At its simplest, a comic book is a series of words and pictures that are presented in a sequential manner to form a narrative that may or may not be humorous (McCloud 1993). Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, the comic book contains everyday language, slang, and idiom, as well as color and a sophisticated interplay between text and image—all serving a therapeutic, explanatory, and commercial purpose in American culture. Traditionally occupying the fringes of pop culture, the comic book is actually a valuable historical text that comments on how young people and adults alike identify with cultural and political issues.
As such, a comic book is much more than just a series of words and pictures with marginal cultural importance. Indeed, given its complex cultural and commercial role, a definition of “comic book” raises an amalgam of theoretical debates about sequence, narrative, image, text, genre, and art as well as its relation to other genres, such as children’s literature (Meskin 2007). At the very least, comic books can be seen as a result of pressures by artists and consumers as well as by the historical forces acting on both groups. Much more than just a form of entertainment for kids, comic books are a serious and sophisticated art form that both feeds off of and creates cultural formulas and historical constructs.
Since the 1960s the comic book industry has been dominated by the two major publishers of superhero books—Marvel and Detective Comics (DC). DC’s official name for almost 50 years was National Periodical Publication; Marvel was known as Timely Comics from 1939 to about 1950, and then as Atlas Comics for much of the 1950s. Many comic book fans often use the concept of “ages” to distinguish periods of comic book history that share concerns, storytelling techniques, marketing strategies, styles of art and writing, and approach to genre conventions (Coogan 2006). These ages can roughly be distinguished as the Golden (1938-1956), Silver (1956-1971), Bronze (1971-1980), Iron (1980-1987), and Modern (1987-present).
Comic Book Precursors
The thematic elements of the genre can arguably be traced back to ancient Greek mythological gods and superheroes. For example, the modern comic book hero Flash explicitly draws on the iconography of the Greek god Hermes with his winged helmet and boots. Samson’s weakness in the Old Testament, a haircut, echoes the vulnerabilities that afflict modern heroes, such as Superman’s kryptonite. Other ancient heroes such as Zeus, Gilgamesh, Thor, Beowulf, and Jason and the Argonauts all contain conventions that are seen in modern-day comic book heroes, such as the sidekick (sometimes homoerotically charged), sexual temptation, and teaming up with others, as in the Justice League. More modern archetypes include Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Tarzan, the pulp übermensch (Coogan 2006).
The format of the modern day comic book perhaps can be traced to ancient narrative sequences of cave paintings, but more likely to the medieval broadsheet, which was a narrative strip carved into woodcuttings (Hayman and Pratt 2005). Broadsheet authors would often create cartoonish narratives of public executions and caricatures of public figures. As the printing press allowed mass circulation of the broadsheets, they were often gathered into collections, or what could be considered a prototype of the modern magazine or newspaper and, by extension, the comic book. Some scholars have even gone so far as to claim that the Bayeux Tapestry, which traces in a graphic pictorial narrative the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, is an early form of the comic strip (Meskin 2007).
The first “real” comic strip is usually acknowledge to be Richard Felton Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, which debuted in 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World and served as a marketing tool to boost sales of the newspaper. Yellow Kid was also notable in that his was the first comic strip to use balloons as a place for the character’s dialog. When publishers realized that comic strips, such as Outcault’s, could be used to broaden the appeal of their newspapers, comic features such as Buster Brown, Foxy Grandpa, Krazy Kat, Katzenjammer Kids, Popeye, and Mutt and Jeff became standard. Most all of the strips in the first decades of the twentieth century were purposefully humorous and became known as “the comics” or “the funnies.” The first comic books furthered this trend with titles like Famous Funnies, Funnies on Parade, and The Funnies. The first comic books were actually packaged reprints of popular newspaper comic strips. But as the comic book industry expanded throughout the 1930s, it developed a cultural and economic identity very different from newspaper syndicates (Eisner 1985).
In terms of distribution, audience, narrative style, and thematic content, comic books were more the direct descendants of the pulp magazine. Dubbed “pulp magazine” because they were printed on the cheapest possible paper for inexpensive mass distribution, these publications had a commercial history as old as newspaper comic strips—older if you consider pulp magazines can be traced to their Civil War-era antecedents, the dime novels. Unlike the comics, pulp magazines catered to the tastes outside the mainstream and featured action, adventure, fantasy, and suspense. In 1933, Harry Wildenberg and Max C. Gaines (future creator of MAD magazine) folded a traditional tabloid-size comic, Funnies on Parade, in half to create the first four-color, saddle-stitched newsprint comic that would become the format of modern comic books. Working with Eastern Color and Dell Publishing, Wildenberg and Gaines successfully sold this new format at newsstands, leading to the creation of the newsstand as the main distributor of comic books until the 1990s.
1930-1950: Golden Age
Comic books blossomed into a distinct entertainment industry after 1938 when Jerome Siegal and Joseph Shuster created Superman, the initiator of the superhero genre that would remain the cornerstone of the comic book industry. When DC comics introduced Batman in 1939, it eventually pushed out the “crime” and “detective” stories from DC’s title. The popularity of the superhero in the 1930s led to the creation of other characters such as Wonder Woman, Captain America, The Flash, and the Green Lantern. Marvel comics introduced enduring characters such as the Human Torch and Captain America (Coogan 2006). In terms of style and technique, Will Eisner’s work on his masked detective series The Spirit adapted many film techniques to comic books and developed much of the storytelling grammar still used in comic books today. For example, unlike the short daily strips and fixed perspective of juvenile comics, Eisner’s “cinematic” storytelling unfolded stories over several pages, using a montage of light and sound, dynamic framing, and vibrant colors.
World War II was a boon for the comic book, perhaps because it promoted two prevailing ideological visions of the time: New Deal-style social reform and WWII patriotism. The DC superhero comics tacitly stressed a common interest in public welfare and strong federal government. Marvel comics took up the cause of WWII patriotism in its creation of Captain America, showing Captain America punching Hitler in the face. In fact, the primary narrative convention of the Golden Age is the defense of the normal. But after WWII, the impetus driving the Golden Age fizzled, and the cancellation of Captain Marvel and Plastic Man (with the similar lighthearted approach to super heroics) effectively ended the Golden Age (Coogan 2006).
1956-1971: The Silver Age
After WWII, comic books lost readers and publishers alike due to lack of purpose, competition from television, as well as Senate investigations into the cultural influence of the comic book industry, particularly the influence of popular “horror” comic books. Perhaps most damaging to the comic book industry was Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent which accused some comic books of corrupting the youth and inciting them to violence. In response to Wertham’s attacks, comic book companies created the Comics Code Authority as a way to self-police the industry and win back readers (McCloud 1993).
By the start of the 1960s, the industry showed further signs of recovery. Like the Golden Age, the Silver Age began with superhero comic books acting to convey the prevailing social ideology. But when that no longer appealed to audiences, the Silver Age comic book moved away from explicitly ideological texts. The superhero genre which had been used to build consensus and morale during WWII was now questioning America’s role as the world's superpower, due largely in part to the public’s perception of the Vietnam War. Marvel comics further revolutionized the superhero by creating characters who had some kind of weakness or defect, such as the Hulk and Spiderman. They were persecuted and misunderstood outsiders and spoke directly to public disorientation. In response to DC’s Justice League of America, Marvel created the Fantastic Four. While these narratives still featured contests between good evil, those concepts are slightly complicated with the introduction of virtuous villains and reluctant, selfish, or bickering heroes. The end of the Silver Age can be marked by Steve Rogers' abandonment of the Captain America identity as a reaction to the “Secret Empire,” a story line that was a fictionalized depiction of Watergate (Coogan 2006).
1971-1980: The Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is characterized by a shift from social issues to an emphasis on form and stylistic details. Comic books no longer looked through form to the ideals, values, and conflicts of society but began to look at the form itself. Motivated by persistent criticism that comic book art was not “great” art, comic book artists began to experiment with color and page display. While the new emphasis on art won critical acclaim, the industry experienced a marked decline in sales. This was due in large part to archaic distribution practices. Comic books were still largely carried by traditional newsstands, but these traditional comic book venues were rapidly being replaced by chain stores. In an attempt to revise its marketing structure, the comic book industry formed the Academy of Comic-Book Arts (ACBA) and later the Comic Guild in hopes of achieving, as Stan Lee (the creator of Spiderman) states, “for comic books what Academy Awards do for motion picture” (Coogan 2006). These associations also hoped to gain the respect from the American public that comic books industries had in France and Japan while at the same time providing comic book writers with more benefits and job security.
While comic book sales continued to decline, DC and Marvel turned to licensing out their characters to television for revenue. DC enjoyed profits from Saturday cartoons such as Superfriends and Batman as well as the Wonder Woman series. The Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve also provided DC with revenue. Marvel licensed the Incredible Hulk series starring Bill Bixby and authorized the animated Fantastic Four series. Marvel also bought the rights to print Star Wars comic books (Coogan 2006).
1980-1987: The Iron Age
The Iron Age extends the Bronze Age’s emphasis on form and embellishes it to the point where form itself becomes the “substance” or “content” of the work. Indeed, in a sophisticated interplay of postmodern intertextuality and self-reflexiveness, many comic book heroes, such as Frank Miller’s Daredevil, began to question their own heroism and often seemed to have a tenuous grasp on their own sanity. In fact, heroes seemed to be the subject of comic book stories rather than the means to tell a story. Soon the Iron Age hero began focused on his own mortality. In fact, the Iron Age witnessed the death of numerous superheroes, including Captain Marvel, Batman (at least figuratively), and Watchmen’s anti-hero Rorschach. Superman himself died in Louis Lane’s arms in 1992. And in a move that completely wiped out all stories pre-1986, DC rewrote the history of its universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths (Hayman and Pratt 2005). Perhaps most emblematic of the death of the superhero is the Iron Age’s self-proclaimed greatest success: Spawn, a corpse. During the Iron Age, the comic book genre turned on itself and nearly dismantled its own genre conventions.
While comic book heroes may have been experiencing their own existential crises, comic book publishers earned greater profits than ever before by raising the cost of comic books, distributing them to specialized comic book retail outlets rather than newsstands on nonreturnable basis, and targeting the loyal fan base over causal mainstream readers. The increased influence of this specialized market on the production and distribution of comic books indicated the extent to which comic books had become, in large part, the niche of a slightly estranged subculture (Coogan 2006).
1987-Present: Modern Age
By the end of the 1980s, the comic book industry seemed interested in reconstructing the genre that nearly deconstructed itself by emphasizing continuity from the Golden and Silver ages and reconstructing the mission convention that broke down in the Iron Age. Perhaps most importantly, the comic book industry began marketing new issues of comic books, such as Spiderman and X-Men, as future collector items. In fact, during the 1990s comics became top collector items, only less popular than stamps and coins. Even though comic books in 1990s had a smaller audience than in previous eras, this audience was willing to buy more and pay more.
In a major symbolic event for the American Comic Book Industry, Marvel became the first comic book publisher to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. Within just six months, an issue of Marvel’s X-Men sold a record 8.2 million copies. Marvel had grown into a multimedia entertainment company, and currently the superhero is the golden boy of Hollywood. X-Men (2000) earned $150 million at the box office, and Spiderman, Daredevil, The Hulk and The Incredibles also pulled in hefty revenues (Coogan 2006). Advanced computer-generated imagery make superhero fights and powers look as fantastic and seamless as they do on the comic page. Clearly, comic books have once again emerged as a major force in a corporate-driven commercial culture.