History of American comics

The history of American comics began in the 19th century in the realm of mass print media and yellow journalism, where they served as a boon to mass readership.[1] In the 20th century, comics became an autonomous art medium[1] and an integral part of American culture.[2]


Some well known-genres of the "Golden Age": superhero, crime, horror and romance.

The history of American comics started in 1842 with the translation of Rodolphe Töpffer's work: The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.[3][4] Local artists took over this new medium and created the first American comics. But it is not until the development of daily newspapers that an important readership is reached through comic strips. The first years corresponded to the establishment of canonical codes (recurring character, speech balloons, etc.) and first genres (family strips, adventure tales). Characters acquired national celebrity and were subject to cross-media adaptation while newspapers were locked in a fierce battle for the most popular authors.

The second major evolution came in 1934 with the comic book, which allowed the dissemination of comics (first reprints of comic strips) in dedicated media. In 1938, when Superman appeared in one of those comic books, began what is commonly called the Golden Age of Comic Books. During World War II, superheroes and funny animals were the most popular genres. Following the decline of the superheroes, new genres developed (i.e., western, romance, and science fiction) and reached an increasingly important readership. At the beginning of the 1950s, with the emergence of television, comic books sales began to decline. Meanwhile, they suffered many attacks on their alleged harm to youth. For instance, the introduction of the Comics Code Authority removed the detective and horror series incriminated; though neither comic strips nor magazines were affected by these attacks.

In 1956 began the Silver Age of Comic Books with the return of the preference for superheroes, such as Flash and Green Lantern by DC Comics. If Dell Comics and its comics for children remained the leading publisher of comic books, genres other than superheroes started to decline and many publishers closed. Very popular superheroes, mainly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, appeared in Marvel Comics. This turned into the leading publisher of comics in the next period known as the Bronze Age of Comic Books (from the early 1970s to 1985) during which the stories became less manichean while superhero comics maintained their hegemony. The distinction between these two periods is often associated by historians to an event but it is rather a series of changes that affected many aspects of the comics world. At the same time, underground comics appeared, which, aesthetically, addressed new themes, and economically, were based on a new distribution model. Comic strips continue to be distributed throughout the country and even some of them gained international dissemination, such as Peanuts.

The Modern Age initially seemed to be a new golden age when writers and artists recreated classic characters or launched new series that attracted millions of readers. However, it was then marked by a series of crises that threaten the financial stability of many agents. Alternative comics, successors of underground comics, develop in line with Art Spiegelman and his Maus. On the other hand, the comic strip experienced a crisis more pronounced in the 2000s and linked to that of the press as a whole, while at the same time a new American product, the webcomics, appeared.

Periodization schemes

Cross-genre experiments of the "Silver Age".

American comics historians generally divide 20th-century American comics history chronologically into ages. The first period, called Golden Age, extends from 1938 (first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 by National Allied Publications, a corporate predecessor of DC Comics) to 1954 (introduction of the Comics Code). The following period, the Silver Age, goes from 1956 to early 1970s. The Bronze Age follows immediately and spans until 1986. Finally the last period, from 1986 until today, is the Modern Age.[5] This division is standard but not all the critics apply it, since some of them propose their own periods.[5][6] Furthermore, the dates selected may vary depending on the authors (there are at least four dates to mark the end of the Bronze Age).

In A Complete History of American Comic Books, Shirrel Rhoades resumes the canonical division but cites fan historian Ken Quattro,[7] who proposes three heroic periods (from 1938 to 1955, from 1956 to 1986 and from 1986 until today).[8] Rhoades also cites Steve Geppi (the publisher of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide) who, taking into account comic strips, divides the history of comics in ages:[8] Victorian[9] (Victorian Age, from 1828 — the year when sequential storytelling appeared in the British press[10] — to 1882 — the debut of Grit), of platinum (Platinum Age, from 1882 to 1938), of gold (Golden Age, from 1938 to 1945, the end of World War II), atomic (Atom Age, from 1946 to 1956), of silver (Silver Age, from 1956 to 1971), of bronze (Bronze Age, from 1971 — the year when Marvel Comics published a comic-book story about the dangers of drugs in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98[11] — to 1985), of copper (Copper Age, from 1986 to 1992; the era began with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen),[12] of chrome (Chrome Age, from 1992 — the debut of Image Comics[13] — to 1999 — the year when Marvel Comics emerged from bankruptcy),[14] and modern (Modern Age, since 2000, the year when Marvel's Ultimate line appeared).[13] Consideration of comic strips in the general history of comics has led Geppito add two periods before the Golden Age: the Victorian Age (from 1828 to 1882) and the Platinum Age (the period of comic strips).[8] Alternative definitions of the latter two periods exist: the Victorian Age has also been defined by fan historian Jamie Coville as beginning in 1842 (with the publication of The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Töpffer) and ending in 1897;[4] the Platinum Age has also been defined as beginning in 1897 (with the publication of the Yellow Kid magazine) and ending in 1938.[4]

Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, in The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, prefer to speak of an era of invention, proliferation, diversification, etc.[15]

An alternative name for the period after the mid-1980s is Dark Age of Comic Books, due to the popularity and artistic influence of titles with serious content, such as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.[16] Pop culture writer Matthew J. Theriault proposed an alternative periodization scheme in which the recent history of comics is divided in ages: dark (Dark Age, from c. 1985 to 2004), modern (Modern Age, from c. 2004 to 2011; the era began with the publication of "Avengers Disassembled" and "Infinite Crisis"), and postmodern (Postmodern Age, since 2011; the era began with the publication of Ultimate Fallout #4, the first appearance of Miles Morales).[17] Comics creator Tom Pinchuk proposed the name Diamond Age for the period starting with the appearance of Marvel's Ultimate line (2000–present).[18]

Originally only the Golden Age and the Silver Age had a right of citizenship since the terms "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" had appeared in a letter from a reader published in the nº 42 of Justice League of America in February 1966 that stated: "If you guys keep bringing back the heroes from the Golden Age, people 20 years from now will be calling this decade the Silver Sixties!"[19]

Origins: Victorian Age (1842–1897)

Comics in the United States originated in the early European works. In fact, in 1842, the publication Les amours de Mr. Vieux Bois by Rodolphe Töpffer was published under the title The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.[3][4] This edition is an unlicensed copy of the original work as it was done without Töpffer's authorization. This first publication was followed by other works of this author, always under types of unlicensed editions.[20] Töpffer comics were reprinted regularly until the late 1870s,[21] which gave American artists the idea to produce similar works. In 1849, Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags by James A. and Donald F. Read was the first American comic.[22][23]

Domestic production remained limited until the emergence of satirical magazines that, on the model of British Punch, published drawings and humorous short stories, but also stories in pictures[21] and silent comics. The three main titles were Puck, Judge and Life.[24] Authors such as Arthur Burdett Frost created stories as innovative as those produced in the same period by Europeans. However, these magazines only reach an audience educated and rich enough to afford them. Just the arrival of technological progress allowed easy and cheap reproduction of images for the American comic to take off. Some media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in a fierce competition to attract readers and decided to publish cartoons in their newspapers.[25]


The period of the late nineteenth century was characterized by a gradual introduction of the key elements of the American mass comics. Then, the funnies were found in the humor pages of newspapers: they were published in the Sunday edition to retain readership. Indeed, it was not the information given that distinguished the newspapers but the editorials and the pages which were not informative, whose illustrations were an important component.[26] These pages were then called comic supplement. In 1892, William Randolph Hearst published cartoons in his first newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner. James Swinnerton created on this occasion the first drawings of humanized animals in the series Little Bears and Tykes.[27] Nevertheless, drawings published in the press were rather a series of humorous independent cartoons occupying a full page. The purpose of the cartoon itself, as expressed through narrative sequence expressed through images which follow one another, was only imposed slowly.

In 1894, Joseph Pulitzer published in the New York World the first color strip, designed by Walt McDougall, showing that the technique already enabled this kind of publications.[28] Authors began to create recurring characters. Thus, in 1894 and still in the New York World, Richard F. Outcault presented Hogan's Alley, created shortly before in the magazine Truth Magazine. In this series of full-page large drawings teeming with humorous details, he staged street urchins, one of whom was wearing a blue nightgown (which turned yellow in 1895). Soon, the little character became the darling of readers who called him Yellow Kid.[29] On October 25, 1896, the Yellow Kid pronounced his first words in a speech balloon (they were previously written on his shirt). Outcault had already used this method but this date is often considered as the birth of comics in the United States.[30]

Yellow Kid success boosted sales of the New York World, fueling the greed of Hearst. Fierce competition between Hearst and Pulitzer in 1896 led to enticing away of Outcault by Hearst to work in the New York Journal. A bitter legal battle allowed Pulitzer to keep publishing Hogan's Alley (which he entrusted to Georges B. Luks) and Hearst to publish the series under another name. Richard Outcault chose the title The Yellow Kid. Published in 1897, the Yellow Kid magazine consisting of sheets previously appeared in newspapers and it was the first magazine of its kind.[31][32]

See also


  1. 1 2 Williams, Paul and James Lyons (eds.), The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, p. 106.
  2. Waugh, Coulton, The Comics, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, p. xiii.
  3. 1 2 (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 25)
  4. 1 2 3 4 Jamie Coville, "History of Comics: Platinum Age" – TheComicBooks.com.
  5. 1 2 (Rhoades 2008, p. 4)
  6. (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 22)
  7. Ken Quattro, "The New Ages: Rethinking Comic Book History" (2004).
  8. 1 2 3 (Rhoades 2008, p. 5)
  9. The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901.
  10. "Bell's Life in London #330". Grand Comics Database.
  11. (Rhoades 2008, p. 103)
  12. (Rhoades 2008, p. 124)
  13. 1 2 (Rhoades 2008, p. 6)
  14. (Rhoades 2008, p. 163)
  15. (Duncan & Smith 2009, pp. 23–4)
  16. Voger, Mark (2006). The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics. TwoMorrows Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 1-893905-53-5.
  17. Matthew J. Theriault, "We're Living in the Postmodern Age of Comics", The Hub City Review, March 10, 2016: "Starting with Miles, a character of mixed Black and Hispanic descent, the new and redesigned characters of the Postmodern Age are almost universally representatives of previously marginalized demographics."
  18. Tom Pinchuk, "Is this the "Diamond Age" of Comics?", Comic Vine, May 25, 2010.
  19. (Rhoades 2008, p. 71)
  20. (Rubis 2012, p. 39)
  21. 1 2 Coville, Jamie (2001). "See you in the Funny Pages..." The Comic Books. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  22. (Rhoades 2008, p. 3)
  23. (Gabilliet 2010, p. 4)
  24. (Harvey 1994, p. 4)
  25. (Rubis 2012, p. 45)
  26. (Harvey 2009, p. 38)
  27. (Baron-Carvais 1994, p. 12)
  28. (Dupuis 2005, p. 16)
  29. (Baron-Carvais 1994, p. 13)
  30. Lord, Denis (March 2004). "Bandes dessinées: le phylactère francophone célèbre ses 100 ans". Le Devoir (in French). Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  31. (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 26)
  32. The Yellow kid. Library of Congress.


Further reading

  • Coogan, Peter (2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin, Texas: MonkeyBrain Books. 
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