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The Classic Era Of American Comics

classiceraamericancomicsNicky Wright
Carlton Books $24.95 US/ $26.95 Canada

Wright’s untimely death around the time of the book’s original publication in 2000 has kept the author’s name from becoming better known in the areas of comics history and journalism. That is a pity and please don’t let his demise deter you from this book. Graced with a foreword by Joe Kubert whose own well known career spanned decades till his death in 2012, Wright covers comics’ first two decades in a concise, informative, and enagaging manner. Laid out chronologically, each of the eleven chapters focus on different genres whose popularity rose and waned, from their inception repackaging comics strips and the superhero surge following in the wake of Superman through to the rage of crime and horror comics that attracted the obsessively dogmatic attention of Frederic Wertham and Congress. In my youth I was a superhero comics snob when I was first introduced to comics though I had a definite interest in science fiction and horror with an occasional straying into war and western titles. Wright evoked the popularity of other genres and I found myself enjoying the sections about various styles of girl comics, humor titles and westerns quite a lot more than I anticipated. Comics then, like now, was a male dominated field, and Wright has done an admirable job in talking about various luminary Golden Age male artists and studios such as the Eisner-Iger operation. The names Ramona Fradon and Marie Severin are familiar to many fans, but Lily Renee, Fran Hopper, and Marcia Snyder were new to me and their mentions whet the appetite to uncover more about their work and lives. A sample of Renee’s style from a piece of art for Arabian Nights featured in Classic Comics #8 looks like it might have inspired P Craig Russell’s fanciful work.

The initial draw for my interest was the publisher’s mention of Frederic Wertham. Wright focused a good portion of the book detailing the crime, horror, and other comics that sexualized women which were the fodder for Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent that subsequently caused public outcry and bonfires fueled with comics. Any such discussion has to include EC Comics and publisher Max Gaines and son Bill. An example of a tidbit I found interesting in this section was Bill’s method of producing comics that stood in contrast to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s method of collaboration. While not a secret in comics history, I found the father and son’s strained relationship and the tragic accident that forced son Bill to take charge of the company gave me a greater appreciation of Bill, as a man who’d wanted to live his own life and as a publisher trying to save his father’s company, while being caught in the crosshairs of Congress. Wright doesn’t ignore either sexuality in comics from the time period or Wetham’s accusations about it. However, nearly all the analysis centers on heterosexuality. I’d have appreciated more talk about Wertham’s accusations of alleged homosexuality.

Two quibbles regarding the book. At times Wright mentioned a specific cover or work and the piece is not reproduced. It can be a bit disappointing with the visual medium of comics. Not to disparage in general the choice of illustrations as they’re all relevant, but it can be disappointing when the subject is such a visual medium as comics. The other had to do with the author stating romance comics are inexpensive items to come by. This may have been true 13 years ago when the first edition was published or it may be more indicative of my personal perspective and perceived value of what makes a bargain. Take that as a grain of salt.

No personal credit is given to the book design and that’s a shame since it’s nicely executed. Crisply printed on matte paper and sporting comic covers and interior art samples on nearly every page. The book itself is an oversized 9 by 11.5 inches. When opened the interior pages lay flat and make for a beautiful spread. My only caveat involves the cover material. The material used is thankfully heavier than a paperback cover and lighter than a hardback and may require a little attention when taking off or putting on your bookshelf to avoid dings.

Classic Era is the second book I’ve read in the past three months about comics history and I found this to be as interesting as The American Comic Book Chronicles 1960 – 1964. It should appeal to readers wanting a book that’s more than a primer but less than a dry, scholarly text.

The publisher provided a copy for review purposes.

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