Ah, comics… No child should have to grow up without them. They can be creative, engaging, funny, etc. Once they were regarded as a social bane today some comics are actually considered high art and comic book illustrators are well respected in art circles. Reading comics also encourages learning and they have been incorporated in schoolbooks for a while now. That’s not really surprising. What would you rather look at? A colorful and visually pleasing comic or a column of plain text? I’m a visual guy and while I do read books I can’t deny that comics do more for me.
But where did comic books come from? To determine that we need to first know what the definition of a comic book actually is. I’m quoting this straight from Webster:
“A comic strip is a series of cartoon drawings that tell a story or part of a story.”
So technically even cave paintings can be comics of sort. They can be sequential and they tell stories. Or hieroglyphs? Can they be considered a comic strip? There is also the Paupers Bible that used scrolls coming out of characters mouths to depict speech. But can all these be considered comic strips? Kind of but when I think of a comic strip I think of a story that is told with images AND words (mostly but we’ll get to that). So my own definition of a comic is:
“A comic strip is a series of sequential images arranged in panels, that may or may not use words and symbols to tell a story or part of a story.”
Why do I define it like that? Because a comic can also be a sequence of photos, not just drawings. Also when we think of comic strips today we think of word balloons or some other form of portraying speech. These kind of comic strips first appeared in the 20th century.
Arguably the first comic strip that appeared in a newspaper is “The Yellow Kid” by Richard F. Outcault. I say arguably because there have been other earlier examples of combining text and images and that gradually developed in to the modern comic. So to define something as the very first is fairly iffy. But The Yellow Kid was the first long running comic strip that included a lot of conventions that comics use today.
The Yellow Kid was first published in 1895 in the US and was published up until 1898. It didn’t use speech bubbles, instead the dialog was written on to the character long yellow shirt.
The first comic BOOK is a whole different story. Also in the US, the first comic book is arguably considered to be “Funnies on Parade” that was published in 1933. It was the first collection of stories exclusively in comic strip form. Before that comics were published in newspapers.
Just a few years later in 1938 the first story featuring Superman was published. He turned out so popular that he singlehandedly created the superhero genre of comic books.
American comic book history is divided in to four distinct eras. The golden, silver, bronze and modern age.
The golden age arose during the 2nd world war and lasted until the 1950s. It gave birth to a lot of classic comic book heroes that are still around today. Heroes like Batman, Superman, Flash, Captain America, Submariner, the Human Tourch, etc. After the war super hero popularity waned and horror comics became more popular.
The silver age began with the 1956 publication of “the New Flash”. In this age comics gain collectors value. Heroes like the Fantastic four, The Hulk, Spider-man were born in this age as well as characters like Richie Rich and Casper the friendly ghost. In the 1960s the underground scene arose. Authors of comics started publishing comics on their own without the help of publishers. It is credited as helping to develop and popularize the pop art movement. The silver age ended in 1973 with the publication of Amazing Spider-man 121-122 (in this story Spider-man accidentally kills his girlfriend while trying to save her), that ended the trend of innocent and perfect stories of indestructible heroes and the darker and grittier, bronze age started.
The bronze age started in 1973. The comics kept most conventions of the silver age but added socially relevant and darker stories. Also around this time salles of comics moved from news stands to comic book stores dedicated just to this medium. Now also artist with less resources had the chance to sell their self published comics. A big step forward was the inclusion of black characters and characters of other minorities. The style shifted to a more sophisticated realism because the old guard of illustrators retired and gave way to the younger generation.
Some people think that the bronze isn’t over yet but some would argue it ended in the 70s. If we take the later as fact we are now in the modern age of comic books, that makes the stories and characters even darker and morbid. Antiheroes take the center stage and some already established heroes get new darker dimensions.
Because comics were so popular and gained insane collectors values a speculative market began to form. Publishers started printing speculative amounts of comics, that were just too big to sell and that contributed to the downfall and demise of many companies. The comic book marker imploaded.
In 1992 as a result of a dispute at Marvel Comics the company Image Comics was founded. This was the first comic book company that left the licensing rights of the characters to the authors with the pros of publishing with a big company.
There is no denying, that it could be said, the US is where the comic strip is at home but that doesn’t mean that Europe or Asia didn’t have their own comics. Japan has a whole culture built around their manga after all. We won’t delve that much in to manga, at least not for now but lets take a look at the European comic.
In Europe comics didn’t develop as fast as in the US. Let’s face it… Comics in the US are a way of life and to some represent America just as much as the flag or moms apple pie. Not so much in Europe. The cradle of European comics are Spain, Italy, France and Belgium. Some comics that didn’t garner too well in their domestic market gained fame and popularity when they were published in Yugoslavia in the Serbo Croatian language. Comics like Alan Ford, Zagor, Tarzan and Veliki Blek (Il Grande Bleck) all gained cult status. England is considered independent of European comics because their style is fairly their own and a well established domestic market.
More famous European comic titles are The Adventures of Tintin (1929), Asterix the Gaul (1959), The Smurfs (1958), Dylan Dog (1986), Beano (1938), etc.
Other than that comic books don’t have a specific history in Europe. At least not to the extent as in the US. When comics were already well excepted in America, people were still fighting against them in Europe, claiming they are bad for the mind and intelect.
I’m from Slovenia and it would be a crime not to mention my influences in comic books and what actually inspired me to take up art. When I grew up I loved reading comic books by Miki Muster. He was a Disney fan and it shows in his work. His most famous comic series is “Pustolovščine Zvitorepca, Trdonje in Lakotnika”. I’ll be dedicating an article about him very soon because he was just honored with an award for his life’s work.
Another famous illustrator, that didn’t consider himself a comic artist but nevertheless drew one of the most famous Slovenian children’s comic strips, was Božo Kos. His comic strip “Kavboj Pipec in Rdeča Pesa” was loved by children and was one of the longest running strips in our history.
Slovenia is a fairly young country and has not developed it’s own comic culture yet. Today still, Croatian or Serbian comics are the most popular.
Today comic books are considered high art and a new form of comic has also arisen. The graphic novel. Artists like Craig Thompson (Habibi, Blankets, Goodbye Chunky Rice) and Art Spiegelman (Maus) have taken comics to a whole new level. Graphic novels are proof that comics can be sophisticated and can tell more than just science fiction, hero, war or horror stories at a level that even some written novels can’t provide. They were not the first but they are among my favorites, especially Creig Thompson.