Comics : Comix: A History of Comic Books in America

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Industry Books

This review was first published on: 2005.

Background...

I don't know about you, but when I see the name "Les Daniels" my most instinctive association is with the hefty celebration of Marvel named Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades. That book was writte fifteen years, way back in 1991, in the heady heights of the comic publication excesses that marked that decade. Even now, those fifteen years are enough to make "Five Decades" interestingly historical, as we look back on it with the knowledge of how those same excesses nearly killed Marvel Comics as we know it.

How even more interesting then to read a "History of Comics in America" written in 1971, nearly thirty-five years ago! Just think about it... Amazing Spider-Man still hadn't hit #100 - Gwen Stacy was alive and well. More interestingly, the Comics Code Authority was still in control, though ASM #96 (the drug issues, printed without the approval of the CCA) had highlighted the first, crucial chink in the the armour of that ludicrious creation of paranoid fifties America. Actually, it take until September 2001 before ASM (Vol. 2) #33 became the first issue of ASM to no longer feature the CCA stamp on the cover. Did you notice at the time?

In Detail...

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America
Year 1971 : Review (No SM)
Find ISBN 0517110377
Publisher:  Bonanza Books
Writer:  Les Daniels
Artist:  John Peck
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Review

Most of the books we've covered so far in "Industry Books" have had a specific angle they've wanted to cover. They've been about the Fans, about Marvel, about the Sociological aspects, about the nature of the comic medium, and so on. To some extent, that reflect the sophistication that the medium has achieved in recent years, that books have been able to specialise and focus. By contrast, "Comix" is an early book on Comics - in fact Daniels claims that there have only been three books written on Comics prior to 1971, all of which focused on the "Golden Age".

Because of the huge absence of any text on the subject at that time, it's quite understandable that the writer might feel that his priority is to cover as much as he can, and to just get some sort of stake in the ground. That's pretty much what he does, which leads to the broad chapters that arise: "The Comic of Comics", "The Birth of the Comic Book", "Dumb Animals", "The E.C. Revolution", "The Comics Code Controversy", "The New Comics", "Mighty Marvel", and "Underground Comics".

Within the 200 or so pages of this hardback 8 3/4" x 11" book, over half of the pages are actual reproductions of representative comics, printed with permission of the owners. Minus the index, intros, etc., that doesn't actually leave too many pages of text, and hence the coverage of each topic tends to move at a pretty fast pace.

Daniels is clearly familiar with his subject. His biography makes aged 28 or so at the time of writing, having finished his M.A. in English only a couple of years previously, but he has the air of a long-time comics fan. The general look and feel of the book, however, marks it clearly as the work of a dedicated amateur in a number of important ways - not strictly in terms of production quality, but more in the writing style and approach. Let me elaborate.

Firstly, the approach is enthusiastic rather than scientific. Sure, there's plenty of dates and names in here, but they're more the details of an ardent enthusiast than a scientific analyst. Secondly, the writing style is really quite "arty". In fact, at times the writing is so creative and inventive that the meaning of the sentence is completely lost. Part of this comes from the fact that Daniels clearly has a good grounding himself in the subject matter, and he seems to forget that the reader might not actually have the same background that he might possess. Especially thirty-five years later, I often felt that some sections were more a reflection than an explanation.

Thirdly, the structure and flow of the book is a little vague. In stark contrast with Bradford W. Wright's thorough treatise, Comic Book Nation, Comix washes backwards and forwards a little in time and space. "Comix" is rather flighty - it covers some areas in detail, then skips lightly over other areas that seem to me to be equally as important. Daniels tends to play favorites a little. The same applies to the comics which are reprinted in this book - for example, the text gives great weight to the influence of the early cartoon, "The Yellow Kid", but then doesn't reproduce an example. Perhaps legal constraints played a part, but even so it's rather disappointing.

As a final note, there are a number of factual errors that I spotted. My instinct tends to suggest that since I spotted three or four, the total number is likely to be much greater. For example, the Spider-Man B&W magazine is erroneously named as "The Fantastic Spider-Man", when it was of course "The Spectacular Spider-Man". There are other silly errors too, which do damage to the otherwise authorative mantle of this book.

In General...

Despite its foibles and weaknesses, there is much that is good, and indeed important about this text. Les Daniels was clearly an amateur writer and comic fan struggling to be objective amidst the insanity of the CCA. He was clearly trying to mark out a legitimacy for the comic medium among a public that was skeptical of it's validity. Putting all that aside, there are some gems of information in "Comix" that make it an important part of the nearly-lost history of the genre.

For any academic wanting to get an objective, modern, introduction to the domain, I would suggest Comic Book Nation as a more thorough text. But to those like myself who already have an appreciation of the history of comics, this book provides a rare and fascinating view from somebody writing from within the turmoil that the comic industry was in the late 60's. This is an important piece of history, for which we are much the richer.

Overall Rating...

Patch in parts, sometimes given to verbosity over clarity, struggles to be objective, and a product of its generation, Comix is nonetheless an important work that belongs on the shelf of any serious student of the history of American Comics. I give it four webs.