Comics Scholars Survey Results, November 1995

compiled by Peter M. Coogan

B. History
B.1. What histories have been written?
B.2. What do you like or dislike about these histories?

Joseph Witek expressed the consensus about comics history thus, "Real comics criticism will need to use the fan inspired research as a base, but if we don't get beyond the character-worship and nostalgia approach, we might as well quit." Other scholars echoed this concern, and indicated that enough broad, popular, purely descriptive histories have been done. Everyone indicated a need for rigorous academic and critical histories which focus on "comics' treatment of specific themes or subjects" (Douglas Highsmith), and "linking developments in comic art to broader" cultural patterns (Kenneth Nordin), although Barb Rausch mentioned that she liked histories which are written from a "genuine and enlightened in-depth engagement with the subject matter," and cited Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes as an example.

Gene Phillips noted the number of good "diachronic histories," but cited their limitations coming from their focus on "tracing comics-phenomenon purely in terns of historical events." He mentioned Mike Benton's The Comic Book In America as an exception to this rule, due to Benton's inclusion of genres.

Luca Somigli saw the work of David Kunzle as a possible model, but was "extremely irritated at his 'haute couture' attitude" given that he's barely past the Yellow Kid in his second volume. Luca added the usefulness of genre histories that go beyond "celebratory coffee-table" books like Les Daniel's recent celebratory history of Marvel.

Leonard Rifas added, "The misinterpretation of the anti-comics crusade as a variety of McCarthyist hysteria is a central fallacy in comic book historiography." Amy Nyberg, at the 1994 PCA in Chicago argued that the perception that the comics code crippled the industry, as opposed to the medium, is a similar fallacy. Kathe Todd pointed to the role underground comix played in changing the public's perception of what a comic book can be about, and the failure of historians to give them the credit they deserve.

B.3. What kind of histories need to be written?
B.4. What specific topics need histories written about them?

Histories of the industry, the audience, creator biographies, fandom, the distribution networks, and other non-textual histories. Jim Lowe would like to see biographical research of the masters, including extensive interviews documenting facts relating to their strips as well as "the lifestyle and work environment of the old syndicate 'bullpens.'" He fears the disappearance of "another whole generation of living resources," as exemplified by the death of Bob Dunn, who took many anecdotes regarding Knerr with him to the grave. At the 1994 PCA Joe Witek discussed the central role of the undergrounds in the history of comics; Steve Bissette made this same point in a phone conversation I had with him about science fiction comics.

Gene Phillips called for more "synchronic histories" that deal with specific topics, and he cited The Many Lives of the Batman as a good start, "although its discussion of other media- representations detracts somewhat from consideration of the comics." To this I would add that the superhero needs to be studied first and foremost in its home medium, comics, although the interaction and interdependence of superhero comics and superheroes in other media should always be appreciated.

B.5. What age are we in, and is ages a good way to continue to define historical periods? (Golden, Silver, Marvel, Bronze, new, independent, Baroque, etc.)

Englishman Martin Barker's answer, "Not sure what you mean," showed up my American bias. Other scholars gave varying answers as to what age we are in, including "the Capitalist Age," "the Big-Money-Big-Promo-Little Content age," the "age of monopolization," the "paleozoic age," and "the post-modern age for DC., the Silver (modern)-age for Marvel. . .and the post-post-modern age for Eastman and Laird's TMNT and Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot." Barb Rausch believes that the Independent Age is a justifiable term, given the critical and commercial success of independent comics and the influential work of independent creators on mainstream characters. Basically the answers seemed to indicate that ages were not a good way to continue defining historical periods, because outside the Golden and Silver Ages, no one seems able to agree on what age we are in or, for that matter, when the Silver Age ended. I do believe that media have general impetuses that we can characterize, and sometimes label, but that doing so isn't necessarily necessary (there wasn't any discussion of ages in the responses).

Gene Phillips cited Darrell Boatz's breakdown of the various ages in CAPA-Alpha, which designated the current age as the "Age of Plastic." He reminds us that "so long as we keep in mind that an 'age' denotes primarily a nexus of creative influence in a particular field, it is a useful designation (and probably an unavoidable one). I will try to find Boatz's breakdown and include in an update of the survey.

One of the problems with the use of ages, in my view, is that they really apply only to superhero comics. The Silver Age did not mark a change in humor or romance comics, and the Golden Age of horror and science fiction comics, if the forties and fifties can be described in this manner, were not followed by a Silver Age.

I've recently put some thought into this topic. Here are the ages of American Superhero Comics: Antediluvian: everything up to Action Comics #1 in 1938 (i.e. before the superhero really existed); Golden Age: From Action Comics#1 to Showcase #3 (although the impetus driving the Golden Age ended in 1949 with the cancellation of many superhero comics, I'd lik e to be completely inclusive and cover every year); Silver Age: Showcase #4 to 1970 when Jack Kirby left Marvel, the DC veterans were almost all gone, and Marvel and DC were the only remaining publishers of superhero comics (see Mike Benton Superhero Comics of the Silver Age and Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones The Comic Book Heroes 151-157); Bronze Age: 1970 to DC Comics Presents #26 with the first appearance of the New Teen Titans (see Jacobs 259-289). The 70s featured a tarnishing of the advances and developments of the Silver Age, nothing new was really created and the Bronze Age just played out the power of the Silver Age, but was different in that it lacked the previous period's creativity. I first came across a reference to the Bronze Age in a 1992 San Diego Comicon information packet); Baroque Age: DC Comics Presents #26 to present. Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones detail the way a new synthesis resulted from the reinvention of the Teen Titans in DCCP #26. Although they trace the impetus of this synthesis back to X-Men #94, they note how a real change in superhero comics only came about with DC's effort. They use the term "synthesis" to describe the new superhero comics, so perhaps the Synthetic Age would be a good term, but I prefer the term Baroque Age because the self-reflexivity, self-referentiality, and Byzantine nature of superhero comics today makes this an appropriate title. I took it from Thomas Schatz's Hollywood Genres; he explains the characteristics of baroque works of genre art, as "when the form and its embellishments are accentuated to the point where they themselves become the "substance" or "content" of the work" (38). The focus on marketing, story arc, universes, continuity, etc. indicate a baroque approach to the superhero genre. I like the term Baroque Age because it moves us away from the metal metaphor (after all we'd soon be in the terracotta age) and into the terminology of music and art history.

Back to the Introduction and Survey Outline