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  • The Comic Book At Its Best
  • Mark I. West (bio)
A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. Eds. Michael Barrier and Martin Williams. New York: Smithsonian Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

For a long time, children's popular culture attracted little attention from the scholars and critics who specialize in children's literature. Except for an occasional condemnatory article, the professional journals in the field seldom published much on the subject. Some recent developments, however, suggest that this pattern of neglect may be coming to an end. Both this journal and The Children's Literature Association Quarterly have dedicated special issues to the subject, and it is also being addressed in an increasing number of conference papers.

Although it is too early to make many generalizations about the scholarly work now being done on children's popular culture, it appears that most of the books, articles, and papers about the subject take one of three approaches. Some focus on the relationship between a particular form of popular culture and its audience. Others attempt to delineate the conventions of a certain genre, such as the teenage romance novel. Still others concentrate on individual works of popular culture. Critics taking this third tack usually argue the case that some such works transcend the conventions of their genre and ought therefore to be recognized for what they are: authentic works of art. This last approach is the one developed by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, a treasury of out-of-print material that, as the editors indicate, "is intended to be not so much a survey or a sampler as a statement about the comic book at its best."

In their introduction, Barrier and Williams explain how, in the early 1930s, newspaper comic strips evolved into comic books, and they outline the basic characteristics of two of the most popular sub-genres, super-hero books and the humorous type for younger children, like [End Page 108] the Walt Disney Comics. Archie and other books with teenage characters are mentioned, though only briefly. Barrier and Williams also discuss—again only briefly—the controversy that led to the decline of comic books in the mid-1950s.

Although adequate in most respects, the editors' introduction is far from comprehensive. Their account of the comic book's demise is especially weak. They make no mention of Fredric Wertham, the New York psychiatrist who led the campaign against comic books, or of Wertham's influential anti-comic book manifesto, The Seduction of the Innocent, in which comic books are assailed as the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. They make reference to the fact that comic book publishers, in an effort to appease their critics, agreed in 1955 to follow a set of guidelines known as the Comics Code, but they don't give any indication of the Code's provisions.

Scattered throughout this volume are well-researched, fascinating notes on a variety of individual comic books and the artists who created them. Many of the illustrators and writers whom Barrier and Williams refer to are not widely remembered today. Their careers make intriguing reading.

Some entered the field while still in their teens. Carl Barks was a laborer "heating rivets in a railroad yard" before landing a job at Walt Disney Comics. More to the point, the editors argue convincingly that a number of comic book artists were as creative and accomplished as their finest counterparts among the authors and illustrators of traditional children's books.

The 32 comic book stories reprinted in this volume, all in full color, reflect Barrier and Williams's emphasis on artistry and originality. Several stories were chosen from the various super-hero series such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, Bob Kane's Batman, Jack Cole's Plastic Man, and C. C. Beck's Captain Marvel. Also well represented are stories in the humorous comic book vein, with selections from Sheldon Mayer's Scribbly, George Carlson's Jingle Jangle Comics, John Stanley's Little Lulu, Carl Barks's Donald Duck, and Walt Kelly's Pogo. All of the stories chosen were originally published between 1938 and 1955.

Many pleasant surprises...


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pp. 108-110
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