A Brief History of the Comics Industry
by Catherine L. Kouns
There was a time when comic books were looked down upon as one of the lower forms of
life on the literary ladder of evolution. However, as comic books began to break from the
traditional superhero mold, more and more readers began to accept them as a legitimate
form of expression. Today, comic books are not only found in the hands of twelve-year-old
boys riding skateboards -- they're also found in the hands of thirty-five-year-old women
flying first class. There are comics for everyone comics packed with stories of
adventure and triumph, comics featuring romance and light-hearted humor, and comics full
of spirituality and the ongoing search for truth.
The comic book as a means of storytelling has its roots firmly planted in the graphic
narratives of 18th-century Europe. The form as we know it today originated in the United
States in the mid-1930s. In this country, comic books began as reprint collections of
newspaper comic strips, given away as premiums by newspapers.
What is a comic book?
This is a
deceptively simple question with a complex answer. Back in more primitive times, a comic
was a ten-cent, thirty-two page, full-color graphic story printed on newsprint-quality
paper. Today many other formats now exist alongside these traditional forms, including
"graphic novels" containing hundreds of pages and retailing for $50.00 or more.
The modern comic book began life in 1934 when Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson conceived
the idea of commissioning original work for a line of comic books. The experiment went
well, but the comic book didn't really come into its own until 1938. That year, the
artistic invention of two teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio first premiered: Superman.
Suddenly, comic books were big business. Dozens of publishers churned out the adventures
of countless super-powered adventurers. The "Golden Age of Comics" was in full
But in 1952 the industry entered into steep decline. Public interest in caped
superheroes fell off near the end of World War II. This "dark age" was further
exacerbated by governmental investigations into the allegation that comics were corrupting
The 1960s saw the re-emergence of the superhero as a powerful figure; but the sixties
hero was presented with all his human faults and failings. Marvel Comics took the lead in
this approach with its groundbreaking title The Fantastic Four. It was an instant
success. Other "relevant" characters soon followed: Spiderman, the X-Men,
Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk, to name just a few.
Comics publishers today are looking into markets beyond those of direct sales comic
shops. Graphic novels are finding their way into bookstores and libraries; comics are used
in the classroom to motivate previously disinterested youngsters to read. Comic book
characters have also found success in TV cartoon shows, as video games, and on the silver
The comics industry has the ability to motivate, educate, and entertain. comics are a
study in popular culture, a reflection of the world in which they thrive. Who can say what
lies ahead, what new trends and new ideas will capture the attention of comics readers?
The answer is, as the comics say:
"To be continued . . . " l
(Catherine L. Kouns is the Marketing Director of Warp Graphics, Inc., publisher of
the Elfquest line of comic books.)
Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide #44
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