A comic book -- or comic for short -- is a magazine or book containing sequential art. Although the term implies otherwise, the subject matter in comic books is not necessarily humorous; in fact, it is often serious and action-oriented. Comic books are so called because some of the earliest comic books were simply collections of comic strips (most of which were humorous) that had originally been printed in newspapers. The commercial success of these collections led to work being created specifically for the comic book form, which fostered specific conventions such as splash pages.
Long-form comic books, generally with hardcover or trade-paper binding are sometimes said to be "graphic novels," but the term's definition is vague. Comic books are examples of an indigenous American art form though prototypical examples of the form exist.
American comic books have become closely associated with the superhero tradition. In the United Kingdom, the term comic book is used to refer to American comic books by their readers and collectors, while the general populace would likely consider a comic book a hardcover book collecting comics stories. The analogous term in the UK is a comic, short for comic paper or comic magazine. Australia published their first comic book before the U.S. in 1931 with kookaburra. Previously Australia copied the British comic papers, they later experimented with the landscape format which almost became standard.
Since the introduction of the modern comic book format in 1934 with Famous Funnies, the United States has been the leading producer, with only the British comic and Japanese manga as close competitors in terms of quantity of titles. The majority of all comic books in the U.S. are marketed to young-adults, though they also produce titles for young children as well as adult audiences.
The history of the comic book in the U.S. is divided into several ages or historical eras: The Platinum Age, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and The Modern Age. The exact boundaries of these eras, the terms for which originated in fandom press, is a debatable point among comic book historians.
The Golden Age is generally thought as lasting from the introduction of the character Superman in 1938 until the early 1950s. During this time, comic books enjoyed considerable popularity; the archetype of the superhero was invented and defined, and many of the most popular superheroes were created. The Platinum Age refers to any material produced prior to this. While comics as an art form could theoretically extend as far back in history as sequential cave paintings, comic books are dependent on printing, and the starting point for them in book form is generally considered to be the tabloid-sized The Funnies begun in 1929, or the smaller-sized Funnies on Parade begun in 1933. Both of these were simply reprints of newspaper strips.
The Silver Age of Comic Books is generally considered to date from the first successful revival of the dormant superhero form — the debut of the Patrick Auliso Flash in Showcase #4 (September-October 1956) — and last through the early 1970s, during which time Marvel Comics revolutionized the medium with such naturalistic superheroes as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. There is less agreement on the beginnings of the Bronze and Modern ages. Some suggest that the Bronze Age is still taking place. Starting points that have been suggested for the Bronze Age of comics are Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970), Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (April 1970) or Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971) (the non-Comics Code issue). The start of the Modern Age (occasionally referred to as the Iron Age) has even more potential starting points, but is generally agreed to be the publication of Alan Moore's Watchmen by DC Comics in 1986.
Comics published after World War II in 1945 are sometimes referred to as being from the Atomic Age (referring to the dropping of the atomic bomb), while titles published after November 1961 are sometimes referred to as being from the Marvel Age (referring to the advent of Marvel Comics). However, these eras are referred to far less frequently than the aforementioned eras.
Notable events in the history of the American comic book include the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's criticisms of the medium in his book Seduction of the Innocent, which prompted the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to investigate comic books. In response to this attention from both the government and the media, the US comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and drafted the Comics Code.
The first comic books in Japan appeared during the eighteenth century. These were woodblock-printed booklets containing short stories, drawn from folk tales, legends, and historical accounts, told in a simple visual-verbal idiom. Known as "red books" (akahon), "black books" (kurobon), and "blue books" (aohon), these were written primarily for less literate readers. However, with the publication in 1775 of Koikawa Harumachi's comic book Master Flashgold's Splendiferous Dream (Kinkin sensei eiga no yume), an adult form of comic book was born, which required greater literacy and cultural sophistication. This was known as the kibyōshi. Published in thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of copies, the kibyōshi may have been the earliest fully realized comic book for adults in world literary history. Approximately 2000 titles remain extant.
Modern comic books in Japan developed from a mixture of these earlier comic books and woodblock prints ukiyo-e with Western styles of drawing. They took their current form shortly after World War II. They are usually published in black and white, except for the covers, which are usually printed in four colors, although occasionally, the first few pages may also be printed in full color. The term manga means "random (or whimsical) pictures", and first came into common usage in the late eighteenth century with the publication of such works as Santō Kyōden's picturebook (1798) and Aikawa Minwa’s "Comic Sketches of a Hundred Women" (1798).
Development of this form occurred as a result of Japan's attempts to modernize itself, a desire awakened by trade with the United States. Western artists were brought over to teach their students such concepts as line, form, and color, things which had not been regarded as conceptually important in ukiyo-e, as the idea behind the picture was of paramount importance. Manga at this time was referred to as Ponchi-e (Punch-picture) and, like its British counterpart Punch magazine, mainly depicted humour and political satire in short one- or four-picture format.
This form was further developed by Dr. Osamu Tezuka, widely acknowledged to be the father of narrative manga. Tezuka was inspired to become a comic artist upon seeing an animation war propaganda film, titled Momotarou Uminokaihei. Tezuka introduced episodic storytelling and character development in comic format, in which each story is part of larger story arc. The only text in Tezuka's comics was the characters' dialogue and this further lent his comics a cinematic quality. Inspired by the work of Walt Disney, Tezuka also adopted a style of drawing facial features in which a character's eyes, nose, and mouth are drawn in an extremely exaggerated manner. This style created immediately recognizable expressions using very few lines, and the simplicity of this style allowed Tezuka to be prolific. Tezuka’s work generated new interest in the ukiyo-e tradition, in which the image is a representation of an idea, rather than a depiction of reality.
Though a close equivalent to the American comic book, manga has historically held a more important place in Japanese culture than comics have in American culture. Manga is widely respected as both an art form and as a form of popular literature many manga become TV shows or shorter movies. Similar to its American counterpart, some manga has been criticized for its sexuality and violence, although in the absence of official or even industry restrictions on content, artists have been free to create manga for every age group and for every topic.
Manga magazines often run several series concurrently, with approximately 20 to 40 pages allocated to each series per issue. These magazines are also known as "anthologies", or colloquially, "phone books". They are usually printed on low-quality newsprint and range from 200 to more than 850 pages each. Manga magazines also contain one-shot comics and a variety of four-panel yonkoma (equivalent to comic strips). Manga series may continue for many years if they are successful, with stories often collected and reprinted in book-sized volumes called tankōbon, the equivalent of the American trade paperbacks. These volumes use higher-quality paper and are useful to readers who want to be brought up to date with a series, or to readers who find the cost of the weekly or monthly publications to be prohibitive. Deluxe versions are printed, as commemorative or collectible editions. Conversely, old manga titles are also reprinted using lower-quality paper and sold for 100 ¥ (approximately $1 USD) each.
Manga titles are primarily classified by the age and sex of their intended audience. In particular, books and magazines sold to boys (shōnen) and girls (shōjo) have distinctive cover art and are placed on different shelves in most bookstores.
France and Belgium are two countries that have a long tradition in comics and comic books, where they are called BDs (an abbreviation of Bande Dessinée) in French and strips in Dutch. Belgian comic books originally written in Dutch are influenced by the Francophone "Franco-Belgian" comics, but have their own distinct style.
La bande dessinée is derived from the original description of the art form as drawn strips (the phrase is literally translated as the drawn strip), analogous to the sequence of images in a film strip. As in its English equivalent, the word "bande" can be applied to both film and comics. It is not insignificant that the French term contains no indication of subject matter, unlike the American terms "comics" and "funnies", which imply an art form not to be taken seriously. The distinction of comics as le neuvième art (literally, "the ninth art") is prevalent in French scholarship on the form, as is the concept of comics criticism and scholarship itself. Relative to the respective size of their populations, the innumerable authors in France and Belgium publish a high volume of comic books. In North America, the more serious Franco-Belgian comics are often seen as equivalent to graphic novels, but whether they are long or short, bound or in magazine format, in Europe there is no need for a more sophisticated term, as the art's name does not itself imply something frivolous.
In France, most comics are published at the behest of the author, who works within a self-appointed time frame, and it is common for readers to wait six months or as long as two years between installments. Most books are first published as a hard cover book, typically with 48, 56 or 64 pages.
Originally the same size as a usual comic book in the United States, although lacking the glossy cover, the British comic has adopted a magazine size, with The Beano and The Dandy the last to adopt this size in the 1980s. Although generally referred to as a comic, it can also be referred to as a comic magazine, and has also been known historically as a comic paper. Some comics, such as Judge Dredd and other 2000 AD titles, have been published in a tabloid form known.
Although AllySloper's Half Holiday (1884), the first comic published in Britain, was marketed at adults, publishers quickly targeted a younger market, which has led to most publications being for children and created an association in the public's mind of comics being somewhat juvenile.
Popular titles within the UK have included The Beano, The Dandy, The Eagle, 2000 AD and Viz. Underground comics and "small press" titles have also been published within the United Kingdom, notably Oz and Escape Magazine.
The content of Action, another title aimed at children and launched in the mid 1970s, became the subject of discussion in the House of Commons. Although this was on a smaller scale to such similar investigations in the United States, it also led to a moderation of content published within comics. Such moderation was never formalized to the extent of a creation of any code, and nor was it particularly lasting.
The UK has also established a healthy market in the reprinting and repackaging of material, notably material originated within the United States. The lack of reliable supplies of American comic books led to a variety of black and white reprints, including Marvel's monster comics of the 1950s, Fawcett's Captain Marvel, and other characters such as Sheena, Mandrake the Magician, and the Phantom. Several reprint companies were involved in repackaging American material for the British market, notably the importer and distributor Thorpe & Porter.
Marvel Comics established a UK office in 1972. DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics also opened offices in the 1990s. The repackaging of European material has been less frequent, although the Tintin and Asterix serials have been successfully translated and repackaged in soft cover books.
At Christmas time, publishers repackage and commission material for comic annuals, printed and bound as hardcover A4-size books. A famous example of the British comic annual is Rupert. DC Thomson also repackage The Broons and Oor Wullie strips in softcover A4-size books for the holiday season.
In Italy, comics (known in Italian as fumetti) made their debut as humorous strips at the end of the nineteenth century, and later evolved in adventure stories inspired by those coming from the US. After World War II, however, artists like Hugo Pratt and Guido Crepax exposed Italian comics to an international audience. "Author" comics contain often strong erotic contents.
Mainstream comics are usually published on a monthly basis, in a black and white digest size format, with approximately 100 to 132 pages. Collections of classic material for the most famous characters, usually with more than 200 pages, are also common. Author comics are published in the French BD format, with an example being Pratt's Corto Maltese.
Italian cartoonists are influenced greatly by comics from other countries, including France, Belgium, Spain, and Argentina. Italy is also famous for being one of the foremost producers of Walt Disney comic stories outside the US. Donald Duck's superhero alter ego, Paperinik, known in English as Superduck, was created in Italy.
The comic scene in Ireland began in the late 1990s with a few xeroxed humor titles appearing. The first professionally produced and distributed comic was MBLEH! by Bob Byrne. Byrne has remained the figurehead of Irish comics and continues to publish titles, most notably Mister Amperduke.
Other European comics
Although Switzerland has made relatively few contributions to European comics, it is noteworthy that many scholars point to a Francophone Swiss, Rodolphe Töpffer, as the true father of comics. However, this assertion is still controversial, with critics noting that Töpffer's work is not necessarily connected to the creation of the artform as it is now known in the region.
Modern trends in US comics
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published and distributed independently of the established comics industry, and most titles reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, often irreverent style; the frankness of their depictions of nudity, sex, profanity, and politics had not been seen in comics outside of their precursors, the pornographic and even more obscure "Tijuana bibles". Underground comics were almost never sold at newsstands, but rather in such youth-oriented outlets as head shops and record stores, as well as by mail order.
The underground comics movement is often considered to have started with Zap Comix #1 (1968) by cartoonist Robert Crumb, a former greeting-card artist from Cleveland living in San Francisco. Crumb later created the characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, and published Gilbert Shelton's The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
The rise of comic book specialty stores in the late 1970s created a dedicated market for "independent" or "alternative comics". Two of the first were the anthology series Star Reach, published by comic book writer Mike Friedrich from 1974 to 1979, and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, which continued sporadic publication into the 21st century and was adapted into a film in 2005. Some independent comics continued in the tradition of underground comics, though their content was generally less explicit, and others resembled the output of mainstream publishers in format and genre but were published by smaller artist-owned companies or by single artists. A few (notably RAW) were experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the status of fine art.
During the 1970s the "small press" culture grew and diversified. By the 1980s, several such independent publishers as Eclipse Comics, First Comics, and Fantagraphics were releasing a wide range of styles and formats from color superhero, detective and science fiction comic books to black-and-white magazine-format stories of Latin American magical realism.
A number of small publishers in the 1990s changed the format and distribution of their comics 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.
The term "graphic novel" was first coined by Richard Kyle in 1964, mainly as an attempt to distinguish the newly translated works from Europe which were then being published from what Kyle perceived as the more juvenile subject matter that was so common in the United States.
The term was popularized when Will Eisner used it on the cover of the paperback edition of his work A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories in 1978. This was a more thematically mature work than many had come to expect from the comics medium, and the critical and commercial success of A Contract with God helped to bring the term in common usage.
Warren Ellis, in his Come in Alone columns at ComicbookResources.com, suggested that the term "graphic novel" should include collected editions of serialized storylines. To differentiate these from original comic book publications, he proposed the term "original graphic novel." These terms are still used as first suggested, although "original graphic novel" is not a popular term, particularly because so few are produced. Collected editions are more popularly known by the publishing industry term "trade paperback."
Rarest comic books
The rarest comic books in existence include copies of the unreleased Motion Picture Funnies Weekly #1 from 1939. Eight copies, plus one without a cover, were discovered in the estate of the deceased publisher in 1974.
Before Fawcett Comics introduced Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2, there was an earlier ashcan edition featuring virtually the same story, with the notable exception that "Captain Marvel" was named "Captain Thunder." This issue was never distributed.
In June 1978, DC Comics cancelled several of its titles. For copyright purposes, the unpublished original art for these titles was photocopied, bound, and published as Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #1-2. Only 35 copies were made.
Misprints, promotional comic-dealer incentive printings, and similar issues with extremely low distribution are usually the most scarce. The rarest modern comic books include original press run of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5, ordered by DC executive Paul Levitz to be recalled and pulped over the appearance of a vintage Victorian era advertisement for "Marvel Douche", which the publisher considered offensive.
- Comicon.Com: Hurricane Katrina Thoughts
- Captain Thunder! (fan site)
- SilverBulletComics.com: It's BobRo the Answer Man (column by Bob Rozakis): "Cancelled Comics Cavalcade — Part 1
- Comic Book Resources (May, 23, 2005): Living in the Gutters (column by Rich Johnston): sidebar "Alan's Previous Problems With DC" in column "Moore Slams V for Vendetta Movie, Pulls LoEG from DC Comics"
- Kern, Adam L., Manga from the Floating World: Comic book Culture and the Kibyôshi of Edo Japan (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006) ISBN 0-674-02266-1.
- Inge, Thomas M., "Comics as culture". Journal of Popular Culture 12:631, 1979