Saturday, January 24, 2009

In Review Of: Jews and American Comics by Paul Buhle

Given the shady nature of comics beginnings here in the states, you have to marvel (no, that's not a pun) about the wealth of material that is now available on those self-same humble and rather less murky origins.

Well documented now by a multitude of sources and fictionalized by Michael Chabon, can there be anything left to go over from the 1930's or the 1940's? There are multiple books that focus on Jewish identity as well, (Danny Fingeroth's inparticular, which I will review soon) something that i've blogged on a number of times already, and how that identity came to influence their art.

Buhle was active in the comics world, and could count among his friends other creators, Art Spiegleman among them, so his writing is clearly on the idea of looking out, rather than looking in. The book is short on essays, given a large number of the pages to examples, but Buhle scores on the one involving the 1950's, EC and the power that Mad and Kurtzman had over him. Here is where the true gems of this book lie.

Those of us that grow up reading comics, at one time, will find that four-color voice that speaks to us and we follow under their spell. It will likely be a voice that will guide us, and we will return to it when we find our love of comics waning. In my case, it was the lights of the early '70's at Marvel, Jim Starlin and Paul Gulacy among them, that rewrote the neurons in my brain. In Buhle's case, it was the guiding light of EC, Mad and the genius himself, Harvey Kurtzman.

For all those who have already gotten a decent history lesson about Eisner and Quality, Siegle and Shuster and Cleveland, Buhle moves on to give us a great over view of Will Elder, Bernie Krigstein and the rest of the motley EC crew. With Gaines leading them, we all know how the comics turned out. They turned out so well that the horror comics genuinely horrified people, and the redoubtable Gaines volunteered to testify before a congressional committee. As we all know, it did not go well.

Further on, Buhle does well to bring the modern comics historian up to speed, with discussions about the 1990 MoMA exhibit "Modern Art and Pop Culture", Ben Katchor and Harvey Pekar. All told, well written and with some interesting thoughts along the way. I'm not sure that this isn't a bit of a time capsule, since many of the artists whose work he discusses in the last article have yet to have their story finished. Katchor will certainly add any number of works before his story is finished. I'm just not sure that i needed a hardcover of this to add to my book shelf. Still an interesting collection of material.

For the interested party, there are any number of annotations, and reading through them at the end of the book is fun as well. I think that I might have preferred to perhaps have the annotations at the bottom of the page as footnotes, easier to digest and retain the flow of the reading. A small quibble.

A New Press, publishers of the volume, deserve props and support for their publishing the book. In this day and age, lets give thanks that certain publishers decide to take a chance with books that straddle the line between popular culture and academia.

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