Comic Book Reading

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Children were the first readers of comic books. This young audience enjoyed titles like Famous Funnies that reprinted funny, familiar newspaper comic strips. Mickey Mouse and other famous characters also had popular comic books during the mid-1930s. This audience would shift slightly with the publication of Detective Comics #1 (dated March 1937). With its mystery stories, it attracted a young adult audience familiar with the genre from movies, radio serials, and pulp magazines. The pulps were inexpensive periodicals that featured short genre fiction. Thanks to the cheapness of the paper on which they were published, their relative lack of literary value, and the frequently lurid cover illustrations, critics disparaged the pulps. Nevertheless, they reached a substantial audience interested in detective, science fiction, and adventure stories. As the publishers of pulp magazines saw the success of comic books, many of them expanded in that direction. Pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow would appear in the comics themselves and influence the creation of characters like Superman (1938) and Batman (1939).

Readers in the 1940s and 1950s

At the beginning of the 1940s, Superman and other superpowered adventurers dominated the industry. They were also establishing the profitability of the comic book industry, attracting a huge percentage of the youth market. A survey commissioned in 1943 showed that 95 percent of children ages eight to eleven were regular comic book readers. In addition, 84 percent of those from twelve to seventeen and even 35 percent of people ages eighteen to thirty were regular readers. To encourage young readers' sense of identification, some heroes were given adolescent side-kicks (like Batman's Robin), but most readers still focused their fantasies on the more powerful adult counterparts.

World War II played an important role in the growth of the industry, as heroes like Captain America appealed to Americans' patriotism. Publishers made sure to give their young readers a vicarious role to play in fighting the Nazis and Japanese. Groups like the Young Allies and the Boy Commandos, made up of pre-adolescent boys who joined together to protect America's home front, frequently engaged the enemy while virtually every superhero of the era found himself or herself battling spies, saboteurs, and sometimes even Hitler himself.

As the war came to an end, superheroes became much less popular. For example, Captain Marvel Adventures, the top-selling comic book of the early part of the 1940s, lost half of its circulation by 1949. Despite this change in readers' tastes, sales for the industry peaked in the early part of the 1950s. Some of this growth was driven by an increase in the adult audience for comic books. During the later part of the 1940s, adult-oriented genres like romance and crime stories became more popular. In 1948, the crime genre made up 15 percent of all comic sales. A 1950 survey of an Ohio town showed that 54 percent of all comic book readers were over twenty years of age.

The youth audience for comics was still certainly important. Although many younger readers were still enjoying the adventures of superheroes, others were turning to genres like science fiction and horror. EC Comics was especially important during this period for its establishment of a distinctive community of fans. Letters pages and editorial features in titles like Weird Science and Vault of Horror provided readers with a sense of participation in the production of the comics, while the company's formulaic stories of sometimes gruesome retribution appealed to both the readers' morality and their sense of humor.

Opposition to Comic Books

With more Americans reading comic books, critics and educators became increasingly worried about their influence. Some of the earliest criticism focused on how comic books were threatening the quality of the nation's culture. Comics, some argued, required no thought and hence would rob people of their ability to read and think intelligently. Some educators claimed that reading too many comic books would cause reading disabilities. Other critics, like Gershon Legman, writing in Love and Death: A Study in Censorship (1949), were concerned about the political implications of superheroes, arguing that Superman, Captain Marvel, and others encouraged fascism.

The most prominent comic book critic was Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who believed that psychological disorders and criminal behavior could be best understood by looking at the social environment of patients. Working with disturbed juveniles, he found that comic books were a common part of their backgrounds. This realization led him to the conclusion that these stories were one cause of their destructive and criminal behavior. Beginning in 1948, Wertham began writing and speaking about this issue, blaming comic books for the outbreak of "juvenile delinquency" throughout the United States.

His theories about comic books' influence on young readers were encapsulated in Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954. Although many scientists were doubtful about his methods, the book struck a nerve with the American public. Wertham even testified about comic books at a 1954 session of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. He was generally opposed to censorship, though, and had come out of a liberal intellectual tradition of critiquing mass culture. Nonetheless, Wertham's book motivated many people opposed to comic books to work harder for their control, either by limiting children's access or by censoring the industry as a whole.

To deflect charges that comic books were harmful to children, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America to create a body of standards that would define what would and would not be acceptable in the pages of their publications. Passed in 1954, the Comics Code restricted story content, visual images, and even words that could be used in titles. Among other limitations, the code mandated that police never be shown in a disrespectful way, that respect for parents be fostered at all times, and that romantic stories should emphasize the value of marriage and the home. To enforce the code, publishers were required to submit their original pages before they had been printed. In the case of objectionable material, reviewers would then either suggest changes or reject material outright.

Reaction to the Comics Code

As a result of all this controversy (as well as the rise of television and movement of families away from cities into suburbs), the sales of comic books dropped precipitously after 1954. From 1952 to 1956, the number of different comic book titles published in the United States fell from 630 to 250. Monthly sales dropped from 60 million to 34.6 million over the same period. As a result, many publishers went out of business, while others changed the content of their comics. EC Comics, for example, dropped its crime and horror comics for safer titles about doctors and journalists. After continued objections from the Comics Code, publisher William Gaines decided that the industry was no longer worth the frustration. He converted his successful humor title Mad into a magazine and ended his association with comic books.

Another result of the passage of the code was the loss of an adult market for comic books. The standards in the code essentially mandated that the products of the entire industry be safe for children. Adult fans of romance and crime comics found little of interest in comic books now aimed at a much younger audience. Characters like Archie and the Disney stable became more popular, as did superheroes. Beginning with the introduction of a new Flash in Showcase #4 (September–October 1956), DC Comics spearheaded what would come to be called the Silver Age of Comics by updating many of its characters that had thrived during the first half of the 1940s.

Transformations in the 1960s

This young audience for comic books grew older in the 1960s, first thanks to the growth of Marvel Comics. With the introduction of the Fantastic Four (November 1961) and Spider-Man (August 1962), the company joined DC as one of the major publishers of superheroes. Marvel demonstrated that these characters were different from DC's heroes by emphasizing the everyday problems they experienced. Its stories were infused with melodramatic elements that attracted a slightly older, adolescent audience. Teenaged heroes like Spider-Man and the Human Torch helped to give these readers strong sources for identification. Similar to EC's fan community, Marvel "true believers" were invited to participate in letters pages where debates about the nature of various characters and the meanings of stories were common. This, in turn, helped to encourage the growth of comics' fandom that was becoming increasingly significant during this period.

The late 1960s also saw the birth and growth of underground "comix" that were clearly aimed at an adult audience. Sex, drugs, and politics were common themes as creators like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and Gilbert Shelton tapped into the concerns of the social and cultural radicals on college campuses. As part of the counterculture, underground comix were sold through head shops alongside drug paraphernalia. When laws were passed in the early 1970s to crack down on these shops, underground comix went into a decline. Despite a relatively brief period of prominence, these radical comic books helped to establish genres like autobiography, to show that the medium could address serious issues, and to demonstrate that adults would read comic books when the subject matter appealed to them.

Development of Specialized Cultures

Underground comix also pointed to possibilities of new outlets for comic books. Through the 1970s, most comic books were sold at drugstores and newsstands. Devoted fans were often frustrated by this arrangement since distribution companies would occasionally fail to deliver every issue to their neighborhood stores. This situation changed in the late 1970s when a handful of comic book fans started a system in which comic books would be distributed directly to shops that specialized in them. This "direct market" meant that collectors would be guaranteed never to miss an issue. As these shops became increasingly common during the 1980s, newsstand sales continued to drop. As a result, the comic book audience became more insular, with less gender diversity and fewer young readers than ever before. Without comics at massmarket outlets, it was harder for new or casual readers to be exposed to them.

The rise of specialty shops, though, helped to create a boom in comics published by small companies or even individuals. These "independent" comics, often in black and white, appealed to an older audience interested in a broader variety of stories. Traditional superhero comics began courting an older audience as well. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore's Watchmen (1986) gave their characters new levels of psychological depth and put them into increasingly violent situations while telling politically and philosophically meaningful stories. DC Comics also attempted to broaden its audience through its Vertigo imprint by featuring dark, literary stories that appealed to a more educated audience that included a significant number of women.

Transforming the audience even more dramatically were the so-called alternative comics. Inspired by underground comix, they helped the form attract critical and academic interest. Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1987)—a biographical tale of the Holocaust, told with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats—won a Pulitzer Prize and has been taught in countless college courses. Like their underground precursors, many alternative comics are filled with political commentary and sexual imagery. Many alternative comics particularly appeal to young, college-educated adults, members of the so-called Generation X.

Publishers continue trying to expand the audience for comic books. The appearances of characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk in major Hollywood films renewed the interest of some readers who had given up on comics. DC has courted children with its "all-ages" comics that mimic the style of animated television programs starring Batman and the Justice League. The audience is expanding in other ways as well. Manga—Japanese comics translated into English—is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to the success of anime and video games. Older readers can still turn to alternative comics, but even superhero comics are telling more complex, even self-aware stories.

See also: Children's Reading, Collecting, Comic Magazines, Genre Reading, Men's Magazines, Women's Magazines


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Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. Berkeley: Ronin, 1993.

Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes. New York: Bonanza Books, 1965.

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

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

Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Matthew J. Pustz