The History Of Comic Books

By | Tuesday, January 12, 2010 2 comments
The following was written as my senior term paper in high school. While it glosses over quite a bit of comics history (we had a 10-page limit, as I recall) and there are a few bits that are somewhat misleading, I'm pleasantly surprised to see how it holds up. I'm particularly proud of accurately "predicting" the comic bubble bust of the 1990s. (This was written in late 1989, predating the Heroes World collapse.) While it would be more accurately entitled "The History of American Comic Books", I'm pleasantly surprised that my 17-year-old self had a solid recognition of comics well beyond the superhero genre.

I will confess, though, that I fudged a bit on my bibliography. The Guide to Comics Collecting that I repeatedly cited was more of a brochure than a book. I think it was maybe four pages. While I didn't plagiarize any of it, they didn't have much more information than what's presented here. Although no author was listed, I would guess it was actually written by either Don or Maggie Thompson, given the references to Alter Ego, Comic Art and Xero. I know I certainly wouldn't even have been aware of those fanzines otherwise.

So with all of my original errors intact, here's my January 8, 1990 version of The History of Comic Books...

While the history of comic books is generally considered relatively concise, covering only about one hundred years, a complete documentation would be amazingly extensive. It would have to include decifering the Egyptian Book of the Dead, accounting for every medieval crime known to have been committed, and "reading" William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress among a number of other things. However, modern comic book historians generally accept the first comic to have appeared on October 18, 1896. It was published in the New York Journal as a comic strip called Hogan's Alley. The strip, by Richard Outcault, featured the Yellow Kid, who was almost immediately adored by youngsters. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 11)

Other comic strips followed, copying Outcault's style and humor. It was not, however, until 1929, thirty-three years later, that another event of worthy note took place in comic book history. The first comic book itself was published. Dubbed simply The Funnies, it was a reprinting of several newspaper strips. Unlike modern comics, however, it was of a much larger size. In fact, it was about the same size as a small newspaper or tabloid.

With the success of The Funnies, other comic books similar in nature came out and, in 1932, the first Big Little Book was published. The Adventures of Dick Tracy led to many other Big Little Books, many of which are still being published today.

Procter and Gamble also wanted to get their share from the growing comic book industry. Collecting a multitude of newspaper strips such as Joe Palooka, they published their own comic book, Funnies on Parade. It was printed in 1933 and used as a giveaway to entice young readers to buy their products at an early age. (Marschall, Encyclopedia of Collectibles, 151)

The first great comic book success, published by Eastern Color, started in May of 1934. Unlike its predecessors, Famous Funnies came out each month; previously comic books were published fairly irregularly. By Max C. Gaines, this comic book ran for 218 consecutive issues and was cancelled in 1952. Part of its success was that it was dependable and it only cost a mere dime. Another reason was that since it was published with three first issues, it appealed to a wide range of audiences.

One of the major break-throughs in comic books occurred in 1935. A small publishing company called National put out a comic entitled New Fun. It was an accurate title if nothing else, for New Fun was the first comic book ever to be published with all new material. While earlier comic books did include some new comics, they had always had reprints of newspaper strips as well. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 11-12)

The Golden Age of Comic Books started in 1938 with the introduction of one of the most recognizable fictional characters in American history. Two teen-agers from Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio created a comic strip designed for their school newspaper. The main character had good points from many famous fictional heroes including the ancient Norse god of thunder, Thor, and the Greek Hercules. National, which had recently changed its name to DC, liked some of the strips Jerome Siegel, the author, and Joseph Shuster, the artist, had sent them and published Action Comics number one, the first comic book to have a story about Superman. Superman was the first super-hero of comic books and was immediately coveted by the public, who bought over a million copies each month by 1941. (Barrier & Williams, Smithsonian Book of Comics, 17-18)

In 1939, DC wanted to increase sales with another super-hero; however, they did not want the hero to resemble Superman too closely. DC turned to writer William Finger and artist Robert Kane to come with another hero. After a number of long discussions that kept both creative geniuses up late at night, their first story was published in Detective Comics number thirty-eight. Superman now had a competitor of some stature known as Batman — originally spelled Bat-Man — took the comic world by storm. To increase sales even further, Robin was introduced in 1940. (33) Their high popularity has kept them alive and all three still can be seen at least once each month in a new comic book story.

In the autumn of 1940, Walt Disney's creations stepped off the silver screen and into comic books. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories brought Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the rest of Disney's creations to many young readers who did not have enough money to go to the cinema. Warner Brothers apparently thought that this was a grand concept and published Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. It gave their new cartoons an interesting view, as they could not have been characterized by the immortal voice of Mel Blanc in the comic book. (Marschall, 154)

A wider variety of comic books was beginning to come into circulation. Pep Comics introduced America's oldest teen-ager, Archie, to the public with issue twenty-two in 1942. (Marschall, 154) Westerns were being adapted for comics as well as love stories and famous novels. Crime Does Not Pay gave a new outlook on the comic business; the stories revolved around a crime instead of a super-hero catching someone who committed a crime. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 12)

However, some people stayed with the things that made comic books famous - cartoons. In 1942, Walter Kelly introduced what would soon be a very politically oriented comic book called Animal Comics. While the original comic did not involve itself too much in political matters, his comic strip, Pogo, did so later with the same characters. (Barrier & Williams, 225-226)

With the American involvement in World War II, comic books became more popular than ever. Now, not only did children read them, but soldiers did as well. The comics provided cheap, disposable and easily transportable entertainment for military personnel in Europe. They also included messages aimed at supporting the war for those still in the United States. Heroes like Captain America and Fighting American became en vogue with American patriots. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 13)

Around 1950, horror comics became increasingly popular. William M. Gaines started EC Comics and published a number of horror titles including The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Weird Science. Gaines later went on to become the founder of Mad, a satirical magazine directed against politics, movies, books, and jut about anything else. (Marschall, 154)

With such comic books bombarding the market, complaints against them began to rise. Parents were aghast to find, due largely to the outspoken tenacity of pyschiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, that their children reading materials that had absolutely no censorship whatsoever. To satisfy the public's outrage, the Comics Code Authority was created in 1954. This group inspected each comic book and determined whether or not it was suitable for young audiences. While comics do not have to undergo this inspection, those that do are generally more acceptable to the public at large. Unfortunately, however, after the code went into affect in the spring of 1955, the comic book industry plummeted. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 13-14)

The Silver Age of Comic Books began about a year after the code went into effect with the re-introduction of the Flash in the September/October issue of Showcase. Fan magazines devoted to comics began to rise with the Silver Age. Although a few were previously published, the first one of note was originally seen Labor Day weekend of 1960. Dick and Pat Lupoff began a fanzine entitled Xero as a giveaway trial item at the World Science Fiction Convention. The magazine's popularity brought out others such as Alter Ego and Comic Art in early 1961. (14-15)

Later in 1961, a small company changed its name to Marvel. It had seen the Golden Age as both Timely and Atlas, but with limited success. A four-man operation, Marvel put out a comic book that passed the Comics Code Authority's inspection, yet still broke all of the previous rules of super-heroes. With the first issue of Fantastic Four, the four main characters wore no costumes, had no secret identities, and fought amongst themselves. This, plus the fact that the villain was not captured, shed new light onto the possibilities of comic books. Stan Lee, writer, and Jack Kirby, artist and co-plotter, began a revolution in the comic book field widely known as the "Marvel Age of Comics." (15)

In November of 1967, a small publishing company did not let the Comics Code Authority look at its new comic. Zap Comix became the first major comic book in what is known collectively as underground comic books. Also known as comix, — the x on the end denotes that the comic is an underground one — these appeal mainly to mature readers. (15)

Robert M. Overstreet decided that there should be an easy way of finding out how much an old comic book is worth. After a great deal of research, which included going to a great deal of conventions and auctions, he published the first copy of The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. It has been published every year since its first appearance in 1971, being updated with each new edition. Because it was the first of its kind, most comic book collectors and historians generally accept the book as the official price guide of comics, although technically there is none. (17)

While comic books' popularity began to increase, one could not find all of the comics on the market at the local drugstore. This gave rise to specialty shops that sold only comic books. One of the first, Comics and Comix, opened on September 5, 1972. At the time, there were only about five in the entire United States. That number increased dramatically over the next twenty years and there were roughly five stores in every major U.S. city by the late 1980s. (16-17)

Phil Seuling was a comic book fan and found it hard to believe that the only way one could get comic books on a large scale was to order them directly through the publisher. So in 1975, he started a business in which comic book shop dealers could order both Marvel and DC comics, the two biggest comic book publishers at the time, through one association. Jonni Levas later helped him and calling the business Sea Gate Distributions, the first wide-scale comic book distributor. Many more similar companies have since been founded. (17)

Other companies have become increasingly popular, giving now-business-giants Marvel and DC some more competition. Eclipse comics began publishing Sabre in late 1978. Another competitor was First Comics, who started with Warp in November of 1982. Both have since added about a dozen more titles, many of which are rather popular. (18)

The majority of the popular comics have been in color, but some have not used coloring techniques in order to save money. However, this also has become increasingly popular and sales of black and white comics sky-rocketed in late 1987. This rise in demand of black and white comics makes many older ones valuable. For example, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally created by Kevin B. Eastman and Peter A. Laird, had its first issue in the spring of 1984. That first issue, which originally cost under a dollar, is now worth over two hundred dollars. (18-19)

As the saying goes, "What goes around, comes around," and a lull in the comic book industry can be expected within the next ten to fifteen years. Hopefully, this will not discourage publishers and the history of comic books will continue to grow and flourish.



Barrier, Michael & Martin Williams. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (c)1981 Smithsonian Institution Press.

The Comics Buyer's Guide to Comics Collecting
(c)1988 Krause Publications, Inc.

Marschall, Richard, et. al. The Encyclopedia of Collectibles (c)1978 Time-Life Books.
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Matt K said...

"I'm particularly proud of accurately 'predicting' the comic bubble bust of the 1990s."

If only there had been a practical means of short-selling. :-)

I was in high school. I think the issue was more... if only there was a means to have any capital to work with in the first place! ;)