On Comics Research

By | Friday, March 02, 2012 1 comment
When is it relevant to dig deeper into comics history? At what point are we able to take accepted wisdom as fact? When is it pertinent to scrounge up original sources?

One of the goals of comics historians is to set the record straight. To quote Indiana Jones, they're on "the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall." The study of comics is an interesting one for a few reasons. One, it's about things that were published and distributed en masse. Unlike traditional history or archaeology where you're looking at individually produced items. Two, it largely came into existence late enough in human history that there was at least some prescient notion that comics would be interesting and valuable to someone, whether that was intended for government use (in the way of financial records) or personal use. Third, it was also late enough in human history that a sufficient number of people had sufficient free time to be able to study comics while earning a living doing something else.

Compared to many other aspects of history, comics has an incredible stockpile of original source information. We have original production artwork from Windsor McCay's "Little Nemo." We have the original check National paid Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for their first Superman story. We have Harry Peter's original design sketch for Wonder Woman with hand-written notes from William Marston. We have recorded testimony of Will Eisner from the copyright lawsuit against Victor Fox.

But most of that has only come back into the light only recently after having been presumed lost for decades. People hunting through old file folders and cabinets and trunks and such.

But, to my original question, though, at what point do you stop digging? How much Siegel and Shuster got paid for Superman has long been known to comic fans, but we only had their word on the matter. Does having the actual check make a difference? It adds credence to their story, of course, but otherwise, no.

The Eisner testimony, when read in its complete form, paints a slightly different picture of Eisner than the story he'd always told. He didn't lie, to my knowledge, but his after-the-fact version makes him out to be more virtuous and noble than what his actual testimony suggests. It's probably indeed how he remembered the event and, while the two versions don't line up perfectly, they're close enough than here too the overall story doesn't really change.

So should we just accept what we've "known" when it comes to comics history?

The obvious answer is "no". If it weren't for people NOT accepting "known" comics history, we likely wouldn't know who Bill Finger was at all. We might still believe Jack Liebowitz was playing golf with Martin Goodman when he let slip how well Justice League was selling.

But at some point, though, you experience diminishing returns. You can do more and more and more research, and only come across smaller and smaller tidbits of information. For example, if you read a biography of Stan Lee, you'll learn a lot about him. If you read another biography about Lee, much of the same material will be repeated. You'd spend as much time reading the second biography as the first, but learn fewer things. A third biography would yield even less. So at what point do you stop reading because you're not learning anything new?

When is it okay to stop looking for primary source material? If ever? How much effort is enough and how much is too much?

Questions I don't have answers for, but something to keep in mind as you're reading people (including myself!) who talk about comics history. How much of what they say is something they actually researched and how much is something they heard from some guy at a comic shop once?
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Matt K said...

Or, as Doctor Jones also said, "we cannot afford to take mythology at face value."