A History of American Comics That Will Keep Us All Laughing

Jeremy Dauber’s new book tells the story of cartoons, comic strips, and graphic novels and their hold on the American imagination.  

Eve Glasberg
November 29, 2021

Comics have conquered America. From the movies, where Marvel and DC films reign supreme, to television, where comics-based shows like The Walking Dead have become among the most popular in cable history, to convention halls, best-seller lists, Pulitzer Prize-winning titles, and MacArthur Fellowship recipients, comics shape American culture, in ways high and low, superficial, and deeply profound.

In American Comics, Jeremy Dauber, the Atran Professor of Yiddish Literature, Language, and Culture, takes readers through the fascinating, but little-known history of the medium. He starts with the Civil War and cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the iconic images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus; then moves on to the golden age of newspaper comic strips and the first great superhero boom; the moral panic of the Eisenhower era, the Marvel Comics revolution, and the underground comix movement of the 1960s and ‘70s; and, finally, into the 21st century, taking in the grim, gritty Dark Knights and Watchmen, alongside the rise of the graphic novel by acclaimed practitioners like Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel.

Dauber’s story shows not only how comics have changed over the decades, but how American politics and culture have changed them. Throughout, he describes the origins of beloved comics, champions neglected masterpieces, and argues that we can understand how America sees itself through whose stories comics tell.

Columbia News caught up with Dauber to interview him about the book, as well as which comics he read as a child, what he’s teaching this year, and who he would like to sit next to at a dinner party.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. A combination of a lifetime of comics reading, and the realization—aided by team-teaching a course on comics with former DC Comics President Paul Levitz here at Columbia for about a decade—that there was a story to tell about American comics as both an art form and a mirror of American history and culture. 

American Comics: A History by Columbia University Professor Jeremy Dauber

Q. So you devoured comics as a kid; do your children read them now?

A. Some of my earliest reading memories are of lying on the floor, sprawled out with the Sunday comics pages. It’s a real delight to see my kids reading both the same comics, like Calvin and Hobbes (although in book form), and new classics like Dog Man, being published right now.

Q.  How have comics helped people during the pandemic and with everything else that's going on in these trying times?

A. Comics, like any art form, has both its escapist and truth-telling versions—ones that allow you to seek solace from the world’s darker moments, and others that grapple with the world in ways more or less allegorical. Comics have done that throughout American history, up to this day. In my book, for example, I cover comics of the Great Depression, which offered both escapism and reality.

Q. What are you reading currently?

A. Comics: a volume of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stories from the 1950s. Non-comics: a new translation of the short fiction of early-20th-century Yiddish writer Fradl Shtok, a remarkable and undervalued talent. I hope this English-language version will get her work out into the world! 

Q. What are you teaching this semester, and in the spring?

A. I’m teaching the Core Curriculum both terms; this fall, I have taught a class on American Jewish literature, and in the spring, I’ll be teaching, with English Professor Eleanor Johnson, a new course on the history of horror, another interest of mine. 

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three scholars or academics, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. Just to make sure I don’t slight anyone, I’ll limit my list to fictional scholars. Abraham Van Helsing, from the 1897 Gothic horror novel, Dracula, would have a lot to say, although he’d probably insist on extra garlic. Ray Palmer, the physicist better known as the Atom, can shrink down all our leftovers, and make it easy to drop them off somewhere. And the TV show The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye will keep us informed of the ethics of what we do (agonizing all the way).

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