The American comic book is
on the threshhold of a new "golden age" according to a 1996
book on the medium from the University Press of Mississippi.
In The Art of the Comic Book, author R. C. Harvey traces the
growth and development of
the comic book from its beginnings in the 1930s through the most contemporary
in the mid-1990s, referring throughout to scores of illustrations that
provide vivid examples of
the work being discussed.
Subtitling his book "An Aesthetic History," Harvey concentrates
on the evolution of the
comic book as narrative art. He demonstrates how the words and pictures
function together to
tell stories in ways unique to the form, and he establishes both a critical
perspective and a
vocabulary for evaluating the art of the comic book. He describes narrative
layout, and panel composition and shows how these aspects of the artform
can be manipulated
for dramatic effects.
Harvey, a one-time freelance magazine cartoonist and sometime editorial
brings to his analysis the perceptions and sensibilities of a practitioner
in the field about which
he writes. He has been writing about cartooning for over twenty years,
appearing, at one time or
another, in most of the publications that have dotted the fandom landscape
during that time
(among them, The Comics Journal, for which he writes a column
called Comicopia; The Comics Buyer's Guide, for which he writes
the column, Rants & Raves; and the Overstreet Fan Universe, where
he appears in Comics Carousel).
In tracing the history of medium, Harvey begins with Action Comics
#1 because comic
books didn't become a publishing phenomenon until Superman debuted in
this publication in the
spring of 1938. A legion of superheroes followed in Superman's wake,
and one of the reasons
for the resulting boom in the comic book industry was, Harvey shows,
that superheroes and the
comic book were "made for each other."
But in the years that followed, comic books played host to a great variety
genre. There have been comics about crime, cowboys, romance, horror,
war, funny animals,
teenagers, and others. Touching briefly on most of these genres, Harvey
also shows how the
superhero is a logical outgrowth of the mythology of the American West.
After an introductory chapter that demonstrates how comic book art can
be analyzed and
evaluated, subsequent discussion of the aesthetics of comics is woven
into the history of the
comic book. Harvey discusses in detail the contributions made to the
evolution of the form by
such early masters as Jack Kirby and Will Eisner (from whose creation,
The Spirit, the book lifts many of its illustrations).
The book takes the reader inside the "art shops" run in the
1930s by Eisner and by
another pioneering comic book entrepreneur, Harry "A" Chesler,
and shows how the comic book industry evolved from reprinting newspaper
comic strips to the direct sales market of the 1990s, spawning in the
process a vigorous "fandom" with numerous annual trade shows
It is this comparatively vibrant economic climate, Harvey suggests,
that has fostered the
blossoming of a new crop of comic books created by cartoonists as expressions
of their personal artistic and philosophical views rather than as the
merchandising enterprises of publishing corporations that own popular
"Once cartoonists are permitted creative freedom to express themselves,"
Harvey said in
an interview, "the medium can become an artistic one not just a
commercial undertaking. The
new golden age, then, is the age of the cartoonist rather than of the
In discussing the economics of early comic book publishing, Harvey reveals
of the page-rate system of remuneration for cartoonists and shows how
that system hobbled the
growth of the artform for decades. Even in economic shackles, however,
developed, evolving better ways of using the resources of the medium.
Jack Kirby, one of the creators of Captain America (and scores of other
characters) looms large in the history of the medium, Harvey believes.
In the early 1940s, Kirby
showed how to imbue superhero stories with action and visual excitement,
setting the pace for
his colleagues for generations.
Harvey also discusses Kirby's role in concocting the "universe"
of Marvel Comics, giving
the artist most of the creative credit but acknowledging the considerable
contributions of editor-
writer Stan Lee in revitalizing the industry in the 1960s.
The work of Harvey Kurtzman, the creative force behind Mad (the
comic book and then
the magazine), is examined in some detail, and Harvey shows how the
parodies of Mad paved
the way for the emergence in the late 1960s of underground comix that
attacked the inhibiting
conventions of middle class America with stories that celebrated unfettered
sex and drug use.
Harvey has unearthed details about the first underground comic book
that have never
been publicized before. And his history of Zap Comix, the first
underground comic book, lays out the chronology with a precision not
attempted in other
histories of the medium.
Robert Crumb, the creator of Zap and one of the most potent forces
in the underground
during its earliest years, receives lengthy treatment in the book. And
so does Gil Kane, an often
neglected workhorse in "mainstream" comics, whose career spans
the history of the medium.
Harvey explores Kane's work by way of demonstrating how the art form
evolved from the
1950s through the 1980s. And he discusses Kane's experiments with the
novels and his double-decker newspaper comic strip--as well as the artist's
continual effort to
expand the operatic capacity of the medium through imaginative deployment
of its resources.
In another chapter, Harvey demonstrates the ways comics differ from
both media use visual and verbal elements in tandem, comics are static
and silent, and
cartoonists must therefore use their resources differently.
The work of Frank Miller, who revolutionized the form with his Batman:
the Dark Knight in the mid-1980s, is reviewed at some length, as
is the artistry of George Perez on the
Teen Titans series of the same period.
Others whose recent work is analyzed include Steve Gerber (Howard
the Duck), Frank
Thorne (Ghita), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Harvey Pekar (Our
Cancer Year), as well as Walt
Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Scott
Woodring, Gilbert Shelton, Howard Cruse, and newcomer George Dardess.
discusses briefly Jack Cole (Plastic Man), C.C. Beck (Captain
Marvel, the "Big Red Cheese"), Frederic Ray (Tomahawk),
Bob Powell ("The Lemonade Kid"), and Carl Pfeufer and John
Jordan (on Tom Mix).
The Art of the Comic Book is a companion volume for Harvey's
1994 book, The Art of the
Funnies (also from the University Press of Mississippi), an aesthetic
history of newspaper comic strips. This book introduced the author's
basic critical posture: by viewing comics as a blend of the verbal and
the visual that creates a meaning that neither words nor pictures are
fully capable of alone without the other, the reader of comics can develop
to a greater appreciation of the artform.
The comic book, whose larger dimension provides the cartoonist with
greater that the severely restricted format of the daily comic strip,
displays the artistry of the
medium at its fullest potential. And in The Art of the Comic Book,
Harvey shows how the
masters of the medium plumb that potential.
The book was "highly recommended" by the Library Journal,
particularly for collections
in popular culture as well as for students and fans of the medium, and
by Bud Plant, whose
catalogue offers the book with a specially wrought bookplate signed
Harvey has been a regular contributor to comics-related publications
since 1973, when he
began writing a column ("Another Opinion") for the Menomonee
Falls Gazette. When MFG
folded a few regretably short years later, he started another column--"Comicopia"--for
legendary Rocket's Blast/Comic Collector. And when that publication
went on more-or-less
permanent hiatus, Harvey began contributing to the Comics Journal,
for which he recently
revived his "Comicopia" column.
He also writes regularly for the monthly newsletters of the Comic Arts
Society (CAPS) and the Southern California Cartoonists Society, contributing
the columns "Hare Tonic" and "Hare Pen Turns" respectively.
He also appears in every issue of Jud Hurd's famed Cartoonist PROfiles,
a quarterly magazine. And when Ohio State University launched INKS:
Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, a scholarly journal, three years
ago, Harvey was named associate editor for comic strips.
In short (or, rather, "at length"), Harvey has been around
and been visible in cartooning
for quite some time. And for that reason (having no better one at hand),
he was an easy mark for an interview in connection with his new book.
The Art of the Comic Book was published, author Harvey was interviewed
by Cahoots, a bespectacled rabbit often found near Harvey's signature
in his drawings. As
Harvey's alter ego, Cahoots has the advantage of perfect insight, but
you wouldn't know it if you judge by the questions he asked. Here they
are--with Harvey's responses:
Cahoots: You say this book is anesthetic history.
I guess that means it'll put people to sleep
pretty quick, eh?
Harvey: No, no. It's aesthetic history--AN aesthetic history.
Cahoots: Oh, beg your pardon. Knowing the usual bent of your
pen, I assumed that you were,
for once, being entirely candid about your work. Bad assumption. I should
know better. Okay,
it's an "aesthetic history." What, exactly, is an aesthetic
history? "Aesthetic" sounds like a
Harvey: The term "aesthetic" is often used in tandem
Cahoots: Ah, ha! Beauty! Pulcritude! Wimmin! Bimbos! Again--knowing
you, I figured we'd
get into this subject sooner or later. So your book is all about bad
Harvey: Now cut that out! That's another subject altogether.
The subject at hand is aesthetics.
"Aesthetics" is a branch of philosophical study that relates
to the nature and forms of beauty.
Beauty is an aesthetic quality. My assumption is that art is beautiful,
and therefore an aesthetic
history of an artform is an examination of the ways in which that artform
is beautiful. In an
aesthetic history of an artform, the forms of that art are discussed
and their development is traced
Cahoots: Sounds dull. Couldn't we around to bad girls?
Harvey: Bad girls have less to do with aesthetics that they do
with voyeurism. We're a nation
of voyeurs: we all watch television too much. Reading comic books is
a lot like watching
television. Both deploy visual imagery to tell stories. And if you want
to know how comic
books deploy their verbal and visual resources--and how they developed
those resources as well as who developed them--then you want to know
more about the aesthetics of the medium.
Cahoots: How is this book different from any other history on
Harvey: Well, it's not just a history book. In fact, as history,
strictly speaking, it's incomplete.
It's not a comprehensive history of the medium at all. It's a history
of the medium's growth and
development: it talks about how the form works as well as when certain
and who was instrumental in bringing them about. Who did what and when
is the usual
historical angle. But how the form itself works--that's not. And in
examining that, this book is
very different from any other history in the field.
Cahoots: You imply in this tome that the superhero is unique
Harvey: A certain type of superhero, yes.
Cahoots: What about the superpowered heroes of Greek and Norse
mythology? And didn't
India have some of those, too?
Harvey: Probably. Most cultures have superhuman beings in their
mythologies, but in the
American culture, we have the Western. The Western gives us the prototype
for the superhero--the loner, the heroic loner, coming into town to
rescue the natives from evil. That's the vigilante spirit, and it is
not as lively a spirit in the literature of any other society. The superhero
is but a refinement of the lone cowboy/gunman mythos. Again, it's one
against many, and the one is the one with the lock on what's right and
wrong. Its another manifestation of the individualism, the championing
of individual rights and privileges, that has motivated Western Civilization
and is, therefore, at the root of the American experiment. Underlying
the conventions of our culture is a profound conflict--or, perhaps,
a delicate balance. On the one hand is the individual with a list of
rights--the right to life, liberty and thepursuit of happiness. On the
other hand, we have the needs of the society as a whole--the need for
stability, for law and order. The course of Western Civilization has
been a steady one, navigated between the demands of these two contradictory
needs but always in the direction of greater and greater freedom for
the individual. The superhero, it seems to me, epitomizes our cultural
notion that the individual--individual rights and privileges--is somehow
the ultimate objective, the reason for society's being in the first
place. The superhero, even when he gives lip service to the laws of
his society, seeks to impose
his will, his way of achieving law and order, upon the society.
Cahoots: Yawn. Could we go back to aesthetics again? No--let
me change the subject. You
have chapters on Eisner, Kirby, Kurtzman, Kane--why these?
Harvey: In my view, Kirby, Eisner, and Kurtzman are the original
shapers, the ones who shaped
the medium to suit the purposes they envisioned for it. Kane is there
not so much for his pace-
setting as for his experimentation and his love of figure drawing. Kirby
and Kane are figure-
drawing cartoonists; story matters less to them than drawing the figure
in action. Eisner and
Kurtzman were always more interested in story than in artwork. I don't
mean that they neglected
the pictorial element; they didn't. Neither did Kirby and Kane overlook
story; they didn't. It's a
matter of emphasis.
Cahoots: You credit Kirby with creating the Marvel Universe--
Harvey: Well, not quite. I think Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were a team,
but the creative power
in the pairing was Kirby's. Lee was an embellisher, a lyricist, of considerable
talent. But the
music he wrote the lyrics for was Kirby's. Kirby did grand opera. He
filled the stage.
Cahoots: There are those who will quarrel with you about that.
Harvey: I suppose. There's little doubt that Kirby and Lee fed
upon each other to some extent,
but if you ask yourself if there would be a Marvel Universe without
Kirby, I think the answer is,
No. Would there be a Marvel Universe without Lee? I think so. It wouldn't
be quite the same
kind of thing. It would lack the sort of self-deprecating sense of humor
that animates so much of
the text in the early stuff. And without that perspective, the Marvel
Universe would be
something a little different. Kirby's world was a much more serious
place, I think, than Lee's.
Look at the Fourth World he created later. Serious stuff compared to
Spider-man's angst or the
Thing's "clobberin' time" refrain.
Cahoots: You have a long section on Crumb. Why? What's his significance?
Harvey: He's the first of the moderns, the autobiographical cartoonists.
His life and his art are
nearly inseparable at this point, although at first they were. And his
art was, in my view, more
interesting then than it is now. He is also among the most significant
of the underground
cartoonists, and as such serves as an emblem for that movement.
Cahoots: Speaking of comix, who did the first underground comic
Harvey: Frank Stack drew it, and Gilbert Shelton published it.
The whole story is in the book.
Cahoots: How did you come to write this book anyhow? In fact,
why do you write about
comics at all?
Harvey: I can't find employment in my usual line of work.
Cahoots: What is your usual line of work?
Harvey: I'm a king.
Cahoots: Sure. Okay, so why does a defrocked king spend all his
waking moments reading
comics and writing about them?
Harvey: It's the drawings. I'm fascinated by what drawings can
be made to do in tandem with
words. As a sometime cartoonist myself, I'm fascinated by drawings alone--by
the quality of
line, the balance of solid blacks and stark whites, the textures and
volumes and all the rest of the
schtick. Words are important, too, of course--and the stories themselves.
But chances are, if I
don't like the drawing in a comic book I pick off the shelf, I won't
buy the comic book. The
drawing has to attract and hold my interest. At the same time, I like
to write. I'm not a
storyteller kind of writer, though, so I write history and criticism--and
because I like drawings, I
write history and criticism about comics.
Cahoots: Do you have anything else to say that is provocative
or otherwise insulting?
Harvey: I hope so. Try the book and see. I'm getting tired of
this conversation anyhow: it feels
too much like some sort of ventriloquist act.
Cahoots: You're right about that. The question is, Which one
is the dummy?