When screenwriter and director Paul Schrader criticized Star Wars (1977) for “creat[ing] the big budget comic book mentality,” there was little doubt as to the nature of his critique (quoted in Biskind 1999, 316). Since the 1940s, comic book has been used to encompass all that an observer might find puerile, simplistic, soulless, bombastic, and/or lazy in popular culture. This pejorative usage reveals a paradox: those who loathe comic books are more likely to agree upon its essential features than are those who actually read them. Indeed, even the field of comics studies cannot agree on a shared definition of one of its most vital forms. For some, comic book stands as the default for all graphic works—in periodical or book form—that are simply longer than the comic strip. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, for example, define a comic book as any “volume in which all aspects of the narrative are represented by pictorial and linguistic images encapsulated in a sequence of juxtaposed panels and pages”—essentially claiming for the comic book everything that collects multiple pages in a “volume” (Duncan and Smith 2009, 4).
On the other side are those whose definitions of the comic book are specific in terms of a range of qualities we associated with the modern form that emerges in the 1930s and 1940s. Santiago García defines the comic book as referencing “a stapled booklet, generally in color, between thirty-two and sixty-four pages, sold at newsstands at a price accessible to children’s pockets, and collected in a series” (García 2015, 68). The 1994 Library of Congress definition is even more economical: “periodicals of pictorial fantasy” (Library of Congress Collections Policy Statements 1994, 19). While the Library of Congress has since complicated this definition, the assumption of comic books as periodicals remains ingrained, as seen in postal regulations that disqualify comic books from media mail on the ground that they are magazines.
Both definitional options present challenges. If, as Smith and Duncan suggest, any sequential comic of more than one page bound together is a comic book, then not only do they effectively dispense with the newer concept of the “graphic novel,” but newspaper comics supplements would need to be read as “comic books” as well. If we exclude the comics supplement on the grounds that it contains different works on each page, then we would similarly need to dismiss anthology comic books made up of one-page stories. From this angle, comic book as a format becomes all but synonymous with comics as a medium. Similarly, definitions that inextricably link comics to the periodical format lose their power when describing one-shot titles, just as those that require advertising or seriality quickly run into numerous counterexamples. And of course, the 1994 Library of Congress definition of comics as “pictorial fantasy” fails to account for a broad range of nonfiction comic books dating back to the 1940s.
While pinning down a precise formal definition of the comic book is impossible, there are certain features generally agreed upon. Most users identify the comic book with the newsstand form that emerged in the US in the early 1930s: saddle-stitched magazines, 7¾″ x 10½″, with glossy color cover and four-color interior newsprint pages. Many features and conventions of this original format would change in the coming decades. For example, while newsstands had the monopoly on comic book distribution for several decades, in the early 1970s, a new distribution method emerged in the form of the direct market in which comic books were sold in comic shops. This distribution shift would have a significant impact not just on the economics of the industry but on the fandom cultures that gathered around the form, as the comic shop became a place where some fans found community and safe haven. Of course, what were safe havens for some could also be decidedly unwelcoming spaces for others, including women, people of color, and those new to the form. Thus in the late twentieth century, the comic book took on associations, positive and negative, that have as much to do with its distribution as with the format itself.
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, comic book culture is in many ways more inclusive, and the form’s cultural visibility is arguably greater than it has been at any time since the 1940s. A growing roster of movies and television shows are based on serial comic books, from the megabudget spectacles of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to independent properties like Preacher and Umbrella Academy adapted for television. The comic book is also now rarely printed on newsprint. The rise of digital coloring in the 1990s brought with it a move to higher-quality paper, making comics slicker and more colorful than ever before—and increasingly expensive. Whereas the original comic books sold for a dime for almost thirty years, the median price of a comic book in 2019 is over four dollars. These growing costs are certainly one reason—even at this moment in which comics seem to be everywhere—that sales of comic books are down sharply. Motivated by the closing of comic book shops and overall declining sales, many comic publishers are moving to digital distribution platforms, such as ComiXology (owned by Amazon) or self-controlled “streaming” subscription models such as Marvel Unlimited. Here of course the comic book dimensions are dependent on the size of the device on which it is read, and this digital comic book is no longer available for collecting, trading, and resale—the lifeblood of the organized fandom that emerged in the 1970s.
While the next chapter in the evolution of the comic book remains uncertain, examining the “prehistory” of the modern form provides insights into the fantasies and ambitions that the comic book has gathered to its pages since its origins and that transcend the various format and distribution changes the comic book has undergone.
Long before the modern “comic book” was devised in 1933, the idea of the comic book emerged in the 1860s, primarily through the marketing of one American publisher, C. W. Carleton. As technological advancements such as the steam-powered rotary press reduced costs, the mid-nineteenth century was awash with new print formats (penny papers, story papers, dime novels) and markets. Images, once scarce, became increasingly central to popular print culture, as new techniques (wood engraving, lithography) made mass printing images easier and cheaper. By the 1840s, US print culture was a visual popular culture, leading to the emergence of both the modern comic form and the birth of film at century’s end.
It was during this period of experimentation that the Swiss artist and educator Rodolphe Töpffer developed a technique he termed “auto-lithography,” in which the artist drew with a special pen on chemically treated paper, which was then transferred to a lithography stone. This allowed the printed image to capture the spontaneity and flow of the hand-drawn line. The illustrated mammoth weekly paper Brother Jonathan was at this time publishing heavily illustrated serialized fiction from Britain as fast as the typesetters could pirate it off the incoming ships. It was in the midst of this gold rush in 1842 that Brother Jonathan published the comic “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.” The supplement proved so popular that it was soon reprinted in a bound format. Although not yet labeled a “comic book,” the format for the bound Oldbuck would influence the comic book form in the US until 1919. The comic book had arrived in America via a very circuitous route: a British bootleg of a French unauthorized reworking of a book by Töpffer, originally published in Geneva in 1837. The popularity of Oldbuck in America led to subsequent slim volumes of sequential graphic narratives advertised as “new and cheap book[s] of funny pictures… similar to ‘Obadiah Oldbuck.’” Thus it was that Töpffer’s pirated work created the beginnings of an American market for the comic book that publishers in the late 1840s and 1850s worked to build upon.
When Carleton advertised items as “comic books,” he was drawing on the world he found as a young cartoonist in the 1850s. Carleton had worked for some of the pioneering comic periodicals of the time, including the Lantern and the New-York Picayune, before starting a publishing house that specialized in books that, like these magazines, combined humorous prose with the work of some of the leading cartoonists of the day.
While these books would not be recognizable as comic books to most readers today, the label was not simply an anachronism. For example, among the comic books Carleton advertised was Artemus Ward (1865). The cartoonist for Artemus Ward was Henry Louis Stephens, who had begun his career at another new comics periodical, the short-lived John-Donkey in 1848. There Stephens had created two popular series—one setting familiar lines of poetry against cartoons of humble characters and another combining political caricatures with a bestiary drawn in the style of the popular Birds of America—that would spin off into two books significant in comics history. The writer was Charles Farrar Browne, a popular humorist of the period who had edited Vanity Fair, a comics magazine founded by Stephens that emerged out of the bohemian circles at Pfaff’s beer cellar, of which both men were members. Pfaff’s served as a nexus for an emerging counterculture of the period, frequented by artists and poets—most famously Walt Whitman—as well as many cartoonists, including a young Thomas Nast, whose 1870s campaign against “Boss” William M. Tweed would make him the first celebrity cartoonist.
In grouping these works together under the new category of “comic book,” Carleton hoped to capture and capitalize on the energies that had failed to find a permanent home in the short-lived comics magazines of his younger years. These comic books would be something to keep on the shelf and return to in the future, differentiated from the ephemeral weeklies in which this material predominantly circulated in these early years.
This origin story for the idea of the comic book brings to the fore certain things that might be lost if we focus solely on the format as it comes into being in the 1930s. First, the comic book has from the start existed in a complex, liminal relationship with other periodical forms, a fact that will play a central role in the development of the modern form. Second, the comic book has always entailed an ungainly combination of commercial ambition and bohemian idealism, a quality that continues to adhere to the form throughout the coming century and will contribute to the push-pull between standardization and experimentation that shapes its history. Finally, the comic book form was from the start about community—in this originary moment, an attempt to create a more lasting home for the transient periodical comics communities whose early magazines had gone under by the time Carleton started selling “comic books.”
The communal ideal of the comic book would fall away for a time, as comics at the end of the nineteenth century begin to migrate from the illustrated magazine to the new medium of the newspaper comics supplement, leading to the birth of the first comics celebrities in the form of characters like the Yellow Kid, Happy Hooligan, and Foxy Grandpa. For the first time, periodical comics had recurring characters. And almost immediately, the comic book was reimagined as a place they could call home.
In 1902, William Randolph Hearst began to market comic books—softbound collections entirely made up of newspaper comics reprints. These comic books featured many of the most popular strips in Hearst’s fast-growing stable, including Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, and the Katzenjammer Kids. For the first time, comic book became a widely adopted marketing concept. Book stores advertise the latest “comic books that will please everyone” (Evening World, November 30, 1903); alongside its more familiar commodities, Bloomingdale’s announces a “Sale of Comic Books at 36c. Printed in Brilliant and Attractive Colors” (Evening World, November 10, 1903); and following the holiday season, an Oregon paper announces a 50 percent sale on “all left-over Comic Books” (Morning Oregonian, January 7, 1905).
The early Hearst comic books were oblong and perfect bound and had thin, flexible cardboard covers with linen tape around the spine, a layout inherited from Oldbuck. When Hearst started licensing to other publishers, the basic format was retained for the next two decades, before Cupples & Leon, who emerged as the dominant publisher in this marketplace, shifted in 1919 to a square format that better accommodated reprints of the newer daily comic strip.
If the definition of the comic book is restricted solely to periodical formats, one might dismiss these early comic books as belonging to a different category entirely. But of course magazines in the early years of the twentieth century did not always look like our modern saddle-stitch magazines. Indeed, many popular magazines—including the pulps to which modern comic books are closely related—were perfect bound and looked more like oversized paperbacks than what we conventionally think of as magazines. And while the earliest comic books were not periodicals, they were often published as numbered series.
Further, from the very start, these early comic books explored seriality and transmediality, attributes we associate with the modern comic book. For example, the 1903 edition of Happy Hooligan includes a strip from April 13, 1902, that was the source for the 1903 Edison film Happy Hooligan Interferes, the first movie adaptation of a comic text. And the volume opens with one of the first comics to have been initially serialized over two consecutive installments, with “to be continued” opening up serial possibilities previously unexplored in newspaper comics. Within a couple of years, seriality would explode in newspaper comics, beginning in 1905 with the adventures of Little Nemo in Slumberland and then with the first successful daily newspaper strip, A. Mutt (1907). The first Happy Hooligan to be continued over multiple installments was likely initially designed as a full Sunday page, then divided by Hearst’s editors into two installments to provide more material for the new comic book, which could only print half pages. But in doing so, this first twentieth-century comic book opened up the serial possibilities of the comic strip and established the genealogy of serial storytelling in the comic book form that would be fully realized several decades later.
The first periodical comic arrives in January 1922. The Comic Monthly was roughly square, like the post-1919 Cupples & Leon titles, but it sought inroads into venues unavailable to earlier comic books: “newsstands, railroad trains, book stores, toy stores, department stores, hotels, drug stores, everywhere” (see the inside cover of issue 6 of Comic Monthly, 1922). As the inside cover of #2 suggests, “Tell your newsdealer now that you want one. You will want the whole collection and it will be impossible to secure back numbers” (see the inside back cover in issue 2 of Comic Monthly, 1922). By issue #6, it was clear the venture was struggling, as the annual subscription price was lowered to $1. The series ended with issue #12. But this first newsstand comic forged the bridge between the first comic books of the century and the development of the modern comic book a decade later.
Even as we look forward in anticipation of that modern comic book, however, it is worth noting continuities between the comic book of the first two decades of the century and the more familiar format that emerges beginning with Comic Monthly. In addition to adopting the square format from the popular Cupples & Leon series, Comic Monthly printed a trompe l’oeil tape around its spine to imitate the binding of the earlier comic books. Periodical and saddle-stitched, the Comic Monthly looks at last like a modern comic book, but the magazine’s editors sought to maintain connections to their nonperiodical predecessors. If the “comic books” of the nineteenth century sought to capture in a lasting format the periodical energies of the first comic magazines, the first periodical comic of the twentieth century sought to transfer back to periodical form the pleasures and rewards of the new comic books.
In 1933, one of the darkest years of the Great Depression, the printing business was struggling. While the popularity of newspaper comics—a cheap entertainment—continued to grow, the newspaper industry as a whole was in trouble. Advertising revenue was down 50 percent from its levels before the crash in 1929. And there were other signs of trouble on the horizon, as the new medium of serial radio was claiming more of business’s advertising budget.
While contemplating the declines in its newspaper printing business, two employees of Eastern Color Printing realized that the standard printing plates used to print the Sunday newspaper comics supplements could be repurposed. As one of those employees, Max Gaines, would tell the story in 1943, “The discovery was pure accident. While inspecting a promotional folder published by the Ledger Syndicate in the early 1930s, in which four-color Sunday comic pages were shown in 7 by 9 inch size, it was suddenly realized that pages of these dimensions could be economically produced on a four-color rotary newspaper press” (Gaines 1943, 19).
While it would be the development of the superhero genre a few years later that would ignite the comic book boom, the success of the earliest modern comic books was a response to the growing popularity of the comic strip medium and the desire on the part of fans for a more permanent medium than the daily newspaper. As it had been some eight decades earlier, the impetus behind the newest version of the comic book was the desire to capture the ephemerality of a periodical format—in this case, the daily newspaper—in a form that could be owned, revisited, collected. Where the earliest Sunday comics made few serial demands on their readers, the open-ended seriality of the daily comic strip generated a desire for completism and the return to installments—a desire that grew more intense with the daily adventure strips of the 1920s and 1930s. The Cupples & Leon comic books were infrequent and sold in bookstores for twenty-five cents; what Gaines proposed was to create a regularly published periodical that sold on newsstands for only a dime.
Had it not been the Depression when the modern comic book was born, things might have gone in a different direction. However, with creative labor cheap and willing, it was inevitable that someone would see what could be made of nonreprint materials. In 1935, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications with the goal of making comics without the expense of syndicate licenses, hiring artists to create work that the publisher would own outright. In 1935, New Fun became the first comic to publish entirely original (if highly derivate) material. Ultimately Nicholson’s efforts were not rewarded by the marketplace, at least not in time to save his stake in the company that would become DC Comics. The last original title launched under his management was Detective Comics, which in 1939 would serve as the birthplace of Batman, the second character of the superhero boom. But by then Nicholson had been forced out by his business partners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz.
What stymied Nicholson in those early years was the fact that his original stories had no recognizable characters of the kinds his rivals were offering. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, the deliberations of the newsstand favored characters readers already trusted from relationships established through their daily newspaper encounters. If what initially drove the 1930s comic book was a desire to possess a permanent version of the transient comic strip, none of the early National Allied original material serviced that desire. Of course, with the arrival of the superhero in the comic book format, all of that would change. Now for the first time, the modern comic book had original material that generated demand independent of the newspaper comics.
But how independent was the first superhero of the newspaper comics? For one thing, Superman was originally conceived of as a newspaper strip, and only after it had been rejected by numerous syndicates were its creators willing to consider the new medium of the comic book. In addition by January 1939, soon after his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938, Superman was appearing daily in newspapers across the country. Before it was amplified by the newspaper strip, Action Comics was likely selling around two hundred thousand copies—remarkable numbers for an original comic book to be sure. The sparse sales data from the period indicate that Eastern Color’s Famous Funnies continued to sell over three hundred thousand copies monthly throughout 1939 and into early 1940, suggesting that the newspaper reprint comic book was not suddenly obsolete with the arrival of the superhero. But while we cannot recover the degree to which the Superman comic strip impacted the sales of the comic book (especially with the additional complication of the radio serial beginning in February 1940), it is certainly clear that on its own, Superman did not immediately transform the comic book industry. The comic book, then as now, was always bound up with other media.
What this history of some of the early “births” of the comic book teaches us is that few of the properties we likely most associate with the format today are essential to its definition, at least when we take the long view. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no claims to make on behalf of the comic book. From the long view, we can see that the comic book is a form that is always in conversation with a range of other forms and media economies—early on, books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers; more recently, film, television, video games, and the internet. It is a format that has, from its nineteenth-century origins, been tied up with a nostalgic longing for the fleeting present—the desire to capture an ephemeral modern popular culture in a form that could allow for ownership, rereadings, collection, and recirculation. And it is a format that perhaps better than any other represents the often-contradictory fantasies and desires readers, artists, and publishers bring to comics more broadly. It is quite certain that, despite the historically poor sales of periodical comic books at this historical moment, the form will persist beyond the end of our current century. It is equally certain that were we to encounter the comic book of century’s end, we would find it as unfamiliar as we do the comic books of the 1860s or the early 1900s.