Our Dream Reading List: The History of Comics

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At the risk of sounding like the ultimate nerds, we kind of envy the kids getting ready to go back to school. Though the Scribd editorial team’s own halcyon days in the halls of academia are behind us, we couldn’t resist playing a little make believe: What classes do we wish we were gearing up to take this fall? To kick things off, Joey, our resident comics guy, dreamed up a list of books illustrating the fascinating history of comics.


Our Dream Reading List: History of Comics

Comic books exploded into the entertainment sphere in the era surrounding World War II, but it wasn’t until comparatively recently that they began to receive recognition as a legitimate form of intellectual and artistic expression. In college I mostly studied literature and history, and I’ve always had a soft spot for comic books. I would have reveled in the opportunity to spend my time in class reading comics, studying their genesis and evolution, and examining their relationship to popular culture and society. With that in mind, I picked out a selection of titles that illustrate (in some cases literally) the fascinating history of comic books.

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The Comic Book History of Comics

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What better way to dig into the history of comic books than with a comic book? Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey deliver an extensively researched and gleefully irreverent take on the history of comics, graphic novels, and manga, delving deep into the important personalities and events in comics history. Plus, you get Walt Disney caricatured as a foul-mouthed Mickey-Mouse, so there’s that.

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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

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Sean Howe draws on an exhaustive amount of research, including over 100 original interviews, in what may very well be the definitive book on the history of Marvel Comics. Howe writes effortlessly and with an incredible commitment to telling the tales no one else will, including the troubled relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Jim Shooter’s rather ignominious departure from the company.

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Reading Comics

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Douglas Wolk discusses the modern graphic novel from a literary criticism perspective, covering some of the biggest names in modern comics, their influences, and how comic books have established themselves as an art form. What I love about this book is its approachability—it’s serious literary criticism, no doubt about that, but everyone from the most hardcore comics fan to the most uninformed neophyte will enjoy the read.

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The Supergirls

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With comic books being such a male-dominated industry—though great strides have been made in recent years to correct that—Mike Madrid’s history of the superheroine is as fascinating as it is necessary. I found his account of a sort of proto-feminist revolt in a 1964 Legion of Superheroes comic particularly fascinating. By having the teenage girls of the Legion seduce and overthrow the boys with their feminine wiles, the writers (perhaps accidentally) created a storyline that is both celebratory and fearful of female power and influence.

the ten cent plague

The Ten Cent Plague

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Ever since I learned of them, I have been fascinated with the Wertham Senate hearings and accompanying extreme backlash against comic books in the early 1950s. I’ve always wondered what could possibly lead a society to so readily accept a fairly innocuous form of media as evil, drawing parallels to the campaigns against video games in my own youth. I need wonder no longer, because David Hadju expertly examines these events, their root sources in conflict between pre- and post-war society, and their lasting cultural impacts.

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Our Gods Wear Spandex

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It’s a concept so intuitive, it’s easy to overlook—what if the godlike beings in our comic books were actually based on the mythological figures and pagan pantheons of old, and what’s more, play the same role in our modern society? In this delightfully odd theoretical expedition, Christopher Knowles illustrates just how paper thin the veil is between comic book universes and mythology. Especially fascinating is his realization that comics sell better during periods such as The Depression, World War II, the drug wars of the 80s, or the time surrounding 9/11—periods when we need heroes to fight our battles for us, to help us believe in something other than ourselves.