Nonfiction comics continue to emerge as an important genre. They are particularly valuable for tackling history, where the words and images are able to combine to compellingly tell the succinct micro-stories and vignettes that comprise larger historical truths. Characters that might not get a lot of description or development can still feel fully fleshed out, thanks to strong character design and the human emotions good comics convey so well. Stories and characters are the keys to remembering historical facts, and this makes nonfiction comics strong additions to school and public libraries alike. In that vein, The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution is a good, if not momentous, addition to the genre.
Just from its title, it’s obvious that this book’s subject matter is going to appeal to a wide variety of kids and teens. It’s a surprisingly ambitious book, too, cutting much deeper into electronics’ history than a lay reader might expect. Not content to simply talk about Donkey Kong, author Jonathan Hennessey delves into Information Science by way of Alan Turing and the Manhattan Project. He also broadens the definition of video games impressively, discussing early cathode ray tube projects and games that only existed in code form before talking about early forms of computer-based Tic-Tac-Toe and chess. Only after laying this firm foundation does Hennessey discuss more familiar early computer games like Space War and Pong. He also does a good job placing technical innovations into a historical context, not just telling games’ stories, but placing them into real and complex worlds.
There are some downsides to this approach. The results are sometimes scattershot, with apparently major characters disappearing into the ether without warning. It also makes it hard to deliver a compelling narrative that feels cohesive instead of a collection of similarly themed stories. Titles like Fred van Lente’s Comic Book History of Comics have managed to pull off this difficult task, but Hennessey is less successful here.
Jack McGowan’s art similarly struggles in telling video games’ stories. While McGowan is a decent visual storyteller and uses the fun device of peppering the past with popular and obscure video game characters, his artwork has a peculiar industrial flavor. Video game history contains a multitude of geeky white guys, and he struggles to differentiate between them. He’s drawing historical figures as well, and as a result his artwork sometimes falls into the same uncanny valley that licensed titles such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer run into when artists portray well-known actors in comic book situations. The results are sometimes distracting.
The Comic Book Story of Video Games doesn’t represent the pinnacle of history comics, but it’s still a worthy purchase. Its subject is bound to draw in readers and it demonstrates a real command of its topic. It’s not as funny or compelling as it could be, but few books are. This title is a good purchase for public and school libraries, and while its approach to history is wide-but-shallow, it could also find a home in many academic libraries as well. It is smart and exhaustively researched, and explores even the tiniest nooks of video game history. There’s nothing objectionable about this subject matter, but it’s unlikely to grab younger readers. The target audience for this book is probably Teens, but many adults will enjoy reading this book as well.
The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution
By Jonathan Hennessey
Art by Jack McGowan
Ten Speed Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen