At its simplest, a comic book is a series of words and pictures that are presented in a sequential manner to form a narrative that may or may not be humorous (McCloud 1993). Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, the comic book contains everyday language, slang, and idiom, as well as color and a sophisticated interplay between text and image—all serving a therapeutic, explanatory, and commercial purpose in American culture. Traditionally occupying the fringes of pop culture, the comic book is actually a valuable historical text that comments on how young people and adults alike identify with cultural and political issues. As such, a comic book is much more than just a series of words and pictures with marginal cultural importance. Indeed, given its complex cultural and commercial role, a definition of “comic book” raises an amalgam of theoretical debates about sequence, narrative, image, text, genre, and art as well as its relation to other genres, such as children’s literature (Meskin 2007). At the very least, comic books can be seen as a result of pressures by artists and consumers as well as by the historical forces acting on both groups. Much more than just a form of entertainment for kids, comic books are a serious and sophisticated art form that both feeds off of and creates cultural formulas and historical constructs.
Since the 1960s the comic book industry has been dominated by the two major publishers of superhero books—Marvel and Detective Comics (DC). DC’s official name for almost 50 years was National Periodical Publication; Marvel was known as Timely Comics from 1939 to about 1950, and then as Atlas Comics for much of the 1950s. Many comic book fans often use the concept of “ages” to distinguish periods of comic book history that share concerns, storytelling techniques, marketing strategies, styles of art and writing, and approach to genre conventions (Coogan 2006). These ages can roughly be distinguished as the Golden (1938-1956), Silver (1956-1971), Bronze (1971-1980), Iron (1980-1987), and Modern (1987-present).
Comic Book Precursors
The thematic elements of the genre can arguably be traced back to ancient Greek mythological gods and superheroes. For example, the modern comic book hero Flash explicitly draws on the iconography of the Greek god Hermes with his winged helmet and boots. Samson’s weakness in the Old Testament, a haircut, echoes the vulnerabilities that afflict modern heroes, such as Superman’s kryptonite. Other ancient heroes such as Zeus, Gilgamesh, Thor, Beowulf, and Jason and the Argonauts all contain conventions that are seen in modern-day comic book heroes, such as the sidekick (sometimes homoerotically charged), sexual temptation, and teaming up with others, as in the Justice League. More modern archetypes include Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Tarzan, the pulp übermensch (Coogan 2006).
The format of the modern day comic book perhaps can be traced to ancient narrative sequences of cave paintings, but more likely to the medieval broadsheet, which was a narrative strip carved into woodcuttings (Hayman and Pratt 2005). Broadsheet authors would often create cartoonish narratives of public executions and caricatures of public figures. As the printing press allowed mass circulation of the broadsheets, they were often gathered into collections, or what could be considered a prototype of the modern magazine or newspaper and, by extension, the comic book. Some scholars have even gone so far as to claim that the Bayeux Tapestry, which traces in a graphic pictorial narrative the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, is an early form of the comic strip (Meskin 2007).
The first “real” comic strip is usually acknowledge to be Richard Felton Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, which debuted in 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World and served as a marketing tool to boost sales of the newspaper. Yellow Kid was also notable in that his was the first comic...
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