Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature by Charles Hatfield

The American comic book industry has been dominated for years by the big players of DC and Marvel. Alongside these major publishers, there has also been an alternative tradition of creator-owned comics that express a much freer and more radical world view. This is the basis of Charles Hatfield’s short summary of the world of alternative comics, which also gives very serious attention to the growth of the graphic novel.

Alternative Comics cover

Hatfield is an assistant professor of English at California State University and it shows in his writing style. He sometimes uses that preposterous academic English that all arts graduates have to wade through in the process of getting a degree. He is also capable of some bizarre pronouncements such as

This is why the autobiographical genre matters, and why the anxious tension between artifice and authenticity remains a vital area for study.

Er, no. Finding a cure for cancer is a vital area for study. Reading a few confessional comic books is not.

One thing that Hatfield cannot hide is the fact that many of these alternative comics are disgusting and offensive and would not be a desirable form of reading matter for the vast majority of people.

Funnily enough, Alternative Comics is most interesting when it looks at comics that inhabit the hinterland between the alternative world and the mainstream. Look at this terrifying spread from a 1951 edition of Two-Fisted Tales showing the sudden decimation of a squad of GIs during the Korean War.

Two-Fisted Tales by Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis

Produced by Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, It’s a truly shocking display of the tragic waste of life during a war. It’s also a far cry from the militaristic jingoism that filled the war comics that were still on sale in Britain when I was growing up in the 1980s.

Hatfield is at his best in looking at the history of the comic book and there are lots of factoids here. For example, the very first comic books were produced as publicity vehicles for companies.

Not mentioned in this book but a true event is that fact that the CIA printed comic books to foment insurgence overseas. In 1984, a veteran from the US special forces

had an old comic book that had been used to train Vietmanese peasants how to take over a village by murdering the mayor, the chief of police, and the militia. The CIA translated it into Spanish and distributed it to the [anti-communist] contras [in Nicaragua].

See Legacy of Ashes. The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner.

Alternative Comics is also intriguing in its coverage of the anti-comics movement of the 1950s. One such zealot, Fredric Wertham wrote a book about it called Seduction of the Innocent in which his rants included claims that

most habitual comics readers are not “reading” at all but rather engaging in a lazier activity which he christens “picture reading” … Wertham would later coin the phrase “linear dyslexia” to describe the “inability to sustain proper reading of whole lines.”

Ultimately, Hatfield is a keen enthusiast for alternative comics and the energy that comes from an author having full creative control over his work. As someone about to enter the world of self-publishing myself, I was really inspired by Hatfield’s observation that in the comics world, no one looks down on self-published work. It is an accepted and valued method of expression and often gains greater kudos than the mass-produced repetitive comics that dominate the market.


8 responses to “Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature by Charles Hatfield

    • Intriguing article-can recommend for further reading Carlos Ezquerra(his American civil war stuff, not just the 2000 ad). Must get back to the rum.

      • Great news! He must be getting on a bit now. I met him briefly in the early days in Croydon back in ’71 when he welcomed the pleasures of a half of mild as an antidote to Franconian reality. However, the rum never did fully agree with him.

        It was controversial in those days that he did not credit his dystopian vision of the autocratic world of Dredd and 2000 AD to Kafka in some small way. It may be a cliche to reference Kafka as an influence but the parallels are worth exploring: authority and where it lies, the disturbing black humour of violent moments which leave us uncertain as to whether we approve or disapprove. I do ponder sometimes that Max Normal – the Pinstripe Freak (Dredd’s informer), would not be out of place lurking in the shadows of the Trial.

      • How cool is that? If Carlos is getting on a bit, he looks remarkably well. Did you see this recent photo of him with co-Dredd creator John Wagner:
        I see what you mean abut the Kafka influence. I remember one Dredd story where the Judges arrive in a house to meet a witness and find almost everything in there is illegal|, including the sugar, so of course the poor witness gets hauled off to the iso-cubes.
        Having said that, I think Mega-City One is now such a unique creation that it is possibly the best realised future society ever. Must do a blog post on that someday…

  1. Intriguing, I love a good history of a medium and as one of the many that can’t really be doing with the DC/Marvel superheroes it is nice to be able to turn my attention to other worthy works and have a dig about in the archives so to speak.

    I suppose it is still in its infancy as an art form and it is always interesting to go the local comic shop to see how people are attempting to subvert the usual ‘rules’ of the genre, in story and structure.

    • It is and it isn’t in its infancy since Robert Crumb et al were producing stuff back in the early 1970s. The big change in the medium has been the explosion of alternative comics in recent years.
      On the one hand, it looks easy to produce a comic book (if you have the artistic ability), but Hatfield also shows how expensive it can be. Without funding from a big publisher, many of the would-be comics creators just can’t make a living because it takes them so long to produce all the necessary pages.

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