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Words and Pictures
Michelle Grabner

Roger Sabin
Adult Comics: An Introduction
London/New York: Routledge, 1993.

Roger Sabin
Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of
Comic Art
.
London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.

Popular currency has always dictated the strategies for mapping and analyzing popular art forms. Just consider the commercial success of the adult comic industry. Its sudden popularity in the 1980s has lead many media critics to declare a comic revolution, perpetuating the erroneous notion that comics finally 'grew up.' Roger Sabin not only takes issue with this false assessment of the sudden maturation of comics, but points a finger at 'public ignorance.' In Sabin's view, the media could only get away with this myth-making campaign if the general public was oblivious to comic's long tradition as adult entertainment.

Sabin wrote Adult Comics: An Introduction in response to this marketing ploy and the public's general assumption that comics are solely an inexpensive source of amusement for kids. In it, he constructs a social and cultural comic evolution from William Hogarth's pictorial satires, leading the reader on a scholarly journey from the first modern comics of the nineteenth century to the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s and then the graphic novels of the 1980s and 1990s. By weaving comic's proletarian appeal, aesthetic concerns, feminist subtexts and hedonistic fantasies into a comprehensive historical survey of the genre, Adult Comics undermines the industry's current marketing myths. That is, it securely locates this popular art form in our cultural landscape - both past and present.

Carving out an autonomous language for this marriage of pictures and words, Sabin states, "they are not some hybrid form halfway between 'literature' and 'art' (whatever those words might mean), but a medium in their own right." And, as a medium visually based in the cinematic, its graphic conventions combined with three basic types of language - narrative, dialogue and sound effects - fuse into an art form unique to communication. A definition that Sabin then contextualizes into two thorough histories - the adult comic in Britain and the adult comic in the United States.

After allocating two thirds of the book to the historical depth of the medium, the most interesting analysis comes at the end when Sabin addresses comic's greater impact on twentieth century life in general. Issues of gender and sexuality, comic's engagement with the masculine and feminine, its relationship to other media, and its global concussions are the more galvanizing and consequential ramifications of the comic practice.

In these chapters, Sabin ironically reminds us that comic research outside of the United States and Britain has always witnessed greater respectability. It has been the subject of critical journals and university study in France and Italy. Comics have also been the source of inquiry for such literary critics as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes, and Umberto Eco. Not surprisingly, Sabin goes on to report that government subsidies, comic museums, and study centers have been established in Europe's more progressive countries, who, unlike the United States and Britain, recognize comic's social, cultural, and aesthetic significance apart from being a marketable enterprise.

In contrast to the West, Sabin observes that comics in the East, like television, rock music, and movies, have an entirely different cultural worth. In a society comprised of conformity and taunt social order, Japan's recent wave of pornographic comics, also known as 'juicy manga,' have the government's blessing. Comics are recognized by the Japanese as a social tool capable of curbing sexual and aggressive fantasies. However, Japan's latest studies linking television violence to the recent increase in murders committed by children and young adults may have Japanese officials rethinking the "safety valve" effect of popular culture, including pornographic comics.

Careful not to erode comic's sovereign status as a popular art form, Sabin was overly protective in his discussion of its relationship to other media. He succinctly establishes a bloodline between comics and Hollywood and he even attributes the 'look' of many underground comics to the 1960's psychedelic album covers, posters, biker and tattoo art, and other "manifestations of Hippie culture." What is missing from Sabin's discussion however is the coopting of the comic form by 'fine' artists. This is not to suggest a rehashing of Roy Lichtenstein's ben day dots; it it rather to examine the recent trend of younger artists such as Jim Shaw (California), Simon Grennan, and Christopher Sperandio (New York/London) who are adapting comic's egalitarian charisma, linear narratives, and graphic simplicity in order to tell their 1990 'identity' stories while gnawing at the distinction between high and low art.

Even though Sabin could expand on the infiltration of comics into other media, he is paving a critical path for furthering the analysis of a medium relegated to one of the lowest rungs on the 'low culture' ladder. With the publishing of Adult Comics, he has enrolled the comic as a current contender in the formative field of entertainment studies - right up there with television, film, and rock music.

Sabin's coffee table/reference book, Comics, Comix and the Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, is a large, gorgeous distillation of Adult Comics. Not pretending to be a critical text, this book depends on the seductive and sophisticated graphic history of comic production. Its large and seemingly infinite number of color reproductions - often of whole comic book pages - give the viewer a wealth of comic experiences.

In the introduction of Comics, Comix and the Graphic Novels, Sabin again delineates comic art from all other media, even though he starts out by saying, "Comics have smuggled their way into art books before. Invariably they have been there, however, as an aside, a digression, to demonstrate the inspiration for the 'proper' art that constitutes the bulk of the book." Unlike Adult Comics, this book is designed to cultivate an appreciation for an over-looked, under-respected art form. Flaunting comic's aesthetic appeal, Sabin has taken the opportunity to elevate the medium by creating its very own 'art book.' He states, "Comics, Comix, and the Graphic Novels includes no canvases by Roy Lichtenstein or Philip Guston. Instead, the intention here is to celebrate comics in their own right, to explore their richness and diversity since the end of the nineteenth century to the present day."

Like all big beautiful art books, there is always something oddly sterile about its historical authority and disingenuous as an authentic graphic experience. But for comic fanatics, connoisseurs, and gift book buyers, this text is a charm. Students and scholars of Twentieth Century cultural studies should stick with Sabin's Adult Comics.

 

 

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