American comic book

American comics
Earliest publications c. 1842
Languages English

An American comic book is a thin (typically 32-page) periodical containing primarily comics content.

While the form originated in 1933, American comic books first gained popularity after the 1938 publication of Action Comics, which included the debut of the superhero Superman. This was followed by a superhero boom that lasted until the end of World War II. After the war, while superheroes were marginalized, the comic book industry rapidly expanded, and genres such as horror, crime, and romance became popular. The 1950s saw a gradual decline, due to a shift away from print media in the wake of television[1] and the impact of the Comics Code Authority.[1] The late 1950s and the 1960s saw a superhero revival, and superheroes remain the dominant character archetype in the 21st century.

Since the later 20th century, comic books have gained note as collectable items. Comic shops cater to fans, and particularly valuable issues have fetched in excess of a million dollars. Systems of grading comic books have emerged with plastic sleeves ("bags") and cardboard backing ("boards") available to maintain the condition of comic books.


Standard comics are 6.625 inches (16.83 cm) × 10.25 inches (26.0 cm) and about 32 pages long.

Making comics

While comics can be the work of a single creator, the labour of making them is frequently divided between a number of specialists. There may be a separate writer and artist, or there may be separate artists for the characters and backgrounds.[2]

Particularly in superhero comic books,[3] the art may be divided between:

The process begins with the creator coming up with an idea or concept, then working it into a plot and story, and finalizing the preliminary writing with a script. After the art production, letters are placed on the page and an editor may have the final say before the comic is sent to the printer.[8]

The creative team, the writers and artists, may work with a comic book publisher for help with marketing, advertising, and other logistics. A distributor like Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest in the U.S., helps to distribute the finished product to retailers.

Another part of the process involved in successful comics is the interaction between the readers/fans and the creator(s). Fan art and letters to the editor were commonly printed in the back of the book until the early 21st century, when various Internet forms started to replace them.

Independent and alternative comics

Main article: Alternative comics

Comic specialty stores did help encourage several waves of independently-produced comics, beginning in the mid-1970s. Some of the early example of these - generally referred to as "independent" or "alternative" comics - such as Big Apple Comix, continued somewhat in the tradition of underground comics, while others, such as Star Reach, resembled the output of mainstream publishers in format and genre but were published by smaller artist-owned ventures or by a single artist.

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 presses.


The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats (1897)

Proto-comic books and the Platinum Age

The development of the modern American comic book happened in stages. Publishers had collected comic strips in hardcover book form as early as 1842, with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, a collection of English-language newspaper inserts originally published in Europe as the 1833 book Histoire de M. Vieux Bois.[9]

The G. W. Dillingham Company published the first known proto-comic-book magazine in the U.S., The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, in 1897. A hardcover book, it reprinted material — primarily the October 18, 1896 to January 10, 1897 sequence titled "McFadden's Row of Flats" — from cartoonist Richard F. Outcault's newspaper comic strip Hogan's Alley, starring the Yellow Kid. The 196-page, square-bound, black-and-white publication, which also includes introductory text by E. W. Townsend, measured 5×7 inches and sold for 50 cents. The neologism "comic book" appears on the back cover.[9] Despite the publication of a series of related Hearst comics soon afterward,[9] the first monthly proto-comic book, Embee Distributing Company's Comic Monthly, did not appear until 1922. Produced in an 8½-by-9-inch format, it reprinted black-and-white newspaper comic strips and lasted a year.[9][10]

The Funnies and Funnies on Parade

Comic Monthly #1 (Jan. 1922)

In 1929, Dell Publishing (founded by George T. Delacorte, Jr.) published The Funnies, described by the Library of Congress as "a short-lived newspaper tabloid insert"[11] and not to be confused with Dell's 1936 comic-book series of the same name. Historian Ron Goulart describes the 16-page, four-color periodical as "more a Sunday comic section without the rest of the newspaper than a true comic book. But it did offer all original material and was sold on newsstands".[12] The Funnies ran for 36 issues, published Saturdays through October 16, 1930.

In 1933, salesperson Maxwell Gaines, sales manager Harry I. Wildenberg, and owner George Janosik of the Waterbury, Connecticut company Eastern Color Printing which printed, among other things, Sunday-paper comic-strip sections produced Funnies on Parade as a way to keep their presses running. Like The Funnies, but only eight pages,[13] this appeared as a newsprint magazine. Rather than using original material, however, it reprinted in color several comic strips licensed from the McNaught Syndicate and the McClure Syndicate. These included such popular strips as cartoonist Al Smith's Mutt and Jeff, Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka, and Percy Crosby's Skippy. Eastern Color neither sold this periodical nor made it available on newsstands, but rather sent it out free as a promotional item to consumers who mailed in coupons clipped from Procter & Gamble soap and toiletries products. The company printed 10,000 copies.[13] The promotion proved a success, and Eastern Color that year produced similar periodicals for Canada Dry soft drinks, Kinney Shoes, Wheatena cereal and others, with print runs of from 100,000 to 250,000.[12]

Famous Funnies and New Fun

Eastern Color Press' Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics (Eastern Color Printing, 1933).

Also in 1933, Gaines and Wildenberg collaborated with Dell to publish the 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, which historians consider the first true American comic book; Goulart, for example, calls it "the cornerstone for one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing".[12] Distribution took place through the Woolworth's department-store chain, though it remains unclear whether it was sold or given away; the cover displays no price, but Goulart refers, either metaphorically or literally, to "sticking a ten-cent pricetag [sic] on the comic books".[12]

When Delacorte declined to continue with Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, Eastern Color on its own published Famous Funnies #1 (cover-dated July 1934), a 68-page giant selling for 10¢. Distributed to newsstands by the mammoth American News Company, it proved a hit with readers during the cash-strapped Great Depression, selling 90 percent of its 200,000 print, although putting Eastern Color more than $4,000 in the red.[12] That quickly changed, with the book turning a $30,000 profit each issue starting with #12.[12] Famous Funnies would eventually run 218 issues, inspire imitators, and largely launch a new mass medium.

When the supply of available existing comic strips began to dwindle, early comic books began to include a small amount of new, original material in comic-strip format. Inevitably, a comic book of all-original material, with no comic-strip reprints, debuted. Fledgling publisher Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications, which would evolve into DC Comics, to release New Fun #1 (Feb. 1935). This came out as a tabloid-sized, 10-inch by 15-inch, 36-page magazine with a card-stock, non-glossy cover. An anthology, it mixed humor features such as the funny animal comic "Pelion and Ossa" and the college-set "Jigger and Ginger" with such dramatic fare as the Western strip "Jack Woods" and the "yellow-peril" adventure "Barry O'Neill", featuring a Fu Manchu-styled villain, Fang Gow. Issue #6 (Oct. 1935) brought the comic-book debut of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the future creators of Superman. The two began their careers with the musketeer swashbuckler "Henri Duval", doing the first two installments before turning it over to others and, under the pseudonyms "Leger and Reuths", they created the supernatural-crimefighter adventure Doctor Occult.[14]

Superheroes and the Golden Age

Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1 (June 1938); cover art by Joe Shuster.

In 1938, after Wheeler-Nicholson's partner Harry Donenfeld had ousted him, National Allied editor Vin Sullivan pulled a Siegel/Shuster creation from the slush pile and used it as the cover feature (but only as a backup story)[15] in Action Comics #1 (June 1938). The duo's alien hero, Superman, dressed in a cape and colorful tights. The costume, influenced by Flash Gordon's attire from 1934, evoked circus aerial performers and circus strongmen, and Superman became the archetype of the "superheroes" that would follow.

In early 1939, the success of Superman in Action Comics prompted editors at National Comics Publications (the future DC Comics) to request more superheroes for its titles. In response, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman, who debuted in Detective Comics #27 (1939).[16] The period from the late 1930s through roughly the end of the 1940s is referred to by comic book experts as the Golden Age of comic books. It featured extremely large print-runs, with Action Comics and Captain Marvel selling over half a million copies a month each;[17] comics provided very popular cheap entertainment during World War II especially among soldiers, but with erratic quality in stories, art, and printing. In the early 1940s over 90 percent of girls and boys from seven to seventeen read comic books.[18]

MLJ's Pep Comics debuted as a superhero, science-fiction and adventure anthology, but after the title introduced the teen-humor feature "Archie" in 1942, the feature's popularity would soon eclipse all other MLJ properties, leading the publisher to rename itself Archie Comics.

Following the end of World War II, the popularity of superheroes greatly diminished,[19] while the comic-book industry itself expanded.[20] A few well-established characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman continued to sell, but DC cancelled series starring the Flash and Green Lantern and converted All-American Comics and All-Star Comics to Western titles, and Star Spangled Comics to a war title. The publisher also launched such science-fiction titles as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. Timely Comics cancelled its Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner series, briefly reviving the characters in 1954 only to cancel them shortly thereafter and to focus on horror, science fiction, teen humor, romance and Western, genres. Romance comics became established with Prize Comics' Young Romance and Young Love, produced by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; those titles' popularity lead to an explosion of romance comics form many publishers.

Dell's comic books accounted for a third of all North American sales in the early 1950s. Its 90 titles averaged a circulation of 800,000 copies each issue, with Walt Disney's Comics and Stories peaking with a circulation of three million in 1953. Eleven of the top 25 best-selling comic books at the time were Dell titles.[21] Out of 40 publishers active in 1954, Dell, Atlas (Marvel), DC and Archie were the major players sales-wise. By this time, former big-time players Fawcett and Fiction house had ceased publishing.[22]

Circulation peaked out in 1952, when 3161 issues of various comics were published with total circulation at about one billion.[note 1] After 1952, the number of individual releases dropped every year for the rest of the decade, with the biggest losses coming in 1955–56.[23] These rapid losses followed the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in the wake of Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency.[24] While there was only a 9% drop in the number of releases between 1952 and 1953, circulation plummeted by an estimated 30–40%.[25] The cause of the decrease is not entirely certain. Television had come to provide competition with comic books, or the rise of conservative values that came with the election of Dwight Eisenhower. The Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body founded to curb juvenile delinquency believed to be influenced by crime and horror comics, has been targeted as the culprit, though sales had begun to drop the year before it was founded.[26] The major publishers were largely unaffected by the drop, but smaller publishers like EC (the prime target of the CCA) stopped publishing crime and horror titles, and had to focus on other areas.[27] By the 1960s, output stabilized at about 1500 releases per year.[23]

The dominant comic book genres of the post-CCA 1950s were funny animals, humor, romance, television properties and Westerns. Detective, fantasy, teen and war comics were also popular, while adventure, superheroes and comic strip reprints were in decline,[27] with Famous Funnies seeing its last issue in 1955.[28]

The Comics Code

Main article: Comics Code Authority

In the late 1940s and early 1950s horror and true-crime comics flourished, many containing graphic violence and gore. EC Comics was a particularly successful publisher of these genres, and was singled out by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. The book was concerned with what he perceived as sadistic and homosexual undertones in horror comics and in superhero comics respectively, and it raised public anxiety about comics. Soon moral crusaders blamed comic books as a cause of poor grades, juvenile delinquency, drug use.[note 2] This led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest in comic books (April–June, 1954). Schools and parent groups held public comic-book burnings, and some cities banned comic books.

In the wake of these events, many comics publishers, most notably National and Archie, founded the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and drafted the Comics Code, intended as "the most stringent code in existence for any communications media".[29] A Comic Code Seal of Approval soon appeared on virtually every comic book carried on newsstands. EC, after experimenting with less controversial comic books, dropped its comics line to focus on the satiric Mad — a comic book that changed to magazine format in order to circumvent the Code.[30]

Silver Age of Comic Books

Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956), the launch of comics' Silver Age. Cover art by Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert.

DC started a revival in superhero comics in 1956 with the October 1956 revival of The Flash in Showcase #4. Many comics historians peg this as the beginning of the Silver Age of American comic books, although Marvel had started reviving some of its old superheroes as early as 1954.[19] The new Flash is taken symbolically as the beginning of a new era, although his success was not immediate. It took two years for the Flash to receive his own title, and Showcase itself was only a bimonthly title, though one that was to introduce a large number of enduring characters. By 1959, the slowly building superhero revival had become clear to DC's competitors. Archie jumped on board that year, and Charlton joined the bandwagon in 1960.[31]

In 1961, writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. With an innovation that changed the comic-book industry, The Fantastic Four #1 initiated a naturalistic style of superheroes with human failings, fears, and inner demons - heroes who squabbled and worried about the likes of rent money. In contrast to the super-heroic do-gooder archetypes of established superheroes at the time, this ushered in a revolution. With dynamic artwork by Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, and others complementing Lee's colorful, catchy prose, the new style became very popular among college students who could identify with the angsty and irreverent nature of characters like Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. This was a time of massive social upheaval that birthed a new generation of hipper and more countercultural young people who found a voice in these books. Because Marvel's books were distributed by its rival, National Periodicals, between 1957 and 1968, Marvel was initially restricted to publishing eight titles a month.[32][33]

The Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961). Cover art by Jack Kirby.

While the creators of comics were given credit in the early days of comic books, this all but vanished during the 1940s and 1950s. Comic books were produced by comic book companies rather than individual creators (EC being a notable exception, a company that not only credited its creative teams, but also featured creators' biographies). Even comic books by revered and collectable artists like Carl Barks were not known by their creators' names—Disney comics like Barks' were signed "Walt Disney." In the 1960s, DC, and then Marvel, began to include writer and artist credits on the comics that they published.[34]

Other notable companies included the American Comics Group (ACG); the low-budget Charlton, where many professionals such as Dick Giordano got their start; Dell; Gold Key; Harvey Comics, and Tower.

Underground comix

Main article: Underground comix

Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were featured as the anti-authoritarian underground comix saw made waves in 1968 following the publication of Robert Crumb's irregularly published Zap Comix. Frank Stack had published The Adventures of Jesus as far back as 1962, and there had been a trickle of such publications until Crumb's success.[35] What had started as a self-publishing scene soon grew into a minor industry, with Print Mint, Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp and Apex Novelties among the more well-known publishers. These comix were often extremely graphic, and largely distributed in head shops that flourished in the countercultural era.[36]

Legal issues and paper shortages led to a decline in underground comix output from its 1972 peak. The death knell was sounded in 1974, when the passage of anti-paraphernalia laws led to the closing of most head shops, which throttled underground comix' distribution. Its readership also dried up as the hippie movement itself petered out around the mid-1970s.[37]

Bronze Age of Comic Books

Wizard originally used the phrase "Bronze Age" in 1995 to denote the Modern Horror age. But as of 2009 historians and fans use "Bronze Age" to describe the period of American mainstream comics history that begins with a period of concentrated changes to comic books circa 1970. Unlike the Golden/Silver Age transition, the Silver/Bronze transition involved many continually published books, making the transition less sharp.

The Modern Age

The development of the "direct market" 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.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, two series published by DC Comics, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, had a profound impact upon the American comic-book industry. Their popularity, along with mainstream media attention and critical acclaim, combined with changing social tastes, led to a considerably darker tone in comic books during the 1990s nicknamed by fans as the "grim-and-gritty" era.

The growing popularity of antiheroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher exemplified this change, as did the darker tone of some independent publishers such as First Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and (founded in the 1990s) Image Comics. This tendency towards darkness and nihilism was manifested in DC's production of heavily promoted comic book stories such as "A Death in the Family" in the Batman series (in which The Joker brutally murdered Batman's sidekick Robin), while at Marvel the continuing popularity of the various X-Men books led to storylines involving the genocide of superpowered "mutants" in allegorical stories about religious and ethnic persecution.

In addition, published formats like the graphic novel and the related trade paperback enabled the comic book to gain some respectability as literature. As a result, these formats are now common in book retail and the collections of public libraries.

See also


  1. 1 2 Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith. 2009. The Power of Comics. Continuum. p. 40.
  2. O'Nale 2010, p. 384.
  3. Tondro 2011, p. 51.
  4. Lyga & Lyga 2004, p. 161.
  5. Markstein 2010; Lyga & Lyga 2004, p. 161; Lee 1978, p. 145.
  6. Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 315.
  7. Lyga & Lyga 2004, p. 163.
  8. "Overview Of The Comic Creation Process". Retrieved 2015-10-04.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Coville, Jamie. "The History of Comic Books: Introduction and "The Platinum Age 1897–1938""., n.d. Archived from the original on April 15, 2003.
  10. Comic Monthly at the Grand Comics Database
  11. U.S. Library of Congress, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" exhibition
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Goulart, Ron (2004). Comic Book Encyclopedia. New York: Harper Entertainment. ISBN 978-0060538163.
  13. 1 2 Brown, Mitchell."The 100 Greatest Comic Books of the 20th Century: Funnies on Parade". Archived from the original on 2003-02-24. Retrieved 2003-02-24.
  14. Kaplan, Arie (2008). From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Jewish Publication Society. p. 6. ISBN 9780827608436.
  15. Daniels, Les. DC Comics: 60 Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (Little Brown, 1995).
  16. Daniels, Les. Batman: The Complete History. Chronicle Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-8118-4232-7, p. 18
  17. Daniels
  18. Glen Weldon; Michael Kantor. Superheroes!:Capes cowls and the creation of comic book culture. p. 49.
  19. 1 2 Gabilliet, page 51
  20. Goulart, Ron (1991). Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Publications International. p. 161. Source notes overall sales of 275 million comics in 1945, 300 million in 1947, and 340 million in 1949.
  21. Gabilliet, page 40
  22. Gabilliet, page 44
  23. 1 2 Gabilliet, page 46
  24. Gabilliet, page 48–49
  25. Gabilliet, page 47–48
  26. Gabilliet, page 47
  27. 1 2 Gabilliet, page 49
  28. Gabilliet, page 50
  29. Daniels, Les (1971). Comix: A history of comic books in America. Bonanza Books. p. 84.
  30. Ron Goulart. 1991. Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Publications International. p.217
  31. Gabilliet, page 52
  32. "Origins of the Distribution System," Mile High Comics. Retrieved November 23, 2016
  33. Cronin, Brian (August 4, 2005), "Origins of the Distribution System," Comic Book Resources. Retrieved November 23, 2016
  34. Gabilliet, page 67
  35. Gabilliet, page 65
  36. Gabilliet, page 66
  37. Gabilliet, page 82


  1. Actual estimates vary between 840 million and 1.3 billion
  2. An example of the sensational coverage of comics in the mass media is Confidential File: Horror Comic Books!, broadcast October 9, 1955 on Los Angeles television station KTTV.

Works cited

  • Duncan, Randy; Smith, Matthew J (2009). The Power of Comics. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-2936-0. 
  • Gabilliet, Jean-Paul; Beaty, Bart; Nguyen, Nick (2010). Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-267-2. 
  • Goulart, Ron (1991). Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Publications International. ISBN 0-88176-396-9. 
  • Duncan, Randy; Smith, Matthew J. (2009). The Power of Comics. Continuum. ISBN 9780826429360. 

Further reading

External links

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