Occasionally, I even buy one for old times’ sake. Spider-Man, like me, appears to have grown up, but his marriage seems to be on the rocks. Still, it’s getting harder and harder to find comics because a big cultural shift has taken place: Kids don’t read them anymore.

Comic books, like paper routes and small drugstores, have become an endangered species. A series of corporate takeovers, coupled with the dilution of the product and the rise of computer games and music videos, means that the financial state of Marvel and other companies is shaky at best. Once prominently displayed at newsstands and drugstores, the main outlet for comic sales is specialty shops that cater to the cognoscenti. Not surprisingly, the disappearance of comic books means that they have become part of the national nostalgia industry. Indeed, at a time when George W. Bush’s proudest initiative is to host “T-ball” at the White House in memory of his own Little League exertions, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that comic books are attracting new attention.

Enter Bradford W. Wright. A historian at the University of Maryland. Wright is the first serious historian to tackle comics. He is a seasoned veteran of the comics world. He quips in his preface that “few works of historical scholarship can truly claim to represent a lifetime of research as this one does.” Though never a serious collector—he lacked the cash—Wright was an avid reader as a child. Now, he has produced a fascinating survey of the rise and fall of comics.

Unburdened by any theoretical apparatus, his Comic Book Nation is informative, humorous, and penetrating. Wright never devolves into minutiae likely to bore the non-initiate, and his narrative is extremely well-organized. His theme is simple and persuasive: Comic books provide an acute lens through which to study shifts in popular culture, from World War II to Vietnam to the Reagan era. He argues that editors, mostly Jewish and liberal, sought to challenge racism, fascism, poverty, and the threat of nuclear war. Perhaps his most provocative argument is that the dress rehearsal for today’s culture wars about television and rap music took place in comic books.

According to Wright, comic books, which first appeared in the early 1930s, occupied a status just above pornography. Crude and formulaic, they were written by aspiring artists eager to see their names in print. The genre didn’t take off until 1939, when Superman was published by Detective Comics (DC). Wright shows the extent to which Superman was a New Deal creation. His two young creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, cast Superman as, in their words, a “champion of the oppressed … devoted to helping those in need.” Wright notes that “in his initial episode, Superman saves a falsely accused prisoner from a lynch mob, produces evidence that frees an innocent woman on death row, and defends a woman about to be beaten by her husband.” Later on, Superman destroys a conspiracy involving a senator, a lobbyist, and a munitions manufacturer who seek to foment a war in Latin America. Other DC characters would take the same line, tackling corrupt political bosses and defending the common man. The underlying message was that American society required might to make right. Renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer has observed that “once the odds were appraised honestly it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world.” More conservative figures had their doubts about the new form. Frank Vlamos, writing in The American Mercury, complained that comics represented “the most dismaying mass of undiluted horror and prodigious impossibility ever visited on the sanity of a nation’s youth.”

But World War II ratified the new interest in comics. GI’s whiling away time by leafing through comics became a staple of wartime propaganda. One of four magazines shipped to troops overseas was a comic book, and 35,000 copies of Superman alone went abroad each month. So enthusiastic for war were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who produced Captain America, that they inspired isolationist outrage by having the good captain denounce Nazism before the U.S. had entered the war. According to Wright, Captain America “came to epitomize not only the values and fighting spirit of the national war effort but also the fortunes that comic book publishers would reap from their enlistment into patriotic wartime culture.”

Fascism could not have fit better into the Manichean world of comic books. Once prosperity hit the United States, publishers had to readjust. Fighting social inequality was out. Fantasy was in. No one personified the shift better than Superman. “Having launched his career as a crusading champion of social justice and a militant antifascist,” says Wright, “by the end of the war Superman had assumed his befitting role as the conservative elder statesman among comic book heroes, above the political and social concerns of the day.” Superman became a god-like figure, picking up new powers as well as a self-sustaining world that included a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. However, the industry’s sales slumped as it produced anodyne tales of Goody-Two-Shoes who always did right.

Ironically, comic books became dull as dishwater because of the more ghoulish fare published by EC comics—as distinct from DC—which triggered a mini-culture war. Wright explains that EC comics offered something of a precursor to the upheaval of the 1960s, questioning authority before it was fashionable to question anything. In perhaps the most notorious panel printed by EC comics, a murderous baseball team plays a midnight game with the limbs and entrails of a victim. Little was left to the imagination, and what little was left was amply spelled out. “See the catcher with the torso strapped on as a chest protector, the infielders with their hand-mitts, the stomach-rosin bag, and all the other pieces of equipment that once was Central City’s star pitcher, Herbie Satten,” read one caption. Another issue depicted a man holding a bloody ax in one hand and a woman’s severed head in the other. “Corpses in various states of decay and reanimation,” Wright says, “regularly adorned the covers.”

“A commercial expression of cultural defiance,” he writes, “EC brilliantly perceived the alienated generation among young people and recognized youth dissatisfaction as a marketable commodity.” The reaction came quickly. By 1948, Catholic schools were conducting bonfires of comic books. Wright notes that questions about the moral staunchness of youth and its ability to resist communism hovered over an entire generation.

Dr. Fredric Wertham, a New York City psychiatrist who had emigrated to the United States from Germany, soon became the industry’s blood-hound. In 1948, he presented his findings to the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy in an address titled “The Psychopathology of Comic Books.” In coming years, Wertham would find plenty of material to decry, resulting, in 1954, in his 400-page indictment, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham complained, for example, that “one of the stock mental aphrodisiacs” in comic books was to show large breasts; when that wasn’t the case, the publishers were promoting homosexuality. Batman’s sidekick, Robin, he said, was “usually shown in his uniform with bare legs” and often stood “with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.” Wertham’s charges were taken seriously. Soon enough, William M. Gaines, the publisher of EC, found himself facing off against a Senate investigative committee headed by Estes Kefauver. It was a rout. Kefauver declared that a panel in the July issue “seems to be a man with a woman in a boat and he is choking her to death here with a crowbar. Is that in good taste?” “I think so,” was all Gaines could answer. The prudish Comics Code was slammed into place, and the industry ground out boring, uncontroversial bilge.

The decisive change came in the early 1960s, when Stan “the Man” Lee revived Marvel Comics. Lee’s accomplishment cannot be exaggerated. He invented the superhero as anti-hero. Spider-Man was a smart-aleck outsider who enraged the establishment newspaper run by cigar-chomping J. Jonah Jameson; as Peter Parker, Spider-Man was a nerdy student, mocked as a wimp and tormented by the class bully, Flash Thompson. The rest of the time, his Aunt May was fussing over him, or he was desperately trying to earn money to keep her financially afloat by snapping pictures for, of all people, J. Jonah Jameson. The Incredible Hulk may not have been financially strapped but he was even more alienated than Spider-Man, battling the U.S. Army as well as the Fantastic Four.

Nor were Lee’s heroes flawless. Far from it. Lee had the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman abandon her lover, Mr. Fantastic, for several issues to enjoy a fling with the Submariner. The Avengers fought each other as much as they did supervillains. Comics anticipated the freewheeling social atmosphere of the 60s. Stan Lee became a favorite speaker at universities like Columbia and New York University.

“A 1965 college poll conducted by Esquire,” Wright says, “revealed that student radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons … The outsider hero had arrived as the most celebrated figure in youth culture, and Marvel had him.” Indeed, one letter writer asked whether Marvel had considered the “close ideological connection between your Spider-Man and the Dadaist-Pop Art movement?” For several issues, Stan Lee even changed the Marvel logo to read “Pop Art,” in emulation of Andy Warhol. Lee also introduced the wry, self-deprecating humor that would later become a staple of mainstream advertising: “If you don’t buy this issue, we’ll never talk to you again!” would be emblazoned on the cover of an issue of Spider-Man. Another Lee innovation was to create the absurdist “no-prize.” If a reader spotted an error or made a valuable suggestion, he would be awarded the “no-prize,” which was exactly what it said it was. Competition was keen.

The real backlash came in the late 1960s, when Lee and a new generation of writers tackled themes ranging from American guilt in Vietnam to drug abuse to the environment. In Spider-Man #96, which the Comics Code famously refused to approve, Lee had a black youth questioning an industrialist about his social responsibility, or lack thereof. “What have you done to fight drugs?” he asks. “Look! I’m just one man! It’s not my responsibility.” The youth replies, “You’re rich! You’ve got influence! That makes it your responsibility.” After Watergate, Captain America uncovered a conspiracy to take over the U.S. government led by the president (guess who?) himself. A despondent Captain even chucked his uniform for several issues, while surrogates try to take his place. In The Defenders, a future is depicted in which citizens suffer the effects of global warming. Wright says that “times had changed to such an extent that comic books now garnered praise in the media for questioning old assumptions and challenging established authorities instead of endorsing traditional American values.” In the Reagan era, Marvel—by then the only company that counted—mixed things up a bit. Daredevil became a vigilante, featured holding a gun on a cover with the slogan “No More Mister Nice Guy.” One of the most popular new characters, Wolverine, meted out summary justice; he was “Dirty Harry” with adamantine claws.

If Wright’s book has a weakness, it is its implicit assumption that the radical left-wing politics that sometimes seeped into comic books meant that they were more sophisticated. But Wright cannot bring himself to admit that the mental and moral world of the creators of the left was not always that much more complex than that of the right. Wright himself spins the story, referring, for example, to EC comic book writer and artist Harvey Kurtzman as the “conscience of EC.” Kurtzmann, we are told, worked “briefly for the leftist Daily Worker” Ummm, leftist? It was, and remains, a communist newspaper. To be sure, Wright properly notes the efforts by Stan Lee to introduce black characters, first as bystanders, then as superheroes, into the Marvel lineup, something other publishers were too cowardly to attempt. The first black Marvel character was an African prince called “The Black Panther”—even before the radical militant group the Black Panthers was on the scene. If anyone was the conscience of the comic book industry, it was Lee.

Wright might also have noted the zany effect that comics have had on politics. Nina Easton’s recent book Gang of Five noted that the spirit of MAD magazine had a decisive effect on shaping the spirit of conservatism. The conservatives of William Kristol’s generation adopted, wittingly or unwittingly, the anarchistic spirit which MAD espoused. They were the ones who questioned authority and reveled in irreverence, dismissing liberal pieties. The covers of the Weekly Standard are straight from MAD, like the notorious one of Bill Clinton swinging with Monica in a White House jungle. The irreverence of comic books seeped into the popular culture in ways that politicians can only ignore at their peril; Frank Rich noted during the 2000 campaign that even Stan Lee, introducing Al Gore at a fundraiser, had a hard time getting the former vice president to loosen up. But like Cold Warriors who ended up without a job, comic books may have been too successful. Wright believes that “comic books are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture but because American culture has finally caught up with them. America at the turn of the 21st century has a pervasive consumer culture based largely on the perpetuation of adolescence.” Well, maybe. But comics used to appeal to the young because they anticipated, not just mirrored, popular culture. Now they’ve become a nostalgia item, ripe for documentation. Can Ken Burns be far behind?

Jacob Heilbrunn is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.