Pow! Bam! Comics give it to the system

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BOOK REVIEW

Inside the World of Comic Books

Jeffery Klaehn, Ed.

Black Rose Books, 2008

Paperback, 258 pp., $24.99

By Tim Pelzer

While there are no longer comic racks in every corner store, comics are still around. More recently, comic book characters such as the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Batman and Hellboy have enjoyed success in the movies. “Inside the World of Comics” is a timely, amusing collection of essays and interviews exploring comics from the perspective of writers, academics, artists, editors and readers.

In “Tales of the American Crypt”, Bradford W. Wright reveals how Entertaining Comics’ (EC) line of horror, crime, science fiction and war comics from 1950 to 1955 subverted and critiqued American attitudes and practices. In Shock Suspense Stories, a Korean war vet returns to his home town and discovers that his family did not carry out his request that his friend, who died saving his life in combat, be buried in the family cemetery because he is black. The soldier, at a ceremony to welcome him home, tells everyone that his black comrade thought he was defending democracy in Korea, but even in death faced discrimination. “I am ashamed of you” sobs the soldier.

In “Judgment Day”, a black astronaut visits a planet and discovers that the planet is inhabited by orange and blue robots. Orange robots receive all the benefits while blue robots, living on the southern part of the planet, are second class citizens.

“In EC comic books American society was not a great melting pot that dissolved racial, religious, ethnic and political differences into a national anti-communist consensus. It was a society at war with itself. In their intolerant crusade against various ‘others’, white American ultimately stood exposed as the real villains. The more respectable the individual’s status within society, the more likely it was that the individual was evil”, writes Wright.

Warning about the dangers of anti-communism, in an issue of Shock Suspense Stories a parade honoring Korean war vets is taking place and a group of onlookers are angered by a man who looks indifferent to the event. Thinking that he was “a lousy red”, they jump and kill the man. After, they learn they had killed a blind war veteran.

Artist Harvey Kurtzman, who first contributed cartoons to the Daily Worker during the 1930s - forerunner of the Peoples Weekly World - became EC’s most influential writer and illustrator. He created two war comics that presented the ugly side of war unlike conventional portrayals that glamorized it. Kurtzman would later go on to edit Mad magazine.

“EC’s crime and horror comics explored the psychosis and evil that lurked beneath the gilded exterior of the American home.”

In the end, boycotts by nervous distributors and self-censorship forced EC to fold in 1955.

Julian Darius in “Exposing Status Quo Superheroics” explains how DC comics censored one of its popular titles Authority, written by Mark Millar, because he created a character that tried to create a just world.

Editor Jeffrey Klaehn, a professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, also includes interviews with writers and editors from independent labels such as Dark Horse. Since the early 1990s, there has been an explosion in the number of independent comic book companies, challenging DC and Marvel’s dominance of the industry.

In another interesting interview, Canadian artist Steve Niles talks about his monster vampire hit comic “30 Days of Night”, which Hollywood made into a movie last year. According to Niles, who was working for DC at the time, he did “30 Days of Night” for the independent label IWD for fun without pay. Little did he know that it would turn out to be an overnight success.

Klaehn’s “Inside the World of Comics” is a unique meditation on the comic book landscape.

tpelzer @shaw.ca