Books about Comics: Some Short Reviews

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner

I’ve been pretty vocal on my Twitter about the lack of a solid English language history of Franco-Belgian comics, so I was delighted when I caught wind of this book. It actually bites off a significantly larger geographic chunk than just French language comics, though, and attempts to cover comics history in the US, Japan, Europe, Scandinavia, and more. A lot of this information will likely be new to U.S. readers (much of it sure was to me) and it’s fascinating stuff.

The book is obviously trying to cover a lot of ground and by its nature requires the authors to pick and choose what to include and what not to. If I were pressed on it, I’m sure I could come up with some nitpicking in that area, but nothing stood out to me as either a glaring omission or an unwarranted inclusion.

One of the book’s best attributes is the attention it pays to stylistic trends and visual analysis. One of the authors is a cartoonist himself and I’m betting that’s where a lot that attention to art and process is coming from.

My only real complaint about the book is that, because of the way it’s organized, I found it difficult to know what things were happening concurrently in the different regions that the book covers. The chapters are grouped into three sections by era (1968-1978, 1978-1990, 1999 Onward) and then divided by region within those. It’s a good way to organize a potentially overwhelming amount of information, but it would have been nice to have something like a visual timeline to see what events in different parts of the world were concurrent with one another beyond those three general groupings.

Buy at Amazon.com

The Princess of Tennis: The True Story of Working as a Mangaka’s Assistant in Japan by Jamie Lynn Lano


This is–like the title says–the story of a westerner who winds up working as an assistant to a prominent mangaka in Japan’s manga studio system. The title of the book is a play on the title of the manga she worked on, Takeshi Konomi’s Prince of Tennis.

The book is self-published and it reads less like a finished memoir than a really, really long blog post (emoticons and all)–which is, in fact, basically what it is; The author chronicled her experiences first via LiveJournal before collecting them into an ebook.

I was far more interested in the bits and pieces of information included in the story about the actual process of manga production in the Japanese studio system than the author’s personal goings-on, romances, etc. I think the intended audience here is not so much people like myself who are interested specifically in manga, but more people who are immersed in J-culture in general. This book, though, should definitely be required reading for the throngs of western manga fans who think that they can just hop over the pond and land a job in Japan in the manga industry.

Buy at Sparkler or Amazon.

The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images by Neil Cohn

While I found this book fascinating, I can only fully recommend it for the wonkiest of comics formalists. Despite being largely (thankfully) free of academic jargon, this is in fact an academic book, written by an academic. Cohn, a linguist, is setting out here to prove that comics is a visual language–and not “visual language” in the “yay, team comics!” way folks like me often throw around the term, but an actual language in the most technical of senses.

The author systematically goes about breaking down how comics work to tries to show that comics constitutes an actual language and that, like other languages, it operates via a hierarchical grammar that governs its structure. It’s definitely not intended as a how-to, book, but I found myself thinking a lot about how I structure my own comics as I read through this. It’s not for the casual reader, but if you’re interested in the underlying ways that images combine to create meaning in the comics medium it’s absolutely worth a read.

Buy at Amazon.com

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis

This book is probably a godsend for a person with a wholly different comics background than I, but I found myself skimming a lot of this book, hoping that I’d eventually get to a section that dealt with the actual craft of writing–story structure in particular. Bendis, though, focuses on things like script formatting, how much description to put in your scripts, dealing with editors, etc.

The middle section of the book is mostly round-table discussions where he’s asked groups of writers, groups of artists, and groups of editors a series of questions which they each respond to. There’s some valuable information here for sure–and some really great process information from the artists, including a full issue’s worth of David Aja Hawkeye thumbnails–but it seems to be assumed here that you already know the nuts and bolts of narrative.

Buy at Amazon.com

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Julian Darius

Despite pretty much completely disagreeing with the author’s basic conclusion about Kirby’s work, I really enjoyed this book. The author goes through Kirby’s unfortunately difficult to track down 2001: A Space Odyssey adaptation issue-by-issue and evaluates it mainly on a basis of how well he feels Kirby’s version stays true to the film… which is, I think, a criterion that’s bound to make you not enjoy the comics.

70s Kirby is at its best when he’s going full throttle Kirby, and there’s almost no better example of that than 2001. One of Kirby’s most interesting traits as an artist is that everything he touches becomes “Kirby-fied” and, again, this is exactly what makes the 2001 comics so amazing. At one point the author complains that Kirby (I’m paraphrasing here), “Just uses the obelisks as an excuse to do any kind of story he feels like.” For me, that’s not a problem; it’s why the comics are great.

Kirby’s actual artwork receives surprisingly spare treatment here which is I think a symptom of trying to derive enjoyment from the wrong elements of Kirby’s 2001.

Despite the above, though, I enjoyed this analysis a great deal. It’s a must-read for any Kirby enthusiast.

Buy via Seqart.org



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  1. Paul Fricke says:

    Nice post, Ben. I’m most interested in Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present and thankfully my library has copies!

  2. Ben says:

    Yeah, if I had to pick one from all of those, that’d be it. I’m betting you’ll really like it.

  1. Faves of 2014 » Ben Towle: Cartoonist, Educator, Hobo says:

    […] already written about this book in a post, but in a nutshell: This is a much-needed history of modern comics stretching from the late 60s to […]

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