“Kid … Comics will break your heart.” Jack Kirby, attributed

SOME things never change. To read Jeremy Dauber’s American Comics: A History is to be reminded that the comic book industry in the United States has been racist, sexist and exploitative pretty much from the get-go.

And, of course, it was also hugely successful and re-engineered our collective imaginations too.

It even changed the way we talk, it seems. “The comic strip’s influence on American language was profound,” Dauber writes of their impact in the early decades of the century. “Bud Fisher of Mutt and Jeff fame invented piker and the phrases fall guy and got his goat. Tad Dorgan came up with applesauce, ball and chain and cat’s pyjamas, among others. Barney Google contributed heebie-jeebies … And Harold T. Webster’s Timid Soul added a whole new character type to the lexicon – or, at least, named it: one Caspar Milquetoast. Comics even gave the world knock-knock jokes (through Bob Dunn’s best seller of the same name) …”

The distance between influence and reward is one of the recurring themes of Dauber’s new book. The popularity of the pulps – Walter Brown Gibson, creator of The Shadow could afford to live a triplex off New York’s Central Park while churning out 283 Shadow novels – prompted kids eager to share in the largesse to sign any contract put in front of them, a pattern that was then repeated in comics too.


And so, DC editor Vincent Sullivan bought Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s original Superman comic strip for $130 (£96), the equivalent of $2500 (£1850) in today’s money. “And in return for that he also got the rights,” Dauber points out. “To Superman.”

The equation was simple. You signed away your rights in order to get published. And, as a result, you missed out on the rewards.

First appearing in Action Comics in 1939, Superman was an instant success. Very quickly, Action Comics (his first home) and the spin-off comic Superman were selling a million copies an issue (10 per cent of the entire comic book market at that time).

In 1974 Siegel and Shuster sued to regain the rights to Superman and recover $5m they believed they were due for the character. They were unsuccessful. Shuster was later picked up as a vagrant in Central Park. It was only later in the decade that DC began to acknowledge its debt to the pair.

Many other comic writers and artists (including Jack Kirby, the powerhouse who co-created many of Marvel’s most famous characters) had similar experiences.

But there are other stories to tell. Like the debt comics owe to William Randolph Hearst, the news baron who inspired Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Hearst was actually a fan of comic strips. He enjoyed them and enjoyed the copies of his newspaper they helped sell.

He hired Rudolph Dirks to create The Katzenjammer Kids which debuted in 1897 and George Herriman, the man behind Krazy Kat, perhaps the greatest comic strip of all time (pace Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes).

Indeed, Hearst loved Krazy Kat so much that he gave Herriman total creative control and a lifetime contract, even though the strip was never hugely popular.

(By the by, was Krazy Kat an allegory on blackness, Dauber asks? Or on Herriman’s own blackness? A truth Herriman chose to conceal in public for perhaps obvious reasons in a deeply racist country. Possibly, but, as Dauber points out, “it’s certainly not only that.”)

Dauber’s book really picks up the pace when it reaches the 1950s and the hysteria that surrounded comics in the post-war conservatism of Eisenhower’s America. Step forward Dr Frederic Wertham, by far the greatest cartoon villain in the story of American comics.

Wertham’s back story, as Dauber points out, is intriguing. A German Jew who emigrated to America in the 1920s, he corresponded with Freud, worked with Clarence Darrow defending black defendants and was praised by Thomas Mann and Arthur Miller. His sincerity in wanting to protect kids was not in doubt.

But, by the same token, his distaste for comic books, ultimately spelled out in his book Seduction of the Innocent – a prime text for those studying moral panics – at times verged on hysterical. Speaking to a senatorial committee on juvenile delinquency, he suggested, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.”

The main victim of the attack on comic books was EC Comics, whose horror and crime publications were both sophisticated in their storytelling strategies but also knew the power of a gruesome image.

Dauber, professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University, a spry, humorous storyteller, has fun with all of this. At one point he plays the game of matching Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee – the men behind Marvel comics – with their Beatle equivalents: “Kirby the Lennonesque genius, pugnacious, spiky, out-there imaginative, of a vaguely mystic bent, matched and complemented by Lee’s McCartneyesque, extroverted Organisation Man genius, keeping the verities and structures moving.”

(I think that’s a bit of a slight on McCartney myself, but it’s a fun game. And does that make Steve Ditko George Harrison? And who’s Ringo? Don Heck? George Tuska?)

Read More: All of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk

There is much more here. Dauber covers the 1960s underground comix scene and its political failings (sexism, check. Racism, check), the Watchmen era, continuity exhaustion. He also charts the emergence of female cartoonists such as Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet, as well as issues of ethnic and religious diversity in mainstream comics (including the emergence of a Muslim Ms Marvel) and such 21st-century creators as Raina Telgemeier (Smile), whom, Dauber believes, “is unmatched at dealing with the often unspoken core of children’s literature: defining yourself as an individual, and understanding the community of adults, one of which you will become.”

At the end, Dauber suggests that the story of American comics is “right in the middle of its run.” If so, this is a very readable map of where it has been.

American Comics A History by Jeremy Dauber is published by Norton, £27.99