American comic book

From Academic Kids

U.S. arts
Visual arts

American comic books are typically small magazines containing fictional stories in the artistic medium of comics.

Throughout their history, a huge number of comic books have been produced in the United States. It is difficult to say much in general about them, because of their huge range in quality, subject matter and audience through the past. However, a number of historical changes have influenced American comic books in general at different times.


The Platinum Age

The first comic book published in the United States is thought to be The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, a pirated translation of Rodolphe T?er's "Histoire de M. Vieux Bois".

The Golden Age

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Cover of Superman #14, dated January-February 1942

Comic books developed from earlier comic strips that had begun appearing in newspapers in the late 19th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, early comic books began to appear in the form of pulp magazines collecting previously-published comic strips. Since comic strips at this time were primarily humorous in nature, the name "comic book" was adapted from "comic strip". This has caused some confusion over time, since "comic book" grew to refer to the medium, not to the type of content being published.

Some credit Max Gaines with publishing the first American comic book, in the format we know today, with Funnies on Parade in 1933. He printed an 8-page comic section that folded down from the large broadsheet to a smaller 9-inch by 12-inch format containing reprints of comic strips. Others have contended that comic books had begun appearing in the previous decade. The Belgian comic book "Tintin au Congo" had already been published in 1931.

In February 1935, National Periodical Publications published New Fun Comics, which contained original characters and stories. The company followed this up with Detective Comics. Both series were heavily influenced by pulp magazines, and the content was heavy on adventure and detective fiction.

The most significant event in comic book history occurred in 1938 with the publication by National Periodical Publications of Action Comics #1, which introduced Superman, the first superhero. Influenced by the pulps, the Golem of Prague, and Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator, Superman fought crime wearing a bright costume, had superhuman abilities, and lived by day in his secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter. The impact of Superman on comic books cannot be overstated, as within two years most comic book companies were publishing large lines of superhero titles, and Superman has gone on to become one of the most recognizable characters in western fiction.

The period from 1930 through about 1951 is known as the Golden Age of comic books. It was characterized by extremely large print runs (comic books were very popular as cheap entertainment during World War II), erratic quality of stories, art and print quality, and an industry which provided jobs to a cross-section of Americans, albeit often at low wages and in sweatshop working conditions. However, since comic books were primarily aimed at children, many adults remember the era fondly and uncritically, a hallmark of a golden age.

Following the war, new genres appeared. For example, teen humor (epitomized by Archie Comics), funny animal comics (such as those published featuring Walt Disney's characters), science fiction, Wild West, romance, and humor comics all found comfortable niches, but the superhero remained king.


In the late 1940s and early 1950s politicians and moral crusaders blamed comic books as a cause of crime, juvenile delinquency, moral degradation, drug use, and poor grades. The psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, obsessed with sadistic and homosexual undertones in superhero comics, raised anxieties about comics (although the impact of Wertham's book is often overstated). This moral panic led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest in comic books. As a result of these concerns, schools and parent groups held public comic book burnings, and some cities banned comic books. Industry circulation declined sharply. Superheroes, in particular, were all but wiped out as a genre by 1952.

In the wake of these events, the horror comic and true crime comic genres flourished, due in no small part to the development of better-quality artwork and literate sensibilities. EC Comics gained fame as a publisher of crime and horror comics, producing a number of high-quality suspense stories (many containing violence and gore).

EC's popularity was resented by many other publishers, most notably National and Archie, two of the largest players. In 1954, they and other publishers founded the Comics Code Authority and drafted the Comics Code, intended (in their own words) as "the most stringent code in existence for any communications media." In fact, the Code was carefully crafted to exclude the sorts of comics that EC published and to drive the upstart competitor out of business. The gambit worked, as EC dropped its comic book line to focus on producing Mad Magazine.

The Silver Age

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Cover of The Avengers #4, dated 1964

In the late 1950s, publishers experimented with the superhero once more. Showcase #4 (National, 1956) introduced the rebooted hero The Flash, which began a second wave of superhero popularity, known as the Silver Age of comic books. National expanded their line of superhero titles over the next six years.

In 1961 writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics, to popular acclaim. Marvel offered superhero characters, but with human failings, fears, and inner demons. Dynamic artwork by Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others complemented Lee's colorful, catchy prose. Their new style found an audience among children (who loved the superheroes) and college students (who were entertained by the deeper themes). Marvel was initially restricted in the number of titles they could produce in that their books were distributed by National, a situation not alleviated until the late 1960s.

National (colloquially called DC Comics by this time), Marvel, and Archie were the major players in the 1960s, though other, smaller companies sprang up. Few are remembered today.

Underground comics

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published independently of the established comic book publishers and most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, irreverent style, which hadn't been seen in comics before. The movement is often considered to have been started by R. Crumb's publication of Zap Comix #1 in 1968. Crumb created Fritz the Cat and published The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

The Modern Age

Developments in mainstream comics

The development of a non-returnable "direct" distribution system in the 1970s coincided with the appearance of comic book specialty stores across North America. These specialty stores were a haven for more distinct voices and stories, but they also marginalized comics in the public eye. Serialized comic stories became longer and more complex, requiring readers to buy more issues to finish a story. Between 1970 and 1990, comic book prices rose sharply because of a combination of factors: a nationwide paper shortage, increasing production values, and the minimal profit incentive for stores to stock comic books (due to the small unit price of an individual comic book relative to a magazine). These factors are often pointed to when considering the decline in comic book popularity in America.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, two comic book series published by DC Comics (The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) had a profound impact upon the American comic book industry. The phenomenal popularity of these series led both of the major publishers (DC and Marvel) to change the content of their titles to a more realistic, "darker" tone, often derisively termed "grim-and-gritty". This change was underscored by the growing popularity of anti-heroes such as the Punisher, Wolverine, and Spawn, as well as the darker tone of some independent publishers such as First Comics and Dark Horse Comics. For a period of several years the pages of mainstream comics were filled with brooding mutants and "dark avengers". This tendency towards darkness and nihilism was also manifested in DC's production of heavily promoted comic book stories such as "A Death in the Family" in the Batman series (in which Batman's sidekick Robin was brutally murdered by The Joker), while at Marvel, the continuing popularity of the various X-Men books led to storylines such as "Mutant Massacre" and "Acts of Vengeance."

Though a speculator boom in the early 1990s temporarily increased specialty store sales—collectors "invested" in multiple copies of a single comic to sell at a profit later—these booms ended in a collectibles glut, and comic sales declined sharply in the mid-1990s, leading to the demise of many hundreds of stores. (See comic book collecting for a more detailed look at the speculator boom.) Today fewer comics sell in North America than at any time in their publishing history. Though the large superhero-oriented publishers like Marvel and DC are still often referred to as the "mainstream" of comics, they are no longer a mass medium in the same sense as in previous decades.

Prestige format

Prestige format comic books are typically longer than standard comic books, typically being of between 48 and 72 pages, and printed on glossy paper with a spine and card stock cover. The format was first used by DC on Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The success of this work led to the establishment of the format, and it is now used generally to showcase works by big name creators or to spotlight significant storylines.

These storylines can be serialised over a limited number of issues, or can be standalone. Standalone works published in the form, such as Batman: The Killing Joke, are sometimes referred to either as graphic novels or novellas.

Independent and alternative comics

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Art Spiegelman's Maus

Comic specialty stores did help encourage several waves of independent-produced comics, beginning in the late 1970s. The first of these was generally referred to as "independent" or "alternative comics"; some of these continued somewhat in the tradition of underground comics, while others resembled the output of mainstream publishers in format and genre but were published by smaller artist-owned ventures or by a single artist, and a few (notably RAW) were experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the world of fine art.

The "small press" scene continued to grow and diversify, with a number of small publishers in the 1990s changing the format and distribution of their books to more closely resemble non-comics publishing. The "minicomics" form, an extremely informal version of self-publishing, arose in the 1980s and became increasingly popular among artists in the 1990s, despite reaching an even more limited audience than the small press. "Art comics" has sometimes been used as a general term for alternative, small-press, or minicomic artists working outside of mainstream traditions. Publishers and artists working in all of these forms stated a desire to refine comics further as an art form.

Wider recognition of comics

Some comic books have gained recognition and earned their creators awards from outside the genre, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (an issue of which won the World Fantasy Award for "Best Short Story"). Though not a comic book itself, Michael Chabon's comic-book themed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Popular interest in superheroes increased with the success of feature films such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). To capitalize on this interest, comics publishers launched concerted promotional efforts such as Free Comic Book Day (first held on May 5, 2002). In addition, the filmed adaptation of non-superhero comic books like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and American Splendor raised hopes that the medium's image can be changed for the better.

Decline of serial comic book format

In the early 2000s, sales of monthly comic books (22-to-30 page issues) has continued to decline, while there has been a steady increase in sales of graphic novels at retail bookstores. Besides the shift toward graphic novels among comics publishers, traditional book publishers such as Pantheon have released several dozen graphic novels in the last decade, including many works that were originally released by comics publishers with much less publicity.

Comic book industry insiders have publicly opined that the era of monthly comic books may be coming to an end, with the industry being subsumed and dominated by the publication of graphic novels. Many publishers have begun planning for their stories to run for a page length appropriate for binding into a graphic novel.

Historically significant American comic books


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