Rodolphe Topffer created the first newspaper comic strip in 1827. Soon after, Topffer began reprinting his strips in book form in Europe, though the exact date is still unknown. The first American comic book was Topffer's The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, a reprint of a comic book first published widely in Europe. It appeared as a supplement to Brother Jonathan, a newspaper, on 14 September 1842.
The 196-page The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, published in 1897 by Dillingham Company, featured reprints of the popular Yellow Kid newspaper comics, and began what comic book historians call the "Platinum Age" of comic books, which continued until 1932.
In 1933 came the publication of Detective Dan (Humor Publications Company), the first comic book that contained original art rather than reprints from newspaper comics. This began the pre-Golden Age of comics, which ran from 1933 to 1938.
The Different "Ages" of Comic Books
The Golden Age National Periodical Publications (better known as DC Comics) published Action Comics #1 in June 1938, kicking off comics' Golden Age. Action #1 featured the first appearance of the character Superman, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Superman was immediately popular with readers, and other costumed superheroes featured in comic books soon followed, including Batman (Detective #27, May 1939, DC), Captain Marvel (Whiz Comics #2, February 1940, Fawcett), the Sub Mariner and the Human Torch (Marvel Comics #1, October 1939, Timely), and Captain America (Captain America Comics #1, March 1941, Timely).
The Atom Age The end of World War II saw a waning of interest in powerful superheroes, and the circulation of many comic books began to drop. Some comic companies went out of business; others adapted by adjusting the content in comic books to include romance, western, science fiction, and horror. Historians refer to this period as the Atom Age, beginning in 1946 with the dropping of the first atom bomb and ending in 1956.
One way that publishers beefed up comic sales was to make comic books graphic and shocking. EC Comics led the way, publishing macabre and highly successful comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which asserted that sex and violence in comic books was corrupting American children. When the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began an inquiry into comic book content, the comic industry chose to police itself, creating the Comics Code Authority, which acts to censor material deemed objectionable.
The Silver Age In 1956, DC Comics published Showcase #4, featuring the Flash, which led to a resurgence in the popularity of superheroes and ushered in the Silver Age of comic books. The Silver Age gained momentum with the founding of Marvel Comics, which published the Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961, followed by the introduction of a host of new, contemporary-styled superheroes, including Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962), Thor (Journey into Mystery #83, August 1962), and X-Men (X-Men #1, September 1963).
The Bronze Age The period from 1970 to 1979 is referred to by comic book historians and collectors as the Bronze Age of comic books. During this period comic collecting evolved from a loose, informal activity into a profitable industry. Comic values skyrocketed, as did public awareness of comic books.
The Modern Age The Modern Age of comic books began in 1980 with changes in the system by which comic books were distributed. These changes opened the door for small independent publishers to create comic books. Soon the market was swamped with new and original material, including Mirage Studio's surprisingly successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird and published in 1984.
In the early 2000s, many popular comic characters were altered dramatically to beef up interest and sales. Meanwhile, comic book–based movies raised the visibility of characters such as Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men.
Comic Books as Collectibles
Most comic book collectors and readers are young (tento twenty-one-years-old) males and are motivated by a number of psychological and economic forces. Most comic collectors are active participants in the comic culture, frequenting comic shops and conventions to interact with other collectors, usually displaying an extensive knowledge of comic books, and using a jargon peculiar to comic book collectors. In this way comic book collecting fosters a sense of belonging and identity.
Other comic collectors are more concerned with profit. These speculators buy comics they think will increase in value and seal them in bags without reading them.
Of course, pleasure and escape—the joy of reading—motivate collectors as well. Comic book stories tend to be formulaic (though this was truer in earlier times than it is today), and readers enjoy comics because they provide enjoyment that comes from having their expectations fulfilled.
Comic book collecting developed as an offshoot of "comic fandom," the gathering of fans to share their love of comics, which began during the Silver Age. Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas, two long-time comic fans, developed the first comic "fanzine" (an amateur magazine for comic fans), Alter Ego, in March 1961. As fans found one another they began to buy, sell, and trade comics. The first comic book conventions began in the mid-1960s.
Robert Overstreet published the first edition of The Comic Book Price Guide in 1970, providing normative data on comic values as well as historical data. An updated edition of The Comic Book Price Guide has been published every year since.
Before the 1980s comic books were not manufactured for longevity. They were produced from cheap paper, and most were thrown away soon after they were read. This practice has resulted in a scarcity of comic books from the Silver Age and earlier, especially in nice condition.
As comic book collecting became more advanced, the condition of a comic became more crucial in determining its value. In the early 1970s, a comic in mint (perfect, newsstand-fresh) condition was worth approximately twice as much as the same comic in good (well worn but complete) condition. Today a comic in mint condition is worth eight to twelve times that of a comic in good condition.
Because of the importance of condition, comic book restoration services developed in the 1970s and still existed in 2004. While these services can make dramatic improvements in the appearance of a comic book, collectors place a high premium on comics that are unrestored.
Following the lead of coins and baseball cards, professional third-party grading and slabbing (sealing in a clear plastic holder) of comics began in the late 1990s by CGC (Comics Guaranty Corporation) and has become the driving force in the market. Condition has become more crucial than ever, and a high premium is placed on top grades.
Beyond condition, comic book values are influenced by factors such as genre (superhero comics are the most valuable; romance and humor comics the least), the artist who drew the comic's art, important or historic content (such as retelling a character's origin, the first appearance of a new character, a character's death), and perceived scarcity of the issue.
Most comic books have increased dramatically in value over the years, and are mentioned as serious investments by financial advisers. As an example, the most valuable comic book, Action Comics #1, was worth $2,000 in near mint condition in 1973. Thirty years later, in 2003, it is worth $300,000 or more. The appreciation of most pre-1970 comic books has been comparable.
Comic Books as Modern Mythology and Real-World Reflection
Comic books have produced cultural icons recognizable across the world. They are the domain of young people, and help them define their sense of self. Although comics have been frowned upon by generations of adults, their message is typically far from subversive. Instead, comics typically reflect and support the culture's worldview, while also helping to define it.
It is with superheroes that comics made their most indelible mark on Western culture. The birth of the superhero took place during the Great Depression, and consequently superheroes were depicted as powerful crusaders for social justice. Like the classic American western frontier hero, superheroes were individualistic and depicted as a balance of invincible god and common man. Superman, for example, was also Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.
With the onset of World War II, superheroes were even more clearly defined as reflecting core American values, fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way." Good and evil were clearly demarcated, and good always triumphed over evil by legitimate use of force. Rarely did comic books question the integrity of legitimate authority.
After World War II, as superhero comic sales dropped, plots became less serious. Superman became a godlike figure, above political and social concerns, now possessing an array of powers such as X-ray vision and supercold breath, while Batman went from a dark, brooding vigilante to a father figure working beside Commissioner Gordon, well within the law.
With the onset of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Marvel Comics led the way with a new breed of superhero typified by Spider-Man, who was uncertain, neurotic, sometimes making blunders and looking foolish. Exhibiting all-too-human foibles (including being attracted to members of the opposite sex—something glaringly absent from earlier superheroes), Marvel superheroes spoke to youth in a personal and introspective manner during a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and social revolution.
The power of technology emerged as an important theme during the Silver Age. Heroes no longer came from other planets (Superman), or mythical islands (Wonder Woman), or acquired their powers through magic (Captain Marvel). Instead, scientists developed their own heroic powers (Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, the Atom), or the powers resulted from a technological mishap (Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, the Human Torch, the Thing, Flash).
By 2004, comic books had become edgier, more violent, and more complex, perhaps reflecting those changes in society at large. But they still typically maintained the classic formula of the virtuous superhero defeating evil and defending American values.
It has been noted by comic book historians that comics, and the characters they depict, are commodities, and comic book content has consistently depicted America's consumer culture positively. Sometimes through anticommunist themes, sometimes by extolling the virtues of technology, always by depicting primarily well-off, upper-middle-class and wealthy people, comic books have been proponents of consumer culture.
Comic book heroes have also spread successfully to other media, extending their mythology even more broadly into Western culture. The first successful forays were radio shows, followed by a Superman TV program in the 1950s, then TV programs of Batman, the Hulk, an army of superhero cartoons, and finally big-budget Hollywood films, beginning with Superman in 1978, followed by Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, and likely many more to come.
See also: Children's Reading, Collecting, Comic Book Reading, Genre Reading, Men's Magazines, Women's Magazines
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William D. McIntosh