Skip to main content
Select Source:

Comic Books

Comic Books

While the comic book genre has traditionally been considered a form of children's entertainment, that distinction has almost never been entirely true. In fact, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the bulk of comic books produced in North America were aimed at an adolescent or adult audience.

Related forms include the comic strip, panel narratives (which date from the late nineteenth century in American newspapers), and the graphic novel, a long-form pictorial narrative, generally published as a book instead of the more ephemeral pamphlet form; the best-known graphic novels are Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prizewinning Maus (1986) and Maus II (1991). The term comics mistakenly connotes humor, which is not an integral part of the form. This difficulty is mitigated in other linguistic traditions, such as French, which uses the term bande dessinée ("drawn strip");

Italian, which uses fumetti ("puffs of smoke," referring to speech balloons); and Spanish, which uses historieta ("little stories"). The Japanese term, manga, originally meant "humorous sketches," although that connotation no longer holds, and today the term is seen as a neutral way to indicate comics.

Background and History

There is much debate over the definition of the term comicbook. Some critics such as Scott McCloud would argue that any narrative told with words and pictures could be considered a comic book. Others might place into this category any book that contains comic striplike stories, such as those of the nineteenth-century Swiss humorist Rodolphe Töpffer or the adventures found in Max und Moritz (1865) by the nineteenth-century German illustrator and poet Wilhelm Busch.

The most common use of the term, however, denotes periodical publications in which the narrative is told through a combination of words and pictures, generally arranged in the form of comic strip panels on the page. Early periodicals like Comic Monthly (1922) and, later, the tabloid-sized Famous Funnies (19341955) contained reprints of newspaper comic strips. The intended audience for such publications was both children and adults, as both groups would be drawn to characters familiar from newspaper reading. Historian Ron Goulart notes in his Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History (2000) that the first periodical to feature all-new content was Dell Publishing's short-lived weekly publication The Funnies (19291930). In 1935 Dell again published a tabloid with all-new material, New Fun, which quickly dropped in size from tabloid to magazine, making it the first genuine comic book of new material produced in America.

Burgeoning Popularity

While initially popular, the new form took a few years to become a cultural force. Originally created by teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for possible newspaper strip publication, the adventures of Superman first appeared in Action Comics (June 1938). Public reception of the character was immediate and overwhelming;

Superman, a separate comic book established a year after the character's first appearance, sold in excess of one million copies an issue by 1940. Other costumed heroes followed, including Batman (in 1939), created by cartoonist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger; the patriotic Captain America (in 1941), created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; and Wonder Woman (in 1942), created by psychologist William Moulton Marston. Superheroes engaged in the war effort in their pages during World War II; covers to the Captain America series, for example, urged readers to buy war bonds.

Superheroes were not the only popular comics at this time, however. Animal comic books, epitomized by the Disney line published by Dell Comics, were also successful. The Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories by Carl Barks (whose work remained uncredited for years, as did the works of all Disney cartoonists) continue to be highly regarded for their adventure, humor, and visual accomplishment. Westerns were especially popular in the 1940s and 1950s, with television and film stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, as well as characters like The Lone Ranger, starring in titles of their own, usually with photo covers.

So-called teen comics, particularly the Archie series, found popularity with pre-teen audiences, especially girls. Romance comics (a genre created in the 1950s by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had created the Captain America series in the 1940s) also attracted predominantly female readers, although the stories in such comic books generally were created by men and upheld traditional gender roles.

The 1940s and 1950s: Crusade against Comic Books

Crime and horror comics, two genres that became popular after World War II, ignited a great deal of controversy. Featuring the sensational exploits of larger-than-life criminals (who enjoyed popularity in film and other media, as well) or gruesome revenge tales with monstrous protagonists, these comic books, with titles like Vault of Horror published by E.C. (Entertaining Comics)were admired by both children and adults. While the stories usually featured morality tales in which crime or evil is duly punished in the end, along the way there was plenty of opportunity for graphic gore.

These comics soon fell under the eye of educators and librarians. Like the comics that preceded them in the 1920s and 1930s, these comic books were seen to have a detrimental effect on children's reading habits. Some educators felt that the use of words and pictures together threatened the literacy of young readers. A more cogent argument was that most of these comics were not always well-written.

The most persuasive arguments of all had to do with story content. The campaign against "crime comics," as they were called, was led by the radical psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose Seduction of the Innocent (1954) was excerpted beforepublication in Ladies Home Journal. Based on Wertham's clinical research, it argued that violent and sexual imagery in comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency. Wertham was among the many witnesses who testified at the 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. As a result of these inquiries, and to protect themselves from further intervention and possible governmental control, many of the largest comic book publishers of the day banded together to create the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a selfgoverning censorship board. The goal of the CCA was to ensure that all published comic books would be perceived as wholesome family entertainment. The CCA required that depictions of parents, police, and other authority figures could not be portrayed as corrupt; crime could never succeed; the female body had to be drawn realistically, not lasciviously; drug use could not be shown or described; and that monsters such as vampires or zombies could not be portrayed at all. Amy Kiste Nyberg discusses the history of the CCA in great detail in her Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (1998).

These standards effectively limited the scope of comic book stories to those which could best be described as entertaining but blandly inoffensive. Comic book publishing thus became, for a decade, a practice aimed solely at entertaining children. While horror and crime and romance comics were still published, they were done so in far tamer, more conservative forms. E.C.'s popular satire MAD could not survive under the CCA; therefore, its format was changed to a black- and-white magazine, thus exempting it from the code governing traditional comic books. Of the major comics publishers, only Dell and Classics Illustrated did not join the CCA; their wholesome content assured that their books would be distributed widely even without the CCA seal.

Rebirth for Readers of All Ages

In the 1960s two different forces acted to broaden comics readership outside of young children. Beginning in 1961, Stan Lee, the publisher of Marvel Comics, in concert with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, re-invigorated the superhero genre with characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange, whose exploits combined cosmic adventure with soap operastyle narratives. Marvel Comics became popular with both children and older readers, with comic book clubs forming on college campuses across the country.

Near the end of the 1960s, underground comics (or comix ) gained countercultural relevance. Cartoonists like R. Crumb, Trina Robbins, and Art Spiegelman, among many others, began publishing and distributing their own comic books through drug paraphernalia shops (or "head shops," bypassing traditional newsstand distribution (and thereby the CCA, as well). Influenced by youth movements of the day, these comic books tackled a wide variety of topics, breaking taboos with gusto and offering social and political commentary to their adult readers. Many of these comics outwardly resembled funny animal and other comics from the 1950s, which the cartoonists had grown up reading. The books also often featured parodies of the CCA symbol, a sarcastic reminder that two decades before, comic books did not have to rely on underground distribution if they wanted to address an adult audience.

While mainstream comics did not change drastically after the emergence of the underground comics, they did challenge CCA restrictions. When the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Marvel Comics to promote drug awareness in its Amazing Spider-Man comic book, the CCA refused to approve the resultant three issues (numbers 9698). Marvel published the books anyway in early 1971, and the publicity helped lead to a revision in the code, in part due to changed attitudes regarding the suitability of certain types of material for younger readers.

The Code was revised again in 1989, and while it is still in existence, it does not hold sway as it once did. The rise of comic book shops in the 1980salong with the direct market distribution system, bypassing newsstand distribution altogetherresulted in fewer comic books being sold by newsstands. At the same time, this system enabled many new and smaller companies to print fewer copies of titles than their competitors and still make a profit. These so-called alternative comics made it possible for titles to be directed at smaller markets and produced comics on subjects that had not been profitable in decades, including nonfiction, fantasy, and humor.

While most of the alternative comics are intended for adult readers, others are designed with children in mind. Comics like Jeff Smith's Bone series, a nine-volume fantasy epic that began in 1991, is for young and old alike; portions were re-serialized in Disney Adventures magazine. Linda Medley's Castle Waiting series, which began in 1996, investigates what happens to peripheral fairy tale characters once the fairy tale ends. Her female-centered fantasies are as thought provoking for adults as they are enchanting for younger readers. Medley includes in her comic books and in their collected version guides for teachers, activities for children, and guides to further reading in comic books as well as traditional literary forms. Editors Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, responsible for the avant-garde comics anthology RAW in the 1980s and 1990s, began in 2000 to produce Little Lit, a hardcover, annual anthology specifically designed for child readers. The first volume, subtitled Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies (2000), and the second, Strange Stories for Strange Kids (2001), combine reprints of classic children's comics with newly produced stories by cartoonists and children's book illustrators.

Works influenced by Japanese manga, in addition to translations of manga, are another group of contemporary comic books deserving special attention. Both the visual style and the storytelling techniques of manga such as open page designs and stories that continue over multiple volumesare appearing with greater frequency in the works of newer American superhero and fantasy artists, who look increasingly to Japan for artistic inspiration.

Comics and Other Media

Early newspaper cartoonists, eager to expand their audience (and their profits), often licensed their characters to the burgeoning film industry. Winsor McCay, creator of the Little Nemo in Slumberland (19051911; 19111913; 19241926) and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (19041913) comic strips, early on created his own animated cartoons by hand. Often based upon his comic-strip characters, his films, such as Gertie, the Dinosaur (1914), are regarded as hallmarks of early animation.

Comic book characters were soon licensed as well, with the most popular example being Superman. Within only a few years of the character's debut in 1938, Superman could be seen in the daily newspapers, heard on radio, and seen in motion-picture serials on Saturday afternoons. In the 1950s the Superman television series attracted new readers; shortly thereafter, it became one of the early color series. A decade later, the Batman television series brought a more faithful adaptation of a comic book character to the small screen; whereas the Superman series kept the comics' science fiction and super-villain elements to a minimum, Batman reveled in the exploits of classic villains like Catwoman and the Joker. Its high-camp, pop-art approach, however, reinforced for the general public that comic books were inherently trivial, childish material.

Hollywood has looked increasingly to comic books and strips for source material, producing films like Superman (1978), Batman (1989), Dick Tracy (1990), The X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and The Hulk (2003). Adaptations of lesser-known comic books, such as Men in Black (1997) and The Road to Perdition (2002) have proved successful as well, even though they were directed at an older (adolescent or adult) audience.

Most publishers of comics feature company- and character-related web sites, and newer cartoonists have found the Internet to be an effective way to get their work seen by a larger audience, often leading to eventual print publication. While there were some attempts in the 1990s at creating CD-rom comic books, the format never caught on with the public. Electronic comics remain more promotional tools and experiments, rather than an obvious new frontier in publishing.

See also: Children's Literature; Series Books; Tintin and Hergé .


Barker, Martin. 1984. A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. London: Pluto.

Daniels, Les. 1971. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York: Bonanza Books.

Foster, David William. 1989. From Mafalda to Los Supermachos: Latin American Graphic Humor as Popular Culture.

Boulder, CO: L. Rienner.

Goulart, Ron. 2000. Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History. Port-land, OR: Collectors Press.

Groensteen, Thierry. 1999. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Harvey, Robert C. 1996. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Jones, William B., Jr. 2002. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, with Illustrations. Jefferson, NC: Macfarland and Co.

Kurtzman, Harvey. 1991. From Aargh! to Zap!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of the Comics. New York: Arts.

Lent, John A., ed. 1999. Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. 1998. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Pustz, Matthew J. 1999. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Robbins, Trina. 1999. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Rubenstein, Ann. 1998. Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sabin, Roger. 1996. Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art. London: Phaidon.

Savage, William W., Jr. 1998. Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America, 19451954.

Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Schodt, Frederik L. 1996. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Wertham, Fredric. 1954. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Reinhart.

Gene Kannenberg Jr.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Comic Books." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Comic Books." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . (November 20, 2017).

"Comic Books." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from

Comic Books

Comic Books


Comics have a long history, especially in Europe, Japan, and the United States. The Arab states, China, India, Mexico, and South America also contribute to this history. U.S. comic books have played an important role in the entertainment industry, attracting varying degrees of academic attention since regular publication began in the late 1920s. The earliest U.S. comic book was Rodolphe Töppfers The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, published in September 1842. In 1896 Richard Outcaults The Yellow Kid became the first syndicated newspaper comic strip published in color. Dates for early comics vary depending on new discoveries and evolving definitions; Scott McClouds Understanding Comics (1993) is considered a classic in defining comics.

Early U.S. comic books were compilations of Sunday newspaper comics. The importance of twentieth-century comics has been partially mapped out in Ian Gordons Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 18901945 (1998) and Thomas Inges Comics as Culture (1990); both analyze how comics sold newspapers, generated a vast array of merchandising, and influenced U.S. culture and language.

In 1938 Superman appeared in Action Comics number 1. The growth of comic book publishing expanded until the 1950s. The height of the comics industry occurred from 1950 to 1954. Americans spent close to $1 billion on comics and there were comics readers in more than 40 percent of U.S. households. A variety of genres existed, comprising over 600 titles. During the 1950s public opinion turned against comic books, due in part to Fredric Werthams Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Although the medium was perceived by most as childrens literature, publishers were adapting to an aging readership who wanted more violence, sex, satire, and political/adult themes. The protests, spurred in part by Werthams book, general public outcry, and a congressional hearing, resulted in the industrys self-censoring comics code, a sanitizing of comics, and a major drop in sales. Among the long list of dos and donts, the code regulated acceptable versus unacceptable titles (e.g., titles could not contain the words horror, fear, or terror), established a modest dress code for female characters, ensured that good would always win over evil (criminals were always caught), and reduced violent scenes (e.g., blood, decapitation, and torture were not allowed). The code also regulated language use, not allowing swear words or language alluding to sexual situations.

The 1960s saw two important developments. First, in mainstream comics, Marvel Comics slowly became DC Comicss major competitor by creating a new line of superheroes marketed to an emerging and economically important youth culture. These new superheroes were young, and some were teenagers themselves. Most of them acquired their powers through some type of accident or experiment related to radiation, and the story lines centered around the superheros personal problems and struggles to understand and use the newfound powers. These new comics also made reference to current social issues such as drug use, the counterculture, the different social movements, and racism. The heroes of these comics included Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. The Black Panther and Luke Cage, the first African American superheroes, were an important addition, even though their earliest appearances followed a trend toward blaxploitation as opposed to a serious look at race issues. In the 1970s superheroes became more socially relevant and serious. Marvel revamped or modernized many earlier superheroes such as Captain America and Flash in a further effort to make their comics more relevant in terms of the youth culture and society at large. Marvel and DC Comics remained the dominant comics publishers, becoming almost indistinguishable in content until the 1980s, when DC Comics released their Vertigo line for more mature readers.

The second important development during the 1960s was the birth of underground comix, which reflected counterculture sensibilities and rebelled against the comics code and social taboos. Important cartoonists from this period include Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Richard Grass[hopper] Green, Michele Brand, and Roberta Gregory. The undergrounds were especially important in terms of their influence on a future generation of comics creators and the types of innovative comics that emerged during the late 1980s and continued through the first half-decade of the 2000s.

After comics silver age in the 1970s, significant developments began in the 1980s. The code weakened, many comics publishers ceased carrying the codes seal, or in addition to coded books, they carried a mature line which did not carry the seal. Groundbreaking works appeared, including Alan Moores Watchmen, Frank Millers The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelmans Maus, and the Hernandez brothers Love and Rockets. Independent and alternative publishers such as Dark Horse Comics, Fantagraphics, and Image lessened DC Comicss and Marvel Comicss control of the market. Self-publishing (e.g., Dave Simss Cerebus ) further expanded comics potential as a diverse art form.

The term graphic novel became popular beginning in the late 1970s. Initially, the term was used to distinguish artistic or novelistic comics from mainstream, superhero comics. Some early examples include Contract with God by Will Eisner, First Kingdom by Jack Katz, and Sabre by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. Later, the term was used exclusively as a marketing tool and applied to hardback or paperback drawn novels, collected superhero story-arcs, longer book-length comics, and anthologized comic strips (for example, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes ).

Importation of European and Japanese comics (manga ) saw a marked increase in the 1980s (and the importance of manga in the U.S. market continued through 2006). Finally, the 1989 film release of Tim Burtons Batman spawned other comics-related films and video and computer games. These trends grew exponentially during the first half-decade into the 2000s. Superhero stories accounted for most of the films adaptations, but there were also adaptations of novelistic and slice-of-life comics (e.g., American Splendor, Ghost World, and Road to Perdition ). Major book publishers such as Random House began publishing drawn novels, and more book-length comics appeared without prior serialization; examples include Marjane Satrapis Persepolis, Craig Thompsons Blankets, and Chris Wares Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

Academic attention to comics increased substantially in the 1990s and continued through the first half-decade of the 2000s. Scholarly analysis focuses on comics history, fandom, the inner workings of the comics publishing and distribution industry, defining comics by applying formalist or structuralist theories, applying literary theory or semiotics for interpretation and analysis, and analyzing comics cultural impact.


Gordon, Ian. 1998. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 18901945. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Inge, Thomas M. 1990. Comics as Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.

McGrath, Charles. 2004. Not Funnies. New York Times, July 11.

Sabin, Roger. 1993. Adult Comics: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Wright, Bradford W. 2001. Comic Book Nation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jeff Williams

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Comic Books." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Comic Books." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (November 20, 2017).

"Comic Books." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from