The Golden Age of Comic Books

On the past and future of the funny pages


Ben Schwartz's edited volume The Best American Comics Criticism is the first attempt to anthologize and build a canon of short-form history, journalism, and criticism about comics, and it does a fine job. It also self-consciously marks the beginning of a fresh era in acceptance and achievement for non-genre works told in comics form—"lit comics" as Schwartz has it.

In a way though, from my perspective as a comics fan since picking up an issue of Super Villain Team-Up #2 at a 7-Eleven in the summer of 1975, it also marks the end of an era in comics audiences: the end of an era in which one person could be reasonably expected to be interested in everything in this book.

Like the comics form itself, The Best American Comics Criticism is about both now and history (and as I took a swing at explaining in my essay, "Comics Tragedy: Is the Superhero Invulnerable?" the "now" of lit comics is constrained in interesting, curious, and not always obvious ways by the history and concerns of genre comics). And it (rightfully) subsumes under "criticism"—writing that explores and discusses intelligently the value and essence of a work of art—history, the voices of creators, and the art form reflecting on itself—in addition to the more expected "essay explicitly assessing a particular art work or creator." It surveys successfully a new world in which both the specialty press, the standard literary and news press, political magazines, and books from big New York publishers all accept comics as a legitimate part of our larger cultural discussion.

But before comics had a wide world of interesting minds willing to think about them, it had obsessive fans. I have noticed in my 35-year career of reading comics, reading the comics specialty press, hanging out in comics shops, and chattering about comics with friends and strangers, that among such fans, something akin to a generic "love of comics" holds us in thrall, compelling us toward a wider interest in stories, themes, and techniques as expressed in comics than we are likely to have in other art forms.

For my own self, I would have very little inclination to read 1930s genre fiction about big city cops and plucky orphans; or an "experimental" novel about an architectural academic, or a lesbian coming-of-age memoir, were they not comics; but because they were, I did, and was in every case delighted and enriched: I love (good) comics, with a fervor that is more specialized and hungry than the way I "love good books" in general.

While I am undoubtedly God's own special snowflake in many ways, I think the very existence of a book like this, and an audience ready to engage it, indicates that this mentality is not that rare. But the specific way that mentality plays out in people who glommed onto comics in the late 20th century seems apt to get rarer, because of the very richness and width of great comics work that The Best American Comics Criticism chronicles and celebrates.

Now a generation of talented smartypants, both readers and creators, are arising, utterly uninfected by any happy memories of childhood affection for X-Men, Daredevil, Batman, The Spirit, Spider-Man, or whoever. The kind of mind that could be expected to understand and care about Kim Deitch, Steve Ditko, Dan Clowes, Will Elder, Joe Matt, Will Eisner, Sammy Harkham, and the early history of pulp comics publishers and the cultural/political backlash to gory horror periodicals all at once, and even somewhat equally, seems inevitably doomed to become rarer and rarer.
While I do believe the book speaks for and defends itself, for most readers, now and in the future, who want to understand that mind—the mind of the "Comics Aficionado" full stop—at the cusp point of the death of the near-unified scene of comics fandom, this book will continue to illuminate.

Is it a vital consumer-protection matter that the book have "of the 21st century" appended to its title, as one critic has alleged? I think that would in fact have proven quite misleading a generation or so down the line, as it seems obvious that the 21st century's approach to comics, how they are judged, who is considered of canonical interest, what part of the business and art history is continued important, are going to shift in a far more balkanized, less all-encompassing, direction. This is all the better for the normalizing and expansion of what comics can and will do as a storytelling form.

For an account of those (to this reader) happy days when that unified scene of publications and minds were deeply concerned with, and widely loved, whatever people managed to do with the uniquely exhilarating mixture of words and pictures to tell stories (and even, yes, the way that powerhouse minds such as Will Elder and Steve Ditko locked that mixture into weird, constricting, but glorious little niches), this book does a signal service. Those days are undoubtedly going away. I'll miss them, but The Best American Comics Criticism will help us remember them.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute). This article originally appeared at The Comics Journal.