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Review: 'Horror Comics in Black and White: A History and Catalog, 1964-2004' TP

ICv2 Stars: 3 (out of 5)

Published: 01/30/2013 04:01am
Horror Comics in Black and White: A History and Catalog, 1964-2004 TP
Publisher: McFarland Publishing
Release Date: January 2013
Price: $55.00
Author: Richard J. Arndt; Foreword by Steven R. Bissette
Format: 298 pgs., Trade Paperback (eBbook version available)
ISBN: 978-0-7864-7025-9 (TP); 978-0-7864-9315-9 (eBook)
Age Rating: Teens
ICv2 Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For the comics medium, only recently have audiences witnessed serious scholars and academic presses turning their attention to the sequential arts in all its varied forms, including "histories" of the industry. The word "history" is thrown around a lot these days. Visit any bookstore's History section or peruse the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list and one is apt to find them rife with titles written by journalists, cultural critics, and media personalities. History is more than merely studying the past and chronicling its events. A book is not a "history" simply because it includes the word in its title, nor is an author a "historian" because she studies the past.

The majority of comics "histories" are in fact written by industry insiders (former editors, writers, and artists) and more often published by the same comics publishers, yielding neither critical nor objective, truly historical studies. Primarily encyclopedic in coverage, these institutional, corporate monographs often chronicle a single publisher with little to no attention paid to comparative analysis. Although recent books such as Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: the Untold Story and Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero have attempted to end the rather incestuous nature of comics studies books, they too are little more than publishing histories with some critical distance included. Unfortunately, while Richard J. Arndt has chronicled a narrow selection of black and white horror comics between 1964 and 2004, he too falls into this latter category.

Following a foreword by illustrator and horror aficionado Steven Bissette, Horror Comics will appeal to fans of the genre, especially those familiar with the black and white, magazine-sized publications released by Warren and Skywald Publishing from the 1960s through the 1980s. Brilliantly illustrated with covers as well as a select number of interior comics pages, Horror Comics shows how the genre attracted some of the medium's top talent in writing, art, and editorial fields. Although limited, Arndt deserves attention for not restricting his focus solely to American horror comics as well. Perhaps the greatest contribution, however, is the catalog of issues. Reference and research librarians at specialist, comics archives at university libraries will find Horror Comics a quick and easily-navigable resource. Students and scholars building their own research bibliographies will also benefit from Arndt's horror catalog.

Gauging the audience, however, for Horror Comics is somewhat difficult. As McFarland is more than a comics vanity press, known for "covering topics of popular appeal in a serious and scholarly fashion," some serious audiences may expect a more investigative and detailed account of the subject. However, several factors indicate that Arndt is writing for a highly-specialized, very-limited audience. First and foremost, Arndt fails to situate horror comics within the larger comics medium as well as the genre itself and popular culture. Interest in horror comics waxes and wanes, yet readers are never provided evidence as to why--the role of Hammer films, a resurgence of American horror films or television in the 1970s, etc.? While films and television obviously exist beyond this study, horror comics and reader awareness of them does not occur in a historical vacuum.

Arndt also provides no clear definition of what constitutes horror as a genre, allowing for an unfocused study with limited parameters based more upon artificial, narrow personal preferences. For example, while he states that his study covers only magazine-sized, black and white horror comics, he extends his scope to include the 1980's British Warrior magazine—" not primarily a horror title," some war comics because "it's my belief that a good war story is inherently a good horror story as well," and several science fiction titles. Yet, he offers no explanation or justification for why 2000A.D. or Judge Dredd Megazine are excluded (11). Any semblance of an objective, scholarly voice is jettisoned as Arndt relies upon statements such as "if you doubt that black and white is better than color for horror, take a look at DC's Showcase volumes of their 'mystery' titles from the 1960s and 1970s" to explain the decline in readership as opposed to hard sales numbers and statistics (10). Or, in supporting the inclusion of war comics, he writes "if you've read Blazing Combat, you'll know exactly what I'm writing about in terms of the horror content" (11). What about readers unfamiliar with this title?

Lastly, when Arndt moves from his prefatory overview of a horror comics publisher into cataloging individual issues, the summaries read as encyclopedic and personal rather than objective, let alone critical. Although Arndt briefly addresses the Comics Code and its restrictions on horror comics, he offers no explanation or argument why black and white, magazine-sized horror comics were able to bypass these regulations. Why did the format and size, not the content itself, dictate what fell within the Code's purview? Arndt claims that unlike Marvel Comics, premier horror publishers such as Warren and Skywald lacked the financial resources to adapt copyrighted fiction; yet, he also asserts that Marvel's "printing process was often inferior to that used by either Warren or Skywald. Marvel's process couldn't easily accommodate artwork done in pencil" (200). While this may be true, how could a financially-strapped publisher such as Warren or Skywald have higher production values and quality than Marvel in the 1970s? No answer is provided. Finally, although some typographical errors are to be expected (than versus then), the repetition of Moebius for Morbius or Tomorrows for TwoMorrows in the same paragraph is unacceptable.

In Horror Comics, Arndt has laid the foundation for a much-needed, investigative study of horror comics, magazine and regular comics sized, US and abroad. Although valuable as a catalog, Horror Comics may disappoint audiences wanting a definitive examination of the topic.

--Nathan Wilson
 
 
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