An American comic book is a small magazine originating in the United States containing a narrative in the comics form. Standard size is 6 5/8″ x 10 1/4.” Since the invention of the comic book format in the 1930s, the United States has been the leading producer with only the British comic books (during the inter-war period and up until the 1970s) and the Japanese manga as close competitors in terms of quantity.
Comic book sales declined with the spread of television and mass market paperback books after World War II, but regained popularity in the late 1950s and the 1960s as comic books’ audience expanded to include college students who favored the naturalistic, “superheroes in the real world” trend initiated by Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. As well, the 1960s saw the advent of the underground comics. Later, the influence of Japanese manga and the recognition of the comic medium among academics, literary critics and art museums helped solidify comics as a serious artform with established traditions, stylistic conventions, and artistic evolution.
The creation of the modern American comic book came in stages. Comic strips had been collected in hardcover book form as early as 1930 in Europe, when the Belgian comic strip Tintin was first collected in an “album” titled “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”. A year earlier, however, Dell Publishing, founded by George T. Delacorte Jr. in 1921, published The Funnies, described by the Library of Congress as “a short-lived newspaper tabloid insert”. (This is not to be confused with Dell’s later same-name comic book, which began publication in 1936.) Historian Ron Goulart describes the 16-page, four-color periodical “more a Sunday comic section without the rest of the newspaper than a true comic book. But it did offer all original material and was sold on newsstands”. It ran 36 issues, published Saturdays through Oct. 16, 1930.
In 1933, salesperson Maxwell Gaines and sales manager Harry I. Wildenberg, and owner George Janosik of the Waterbury, Connecticut company Eastern Color Printing — which among other thing printed Sunday-paper comic strip sections — produced Funnies on Parade. Like The Funnies but only eight pages this was a newsprint magazine. Rather than using original material, however, it reprinted in color several comic strips licenced from the McNaught and McClure Syndicate. These included such highly popular strips as cartoonist Al Smith’s Mutt and Jeff, Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka, and Percy Crosby’s Skippy. This periodical, however, was neither sold nor available on newsstands, but rather sent free as a promotional item to consumers who mailed in coupons clipped from Proctor & Gamble soap and toiletries products. Ten-thousand copies were made. The promotion proved a success, and Eastern Color that year produced similar periodicals for Canada Dry soft drinks, Kinney Shoes, Wheatena cereal and others, with print runs of from 100,000 to 250,000.
Famous Funnies and New Fun Comics
That same year, however, Gaines and Wildenberg collaborated with Dell to publish the 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, considered by historians the first true American comic book; Goulart, for example, calls it “the cornerstone for one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishng”. It was distributed through the Woolworth’s department store chain, though it is unclear whether it was sold or given away; the cover (see above) displays no price, but Goulart refers, either metaphorically or literally, to “sticking a ten-cent pricetag [sic] on the comic books”.
When Delacorte declined to continue with Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, Eastern Color on its own published Famous Funnies #1 (cover-dated July 1934), a 68-page giant selling for 10¢. Distributed to newsstands by the mammoth American News Company, it proved a hit with readers during the cash-strapped Great Depression, selling 90 percent of its 200,000 print though ironically running Eastern Color more than $4,000 in the red. That quickly changed, with the book turning a $30,000 profit each issue starting with #12. Famous Funnies would eventually run 218 issues, inspire imitators, and largely launch a new mass medium.
When the supply of available existing comic strips began to dwindle, early comic books began to include a small amount of new, original material in comic-strip format. Inevitably, a comic book of all-original material, with no comic-strip reprints, debuted. Fledgling publisher Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s founded National Allied Publications — which would evolve into DC Comics — to release Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1 (Feb. 1935). Colloquially called New Fun (the name it would adopt with issue #2; the first has “New” on the cover only as a bannered blurb), this was a tabloid-sized, 10-inch by 15-inch, 36-page magazine with a card-stock, non-glossy cover. An anthology, it mixed humor features such as the funny animal comic “Pelion and Ossa” and the college-set “Jigger and Ginger” with such dramatic fare as the Western strip “Jack Woods” and the “yellow peril” adventure “Barry O’Neill”, featuring a Fu Manchu-styled villain, Fang Gow. Issue #6 (Oct. 1935) brought the comic-book debut of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the future creators of Superman, who began their careers with the musketeer swashbuckler “Henri Duval” (doing the first two installments before turning it over to others) and, under the pseudonyms “Leger and Reuths”, the supernatural-crimefighter adventure “Dr. Occult.”
Superman and superheroes
In 1938, after Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted by partner Harry Donenfeld, National Allied editor Vin Sullivan pulled a Siegel & Shuster creation from the slush pile and used it as the cover feature of Action Comics #1 (March 1938). The duo’s alien hero, Superman, dressed in colorful tights and a cape, evoking costumed circus daredevil performers, became the archetype of the “superheroes” that would follow. Action Comics would become the second-longest-running American comic book, next to Dell Comics’ Four Color, with over 850 issues published as of 2006.
Siegel & Shuster’s creation, influenced by the pulp fiction stories and by the legend of the Golem of Prague, Superman had superhuman strength, speed and other abilities, and lived day-to-day in his secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent. Within two years, most comic-book companies were publishing large lines of superhero titles, and Superman has gone on to become one of the world’s most recognizable characters.
The period from 1930 through roughly the end of the 1940s is known as the Golden Age of comic books. It is characterized by extremely large print runs (comic books being very popular as cheap entertainment during World War II); erratic quality of stories, art and print quality; and by being a rare industry that provided jobs to an ethnic cross-section of Americans, albeit often at low wages and in sweatshop working conditions. However, since comic books were primarily aimed at children, many adults remember the era fondly and uncritically, a hallmark of a golden age.
Following the war, new genres were added and old ones expanded upon. Teen humor (epitomized by Archie Comics), funny animal comics (such as those published featuring Walt Disney’s characters), science fiction, western, romance, and satiric humor comics all found comfortable niches. Except for three enduring originals, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, superheroes were all but wiped out by 1952.
The Comics Code
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, horror and true crime comics flourished, with EC Comics the most successful, artistically creative, and infamous publisher of such comics, many containing violence and gore. Targeting these and other comics, politicians and moral crusaders (without any basis of evidence) blamed comic books as a cause of crime, juvenile delinquency, drug use, and poor grades. The psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, concerned with what he perceived to be sadistic and homosexual undertones in horror and in superhero comics, respsectively, raised anxieties about comics. This led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest in comic books. As a result of these concerns, schools and parent groups held public comic-book burnings, and some cities banned comic books. Industry circulation declined drastically.
In the wake of these events, many comics publishers, most notably National and Archie, founded the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and drafted the Comics Code, intended as “the most stringent code in existence for any communications media.” A Comic Code Seal of Approval soon appeared on virtually every comic book carried on newsstands. EC, after experimenting with less controversial comic books, dropped its comics line to focus on the satiric Mad — a comic book it changed to magazine format in order to circumvent the Code.
Silver Age of Comic Books
In the mid-1950s, following the popularity of TV series The Adventures of Superman, publishers experimented with the superhero once more. Showcase #4 (National, 1956) introduced the rebooted hero The Flash, which began a second wave of superhero popularity known as the Silver Age of comic books. National expanded its line of superheroes over the next six years, introducing new versions of Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman and others.
In 1961 writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. In a landmark that changed the industry, The Fantastic Four #1 initiated a naturalistic style of superheroes with human failings, fears, and inner demons, who squabbled and worried about the likes of rent money.
In contrast to the super heroic do-gooder archetypes of established superheroes at the time, this ushered a revolution. With dynamic artwork by Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and others complementing Lee’s colorful, catchy prose, the new style found an audience among children (who loved the superheroes) and college students (who were entertained by the deeper themes). Marvel was initially restricted in the number of titles it could produce in that its books were distributed by rival National, a situation not alleviated until the late 1960s. This inhibited the introduction of a Lee/Ditko character, first to surpass Superman in sales since writer Bill Parker and artist Clarence “C.C.” Beck’s original Captain Marvel, Spider-Man.
National (colloquially called DC Comics by this time), Marvel, and Archie were the major players in the 1960s. Other notable companies included the American Comics Group (ACG), the low-budget Charlton, where many professionals such as Dick Giordano got their start; Dell; Gold Key; Harvey Comics, home of the Harvey cartoon characters (Casper the Friendly Ghost) and non-animated others (Richie Rich); and Tower, best-known for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published independently of the established comic book publishers and most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, irreverent style, which hadn’t been seen in comics before. The movement is often considered to have been started by R. Crumb’s publication of Zap Comix #1 in 1968, though there were antecedents such as pornographic “Tijuana bibles”, dating to the 1920s, and Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus, published in 1962.
Although many of the underground artists continued to produce work, the underground comix movement is considered by most historians to have ended by 1980, to be replaced by a rise in independent, non-Comics Code compliant publishing companies in the 1980s and the resulting increase in acceptance of adult-oriented comic books (see “alternative comics”).
Bronze Age of Comic Books
Historians and fans use the term Bronze Age to describe the period of American mainstream comics history that begins with a period of concentrated changes to comic books circa 1970. Unlike the Golden/Silver Age transition, the Silver/Bronze transition involved many continually published books, making the transition less sharp; not every book can be said to have entered the Bronze Age at the same time.
Changes commonly considered to mark the transition between Silver and Bronze ages include:
- A reshuffling of popular creators, including the retirement of Mort Weisinger, editor of the Superman books, and the movement of Jack Kirby to DC.
- A boom in non-superhero and borderline superhero comics such as Conan the Barbarian, Tomb of Dracula, Kamandi, Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, and the revived Doctor Strange.
- “Relevant” comics which attempted to address serious social issues, such as the Spider-Man drug abuse issues and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series.
The Comics Code Authority’s first update, in 1971.
- Revamping of several popular characters, including a “darker” Batman closer to the original 1930s conception, several changes to Superman such as the disappearance of Kryptonite, and a temporary non-powered era for Wonder Woman.
- The death of major characters such as Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, the Doom Patrol, and several members of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
The Modern Age
The development of a non-returnable “direct market” distribution system in the 1970s coincided with the appearance of comic book specialty stores across North America. These specialty stores were a haven for more distinct voices and stories, but they also marginalized comics in the public eye. Serialized comic stories became longer and more complex, requiring readers to buy more issues to finish a story. Between 1970 and 1990, comic book prices rose sharply because of a combination of factors: a nationwide paper shortage, increasing production values, and the minimal profit incentive for stores to stock comic books (due to the small unit price of an individual comic book relative to a magazine). These factors are often pointed to when considering the decline in comic book popularity in America.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, two comic book series published by DC Comics (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) had a profound impact upon the American comic book industry. The phenomenal popularity of these series led both of the major publishers (DC and Marvel) to change the content of their titles to a more realistic, “darker” tone, often derisively termed “grim-and-gritty”. This change was underscored by the growing popularity of anti-heroes such as the Punisher, Wolverine, and Spawn, as well as the darker tone of some independent publishers such as First Comics and Dark Horse Comics. For a period of several years the pages of mainstream comics were filled with brooding mutants and “dark avengers”. This tendency towards darkness and nihilism was also manifested in DC’s production of heavily promoted comic book stories such as “A Death in the Family” in the Batman series (in which Batman’s sidekick Robin was brutally murdered by The Joker), while at Marvel, the continuing popularity of the various X-Men books led to storylines such as “Mutant Massacre” and “Acts of Vengeance.”
Though a speculator boom in the early 1990s temporarily increased specialty store sales—collectors “invested” in multiple copies of a single comic to sell at a profit later—these booms ended in a collectibles glut, and comic sales declined sharply in the mid-1990s, leading to the demise of many hundreds of stores. Today fewer comics sell in North America than at any time in their publishing history. Though the large superhero-oriented publishers like Marvel and DC are still often referred to as the “mainstream” of comics, they are no longer a mass medium in the same sense as in previous decades.
Prestige format comic books are typically longer than standard comic books, typically being of between 48 and 72 pages, and printed on glossy paper with a spine and card stock cover. The format was first used by DC on Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The success of this work led to the establishment of the format, and it is now used generally to showcase works by big name creators or to spotlight significant storylines. These storylines can be serialised over a limited number of issues, or can be standalone. Standalone works published in the form, such as Batman: The Killing Joke, are sometimes referred to either as graphic novels or novellas.
Independent and alternative comics
Comic specialty stores did help encourage several waves of independent-produced comics, beginning in the late 1970s. The first of these was generally referred to as “independent” or “alternative comics”; some of these continued somewhat in the tradition of underground comics, while others resembled the output of mainstream publishers in format and genre but were published by smaller artist-owned ventures or by a single artist, and a few (notably RAW) were experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the world of fine art.
The “small press” scene continued to grow and diversify, with a number of small publishers in the 1990s changing the format and distribution of their books to more closely resemble non-comics publishing. The “minicomics” form, an extremely informal version of self-publishing, arose in the 1980s and became increasingly popular among artists in the 1990s, despite reaching an even more limited audience than the small press. “Art comics” has sometimes been used as a general term for alternative, small-press, or minicomic artists working outside of mainstream traditions. Publishers and artists working in all of these forms stated a desire to refine comics further as an art form.
Some comic books have gained recognition and earned their creators awards from outside the genre, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (an issue of which won the World Fantasy Award for “Best Short Story”). Though not a comic book itself, Michael Chabon’s comic-book themed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Popular interest in superheroes increased with the success of feature films such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). To capitalize on this interest, comics publishers launched concerted promotional efforts such as Free Comic Book Day (first held on May 5, 2002). In addition, the filmed adaptation of non-superhero comic books like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and American Splendor raised hopes that the medium’s image can be changed for the better.
Comic books are a collaborative medium Generally, some kind of writer/scripter/plotter will outline the whole story and is a core of the story telling process. The penciller is the first step in rendering the story in visual form and may require several steps of feedback with the writer. These artists are concerned with layout (positions and vantages on scenes) to showcase steps in the plot. In earlier generations it was more common for artists to use a loose pencilling approach, in which the penciller does not take much care to reduce the vagaries of the pencil art, leaving it to the inker to interpret the penciller’s intent and render the art in a more finished state. Today many pencillers prefer to create very meticulously detailed pages, where every nuance that they expect to see in the inked art is indicated in pencil. This is known as tight pencilling. Because the inking and the pencilling are so closely aligned there are strong cross influences – inked lines emphasize aspects of the scene, but is this particular emphasis the intention of the penciller or is the penciller’s preference off-base compared to the point of the story? Then the colorist comes into the picture and is responsible for adding color to the black and white (possibly shaded) line art. Almost all comic books are rendered in color and have been for much of the history of comic books. Sometimes color is not added for specific effect or when production resources don’t allow for a colorist. A colorist also can add to or shift the emphasis of a page of comic art – the penciller laid out the basic scene – the inker emphasizes the depth and drama of the edges of things and their weight on the page, and the colorist can futher emphasize what draws the eye and adds or subtracts to the realism of the scene. Finally the letterer renders what needs to be said on a page of art for the story – which could be dialogue or the content of signs or print if shown. This may seem like an easy job, but the right use of fonts, letter size, and layout of the words inside the balloon all contribute to the impact of the art. A good letterer is a good calligrapher, and a great letterer has as much to do with the quality of the comic as the writer, penciler, inker, or colorist.
Aside from differences in regional styles of comics books the disciplines of writer, penciler, inker, colorist and letterer are under pressures of production efficiencies as well – and computers are mixing things up too. Different parts of the creative process are generally being done by fewer people but which mixing of responsabilies happens varies. But there are few that do all the steps in comic production.
Superhero dramatic-adventure and [science-fiction]] stories have dominated American comic books for most of the medium’s history. Before the 1960s, comics were published in many genres, including humor, Westerns, romance, horror, military fiction, crime fiction, biography, and adaptations of classic literature. Non-superhero comics have continued to exist as niche publishing, with humor titles, such as those from Archie Comics and Bongo Comics, the most visible alternatives.