The
Storytelling
Art of the
Comic Book Analyzed
as the
Medium Approaches a
New Golden Age

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 of productions
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 breakdown, page
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 cartoonist,
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 of storytelling
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 and
conventions.

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 characters.

"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 corporation."

In discussing the economics of early comic book publishing, Harvey reveals the origins
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, comic books
developed, evolving better ways of using the resources of the medium.

Jack Kirby, one of the creators of Captain America (and scores of other comic book
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 financially successful
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 medium--his graphic
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 film. Although
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 McCloud, Jim
Woodring, Gilbert Shelton, Howard Cruse, and newcomer George Dardess. Harvey also
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 resources vastly
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 by Harvey.

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 the
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 Professional
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.

Shortly after 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
respiratory disorder.

Harvey: The term "aesthetic" is often used in tandem with "beauty."

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 girl art?

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
through time.

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 the subject?

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 developments occurred
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 to America.

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 book?


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?


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