Medievalist Comics and the American Century by Chris Bishop (review)
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Reviewed by
chris bishop, Medievalist Comics and the American Century. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2016. Pp. x, 233. isbn: 978–1–496–808050–9. $65.

There is no good reason why we should have had to wait this long for a book-length study of medievalist comics. After all, comic books have been an immensely popular genre throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. By 1940, for example, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby had sold fewer than 25,000 copies. In the same year, Superman comics were selling more than a million copies every month! Chris Bishop, thus, helps close an obvious lacuna in the study of medievalism. His monograph provides a rich fabric of contexts (political, social, biographical) for the seminal signposts in the history of American comic book medievalism. He shows Prince Valiant (1937) and Green Arrow (1941) as products of a rich engagement with Arthurian, Robin Hoodian, and general medievalist lore; Mighty Thor (1962) as a reaction to Germanic immigration; Conan the Barbarian (1970) as born from a desire to escape Depression-era Texas; Red Sonja (1973) as a response to the feminist movement; Beowulf: Dragon Slayer (1975) as an unsuccessful attempt at enticing a popular audience with a narrative that was mostly limited to academics; and Northlanders (2007) as a recent example in which modernity is ‘transposed onto the Middle Ages’ (p. 24). Bishop’s chapters are valuable case studies in the reception history of each of these comics, including much detail about publication histories, personal connections between newspaper tycoons (William Randolph Hearst) and authors (Hal Foster, creator of Prince Valiant), and how the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality and the 1980s sex wars had an impact on the publication history of Red Sonja, the feminist icon. His prose is delightfully clear and therefore accessible to non-academic readers, and his historicist approach makes for an unclouded organizational principle. A revised version should take care of a number of errata: The British Churchm[e]n (p. 6); Köln is situated in western not ‘southern Germany’ (p. 9); D[u]rer-esque (33); Fraternit[e] (p. 126); Cary Lenahan’s B.A. Thesis is cited like a monograph in the bibliography (pp. 196, 222); Hearst[s] (p. 198); Ri[s]tson; William [James] Thoms (p. 200)—and I found these while reading for content, not as a copyeditor.

As a detailed reception study of medievalist comic books in the ‘American century,’ Bishop’s study is a success. However, in his introduction as well as in his conclusion, he adds an intellectual framework that feels imposed. Since he is writing about a popular form of medievalism, but does not want to do the hard work of engaging with the theory of medievalism studies, he declares that, ‘while [m]edievalism will inform the discourse’ of his study, ‘reception history’ is his ‘primary objective’ (p. 6). [End Page 102] Similarly, after some cursory nods to Umberto Eco and Hedley Bull, he dismisses the differences between medievalist and neo-medievalist theories as ‘relatively semantic’ (p. 12). Bishop’s excuse for not engaging with the pesky and work-intensive ‘study of meaning’ in medievalism studies is that ‘the premier academic journal dealing with medievalism today [Studies in Medievalism] must devote four consecutive years of scholarship to its very definition’ (p. 12). Had he read some of the scholarship in these volumes, he would have realized that the Northlanders series, which he calls ‘nonmedievalist’ (25), is a ‘picture-book’ example of neomedievalism as defined by Carol L. Robinson, Pamela Clements, and Daniel Kline. That the writer of the series ‘made no attempt to portray the ontology of his Norse subjects or to represent historically the multifaceted culture from which they sprang’ (p. 25) is precisely because neomedievalist narratives, unlike medievalist ones, create pseudo-medieval worlds whose goal it is to playfully obliterate history with simulacra of the medieval, employing images that are neither an original nor the copy of an original, but altogether ‘neo.’ Neomedievalist narratives and their characters, thus, spring from the pages of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, not from the pages of history books written by academics or original medieval texts, even...