Comic Books: Origin, Evolution and Its
Reach

S
Manoj

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Assistant Professor of English

Agurchand Manmull Jain College (Shift
II),

Affiliated to the University of
Madras

Meenambakkam, Chennai 600114.

This research article traces the origin of
comics and its growth as an art form. It categorizes the different phases of
comics and explains the salient features of comics to differentiate it from the
other mediums. Also touches on the comic books and its variants around the
globe.

Keywords: Comics, Origin, Evolution, Popularity, Graphic Novels, Manga series,  

Origin

The earliest known comic book is The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck which
was originally published in several languages in Europe in 1837. It was done by
Switzerland’s Rodolphe Töpffer, who has been considered in Europe as the
creator of the picture story. The
Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck is 40 pages long and measured 8 ½” x
11″.

Picture
– 1: The first ever comic book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.

The book was side stitched, and inside there
were 6-12 panels per page. It didn’t use the words inside balloons for the
narrative part, but it had text under the panels to describe the story. A copy
of it was recently discovered in 1998 in Oakland, California. It was a
breakthrough of sorts as it was earlier believed that The Yellow Kid (The
Yellow Kid was the name of a lead comic strip character that ran from 1895 to 1898 in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and later William Randolph
Hearst’s New York Journal. Created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley) was the first comic book reprint
collection of comic strips.

Evolution of Comics

            Comics have evolved a
lot from its origin, and the major changes that it went through can be divided
into four different ages starting with the Victorian or the Platinum Age, the
Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the Bronze Age. These four ages helps one to
distinguish the characteristic features of that age and the types of comics
that were prominent during those times.

The Platinum Age

            The age starts with the famous comic book The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats
coming out in 1897. It was a Black and White comic book which was 196 pages
long. The word “comic book” came into usage with this book as the word was
first used on its back cover. This comic book was the starting point which is
now called The Platinum Age. In 1901 the first ever color comic book The Blackberries came out. Then Buster Brown was published in 1902 by
Cupples & Leon. It was also a huge success as a product, many corporate
bigwigs made huge profits by making the comic characters as an element to sell
their products.

In 1922 the first monthly comic book came out.
It was titled Comics Monthly which
lasted for 12 issues. In 1929 the Dell publishing group came out with the
tabloid-sized format comic book called The
Funnies. The 1930s saw the famous Walt Disney entering the comic book
industry with their Mickey Mouse Book
by Bibo and Lang. It resembled a magazine in its structure which had a variety
of songs, games, and stories in it. The first Mickey Mouse comic book The Adventures of Mickey Mouse came out
in 1931. Not all comics sold in this era were for children as some adult comics
were sold through indirect means which were thought to be done by members of
organized crime.

The idea of free comics picked up in the 1930s
which was the times of depression and running a printing press cost a whole lot
of money, it was also a good way to popularize comic books. In1936, Chicago
Tribune Syndicate teamed up with Max Gaines, his assistant Sheldon Mayer and
George Delacorte and created Popular Comics featuring a huge amount of well-known
characters. Dick Tracy, Terry & the Pirates, Skippy, Mutt and Jeff,
Tailspin Tommy, were among them. In 1936 King Comics entered the arena with
their famous comic characters being Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, Little
Lulu, and The Phantom. The Comics Magazine series saw the arrival of the first
masked superhero named The Clock. 1937 saw the Detective Comics #1 coming out which set the pace and style for a
comic book superhero with the character of Superman.

The Golden Age

            The age saw the emergence of comic characters
(superheroes) which seemed larger than life. There was Superman, who is the
very first comic character to have powers far beyond than a normal human being
and could fly in the air, leap over tall buildings, and escape from a bullet in
a fraction of a second. No guess that superman is on the top of 10 most famous
characters of all time.

In May 1939 the Detective Comics #27 came out which saw the first appearance of
Batman. While Superman was colorful, Batman was darkness filled. The character
was created by Bob Kane. Batman didn’t have super powers; he is assisted by his
mind and gadgets which places him on par with the other omnipotent superheroes.

            Marvel Comics came
out with their set of superheroes with the Fantastic
Four which consisted of four comic characters, The Human Torch, Ka-Zar, The
Angel, and The Masked Raider. In 1941, Pep
Comics #22 came out with the comic character of Archie Andrews which is a
runaway success till date. The story is about a teenage boy who is entangled in
a love triangle.

After the World War II the superhero comics
started to lose its sheen. To add insult to wounds the whole comic book
industry was shaken with the book Seduction
of the Innocent being published in 1954 by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a
well-known American psychologist. He came up with an argument that comics
corrupts the minds of its readers, especially it influences the kids in a wrong
way. This in turn led to the formation of Comics Code Authority 1954 by the publishers
themselves.

The Silver Age

            This era saw the
resurgence of the superhero comics which were put on a standstill due to the
outcome of Dr. Wertham’s book. It started with Showcase #4, starring The Flash. Bringing back the comic character
of The Flash brought superheroes back into play, and changed the comic industry
to this day. This age certainly belongs to Marvel Comics as they kept on
experimenting by coming up with new superheroes. The most popular superhero
that Marvel produced is the Spiderman, who is a youth to whom the children can
relate to. He was a geek at his school that accidentally gets bitten by a
spider which turns him to a superhero who exhibits the power of a spider. Stan
Lee and Jack Kirby were the writers who played a main role in Marvel’s
unanimous success in this era. X-men created by Marvel Comics, is the best
among superhero teams. Marvel also was the first comics to introduce a first
black superhero named the Black Panther in Fantastic
Four.

The Bronze Age

            Comics took a turn in this age as they moved on from the
conventional superhero sphere. The age was a gain for DC Comics as they
acquired the services of Jack Kirby, who previously played a huge role in
Marvel’s success. In 1970, Marvel came out with a different type of hero called
Conan the Barbarian. The comic character was made further famous with Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of the titular character in the movie of the same
name. Conan wasn’t a marvel created hero as the character was taken from the
series by Robert E Howard. The year 1970 saw the comic characters of Green
Lantern and Green Arrow dealing and solving social issues. In 1971, Marvel
Comics broke the rule of Comics Code Authority with their issue of The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 dealing
with the issues relating to drug abuse. The CCA relaxed the stringent rules
after the success of the comic book series which helped spread social messages.

            This era saw the
influx of comic characters which were more realistic. One of the prime examples
is that of the comic character of Daredevil by Frank Miller. In 1984, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 come
out. The book was in black and white, and hugely successful. It was created by
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It is the silliest superhero team one could
imagine.  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was so popular that a T.V. cartoon
on them was produced. In 1986, Frank Miller came out with a realistic superhero
of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
In 1986, DC created a comic book limited series called The Watchmen, which was about a group of vigilantes who were forced
by the government to stop their actions. It was a creation of Alan Moore. In
1989, the movie Batman came out and
it was hugely successful and helped boost the popularity of comics. The Comics
Code Authority came up with a new set of rules in 1989 which is followed to
this date. In 1992, Superman #75 the
titular character was killed by a super villain called Doomsday. This event
created major media attention. In 1996, the DC and Marvel Comics got into an
agreement to pit their comic characters against each other. The winners were
decided by popular vote, while others were decided by the two companies. This
is how comics have evolved from its origin, from a medium to a show business.

Cartoons                                                             

            The word “Cartoon” is
derived from the Italian and Dutch
words “cartone” and “karton” respectively, meaning strong,
heavy paper or pasteboard. It is a humorous drawing which appears in
newspapers, magazines, etc.  It is often
a drawing which paints the scenario of the times, ridicules and acts as a
parody. The aim of the cartoons is to point out a serious issue in a humorous
way. It acts as a vehicle which tries to make the public aware of the present
scenario and to sharpen their view. The cartoon is a momentary take on the
political and social trend, and it acts as a commentary.

                    Picture – 2: A cartoon depicting the
profound silence of the government. 

            In picture no., 2 three characters are
present. The person who is lying down is the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh,
the one who is with an ash colored cap is Anna Hazare, and the one who holds
the mike is Baba Ramdev. Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are calling for the
amendment of Lokpal Bill to end corruption. Anna Hazare has lost his hope as
the Prime Minister has not responded to their calls. The warnings of Baba
Ramdev sounds like music to the ears of the Prime Minister which are denoted
with the symbols of musical notes. The Prime Minister maintains his silence and
rests under the tree of corruption.

Caricatures

            The word “caricature” is derived from the Italian
word caricare (“to load,” “to surcharge” as with exaggerated detail) and
seems to have been used first by Mosini in Diverse Figure (1646). It is
a drawing in which someone is exaggerated in their appearance or they behave in
a humorous or critical way. It stresses the individual, rather than trying to
educate the viewers.

                       

            Picture – 3: A caricature on Barack Obama’s second term as US
president.

Caricature is used as a means to ridicule a
particular well known personality or their traits. It is attractive and grabs
readers’ attention as the persona shown in the caricature is exaggerated
physically making it a thing of ridicule. Caricatures can be complimentary or a
means of ridicule. It is also a medium which is used to serve a political
purpose, but mostly it serves the sole purpose of entertaining.

Graphic Novels

            There is a slight misunderstanding between a
comic book and a graphic novel. Comic books are targeted at kids, whereas
graphic novels don’t have a particular target as their themes may seem
inappropriate to young readers. A graphic novel takes the form of a comic strip
but is presented as any other book. It comes with an International Standard
Book Number (ISBN) number like novels, whereas a comic book comes with
International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) which denotes its short shelf life.
It is usually about 60-120 pages long. Graphic novels are not governed by the
Comics Code Authority which allows them to come out with uncomfortable themes
based on sex, violence and bloodshed.

The first ever graphic novel that most
historians agree to be is Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other
Tenement Stories published in 1978. Art Spiegelman’s Maus completed
in 1991 was a huge success and became the first ever graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It talked in detail about the holocaust experience. Alan
Moore’s Watchmen (1986), Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight
Returns (1986), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1990), Gilbert and Jaime
Hernandez’s Love and Rockets (1994), and Avi’s City of Light, City of
Dark: A Comic Book Novel (1993) are other famous graphic novels.

Comic books around the World

            Comics as a medium is not restricted to a
particular shore, it has spread like a wildfire throughout the planet. From its
origin in Europe, the medium has travelled and spread its wings all over the
world. One of the major contributions for the popularity of comics is that the
presentation and their form, as the comic books were relatively simple and easy
to grasp. The form of pictorial narration in which the content was presented
was the USP of comics. This was well understood by the marketing minds of the
European nations, who made comic books to transpierce into other countries to
capitalize on the popularity of comics.  

United Kingdom

             U.K is home to comics such
as The Beano, The Dandy, Comic Cuts, War Library, The
DFC and many others. Among them the famous is the comic characters of The Beano and The Bandy. The Beano first
appeared on 30 July 1938, published by D. C. Thomson & Co. Its iconic characters such as Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger, Billy Whizz and Ball Boy, have become known to generations of British children. The Beano is a comic book aimed at
children which is known for its humor and jokes. British comics are the longest
running comics although these days they are suppressed by the likes of Manga
and American comics.

United States

            The U.S is home to superheroes like Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, Flash,
Thor, and many others. They set out to save the country free of crimes with
their strength. American comics originated in the year 1933 and gained much
popularity when Action Comics was
published in 1938. This superhero mania lasted till the end of the World War II
and after that slowly other genres of comics crept in. With the release of
Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the
Innocent in 1954 the comics industry had a tough time, as the book
professed that the comic books had a bad effect in children’s behavior and it
affected them psychologically. In 1960s there was a superhero revival of sorts
and the genre continues to be a dominant force even today. The comic characters
which the DC and Marvel Comics created have become part of the lives of its
readers, who even go to the extent of mourning the death of comic character in
the comic books.

India

India’s comic industry began in the mid-1960s
when the leading newspaper The Times of India launched Indrajal Comics. The main reason is that most of the
outsourced comics were not of affordable rates and there was a growing need for
Indian publishers to come up with new ideas and also make it cost effective.
Indian comic industry has gone through many phases, where in 1950s there was an
influx of American made comic characters translated into Indian languages. The
success of these comic books brought a refreshing change in the 1960s with the
advent of the Amar Chitra Katha (immortal picture stories), these comics were Indian
made. There was a huge craze for the superhero comics in the early 1980s and
many comic publishers tried to cash in on their popularity. With the advent of
telecommunication and the other medium in the 1990s the craze has died down
gradually. Now, the situation is that many of the comic book publishers merely
try to survive in the business. Some of the famous comic characters are Super Commando Dhruv, Hawaldar Bahadur
, Chacha Chaudhary and Detective Moochwala.

France and Belgium

            Both countries are well known for their comic
books, Tintin (Belgian) and Asterix (French) are the best known
comic characters among these countries. Tintin
is a fictional character in The Adventures of Tintin, the series of comic albums written and illustrated by Belgian artist Hergé. Tintin debuted in Le Petit Vingtième
on 10 January 1929. A comic character largely based on an earlier character
created by Hergé, a chubby boy-scout named Totor. Tintin is the protagonist, a reporter and an
adventurer who travels around the world with his dog Snowy. Asterix or The Adventures of Asterix
is a series of French comic books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. The comic book sketches the adventures of
the titular character Asterix and his friend Obelix. The series first appeared in French in the
magazine Pilote on 29 October 1959.

Japan

            The word Manga in Japanese can be translated as “whimsical drawings”. It came into
usage in the late 18th and the early 19th century with
the publication of books such as Sant? Ky?den’s
picturebook Shiji no yukikai (1798), Aikawa Minwa’s Manga hyakujo
(1814) and the celebrated Hokusai Manga books (1814–1834) containing assorted drawings. Rakuten Kitazawa (1876–1955) first used the word “manga” in the modern
sense.

            Manga Comics are popular with both
adults and the children. They deal with themes like school romance and literary
classics, innocent stories and even pornography. The traditional comic strip
format of Manga Comics is an arrangement of four panels of equal size ordered from top to bottom. The
first panel sets the scene and forms the basis of the story which is developed
further in the second panel, and in the third panel the story reaches its
climax. In the fourth panel the after effects of the third panel are to be seen
where it reaches a conclusion.

 

                       

                                                Picture – 5: A Manga comic strip.

 

REFERENCES

 

 

 

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