COMIC BOOK CRIME: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. By Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl. New York: New York University Press. 2013.
The most important factor in writing a survey of any subject is choosing which works to consider in your survey. This step (in my other life as a statistician, we’d call it drawing the sample) often has more influence on the conclusions of the survey than any analysis performed by the author, because only those works judged worthy of consideration can influence the survey’s outcome. And, as we say in statistics, biased samples are likely to yield biased results.
One way to deal with this dilemma is exemplified by the approach taken in Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way, written by Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl. Phillips and Strobl analyzed a purposive sample of approximately 200 comic books published from 2001 to 2010 in the U.S., chosen with reference to three measures of value: sales, critical acclaim, and importance as identified by members of the comic book community (much more detail about their method is supplied in Comic Book Crime).
Comic Book Crime is one of those rare books that is both academically respectable and accessible to the general reader. After a brief history of crime and justice in American comic books, Phillips and Strobl shift their focus to how crime has been portrayed in American comics following 9/11. Individual chapters are devoted to specific topics, including terrorism and xenophobia (with ample treatment of the portrayal of Arabs in comics), apocalyptic narratives, villains, heroes, gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, types of justice, and the recurring popularity of statements of retributive sentiment, although retribution is seldom carried out, in either the comics or real life.
Every chapter is organized around a few themes, the explication of which is well supported by analysis of specific comics as well as references to the critical literature and analogies drawn between the world of the comics and “the real world” (or at least what we believe to be the real world). For instance, the chapter on gender and sexual orientation notes that news reports mainly cover violent and sensational crimes (a minority of all crimes), and that crime victims mentioned in the news are most often white women (a minority of all victims—in fact, young minority men are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime). Similarly, Phillips and Strobl argue, in the comic book world women exist primarily as real or potential victims, in need of protection or rescue by the hypermasculine heroes. You could say that comics simply draw on stereotypes already present in our culture, but Phillips and Strobl argue that as cultural objects comic books also participate in the construction of gender expectations.
Phillips and Strobl have not only read a lot more comics than you have, they have thought about them deeply, and related them to contemporary social concerns. Comic Book Crime is definitely worth reading, both for those interested in its subject, and as a model of how to approach thematic surveys of popular culture.
Sarah Boslaugh, Kennesaw State University