From Comic Strips to Comic Books: The History of Comic Art in America - by An Barry Bui

It can make us laugh, move us, captivate our imagination, speak out for our belief, and transcends all of our expectations. Comics have long been a part of our culture, and its social influence throughout our American history is undeniable. It is the only sanctuary where you can criticize the overpowering political figure or worship your favorite superhero icon. A comic strip is merely combination of cartoons with a story line, laid out in a series of pictorial panels across a page. The comic usually concerns character or set of characters, whose thoughts and dialogues are indicated by means of "balloons" containing written speech. Comic strips developed in America towards the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout the years, many types of comics came about, from political to humorous strips. Soon enough comic strips evolved into the ever popular comic books. The history of comic art in America is quite a roller coaster, but through the ups and downs, comic art has withstood the test of time and become a staple of our American culture.

Sunday Page - Yellow Kid

Sequential art has had a long illustrious history. Cave paintings were the earliest form of sequential art . Such paintings were from the cave of Lascaux in France, frequently depicting animals; these images were usually an illustrated chapter of a prehistoric tribe's hunt for food. At around 1300 BC, Egyptian hieroglyphics inside the pyramids glorified their pharaohs (Richard Halegua, Online). The Greeks and the Romans also had marble carvings that told story of their great rulers. Michelangelo’s masterpiece of the scene of Adam and God is part of the largest sequential story in picture form, covering the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These were some of the predecessors of what we have come to now know as comic art.


In the beginning, comic strips were published exclusively as weekly features in the Sunday supplement of American newspapers, originally created as a tool to draw customers to the Sunday edition of the local newspaper (Halegua, Online). The comic strips originally evolved from the traditional cartoon. A "cartoon" was any single drawing generally accompanied by a caption or a legend that conveyed a message (Stephen Becker 2). It was made popular due to the work of renowned cartoonists such as Thomas Nast, Honoré Daumier, and William Hogarth. The advent of comic strips was not a sudden event, but rather a gradual discovery. In the 18th and early 19th century, William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson regularly used word balloons in their cartoons. Rowlandson utilized "continuity", one story with one cast appearing regularly, in his Tours of Dr. Syntax (Becker 3). In the 1870s and 1880s, American dailies and weeklies slowly incorporated more comic-like pieces. One example of these pioneer comic strips was Frank Bellew’s six-panel strip in 1881 called Mr. Bowler’s Midnight Encounter (Becker 3).   Although there were evidences of early comic form in American newspapers, the birth of the genre came in 1896 in The Yellow Kid by Richard Felton Outcault, which appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (Becker 10). The "kid" was bald with flap ears; he had a wise, slightly Chinese face. The Yellow Kid’s nightshirt usually was the focal point of the drawing; it was a billboard with a message. The significance of The Yellow Kid was that the written word had moved into the drawing, and it was no longer simply a caption or a legend. Words began to reflect the humor of the drawing, and vice versa (Becker 11). Next came Rudolph Dirks' the Katzenjammer Kids (1897), which was the first to make consistent use of a sequence of panels to tell the stories. The Katzenjammer Kids combined both the aspect of internal dialogue and panelized continuity (Halegua, Online), and Dirk established the foundation for which succeeding comic strips follow. With the appearance of pioneering strips such as Happy Hooligan by Frederick Burr Opper, Carl E. Schultze’s Foxy Grandpa, Outcault’s Buster Brown, and James Swinnerton’s Little Jimmy (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Online), all the essential components of the comic strip, such as regularity of cast, use of sequence of panels, and speech-balloons, were refined and securely established.


Filial Piety - hand colored
Little Jimmy comicstrip


By the early 1900s, there were well over 150 strips in America, in addition to numerous strips that were in publication for local papers. Up to this point, the majority of comics were humorous. Winsor McCay introduced a new type of genre with Little Nemo in Slumberland that appeared from 1905-1911 in the New York Herald (Halegua, Online). The strip was centered on the dreamt adventures of a small boy named Nemo and his friends. Nemo's adventures extended through several weeks, and McCay’s comic was somewhat of an adventurous fantasy and at times mild soap opera. In 1924, Roy Crane’s Washington Tubbs II introduced the idea of adventure comics (Halegua, Online). Edgar Rice Burroughs followed up with the idea with his famous comic Tarzan. Soon other genres of comics emerged, such as science-fiction tales in Princess of Mars, also by Burroughs, and the detective strips of Dick Tracy (1931) by Chester Gould. By the time of the great depression, Americans turned to comic strips as one of the ways to escape from their dreary daily life.
Famous Funnies No. 1
Jon Mayes
In 1933, the comic world was about to change; the arrival of the first comic book was a surprise to all, and the eventual success is now truly history. Publishers at Eastern Color Printing were figuring out a way to efficiently use their printing equipment, which was frequently idle between jobs. Maxwell Gaines, father of William F. Gaines, EC Comics & Mad Magazine publisher, came up with the idea of printing an eight page comic section that could be folded down from the large broadsheet to a smaller nine inch by twelve inch format. The result was the first modern comic book. The name was Funnies on Parade, and it contained reprints of newspaper comic strips and was given away for free. Realizing that there was a market for repackaged strips, the following year Eastern published Famous Funnies and sold it for ten cents through chain stores (Halegua, Online).


Captain America Comics #1
Simon and Kirby
The Golden Age of comic history was creeping up, and all it needed was something to ignite the fuel. From the creative minds of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster came Superman. The idea was heavily inspired by Philip Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator (Derek Santos, Online). Though Siegel and Shuster thought they had discovered a goldmine, selling their idea to newspapers turned out to be a difficult task. They were hit with rejection after rejection from newspaper such as the Bell Syndicate and United Features. The strips finally made its way into the hands of McClure Syndicate editor Sheldon Mayer who immediately fell in love with it. Mayer then passed the idea up to Harry Donenfeld of DC Comics, who agreed to buy the strips. The first issue appeared in the news stands in May 1938. Superman was born and the rest is history. The success of Superman kick starts a revolution of superheroes in comic books. Along came Batman by Bob Kane, who made his first appearance in Detective Comics No. 27 in May 1939 (Santos, Online). The time of World War II marked the arrival of Captain America. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, its first issue came out in February of 1941 (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Online). By this time, comic strips and comic books began to diverge from each other. Comic books stood as the domain of the superheroes.


As the world war ended, so did the golden age of superheroes. Other genres in the realm of comic arts began to flourish. Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories became more and more popular. Crime comics became a huge success with "Crime Does Not Pay". Horror comics crashed onto the scene in 1948, and by 1950 E.C. Comics had three horror titles on the stands, Crypt of Terror (later Tales from the Crypt), Haunt of Fear and Vault of Horror. These comics raised the bar with their gory art and violent storyline.
The Crypt of Terror #17
Johnny Craig
In 1940, Dr. Frederic Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent accusing comic books to "systematically poisoned the wellspring of children’s spontaneity and prepared the ground for later aggressive behavior." (Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs 132). Dr. Wertham viewed that comics seduced the reader into a future of crime and sexual perversions. On October 26, 1045 the Comics Code of the CMAA came into effect. It regulated and forbade many things in comics, including no two piece bathing suits, criminals must pay for their crimes, no blood or gore, and words like weird, horror and terror could not be published on the covers (Halegua, Online). The comic world took a huge blow as sales plummeted, almost all crime comics went out of business, DC had only a couple dozen titles left, and Atlas (which later became Marvel) was almost out of business.

Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert
The comic world needed something to catapult it back on its feet, and Julius Schwartz of DC comics brought in The Flash. Written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Carmine Infantino, the Flash made its debut on the stands in September of 1956, and his origin story was a success. Then came the "Brave & the Bold" #28, dated February-March of 1960 (Halegua, Online). The Justice League of America was formed by the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman, with Batman and Superman making occasional cameos. Their popularity grew exponentially, and it kick started the second age of superheroes.


Creeping behind DC’s superheroes success, Marvel comics was about to make its mark in history. Seeing the success of DC’s Justice League of America, Martin Goodman worked with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create their own superhero team. The Fantastic Four made its first appearance in September of 1961 (Santos, Online). Its success was overwhelming. Marvel followed that up with the Incredible Hulk in May 1962. Stan Lee then flirted with the idea of a "spider-hero" with Martin Goodman. This led to the creation of arguably the second most famous comic superhero of all time, Spider-Man. Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy on cover dated August of 1962 (Halegua, Online). In many following years, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would introduce numerous heroes into the comic world such as Giant Man, The Mighty Thor, Iron Man, and reintroduce characters like the Sub-Mariner and Captain America. The massive success of Marvel comics was due to the fact that their superheroes differed from DC’s. Superman and Batman chose the path to heroism and they did not possess the regular problems of ordinary people. Marvel heroes, on the other hand, were beset by human problems. "The Thing" didn't want to be an ugly monster, nor did Bruce Banner want to change into The Hulk, a creature with uncontrollable rage. Peter Parker had all the ordinary problems that a teenager could relate to. And August of 1975 marked the reintroduction of The X-Men, another by-product of comic genius Stan Lee (Santos, Online). The franchise would flourish into success and maintain popularity in our contemporary culture.

Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum

We all have come to understand that pictures strike us more efficiently than words. The cliché, "a picture is worth a thousand words," exemplifies the significance of comic arts in America. From cave paintings to the Yellow Kid to Superman, comic arts have had a long and lasting history. What started out as just an advertisement scheme to draw customers to the Sunday edition of the local newspaper has manifested itself into a profitable entertainment business. Comic books now stand on separate grounds from comic strips, but the relation and transition from one to the other is undeniable.

Work Cited

Becker, Stephen. Comic Art in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1959.
Halegua, Richard. Comic Art. 2001. 18 July. 2004
Reitberger, Reinhold, and Wolfgang Fuchs. Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.
Santos, Derek. The Comic Page. 22 July, 15 July 2004
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. "Comic Strips". Copyright © 2003 Columbia University Press. (The Yellow Kid) (Funnies on Parade) (Captain America and Crime Does Not Pay) (Superman and Batman) (The Katzenjammer Kids) (Spiderman and Incredible Hulk) (Dick Tracy)


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