A comic book portrays a story through a series of sequential illustrations that incorporate short bits of text containing dialogue, sounds, or narratives. The story may be humorous, or it may present a world of adventure, mystery, or fantasy. Most comic books are printed on a regular basis and have one or more central characters who appear in each issue. A particular story may be told in a single issue, or it may continue from one issue to the next over a period of time. The artistic style of a comic book is often attributed to a single artist, although most comics are produced by a team of artists and writers working together.
The use of sequential illustrations to tell a story dates to prehistoric times when early humans painted series of images on rocks and cave walls. Egyptian hieroglyphics are another form of sequential illustrations that tell a story.
Hand-drawn illustrations appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines starting in the 1800s. Many of them used humorous or un-flattering portrayals of well-known people and were the origin of modern cartoons and comics.
The first newspaper comic strip in the United States was Richard Felton Outcault's "The Yellow Kid," which appeared in the Hearst New York American on February 16, 1896. It was published in the Sunday supplement to the paper and was quickly joined by other comic strips.
By the 1910s, the Sunday comics were so popular that newspapers would occasionally publish small books containing reprints of past strips, which they would distribute to promote the paper and gain new readers. Soon, other publishing companies were assembling comic strips from several papers and selling them to merchants to be given away as premiums. In 1934, Eastern Color Printing Company decided to sell these books directly to the public for 10 cents each. American News, which controlled distribution to newsstands throughout the country, initially refused to handle the books, so Eastern Color took them to chain stores and quickly sold 35,000 copies. Faced with this astounding success, American News reconsidered and ordered 250,000 copies of Famous Funnies No. I from Eastern Color. It went on sale in July 1934 and became the first regularly published comic book to be sold at a newsstand.
During the late 1930s, many of the now-famous superheroes made their first appearances in comic books, and comic book sales soared as good triumphed over evil. By the early 1950s, however, readers grew tired of superheroes, and some comic book publishers turned instead to lurid crime and horror stories with graphic illustrations. Some people felt this material was unsuitable for children, and the comic book industry came under public criticism and federal investigation in 1954. In response, many comic book publishers banded together and issued the Standards of Comics Code Authority, which defined appropriate material for comics.
Comic books enjoyed a resurgence of interest during the 1980s, when fresh new artists created a whole new cast of heroes and heroines. Today, comic books are as popular as ever, and the comic book industry is a million-dollar business that includes movies, television series, toys, costumes, and many other items.
During the preparation of a comic book, a variety of art materials may be used to create the original hand-drawn page masters and color guides. These materials include various sizes, weights, and finishes of paper, as well as several different drawing mediums including pencils, inks, markers, and paints. After the master pages have been scanned and colored on a computer, the computer uses the color guides as a reference to generate four pieces of plastic film that are used in the printing process.
The actual comic book itself is printed on a variety of papers using four colored inks—cyan (pronounced SIGH-ann, a shade of blue), magenta, yellow, and black. These four inks are printed in an interlocking pattern of tiny dots, which our eyes perceive as various colors. The printed comic pages are then bound together with staples or glue to form a comic book.
Because each new issue of a comic book requires new artwork, the design process is part of the manufacturing process. The exception is when a new comic title or series is first introduced. That design process involves the same creative and artistic abilities required to produce any new work of art and may include idea generation, preparation of sketches, and the development of a series of refinements before the final characters and themes emerge.
The final product of the initial design process may be a prototype comic book known as an "ashcan," a term that was first used in the 1930s when comic book publishers sought to protect new titles by copyrighting them. Rather than take the time to develop new characters or plots to go with the new title, a publisher simply took pages from a previous comic book and pasted the new title on the cover. Once the publisher was granted a copyright, the pasted-up prototype was often thrown in the ashcan—a metal container used to dispose of ashes from the stove or fireplace and commonly found in many households and businesses of that era.
The concept of the ashcan was given a more modern meaning in 1984 when one comic book creator produced a limited number of black and white prototype comics for his friends and staff. In more recent times, several publishers have released small runs of ashcans in a variety of sizes and colors as promotional items for the full-production versions.
The Manufacturing Process
Comic book publishers may be small, independent operations that produce a single comic book title on an irregular basis, or they may be large, well-established companies that produce several comic book titles every month. The manufacturing process varies depending on the size of the operation and the equipment available. Here is a typical sequence of operations that a medium-sized company would use to produce a comic book.
Charles Schuiz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 26, 1922. After World War II, Schuiz freelanced for a Catholic magazine and taught in the correspondence school, renamed the Art Instruction Institute. His work appeared in the Saturday Evening Post,and eventually he created a cartoon entitled "Li'l Folks."
The United Feature Syndicate of New York proposed publication of Schuiz' "Li'l Folks," but it was renamed "Peanuts" by the company. In 1950 the cartoon made its debut in seven newspapers. Within a year the strip appeared in 35 papers, and by 1956 in over 100. In 1955 and 1964, Schuiz received the Reuben award from the National Cartoonists Society. By 1965 "Peanuts" appeared in over 2,300 newspapers and the classic cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas," produced by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson, won a Peabody and an Emmy award.
Schuiz also received the Yale Humor Award in 1956, and the School Bell and National Education Association awards in 1960; plus honorary degrees from Anderson College in 1963 and St. Mary's College of California in 1969. A "Charles M. Schuiz Award" honoring aspiring comic artists was created by the United Feature Syndicate in 1980. The year 1990 marked the 40th anniversary of "Peanuts" and the Smithsonian Institution featured an exhibit titled, "This Is Your Childhood, Charlie Brown…Children in American Culture, 1945-1970." By the late 1990s the syndicated strip ran in over 2,000 newspapers throughout the world. Schuiz died on February 12, 2000, the night before his last original "Peanuts" strip ran announcing his retirement.
- 1 Although most people think of a comic book as a series of pictures, it is the written plot that gives the story its direction. The writer and artist discuss the proposed story and exchange ideas. At this stage, they may use a number of formal or informal techniques for developing ideas. They may make notes on small index cards arranged on a table or they may outline the flow of the story on a display board. During the course of their discussion, they decide on the situations, locations, characters, and other details of the story. This helps define the overall plot from beginning to end.
- 2 Because most comics have a fixed number of pages, the writer and artist must then decide how to break up the story to fit each page. They discuss which scenes and dialogue are critical to keep the story flowing and how the characters and action should be depicted to have the greatest impact. Sometimes they follow general industry practices, which define such things as the optimal number of action scenes per page or the amount of dialogue per word balloon, but other times they rely on their own personal style.
- 3 Once the story has been refined, the writer creates a script. This includes general descriptions of the scenes and characters in the order they appear, the accompanying dialogue or descriptive text, and general instructions to the artist. The result is very much like a script written for a movie or play.
- 4 The artist reads the script and makes a rough sketch of each page, called a thumbnail. The thumbnail helps the artist decide how each scene should be depicted, and how the different scenes should be arranged on the page. Some artists sketch each scene on a small piece of adhesivebacked note paper and then move them around on a larger piece of paper to achieve the desired effect.
- 5 Using the thumbnail as a guide, the artist begins drawing each page in pencil. Some artists like to work on standard 8.5 x 11 in (22 x 28 cm) white paper and then photoenlarge the pencil drawings onto 11 x 17 in (28 x 43 cm) illustration boards before inking the final copies; others make their pencil drawings directly on the larger boards. The artist usually starts drawing the main elements of each scene with a hard pencil that makes very light lines. When all the main elements are in place, the artist considers the overall effect and makes any changes before proceeding.
- 6 The artist then darkens the main elements with a softer pencil and adds the backgrounds and other details. Areas for the dialogue balloons, sound effects, and narrative boxes are blocked out in blue pencil to distinguish them from the illustrations.
- 7 At this point, an editor may review the pencil drawings and make changes. Sometimes the editor may ask the artist to redraw a portion of a scene to correct an error or clarify an item. In other cases, the editor may have to shorten the dialogue or narrative to fit in the space left by the artist.
- 8 When the pencil drawings are complete, they are enlarged onto 11 x 17 in (28 x 43 cm) illustration boards if they were drawn on smaller paper. They are then sent to the inker. The inker's job is much more than just tracing over the pencilled lines of the artist with black ink. It involves the selection of line widths, adding shadows, visually separating the foreground from the background, and creating special effects like splatter or wash to give the illustrations texture. The inker uses a variety of pens and brushes to produce a finished black and white page. Many inkers have their own unique style that adds to the artist's original drawings.
- 9 The final step in the drawing process is adding the lettering for the dialogue, sound effects, and narratives that appear in the script. This can be done using hand lettering, adhesive labels, or computer-generated digital type. The letterer selects a typeface that not only conveys the actual words or sounds, but also conveys the action or emphasis of the scene with its size, style, and placement.
- 10 The finished pages, including the front and back covers, are sent to the colorists who add the colors and prepare the four-color separation films required for printing. The original artwork is first photocopied and then scanned into a computer. The photocopy is hand-colored using colored markers, pencils, and paints to become a guide when coloring the pages on the computer. The scanned copy becomes an electronic file that forms a digital outline of the page to be colored.
- 11 With the color guide as a reference, the colorist begins to add colors to the digital outlines of each page starting with the backgrounds and working forward. This is done using a custom software package that allows the colorist to trace the outline of any part of the image with the cursor, and then apply and blend colors to that area to match the color guide or to achieve a special effect. For many colors, the computer already has the information on file. For example, if one character always wears the same clothes, information about the colors of that character's boots, mask, or cape are stored in the computer to ensure they look the same from one issue of the comic book to another.
- 12 As the colorist selects and applies each color, the computer automatically assigns a code to it. This code is used to identify the four color components that make up that particular color—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. When these four colors are printed in an interlocking pattern of tiny dots, our eyes perceive them as hundreds of different colors, even though there are really only four colors of ink on the page. The color variations depend on the concentration of each of the four color components. Thus a particular shade of red may have the code M80Y87, for example, which represents 80% magenta and 87% yellow.
- 13 When all the pages have been colored, a proof copy of the entire comic book is printed from the computer for final review and approval. The computer then prints a piece of plastic film for each of the four component colors on each page. Each piece of film has hundreds of thousands of tiny dots to represent the location and concentration of that color component across the page.
- 14 The individual pages are arranged so they will appear in the proper order when the comic book is assembled. Usually, two or more pages are printed on each side of a single sheet of paper. For example, page 2 might be printed on the left half of a sheet and page 23 would be printed on the right half. On the other side of the sheet, page 24 would be printed on the left and page I would be printed on the right. On the next sheet, pages 4 and 21 would be printed on one side, and 22 and 3 would be printed on the other. And so on. When the sheets of paper are stacked on top of each other and folded in the middle, the pages appear in the proper order. On some printing presses, as many as eight pages can be printed on each side of a large sheet, then cut and folded as required.
- 15 The plastic films for the four colors on each page are used to produce four aluminum printing plates. A bright light is projected through each film and onto the plate, which is coated with a chemical that is sensitive to light. Where there are dots on the film, they block the light and the chemical remains on the plate. Where there are no dots, the light passes through the film and burns away the chemical. This process is repeated for all of the pages that appear on each side of a single sheet (see Step 14).
- 16 The plate for the first color on the front side of the sheet is fastened around a circular drum in the printing press, and the plate for the back side is fastened around another drum below it. When the press is turned on, water flows over the rotating plates, while rollers with colored ink press against them. Where the chemical dots remain on the plates, the ink sticks; where the chemical has been burned away, the ink washes off and doesn't stick. The sheets of paper are fed between the rotating plates, and the front and back (top and bottom) sides are printed at the same time.
- 17 This process is repeated for each of the four colors. In some presses, a long roll of paper is fed between four sets of rollers, and all four colors are printed in a single pass through the press. The printed sheets or the roll of paper are then cut to the proper size, stacked, folded, and stapled or glued to form the finished comic book.
The future of comic books looks as dynamic as some of its superhero characters. Comic books offer a visual portal into a world of humor, action, and adventure that can stimulate a reader's imagination.
Where to Learn More
Alvarez, Tom. How to Create Action, Fantasy, and Adventure Comics. Cincinnati, OH: North Lights Books, 1996.
Allstetter, Rob. "Fire Drill." Wizard (September 1996): 48-51.
Grant, Paul J. "Brush Off." Wizard (August 1995): 52-54, 56.
Grant, Paul J. "Letter Perfect." Wizard (February 1996): 44-47.
Tiemey, Matt. "Separation Anxiety." Wizard (January 1996): 40-43.
White, Paul. "In the Can." Wizard (February 1994): 86-89.
Comic Art and Graffix Gallery. http://www.comic-art.com (September 18, 2000).
Comic Book Fonts. http://www.comicbook-fonts.com (September 30, 2000).
The Comic Page. http://www.dereksantos.com/comicpage (September 30, 2000).
International Museum of Cartoon Art. http://www.cartoon.org (September 18, 2000).
Words and Pictures Museum. http://www.wordsandpictures.org (September 18, 2000).
comic strip, combination of cartoon with a story line, laid out in a series of pictorial panels across a page and concerning a continuous character or set of characters, whose thoughts and dialogues are indicated by means of
containing written speech. The comic strip form can be employed to convey a variety of messages (e.g., advertisements).
Elements of the form can be found in antiquity, where Vergil in the Aeneid describes a tapestry that retraces the events of the Trojan War. The Bayeux tapestry, from the Middle Ages, retraces the hostilities leading to the Battle of Hastings. Narrative strips, usually in the form of woodcuts, became a popular medium for the expression of religious and political ideas during the Reformation.
The immediate ancestor of the newspaper comic strip was the cartoon, especially popular in the late 19th cent. In the 18th and early 19th cent., the cartoons of William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson regularly included balloons; continuity was utilized by Rowlandson in his Tours of Dr. Syntax (1812–21). In France, Rudolph Töpffer, a contemporary of Rowlandson, created albums of long, rambling strips. In the late 19th cent. the strips of Christophe (Georges Colomb) were published throughout the country in pamphlet form. The first strip with a regular cast of characters was Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz (1865), which appeared originally in periodicals and later as separate publications. The first British strip with a recurrent character was Ally Sloper, by Charles Ross and Marie Duval (1867–76); Tom Browne's Weary Willie and Tired Tim reached the British public in the 1890s.
American Comic Strips
During their early days comic strips were published exclusively as weekly features in the Sunday supplement of American newspapers. The term "comic strip" in its strictest sense now refers to a syndicated newspaper feature that appears daily in a single row of three or four panels, together with other comic strips that form a page, and is printed in black and white, except on Sunday, when it appears in two to four consecutive rows and is printed in color in the comic section.
Although there is evidence of comic strips appearing in American newspapers as early as 1892, it is the year 1896 that commonly marks the birth of the genre in the American press, with Richard Felton Outcault's The Yellow Kid as its first true representative, appearing in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. The popularity of The Yellow Kid resulted in an immediate increase in the World's circulation and paved the way for succeeding comic strips.
Rudolph Dirks, in the Katzenjammer Kids (1897), was the first to make consistent use of a sequence of panels to tell his stories. With the creation of such pioneering strips as Happy Hooligan (1899), by Frederick Burr Opper, Charles ( "Bunny" ) Schultze's Foxy Grandpa (1900), Outcault's Buster Brown (1902), and James Swinnerton's Little Jimmy (1905), all the essential components of the comic strip (e.g., regularity of cast, use of sequence of panels, and speech-balloons) were refined and securely established.
In 1907 Bud Fisher created the first successful daily strip with his Mutt and Jeff. With syndicates distributing plates of their comic features to many newspapers, the characters acquired national readership. The enormous influence of comic strips on the public was first demonstrated by "Buster Brown" fashions early in the 20th cent. It was evidenced later in the century by the proliferation of "Peanuts," "Doonesbury," and "Garfield" products; many comic strip characters have also made the transition to television, film, and the theater via animation or live actors.
Adventure and suspense had been elements of comic strips since Charles W. Kahles's popular strip Hairbreadth Harry (1906), but they appeared in the form of burlesque. In 1924 Roy Crane, with Wash Tubbs (later retitled Captain Easy), was the first to add these features to a strip in a strictly dramatic format. Some of the earliest examples of this new genre—invariably drawn in a more realistic style than the early "funnies" —were Tim Tyler's Luck (1928), by Lyman Young, Tarzan (1929), first drawn by Harold Foster, and Buck Rogers (1929), by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins. These led to such classics as Chester Gould's Dick Tracy (1931), Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates (1934), and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon (1934), and culminated in the most consciously artistic strip of all, Harold Foster's Prince Valiant (1937).
International Comic Strips
Many American comic strips were published in Europe, where for a long time their popularity hindered the development of European contributions to the strip form. John Millar Watt's Pop (1921), aimed at an adult audience, was one of the first daily comic strips in Britain and was eventually published in U.S. newspapers; another British strip to reach a large American audience was Reginald Smythe's Andy Capp (1957).
Tintin, created by the Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi) c.1930, emerged as the most important French-language comic strip of the 20th cent.; it continued to enjoy an international readership into the 1990s. The leading French comic strip of the succeeding generation has been Astèrix (c.1965), set in ancient Gaul; created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, it is noted for its verbal wit. The first Italian comic strip appeared in 1908. Italian strips proliferated after World War II; Guido Crepax's Valentina (1965) has won acclaim for its visual artistry.
Some comic strips have proved effective vehicles for political messages: Little Orphan Annie (1924), by Harold Gray, extolled free enterprise and conservatism, while the satirical Pogo (1949), by Walt Kelly, aimed barbs at the enemies of liberalism. Uninhibited political and social satire has been the hallmark of Mad (1952), a monthly magazine of original strips that parodied contemporary comic strips.
Satire and intellectual humor made some strips favorites with adults and university students. Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1906) and George Herriman's Krazy Kat (1911) were forerunners of these, and they led in turn to Al Capp's Li'l Abner (1934), Kelly's Pogo, Charles Schulz's Peanuts (1950), Johnny Hart's BC (1958), Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury (1970), Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County (1980), and Gary Larson's The Far Side (1980). Trudeau's Doonesbury directly lampoons political figures and controversial current events. Some newspapers refuse to run the strip when it touches on contentious social issues; others regularly run it in the editorial pages instead of in the comics section. Another controversial strip, The Boondocks by African-American cartoonist Aaron McGruder, which began widespread syndication in 1999, features black characters and displays a cynical, confrontational attitude toward political and social issues.
In the 1930s renewed interest in book-length strips, of the sort produced in Europe in the 19th cent. by Töpffer and Busch, led to the modern comic book, a magazine printed in color and aimed primarily at a juvenile audience—unlike comic strips, which are intended for the entire family. At first comic books reprinted entire episodes of newspaper strips, but eventually they evolved their own characters, e.g., Superman (1938), by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman (1939), by Bob Kane, and Captain America (1941), by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In the United States adventure, crime, and war comics eventually elicited complaints from parents, teachers, and clergymen about the portrayal of violence in a product intended for children. In 1954 publishers formed a Comics Code Authority to administer self-censorship standards, thus averting government action.
Beginning with the pop art movement of the early 1960s, comics have been appropriated in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Kenny Scharf, Art Spiegelman, and others. At about the same time, underground comics, aimed primarily at an adult audience, began to be published. Their controversial humor is directed at such diverse topics as sex, violence, politics, art, and music. Erotic comic strips found a place in some alternative publications; Robert Crumb's lewd, finely drawn strips, which have included the adventures of Fritz the Cat, his most famous character, attracted a limited but enthusiastic readership.
Meanwhile, the superhero genre, which first flourished in the mid-20th cent. in such characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, was revived in later strips with, for instance, the surreal chiaroscuro of Steve Ditko's Spiderman and, further afield, in the multimedia antics of such characters as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers. In addition, the 1960s and subsequent decades saw the international popularity of comic strip clubs and associations, whose members collect vintage strips, write critical studies about them, and publish the results of their research in specialized journals.
Book-length fiction in comic strip form has acquired a sizable adult readership in Japan, in the "novelas" of many Spanish-speaking countries, and in the wide variety of "graphic novels" now popular in the United States. In the United States, the genre is considered by many to have begun with Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1978) and continued in the 1980s with autobiographical strips written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by R. Crumb and others. The form flourished in the work of Frank Miller, known especially for the pioneering superhero variation The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and the English writer Alan Moore, particularly in his V for Vendetta (1982–86) and Watchman (1987). The graphic novel achieved considerable notice in the early 1990s with the publication of Spiegelman's Maus, a strip about the Holocaust that originally appeared in the American Jewish press, where it generated controversy for its treatment of such a serious subject in comic strip form; Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize (1992) for the Maus books. Among the other practitioners of the graphic novel form who have achieved notable success in the United States during the early 2000s are Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, Daniel Clowes, and Joe Sacco.
See W. Herdeg and D. Pascal, ed., The Art of the Comic Strip (1972); D. Kunzle, History of the Comic Strip (1973); M. Horn, ed., World Encyclopedia of Comics (6 vol., 1976, repr. 1984); T. Robbins, Women and the Comics (1985); R. Marschall, America's Great Comic Strip Artists (1989); B. Blackbeard, R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid (1995); B. Walker, The Comics since 1945 (2002) and The Comics before 1945 (2004); J. Carlin et al., ed., Masters of American Comics (2005); S. Howe, Marvel Comics (2012).
com·ic strip • n. a sequence of drawings in boxes that tell an amusing story, typically printed in a newspaper or comic book.