- Medievalist Comics and the American Century by Chris Bishop
Chris Bishop's new book examines the literary and historic roots of American comics, and how these works of popular culture use medieval European characters to reflect modern American history. The volume features an introduction and conclusion, and seven chapters, each focusing on an individual comic title: Prince Valiant (1937); The Green Arrow (1941); The Mighty Thor (1962); Conan the Barbarian (1970); Red Sonja (1973); Beowulf: Dragon Slayer (1975); and Northlanders (2007).
Bishop's introduction provides an excellent overview of the history of comic books and the concept of popular medievalism as a genre, and he states that his focus is chiefly to contextualize the texts studied, rather than interpret them. Medievalist Comics and the American Century is successful as an elaborated reception study of a selection of comics published in America from the late 1930s until more recent times (2007). Bishop's discussion of the comics is largely descriptive rather than analytical, providing detailed publication histories. To this effect, he outlines connections between publishers (such as the looming figure of tycoon William Randolph Hearst) and the authors (such as Hal Foster) and artists (such as Howard Pyle and Newell Convers Wyeth) who would go on to influence and popularize the idea of medievalism in the United States in the twentieth century and beyond. Surprisingly, Bishop does not overly engage with medievalism, declaring that, 'while [m]edievalism will inform the discourse' of his study, 'reception history' is '[his] primary objective' (p. 6), before quite flippantly reducing the difference between medievalism and neo-medievalism to mere semantics (p. 12). A more thorough engagement with both medievalist and neo-medievalist theory would have strengthened Bishop's work, especially in his final chapter on Northlanders.
The first three chapters examine the immigration of Arthurian legends, Robin Hood, and Viking lore into the United States. Bishop presents Prince Valiant, DC's Green Arrow, and Marvel's The Mighty Thor as products of a rich engagement with this medievalist culture and history. He traces each work, from academic interest in the medieval, to transmission to the general public through immigrant culture, and then finally its adaptation and popularization in the comic form. [End Page 149]
The next two chapters focus on Marvel's barbarian warriors Conan and Red Sonja. Bishop outlines how Conan the Barbarian was resurrected from pulp-fiction obscurity and buoyed along on the wave of interest in fantasy literature that started with J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Bishop frames Red Sonja as a response to America's feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, with major comics publishers such as Marvel and DC realizing they needed strong female characters. However, a backlash against feminism led to a (problematic) revision of Sonja's backstory (p. 140), an example of the 'Women in Refrigerators' trope that continues to be used in comic storylines today.
The final two chapters focus on two titles by publisher DC. Bishop's interest in Beowulf: Dragon Slayer is primarily as an example of failed medievalist work compared with Prince Valiant, Green Arrow, Thor, Conan, and Red Sonja. It lasted a mere six issues, failed to excite the public's imagination, and has 'never taken root in the popular conscious of America' (p. 160). Northlanders, another failed medievalist work—Bishop terms it an 'unmedievalist' comic book(p. 164)—resulted from author Brian Wood's struggles with his publisher Vertigo. An imprint of DC, Vertigo wanted a series based on Silver Age comic character the Viking Prince, whilst Wood was more inclined to write a Japanese neo-noir gangster saga. However, in taking Tokyo gang stories and setting them in old Iceland, Bishop neglects to see Northlanders not as a failed medievalist work, but as a perfect example of a neo-medievalist text: it is set in a pseudo-medieval world, and playfully engages with, and interrogates, medieval history and culture.
Bishop's writing style is clear and concise, and the book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and index...