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A discussion of the American comic strip and comic book as culture, by which the author means as things which interact with, inspire, and influence other things generally considered culturally relevant. The book starts with an acknowledgement that the standard tools of literary criticism fail miserably when applied to comics. It was published in 1990, meaning that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics lay three years in the future, so Inge's statement that a critical language which actually encompasses comics and sequential art does not exist was, at that time, fairly true. (We have at least the beginnings of one now, though I suspect there's a lot of room left for more work on it.) This book is not so much an attempt to produce such a language as an attempt to bend standard critical tools into working on comics via a multidisciplinary approach-- comics looked at as artifacts of linguistic shift and producers of slang, as visual art, as sociology, as inspiration for writers, as politics. It's not a bad attempt, because this approach produces interesting results. I mean, I hadn't known that there's a strong argument for the word 'jeep' having been coined by Popeye. I certainly hadn't known that William Faulkner, of all people, drew some beautiful and interesting cartoons for his college paper, very decidedly of professional caliber and really changing my concept of how Faulkner's brain worked.

The thing is, though, it doesn't give him the ability to evaluate comics as comics. He can say that a work is influential, that it's beautiful, that it's popular, that it's good at writing for the following reason and good at politics for another one, but he doesn't have the language to say 'xyz is a good comic because it is good at being comics for the following reasons'. It's true that he said, right there in the beginning, that he doesn't have those tools. It's just I guess in that position I'd have tried to make them up?

At any rate, the history and analysis you will find here are worthwhile, although American-centric to a degree that bothers me-- there's some vague mention that the British also have comics and that the French maybe might too, but he appears to have no notion of the Japanese tradition at all and consequently insists on comics as an indigenous American art form in a way that reads as both ignorant and unconsciously imperialistic. But you're not going to find anyone more solid on the history and ramifications of American newspaper strips, which is my long and pedantic way of saying that he talks a lot about Winsor McCay and about Krazy Kat and there are a lot of lovely interesting reproductions and discussion about those, which makes the book pleasant. I am confused by an almost complete omission of Pogo, and Peanuts is as late as he goes.

So yeah, violently flawed but still fun, even if I kept getting the vague feeling that what I actually wanted to be doing was to go get a giant collection of Little Nemo in Slumberland out of the library and just sit down and read some comics, instead of reading this book. A book about comics should make you want to read comics, so I count that in its favor.


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