Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter 1998/1999 (#12)

Comics: Between the Panels

Steve Duin & Mike Richardson

Dark Horse Comics ($49.95)

by Dave Kettering

Need to know what drove cartoonist Bob Wood to commit murder? How about what the "S" on Jughead's sweater stands for? Or maybe you're just curious about the famous "Mile High" collection. All these and more are noted in Comics: Between the Panels, an encyclopedic history of the artform and the industry of comics.

Arranged alphabetically, Comics: Between the Panels features all the advantages of an encyclopedia. Photographs of writers and artists abound. Seemingly limitless color plates illustrate the work of various creators, as well as the conceptual and technical breakthroughs their work gave rise to. Interesting sidebars dovetail with the main text, covering everything from "grading jargon" to the Silver Surfer's soap-opera soliloquies. And it isn't all names and titles either; entries on "Creator Rights," famous legal briefs, and the controversial system of "direct distribution" broaden the scope of the book-as does a display of patriotic covers from the 1940s featuring the American flag, which asks, "When the book-burning mobs put the torch to these red, white, and blue issues in the 1950s, did anyone call for a constitutional amendment?" Yet in many ways this volume is also anti-encyclopedic, or at least parodies the encyclopedic mindset. Memorable quotes are filed as entries proper, such as Joe Simon's succinct comment under the heading "Histories of Comics": "They've all been crap." There are entries on masturbation ("there is no masturbation in the DC universe," Sandman writer Neil Gaiman is told), "infinity covers," and the importance of gorillas in comics.

Steve Duin accounts for this whimsical method by claiming that the book "was never intended to be a comprehensive reference work." Indeed, Duin and Richardson's writing has a highly personal flavor, attempting to "tell it like it is-or was" by recounting the legends and anecdotes that have amassed as the industry has grown. This anecdotal strategy makes the book accessible and fun, if a little rambling at times. Duin and Richardson also reveal a penchant for the old days that, again, is both historically useful but occasionally tedious. And of course the duo is bound to get flack about what has and hasn't been included. For example, there's a lengthy entry on comics historian Hames Ware but none at all on Chris Ware, the young genius behind the Acme Novelty Library; similarly, Li'l Abner creator Al Capp is all over the place but there's not a peep about Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. (Comics strips generally take a back seat to comic books throughout, a surprising blind spot.) But these complaints are quibbles, really. Comics: Between the Panels is a comics fan's dream, a beautifully designed and passionate appreciation of this particular corner of pop culture.

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Winter 1998 Table of Contents