Integrative Arts 10

Part 1: Comic Strips Lead to a New Form

The History of Superhero Comic Books
By Jamie Coville

Before there were Superhero comic books there were Funny Books. People called them "funny" books because inside were reprints of comic strips from newspapers, much like the Garfield or Calvin and Hobbs strips you read today.

One of the first American funny books came over 100 years ago! In 1896 a book called The Yellow Kid came out. It was the first time a comic strip was printed into a pulp magazine.

This trend continued when Dell Publishing put out the first issue of The Funnies in 1910. This book was published on a monthly basis. It was a big tabloid-sized book that was distributed by the newsstands along with newspapers.




In 1933, the first true "comic" book came out. It was called Funnies on Parade, and it appeared in the same 8" x 11" format that comic books are printed in today. There were 10,000 copies printed, all given away with coupons for Proctor & Gamble products. The idea for this came from George Janosik, Harry Wildenberg, and a salesman named M.C. Gaines. They got a contract with the McNaught and McClure Syndicates to reprint some of their comic strips. M.C. Gaines saw what a success these comics were, and continued printing more comics.




Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Comics was the second M.C. Gaines comic book. Printed in 1933, it was 64 pages with a 10 cent price. It was the first retail comic that was distributed to the public. It was distributed only through chain department stores. M.C. Gaines and Eastern Color Printing worked together on creating it and got George Delacorte of Dell Publishing to publish the book. After the first issue, Dell Publishing (not seeing any profit) decided to stop publishing the comic. Eastern Color Printing then decided to publish the book themselves and got newsstand distribution through the American News Company.



In May 1934 (the comic was dated July), another first issue of Famous Funnies appeared on the newsstands. It featured four pages each of several newspaper comic characters. After this issue, Famous Funnies was produced twice a month and distributed through newsstands. It took several issues before Eastern Color saw any profit.





Some of these stories did have somewhat ordinary heroes fighting crime, such as Dick Tracy and The Shadow. But despite what wonderful gadgets they had, they were still 'ordinary' people. Another pre-Superman comic strip hero of sorts is Popeye. He was created by Elzie Segar and first appeared in a strip called Thimble Theater in 1929. While he didn't go out and fight crime, he did eat his spinich and displayed some 'above average' feats of human strength while fighting his nemises Bluto. This picture is the first ever appearance of Popeye.

In February of 1935, New Fun Comics came out. The creator, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided that he didn't want to pay the fees that the newspapers were charging for their old comic strip reprints. So he got new comic material that wasn't being published in the newspapers. National Allied Publications Inc. published New Fun Comics in a much bigger 10" x 15" tabloid size.

New Fun would be the first comic book that a company later called "DC" would publish. It was the first comic book to contain advertisements. By issue #6 New Fun would increase their comic books to 64 pages, and in issue #6 was a team-up of two important people. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created a character known as Dr. Occult. They later created Superman. Dr. Occult had an earlier appearance under the name Dr. Mystic in The Comic Magazine, which came out in 1936.


This comic is the first American publishing of The Phantom, who is now a worldwide hero. The Phantom made his debut on February 17th, 1936 and he was the first costumed hero. He was created by Lee Falk, who still today is working on his stories. The Phantom was the kind of hero that despite his normal "human" capabilities, fought crime with bravery and death defying stunts. Many future heroes would follow his lead. For more information about this breakthrough hero read The Phantom biography. Also in 1936 The Clock appeared in Funny Pages #6. The Clock was a masked detective; this is the first time a character used a mask to hide his face. Later on, masks would be used in most costumes so the hero could disguise his or her true identity.


In March 1937, Detective Comics #1 came out. This comic was the first true DC comic book. This issue was the first production of two companies that formed the DC company. Comic producer Major Malcolm Wheeler wasn't making much money with his comic books (New Fun being one of them). So Wheeler collaborated with his printer/distributor Harry Donenfeld to produce this book. By 1938, Donenfeld bought out Wheeler's books to become the sole owner. DC is the longest running comic book title ever. This is due to another character who took over the title some time later...



The Golden Age of Superheroes


In June 1938, Action Comics #1 came out, featuring a man in a red and blue costume lifting a car over his head! This was Superman, the very first comic character to have powers far beyond a normal human being. Sure, Flash Gordon and The Shadow were neat, but they couldn't lift a car over their heads and throw it at someone! Nor could they let bullets bounce off their chests, or run faster than a train, or leap over tall buildings in a single bound. To say the least, Superman was a fitting name.

When Siegel and Shuster were younger they tried pitching the Superman idea at newspapers and comics. One of their earliest proposals was a cartoon character called The Superman in 1933. They were constantly rejected, to the point that artist Joe Shuster once tore up his Superman artwork and stated that he'd redo the character properly if the time ever came. Today Superman is one of the 10 most recognized 'people' on the face of the planet. He has been in several movies, cartoons and TV series.


Detective Comics #27 hit the stands in In May, 1939. In it we saw the first appearance of Batman. While Superman was pure and clean, Batman was grim and gritty. In this comic, the villain fell into a vat of acid, which killed him. Not showing any remorse for causing the death, Batman observed "A fitting end for his kind." Batman was created by Bob Kane and has always remained in print. During a time when superhero comics were not so popular, Batman survived by focusing on his detective abilities, making his comic stories more of a mystery series than a superhero book. The reason Batman is so popular is because he is a compromise between the two types of heroes. He didn't have superpowers, but he did have an intellect, a costume, and neat gadgets that would put him on par with the superheroes. Batman has been put on the big and small screen several times in T.V series, movies, and cartoons.


Also in May of 1939, Wonder Comics #1 came out. This title's star hero was called Wonderman (no relation to the Marvel character). His powers were virtually identical to Superman's. This got DC angry enough to file a copyright infringement case against the publisher, Victor Fox. The case went to court and the judge decided in DC's favor. There was a Wonder Comics #2, but no Wonderman in it, and that would be the last of this title's run.




In the Summer of 1939, Superman continued to show his success. He was the very first hero to get a comic book fully devoted to telling his adventures. Up until this point, all comic books had a variety of characters and stories in them. Because of the success of this title, other comic characters are also given a chance with their own titles.






In 1939, A book called Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly came out and in it would be Marvel Comics' first and longest running character, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. Namor would appear in an 8-page black and white story in the back of this comic. This same story would be expanded a little and would reappear in Marvel Comics #1. This Motion Pictures comic was supposed to be handed out free at movie theaters along the east coast of the States. Most theater chains turned down the book, so the amount of distribution is not known.




Later on in October, 1939, Marvel Comics #1 came out. A group of successful superhero veterans from Funnies Inc. contacted publisher Martin Goodman. The Funnies group told him that they would present to him a prepared, finished comic book every month, for a service fee. Among this group was Bill Everett, who created Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner for this book. Other heroes from this comic are The Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, Ka-Zar, The Angel, and The Masked Raider (who was a Lone Ranger rip-off). This company would go through three different name changes. The first was Timely Comics, the second was Atlas, and the third and present is Marvel Comics.



The Human Torch was re-done as a teenage member of the Fantastic Four in 1961, but The Original Human Torch was brought back for a short time in the 80's. The Angel was re-done as an X-men member, and Ka-Zar still lives on today, he recently got his own series.

The Shield made his appearance in Pep Comics #1. The comic hit the stands in January 1940. The Shield was the very first patriotic American hero. His star spangled costume and fight for America created many imitators, Captain America being one of them. This comic book was published by MJL Magazines. This character along with many others heroes were bought by Detective Comics in the 80's and had new adventures in a 1991 Legends of The Shield book under an Impact Comics imprint.

In February of 1940 More Fun #52 came out with a new hero. DC made a mistake with this new superhero because they made him too powerful. The Spectre was a police officer that died, and upon talking to God he was sent back down to Earth as a ghost. Possessing almost unlimited superpowers, he would turn all the evil doers into ash. But the character wasn't a big success because he was quite cold, humorless, and unstoppable. Bullets would pass right through him, he could walk through walls; he had no weaknesses. Despite the initial failure, The Spectre was brought back by DC three times and today has a ongoing series.



Also in February 1940, Whiz Comics #2 came out. This comic had a character that would cause DC trouble for some time (click name to see why). His name was Captain Marvel. Some interesting footnotes about this book was that in Thrill Comics #1 (which was an ashcan - promotional small comic) had a character called Captain Thunder, but quickly found out that the name was already taken, so it was changed to Captain Marvel and the title of the comic changed. This comic was also supposed to be named 'Flash Comics', but a few days before their distribution DC put out their own Flash Comics title, featuring The Flash and Green Lantern.



The very first sidekick came out in April of 1940. His name was Robin the Boy Wonder. He first appeared in Detective Comics #38. Batman and Robin would be the best known 'dynamic duo' in comic books. Robin was important in comic books because he was a hero that the younger readers could relate to. Because of the popularity of Robin, other superheroes got their own teen-aged side kicks. Three different characters have filled the Robin costume. The first was Dick Grayson, the second was Jason Todd (who will be talked about later), and the third and current one is Timothy Drake.



In the Winter of 1940 the very first superhero team formed. It was called the Justice Society of America. They appeared in All Star Comics #3. The original members included: The Flash, The Green Lantern, The Spectre, The Hawkman, Dr. Fate, The Hour-man, The Sandman, Atom, and Johnny Thunder. All of these characters were great in their own titles, but readers responded with excitement to putting them all together. Creating superhero teams is still a very common thing today.




In 1941,Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics #8. She started out as the Justice League Society secretary, but she would later become the first big name super heroine to go toe to toe with Superman and Batman. Not only could she battle them on equal terms, her book would last as long as theirs. During a time when superheroes were not so popular, Wonder Woman comics, like Superman and Batman, remained strong.





Captain America made his first appearance in March, 1941. But the way he appeared was just as exciting as the character. Captain America #1 was his first appearance; Captain America was never tested in another book before receiving his own comic title. This was unheard of in comics to that date. Comic companies did not go out and hire a group a people to produce a comic title if they didn't know the character could sell it. They always tested out the character in another comic first, and gauged reader reaction to the character via sales figures. They did it with Superman in Action Comics #1; it was a year before he got his own book. The same went for Batman. But Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman saw the rough sketch of Captain America by Joe Simon and knew immediately it would sell. So he gave Captain America his own book right away and was successful with it.

Captain America wasn't like Superman who spoke of "Truth, Justice and the American way". Superman was an alien from outer space; Captain America was a "real" American. Also, Captain America was fighting the Nazi's long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened, after which America entered the Second World War. Even though there were other patriotic heroes in comics, Captain America was the first one to be really successfull with readers.


Also in 1941 Pep Comics #22 came out. Little did people know that the superheroes on the cover would not be the big attraction. A story in the back of the comic about a teenaged boy in a love triangle named Archie Andrews would become the draw for this book. Archie Andrews would completely take over this company and keep it successful to this day. In this issue Archie's friends called him 'Chic'; Archie was modeled roughly around Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy character. By 1943 this company, known then as MJL Magazines, would change its name to Archie Comics.

After WWII, superhero comics began to loose their popularity- but not because kids didn't like them. It was because other people didn't like them.

Wil Eisner and the Spirit
Perhaps the greatest artistic accomplishment in the comic book universe came from the master of the form Wil Eisner. His comic book the Spirit (figure 14) was aimed directly at an adult readership and as a result became more mature not only in its graphic depiction’s of violence but in form as well. Eisner borrowed from literary sources such as the writings of Plutarch, biographies of Napoleon and Machiavelli’s The Prince for his stories of America’s first anti-hero. An anti-hero such as the Spirit was a figure that didn’t work under the same stereotypical premises of the typical protagonist. The Spirit became a minor character in his own book and often was ineffectual at stopping crime and violence. This attack on the dominant ideology was a familiar convention by now in pulp novels, specifically in the Spirit’s birth place, the detective genre. Apart from the new ground being broken in the ideology of comics, the visual foundation was giving way to new styles and artistic levels never thought possible in this disposable medium.
Eisner’s cinematic quality in comic art was emerging. He was using his opening page as an establishing shot to portray mood and give expository information. Comic Book historian Michael Barrier wrote of Eisner’s style, "Like Alfred Hitchcock, Eisner shows his stories instead of telling them. And Eisner’s pictorial sense, like Hitchcock’s, is so integral to his sense of narrative that it’s often overlooked." In figure 15 Eisner creates a visual narrative with the fluidity of a master cinematographer. Notice the lack of text in panels three, four and five. The sense of motion and action reads like a story board for camera work rather than the stiff and often clumsy work created by the many overworked but essential piecework artists prevalent in the comic industry. Eisner’s sense of hierarchy in his graphic design is on a similar plane to a director using selective focus to give the viewer a specific area to observe within the picture plane. We can see the lack of background in panels four and five giving the viewer only the critical amount of information. Never letting his style interfere with his content, Eisner would be considered an illusionistic artist that was striving for a high degree of naturalism and verisimilitude.
Jack Kirby
One of Eisner’s contemporaries stands out as a stylistic master as well. Taking steps in a direction leading toward expressionism was Marvel Comics illustrator Jack Kirby. His work used extensive foreshortening to convey a sense of depth that sought to immerse the viewer in a highly stylized, larger than life world. Figure 16 shows a cover of Kirby’s Captain America in which there is a great depth because of the careful use of scale. Kirby exaggerated the sense of depth by drawing objects the viewer perceives as closer as much larger than those which receded into the midground and background. Kirby would also perfect the splash page in which the picture frames which usually separate the images becomes blurred. Almost appearing to be simultaneous action, Kirby’s splash page from his work in the comic adaptation of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey places millions of years of evolution in overlapping proximity reminiscent of Eisenstein’s montage techniques (figure 17). His stylistic abilities (considered limitations by some) would make his work instantly identifiable no matter what title he worked on.
When an artist’s style becomes as overt as Kirby’s did the reality portrayed in the images begins to lose their connection to the viewer’s reality and become a universe unto themselves. This of course was a different universe, the Marvel Universe and the writers would make what may have at one point been considered a weakness, into a great opportunity for exploration. Marvel’s universe started stepping away from the standard super hero versus villain formula. They didn’t necessarily come back to our reality, instead they took our real life social concerns into theirs. Spiderman was the first character to show any sense of concern for social outcasts. In a bold move, Marvel introduced a drug addict into a Spiderman story and showed that the problem wasn’t to be taken in a black and white frame of mind. The industry built on stereotype was trying to show a different solution to society’s problems by asking questions first and using force as a last resort. This mild attack on America’s ideology and propensity toward treating the symptoms instead of the cause may not have been a completely altruistic gesture. Marvel is after all, a business and certainly knew that controversy increases readership. But it was a step in the right direction.

Study Points

Pulp Magazine Jungle Stories
Comic book Jungle Comics
Perpetuation of Sexual Stereotype
Girl in peril
Minority as Villain
White Archetype as Protagonist in hostile environment
Ideology transfers from pulps to comics

Funnies on Parade -First Comic Book
1920's comic strips reprinted in book form
given away as premiums,
example- kids shoe stores give away comics to attract buyers
example -Radio shack

Max Gaines - Father of the comic book - 1934 publishes funnies on parade
sold the reprints in book form for a dime

The Shadow 1933 Street and Smith Pulp Magazine
The Shadow - Comic Book

Max Gaines Funnies on Parade 1934 father of the comic book

comics based on pulps until Detective comics #1

1935 - National Comics formed - developers of original comic content
Detective Comics 1935 - based on detective comics
visual representation of pulp content
first all-original content
1935 - reprints dying out - original content begins to dominate

Disney - funny animal strips

Joe Schuster and Jerry Seigal - Action Comics Superman 1938

Bob Kane & Bill Fingers - Detective Comics Batman 1938

Jack Kirby - Captain America 1941

1938 - Superman makes first appearance in Action Comics #1 by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel

National Comics changes name to DC and publishes Superman as a small interior feature

Immediate success springs four separate Superman titles.
Truth justice and the American way was added by radio melodrama's

Superman and his ideology
The duality of Superman
Clark Kent
regular person, mild mannered, modest
raised with Midwest values, agrarian society

Superman - the Hercules of the US
Embodiment of the puritan work ethic
Vast powers used for good of society, fights crime because he's honorable
Ultimate democrat- will help anyone, anytime
Geography of United States makes it necessary for revision of his superpowers, was given power of flight
Wants to be one of us.
Color suggests optimism.

DC wants second superman type
Bob Kane (illustrator) - Bill Fingers (Writer) create Batman
most illustrators could not maintain copyrights

Batman and Ideology-
traumatic murder of his parents makes psychological impact on young Bruce Wayne
trains to become mentally and physically agile
fights crime for revenge
violent, pathological, calculated and dark
originally carried guns, shot first asked questions later, tradition of the shadow
Color suggests an ominous world

DC dominates the comics market

Timely comics more reflective of social issues and events of the day as opposed to the generic time and place of DC

America enters WWII in 1941 and Timely hero Captain America enters the War fighting for America against the Nazi's

Captain America is more similar to Superman than Batman
Created by Jack Kirby - dynamic visual style
creates splash page which breaks down traditional framing

Foreshortening- the closer the object is the larger it is drawn and vice versa

Comics used as propaganda in war effort
heavy use of stereotype
ethnic portrayals are prevalent

Blackhawk - use of oriental stereotype as cook and sub-human

Headlight comics- stereotypes of large breasted women

Wil Eisner (1917 - ) - The Spirit 1941
At the leading edge of innovation in cartooning for over half a century, Will Eisner is still breaking new ground in the art form. Starting out in the fledgling comic book field in the late 1930s, Will soon had his own production shop and in 1940 he launched THE SPIRIT, a sixteen-page syndicated newspaper insert that soon became a classic. After leaving THE SPIRIT in 1950, Will spent 25 years in educational and promotional comics and has been a teacher at the School of Visual Arts for many years. More recently, he has revived THE SPIRIT as well as becoming one of the leading artists in the graphic novel medium. With the success of A CONTRACT WITH GOD, THE DREAMER and his other acclaimed graphic novels, this gifted cartoonist has proven that his talents are as sharp today as they have ever been.

Everything You Need to Know About Comic Art and Comic Books

Follow the Links to Topic Pages

Comic Strips Lead to a New Form

Golden Age Of Comic Books

EC Horror Comics

The Comics Code of Authority

Mad Magazine

Silver Age of the Mainstream

Robert Crumb and the Underground Movement

The Post Modern Graphic Novel

Bronze Age of the Mainstream

Contemporary Comics

What's Next?

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