Thursday, March 1, 2007

Comic Books: The Four-Colored History

By Chris Buchner

With movies like Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3 and 300 coming out, there’s no doubt that the comic book has come a long way. Styles have changed, creators have come and gone with some leaving a permanent mark on the medium, movies are being optioned and produced at a rapid pace, and acceptance within respected communities is on the rise. It has been a long, hard road for the American comic book, and there’s still a ways to go. So, how did they get from being a disposable form of entertainment to sought after collector’s items to Hollywood’s latest bread and butter?


Comic books are the descendants of the comic strip and pulp magazines. Hogan’s Alley, with it’s popular character The Yellow Kid, was the very first American comic strip as well as the first to be printed in color in mass production. Created by Richard F. Outcault, the strip appeared regularly in Truth magazine from 1894-95. It gained immense popularity when it went over to Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895 as both a black and white cartoon and in color several months later for the Sunday edition. It was immensely popular and well-received by the public, increasing circulation of the paper and a demand for Yellow Kid merchandise.

In 1897, Outcault was coerced to move the strip over to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal American in 1897 as McFadden’s Flats. The strip ran in both publications, drawn for the World by George Luks, until they ended in 1898. The newspaper war between Pulitzer and Hearst was the direct cause of the creation of many strips to follow, and because of their predominantly humorous nature, earned them the “comic” label. Also, thanks to the sensationalist reporting their respective papers were guilty of as well as their personal war and publication of the Yellow Kid, the term “yellow press” (now yellow journalism) was founded.

Pulp magazines were so named because of the cheap wood pulp paper they were printed on. Frank Munsey’s revamped magazine, The Argosy, is attributed as the first pulp. Munsey also simultaneously switched from children’s stories to more action oriented tales. More pulps began to enter the market and soon began to have beautifully illustrated covers printed on higher quality paper. They became so important to the sale of a pulp that soon covers would be drawn first and authors asked to create stories to match. Eventually, they gained interior artwork as well to depict elements of the stories. After World War I, hundreds of pulps could be found at the nation’s newsstands.

In 1929, these two mediums were merged. Tarzan was transformed into a strip by artist Hal Foster and Dick Calkins took Philip Nowlan’s Buck Rogers from printed prose to full-drawn action. Comic strips were no longer merely funny. By the time the stock market crashed that October, readers were looking for something other than laughs; they welcomed the strong figures that seemed able to tame any situation in an unstable world. In the 1930s, crime comics began to join the shift with the strip forms of Dick Tracy, Secret Agent X-9, and The Phantom, who had a mask, secret identity and was the first character dressed in tights.

The comic book finally came to being in 1933. Comics were the most popular features in the papers, but the ideal packaging for the product had yet to be found. The Yellow Kid, like some others, was collected into a book as early as 1897, but were just collections of the strips rather than an actual comic book. Harry Wildbenberg and M.C. Gaines noticed how a comic page looked folded up a particular way. The comic book was officially born Wildbenberg bought the reprint rights to some strips, put them together as Funnies on Parade and sold the book to Procter & Gamble as a giveaway. Famous Funnies was the next giveaway later that year. Gaines took the next step and affixed a 10 cent price tag to some of the copies and tested them on newsstands. They sold, making it the first comic book to enjoy retail sales.


1938 saw the next evolution in comic books: the birth of the superhero. When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 that June, a whole new genre of comics, and the era known as the Golden Age, began. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was influenced by pulps and the legend of the Golem of Prague. He was an alien from the planet Krypton that landed on Earth as a baby and acquired superpowers through exposure to the yellow sun as he got older. With his human identity as mild-mannered Clark Kent, he secured a job at the Daily Planet, a major metropolitan newspaper for the fictional city of Metropolis, in order to be alerted of crimes in a timely fashion. This set the standard for the genre, and the mold by which every new hero would be created by.

After Superman’s popularity was evident, more heroes began to appear. DC, then known as National Allied Publications, also put out Batman, Wonder Woman, and created the first super team with the Justice Society of America. Marvel Comics, then known as Timely, came out with their own heroes in Captain America, the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Other companies produced their own heroes as well, the most popular being Fawcett Comic’s Captain Marvel (otherwise known as Shazam). Another milestone was introduced in the form of the teenaged side-kick, pairing up heroes with young charges to aid them in their battles. Although other genres of comics and reprinted collections of newspaper strips were still produced and sold the best, the superheroes began to dominate the market. Eventually, superheroes came to leap off the page and into serials, both live-action and animated.

When America entered the war in 1941, so too did comic books. More and more heroes were produced; some just appearing in only one issue of a given series and many just carbon copies of ones that came and went with the same designs but different coloring. Iconic images of the Justice Society and Captain America facing off against the Axis of evil began to grace the covers of books. Because they were a cheap form of entertainment, many people read and discarded their books. Many comics were also recycled during the scrap and paper drives for the war effort. Indeed, comics were heavily ingrained in the war effort. But, perhaps, a bit too heavily.

Once the war ended, superhero books began to lose all direction and luster with the reading public. Gritty crime and horror comics began to rise in popularity with EC Comics (publisher of MAD Magazine) at the forefront. Teen humor, funny animal and science fictions began to see an increase in popularity as well. The heroes with strong ties to the war succumbed first to the shift, with Captain America not even appearing in the last two issues of his series before it was cancelled. The Justice Society was removed from DC’s All-Star Comics and the title was changed to All-Star Western to coincide with the growing western and romance craze. Essentially, only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman endured in the superhero genre. However, moral crusaders began to target the gory and violent horror and crime comics, especially those put out by EC, citing the negative impact they have on children in society without any firm basis or proof.

In 1954, a major blow hit the comics industry. Dr. Frederic Wertham, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, cited comics as the leading cause of the corruption of American youth and leading to juvenile delinquency. He expressed concern with the sadistic and homosexual undertones he perceived in both horror and superhero comics. There were no facts to support his beliefs, but with the rumblings of the moral crusaders the public ate it up. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began to take an interest in comics based on these accusations. Parent groups held public comic book burnings, and some cities went so far as to ban them outright. Circulation was in a downward spiral.

With children being the main audience for their books, the industry was forced take steps and ensure it’s survival as well as prevent a growing concern in the possibility of government regulation. The result was the creation of the Comics Code Authority; an internal censorship body to make comics more acceptable for children to read.

The Code borrowed heavily from the code drafted by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948, which also borrowed from the Hollywood Product Code created in 1930. The only major difference was the Comics Code placed many more restrictions than it’s predecessor. Among the provisions was that no presentation of authority figures (judges, police, and government officials) that could create disrespect for authority, good shall always triumph over evil, no death of law enforcement through the acts of criminals, no instances of excessive violence, no excessively gruesome illustrations (which affected vampires, werewolves, ghouls and other supernatural entities) and no sexual perversions, abnormalities or illicit situations amongst many others.

Wertham dismissed the Code as being inadequate. EC Comics definitely felt the full force of the Code as the restrictions caused the cancellation of all its horror-related titles, which chiefly made up its lineup. Only MAD survived. Even though the CCA had no legal authority over other publishers, distributors often refused to carry comics without the seal of approval that adorned the covers once they were submitted to the Code. Some publishers managed to thrive under the code. Some publishers canceled titles and focused on Code-approved content. Others simply went out of business.


The success of the TV show The Adventures of Superman in the 1950s inspired publishers to give superheroes another shot. Showcase #4 from DC (still called National at this time) introduced a new version of the Flash. His popularity kicked off the era known as the Silver Age and new versions of other established heroes were created. However, the Silver Age didn’t reach full swing until 1961. Timely, renamed Atlas in the 50s and now called Marvel, introduced heroes the likes of which were never seen before.

With Fantastic Four #1, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced heroes with human failings. They had flaws, they had normal daily concerns, and they made mistakes. The naturalistic style and deeper themes enthralled audiences and became a hit. One of the more revolutionary moves was to create a teenaged hero in the form of Spider-Man with his throwaway debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, the series’ final issue in 1962. Until this time, teenaged heroes were relegated to the single role of sidekick. Spider-Man became the first hero since Captain Marvel to out-sell Superman, and was given his own series the following year. This period unofficially became known to many as the Marvel Age of comics.

At the time, DC (as it was officially known by this point), Marvel and Archie were the major publishers. Other major ones included American Comics Group, Charlton, Dell, Gold Key, Harvey and Tower. There was an emergence of what’s known as the underground commix movement between the late 60s and early 70s. These early independent publishers most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time, always without the approval of the Comics Code. By being distributed through unconventional channels, the underground books didn’t need the CCA for their success. Many consider the movement to have ended in the 1980s with the rise of independent non-Code compliant companies and the increasing acceptance of adult-oriented books.


The Bronze Age of comics is the informal name given to the shift comics experienced during the Silver Age from the 70s through the mid 80s. Superheroes still ruled the industry, but darker plot elements and more mature tones began to work their way into the books.

In 1971, the Comics Code received its first overhaul. Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a story about drug abuse. Lee agreed and promptly used his most relatable creation, Spider-Man, to do it. The story portrayed drug use as dangerous and negative, but the CCA refused to approve the story because of the content, despite the message. With the approval of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, Lee published the story sans the Code’s seal in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. The story was well-received, resulting in the revision of the Code to allow the depiction of drugs and addiction if presented in a bad light. This paved the way for a new trend of relevant comic books; stories that dealt with real life issues. Racial prejudice and social inequity began to be addressed within the books, and characters like the X-Men who were metaphors for the racism issue became popular.

At the same time, the Code allowed for vampires, ghouls and other assorted monsters when done in the tradition of Frankenstein, Dracula, or other creatures with a literary background that one would find on a school curriculum. Zombies, however, lacked such a background so to use them creative measures were often taken to disguise them just enough to be recognized but not banned.

Minority heroes were also on the rise. Black Panther and the Falcon from Marvel were the most notable exceptions to an otherwise white-dominated genre. The 70s saw the introduction of Luke Cage, a more diversified team of X-Men (who were only being published as reprints until this point) with the addition of Storm, Sunfire, and Thunderbird at Marvel, while over at DC they brought in characters like the Bronze Tiger, Black Lighting, John Stewart as Green Lantern and Cyborg. Unfortunately, many of these characters suffered from the prevalent stereotypes of the day, characters like Shang-Chi and Luke Cage designed to cash in on the Kung Fu and blaxpoitation movie craze that ruled the 70s. But, as time progressed so did their representation, importance and popularity.

There was also an increase in non-superhero comics, thanks to the revision of the Code. Books like Conan, Savage Sword of Conan, Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung-Fu, Star Wars, Howard the Duck, Swamp Thing, Jonah Hex, Doctor Strange and Beast all encompassed elements not allowed before, and as a result gained heavy popularity.

The end of the Bronze age could be defined by several events. One is the 1985-86 DC crossover event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was used to revitalize the company’s line by updating and making their characters’ histories more coherent. This coincided with the launch of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Fran Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which ushered in the darker and more “realistic” years of superhero comics and led to the growing popularity of the anti-hero, such as Spawn and Wolverine. Another marker was the Marvel crossover Secret Wars II, as well as the launch of the New Universe line which started the trend of particular lines appearing as individual universes from the company’s main canon.


Between the 70s and 90s, comic book prices rose sharply due to a nationwide paper shortage, increasing production values, and the low incentive of profit for stores to stock them. It was around this time the direct market, in which retailers could buy from the publishers directly, and specialty stores began to rise. The specialty stores allowed the encouragement of new waves of independently produced comics, both in the vein of the underground comics movement and the mainstream publishers. Companies like Valiant and Malibu rose up to challenge the big two, Marvel and DC. The biggest upstart would be Image Comics, a company devoted to creator-owned projects formed by artists who had disputes with Marvel.

Comic stories also began to grow more complex. The X-Men, since their re-launch with their all-new diverse line-up in Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975, had set the standards for team books that would follow. Other publishers would make their teams with obvious counterparts to the current X-Men line-up at the time in order to capture the chemistry that made them so popular. But, another element the X-Men brought to comics was the network of spin-off books that comprised the X-line. From Uncanny X-Men (Uncanny was added to the original series after the new team debuted) came X-Factor, X-Force, Excalibur, Wolverine and eventually an adjective-less X-Men title. Marvel and DC both took the cue and gave additional books to Spider-Man, Punisher, Superman and Batman respectively. This often led to frequent story crossovers between the titles, meaning a reader needed to buy an issue of each series in order to get the entire story. Superman, from 1991-2000, tried to help readers along by including an additional number on the covers of every series to correspond with which week of the year the issue was released.

From the late 80s through the early 90s, the darker stories such as The Dark Knight Returns, A Death in the Family (where Robin was brutally murdered by the Joker) and The Death of Superman, coupled with the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, brought new attention to comics. Particularly, by people who noticed the market’s potential to make money. News of how much Golden Age and milestone issues (major storylines or changes in long-established characters) were sold for had them salivating to get in on such an easy investment, and publishers were all too happy to pander to these speculators.

This led to the creation of the variant cover gimmick, which were multiple covers for the same issue. Typically, these covers would include things like holograms of various styles, foil-stamping with embossed figures, glow-in-the-dark materials or, simply enough, just a different cover image (a good example for variant covers is Spider-Man #1, which came with 13 different covers; all of which were the same cover with different coloring and several came polybagged). Another trend was the polybagging, in which comics would come sealed in a clear plastic bag, sometimes with a bonus item like a trading card. Collectors had to choose between reading these comics and preserving their values by leaving them alone. Many collectors would solve this internal debate by buying multiple copies of issues; one to read, others to collect. The belief was these comics would earn them a profit when sold sometime in the future.

With the collector market in full-swing, there was an increasing demand for pricing guides which were provided by magazines like Wizard. Not only did they cover price of comics already out, they would have entire sections devoted to predicting the next hot title, the next backissue that will jump in value one day, and the trends in the overall market. The trend that was failed to take into account, however, was that the value of older comics was derived from their overall rarity. During the Golden Age before there was a collector mentality, comics were casually read and discarded or thrown out for some other reasons (parents who disapproved of their children reading comics would often throw them out, particularly in the Baby Boom generation), or recycled during the scrap drives of WWII. Modern comics, in contrast, were in constant supply and the reality was the only money made from the sale of these books was between speculators themselves.

The market reached its saturation point and between 1993 and 1997, it collapsed. More than two-thirds of all comic specialty stores closed; being stuck with many copies of comics to feed the speculator market that were no longer selling. Numerous publishers felt the sting in the drop of sales and were forced to close. Defiant, Triumphant and Malibu were amongst the companies that folded by 1997. Marvel had major failures with both their Marvel UK and 2099 comic lines, as well as over-extended themselves with hundreds of titles, and tried to cut costs by self-distributing their comics rather than going through a company. These, amongst many other factors, forced the company to file for bankruptcy in 1997 and resulted in the cancellation of numerous titles deemed “unprofitable” in order to continue publishing. Many place the blame for the bust on the shoulders of DC, who brought in the speculators with the supposed final fates of Superman and Batman, and Image, who pandered to the speculators more than any other publisher. This period was also marred by what many long-time fans consider to be the lowest point of quality for both writing and art. This contributed greatly to many established readers leaving the market and further added to the decline of sales.

But, the industry fought back. Many lines were retooled through the elimination of many of the inter-connected titles. In 1998, Marvel released (although without its name attached) it’s first movie since 1991’s direct-to-video flop Captain America, Blade. Blade featured a return to the grim and gritty styling that made Batman such a success, but that was lost when Batman & Robin became a parody of itself. As a result of it’s success, Blade restored Hollywood’s faith enough in comic movies to give X-Men received it’s first movie in 2000. With it’s success, the superhero film genre was fully revived. New attention was brought to comics, aiding in the recovery of the industry. With each successful film adaptation of a property, both superhero and non-superhero, comics were put back into the public’s consciousness. While comics are back on stable ground, the sales have never reclaimed the levels reached in the past.

New trends began to dominate the market. Coupled with the success of the movies was the added star power of the names of creators, granted to them over their years of work. They developed fan followings that led to all their work being followed closely, rather than fans following a specific character. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Gant Morrison and Frank Miller are just a few of the names well-known throughout fandom.

Hollywood directors and producers started to become involved with comics. Filmmaker Kevin Smith re-launched Daredevil for Marvel and wrote Green Arrow for DC, making them both successes. J. Michael Straczynski, who worked on a variety of TV projects, jumped on to Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. President of BET Reginald Hudlin is the current (as of this writing) writer of Marvel’s Black Panther. Even director Richard Donner, who directed Superman: The Movie, had become a writer on DC’s Action Comics. Although the stories have yet to premier, X-Men director Bryan Singer was tapped to write an arc of Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men.

Authors also began finding their way into comics. Orson Scott Card wrote a mini-series for Marvel’s Ultimate Iron Man in 2005. New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer has written several books for DC. Even Stephen King had entered the world of comics with his Dark Tower series for Marvel.

Another growing trend is the trade paperback and their popularity. Comics have always been sporadically collected in trades, usually issues centered on a specific story. Marvel led the way with a new generation of trades by beginning to collect all of it’s comics in them. As a result, many writers now write their story arcs with the notion of their eventually collection in the format, limiting stories to 6 parts rather than the continued subplots of yesteryear. This movie has caused some debate between fans over the quality of stories now. DC joined in on the trade craze with their line of Showcase Presents collections.

Aside from more trades, Marvel has been leading the charge for new readers in other ways. Feeling high numbers of old series would intimidate them, they reset many series numbers back to 1 in a new volume. They’ve also introduced all-ages books that younger readers could pick up without sacrificing any of the quality that adults would enjoy. The move into the 21st Century was done by allowing downloadable versions of comics on their website, and by releasing collections of back issues on CD-Rom. Also, new lines and imprints have been introduced, expanding the content of the comics to something beyond the standard superhero fare. DC has begun taking some of the same steps, most particularly in the expansion of their imprint lines that have been currently running.

Aside from the mainstream, the independent market has also begun to flourish again. New publishers are popping up all the time and many creators try their hand at self-publishing. Collective groups and organizations not only put out their own publications but aid rookies in the field into getting their ventures off the ground. There’s something for everyone in the American comic market, from superheroes to horror to literature. All of this combined offers stuff competition for the growing Japanese Manga market. However, another saturation crisis is looming in the potential future with the explosive return of variant covers, which is where smaller publishers make up most of their money.

And what of the Comics Code that proved a boon to the industry and a bane to creativity? Since it’s initial revision the Code had undergone several more in order to maintain relevance within society’s ever-changing views. However, with the smaller publishers bypassing Code approval thanks to the specialty shops and the decrease in the newsstand market, the Code began to lose importance and as such its stamp of approval had less prominence on the covers of books. It wouldn’t be long until the bigger companies began to experiment with adult-themed books without the Code’s seal. Finally, in 2001, Marvel opted out of the CCA in favor of its own in-house ratings system. Currently, only DC and Archie Comics are the only major publishers that still submit to the CCA, but some DC Universe titles are sometimes published without approval.

Comics have come a long way from their humble origins, beginning as two individual mediums that came together as one. They went from highly restricted and simple story-telling to deep explorations in characterization and plot. They’ve had their highs and lows, and constantly evolve with the changing times to remain relevant with a new generation of readers. Comics are also finally beginning to find acceptance as a legitimate art form; the stories and art catching the right kind of notice, like their inclusion in school educational programs. With a wide array of subjects and genres, there’s something for everyone in comic books. The question is, where can they possibly go from here? That adventure has only just begun.


Quillhill said...

A superb article, Chris.

Anonymous said...

Kudos, concise, highly entertaining and informative....all in all a great read!