December 6, 2008

Pow! Bam! Comics give it to the system

BOOK REVIEW: Inside the World of Comic Books

Jeffery Klaehn, Ed.
Black Rose Books, 2008
Paperback, 258 pp., $24.99

By Tim Pelzer

While there are no longer comic racks in every corner store, comics
are still around. More recently, comic book characters such as the
Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Batman and Hellboy have enjoyed success in
the movies. "Inside the World of Comics" is a timely, amusing
collection of essays and interviews exploring comics from the
perspective of writers, academics, artists, editors and readers.

In "Tales of the American Crypt", Bradford W. Wright reveals how
Entertaining Comics' (EC) line of horror, crime, science fiction and
war comics from 1950 to 1955 subverted and critiqued American
attitudes and practices. In Shock Suspense Stories, a Korean war vet
returns to his home town and discovers that his family did not carry
out his request that his friend, who died saving his life in combat,
be buried in the family cemetery because he is black. The soldier, at
a ceremony to welcome him home, tells everyone that his black comrade
thought he was defending democracy in Korea, but even in death faced
discrimination. "I am ashamed of you" sobs the soldier.

In "Judgment Day", a black astronaut visits a planet and discovers
that the planet is inhabited by orange and blue robots. Orange robots
receive all the benefits while blue robots, living on the southern
part of the planet, are second class citizens.

"In EC comic books American society was not a great melting pot that
dissolved racial, religious, ethnic and political differences into a
national anti-communist consensus. It was a society at war with
itself. In their intolerant crusade against various 'others', white
American ultimately stood exposed as the real villains. The more
respectable the individual's status within society, the more likely it
was that the individual was evil", writes Wright.

Warning about the dangers of anti-communism, in an issue of Shock
Suspense Stories a parade honoring Korean war vets is taking place and
a group of onlookers are angered by a man who looks indifferent to the
event. Thinking that he was "a lousy red", they jump and kill the man.
After, they learn they had killed a blind war veteran.

Artist Harvey Kurtzman, who first contributed cartoons to the Daily
Worker during the 1930s - forerunner of the Peoples Weekly World -
became EC's most influential writer and illustrator. He created two
war comics that presented the ugly side of war unlike conventional
portrayals that glamorized it. Kurtzman would later go on to edit Mad

"EC's crime and horror comics explored the psychosis and evil that
lurked beneath the gilded exterior of the American home."

In the end, boycotts by nervous distributors and self-censorship
forced EC to fold in 1955.

Julian Darius in "Exposing Status Quo Superheroics" explains how DC
comics censored one of its popular titles Authority, written by Mark
Millar, because he created a character that tried to create a just

Editor Jeffrey Klaehn, a professor at Canada's Wilfrid Laurier
University, also includes interviews with writers and editors from
independent labels such as Dark Horse. Since the early 1990s, there
has been an explosion in the number of independent comic book
companies, challenging DC and Marvel's dominance of the industry.

In another interesting interview, Canadian artist Steve Niles talks
about his monster vampire hit comic "30 Days of Night", which
Hollywood made into a movie last year. According to Niles, who was
working for DC at the time, he did "30 Days of Night" for the
independent label IWD for fun without pay. Little did he know that it
would turn out to be an overnight success.

Klaehn's "Inside the World of Comics" is a unique meditation on the
comic book landscape.


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