- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

By Paul Lopes
Temple University Press. $24.95, 256 pages

The comic book, like pragmatism and jazz, can lay claim to being an exclusively American invention. Nevertheless, as Paul Lopes shows in his study of the comic book’s evolution from sweatshop product to the stuff Hollywood blockbusters are made of, it has been ridiculed from its beginnings as pablum at best, fascist power fantasies at worst.

Mr. Lopes approaches this study as something worthy of a sociological effort, with the industry’s 70-year history divided up into eras. First, we have Industrial Age I, where everything previously making money with Depression-era youths, from Douglas Fairbanks movies to Doc Savage pulp, was merged into a four-color world put out in 64-page format every month.

In many ways, this era was the industry’s most interesting, as comic books displayed the “rock-em sock-em” immigrant energy of its artists and writers. With Superman and the Batman (quickly morphing from murderous vigilante to father figure to Robin, and hence, the nation’s kids) leading the way, costumed hero exploits were found in the back pockets of kids and, soon, the foxholes of the Allied front. But hysteria and censorship soon raised its postwar head and industry leaders complied by making comics safe and sanitized, much like a Betty Grable musicial.

Now Batman and Robin, viewed by the hysterics as sugar daddy and kept boy, exhibited heterosexual interests of a nonphysical sort in the newly created Batwoman and Batgirl. Superman went from embittered orphan, defending battered women and the victims of lynch mobs, to battling — in the most nonfascist way possible — aliens and earth-bound pranksters. It was in this period that comics struggled to stay afloat, with industry giants such as DC and Marvel reducing their titles by as much as 30 percent.

But too much syrup can give a toothache and with audiences wanting more realism from their comics in an atomic-powered world, we soon segue out of the cavity period into the Late Industrial Age, where Stan Lee and company tap into an older market of hip teenagers just a few years away from Haight-Ashbury.

Heroes heroically break out of their censorship shackles and stand revealed with feet of clay. Girl problems, acne, angst, the drug problem, Nixon, even the thorny issue of Vietnam enter their previously one-dimensional world. Comics go multicultural with black, female and Indian superheroes. But the other side of the early ‘70s was the reaction to the Warren Court, and soon Dirty Harry types appeared in the forms of Wolverine and the Punisher, who would outlast the industry’s stab at diversity.

By now we are in the Heroic Age, where the last remaining taboos, sex and psychosis, are liberally introduced into the graphic novel. Batman returns to his dark roots with an added dimension of schizophrenia thrown in and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, that rogues’ gallery of lesbians, misogynists and rapists, appear to great critical acclaim. Rolling Stone and the New York Times take notice, as does Hollywood.

Mr. Lopes is at his best when he tries to tap into what kept this lowly form chugging along. Escapism today is just as important as it was in the ‘30s, when there was no Internet, video games and Youtube. But he never really examines the long-lasting appeal of a form that can compete in today’s techonologically replete world. Comic-book movies now being blockbusters may have little to do with mainstream audiences suddenly liking the form, and more to do with studio technology now being able to portray the reality-defying heroics that poured out of artists’ pens 70 years ago.

Mr. Lopes suffers, too, from a desire to be politically correct. Assigning comic book censorship in the 1950s to Cold War hysteria, he completely overlooks the fact that the chief proponent of this drive, Dr. Frederic Wertham, was a former communist party member and whose characterizations of superheroes as Nazis was trumpeted in the party press for decades.

All in all, though, “Demanding Respect” is an enjoyable, not too scholarly read.

Ron Capshaw lives in Midlothian, Va. and is writing a biography of Alger Hiss.

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