Once regarded as one of the lower forms of mass entertainment, comic books are today widely considered to be potentially capable of complex and profound expression as both literary and visual art forms. Whereas Dr. Fredric Wertham's 1956 diatribe Seduction of the Innocent warned parents against the mind-warping influence of comics on children, many commentators now study the modern myth of the hero as found in Superman, while others are looking to Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics for messages promoting global capitalism. Taking into account the psychological impact of gestures, visual styles, and montage effects possible with sequential art, critical inquiries also address the visual aspect of comic books, especially the adaptation of Hollywood film techniques to the panel-by-panel language of comics.
While most comic books are composed of formulaic stories drawn from various genres, including superhero, science fiction, western, war, horror, romance, and humor, some creators have exploited this mass-medium to bring socially-relevant tales to their audience. For example, the comics Two-Fisted Tales, Shock SuspensStories, and Weird Science, all produced during the 1950s by EC Publications, featured stories that dealt seriously with issues of racism, bigotry, and war. Another EC comic, Mad, ushered in a new era of satire through parodies of popular American culture. As an example of the social-consciousness of the early 1970s, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams broached the subject of teenage drug abuse through a Green Lantern/Green Arrow storyline.
In step with the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s, underground artists—many inspired by the EC comics of their childhood—used the comic book as a forum for frank depictions of changing lifestyles. R. Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat and one of the founders of the psychedelic-inspired Zap, was a prolific contributor to undergrounds and continues to draw autobiographical stories that often render, in clinical detail, his unconventional sexual obsessions. During the 1980s Raw magazine editor Art Spiegelman aspired to bring comics to a new level of sophistication by publishing avante-garde works by European and art-school-trained cartoonists. Spiegelman's own Maus, which was inspired by his father's Holocaust experiences, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and proved to critics that comics could be a viable medium for serious literature.
Phantom Lady 17 (superhero) 1948
Donald Duck Four Color 9 (humor) 1942
C. C. Beck
Whiz Comics 2 (superhero; debut of Captain Marvel) 1940
Plastic Man 1 (superhero) 1943
Zap Comics (underground) 1967-
Spirit (detective) 1940-52
Marvel Comics I (superhero; debut of Submariner) 1939
M. C. Gaines
Famous Funnies 1 (first monthly color comic book; humor) 1934
William Gaines and Al Feldstein
Haunt of Fear (horror) 1950-54
Shock SuspenStories (suspense) 1952-55
Weird Science (science fiction) 1950-53
Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez
Love and Rockets (adult) 1982-96
Detective Comics 27 (superhero; debut of Batman),
Animal Comics (humor) 1942-47
Pogo Possum (humor) 1949-54
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Captain America Comics 1 (superhero; debut of Captain America) 1941-47
Mad (satire) 1952-55
Two-Fisted Tales (war) 1950-55
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Fantastic Four 1 (superhero; debut of Fantastic Four) 1961
(The entire section is 187 words.)
Historical And Critical Perspectives
SOURCE: "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines," in All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, Arlington House, 1970, pp. 21-43.
[In the following essay, White profiles an early history of comic books, culminating in the creation of Superman and Batman.]
It's a story which has grown into modern myth—a myth which in some respects equals and parallels the myth of Superman himself—the story of how two boys, Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, fresh out of high school, sold their dream comic strip and achieved world fame.
As science fiction fans, Siegel and Shuster had published an early science fiction fan magazine, the title of which was, not so surprisingly, Science Fiction. It was a mimeographed publication and appeared in the early 1930s. In many respects, including the poor paper on which it was published, it resembled more closely fan magazines being published by s.f. and comics fans now than it did most of its contemporaries. Most of the material was written by Siegel, and all the illustrations were by Shuster.
As the myth has it, while still in high school, science fiction fans Siegel and Shuster dreamed up their science fictional superman: a man come to Earth from another planet, metabolically adapted for a greater gravity and far harsher environmental pressures than ours. Here on Earth, the superman would find...
(The entire section is 45852 words.)
Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs
SOURCE: "Super-heroes," in Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, translated by Nadia Fowler, Little, Brown and Company, 1972, pp. 100-29.
[In the following essay, Reitberger and Fuchs analyze the modern mythology of super heroes, concentrating on the powers, foes, companions, and female counterparts of Superman, Batman, and others.]
Superman—the man of steel, helper of all those in distress, defender of the weak and oppressed, strongest of all men, invincible, handsome as a god, noble and gentle—in short, a man far superior to any other human being. He is the ultimate hero, the epitome of his young readers' dreams.
There are so many heroes with superhuman qualities. Jules Feiffer once said that if they joined together with the even more numerous super-villains they would darken the skies like locusts. And all of them experience adventures without a break—mostly adventures of dimensions, countless times the earth, no, whole galaxies are rescued from destruction or enslavement and, on a smaller scale, America is made safe for democracy. Cosmic super-policemen, they patrol the universe, but they do not seek adventure in the same way as the old legendary heroes of mythology and legend did. They do not have to search for evil to combat: evil positively leaps at them and never lets them...
(The entire section is 17654 words.)
SOURCE: "Underground Comics," in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Bonanza Books, 1971, pp. 165-80.
[In the following excerpt, Daniels studies the origins and development of underground comic books and surveys the major figures who published in this genre during the late 1960s and early 1970s.]
[Underground] comics, which have existed in one form or another for as long as the medium itself, have come into new prominence through the concentrated efforts of a handful of dedicated practitioners. The underground publications are indisputably the most controversial comics ever to be produced, and what makes them controversial is their totally uninhibited treatment of sex. The newest wave of such comics, which has made the "underground" designation particularly its own, is distinguished as well by a defiance of convention, a defiance which, embracing a variety of social issues as well as warm bodies, has distinctly political overtones.
Underground comics fall into three distinct groups, representing with some overlap three eras in American culture. The first is the small, pocket-sized pamphlet devoted steadfastly to the theme of sexual intercourse, and referred to by various designations including "eight-pagers" (the least colorful but most accurate of the names) and "Tiajuana bibles" (an attempt to identify a point of origin, which...
(The entire section is 20281 words.)
Comic Books And Society
Clinton R. Sanders
SOURCE: "Icons of the Alternate Culture: The Themes and Functions of Underground Comix," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Spring, 1975, pp. 836-52.
[In the following excerpt, Sanders considers the social, political, and commercial aspects of underground comic books.]
Much of the popular culture literature is devoted to the discussion of the theoretical constructs and methodological approaches which are most useful in the study of "non-elite" cultural products. I agree with Gillespie that clarity will not be achieved until standardized interpretive concepts are developed. This framework can be built only when the foci and explanatory perspectives employed are clearly and consistently presented.
This paper deals with a relatively new cultural product—underground comix. It is a study of an artistic phenomenon which focuses on the socially constructed definitions of reality which shape both form and content. In that the effect of this medium/message on the perceptions and values of its consumers is emphasized, the discussion relates generally to the sociology of art.
The premise that art is shaped by the interaction of the artist, the public and the distribution network underlies the following discussion. Art is not created in a vacuum. The artist has learned the values and perceptions which are generally...
(The entire section is 33470 words.)
Adult Comics And Graphic Novels
George S. McCue and Clive Bloom
SOURCE: "The Moderns," in Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context, Pluto Press, 1993, pp. 55-66.
[In the following essay, McCue and Bloom trace the development of comic books during the 1970s and 1980s, in terms of both their subject matter and marketing strategies.]
Comic books in the early 1970s looked surprisingly like those of the early 1950s. The medium was dominated by heroic action books and sales were dropping rapidly. Social relevance had failed as a direction for the medium. Other sources of comic book art were beginning to find a market and underground comic books began making real inroads into the readership, further contributing to the mainstream industry's economic woes. DC was hit harder than Marvel during this time because of personnel problems and the lack of the fiercely loyal readership that Marvel's discursive style had earned them. Nonetheless, both companies were in trouble and they scrambled to bring out a cavalcade of new characters: 'vigilantes and barbarians, gods and jungle lords, monsters and pulp heroes, every stripe of hero and anti-hero, both original and adapted, in a mad scramble to find something that would keep comics alive' [Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes].
Comic book companies knew they had a devoted core audience from the letters, conventions, fanzines and...
(The entire section is 13706 words.)
Barrier, Michael and Williams, Martin eds. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, 336 p.
A collection of reprints from the history of comics, from Superman and Little Lulu to the lesser known Scribbly, are presented with short introductions, plus a bibliography.
Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. Berkeley, CA.: Ronin Publishing, 1986, 319 p.
This reissue of a 1974 edition is arranged impressionistically rather than for scholars, with historical and bibliographic information on underground comix.
Gifford, Denis. The International Book of Comics. New York: Crescent Books, 1984, 256 p.
A carefully inventoried collection of comic book covers from around the world are presented in color and black and white, with a historical overview and index.
Hirsh, Michael and Loubert, Patrick. The Great Canadian Comic Books. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: P. Martin Associates, 1971, 264 p.
Genre comics dating from the days of WWII, from the publishing house of Cyril Vaughan Bell, are introduced and annotated.
Lee, Stan. Bring on the Bad Guys. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976, 253 p.
Stories involving the villains of classic Marvel comics, like the Red Skull, are...
(The entire section is 1538 words.)