Comic Books Introduction

Start Your Free Trial


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Download Comic Books Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Comic Books

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.