Comic Books

views updated May 29 2018

Comic Books


NAICS: 51-1120 Periodical Publishing

SIC: 2721 Periodical Publishing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 51-112031511, 51-112031541, 51-112031571, 51-112031601, 51-112031631, and 51-112031661


A comic book is a periodical that contains a series of panels in the form of a narrative. A typical comic book is 32 pages long (10 of these pages being advertisements) and is printed on glossy paper; the average price in 2006 in the United States was $3.20. Comic books are typically in color and feature a single story. They tend to focus on one primary character or a particular series of them. The story and art in comic books have become more sophisticated as the medium has regained the popularity it had in its early years. The origin of the term comic books refers to the earliest comic books, which featured reprints of comic strips that had originally been printed in the newspaper.

The comic industry is organized around a number of historical periods known as eras or ages. The first comic book period was the Victorian Age, lasting from 1828 to 1883, according to the Overstreet Price Guide. The first comic strips begin to appear about this time. Word balloons were almost never used in Victorian cartoons. When they were, it would be for single panel cartoons. Narrative, not dialogue, drove a story. Swiss cartoonist Rudolphe Töpffer combined a narrative with multiple panels to produce the 40 page The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. The story was published in Europe in 1837, and then published in the United States in September 1842. Töpffer's works are often called picture stories, but the sophisticated use of narrative and art is seen as the blueprint for the modern comic.

Lasting from 1883 to 1938 was the The Platinum Age. Familiar characters such as Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie made their first appearances in the late 1920s. Palmer Cox published a strip about a group of men known as the Brownies. Cox's Brownies are thought to be the first successful commercialization of cartoon characters. The elf-like creations were used to sell many products, including pianos, dolls, puzzles, and soap. A collection of their strips was printed in 1877. Cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault created the Yellow Kid, the first continuing comic strip character. When Outcault switched newspapers and took the Yellow Kid to the New York World, many readers made the jump along with him. A collection of Yellow Kid strips was published in 1896, the first time a collection of strips was published in pulp magazine form (other collections had cardboard covers, for example).

Comic strip characters were popular with both children and adults. It was becoming clear that comics wielded economic clout. They could help drive newspaper sales and could be used to sell products. At the turn of the century there were hundreds of comic strip syndicates with comic strips to sell and they were eager to license the stars of these strips to the highest bidder. The advertising market—largely a visually based medium like comics—was growing. Most of the licensed merchandise sales in the United States at the time came from comic book characters. Many of the Brownie and Yellow Kid based products sold had not been properly merchandised. Outcault secured the rights to his next character: Buster Brown. The famous face of the Brown Shoe Company, introduced at the 1904 World Fair, was the first fully licensed and syndicated comic strip.

The Golden Age of comics began in the early 1930s. As stated, repackaged comic collections appeared on newsstands from time to time. Famous Funnies #1 was first published in July 1934. It is the first regularly published comic on newsstands and lasted for decades. The comic turned a profit within six months and by 1946 was selling half a million copies per issue. The repackaged collections were popular, but the comic syndicates charged high fees for the rights to their strips. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided it would cost less to simply hire writers and artists to produce new material. He assembled a staff of artists and writers eager for work in the midst of the Depression and published New Fun Comics #1, the first comic with all original material in February 1935.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster got their start in comics on New Fun Comics #6 in October 1935. The two men had been friends since their boyhood when they bonded over a mutual love of science fiction. They created a story called The Reign of the Superman in 1933, with Siegel writing and Schuster doing the art. The Superman was a bald, telepathic villain (who bears a passing resemblance to Superman's arch enemy Lex Luthor). The pair later reimagined their character as a hero. They decided to feature the character in the comic strip rather than comic book format. After several rejections, the Superman story was published in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. Many cite this comic as a starting point for comic's Golden Age.

The Rise of Superheroes

The Superman story appeared with reprints of other comic strips. It featured a one page synopsis of Superman's voyage from his dying home planet to Earth. The complete Siegel and Schuster story would not actually be printed in its entirety until years later. The construction of the Superman myth was an ongoing process. The Daily Planet newspaper and Perry White would not appear until Superman #4 and Superman #7 in 1940. The first names of the Kents, the couple who find the infant Kal-El, changed several times in the 1940s. Kryptonite first appeared on the Superman radio show in 1943 and did not find its way into the comics until 1949.

Siegel and Schuster may have been inspired by a number of sources. They were certainly influenced by other heroes of the day such as Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and the Phantom. The first costumed hero made his initial appearance in February 1936. Indeed, some publishers initially turned down the story because of Superman's resemblance to a character known as The Gladiator. It is also believed Siegel and Schuster might have at least been acquainted with Nietschze's Superman, a being of superior intellect and abilities that would be above modern conventions. Superman has been seen as a Christ-figure, the powerful being that descends from the heavens to help Man. As a being from a distant land, Superman has also been seen as a symbol of the thousands of immigrants that were transforming the American landscape in the late 1930s.

The comic sold nearly one million copies, and was followed by the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Artist Bob Kane is credited with creating Batman (originally known as the Bat-Man). Kane did indeed create Batman's basic look. But writer Bill Finger helped Kane refine the character's look, suggesting changes to Batman's cowl and cape as well as suggesting pointy ears on the costume to make the character more bat-like. Finger wrote the initial Batman stories, and was responsible for the brooding tone of the character, as well as the naming and characterization of both Bruce Wayne and Robin.

Dr. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, the first real female superhero. She appeared for the first time in DC's All-Star Comics #8 in 1941. In the origin story, Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess who falls in love with army officer Steve Trevor after he crashes onto Paradise Island. Wonder Woman joins Trevor in the outside world to help fight the Nazis. She is armed only with her magic lasso, which compels anyone trapped within it to tell the truth (clearly inspired by the lie detector machine Marston helped invent). Wonder Woman's first appearance was DC's second best-selling comic title of the day. At one point she had a readership of 10 million.

Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman were soon joined by other DC heroes: The Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. Timely Comics (soon to be Marvel Comics) published the first appearance of the Human Torch and the Submariner. Captain America first appeared in 1941. Other publishers offered their own superheroes. Readership grew during this period with the popularity of superhero comics. Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay in 1946 ushered in an era of detective stories with a harder edge. Will Eisner also first published The Spirit, the story of a masked crime fighter, as an insert in comic pages. The Spirit would later make his way into regular comic book form. Writers and artists continually cite Eisner's storytelling techniques as inspiration in their own work. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby went after the older female audience with romance comics.

Comics found their way, along with chocolate and cigarettes, into the care packages sent to the soldiers that went off to fight in World War II. Average monthly sales, according to Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked increased from 25 million in 1943 to 100 million in 1953. By the early 1950s, according to the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, one in three periodicals sold in the United States was a comic book.

Comic Censorship

As comics soared in popularity, they drew the inevitable concern from parents and church groups. The medium had very little merit; the stories were simplistic and the art crude. A 1940 Chicago Daily News article characterized comic books as poisonous. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover vilified them as well in 1947. There are reports of mass comic book burnings from the period. Dr. Fredric Wertham was a respected psychiatrist and director of several New York psychiatric hospitals. Much of his work involved how an individual's psychological development was shaped by his environment and social background, which, in the 1940s, was a topic that was just being seriously explored. In interviews with a number of juvenile delinquents, he discovered that all the young men were avid comic readers (as, of course, were most teenagers). Wertham published numerous articles against comic books and held symposiums on the evils of comics. In 1954 he published The Seduction of the Innocent, in which he discussed the negative influence of comic books on youth.

Wertham dismissed the entire comic industry in his book, using the most salacious examples from popular crime and horror comics. Wertham offered a number of assertions in his book. He suggested a veiled homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin. He characterized Wonder Woman as a poor role model for girls because she advocated power and self-reliance. And her costume made her too sexually suggestive. Superman was a fascist (Wertham would compare him to Lee Harvey Oswald after the Kennedy assassination). The book is full of Wertham's opinions; it is noticeably short on real data. Some chapter titles indicate Wertham's less than scholarly approach: "I Want to Be a Sex Maniac," "Bumps and Bulges," and "The Devil's Allies."

Wertham lobbied for government involvement. Comics were examined in 1954 during the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The committee found that comic publishers did indeed need to clean up their act. Comic publishers had been watching this controversy unfold, of course, and took steps to police themselves rather than risk government involvement. Publishers formed the Comics Code Authority (CCA). The CCA is an independent board that evaluates each comic; comics bore this stamp of approval for decades to come.

The Comics Code created a set of guidelines for publishers. Criminals could not be presented in a sympathetic light. Police officers and other authority figures could not be presented in any way that challenged their authority. No police officers could die at the hands of a criminal. The word "crime" could not appear on the cover, nor could the words "horror" or "terror" appear in a comic's title. Other guidelines were issued on costume design and advertising. Wertham, it should be noted, never endorsed the code.

Comics and the 1960s

Some publishers ceased publication and others cancelled titles. Meanwhile a new generation of children came of age unfamiliar with comics. DC offered fresh takes on its characters and interest in comics was renewed. This period of the late 1950s marks the start of the Silver Age. DC Comics would have its popular heroes join up to form the Justice Society of America. The new superheroes proved to be very popular. According to legend, the publisher of DC Comics shared this news with the publisher of Atlas Comics (soon to be Marvel) during one of their regular golf games. Atlas Comic's then publisher Martin Goodman asked writer Stan Lee to come up with a team of his own. Lee agreed, and with his frequent collaborator Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four. The comic was successful, and the company returned to some of its popular superheroes from the 1930s. Lee persuaded Goodman to change the company name to Marvel Comics after one of the company's early superhero comics. Marvel created many of the comic industry's most remembered heroes and villains during the 1960s: Daredevil, the Hulk, Ant Man, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Dr. Strange, and the Silver Surfer.

The major publishers followed the CCA during the 1960s, occasionally side-stepping it in clever ways the way Hollywood films got around the Hayes Code in the 1930s. Meanwhile, underground comic books, known as comix became popular in San Francisco in the 1960s. These comix (the x was used to distinguish these products from their mainstream brethren) were small press or self-published titles that took on the Vietnam War, rock music, the establishment, drug culture and, of course, sex. Companies such as Rip Off Press, Last Gasp, Kitchen Sink, and Weirdom Publications all operated without the Comics Code seal of approval. The movement got its inspiration in part from Harvey Kurtzman, publisher of Mad magazine and numerous satirical titles. Zap Comix is the most famous title from this period but a few other titles suggest just how far away underground writers were from mainstream comics and the Comics Code: Amputee Love (1975), The New Adventures of Jesus (1969) and Slow Death (1968). R. Crumb is perhaps the most famous writer/artist from this movement. His figure from the cartoon Keep on Truckin (a big-footed man caught in mid-strut) was a highly iconic figure from the 1970s. The figure and slogan appeared on everything from T-shirts to truck mud flaps. He went on to create album covers and Fritz the Cat, which was made into the first X-rated animated feature in 1972. As mainstream publishers began to challenge the Comics Authority with their own stories, the underground movement faded around 1980.

The 1970s

The Bronze Age begins in 1970. In the 1970s readership declined as comics had to compete with video games and other new forms of entertainment for children's attention. Marvel began to gain the upper hand over DC and started outselling DC in 1972. There are several reasons for this. One factor was cost. The two companies engaged in a price war, with DC titles selling for $0.25 and Marvel titles for $0.20 at the end of 1971. As well, the characters Marvel created in the 1960s (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk) were gaining devoted fans. Marvel also went after popular licensed properties, producing comics based on Conan, Logan's Run, Micronauts, and Star Wars. Taking its cues from Dirty Harry and other films from the period, Marvel introduced anti-heroes such as Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and the Punisher. Marvel was also publishing shocking stories and unconventional art. In 1973 readers of Amazing Spider-Man were shocked when the Green Goblin murdered Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy. The murder of an innocent character was something readers had never seen before.

The industry began to introduce more minority characters during this period. Marvel introduced its first African American hero, Luke Cage, in 1971. Shang-Chi (clearly a nod to Bruce Lee and Kung-Fu) first appeared in 1973. DC introduced Black Lightning in 1977. At Archie Comics, Archie, Betty, and Veronica became friends with African-Americans Chuck Clayton, his girlfriend Nancy, Latino Frankie Valdez and his girlfriend Maria Rodriquez.

In the early 1970s, many people drew attention to rising drug use in the country. The U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, seen as the basis for the modern war on drugs. In 1971 President Nixon referred to drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States." That same year, the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Stan Lee about writing a story about the dangers of drug use. Lee printed the story in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May-July 1971). The CCA refused to approve the story because of the drug references, but Marvel ran the issues without the CCA stamp. The story was well received, and the issues sold well without the CCA stamp. The CCA (fearing irrelevancy or finally getting the point) eased some of its policies later in 1971. Drug references were acceptable as long as they were shown in a negative way.

DC Comics was also exploring more socially relevant material. Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams had a memorable run on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow title in the early 1970s. The comic was near cancellation and the team took on the title with a sense of nothing to lose. The title took on the civil and social issues that were part of the overall culture of the day: racism, poverty, and the power of large corporations. Writer O'Neill has compared Green Lantern to the good cop who never questions authority; Green Arrow, in turn, a character reminiscent of Robin Hood, was a cross between that famous archer and the left-leaning activists of the day. The most memorable issues revealed the Green Arrow's ward Speedy to be addicted to heroin.

The 1980s

The Modern Age begins and carries on to the present day. The comic industry continued to go after more adult readers in the 1980s. Frank Miller took over Marvel's Daredevil comic in 1981, invigorating a minor character with dark stories and a naturalistic art style. Miller would offer a similar take on Batman in The Dark Night Returns in 1986. The story is set in the near future, with Batman pulled out of retirement to help fight crime in Gotham City, now overrun with crime and poverty. The dark, grisly tale is seen by many as the definitive take on the character, and was an inspiration for the first Batman film. Alan Miller released the limited series Watchmen the same year. The story details a group of past and present heroes who band together to solve the murder of one of their own. The story offers sharp characterizations, and also touches on the threats of nuclear war (a very real threat in this last decade of the Cold War) and Big Brother government. In 1989 the CCA modified the comics code. The new code allowed Marvel's Northstar to be the first openly gay superhero in 1992 (although Watchmen did have a few gay minor characters). A decade later Marvel developed its own rating system and now publishes without the CCA sticker (DC still does, however).

The growth of comic shops in the 1980s brought alternative titles to the attention of comics readers. Like comics from the underground period, alternative or independent comics are often written and drawn by one person. Harvey Pekar has published his autobiographical comic American Splendor since 1976, exploring the intimate details of his personal life and his job at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. Art Spiegelman's Maus told the story of Spiegelman's father's incarceration in a concentration camp. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth tells the story of three generations of men in the Corrigan family and explores issues of loneliness and family dysfunction.

The 1990s and Beyond

After the stock market crash of 1987, newspapers and financial journals began to report on an investment opportunity that appeared to be outside the volatility of the market. Comic books were seen as one area that offered attractive investment possibilities. Some comic books that had originally sold for pennies were selling in the 1990s for thousands of dollars. Most of the investment advisors touting comic books were responsible enough to note that these comics were from the Golden Age in which few copies have survived. Nonetheless, not all investors were careful to look for Golden Age comics or first editions of the #1 issue of a new comic strip.

Speculators moved into comic book stores and started snapping up copies, convinced the comics would appreciate in value. The major publishers responded to the increased demand with large print runs. Marvel famously resorted to gimmicks to keep sales going, releasing issues with different covers (rare covers would make the comic more valuable). X-Men #1 Vol. 2 is one of the most notorious examples of this trend; it was released with five different covers and had a print run of five million copies. Marvel and DC also flooded the market with action figures and similar merchandise. The industry pushed mylar bags and other products to protect a collector's comic book investment. DC then released its "Death of Superman" story (Superman #75) in 1992. The story generated national attention, and DC could not keep up with demand. Some comic stores had lines of customers; in Detroit, reportedly 175,000 copies of the comic were sold in one day. Many speculators expected to immediately sell the Superman comic at tidy profits. But the comic had a large print run; many copies existed, meaning the issues were worth only cover price. They soon found the other comics they had purchased could not be sold for high prices. The speculators left the market, and the comic industry collapsed. Sales fell from $850 million in 1993 to $265 million in 2000. The number of comic specialty stores (still a relatively new industry, it should be noted) fell from nearly 10,000 to 3,400 over the same period. Eleven of the twelve comic distributors shut their doors. Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996 after its too rapid expansion of Toy Biz, Panini, Fleer, SkyBox, and Heroes World Distributors. It continued to publish, however.

The success of the first X-Men film in 2000 helped stimulate interest in comics. Hollywood took notice of the film's box office, and recognized comics as good source material for films. Films starring Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and other comic characters followed the first X-Men film. The industry has seen sales increases in 2005 and 2006. The comic industry instituted a Free Comic Day each May to help lure young people to comic book stores.


Comic books are sold through the direct market (comic stores) and mass market outlets. Comic book stores purchase most of their material for resale from Diamond Comics Distributors. These comic book stores typically do not have point of sale systems to track the sale of their products. What the local comic store purchases is non-returnable. In short, the industry tracks sales to the comic book store, not sales to the end user, and so this can make tracking actual comic sales difficult. Approximately 80 percent of comics are sold through the direct market. The balance of comics, graphic novels, and related materials are sold through retail chains. Bookscan tracks about three-quarters of this market. Historical data is even more difficult to track, and existing figures come from comic historians willing to assemble figures from old distributor reports. Clearly, figures in any study of the comic market are estimated, and any student of the industry may find contradictory figures in multiple sources.

According to a 1955 Senate report (part of the hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency) comic book publishers were estimated to have been publishing 150 titles and generating annual revenues of $20 million in 1940. In 1950 there were 300 comic book titles being published with annual revenues of approximately $41 million. Average monthly circulation jumped from 17 million in 1940 to 68 million in 1953. In 1948 there were perhaps 400 comic publishers on the market.

The industry would slowly decline as it faced competition from television, movies, video games, and other entertainment. In the 1970s the industry struggled. Archie was the best-selling comic at this time, selling 500,000 copies. The growth of comic book stores in the 1980s helped save the industry. The speculator market also boosted the industry to amazing if unsustainable levels. In 1996 the industry saw monthly print runs of 120 million. After the market crash, the industry canceled titles and trimmed expenses. In 2006 a comic is considered successful with a print run of just over 100,000 copies. The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, which had a circulation of 234,290 monthly readers in 1995 had a circulation of only 112,564 readers in 2005. The overall comics market, including direct sales, newsstand sales, and trade paperback sales was worth between $475-550 million in 2006. The entire industry employed approximately 12,000 people, according to Matthew McCallister's Comics and Ideology. Figure 62 offers industry estimates of the annual sales in this industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Comics are popular outside the United States as well. Manga is immensely popular in Japan, and the art form has spread to the United States and other countries. While manga literally means amusing drawings in Japanese, the term is used to refer to all Japanese comics. The phenomenon began with the works of artist Tezuka Osamu, who created famous characters such as Astro Boy, Jungle Emperor Leo, and Princess Knight. He is also the artist behind the distinctive large eyes style of Japanese animation.

In 2004 total sales of manga in Japan reached ¥504.7 billion based on 1.38 billion publications. Manga represents 40 percent of book and magazine sales by one estimate. In the United States, sales of manga grew from $5 million in 2000 to nearly $200 million in 2005, according to Web site Icv2. In South Korea, comics and manga represent a quarter of all book sales, according to a Business-Week article. The comic market grew 12 percent in France in 2005, according to Syndicat National de l'Edition. The number of manga titles published in Europe jumped 45 percent to 754 in 2004, according to the Association des Journalistes et Critiques de Bandes Dessinées.

Comic Book Collecting

The first comic book conventions were held in the middle 1960s in Detroit, New York City, and San Diego. Comic book collecting as a legitimate industry took a major step forward in 2000. In 2000 the Comics Guaranty Corporation began to professionally grade comics, much like sports card and rare coin collectors get their collections professionally graded. Graders inspect the comic and then it is sealed in a hard plastic shell with the grade posted on it. A comic that goes through this process is described as being slabbed. With this process, a collector now knows the real value of the product he or she is purchasing. A graded book might rise in value from a few dollars to a few hundred.


Two firms dominate the comic book publishing business in the United States. They are each profiled below, as are two other companies that are having a growing impact on the market in the 2000s. Figure 63 presents a picture of the market share picture of this industry by key players in 2006.

Marvel Comics

This publisher began as Timely Comics in 1939. Timely released Marvel Comics #1 in October 1939, featuring the Human Torch and the Submariner, ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. The issue featuring these two heroes (still popular characters in the current Marvel universe) sold out the 80,000 copy print run. A second printing sold 800,000 copies. When the company returned to superhero comics in the 1960s, the company would rename itself after this best-selling title.

Stan Lee is the company's famous face, a writer and current Chairman Emeritus for Marvel. With his frequent collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko he created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, and countless other supporting characters and villains. Lee wanted to bring a sense of realism and a psychological richness to comics. Science and atomic radiation figure into the origin story of many characters; in the 1960s; the country had only just entered its Atomic Age, and was uncertain about the possible ramifications of this new power source.

The first issue of the Fantastic Four appeared in November 1961, featuring Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the new Human Torch, and the Thing. The foursome received their powers after being bathed in cosmic rays during a space flight. There are some subtle politics in the story, for the rocket voyage was an effort to reach outer space before the Soviet Union (Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth in April 1961). Comic readers had never seen anything quite like this foursome. They were superheroes yet they had no secret identities. For several issues they had no costumes. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) were in love and would marry; yet Ben Grimm (the Thing) had once been in love with her. The team bickers constantly, and often seems on the verge of disbanding.

Lee and Kirby created the Incredible Hulk, who first appeared in May 1962. The first issue details how Dr. Bruce Banner is struck by gamma radiation and then transformed into the Hulk. Certain story elements changed in early issues. The Hulk was first gray, then he was green. Banner initially changed into the Hulk each night; later, Banner's rage was the trigger to the transformation. The image of a man with a monster within is a classic motif from literature, and the comic has gone on to explore this theme in many ways.

The team turned to Norse mythology to develop Thor, who appeared in August 1962. That same month Amazing Fantasy #15 was released, featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man. The series was about to be canceled, and this last issue was used as a showcase for the character initially dismissed by Lee's boss. Again, Lee broke standard comic conventions. Peter Parker was a teenager; teenagers were sidekicks, not the heroes on their own. Peter had a real life: dating problems, a sick aunt to care for, lost loved ones, and trouble paying rent. Spider-Man's own comic began in 1963 and the character is perhaps Marvel's most popular.

Iron Man first appeared in March 1963. The first X-Men comic appeared in September 1963. The X-Men are a team of mutants, which are people born with their super powers. Mutants are feared in society because of the abilities with which they were born. This idea of being born different and special (and to be feared for it) allows the comic to be seen as a veiled commentary on racism and homophobia.

DC Comics

This company began in 1935 as National Allied Publishing and was founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a former U.S. Army major and pulp magazine writer. Wheeler-Nicholson launched comic titles that featured original material instead of reprinted newspaper strips. One of the titles published was Detective Comics, which first appeared in 1937. By 1940 the letters DC began appearing on the company's comic covers. Readers would soon start referring to the company by these initials.

DC's characters are some of the most well-known in popular culture, including Superman, Batman, Robin, the Joker, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. DC created the first superhero team with the Justice Society of America; later, the Justice League of America was formed. The company controlled the superhero comic market in the 1950s and 1960s, then lost its number one position to Marvel. In the 1970s it competed with Marvel for leadership in the shrinking comic market. Both companies expanded too quickly; DC and Marvel published approximately 100 new titles between 1975 and 1978. DC launched 57 of these new titles. The expansion soon caught up with them and they canceled 31 titles in 1978. This event is known as the DC Implosion. The company restructured and recovered, and tried to tell more engaging, provocative stories. They went after new writers and artists, some of whom worked for Marvel.

DC publishes approximately 80 monthly comics and is highly involved in product merchandise. The company is owned by Warner Brothers. Other operations include comic imprints WildStorm and Vertigo, book imprint Paradox Press, and MAD magazine.

Dark Horse Comics

This company found success in part by the birth of the direct sales market in the 1980s. Some of the company's popular characters include Concrete, also known as Ron Lithgow, whose brain was transferred into his concrete body by aliens. The title has won several Eisner awards, one of the most prestigious awards in the comics industry. Dark Horse also publishes Hellboy, Sin City, Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dark Horse, like Image, shares more of its profit with creators.

In 1992 Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and others were working on some of Marvel's top titles when they went of to start their own independent comic. The group created Image Comics. It is the most successful independent publishing venture to ever be launched from the comics industry. The small firm found success in part by new production techniques, such as digitizing its coloring process and raising page rates for creators. Marvel and DC would adopt a similar policy, paving the way for more creator owned titles. The company also found success by producing compelling titles, including McFarlane's Spawn. Spawn #1 is the best selling independent comic as of early 2007. It has a cover date of May 1992 and sold 1.7 million copies.


Two firms are gaining market share in the United States by publishing Manga comics, the fastest growing type of comics in the world. Tokyo Pop is one, founded in 1996 and VizMedia is the other.


Comic book firms struggle to maximize profits. Some of this profit comes from a sensible approach to the manufacturing process. The production of a comic includes computers, inks, and adhesives. The major factor of course, is paper. It is unclear how much paper the industry consumes, but they have embraced some "green" elements in the production process.

Archie Comics was the first publisher to use soy inks and print on 100 percent-recycled paper in the 1990s. DC reports using soy ink on 90-95 percent of its titles. Dark Horse prints some of its line on recycled paper as well. Marvel does not make such production figures available.

Production materials are important but good comic books need good stories and good art. Good writing and good art are the keys to good comics. Comic books are often a collaborative effort, with a writer or writers working together to outline a story. Writers also collaborate closely with artists. The next step is the creation of a script. Comic scripts may be very specific, with descriptions about the number of panels per page and what should occur in each panel. Scripts from Marvel Comics tend to be much less structured, often not containing dialogue or complete breakdowns of panel by panel action. A lot of the pacing and panel content is left to the artists, also known as pencilers. The artist will then do some preliminary sketches to get a sense of how to best tell the story. Artists generally work on an 11×17 inch page. The best artists are those that can tell the story in a compelling way: a close-up on a character's face to find the story's emotional center, or an unusual angle to create dramatic tension. An artist typically spends six to seven hours on one page of the 22-page story he or she must produce.

The writer and penciler may collaborate on the sketches, refining the panel content or the flow of the story. An inker will then refine the drawings. The inker uses black ink to produce refined black outlines over the rough pencil lines. Inkers may also create shadows and black space to help create mood in a story. The letterer is responsible for the insertion of dialogue balloons. DC still has dialogue pasted onto the art boards; Marvel typically uses a computer for this process. Colorists colorize the black and white using Adobe Photoshop or some other digitized media; before the creation of such programs colorists used printing plates.


Until the 1970s, comics were sold through the newsstand market, which included drug stores, grocery stores, and toy stores. Magazine and book distributors could purchase comics directly from publishers on a fully returnable basis. Comic distribution changed in the 1970s with the creation of the direct market, or the local comic book shop.

Phil Seuling of East Coast Seagate and Bill and Steve Schanes of Pacific Comics approached comic stores about buying comics from them rather than periodical distribution firms. They would service comic stores directly, and offered financial deals not met by mainstream periodical distributors. Retailers could preorder comics and keep extra to sell in the store. New comics were offered at a 40 percent discount rather than the 20 percent offered by mainstream distributors. This allowed greater room for profit for the retailers.

The direct market owes some degree of debt to the underground comix movement, which had started only a few years before. Independent writers/artists such as Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb produced work explicitly for this direct market. The first 3,000 copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984 offered more validation of the market. Marvel and DC moved into this market with some trepidation. Marvel released Dazzler #1 as a test case in 1981. Unavailable on newsstands, the comic sold 400,000 copies in the direct market. With the two major players on board, the direct market grew. There were 200 to 300 specialty comic shops in 1974; by 1980 this number had grown to 1,500 specialty stores. By 1993 there were approximately 9,000 such establishments in operation. After the market crash in the 1990s, fewer than 4,000 comic stores remain.

The direct market is credited with helping to save the comic industry in the seventies as readership sagged. It also proved to be a vital source of revenue for Marvel. The direct market was 6 percent of Marvel's gross sales in 1979, according to company and Mile High Comics estimates. By 1987 the figure was 70 percent.

Diamond Comics Distributors dominates the comic distribution market, with 85 percent of the global market in 2005. In the direct market, major comics publishers provide Diamond with a list of titles for which they solicit orders. These orders may not be returned, so the retailers must order wisely. Retailers place their orders with Diamond. The major publishers take the distributor orders and print enough copies off their comics or graphic novels to satisfy the orders. There may also be reorders in the rare case of a title selling out. Solicitations by the publishers begin three months before comics arrive in stores; retailers' orders are due roughly two months ahead of time. Comics are shipped to stores each Wednesday.

Melchior & Associates estimated that new comics represent 60 percent of market sales. There were approximately 2,500 specialty comics retailers. The top 700 stores placed most of the comic orders. There were another 1,000 to 1,500 stores that sold comics along with other merchandise (sports card and hobby stores, for example). These stores averaged sales of $70,000 to $100,000 annually.

The largest comics retail companies in North America have between six and eight stores with gross annual sales of between $2.2 and $3.5 million. No large chains exist for several reasons according to Melchior & Associates. Most storeowners lack the capital and business expertise for such an expansion. Problems with the industry include the typical store. Stores may be small, crowded and dimly lit. Some have argued that stores would benefit from becoming more user friendly: comfortable seating, and better lighting, and organization. Others feel this corporate approach might drive away the comic industry's major customers.

New comics can represent anywhere from 25 percent to 70 percent of a comic store's product mix, while graphic novels represent 5 to 15 percent. Games and other collectibles are also a part of the store's merchandise.


Comic books are often seen as a product for children. But industry estimates show that the average comic book reader is a 28-year-old man who spends $1,300 to $1,500 per year on his hobby. There is a certain cycle at work here: writers tell sophisticated stories that appeal to adults. Adults keep buying comics, so publishers keep writing for them. Marvel has acknowledged the mistakes it made in the 1990s when it aged its heroes along with its readers. Spider-Man went from high school to college, got married and started a family—issues obviously beyond a young reader. Marvel estimates 70 percent of its readers are male, a figure about the same for DC. But 60 percent of Archie Comics readers are thought to be female.

Marvel and DC both started titles aimed directly at young readers. Marvel has found great success with its Ultimates line, which feature very contemporary takes on its classic characters (Spider-Man, for example, is back in high school). While the superhero genre is still dominated by male readers, girls and women do read them. In the manga category, readership may be as high as three-quarters female.


Comic characters have been licensed to sell products since the early days of comic books and strips. Marvel Entertainment was the sixth largest licensor of merchandise in 2006, according to Licensing Magazine. Each year the magazine ranks the top licensors based on global sales of licensed merchandise. Marvel generated an estimated $4.8 billion through its movies and other products; Disney was number one with $23 billion. Marvel plans to move beyond simply licensing products to actual film production to generate even greater revenues. Marvel beat out Major League Baseball and the National Football League on the list. Warner Brothers, the owner of DC Comics, generated $6 billion and was number three on the list. However, this figure includes revenues generated from non-comic book properties owned by the company as well, such as Harry Potter.


With the rise of the Internet and the increased availability of broadband connections, various analysts have promised us a paperless society. It was once broadly assumed that documents would one day all be sent online; people would read their newspapers online rather than over their cup of coffee. While we are far from paperless, technology has certainly changed the way we shop, listen to music, and gather news information.

Technology is also changing how comic books are distributed. Some comics are solely available online. Top Cow announced in early 2007 that many of its titles would be available online. Marvel and DC offer a few titles for viewing on their Web sites. Some comic fans are waiting for comics to be downloadable, as songs and movies are on iTunes. Industry leaders have many issues to work out, such as just what the comic might look like on an iPod and how to properly compensate creators. The key to online downloading is the demand for such an option. The first steps have already been taken in Japan. According to Japanese research firm Impress R&D, Japanese consumers spent $20 million to watch manga on their handsets in 2006.


Since their creation in the 1930s, comic books have used war as a dramatic device. Indeed, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America were off fighting Nazis before America entered World War II. Comic books were read by soldiers and used as instructional tools by the military. The comics from this period offer simple, moral visions of the world. There are two clear sides in a conflict—good guys and bad guys. Freedom is worth fighting for.

But as the conflicts in the world became more complex and in some cases ambiguous during the early 2000s, so too did comic book treatment of war. Comics began to face war and terrorism more directly. Spider-Man, who makes his home in New York City, visited the ruins of the World Trade Center in a special issue with an all-black cover. Writer Sid Jacobson, creator of Richie Rich, created a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Report. Jacobson describes his August 2006 work as graphic journalism. Archie Comics printed patriotic hymns and songs in the pages of its various titles.

Captain America, the symbol of American patriotism, made his comic debut in March 1941 (he was shown punching Hitler in the jaw on the cover of Captain America #1). The character has been popular since; more than 210 million Captain America comics have been sold worldwide. He played a major role in the Civil War miniseries Marvel launched at the end of 2006. In this miniseries, the government began requiring superheroes to register their services and secret identities. The registration polarized the superhero community, and the heroes found themselves falling into two camps. Iron Man led the group of heroes who favored the government regulation and control. Captain America led the group of heroes who opposed the government registration and control.

The story found much of its drama in Spider-Man, who initially sided with the pro-registration Iron Man. Iron Man persuaded Spider-Man that revealing his secret identity to the public would be a compelling way to persuade other masked heroes to register with the government. Spider-Man pulled off his mask and revealed himself to be Peter Parker at a press conference. Spider-Man would switch sides after he learned that Iron Man and the government were capturing heroes who refused to register and imprisoning them indefinitely in a secret prison.

The Civil War story played out as the United States neared the fourth anniversary of its invasion of Iraq. The parallels between the real life war and Marvel's story were clear. Many Americans fell into pro-war and anti-war groups as the war progressed, and the country could find no middle ground in the contentious debate. Indeed, the question posed on the cover of Civil War #1—Whose Side Are You On? could easily be asked by those who loved and loathed the Bush administration. The story touches on the need of the government to balance national security with the privacy of its citizens. The Superhero Registration Act feels very similar to the Patriot Act. The public debate in the story compares superheroes to weapons of mass destruction. The indefinite imprisonment of the superheroes deemed a threat by the government conjures up the image of Guantanamo, the Abu Ghrab scandal, America's secret prisons, and policies surrounding torture generally.

The grim story concludes with Captain America assassinated on his way to a courthouse to legally fight the registration act. The death of Captain America was covered in the media in March 2007, much as the death of Superman was reported on in 1992. Readers found rich symbolism in the story, in light of America's damaged reputation in the global community. Few characters in comics stay dead, however, and readers expect that Captain America will soon reappear.


The comic book industry continues to try to gain more readers beyond its typical base of young men. Comic publishers are making a concerted effort to produce more titles to appeal to children. Many Baby Boomers remember learning to read with comics. Recognizing this, Marvel announced plans in early 2007 to release comics based on classic literature. As a visual medium comics remain useful teaching tools. Comics have been used in the military to educate soldiers on combat, personal health, and military policies. They have been also used as propaganda tools. UNICEF has used comics to teach children about land mines, AIDS, and sexual abuse. Cartoon and comic art have been shown in museum exhibitions. The first museum devoted solely to cartoon art opened in 1987 with an endowment from Peanuts creator Charles Schultz.


Comic Chronicles,

DC Comics,

Marvel Comics,

Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art,

National Association of Comic Art Educators,


"The 1900s: a Century in Comics." Comics Buyers Guide. 12 December 2005. Available from 〈〉.

"An Overview of the Direct Market in 2005." Available from 〈〉.

Condie, Stuart. "Report: Comic Book Hero Captain America Dies on the Page." America's Intelligence Wire. 7 March 2007.

Crawford, Philip Charles. "The Legacy of Wonder Woman." School Library Journal. March 2007.

Gustines, George Gene. "A Quirky Superhero of the Comics Trade." New York Times. 12 November 2006, 21.

Miller, Greg. "Owner Keeps Comics Coming." Columbia Daily Tribune. 3 June 2006.

Miller, John Jackson. "Comic Book Sales Figures by Year." The Comics Chronicles. Available from 〈〉.

Overstreet, Robert M. Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 36th ed. House of Collectibles, Random House Publishing, May 2006.

Sanford, Jay Allen. "Two Men and Their Comic Books," San Diego Reader. 19 August 2004.

Stringer, Kortney. "Comics Bring in Ads." Detroit Free Press. 19 June 2006.

Welsh, David. "Forget Manga. Here's Manwha." BusinessWeek. 23 April 2007.

Wilensky, Dawn. "103 Leading Licensing Companies." Licensing Magazine. April 2007.

see also Magazines

Comic Books

views updated May 21 2018

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.

Comic Books

views updated Jun 27 2018

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

Comic Books

views updated May 21 2018

Comic Books

Comic books are an essential representation of twentieth-century American popular culture. They have entertained readers since the time of the Great Depression, indulging their audience in imaginary worlds born of childhood fantasies. Their function within American culture has been therapeutic, explanatory, and commercial. By appealing to the tastes of adolescents and incorporating real-world concerns into fantasy narratives, comic books have offered their impressionable readers a means for developing self-identification within the context of American popular culture. In the process, they have worked ultimately to integrate young people into an expanding consumer society, wherein fantasy and reality seem increasingly linked.

With their consistent presence on the fringes of the immense American entertainment industry, comic books have historically been a filter and repository for values communicated to and from below. Fashioned for a mostly adolescent audience by individuals often little older than their readers, comic books have not been obliged to meet the critical and aesthetic criteria of respectability reserved for works aimed at older consumers (including newspaper comic strips). Neither have comic books generally been subject to the sort of intrinsic censorship affecting the production of expensive advertising and investment-driven entertainment projects. Consequently, comic books have often indulged in outrageous situations and images more fantastic, grotesque, and absurd than those found elsewhere in American mass culture. These delightfully twisted qualities have always been central to the comic book's appeal.

Comic books first emerged as a discrete entertainment medium in 1933, when two sales employees at the Eastern Color Printing Company, Max C. Gaines and Harry I. Wildenberg, launched an entrepreneurial venture whereby they packaged, reduced and reprinted newspaper comic strips into tabloid-sized magazines to be sold to manufacturers who could use them as advertising premiums and giveaways. These proved so successful that Gaines decided to put a ten-cent price tag on the comic magazines and distribute them directly to newsstands. The first of these was Famous Funnies, printed by Eastern Color and distributed by Dell Publications. Other publishers soon entered the emerging comic-book field with similar products. In 1935 a pulp-magazine writer named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson began publishing the first comic books to feature original material. A few years later, his company was bought out by executives of the Independent News Company who expanded the operation's line and circulation. In 1937 they launched Detective Comics, the first comic book to feature adventure stories derived more from pulp magazines and "B" movies than from newspaper "funnies." The company later became known by the logo DC—the initials of its flagship title.

By 1938 an embryonic comic-book industry existed, comprising a half-dozen or so publishers supplied by several comic-art studios all based in the New York City area. That same year, the industry found its first original comic-book "star" in Superman. The creation of two teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's adventures pointed to the fantastic potential of comic books. Because their content was limited only by the imagination and skill of the writers and artists who crafted them, comic books could deal in flights of fantasy unworkable in other visual entertainment media. As an instant commercial success, Superman prompted a succession of costumed superhero competitors who vied for the nickels and dimes of not-too-discerning young consumers. Comic-book characters like DC's Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern; Marvel Comics' Captain America, and Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel all defined what comic-book historians and collectors term the "Golden Age" of comic books. Although comic books would later embrace a variety of genres, including war, western, romance, crime, horror, and humor, they have always been most closely identified with the costumed superheroes who made the medium a viable entertainment industry.

Creating most of these early comic books was a coterie that was overwhelmingly urban, under-thirty, lower middle class, and male. They initially conceived Depression-era stories that aligned superheroes on the side of the poor and the powerless against a conspiracy of corrupt political bosses, greedy stockbrokers, and foreign tyrants. As the nation drifted towards World War II, comic books became increasingly preoccupied with the threat posed by the Axis powers. Some pointed to the danger as early as 1939—well ahead of the rest of the nation. Throughout the war, comic books generally urged a united national front and endorsed patriotic slogans derived from official U.S. war objectives. Many eviscerated the enemy in malicious and often, in the case of the Japanese, racist stereotypes that played to the emotions and fears of their wartime audience, which included servicemen as well as children. At least a few publishers, most notably DC Comics, also used the occasion of the war against fascism to call for racial and ethnic tolerance on the American home front.

The war years were a boom time for the comic-book industry. It was not uncommon for a single monthly issue to sell in excess of 500,000 copies. The most popular comic books featuring Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and the Walt Disney cartoon characters often sold over one million copies per issue. When the war ended, however, sales of most superhero comic books plummeted and the industry lost its unity of purpose. Some publishers, like Archie Comics, carved out a niche for themselves with innocuous humor titles that enjoyed a certain timeless appeal for young children. But as other publishers scrambled for new ways to recapture the interest of adolescent and adult readers, some turned to formulas of an increasingly controversial nature. Many began to indulge their audience in a seedy underworld of sex, crime, and violence of a sort rarely seen in other visual entertainment. These comic books earned the industry legions of new readers and critics alike. Young consumers seemed to have a disturbing taste for comic books like Crime Does Not Pay that dramatized—or, as many would charge, glorified—in graphic detail the violent lives of criminals and the degradation of the American dream. Parents, educators, professionals, and politicians reacted to these comic books with remarkable outrage. Police organizations, civic groups, and women's clubs launched a grassroots campaign at the local and state levels to curb or ban the sale and distribution of objectionable comic books. Only a few years after the end of its participation in a world war, the comic-book industry found itself engaged in a new conflict—a cultural war for the hearts and minds of the postwar generation.

As the Cold War intensified, comic-book makers responded by addressing national concerns at home and abroad, while hoping to improve their public image in the process. Romance comic books instructed young females on the vital qualities of domesticity and became, for a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the industry's top-selling genre. War comic books produced during the Korean War underscored the domestic and global threat of Communism. But, as part of the industry's trend toward more realistic stories, many of these also illustrated the ambivalence and frustration of confronting an elusive enemy in a war waged for lofty ideals with limited means.

Neither the subject matter of romance nor war could, in any case, deflect the mounting public criticism directed at comic books. Throughout the postwar decade comic-book makers found themselves confronted by a curious alliance of liberals and conservatives who feared that forms of mass culture were undermining—even replacing—parents, teachers, and religious leaders as the source of moral authority in children's lives. As young people acquired an unprecedented degree of purchasing power in the booming economy, they had more money to spend on comic books. This in turn led to more comic book publishers trying to attract young consumers with increasingly sensational material. Thus, in an irony of postwar culture, the national affluence so celebrated by the defenders of American ideals became perhaps the most important factor accounting for the existence and character of the most controversial comic books.

The most outrageous consequence of the keen competition among publishers was the proliferation of horror comic books. Popular and widely imitated titles like EC Comics' Tales From the Crypt celebrated murder, gore, and the disintegration of the American family with a willful abandon that raised serious questions about the increasing freedom and power of mass culture. At the vanguard of the rejuvenated forces aligned against comic books was a psychiatrist and self-proclaimed expert on child behavior named Dr. Fredric Wertham. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent set forth a litany of charges against comic books, the most shocking and controversial being that they contributed to juvenile delinquency. Such allegations led to a 1954 U.S. Senate investigation into the comic-book industry. Comic-book publishers surrendered to the criticism by publicly adopting an extremely restrictive self-censoring code of standards enforced by an office called the Comics Code Authority. By forbidding much of what had made comic books appealing to adolescents and young adults, the Comics Code effectively placed comic books on a childlike level. At a time when publishers faced stiff competition from television, and rock'n'roll emerged as the new preeminent expression of rebellious youth culture, the Code-approved comic books lost readers by the score.

By the start of the 1960s the industry showed signs of recovery. DC Comics led the resurgence by reviving and revamping some of its popular superheroes from the 1940s including the Flash, the Green Lantern, and the Justice League of America. These characters marked the industry's return to the superhero characters that had made it so successful in the beginning. But the pristine, controlled, and rather stiff DC superheroes proved vulnerable to the challenge posed by Marvel Comics. Under the editorial direction of Stan Lee, in collaboration with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Marvel launched a series of new titles featuring superheroes "flawed" with undesirable but endearing human foibles like confusion, insecurity, and alienation. Marvel superheroes like the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Silver Surfer, and the X-Men found a large and loyal audience among children, adolescents, and even adults drawn to the anti-establishment and clever mythical qualities of the Marvel comic books.

During the late 1960s a new wave of "underground" comic books, sometimes called "comix," emerged as an alternative to the mainstream epitomized by DC and Marvel. These underground comics flourished despite severely limited exposure, and were usually confined to counterculture audiences. With unrestrained subject matter that celebrated drugs, violence, and especially sex, these publications shared more in common with the avant-garde movement and adult magazines than they did with most people's conception of comic books. Artists like Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin, and Art Spiegelman later found some mainstream success and fame (with Fritz the Cat, Zippy the Pinhead, and Maus, respectively) after getting their start in underground comix. And independent comic books inspired by the underground comix movement continue to enjoy some popularity and sales through comic-book stores throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Since the 1960s, however, the comic-book industry has been dominated by the superheroes of publishing giants Marvel and DC. Successive generations of comic-book creators have come to the industry as fans, evincing a genuine affection and respect for comic books that was uncommon among their predecessors, most of whom aspired to write or illustrate for other media. During the late 1960s and early 1970s these creators used comic books to comment upon the most pressing concerns of their generation. Consequently, a number of comic books like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Green Lantern, and Captain America posed a moderate challenge to the "Establishment" and took up such liberal political causes as the civil rights movement, feminism, and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Aware of the country's changing political mood, publishers in 1971 liberalized the Comics Code, making it easier for comic books to reflect contemporary society. Comic-book makers initially took advantage of this new creative latitude to launch a number of ambitious and often self-indulgent efforts to advance mainstream comic books as a literary art form. While many of these new 1970s comic books were quite innovative, nearly all of them failed commercially. Nevertheless, they indicated the increasing willingness of the major publishers to encourage writers and artists to experiment with new ideas and concepts.

As the 1970s drew to a close, the comic-book industry faced some serious distribution problems. Traditional retail outlets like newsstands and "mom-and-pop" stores either disappeared or refused to stock comic books because of their low profit potential. Since the early 1980s, however, comic books have been distributed and sold increasingly through specialty comic-book stores. Publishers earned greater profits than ever before by raising the cost of their comic books, distributing them to these outlets on a non-returnable basis, and targeting the loyal fan audience over casual mainstream readers.

The most popular comic books of the past few decades indicate the extent to which alienation has become the preeminent theme in this medium of youth culture. In the early 1980s, a young writer-artist named Frank Miller brought his highly individualistic style to Marvel's Daredevil, the Man without Fear and converted it from a second-tier title to one of the most innovative and popular in the field. Miller's explorations of the darker qualities that make a superhero inspired others to delve into the disturbing psychological motivations of the costumed vigilantes who had populated comic books since the beginning. Miller's most celebrated revisionism in this vein came in the 1986 "graphic novel" Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Such revisionism in fact became the most common formula of recent comic books. Besides such stalwarts as Spider-Man and Batman, the best-selling superheroes of the 1980s and 1990s included the X-Men, the Punisher, the Ghost Rider, and Spawn. All featured brooding, obsessive, alienated antiheroes prone to outbursts of terrifying violence. This blurring of the lines between what makes a hero and a villain in comic books testifies to the cynicism about heroes generally in contemporary popular culture and to the eagerness of comic-book publishers to tap into the adolescent disorientation and anxieties that have, to some degree, always determined the appeal of comic-book fantasies.

Although comic books remained popular and profitable throughout the 1990s, the major publishers faced some formidable crises. The most obvious of these was the shrinking audience for their product. Comic-book sales peaked in the early 1990s before falling sharply in the middle years of the decade. Declining fan interest was, in part, a backlash against the major publishers' increasing tendency to issue drawn-out "cross-over" series that compelled readers to buy multiple issues of different titles in order to make sense of convoluted plots. Many other jaded buyers were undoubtedly priced out of the comic-book market by cover prices commonly over $2.50. Special "collector's editions" and graphic novels frequently sold at prices over $5.00. Most troubling for comic-book makers, however, is the threat that their product may become irrelevant in an increasingly crowded entertainment industry encompassing cable TV, video games, and internet pastimes aimed directly at the youth market. Retaining and building their audience in this context is a serious challenge that will preoccupy creators and publishers as the comic-book industry enters the twenty-first century.

—Bradford W. Wright

Further Reading:

Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History. Dallas, Taylor Publishing, 1993.

Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. Boston, Little, Brown, 1995.

——. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Goulart, Ron. Over Fifty Years of American Comic Books. Lincolnwood, Illinois, Mallard Press, 1991.

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

Jacobs, Will, and Gerard Jones. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1998.

Savage, William W., Jr. Comic Books and America, 1945-1954. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Comic Books

views updated Jun 08 2018

Comic Books

In the early years of comic books, African Americans sometimes appeared as minor characters, usually in the demeaning guise of familiar stereotypes. Not until the 1960s did blacks begin to appear as important figures in mass-circulation comic books. African-American artists and writers, meanwhile, did not gain a significant presence in the comic book industry until the 1970s, and their numbers have remained very small.

In important respects, comic books have always reflected tendencies in other popular genres, including comic strips, radio shows, movies, and television. Thus, the depictions of black Americans in comic books have often reflected established popular cultural norms. In the 1940s, for example, Will Eisner's series The Spirit included a black sidekick named Ebony White. Reflecting the transition between traditional racial stereotypes and an incipient realism during that decade of World War II, Eisner drew Ebony with some stereotypical features, such as exaggerated lips, but also portrayed him as a sympathetic character, no more the butt of low humor than The Spirit 's other characters.

In the 1960s such television shows as I Spy and Julia began to incorporate black characters as educated middle-class professionalsfor example, as intelligence agents and nurses. Correspondingly, the Spiderman comic book introduced Joe Robertson as city editor at the Daily Bugle, the newspaper where Spiderman's alter ego, Peter Parker, worked as a freelance photographer. This trend continued in the 1970s, especially in the Marvel Comics universe. For example, Silver Surfer #5 (1969) featured a black scientist named Al B. Harper who used his technical skills and ultimately sacrificed his life to help the Silver Surfer save humanity from extermination by the Stranger, an intergalactic misanthrope.

Marvel also introduced the first major black superhero, the Black Panther, in 1966. The ruler of a fictional African nation called Wakanda, T'Challa, the Black Panther, wore a skintight black costume that invoked his namesake and personal totem. Though he lacked true superpowers, the Panther possessed the enhanced strength, quickness, and agility that his name suggested. Wakanda maintained a combination of traditional culture and advanced technology; reflecting this cosmopolitanism, the Black Panther often traveled to America, becoming involved with superhero groups. He first appeared in The Fantastic Four No. 52 and eventually became a regular member of The Avengers. He gained his own series, titled Jungle Action, beginning in 1973.

Marvel's first and most successful black title, however, was Luke Cage, Superhero for Hire (1972). In an accident involving a combination of electric shock and immersion in chemicals, Cage acquired impenetrable skin and greatly magnified strength (though not "superhuman" power on the scale of Marvel's the Hulk or DC Comics' Superman). A comic book equivalent of popular "blaxploitation" movie heroes, Cage lived in Harlem and fought various criminals, usually working on a "for hire" basis. Later in the 1970s, as the popularity of martial-arts films began to eclipse blaxploitation, Marvel teamed Luke Cage with a martial-arts superhero, Iron Fist. The Luke Cage series was significant as the first major black feature to be drawn by a black artist, Billy Graham. Graham also drew some issues of the Black Panther series.

Subsequent black characters in Marvel Comics have included Black Goliath, who briefly had his own title; Storm, an African woman who joined the New X-Men, a group of mutant superheroes; and the Falcon, who became the partner of Captain America in the 1970s. There have been fewer black characters in DC comics, and nearly all have been minor figures. These have included John Stewart, who occasionally appeared in Green Lantern, and Mal, a sidekick of the Teen Titans. In the 1970s a special DC collectors' series included a duel between Superman and Muhammad Ali. In the 1980s DC introduced Cloak and Dagger, a pair of symbiotically linked superheroes. Cloak is a black man, Dagger a white woman.

Also worthy of note is Sabre, a series produced by Eclipse Publications, a small comics company. Created by Don MacGregor, who wrote the Black Panther series for Marvel, Sabre features a protagonist modeled visually on the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. This is not a superhero comic. Rather, it is a philosophical, postnuclear holocaust fiction, somewhat like the Mad Max movies. Sabre's adventures are secondary to his meditations, and, despite his appearance, his blackness has no ethnic content. The series originally appeared in an extended, black-and-white graphic-novel format, drawn by Paul Gulacy, in 1978. Subsequent issues have been in conventional full-color comic format, drawn by Billy Graham.

In the 1980s the proliferation of specialty comic book stores and other economic factors led to fundamental changes in the comics industry. The creation of new outlets undermined the power wielded by the major companies through their control of newsstand space. New comics companies developed, marketing their titles through specialty stores, often to more mature and selective clienteles than traditional comic books had targeted. This created opportunities for people with special genre interests (social realism, fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.),

Black Superheroes

The names Storm, Black Panther, and Luke Cage may not invoke the same connotations as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, but that is changing as black superheroes become more prevalent in mainstream comics and take on further starring roles. The first recurring black comic character was Ebony White, created by Will Eisner as a sidekick for Spirit, a crime-fighting detective. Ebony White was a poor taxi driver with overly large lips and exaggerated saucer-like eyes. Black superheroes have come a long way since this stereotypical sidekick.

Possibly the most famous black superhero is The Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 for Marvel Comics. The Black Panther is known as T'Challa, king of the imaginary African nation, Wakanda. He is a scientist as well as a superhero and wears a suit of all black. He first started as an adversary to the Fantastic Four and moved on to eventually become one of The Avengers. In 1973 he finally got his own series. The Black Panther is not a character defined by his skin color, but his adventures often do involve conflict between ancient and modern nations, racial issues, and ecological issues.

Since the emergence of The Black Panther, there have been many other black superheroes and characters in comics. Luke Cage (otherwise known as Power Man) was a street thug until he was framed and went to prison where he volunteered to be experimented on. The experiment left him with super strength and super powers. He showed up in Marvel Comics in 1972 as a "hero for hire." In 1977, DC Comics introduced its first black superhero, Black Lightning. Created by Tony Isabella, Jefferson Pierce (a.k.a. Black Lightning) was an Olympic athlete who returns to his old school to teach and decides to crusade against the school's rampant drug problem.

Other characters include Blade, a vampire hunter. Bishop and Storm, both members of the famed X-Men, Todd McFarlane's Spawn, and Battalion, part of Stormwatch. The Falcon is a street-level crime fighter who eventually teams up with Captain America. Cyborg is a member of the Teen Titans, a child genius named Victor Stone whose parents worked as scientists causing a freak accident and turning him into a cyborg. There are scores of black superheroes, both male and female represented in comics today. Instead of the stereotypical representations of the past, such as a grammatically challenged character used for comic relief, these action heroes are diverse and heroic.

women, ethnic minorities, and others to produce and consume a greater variety of comics than ever before. Even the major companies began to produce graphic novels and other special projects, designed for this new comic book market. In the early 1990s some independently produced black comic books have appeared, such as Brotherman by David, Jason and Guy Sims, and Black Thunder by Ernest Gibbs, Jr. African Americans currently working for the major companies include the writer Dwayne McDuffie and Marcus McLaurin, an editor at Marvel. These exceptions notwithstanding, black people remain underrepresented in the world of comic books, both as subject matter and as producers.

See also Comic Strips; Popular Culture


Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World"s Greatest Comics. New York: Abrams, 1991.

Riley, Rochelle. "The Dictator of Discipline: Superhero Brotherman." Emerge (February 1991): 2426.

david lionel smith (1996)
Updated by author 2005

Comic Books

views updated Jun 27 2018

Comic Books

Comic books, which first appeared in the 1930s, have entertained children and young adults for decades. They have told stories from a wide variety of genres, including romance, humor, horror, war, and Westerns (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2), but are most associated with tales featuring the exploits of superpowered heroes. The costumed heroes from their pages have been translated into all other forms of popular culture—plastic action-figure playtoys, Halloween costumes, television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) and radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) shows, feature films, and so on—and continue to have a firm grasp on the American imagination.

Comic books first appeared in 1933 with the publication of Famous Funnies, which included reprints of popular newspaper strips. In 1935, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (1890–1968) launched New Fun Comics—the first comic book to print all-new material. Early issues featured crime and mystery stories that were popular in the pulp magazines (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2) of the era. The industry was changed forever in 1939 with the arrival of Superman (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2). Created by two Cleveland teens, Superman was unlike any other hero ever seen. He possessed superpowers, wore a skintight costume, and had a secret identity. Superman was an immediate success. He spawned a vast number of costumed counterparts like Batman (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman (see entry under 1940s—Print Culture in volume 3), and Plastic Man. The comic-book industry boomed during the 1940s and sold millions of issues per month. However, by the 1950s, they were criticized by some for emphasizing sex, crime, and violence. Dr. Fredric Wertham (1895–1981) led the anti-comics forces and claimed in his controversial text, Seduction of the Innocent, that comics led to juvenile delinquency. The industry responded by creating the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body that enforced standards.

The industry rebounded in the 1960s. The characters of Marvel Comics (see entry under 1960s—Print Culture in volume 4), like Spider-Man (see entry under 1960s—Print Culture in volume 4) and the X-Men, were more "realistic." They often appeared flawed and insecure, and they revitalized the superhero genre (category) of comic books. Superheroes continue to dominate the marketplace, but recent decades have seen the rise of independent and "underground" comics that appeal to an older, more diverse readership. Among the most noteworthy creators of these more "adult" comics are Robert Crumb (1943–), Harvey Pekar (1939–), and Art Spiegelman (1948–). By the 1980s, even the superheroes became involved in more mature story lines. Of note, the Dark Knight, a graphic novel written by Frank Miller (1957–) in 1986, presents an adult view of the Batman legend.

The comic book industry has faced increased competition from TV, VCRs, video games (see entry under 1970s—Sports and Games in volume 4), and computers since the 1970s. While DC and Marvel, the leading producers of superhero comics, accounted for 75 percent of the market in the 1990s, finding a new generation of comic-book readers remains an industry concern. Still, the superheroes remain popular and now regularly appear in films and on television.

—Charles Coletta

For More Information

Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. New York: Little, Brown, 1995.

Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Jones, Gerard, and Will Jacobs. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1997.

Kurtzman, Harvey. From AARGH! to ZAP!: Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of Comics. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.

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