Of Comics and Men by Jean-Paul Gabilliet

Posted by on April 14th, 2010 at 10:27 AM

Kent reviews a newly translated cultural history of U.S. comic books.

Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Jean-Paul Gabilliet. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. 366 pages.$55.00 hardcover. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-267-2.

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One of the axioms of comics studies is that the French (and Belgians) do it better than the rest of us. I’ve been at more than one panel where the room went respectfully silent when a speaker or audience member regretfully announced that, “the best work on this subject is in French, but it hasn’t been translated.” As with ordering wine, comics is one of those fields where a working knowledge of French is an asset.

Bits and pieces of Francophone comics analysis and criticism have been translated into English, of course. Comic Art, the International Journal of Comic Art and Image and Narrative (“a peer-reviewed e-journal on visual narratology in the broadest sense of the term”) have all featured the work of prominent writers on comics who live and work in France and Belgium. Mark McKinney’s edited collection History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels (2008) includes several European contributors.

The most notable development has been the English-language publication of Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (2007). Groensteen’s dense text, with its distinctive phraseology (e.g., “spatio-topical,” “restrained arthrology” and “plurivectorial narration”), almost single-handedly redeems comics studies’ Francophilic romance. While some readers have complained about the book’s formidable barrage of jargon, I thought it definitely rewarded a second reading.

Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen translated both The System of Comics and Of Comics and Men, and they know this terrain as well as anyone. Beaty writes on European comics for The Comics Reporter, and teaches communication and culture at the University of Calgary, while Nguyen is an archivist and comics historian. But. as Beaty and Nguyen must realize, the two books are quite different, in focus and approach.

Whereas The System of Comics is framed by and speaks to explicitly theoretical questions, Of Comics and Men “documents the rise and development of the American comic book industry from the 1930s to the present” (back cover). Organized into three sections, the book traces the evolution of the comics industry and its relationship to creators, readers and critics. Each section is roughly one hundred pages. The book is packed with information about everything from circulation numbers, unionization efforts and retail price trends, to censorship campaigns, fan culture and Western comics. On certain questions the book pretty much sums up everything we know, or think we know, given the available information.

Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s carefully laid out volume often reads more like a reference work than a monograph. While the author draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s insights into social status and taste, the book’s ambition lies in its scope rather than its conceptual scaffolding. Interestingly, Gabilliet’s only reference to Groensteen is buried in a curt footnote: “An example of the essentialist approach rejecting any historical determination is found in Thierry Groensteen, The System of Comics…” Gabilliet’s preferred approach, of course, is all about historical determination and context. I picture them as leaders of antagonistic schools of French critical thought, whose members have to rumble when they see supporters of the other team coming toward them.

On the whole, Gabilliet seems more interested in “institutions” than “culture” (or, rather, his emphasis is on cultural institutions). He pays a lot more attention to how Marvel and DC (and Dell and Archie) functioned as commercial enterprises than on storylines that inspired readers. When he writes about characters like Superman and Spider-Man he focuses as much on innovations in printing, distribution and brand management as he does on their semiotic resonance. He occasionally offers value judgments but mostly sticks closely to verifiable facts. His history of U.S. comics does not have much to say about aesthetics, artistic styles and elements like line, form and color, but it’s a great resource if you want to find out how small publishers shook up the industry in the 1980s or which Silver Age character appeared when.

For a more conventionally “cultural” account of comic books in the United States – one that explores how social currents like anti-communism, civil rights and the counterculture were reflected in the pages of mainstream comic books – I can safely recommend Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (2001). Wright’s book is not as sophisticated as Gabilliet’s, nor does it cover as much ground. But it’s useful if you are curious about the kinds of political views that Marvel writers have inserted into the mouths of superheroes like Captain America, Spider-Man and Iron Man.

That sounds pretty kitschy, doesn’t it? There’s a lot to be said for the institutional approach.

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