Comic Book Comics #6

Comic Book Comics #6

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Once a year I return to my alma mater to guest-lecture for a library science class on comic books. Each time, the students in that class read three random graphic novels plus Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a seminal text that explores the roots of the sequential art medium. This year, the professor of that course told me that she was considering assigning Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey‘s Comic Book Comics instead of the McCloud book, but that she wanted to wait until the series finished and a collected edition was available. Now that we’ve got the final issue of Comic Book Comics in our hands, maybe that class will have a new text to study come 2012.

I certainly consider it high praise to compare any book to Understanding Comics, but I also think CBC completely deserves that comparison. The two share some major structural similarities, notably that both are in-depth explorations of comics that use the medium itself to educate, which makes a lot of sense to me. Both books are also incredibly entertaining, though I think I have to give the comedy edge to Comic Book Comics, simply because Dunlavey packs so many great jokes into his panels that it’s easy to miss most of them on your first read-through.

There are differences between the two books, as well, notably in their aims — while Understanding Comics more explores the creative side of the medium, Comic Book Comics tackles its history. Of course the two intersect quite a bit, so you’ll get a good understanding of the basics of the comics form no matter which one you read. CBC‘s approach, although historical, isn’t strictly chronological. Instead, each issue’s broken up into thematic segments that explore the development of a different aspect of comics. This particular issue looks at three (or four, depending on your point of view) crucial topics: the history of the “graphic novel,” the origins of Japanese manga and a brief run-through of the comic book marketplace from its inception through the present, including a discussion of webcomics, digital downloads and piracy. All of these segments are great and full of really interesting information (did you know a British humorist essentially began the manga tradition in Japan?), but as a former retailer I was spellbound by this book’s focus on business. Van Lente and Dunlavey explain how fans bought comics before a direct market existed, how that direct market forever altered the industry and whether or not it can and should continue to exist in our current economic climate. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one that hit really close to home for me several times. It also provides a fantastic closing piece for the series — although, and perhaps I’m being premature, I feel like some of this book’s questions have begun to be answered by DC’s giant relaunch/digital initiative. But time’s going to tell on that one.

All told, Comic Book Comics is a fantastic read. Casual fans can use it to learn some interesting trivia (and again, it’s also a lot of fun!), but for people interested in the historical and academic aspects of the comics medium, I’d call it a keystone text. If your retailer doesn’t carry CBC (like mine, sadly) you can purchase the book straight from its publisher. Just don’t pirate it, because that’s not cool.

tags: comic book comics, fred van lente, ryan dunlavey

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