COMIC BOOKS (Social Science)

Comics have a long history, especially in Europe, Japan, and the United States. The Arab states, China, India, Mexico, and South America also contribute to this history. U.S. comic books have played an important role in the entertainment industry, attracting varying degrees of academic attention since regular publication began in the late 1920s. The earliest U.S. comic book was Rodolphe Toppfer’s The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, published in September 1842. In 1896 Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid became the first syndicated newspaper comic strip published in color. Dates for early comics vary depending on new discoveries and evolving definitions; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is considered a classic in defining comics.

Early U.S. comic books were compilations of Sunday newspaper comics. The importance of twentieth-century comics has been partially mapped out in Ian Gordon’s Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890—1945 (1998) and Thomas Inge’s Comics as Culture (1990); both analyze how comics sold newspapers, generated a vast array of merchandising, and influenced U.S. culture and language.

In 1938 Superman appeared in Action Comics number 1. The growth of comic book publishing expanded until the 1950s. The height of the comics industry occurred from 1950 to 1954. Americans spent close to $1 billion on comics and there were comics readers in more than 40 percent of U.S. households. A variety of genres existed, comprising over 600 titles. During the 1950s public opinion turned against comic books, due in part to Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954).


The protests, spurred in part by Wertham’s book, general public outcry, and a congressional hearing, resulted in the industry’s self-censoring comics code, a sanitizing of comics, and a major drop in sales. Among the long list of dos and don’ts, the code regulated acceptable versus unacceptable titles (e.g., titles could not contain the words "horror," "fear," or "terror"), established a modest dress code for female characters, ensured that good would always win over evil (criminals were always caught), and reduced violent scenes (e.g., blood, decapitation, and torture were not allowed). The code also regulated language use, not allowing swear words or language alluding to sexual situations.

The 1960s saw two important developments. First, in mainstream comics, Marvel Comics slowly became DC Comics’s major competitor by creating a new line of superheroes marketed to an emerging and economically important youth culture. These new superheroes were young, and some were teenagers themselves. Most of them acquired their powers through some type of accident or experiment related to radiation, and the story lines centered around the superhero’s personal problems and struggles to understand and use the newfound powers. These new comics also made reference to current social issues such as drug use, the counterculture, the different social movements, and racism. The heroes of these comics included Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. The Black Panther and Luke Cage, the first African American superheroes, were an important addition, even though their earliest appearances followed a trend toward "blaxploitation" as opposed to a serious look at race issues. In the 1970s superheroes became more socially relevant and serious.

The second important development during the 1960s was the birth of underground "comix," which reflected counterculture sensibilities and rebelled against the comics code and social taboos. Important cartoonists from this period include Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Richard "Grass[hopper]" Green, Michele Brand, and Roberta Gregory. The undergrounds were especially important in terms of their influence on a future generation of comics creators and the types of innovative comics that emerged during the late 1980s and continued through the first half-decade of the 2000s.

The term graphic novel became popular beginning in the late 1970s. Initially, the term was used to distinguish artistic or novelistic comics from mainstream, superhero comics. Some early examples include Contract with God by Will Eisner, First Kingdom by Jack Katz, and Sabre by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. Later, the term was used exclusively as a marketing tool and applied to hardback or paperback "drawn novels," collected superhero story-arcs, longer book-length comics, and anthologized comic strips (for example, The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes).

Importation of European and Japanese comics (manga) saw a marked increase in the 1980s (and the importance of manga in the U.S. market continued through 2006). Finally, the 1989 film release of Tim Burton’s Batman spawned other comics-related films and video and computer games. These trends grew exponentially during the first half-decade into the 2000s. Superhero stories accounted for most of the films’ adaptations, but there were also adaptations of novelistic and slice-of-life comics (e.g., American Splendor, Ghost World, and Road to Perdition).

Academic attention to comics increased substantially in the 1990s and continued through the first half-decade of the 2000s. Scholarly analysis focuses on comics history, fandom, the inner workings of the comics publishing and distribution industry, defining comics by applying formalist or structuralist theories, applying literary theory or semiotics for interpretation and analysis, and analyzing comics’ cultural impact.

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