrate how the monomtyh can be identified in their core messages.

Their examples include Star Trek; the Starship Enterprise as the redeemer figure for troubled people and its crew as the sexually repressed men of dedication and iron will.
And Playboy; whose images of lustful and craving women trying to seduce upright, disinterested and cool men who only seem to accept their invitation to redeem them from the delirium of their lust.
Brilliant these analysis may be, but for the purposes of this blog, I want to concentrate on the authors' analysis of the superhero comics in general and Superman in particular on the second part of my review.

How to Read Superhero Comics and Why - Geoff Klock

Superhero comics constitute an overwhelming majority of the comics market, they are, for most people, the most familiar face of the whole medium. Yet, the burgeoning academic interest in comics mostly seems to pass them by. Although superheros and more specifically their readers have been a subject of analysis from sociological and psychological perspectives, superhero comics themselves are probably perceived as still being a bit vulgar and shallow to merit any literary analysis.
Geoff Klock's How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (2003) aims to counter this perception and offers an interesting look at some of the most important works in the genre through literary perspective.
Klock specifies his object of analysis as the revisionary comics, a trend that started to evolve in the last two decades of the 20th Century. As a mark of maturity that has clearly identifiable beginnings, revisionary comic books have fundamentally recast the way comic book artists and audiences perceive the genre since their appereance.
Although Klock extends his analysis onto many works that follow them, his insights are arguably at their most incisive during his analysis of the two monumental works that has given birth to the revisionist trend in superhero comics. These two works are of course, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen. By carefully identifying the way these seminal works relate themselves to the rest of the comic book history, Klock illustrates his argument that these works are indeed the first examples of a revisionist attitude in comic book artist.
Klock's rich and detailed reading of these important works are very illustrative, both in understanding the depth of Miller and Moore's significance but also in grasping the importance of the revisionist movement within the comic book history.
Although not as comprehensive as some other book I have covered so far, How to Read Superhero Comics is very enlightening and precise where it delivers its analytical perspective on some of the most important comic books ever written and for that measure, it is a work of unique value.

The Sandman Papers - Ed. Joe Sanders

Since its first publication in 1989, The Sandman has been a subject of endless praise and popularity amongst both comic book fans and strangers to the medium. Many has credited Neil Gaiman's masterpiece for drawing fresh crowds into comic book readership with its elaborate plots and complex characters. When the sheer amount of historical and mythological themes that are intertwined within the long arc of the work is considered, it is no surprise that The Sandman is a very popular comic book for academics as well.
The Sandman Papers (2006), edited by Joe Sanders is an attempt to collect a series of essays written about Gaiman's famous work. Even before coming to the quality of the individual essays and the depth of the book, I think it should be acknowledged that publication of an essay collection that is solely devoted to a single comic book title sends out a very optimistic message for the study of the comic books in general and proves how much comics have come their long struggle to be recognized.
The Sandman Papers is organized into two broad categories according to the scope of the issues that are dealt within the articles presented. The first category, "Episodes & Themes", contain articles that take up a specific aspect of Gaiman's work and analyze it from a certain perspective.
Titles of the papers included in this section are as follows;
-"The Origin of The Sandman" by B. Keith Murphy
-"Of Stories and Storytellers in Gaiman and Vess's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'" by Joe Sanders
-"A Game of You-Yes, You" by David Bratman
-"The King is Dead, Long Liv the King: Orientalism, The Sandman, and Humanity" by Renata Sancken
-"Illusory Adversaries?: Images of Female Power in Sandman:The Kindly Ones" by K.A. Laity
-"Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman's The Wake" by Joan Gordon

It should be noted that a common theme among the essays presented here is the focus on the multi-layered structure Gaiman has composed within the narrative of the Sandman. For all the readers of the comic book who are interested in possible ways of exploring some of the themes Gaiman presents, these essays offer a very interesting starting point and illustration of what can be done.
For those who want to go further, the second section of the book, "Larger Contexts", offers studies of the Sandman narrative within broader literary and theorethical frameworks. The essays presented here are;
-"Aether/Ore: The Dreamworld Descends to Earth" by Alan Levitan
-"Of Parents and Children and Dreams in Mr.Punch and The Sandman" by Joe Sanders
-"Imaginary Places and Fantastic Narratives: Reading Borges Through The Sandman" by Leonara Soledad Sousa e Paula
-"Reinventing the Spiel: Old Stories, New Approaches" by Stacie Hanes and Joe Sanders
-"Omnia Mutantur: The Use of Asian Dress in the Appereance of Dream from The Sandman" by Lyra McMullen
-"Lesbian Language, Queer Imaginings, and in Death: The Time of Your Life" by Joe Sutliff Sanders
As mentioned earlier, these articles provide interesting examples to the possibilities of studying Gaiman's work with relation to larger contexts.

Although some of the texts lack a certain degree of cohesiveness and integrity, what they all succeed in achieving is to prove the overall depth and suitability for academic scrutiny of The Sandman in particular and comics books in general.
It goes without saying that any fan of The Sandman, or Gaiman, would be curious to read the findings of these articles on their beloved works but The Sandman Papers also appeals highly to all who are interested in the academic study of comic books for The Sandman is one of the richest sources for any intellectual inquiry and Sanders' book goes a long way of doing it justice.

The Ten-Cent Plague - David Hajdu

The period between late 40's and early 60's are considered as being in between the end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age of American comics. Although some of the key events of the period have been mentioned elsewhere, notably in the relevant chapters of the Comic Book Nation, they have never been subjected to a detailed historical analysis.
David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague (2008) aims to close this gap by focusing on this amazing period.
Hajdu starts his narrative with the boom of comics in the American popular culture scene in the 20's. From this point on, he presents an extremely detailed and rich history of the proliferation of the comics industry both with facts and profiles on important characters. From an early point on the immense care Hajdu has shown over his historical research shows itself in the density and colorfulness of his narrative is really worth the praise.

While tracing the history of the industry over the years, Hajdu also follows the social and economic developments and aims to present the psyche of the general audience of comics.
As the time moves on and the main subject of the book becomes more apparent, the public reaction against the comic books, Hajdu's historical narration reads as exciting as a novel while presenting various sources from his research for validity.
Both during and after the events that lead to the establishment of the Comics Code, a very detailed analysis of the broader social effects are presented while the toll these drastic measures took on the comic book industry reads like a true lament. (Hajdu thoughtfully provides a list at the end of the names of artists who lost their jobs and never returned to comics after the purge of 50's.)

While the Ten-Cent Plague is an indispensable book for understanding the history and evolution of comics in America, it is also a very important example of great comics scholarship, crafted with both love towards the medium and historical objectivity.
In addition, Hajdu's presentation of the greatest public upheaval against a popular culture outlet carries great importance as a demonstration of how wrongly-channeled ignorance of the masses can aggravate into devastating results and it should stand as a warning sign for all discussions in the future concerning popular culture.

Reading Comics - Douglas Wolk

Although the cover jacket proclaims Wolk's 2007 volume as "the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism", the very existence of this blog proves that Reading Comics is no such thing. But, apart from the rather pompous cover blurb, Wolk, as a veteran comics reader and critic, has succeeded in putting together a very interesting and comprehensive book nevertheless.
Reading Comics is organized in two parts, in the first part that takes up about one third of the book, Wolk discusses various theoretical subjects regarding comics and takes up some of the more general aspects of comics readership. The rest of the book is devoted to reviews and opinions of Wolk on individual artists and their work. Although he has very interesting views on some of the most important artists and his reviews of their work are on the whole very enlightening, for the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the first part of his book and present a summary of how he tackles with the theoretical aspects of comics.

Wolk starts with an insightful discussion of what comics are and what they aren't. He emphasizes the ways comics differ from prose and movies. He then sketches out some of the limitations and possibilities of the unique characteristics of comics' language.
After establishing his understanding of comics, Wolk states his mission as to explore some of the ways it's possible to read comics and he adds that his interest lies more with the way readers interact with comics than anything else.
The comics Wolk is interested in the most are the ones that display an individual and distinctive style, which in most cases exclude long-running series, even though they have considerable cultural significance.
In aiming to more clearly define style, Wolk attempts to describe it by adapting the auteur theory from cinema to comics.

After establishing his interests as such, and why he is interested in them, Wolk goes on to provide a very concise, yet illustrative history of the art comics movement.
This is especially important because the history of this artistically most creative branch of the medium is seldom told by other studies of comics history.
While telling their evolution, Wolk also cites several other literary and aesthetic theories to explain the way arts comics come to diverge from mainstream and how is this divergence significant.

Another very interesting topic Wolk takes up is the naming conventions of various comics. He suggests the terminology used by the comics industry;
  • Periodic publications with saddle-stitching are comic books,
  • Anything square bound is a graphic novel and
  • comics is the abstract notion used to describe the form.
He claims that any value judgments that are inherent in terms like graphic novel and comic book are problematic and non-helpful.

Wolk also turns his attention to the comics culture and presents a very sincere picture of the comics enthusiasts and what he loves and hates about them.

Before finishing the theoretical part of his work, Wolk overviews the superhero genre and while trying to identify a way to constructively analyze them he suggests a deceptively simple question: "What does this character metaphorically stand for?"

Although Wolk covers in his theoretical writings many of the themes discussed brilliantly by both Eisner and McCloud, he manages to bring a personal approach to these issues and while I don't personally agree with some of his arguments, his sincere approach always makes interesting reading.

The rest of the book is taken up by the analyses of various comics artists and their work where Wolk usually provides very insightful and knowledgeable opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the works discussed.

Overall, Reading Comics might not be the only book you'll ever need to read about comics but it provides a very interesting perspective on all the issues it tackles. Probably what I loved the most about the book though is the apparent love of comics of the author that can be felt in every sentence and at least in this respect, the book sets a great example.

Comic Book Nation - Bradford W. Wright

Although the works I have presented so far have all been theoretical in their focus, a clear understanding of the history and development of comics is also crucial for any comprehensive study of the medium. Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation (2001) addresses this need by providing a socio-cultural history of the comics from their origins until today. It should be noted from the beginning that Wright focuses almost solely on the mainstream American comics but given the longevity and overall cultural influence of the genre, such a focus is only adequate.
Wright starts by the birth of the Superman and the superhero genre it spawned. Following the burgeoning medium into its first golden age, Wright also presents a very interesting and incisive analysis of the socio-cultural environment that provided such a fertile ground for the proliferation of comics.
Covering the reactionary movement against the comic books in the late 40's and 50's that has almost killed the industry, Wright covers the rejuvenation of the medium, consistently providing a very comprehensive analysis all the way up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
As I mentioned earlier, although it presents a through narrative of the history of mainstream comics in America, the real brilliance of Wright's work is its ability to provide a very solid commentary on this narrative.
With the authority of a historian who has done his research properly, Wright provides much valued insights into the causes and effects of significant events in the comics' history. His insights into the motivations and intentions of some of the great figures, like William Gaines and Jack Kirby, prove to be very useful in understanding what these pioneers really achieved.
It should also be noted that although Wright is an avid comic book fan himself, he achieves in being objective while assessing the merits and harms of the cases he presents. I have never got the impression that he is pushing a personal point of view on some figure or work.
Overall, Comic Book Nation is an immensely helpful book that anyone who is interested in studying comics would benefit from. By combining a through historical overview with an illustrative analysis objectively, Wright's work serves a great need in comic book studies and is certainly a highly recommended read.

The Language of Comics - Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons

Following McCloud's groundbreaking work, comics gradually gained acceptance and popularity among academia. In the Language of Comics, published in 2002, editors Varnum and Gibbons present a collection of essays that further McCloud's analysis of the special relationship between word and image in comics. Mostly written by authors who are very well versed in the literary and semiotic theory, essays presented in the book offer different perspectives into the issue while also concentrating on diverse parts of the history of comics.
Editors has succeeded in collecting essays that are about as diverse topics as the Wile E. Coyote animated series and the silent Chat Noir comics. This diversity of the subject matter is very refreshing as most of the later literature will focus on more mainstream works.
Although not a book to be read from cover to cover, Language of Comics is an important collection with a rare academic depth and diversity of subject matter. Maybe after a initiation period with the comics history and an introduction to theory by McCloud, it would make a very effective illustration of how to broaden and deepen one's knowledge and present examples of very interesting and creative places to apply in the comics history.

Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud

Although Eisner's work was a pioneer in studying comics, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1994) might be the single most influential book written about comics so far. Disguised as a very easy to read comic book, a very brilliant idea in itself, McCloud dissects the language of comics from a variety of perspectives.
From a philosophical dissection of the place of comics within the general scheme of artistic expression to the details of storytelling, McCloud presents an extremely coherent and deep study which renders his work as an essential for anyone who is interested in studying and understanding comics.
One of my aims in this blog is to summarize the works I review, but trying to summarize Understanding Comics is almost impossible, since it is a very dense work, despite its accessibility.
So, if you decide to read only one book about comics, this should be it, for it will certainly convince you to go out and read more. An absolute must.

Comics and Sequential Art - Will Eisner

It is only adequate that one of the first treatises on the language and structure of comics belongs to Will Eisner, an artist whose importance to the medium cannot be overestimated.
In the preface to his Comics and Sequential Art (1985), Eisner states his purpose as to examine the unique aesthetics of comics as a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline and an art and literary form. Echoing his lifetime battle for the acceptance of comics as a recognized art form, Eisner argues that upon reviewing the features of the comic books, their unique elements take on the properties of a language, which he is about to dissect and illustrate.
Eisner starts by analyzing the imposition of visual and textual elements within the framework of comics, which integrates the “regimes of art and literature” (Eisner, 7). Eisner illustrates some of the contributions of individual elements and how they interact and empower each other: For example the visual impact of the lettering onto the mood of the panel.
Continuing with the visual style, Eisner argues that imagery in comics can be placed in between the complexity of visual arts, like painting, and the reductionist simplicity of pictographic representation. This, according to Eisner, provides the comics artist both with the simplicity and accessibility of pictograms and with the ability to use add light and atmosphere, overall constituting a very adoptable and versatile toolkit.
Other particular areas Eisner focuses on the use of comics language are the depiction of time, constructing the ideal framing and achieving the most accurate depiction of anatomy, all elements that built on and feed from each other. Eisner gives examples of how different shapes and styles of frames, coupled with particular word balloons can be used to convey the passage of time in a certain manner. In which ways frames can be used to control the narrative and place the reader’s perspective within the narrative and how to place characters within these frames in order to depict the action in the most effective and economical manner.
Within all the issues he discusses, one unmistakable quality of Eisner’s book is his ability to provide an almost perfect representation of what he describes. With selected stories or frames from his long career, he demonstrates how the visual and textual elements he just described can be practiced. For the credibility such a technical prowess gives alone, Eisner’s book is an invaluable companion for many aspiring artists and readers who aim to learn more about comics.

Introduction

Comics, have been one of the most influential, prolific and popular media throughout the twentieth century. They have reflected the society they are created in with intense clarity and unmatched honesty. They have also been in the forefront of change by being the harbinger of newly emerging values and practices. They have bred some of the finest artists of the modern age, while being regarded as nothing more than senseless junk, and despite their immense importance in understanding modern popular culture and the society that lives and breathes within it, the story of comics is mostly an untold one.
Although there are some early attempts, it is only in the past two decades that comics are started to be regarded as worthy topics of historical and academic study and the body of work that have so far emerged can only be described as patchy.
My aim in this blog to map out the current scene of comic book studies and review some of the most remarkable and important works in a roughly chronological order. Such an organization will also reveal interesting details about the evolution of the study of comics.
I am hoping to provide, a personal, guide to reading the current literature in comics, illustrating what each book would help in what way and for which type of reader.

It would be fantastic if this blog could somehow become a platform for discussing reader opinions about these, and other, books on comics but if I could provide some constructive opinion about one of these books for someone who is curious, my goal would be achieved.