Fred Van Lente is no stranger to educational comics, from his 2008 collaboration with artist Ryan Dunlavey on Action Philosophers! to the science instructional Howtoons. The Van Lente/Dunlavey duo teamed again several years ago for the difficult-to-Google Comic Book Comics mini-series, a graphic adaptation of how comics themselves came to be. IDW Publishing collected the work into a single volume in 2012, and the company is now re-releasing each single issue with corrections and additional material, including a special section on the history of women in comics. Comic Book History of Comics #1 is available this week. To someone who missed this run the first time around, is it good?
Comic Book History of Comics #1 (IDW Publishing)
Comic Book History of Comics #1 is no handwaving overview — it goes all the way back to cave paintings, and what scientists think they might have represented. That’s not really the sequential art we think of as comics, though, which wasn’t innovated until 1896, with a character that would eventually lend its name to the derisive term “yellow journalism.” What we now think of as a “comic strip” format would come later, intended as a method to advertise horse-racing. Not the most noble of beginnings for our beloved pastime.
A discussion of early animation follows, which might seem out of place until it’s pointed out that Jack Kurtzberg (recognize that name?) worked for Walt Disney’s main rival, a fact that’s pretty ironic given the business dealings of the past several years. When that company packed up and headed south, Jack stayed behind in New York and looked for a new way to monetize his artistic skill. A real-life cliffhanger to set up issue #2!
Is It Good?
Comic Book History of Comics #1 is painstaking, that’s for sure, and in more ways than one. The research itself is rigorous, but the way it’s formed into a narrative and interwoven with the art is extra impressive. On top of that, there’s even foreshadowing and character work you’d expect to see in a regular issue of comic fiction. That being said, this is a dense comic that will take you twice as long to read as a normal issue, but that’s okay. Van Lente’s signature humor is there to help string you along until the end.
Dunlavey’s pencils and Adam Guzowski’s colors are on the “cartoony” side, but that’s welcome for what might have been a dry history lesson. Perhaps Dunlavey’s greatest triumph is illustrating just how difficult telling a story in the pre-sequential days would have been when he heroically depicts the entirety of the classic Vaudeville/Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine in a single panel. It’s a page that points out the shortcomings of the old medium, but by the very fact that you can indeed get the gist of the message, also shows just how good Dunlavey and other modern artists really are at communicating through images.
Comic Book History of Comics #1 is a lesson on how a beloved medium came to be, told with that medium’s same revolutionary techniques by two masters of the art. How could it not be good?