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.
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.
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.