[Dauber] demonstrates in American Comics: A History an assured command of comics’ variety as well as the vast literature they’ve inspired. (There are nearly 90 pages of notes.) His perceptive, critical overview is enlivened by a jaunty style that bops from the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in the 1860s to the demise of an equally influential gadfly, Mad magazine, in 2018 ... In contrast to the work-for-hire conditions at big outfits, many underground artists retained copyright, engaged in profit-sharing and pioneered direct distribution. Some of these innovations would be emulated later by the corporations, supporting Mr. Dauber’s provocative contention that the underground’s creative business practices were 'arguably . . . even more revolutionary than the underground’s content.' The final chapters of American Comics, surveying recent decades, lack some of the cohesion of its early sections.
No detail escapes Dauber ... There isn’t a subject that is off-limits to this richly creative format ... The one fault to this encompassing study is that it doesn’t have a single picture (probably due to licensing complications). That’s unfortunate in a book that describes so well the power of imagery to convey meaning. Readers will be forced to track down the cited works, but they won’t be disappointed once they do ... A master storyteller, Dauber shows us just how much there is to appreciate in this uniquely American history.
Dauber has written a scholarly survey that is both opinionated and frequently funny ... The book is most fun when Dauber turns up what Greil Marcus called history’s 'lipstick traces,' illuminating the hidden sources of modern culture ... Dauber is particularly nuanced in dealing with the many controversies buffeting comics past and present ... Although the book doesn’t include images, Dauber packs in names and titles as fiercely as Kurtzman and Wood once packed gags in Mad panels; readers will want to tally up a list for future reading. But it’s not all here. Nast aside, Dauber generally doesn’t include political cartoons in his survey. All histories are subjective, but it’s jarring not to see a name like Herblock in a book that begins with Thomas Nast ... The biggest miss, however, is in newspaper comic strips. Dauber trips up on early newspaper history at times ... Dauber ably demonstrates that comics, as much as or more than any other art or literature, can handle the most serious of topics, including one of the most serious of all: our ability to laugh at ourselves.