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COMICS are a series of drawings, usually arranged horizontally on the page of a newspaper, a magazine, or a book, that read as a narrative. The drawings carry the story, but words may appear to enhance the narration. Text, when included, often relies on the use of conversation to convey information and on onomatopoeic sounds, such as Wham! Pow! Slam!, to complement the action. The Yellow Kid (1895) was among the first to regularly employ text within the narrative frame by writing words on the shirt of "the Kid." Since the late nineteenth century, comics have usually featured a regular cast of characters, and contain either a complete story or a series of episodes.

Modern comics have several forms: the single-frame story, in which one picture conveys the entire tale, relies heavily on familiar characterization and sequence of spatial relationships within the frame; the gag strip, made up of three or four pictures with a joke in the last frame, such as Sad Sack (1942); the serial strip, which shows a new piece of the story every day or once a week, such as Terry and the Pirates (created in 1934 by Milton Caniff); and the comic book, in which complete stories are contained within the pages, the first of which, Funnies on Parade, was published by Procter and Gamble in 1933 and sold for ten cents. By the late 1940s, more than 50 million copies of comic books were sold a month. The first comic strips were syndicated in 1914, and any small-town newspaper could purchase them. By the mid-twentieth century, Chic Young's Blondie was the most highly syndicated comic strip in the world, and Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey, which displayed an American irreverence to military authority, was syndicated in more than fifty countries.

The modern comic emerged from three forms of visual art: mural arts, humorous cartoons, and the photo-graphic arts. As an art form of social commentary, the modern comic strips are also a direct outgrowth of the nineteenth-century humorous cartoon, which was often a political or social comment. Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) pioneered political cartooning with the creation of a regular character, Dr. Syntax. George Cruikshank (1792–1878) introduced dialogue within the frame, usually included in balloons. The narrative sequences of William Hogarth (1697–1764) translated caricature into an art form and showed the sequence of narrative pictures featuring a regular cast. For portrayal of action, comics are indebted to Eadweard Muybridge's "Study of the Body in Motion," a series of photographs of a galloping horse, which became the foundation for the creative depiction of basic elements of action. Other historians credit the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töppfer (1799–1846) with the first awareness of the expressive qualities of line that allow a wide range of exaggerated facial expression in his collection of picture stories, Histoires en estampes (1846).

Changes in technology furthered the development of the comic. The invention of photoengraving in 1873 made newspaper illustration relatively inexpensive. In addition, the size of the reading public grew, and at the turn of the

nineteenth century, a wide range of comics became a staple in American life. In 1892, James Guilford Swinnerton's strip for the San Francisco Examiner was among the first to include continuing characters in a daily newspaper. In 1893, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World published its first full-page color comic, and in that same year the New York Recorder also featured a color page of comics. By the early 1900s, regular strips were appearing in the newspapers of major cities throughout the United States. Comics could be original or adaptations of literary works: in 1929, Harold Foster adapted Edgar Rice Burrough's 1914 Tarzan of the Apes for distribution by the Metropolitan Newspaper Service.

Not everyone viewed the comics benignly. Frederic Wertham's The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) maintained that comics exercised a bad influence on young people and led to an increase in juvenile delinquency. This attack led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1955 and the Newspaper Comics Council, in an effort to police the content of comic books and strips.

As an instrument of popular culture drawing on the fine and literary arts, comics have successfully reflected social frustrations, like their eighteenth and nineteenth century predecessors. Rube Goldberg's The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts (1914) described revolt against the tyranny of machines, and Goldberg received a Pulitzer Prize for Professor Lucifer and for Boob McNutt (1915) in 1948. Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury (1970) depicted campus unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, and Trudeau won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1975. Berkley Breathed created a satirical comic, Bloom County, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.


Aldridge, George Perry, and Alan Aldridge, eds. The Penguin Book of Comics: A Slight History. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967.

Boxer, Sarah. "When Fun Isn't Funny: Evolution of Pop Gore." New York Times (1 May 1999).

Gagnier, S. Richard. "A Hunger for Heroes." School Library Journal 43, no. 9 (1997):143.

Marschall, Rick. "100 Years of the Funnies." American History 30, no. 4 (1995):34.

O'Sullivan, Judith. The Art of the Comic Strip. College Park: University of Maryland Department of Art, 1971.

Silverman, Francine. "Tracing the History of America's First Comic Character." Editor & Publisher 127, no. 48 (1994): 16–19.

Springhall, John. "Horror Comics: The Nasties of the 1950s." History Today 44, no. 7 (1994):10–13.

Ruth A.Kittner

See alsoLiterature: Popular Literature ; Newspapers .

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comics form the branch of the press and periodicals industry generally seen as providing children's entertainment. In their early days though, in the 18th and 19th cents., comics were very much an adult affair, often at the cutting edge of political reform struggles. Early examples include the satirical caricatures of Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank, often gathered together in ‘strips’ (with Rowlandson's Dr Syntax becoming one of the first cartoon heroes), or published in monthly magazines, such as the Comick Magazine (1796).

Influenced by European publications, broadsheet or tabloid ‘picture sheets’ appeared through the 19th cent., such as the Glasgow Looking Glass (1825); with the most famous satirical magazine Punch starting in 1841, and its later rival Judy (1867) launching the most popular Victorian cartoon character Ally Sloper.

The standard ‘comic’ format was pioneered by James Henderson's Funny Folks (1874), an eight-page black-and-white tabloid weekly mixing text and pictures and selling for 1 penny. This format was exploited by Alfred Harmsworth, whose turn of the century Amalgamated Press revolution included the launch of the most successful of all comics, the half penny Comic Cuts (1890), with the perennially popular Weary Willie and Tired Tim. As part of the ‘half penny boom’, more comics offered sections for children, leading to a pre-First World War ‘golden age’ with comics like the Rainbow, and popular characters like Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys. ‘Twopenny coloureds’ tended to be favoured by middle-class parents, while ‘Penny Blacks’ were the choice of the working-class reader. A famous entrant to the comic market in the 1930s was Dundee's D. C. Thomson, with the Beano and the Dandy gaining lasting popularity, while Amalgamated Press's Film Fun (1920), and Mickey Mouse Weekly (1930) showed the early influence of the cinema.

The comics industry was revolutionized from the 1930s and 1940s with the popularity of American ‘comic books’, especially Action Comics' superheroes such as Batman. A post-war ‘moral panic’ over some of the more lurid horror imports led to a temporary ban on US products, and a resurgence of the wholesome British tradition in Eagle (1950) and Lion (1952). The main phenomenon of the 1980s was the return of the ‘adult’ comic, with the success of the broad comedy of Viz, and the politically and ideologically complex world of 2000 A.D. and Judge Dredd, reminding the public that comics were not just for kids.

Douglas J. Allen

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