- Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean-Paul Gabilliet
Jean-Paul Gabilliet, a French professor of American Studies at the University of Bordeaux, has written a cultural history of American comic books that aims to balance a scholarly treatment of the subject with a fan’s appreciation of the popular art form. Originally published as Des Comics et des homes: Histoire culturelle des comic books aux Etats-Unis (Editions du temps, 2005), Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s study is a welcome contribution to the growing interdisciplinary scholarship on American comic books.
Gabilliet divides his study into three major sections. The first is a straightforward survey of “Seventy Years’ Worth” of major trends in the development of the comic book industry. Gabilliet’s overview in this section, which comprises about a third of the book, offers much that will be familiar to those already acquainted with the general history of comic books and provides little in the way of content or contextual analysis. But he does nicely chronicle the essential parts of the story and includes attention to the full range of comic book publishing, including even funny-animal comics, underground “comix,” and the acclaimed graphic novels of recent decades, in addition to the superheroes that have been the industry’s commercial mainstay.
In the book’s middle section, “Producers and Consumers,” Gabilliet provides an incisive study of the cyclical development of the comic book business since the 1930s. He also includes a fresh look at the evolving labor dynamics within the comic book creative community across several generations, including failed efforts at unionization, contractual disagreements, and the difficulties of weaving original creative concepts into established company properties.
In the third section, “A Difficult Consecration,” Gabilliet studies the peculiar place that comic books have occupied within American culture. For their avid fans, comic books comprise a canon of nostalgia and fantasy geek lore, but these same qualities have tended to marginalize the industry within the larger culture. Influenced especially by the theories of Pierre Bourdieu on taste, cultural hierarchy, and social space, Gabilliet understands the comic book industry’s “consecration” as both a story of frustration in terms of achieving respect and legitimacy from the “external” culture as well as fulfillment within a complex (which he diagrams) of social space [End Page 230] negotiated by fans and collectors. To this, Gabilliet adds an appropriate comparison with France, where comic books have enjoyed the kind of critical prestige that has eluded their American counterparts. He also provides a helpful historiographic essay on comic book scholarship in the United States.
As that essay highlights, the field of comic book scholarship in the United States, while having grown in recent years, remains relatively small, and any contribution as substantial and sweeping as Gablilliet’s is certainly welcome. There is a great deal of popular interest in the history, creators, and characters of American comic books, and a readable cultural history of American comic books merits a large audience, but this book will not achieve such an audience. While analytically sound, the subdivision into three overlapping sections works against the narrative flow that a cultural history should have, and there is too much of the cumbersome theoretical jargon and baroque sentence constructions that commonly afflict otherwise admirable works of cultural studies. The absence of illustrations is also disappointing. Still, those interested in a serious and thoughtful socio-cultural study of American comic books will find much of value in Of Comics and Men. Bart Beaty, Nick Nguyen, and the University Press of Mississippi have done the field of interdisciplinary comic book scholarship a service in publishing this English-language translation.