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A Complete History of American Comic Books    by Shirrel Rhoades order for
Complete History of American Comic Books
by Shirrel Rhoades
Order:  USA  Can
Peter Lang, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Lance Victor Eaton

Providing a complete history of any subject matter can often be considered a fool's errand. It's an enormous undertaking, and that certainly proves true for American comic books. Inevitably it is an act of culling; choosing what topics, authors, characters are truly influential and paradigm changing, which ones may exquisitely reflect the times, and which ones were ahead of their times. Add to that a particularly invested fan culture who wield (or believe their wield) power and influence over the medium, and writing said complete history is certainly going to draw some negative attention.

Acknowledging the challenge is a useful act prior to opening up Rhoades' A Complete History of American Comic Books. It comes in at just under two hundred pages and is supplemented with appendices and added material, much like the graphic novel with a art gallery and character profile at the end. For this two hundred pages, Rhoades does a decent amount of research, relying on many other comic historians as well as his own personal interviews with many people in the field. He certainly hits the highlights in American comic history while also trying to capture industry players' personal experiences and opinions of one another. In fact, he relies heavily on other people's words, especially in the more controversial parts of the book, which could be seen as avoiding responsibility for describing, categorizing, or legitimatizing scandals, fallouts, and immoral behavior.

The two hundred pages of text are truncated by large margins, numerous lists (bulleted or numbered), block quotes, and headings on almost every page. The layout resembles more a business-minded book than a history text. Also, for a book so focused on a visual medium, the only pictures are black and white comic book covers that accompany the start of every chapter. Even the cover seems to lack much relevance or punch in relation to the topic. Some of the more interesting elements throughout the book are the numerous inserts (again, nearly on every page) that include footnotes flashbacks, trivia, miscellaneous reflections, and true facts. These tidbits and asides are interesting overall. However, Rhoades' flashbacks - that relate his adventures in the comics industry as one-time publisher of Marvel Comics, and other exploits in the field - don't really fit with the rest of the book making one wonder if it should be renamed, My Complete History of American Comic Books.

Rhoades provides a decent primer on American comic book history and supplements it with useful appendices, miscellaneous trivia, and his own personal experiences. Though not as empirical or even methodological as other written comic book histories, it certainly is enjoyable.

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