Anatomy of Comics (Damien MacDonald) – Book Review

To paraphrase the great Rodney Dangerfield, comics get no respect. Part of this is the way comics have been integrated into our society; what most people see as comics are those of the American superhero variety like the huge Marvel and DC films that dominate the populist cinematic landscape. But there is much, much more to the artform – yes, artform – than muscles and spandex, and the new book Anatomy of Comics attempts to do a course correction by showing readers just how much variety and diversity the world of comics really has.

Anatomy of Comics is both a narrative exploration of comic history and a catalogue, as it has been published by Spain’s La Caixa Foundation in conjunction with their current exhibition Comics: Dreams and History in the CaixaForum in Madrid. The book is laid out somewhat idiosyncratically because of this; there are traditional chapters where author Damien MacDonald runs through the medium’s history, but there are also spreads throughout the book that display individual pieces with a short contextual piece of writing, corresponding to the actual artworks on display in the exhibition. Therefore, you can read the book one of two ways, looking at the pieces of art and ignoring the text, and then reading the opposite way.

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The book is split into five chapters, each looking at different aspects of the medium with the idea that, together, the reader will gain a full appreciation of the wide world of comics. The first chapter looks at the history of comics and the wider context of where they fit in the artistic world, and where they came from, acting as an extended introduction if you will. Then, further chapters look at the musicality of comics, the political eye of comics, sex in comics, and a final look at symbolism in the medium.

The second chapter is particularly fascinating, beginning with an anecdote about why Robert Crumb’s apparent Janis Joplin obsession was not true, and how the world of comics and music have intertwined. There’s some trivia about how Jean “Moebius” Giraud created while listening to the minimalism of Philip Glass and how that’s reflected in his style of drawing. Then it launches into further exploration of how comics are drawn with sounds in mind, beginning with quotes from the legendary Will Eisner. The third chapter then mixes soundbites from Alan Moore and Umberto Eco as it looks at the medium’s influences on the world, particularly superheroes, and how this all may not be a good thing, with Moore conflating the rise of Donald Trump with the vast market share of blockbuster superhero movies.

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The art throughout is stunning, and each piece corresponds to the current chapter, providing further context through the medium that’s being celebrated and explored. The pieces are from a wide palette of creators, allowing fuller dissemination of mainstream and underground comics. Of course, there are the names most people would know and expect: Winsor McCay, the aforementioned Eisner and Crumb, Johns Romita and Buscema, Neal Adams, and Frank Miller. But then there’s Frederick Burr Opper and his Happy Hooligan strip, José Cabrero Arnal and his canine creation Pif le Chien, and the stunning crosshatched westerns of Antonio Hernández Palacios. Sadly, there are very few examples of art by women, with pieces from Pili Blasco, who was given “girly” comics while her brothers drew what they wanted, and Jeffrey Catherine Jones, a trans woman. The latter brings up an interesting point about addressing trans women and men; as with every artist in the book, it states Jones’ birth name, however, this would also count as deadnaming, something unacceptable in modern media.

Anatomy of Comics feels somewhat brief, due to its dual nature as a narrative and a catalogue, but both parts are fascinating. With comic book movies so popular in the mainstream, it’s important for people to learn about the medium’s history beyond the traditional and the accessible. And Anatomy of Comics is an ideal way to do that.

Anatomy of Comics is out on 8th September from Flammarion.

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