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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1443 (07/13/01)

"Tony Isabella, one of the few black writers working in the field at the time, explained that even open-minded white writers found it difficult to portray minority characters in a way that was not offensive or patronizing."

Bradford W. Wright, COMIC BOOK NATION

So, there I was, minding my own business, working feverishly to get far enough ahead on my multitudinous deadlines so I could enjoy my family's planned Orlando vacation, when I started getting the e-mails. I received a dozen of them within a 72-hour period, each quoting the above from COMIC BOOK NATION: THE TRANSFORMATION OF YOUTH CULTURE IN AMERICA (Johns Hopkins University Press; $34.95) and adding the inevitable: "Gee, I wonder what else the guy got wrong."

That's unfortunate because Wright's book is an interesting and thoughtful look at how comic books have reflected and shaped young minds since the 1940s. He writes so entertainingly that the reader could easily forget the book's scholarly intent, up until the point where that reader reached the 36 pages of footnotes which back up the author's comments and research. There may well be occasional flubs of fact and timeline, but, if there are, they are so minor I failed to make note of them.

Okay, yeah, I'm not black. On the other hand, I have written a number of black heroes, including DC's Black Lightning, which I created in 1976. In fact, an exec of the period once introduced me to a visitor to the DC offices as "our black writer," doubtless a Freudian slip to his ingrained plantation mentality. Oh, for the days when freelancers would toil in his fields while entertaining him with our spiritual melodies.

Back to Wright's book. It's the reason why I'm writing this column when I should be packing. I started reading it, put it down to work on a column, started thinking about it, picked it up and read some more, repeated the above a few times, and finally, bowing to my obvious lack of will power, just settled down to read the entire book.

The section that hooked me good and proper was Wright's look at politically-driven characters like DC's Johnny Everyman, which was produced between 1944 and 1948 in cooperation with the East and West Association, "a liberal organization of educators and authors later targeted by redbaiters as a Communist front;'" and Fawcett's Radar, an international super-policeman "conceived in consultation with members of the Office of War Information." I remember being so intrigued by a Johnny Everyman story I had read in a Golden Age issue of WORLD'S FINEST that I subsequently used the character in one of my first submissions to DC, a Teen Titans tale dripping with social consciousness and featuring a college thrown into turmoil by interracial dating. A master of subtlety even then, I had titled this lost classic..."Burning Hot Hate!"

Wright also brings some intriguing behind-the-scenes history onto his stage. In the same section of the book, he writes of DC editor Jack Schiff's public service pages

    Schiff was also a liberal who took pride in writing a series of public service features on behalf of the National Social Welfare Assembly. Beginning in 1949, under Schiff's supervision, DC agreed to publish one page per month in all of its comic books on topics like tolerance, cooperation, community service, civic responsibility, social welfare, and internationalism. Even at the height of the Red Scare, Schiff never produced a public service page that attacked or even mentioned Communism. Instead, these educational features underscored inclusive and liberal ethical values.

    Not everyone on the DC staff shared Schiff's political views. Alvin Schwartz, a DC staff writer at the time, recalled that Schiff's politics actually led fellow editor Mort Weisinger to accuse him of being a Communist during the McCarthy years. Weisinger reportedly warned DC's editor-in-chief that Schiff's liberalism was going to get the company in trouble.

In other chapters, Wright recounts the attempts at censoring comic books in the 1940s and 1950s. It's a chilling bit of history showing just how fragile our art form's protection under the First Amendment was and underscoring the need to remain ever vigilant in modern times.

Still, the main thrust of COMIC BOOK NATION isn't the history of comics. It's how that history intertwines with the real world. Wright quite correctly sees Superman and other early creations as super-heroes for the common man. He shows how the comics of World War II sought, perhaps unconsciously, to unite readers against the Axis threat, and how, after the war, they championed traditional values and gender roles.

When Wright gets to the 1960s, he puts forth the theory that comics had not kept up with the youth culture they had reflected so well in years past. That, he opines, is the key to why Marvel's sales doubled from 1962 to 1967; Marvel's super-heroic protagonists reflected more of the social changes going on in the world outside their panel borders

    By revising super-heroes into more believable and appealing outsiders beset by the uncertainties of modern society, [Stan] Lee had made such characters vital to a generation of adolescents and young adults. In so doing, Marvel had revitalized comic books. Yet if the industry was to thrive, comic-book makers would have to demonstrate anew the relevance of their product within the rapidly changing world of their audience.

Wright continues by looking at the relevant comic books of the early 1970s. Green Lantern and Green Arrow go on the road to find what ails America. The Silver Surfer looks at the men of earth and wonders if they are all mad. Peter Parker tries to decide where he stands on the issues of the day. Cold warrior Iron Man turns his munitions factories to peaceful uses. Captain America considers if his kind must give way to anti-heroes. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, brings an urban sensibility to the Marvel Universe.

COMIC BOOK NATION also covers the birth of the direct market, the boom period in comics, and the bust from which the industry is still trying to recover. His concluding paragraphs speak directly to today's creators and publishers.

    Comic books are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture but because American culture has finally caught up with them. Throughout their history, comic books thrived as a uniquely exaggerated and absurdist expression of adolescent concerns and sensibilities. But those qualities no longer make them unique. America at the turn of the twenty-first century has a pervasive consumer culture based largely on the perpetuation of adolescence...

    It is as essential as ever to offer young people a wide choice for self-expression within a culture of empathy, compassion, and imagination. Comic books do have a place. And they will endure so long as they bring out the super-hero in us all.

COMIC BOOK NATION offers food for thought to a comics industry taking the first steps towards reversing its fallen fortunes, even if Wright does focus almost exclusively on the youth market. But, even allowing that the industry should also address the concerns and the interests of adult readers, there is considerable insight to be gained by looking at its past success in reaching those young readers. Despite the oft-times dark demeanor and fashion of modern youth, I've met very few kids who didn't have an ember of idealism just waiting to be fanned into a full-blown flame.

Maybe, instead of revamping older super-heroes, we should be creating new heroes for our newest readers. And maybe, instead of turning a mirror on the surface crudity and indifference which we jaded "adults" espy when first seeing these readers, we would serve them and ourselves better if we gazed deeper into that inner core of hope within them.

Superman, the first and perhaps best of all super-heroes, was, as Wright and so many others have said, a hero for the common man. He wasn't a celebrity and he wasn't the 1940s equivalent of a rock star. He was just a good guy doing the right things for the right reasons. Is it really so difficult in this new century to envision a hero who stands for the same values? And what might the comics industry gain by considering not what it can do in its comics, but what it should do?

Such food for thought is why I recommend COMIC BOOK NATION to serious students of the art form and industry. Even if you can't afford the high price tag, you can request that your local library order a copy for its shelves or that it obtain a copy on loan from another library in your area.

It's worth the effort.

Before I start packing for my vacation, I want to share with you an e-mail I received from ALEX LEHMANN

    I have been a reader of CBG for several years and have often enjoyed your column. With this in mind, please do not take the following comments as aggressive or anything but friendly.

    The impetus for this communication is your awkward, distracting and all too frequent use of the word "said" as an adjective. Two examples from this week are "said publishers" and "said luminaries."

    While it is certainly not my place to offer editorial advice (although I am fairly well qualified in that area), I will proceed to do so anyway.

    My first criticism is that your weekly use of "said" as an adjective comes as a distraction simply due to its repetition in your writing. It is a fairly weak adjective, ultimately, and should be avoided for a more revealing or at least appealing choice.

    To quote the American Heritage Dictionary

    "Usage: Said (adjective) is seldom appropriate to any but legal or business writing...where clarity demands an equivalent of said, preferable alternatives are aforementioned and specified" although I would think you could come up with even better than these.

    My final comment is that "said" as anything but the past tense of "say" sounds stilted, almost trite. Twice in a column, or even a month, is over reliance on an already weak choice.

Nuff said, Alex.

No, I mean it. Now that you've pointed out my frequent use of "said" as an adjective, I'll do my best to avoid that usage in future columns. Just promise me you won't get on Fred Hembeck's case for the way he draws knees and elbows. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to Disney World!



I don't have anything of substance to add to this week's CBG reprint. In sad fact, I also don't have any new material for you this week. Almost all of my clients are heading to San Diego and Comic-Con International and, because of this, requested I deliver my work to them a week earlier than usual. I was happy to comply, of course, but doing so put me up against the deadline wall here. I'll try to make it up to you next week.

I will say the Isabella family vacation was perhaps the best vacation we've ever taken. We went to Universal Studios/Universal Islands of Adventures for three days and then did another four days at Walt Disney World. Big fun was had by all.

I fully intend to write about the vacation, offering you tips on how to maximum your fun at these theme parks and sharing lots of photos with you, but I'm not sure how best to do this. Maybe when webmaster Justin returns from San Diego-yes, he will be there for comicdom's biggest show--he and I can put our heads together and work out something special for you.

In the meantime, I may be the only comics person *not* going to San Diego next week. So you'll still be able to find me hanging around the Tony Isabella message board and, of course, at my trusty e-mail address. Feel free to stop by and say "hi."

I'll close by wishing all my friends--and the rest of the fans and pros going to Comic-Con International--a terrific convention and safe passage to and from the show. Have yourselves a blast and celebrate the wonder of comics.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 07/06/2001 | 07/13/2001 | 07/20/2001 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

Please send material you would like me to review to:

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