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An American comic book is a small magazine originating in the United States and containing a narrative in the comics form. The standard dimensions (since 1975) are 17 x 26 cm (6 ⅝" × 10 ¼ inch), although they were larger in the past.

Since the invention of the comic book format in the 1930s, the United States has been the leading producer with only the British comic books (during the inter-war period and up until the 1970s) and the Japanese manga as close competitors in terms of quantity.

Comic book sales began to decline after World War II, when the medium was competing with the spread of television and mass market paperback books. Confirming the trend, mass media researchers in the period found comic book reading among children with television sets in homes "drastically reduced". In the 1960s, comic books' audience expanded to include college students who favored the Naturalism (literature)|naturalistic, "superheroes in the real world" trend initiated by Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. The 1960s also saw the advent of the underground comics. Later, the recognition of the comic medium among academics, literary critics and art museums helped solidify comics as a serious art form with established traditions, stylistic conventions, and artistic evolution.



Proto-comic books and the Platinum Age

The creation of the modern American comic book came in stages. Comic strips had been collected in hardcover book form as early as 1833, with Histoire de M. Vieux Bois|The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which appeared in New York in 1842, as the first to be published in English. This was the first of seven comic books/graphic novels that were not comic books in the modern sense: Rather than contain with dialog word balloons and other familiar conventions, they utilized blocks of text beneath single images.

The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats (1897). The Yellow Kid did not speak; messages in a pidgin vernacular appeared on his nightshirt. This message reads, "Dis book is de story of me sweet young life."

The first known proto-comic-book magazine in the U.S. is The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, published by the G. W. Dillingham Company in 1897. 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 a character called the Yellow Kid. The 196-page, square-bound, black-and-white publication, which also includes introductory text by E. W. Townsend, measured 5x7 inches and sold for 50 cents. The neologism "comic book" appears on the back cover.

Despite a series of related Hearst comics being published soon afterward (including the first known full color comic The Blackberries in 1901) the first monthly comic book (Comics Monthly) did not appear until 1922 and only lasted a year. 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". (This is not to be confused with Dell's later same-name comic book, which began publication in 1936.) Historian Ron Goulart describes the 16-page, Color printing|four-color periodical "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". It ran 36 issues, published Saturdays through Oct. 16, 1930.

In 1933, salesperson Maxwell Gaines and sales manager Harry I. Wildenberg, and owner George Janosik of the Waterbury, Connecticut company Eastern Color Printing — which among other thing printed Sunday-paper comic strip sections — produced Funnies on Parade as a way to keep his presses running. Like The Funnies but only eight pages this was a newsprint magazine. Rather than using original material, however, it reprinted in color several comic strips licensed from the McNaught and McClure Syndicate. These included such highly popular strips as cartoonist Al Smith's Mutt and Jeff, Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka, and Percy Crosby's Skippy. This periodical, however, was neither sold nor available on newsstands, but rather sent free as a promotional item to consumers who mailed in coupons clipped from Proctor & Gamble soap and toiletries products. Ten-thousand copies were made. 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.

Famous Funnies and New Fun

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

That same year, however, Gaines and Wildenberg collaborated with Dell to publish the 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, considered by historians the first true American comic book; Goulart, for example, calls it "the cornerstone for one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing". It was distributed through the F. W. Woolworth Company|Woolworth's department store chain, though it is unclear whether it was sold or given away; the cover (see above) displays no price, but Goulart refers, either metaphorically or literally, to "sticking a ten-cent pricetag on the comic books".

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 though ironically running Eastern Color more than $4,000 in the red. That quickly changed, with the book turning a $30,000 profit each issue starting with #12. Famous Funnies would eventually run 218 issues, inspire imitators, and largely launch a new mass medium.

Famous Funnies #1 (July 1934). Cover art by Jon Mayes.

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's founded National Allied Publications — which would evolve into DC Comics — to release New Fun #1 (Feb. 1935). This was 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 fiction|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, who 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", the supernatural-crimefighter adventure Doctor Occult.

Superman and superheroes

In 1938, after Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted by partner Harry Donenfeld, National Allied editor Vin Sullivan pulled a Siegel & Shuster creation from the slush pile and used it as the cover feature of Action Comics #1 (June 1938). The duo's alien hero, Superman, dressed in colorful tights and a cape, evoking costumed circus daredevil performers, became the archetype of the "superheroes" that would follow. Action Comics would become the American comic book with the second-largest number of issues, next to Dell Comics' Four Color, with over 860 issues published as of 2008.

Action Comics #1 (June 1938). The début of Superman. Cover art by Joe Shuster.

Siegel & Shuster's creation, influenced by the pulp fiction stories and by the legend of the Golem of Prague , Superman had superhuman strength, speed and other abilities, and lived day-to-day in his secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent. Within two years, most comic-book companies were publishing large lines of superhero titles, and Superman has gone on to become one of the world's most recognizable characters.

The period from the late 1930s through roughly the end of the 1940s is known as the Golden Age of comic books. It is characterized by extremely large print runs (comic books being very popular as cheap entertainment during World War II); erratic quality of stories, art and print quality; and by being a rare industry that provided jobs to an ethnic cross-section of Americans, albeit often at low wages and in sweatshop working conditions.

Following the war, the popularity of superhero comics rapidly declined, and they began to be phased out around 1945 and replaced with teen humor (epitomized by Archie Comics), funny animal comics (such as those featuring Walt Disney characters), science fiction, western, romance, and satiric humor comics. Timely's superhero line ended in 1950 when it canceled Captain America, which had already been converted into a horror title for its final issues. Except for National's Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, superheroes were all but wiped out by 1952.

Comics continued to increase their readership into the 1950s, however, with Walt Disney's Comics and Stories selling almost three million copies a month in 1953). Close to a dozen Dell funny-animal titles sold over one million copies each per month. EC Comics' more adult-oriented horror titles sold 400,000 a month.

The Comics Code

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, horror and true crime comics flourished, many containing violence and gore. EC Educational Comics later switched to Entertaining Comics owned by Max Gaines' son, William M. Gaines, was the most successful and artistically creative of all the publishers. The careers of many famous artists such as Al Feldstein, Wallace Wood, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Alex Raymond and others began in the offices of EC. However, in spite of the quality of the work, Gaines was unjustly singled out by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham as the most infamous.

Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, concerned with what he perceived to be sadism|sadistic and homosexual undertones in horror and in superhero comics, respectively, raised anxieties about comics. Soon moral crusaders blamed comic books as a cause of poor grades juvenile delinquency, drug use, and ultimately, crime itself. This led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest in comic books. As a result of these firey debates and irrational actions, schools and parent groups held public comic-book burnings, and some cities ban (law) comic books. Industry circulation declined drastically.

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". 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.

Silver Age of Comic Books

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

The Silver Age represents the period in which superheroes returned and came to dominate the comic-book lines of the two major publishers, Marvel and DC. In the mid-1950s, following the popularity of TV series The Adventures of Superman, publishers experimented with the superhero once more. Showcase #4 (National, 1956) introduced the rebooted hero The Flash, which began a second wave of superhero popularity known as the Silver Age of comic books. National expanded its line of superheroes over the next six years, introducing new versions of Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman and others.

In 1961 writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. In a landmark that changed the industry, The Fantastic Four #1 initiated a naturalistic style of superheroes with human failings, fears, and inner demons, 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 a revolution. With dynamic artwork by Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and others complementing Lee's colorful, catchy prose, the new style found an audience among children (who loved the superheroes) and college students (who claimed to find deeper themes). Marvel was initially restricted in the number of titles it could produce in that its books were distributed by rival National, a situation not alleviated until the late 1960s.

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, home of the Harvey cartoon characters (Casper the Friendly Ghost) and non-animated others (Richie Rich); and Tower, best-known for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Underground comics

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published independently of the established comic book publishers and most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, irreverent style, which hadn't been seen in comics before. The movement is often considered to have been started by R. Crumb's publication of Zap Comix #1 in 1968, though there were antecedents such as pornographic "Tijuana bibles", dating to the 1920s, and Frank Stack's The Adventures of Jesus, published in 1962.

Although many of the underground artists continued to produce work, the underground comix movement is considered by most historians to have ended by 1980, to be replaced that decade by a rise in independent, non-Comics Code compliant alternative comics and the resulting increase in acceptance of adult-oriented comic books.

Bronze Age of Comic Books

Originally used by Wizard (magazine) in 1995 to denote the Modern Horror age historians and fans now use the term 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; not every book can be said to have entered the Bronze Age at the same time.

Changes commonly considered to mark the transition between Silver and Bronze ages include:

The Modern Age

The development of a non-returnable "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. Between 1970 and 1990, comic-book prices rose sharply because of a combination of factors: a nationwide paper shortage, increasing production values, and the minimal profit incentive for stores to stock comic books (due to the small unit price of an individual comic book relative to a magazine).

Spawn #1 (May 1992). Cover art by Todd McFarlane.

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 and the mainstream-press attention they garnered, combined with changing social tastes, led to a more mature-themed, darker tone nicknamed by fans as "grim-and-gritty". This change was underscored by the growing popularity of antiheroes such as the Punisher, and Wolverine, as well as 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 Batman's sidekick Robin was brutally murdered by The Joker), 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.

Though a speculator boom in the early 1990s temporarily increased specialty store sales — collectors "invested" in multiple copies of a single comic to sell at a profit later — these booms ended in a collectibles glut, and comic sales declined sharply in the mid-1990s, leading to the demise of many hundreds of stores. In the 2000s, fewer comics sell in North America than at any time in their publishing history. Though the large superhero-oriented publishers like Marvel and DC are still often referred to as the "mainstream" of comics, they are no longer a mass medium in the same sense as in previous decades.

While the actual publications are no longer as widespread, however, licensing and merchandising have made many comic-books characters aside from such perennials as Superman and Batman more widely known to the general public than ever. In particular, several movies and videogames based in comic-books characters have been released, and such heavily promoted events as Spider-Man's wedding, the death of Superman and the death of Captain America received widespread media coverage.

Prestige format

Prestige format comic books are typically longer than standard comic books, typically being of between 48 and 72 pages, and printed on glossy paper with a spine and card stock cover. The format was first used by DC on Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The success of this work led to the establishment of the format, and it is now used generally to showcase works by big name creators or to spotlight significant storylines.

These storylines can be serialized over a limited number of issues, or can be standalone. Standalone works published in the form, such as Batman: The Killing Joke, are sometimes referred to either as graphic novels or novellas.

Independent and alternative comics

Comic specialty stores did help encourage several waves of independent-produced comics, beginning in the mid-1970s. The first of these was generally referred to as "independent" or "alternative" comics; some of these, 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; a few (notably RAW) were experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the world of fine art.

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 press. "Art comics" has sometimes been used as a general term for alternative, small-press, or minicomic artists working outside of mainstream traditions. Publishers and artists working in all of these forms stated a desire to refine comics further as an art form.

Artist recognition

Some comic books have gained recognition and earned their creators awards from outside the genre, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (an issue of which won the World Fantasy Award for "Best Short Story"). Though not a comic book itself, Michael Chabon's comic-book themed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Popular interest in superheroes increased with the success of feature films such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). To capitalize on this interest, comics publishers launched concerted promotional efforts such as Free Comic Book Day (first held on May 5, 2002). In addition, the filmed adaptation of non-superhero comic books like Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and American Splendor raised hopes that the medium's image can be changed for the better.


Comic books are a collaborative medium. Generally, some kind of writer/scripter/plotter will outline the whole story and is a core of the story telling process. (At EC, Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines came up with a new story every working day for over five years. An accomplishment unequaled in the field.)

The penciller is the first step in rendering the story in visual form and may require several steps of feedback with the writer. These artists are concerned with layout (positions and vantages on scenes) to showcase steps in the plot. In earlier generations it was more common for artists to use a loose pencilling approach, in which the penciller does not take much care to reduce the vagaries of the pencil art, leaving it to the inker to interpret the penciller's intent and render the art in a more finished state.

Today many pencillers prefer to create very meticulously detailed pages, where every nuance that they expect to see in the inked art is indicated in pencil. This is known as tight pencilling. Because the inking and the pencilling are so closely aligned there are strong cross influences - inked lines emphasize aspects of the scene, but is this particular emphasis the intention of the penciller or is the penciller's preference off-base compared to the point of the story?

Then the colorist comes into the picture and is responsible for adding color to the black and white (possibly shaded) line art. Almost all comic books are rendered in color and have been for much of the history of comic books. Sometimes color is not added for specific effect or when production resources don't allow for a colorist. A colorist also can add to or shift the emphasis of a page of comic art - the penciller laid out the basic scene - the inker emphasizes the depth and drama of the edges of things and their weight on the page, and the colorist can further emphasize what draws the eye and adds or subtracts to the realism of the scene.

Finally the letterer renders what needs to be said on a page of art for the story - which could be dialogue or the content of signs or print if shown. This may seem like an easy job, but the right use of fonts, letter size, and layout of the words inside the balloon all contribute to the impact of the art. A good letterer is a good calligrapher, and a great letterer has as much to do with the quality of the comic as the writer, penciler, inker, or colorist.

The superhero

Superhero dramatic-adventure and science-fiction stories have dominated American comic books for most of the media's history. Before the 1960s, comics were published in many genres, including humor, Westerns, romance, horror, military fiction, crime fiction, biography, and adaptations of classic literature. Non-superhero comics have continued to exist as niche publishing, with humor titles, such as those from Archie Comics and Bongo Comics, the most visible alternatives. DC's Vertigo imprint publishes a wide range of non-superhero series, though the most popular titles tend to have a slight science-fiction or fantasy slant.


Timing varies slightly by publisher as not all publishers changed prices at the same time (data samples taken from X-Men, Action Comics and Avengers cover price listings in ComicBase 10 Archive Edition). Typical prices of a new, standard-size, mainstream American comic book, in US$:

  • Prior to 1962:  .10
  • 1962 - 1969:   .12
  • 1969 - 1971:   .15
  • 1971 - 1974:   .20
  • 1974 - 1976:   .25
  • 1976 - 1977:   .30
  • 1977 - 1979:   .35
  • 1979 - 1980:   .40
  • 1980 - 1981:   .50
  • 1982 - 1985:   .60
  • 1985 - 1986:    .65
  • 1986 - 1988:    .75
  • 1988 - 1991:   1.00
  • 1992 - 1995:   1.25
  • 1995 - 1996:   1.50
  • 1996 - 1997:   1.95
  • 1997 - 2000:   1.99
  • 2000 - 2005:   2.25
  • 2005 - 2006:   2.50
  • 2006 - 2008:   2.99

See also



External links