The History of Comic Books

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most popular forms of media is comic books.

Initially created as entertainment for children, they have since grown into a global media consumed by people of all ages. 

The development of the comic book was not something that came out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a type of communication that actually began thousands of years ago.

Learn more about comic books, where they came from, and the business behind them on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Comic books, despite being a relatively modern phenomenon, actually have roots that extend back into the distant past. 

Comic books are simply a modern form of what is known as sequential art.

Sequential art, as the name implies, is using a series of images to tell a story or to convey a message. 

Several thousand years ago, sequential art was probably the most important form of art in that it was a means of communication for people who were largely illiterate.

In theory, the use of pictures to tell a story can be dated back as far as 20,000 years ago to the cave paintings found in places like Lascaux, France.

True sequential art didn’t appear until the rise of ancient civilizations. There are sequential works of art found in Egyptian tombs that tell the stories of the people buried there.

There are bas-relief sculptures found in Greek temples that tell the story of the gods. 

In ancient India, sequential images were used with narrators to tell stories. 

In China, there were panels made of silk, wood, or paper, which were also used to tell stories.

In the middle of Rome today, you can see Trajan’s Column, which sequentially tells the story of the military victories of Emperor Trajan using images. 

Even with the development of writing, there was still a need for sequential art to tell stories to those who couldn’t read or write. 

The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70-meter-long depiction of William the Conquerer’s invasion of England done entirely in embroidered cloth. It is estimated to be 900 years old.

The point is that sequential art was something that was almost universal and independently arose in civilizations around the world. 

While sequential art did appear as works of art, one place it seldom appeared was in books or scrolls.

Before the printing press, books were very expensive to produce, and they were only of interest to people who were literate, so there was no need to use sequential art. There were illustrations in books, but the images were used to enhance a written story and were not the story itself.

When the printing press was developed, the story was the same. Books were designed for text with some illustrations. 

Eventually, the cost of printing and paper came down, and images were once again being used as the focal point of published material. These would usually be in the form of images used as satire or propaganda, and they would usually be combined with text.

The fundamental difference between these printed images and earlier ones is that these printed images were not intended for an illiterate audience. There would usually be a title explaining what was happening. 

With the reduced cost of paper and printing, printed materials such as newspapers and magazines became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reduced cost and wider appeal of printed material, as well as improved printing technology, allowed for the creation of material that would never have made economic sense previously.

The thing that we can point to for the first time that exclusively used sequential art illustrations in a printed publication was a magazine called The Glasgow Looking Glass, which was first published in 1825. The magazine took a satirical look at Scottish society and the culture of early 19th-century Britain. 

Despite only existing for about a year, The Glasgow Looking Glass ushered in several innovations that we take for granted. The biggest of which was the use of speech bubbles or word balloons. These are the spaces where text is placed to indicate which character is speaking and encloses what they are saying. 

It also pioneered the use of the phrase ‘To Be Continued’ as a cliffhanger to get people to read the next installment. 

In 1827, the book Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois was published in Geneva, Switzerland. This was reprinted in the United States in 1842 with the title The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. 

In 1865, the German artist Wilhelm Busch published a book titled Max and Moritz. The book was an illustrated black humor book about two young boys, with the text written entirely in rhymed couplets.

Also, in the 19th century, political and satirical cartoons became extremely popular in newspapers, but these were seldom serial in nature. 

In 1867, the British magazine Judy introduced the first regular character to appear, Ally Sloper. It was so popular that it was spun off into its own publication known as Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, which was estimated to have an audience of 350,000, mostly working-class people who read it.

In 1895, a cartoon known as The Yellow Kid appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. It later moved to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American. Due to a lapse in copyright, Pulitzer continued to publish it. These newspapers were known as Yellow Kid newspapers, later shortened to yellow newspapers, which is where the term ‘yellow journalism’ comes from. 

In 1897, a German immigrant Rudolph Dirks published The Katzenjammer Kids in the New York Journal, which is widely recognized to be the first true comic strip.

Also, in 1897, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flat was published in the UK. This was a collection of Yellow Kid cartoons and the first book to identify itself and use the term “comic book.”

The early 20th century saw the rise in popularity of comic strips, many of which were popular enough to have a collection of strips published as books. The Adventures of Tintin was a Belgian serialized comic strip first published in 1929 that was later republished as a best-selling book.

The popularity of these collections of comic strips as books led to the publication of more illustrated books, often for children, and their rise in popularity. 

Everything up until this point I mention just to show that the origin of comic books, as we know them today, was in comic strips. There really wasn’t a difference. 

However, when you say “comic book” today, you are usually referring to something very specific and different from a comic strip. It isn’t just an illustrated book, it is an entire genre of storytelling that often revolves around superheroes. 

In 1935, National Allied Publications published a book titled New Fun #1. This is of significance because National Allied Publications later went on to become DC Comics. 

New Fun #1 was unique in that the entire book was original stories, not dependent on any previously published comic strips. 

They published Detective Comics #1 in 1937 with a grizzled private eye known as Slam Bradley. 

The thing that truly began what is now known as the Golden Age of comic books was their publication of Action Comics #1 on April 18, 1938, which starred a character known as…. Superman. 

A copy of Action Comics #1 has sold at auction for over $3.2 million dollars. 

The creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, actually wrote a science fiction short story in 1933 about a telepathic villain with the name of Superman. 

Within a year, they published Detective Comics #27, which introduced another character that that was a smash hit…..Batman.

In October 1939, Timely Publications was founded by a magazine published named Martin Goodman. The first book they published was called “Marvel Comics #1.” The company later changed its name to Marvel Comics in 1960.

Comic books took off during the 1940s as they were primarily read by young men and boys. They were popular with soldiers during WWII, many of who began reading them before they joined the service. 44% of all American soldiers during the war claimed they were avid comic book readers.

Superheroes such as Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, and the Flash were created during this period. 

In addition to superhero comic books, different types of comics proliferated. Crime, westerns, and horror all became popular. 

A national moral panic developed in the United States in the early 1950s over comic books and their presentation of graphic violence and gore. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published a book titled Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were a negative influence on children and contributed to delinquency. 

After Senate hearings on the subject, the Comics Code Authority was established, which was a voluntary regulatory board that vetting comics for publication. Comics that were approved were able to use the Comics Code Authority seal on the cover. 

Comic books waned in popularity after the senate hearings but remerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is known as the silver age of comic books. 

This period was led by the creation of new characters by Marvel Comics. Developed by the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Marvel superheroes were written for an adult audience. They wrote about contemporary issues such as communism and the cold war.

The characters were often flawed and were not perfect heroes. Characters developed during this period include the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men.

The United States was not the only country where comic books achieved widespread popularity. In Japan, after World War II, long-form illustrated books known as manga became popular. 

Firmly rooted in pre-war Japanese art and publications, manga was popularized by the work of Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka created works such as Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and Kimba the White Lion. 

Manga and its associated animated art form, anime, have grown to worldwide popularity and are one of the biggest Japanese cultural exports today. For those of you feeling that this topic is getting shortchanged, I assure you it will be the topic of a future episode. 

The 1970s saw a turn in comics to real-life subjects. Superheroes would often deal with issues such as drug addiction and alcoholism.  Black superheroes became popular with characters such as Falcon, Luke Cage, Blade, Green Lantern John Stewart, and the earlier created Black Panther. 

It also saw the rise of independent comics who weren’t reliant on DC or Marvel and didn’t subject themselves to the Comics Code Authority. 

The 80s saw major changes to many popular characters. Having been around for decades, many characters were revamped, rebooted, or reimagined. 

Longer-form stories were sold in single publications, known as graphic novels. This period saw the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, V for Vendetta, and The Watchmen.

There was also a resurgence of compilations of comic strips published as books, just like they first were in the 19th century. These included books for strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, the Far Side, and Bloom County.

Today, the comic book industry is as big as it has ever been. Global sales of comic books worldwide are nearly $8 billion dollars, including all comic books and graphic novels. 

The value of major comic book companies like DC and Marvel has skyrocketed. Disney now owns Marvel, and Warner Brothers Discovery owns DC. The value in the companies now largely comes from the intellectual property in their characters, which are used for movies and television. 

Four of the top 10 grossing movies of all time at the box office were movies based on comic book characters. 

Comics and comic books, like everything else, have now gone digital, and many titles can be read online or on tablet devices. Despite the fate of newspapers and magazines, many of which have gone out of business in the face of competition from the internet, comic books have survived because there is an inherent collectability about them. 

Comic books and comic book characters have left an indelible mark on modern society. While superheroes are a modern invention, they can trace their roots back to a form of storytelling that is thousands of years old.