Bongco, Mila.  Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Comcept of the Superhero in Comic Books.  Garland Studies in American Popular History and Culture.  New York and London: Garland, 2000.  238 pp.  ISBN 0-8153-3344-7 (hc).

List of Figures ... vii
Acknowledgements ... xi (Table of Contents erroneously lists vii)
Introduction ... xiii (Table of Contents erroneously lists ix)
Chapter 1: Comics and Cultural Studies: Sites for Struggle ... 1
Chapter 2: Responses to Comicbooks and the Concept of the "Popular" ... 19
Chapter 3: On the Language of Comics and the Readign Process ... 45
Chapter 4: Superhero Comicbooks ... 85
Chapter 5: Factors that Changed Superhero Comicbooks ... 125
Chapter 6: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) ... 151
Chapter 7: A Glimpse of the Comics Scene after 1986 ... 177
Index ... 231

Note: Chapters 6 and 7 are translated by Bongco but written by Jan Philipzig


    The superhero is central to the comics industry in America and, as such, deserves a comprehensive study.  Unfortunately, we are still waiting for one.  While Mila Bongco’s Reading Comics provides a useful, general introduction to the field of Comics Studies, it does not present any new analysis of the superhero as its title seems to promise.
    Bongco’s book, adapted from his thesis in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, "outlines some developments in comicbooks [sic] since its inception until the 1990s" by focusing on "five important changes in the comics industryÓ in these areas: Òa) Image and perception of comics; b) Format and overall appearance of comicbooks [sic]; c) Artists and publishers involved in the industry; d) Readership; e) Distribution and marketing of the products."  The first chapter is a bibliographic overview of critical attention to comics, touching briefly on Wertham and the Comics Code, Underground comix, recent studies such as Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History and Martin Barker’s Comics: Ideology, Power, and the Critics, as well as some of non-academic books by fans and professionals.  Bongco concludes, "Cultural attitudes toward the comics are changing in the U.S." and these changes have to be contextualized within the framework of cultural studies.  This chapter should prove useful to those new to or unfamiliar with the field of Comics Studies, but it does not discuss any of the scholarly or popular texts in depth and is not of much value to anyone already generally familiar with the studies of comics published in the past two decades.  His endnotes list the usual suspects and refer the reader to a bibliography for other references.  The bibliography seems to have been left out of the published version of the book.  He might have more profitably pointed to the bibliography [] maintained online by Gene Kannenberg (see "Internet Resources" in IJOCA 1:2). 
    Chapter two contains Bongco’s most valuable contribution to Comics Studies, a discussion of how the categorizing of comics as a "popular" form has affected their reception.  This chapter is solid, if short, and it might have been profitably expanded into a very valuable book on the history of comics criticism.  Chapter three also serves as a useful introduction to current thinking about comics grammar, although it does so primarily by recapitulating the ideas of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud and Bob Harvey; their original works better convey their ideas. 
    Chapters four through six on superhero comic books, the direct market, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, presumably are the heart of the book given its title.  In these chapters, Bongco fails to deliver.  He makes numerous small errors and odd choices of examples, such as including Doctor Solar, Captain Atom, and Dynamo in a discussion of Golden Age heroes and picking Batman, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and Adam Strange as examples of heroes for whom "extensive knowledge of advanced technology is essential."  These choices raise the suspicion that Bongco is not overly familiar with superhero comics.  Additionally, while Bongco cites quotations from Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, he does not directly acknowledge the way Reynolds’ text underlies his analysis.  Bongco restates Reynolds’ points regarding the definition of the superhero, the meaning of costumes, and the "exscription" of women; he even repeats Reynolds’ choices of examples, for instance pointing out that the Wasp’s and Henry Pym’s costume changes mark instabilities in their superidentities.  As is widely recognized, perhaps stated best by Mark Nevins (Inks 3:3), Reynolds is a weak foundation to build any argument upon.
    Bongco’s main point regarding superheroes is that instead of being seen as "the last bastion of imperialism and outmoded class attitudes," the superhero genre could possibly be perceived as "actually dealing with the transgression of the law, portraying the play between breaking and restoring law, or at the very least, showing an ambivalence about law and order."  This perception originates in the way the mere existence of the superhero argues that the institutional authorities are deficient and the ongoing nature of superhero stories presents any restoration of peace and order as temporary, destined to be disrupted again in the next issue.  While these points are fairly self-evident, they are by no means unique to the superhero genre.  They could be made in reference to all serialized American adventure stories, from the dime novels to the pulps, and radio shows to action films.  This analysis tells us nothing specific about superheroes, and therefore knocks the underpinnings of the book out from under it.
    The final two chapters, and a significant — if indeterminate — portion of chapter five, are translated from unpublished essays in German by Jan Philipzig, about whom Bongco includes no information.  Philipzig provides interesting analyses of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Arkham Asylum in chapter six.  His "Glimpse at the Comics Scene after 1986" is precisely what it claims to be, offering brief descriptions of and introductions to some interesting comics of the past decade or so without much analysis.  His presentation of the speculation boom of the late 80s and early 90s is a brief, cogent history of that phenomenon.  This chapter does not provide a conclusion for the book, but Philipzig cannot be faulted for that, as this essay was not likely written for that purpose.
    The book closes with Philipzig’s criticism of the availability of foreign comics in the American market, and it seems odd that Bongco did not return in the end to conclude his book.  It is also odd that Bongco never addresses why he included so much of Philipzig’s work.  Also left unaddressed is the incessant use of "comicbook" rather than "comic book."  Given the recent struggle over definitions and terms in the comics field — from Eisner’s "sequential art" to McCloud’s "comics" to Spiegelman’s "comix" to Harvey’s "cartoon" — anyone presenting a new term or making an argument for a reinterpretation of an old term needs to directly make that argument.  In his discussion of the definition of comics, Bongco quotes Stan Lee as wishing to replace the term comic book— due to the impression the term gives readers of "a comical book" — with comicbook — "a generic term denoting a specific type of publication" — but he does not similarly identify his reasons for the use of this term nor indicate explicitly that he agrees with Lee.
    On a crucial side note, Bongco’s only illustration of a superhero comic book is one panel from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns; the rest come from creator-owned comics put out by alternative publishers.  As he states, "I regret the absence of illustrations from Marvel, and more illustrations from DC.  I never got any response from Marvel, and DC would only allow one.  It is unfortunate that bureaucratic policies prevailed over the value the illustrations would have had for readers."  This admission, along with a similar one in David Carrier’s recent The Aesthetics of Comics, points to the serious problem of the refusal of comics publishers to abide by the law of fair use by refusing requests or charging fees for permissions.  Until these lawless corporations can be brought to heel, the field of Comics Studies will by hobbled by scholars’ inability to properly and appropriately reproduce examples of the texts they analyze.  An in-depth examination of this issue can be found on the Comics Scholars Discussion List web page at <>. [2003 editor's note: This document, "Illustrations or Quotations? Permission & Rights for Publishing Comics Scholarship" is now located at <>
    Although I would not recommend this book for scholars already familiar with the field, this book does provide a valuable introduction to and overview of Comics Studies.  And if it comes out in paperback at a more affordable price, Reading Comics could offer an nice entry into the field for new comics scholars.

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This Page Last Updated 7 January 2004.