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American Quarterly 52.1 (2000) 145-150

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Beyond the Funnies:
Comic Books, History, and Hegemony

Ian Gordon

Bad Language, Naked Ladies, & Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. By Anne Rubenstein. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. 210 pages. $17.95.

Fifteen years ago a reader in search of something more than descriptive histories of comic art would have been hard pressed to find works in English beyond three or four books and a few scattered journal articles. Much of what was available simply suggested that the popularity of comics alone justified their study and that comics reflected popular concerns. Two books that stood out from the pack were the first volume of David Kunzle's magisterial History of the Comic Strip and Martin Barker's The Haunt of Fears. Kunzle analyzed the European graphic narrative tradition arguing that these were early comic strips but took the tale only to the end of the eighteenth century. Barker discussed the British anti-horror comic campaign of the 1950s. The direct impact of these works on those interested in American comics was rather limited, but their themes and methods resonate through the better works on comics now being published. 1

In the time since, the University Press of Mississippi has carved a niche for itself in the comics' field by publishing important works by Joseph Witek, Robert Harvey, and Amy Kiste Nyberg. Additionally [End Page 145] Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics--an analysis of the medium's narrative techniques--not only found a wide audience but also greatly expanded the discussion of the formal aspects of comic art. For a short time, the Ohio State University Press published the academically focused comic art journal Inks. When it folded, the indomitable bibliographer of comics, John Lent of Temple University, established the International Journal of Comic Art, with extensive and inclusive editorial and advisory boards. There is also a comic scholars discussion list on the net and a home page: <>. Additionally the Popular Culture Association has for many years had a comics subgroup, which in recent years has been made up primarily of academics for whom comics are central to their work rather than a side interest. A glance at dissertation abstracts reveals a small boom, across a variety of disciplines, of comics-related doctorates in the 1990s. Comics have become a field of study bordering on respectability. 2

Anne Rubenstein's Bad Language, Naked Ladies, & Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico would seem to be part of this development taking comic books as the central focus of a study on modernity and political legitimacy in Mexico from the 1930s through to the 1970s. However, Rubenstein's topic is not so much comics as the discourses surrounding them in Mexico. She makes the large claim that "the interpretive communities gathered around popular culture were Mexican civil society in this era" (3). 3 She regards these discursive communities as the sites of conflict between tradition and modernity, revolutionary and mainly Catholic conservative ideologies, and national and transnational interests. Rubenstein sees these exchanges as making visible Gramscian hegemony. In a memorable sentence, owing much to Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, she suggests that the story of comic books shows "that the culture of market capitalism did not simply pour itself over conservative and revolutionary Mexican ideologies like a layer of cement, but instead, was molded by them into a shape it would not otherwise have had" (6). 4

Rubenstein argues that Mexican comic books, or historietas, are a very different medium than U.S. comic books. Whereas the U.S. books are sold in specialty shops and feature superhero stories of appeal primarily to young males, historietas appeal to broad audiences and are sold on newsstands. She says "their popularity cuts across lines of [End Page 146] region, age, gender, and even class," and as late as 1990, eight of the top ten periodicals in Mexico were comic books (8). She sketches the development...


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