A Short History of "Art" Comics

In order to establish the cultural relevance and context of graphic fiction it is necessary to look briefly at the history of comics. This subject has been studied extensively elsewhere (Weiner 2003, McCloud 1993, Versaci 2007, Wigan 2007, Gravett 2005, Hatfield 2005, Sabin 2001) and an anything but the briefest of sojourns is beyond the scope of this website. The following paragraphs are admittedly concerned principally with the history of comics in the anglophone countries and do not do justice to the long history of comics in European, particularly Francophone, countries.

Sequential graphic images existed long before written language and many writers see the origins of comic art in the pictorial narrative of the ancients.
Storytelling with pictures existed from prehistory (Versaci, 2007:7) with pictures of the hunt executed in charcoal and earth pigments in the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux (Wigan 2007:57). Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan, Aztec, Greek, Persian and Roman manuscripts all used graphic narrative sequences, as did Trajan’s column in Rome (AD 113). The Bayeux Tapestry, (c 1100), reads as an early comic strip: a mix of text and images; the timeline moving from left to right in a clear narrative sequence which tells the story of William’s invasion of Britain, the battle of Hastings and the death of Harold. The paintings of Bosch and Brueghel contain clear narrative elements, as do Japanese wood block prints (McCloud uc10-12)

Cartooning, as we know it, is evident in the works of Hogarth and Gillray, but the arrangement of cartoons into a narrative sequence, and therefore the first steps into western comic art as we know it, is usually credited to Rodolphe Töpffer. Published in 1837, and translated and republished in the US in 1842, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was a comedic story using independent words and pictures. It was not originally intended for publication, but created in his spare time to amuse his aquantances. RF Outcault's The Yellow Kid became a popular syndicated cartoon in the 1890's and led to the production of licensed products such as fans, badges, buttons, cigars and crackers (Wigan 2007:60). America was undergoing a cultural revolution at the time, the movie industry was just beginning and comics in the newspaper were another new form of entertainment, and the public embraced them.

In 1929 American artist Lynd Ward, inspired by a book by the Belgian engraver Franz Masereel, which told a story in woodcuts, produced Gods Man, a wordless pictorial narrative in book form. Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness) published in Paris in 1934 by Max Ernst, as a series of five pamphlets of 816 copies each was an artists book, composed in collage, made during a three week visit to Italy around the time of Hitler's rise to power in Germany. It consists of found images from Victorian encyclopaedias and novels, cut up and re-organised into 182 montages which represent a kind of dark, surreal world.

By the turn of the century, strip cartoons were in daily circulation in US national newspapers, publishers having found that comic strips boosted sales (Weiner 2003:1). The 1930's saw prototype comic books used as promotional givaways for oil companies, shoe manufacturers and so on (Hatfield 2005:9). Around this time, and during the depression, Tijuana Bibles became popular. These eight page, cheaply produced pamphlets featured sexually explicit stories staring popular celebrities and cartoon characters. Before the war Popeye and Krazy Kat  had appeared and the Second World War gave rise to a new breed of comic character: the “superheroes”. Superman was born in 1938 and helped the war effort by fighting the axis enemies and encouraging readers to buy war bonds (Weiner 2003)

The 1950's saw the medium's commercial peak (Hatfield 2005:11) and since that time the comic book has faded to the margins of popular culture. The cold war saw some action from the superheroes, but the tides of opinion and support were turning and no one had much appetite for sending them into Korea. The 1940’s saw the blossoming of genres: romance; crime; horror; science fiction etc. Stories and graphics began to shock, as well as excite. A climate of subversion, lead by EC comics (educational comics, later entertaining comics) exposed the genteel façade of 1950's America as a sham.

Comics were held by many in the establishment to be the cause of delinquency amongst American youth. Frederic Wertham, a German-America psychiatrist who had worked with the criminally insane, became convinced that mass media, and in particular comics, had a deeply unsavoury influence on society. In 1954 he published The Corruption of the Innocent which partly blamed comics for youth disturbance, suicide and aggression and lead to a US congressional inquiry. This was the era of McCarthyism in Hollywood, and anticommunist sentiment. Whilst governments in Britain, France and Canada had enacted severe new laws (Gravett 2005:22) to control the medium, actual legislation was narrowly avoided in the US. To protect themselves the leading comics companies formed the Comics Code Authority (CCA), part of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) which produced the comics code. In order to be stocked in places where comics were sold- newsagents and grocery stores, the comics code stamp of approval had to be in place. In order to qualify for this self-regulated award, the publication had to adhere to certain standards: Women were to be properly clad, authority figures respected, and the violence toned down. Wertham has become reviled amongst the comics community but his writing about comics was only part of his academic output, largely concerning the protection of children from psychological harm and the problem of violence in society. Some comics, such as the influential Mad, sidestepped the code by adoptiong a magazine format.

The rise of the “counterculture” in the 60s and 70’s brought another change. Whilst superheroes flourished, authors began experimenting with comics aimed at older children and adult readers. The opening of “head” shops, comic stores, independent publishers and small scale reproduction technology meant comics could be distributed directly to the target audience, rather than through the mainstream publishing networks, thus the comics code could be effectively ignored. These adult orientated “comix” , such as Robert Crumb's Zap, delighted in graphic portrayals of sex, drug taking and violence. Comix' "alternative" ethos valued the work of lone cartoonists over assembly line production (Hatfield 2005:16). In 1972 Justin Green invented a new genre when he

  became the first neurotic visionary to unburden his uncensored psychological troubles onto the pages of Binky Brown Meet the Holy Virgin Mary, an astonishing self-flagellation of catholic guilt and obsessive-compulsive disorder...As [Art] Spiegelman put it, ‘What the Bronte sisters did for Gothic romance, what Tolkien did for sword and sorcery, Justin Green did for confessional, autobiographical comix (Gravett 2005:22)

However this new surge of “subversive” publication resulted in further legislation: In 1973 a supreme court judgement gave local authorities the power to determine obscenity, comic shops and head shops got nervous and the more radical publications were dropped. These measures proved devastating to comix (Hatfield 2005:19) but from the ruins of the comix community came such seminal magazines as Raw, Arcade and Weirdo. The late seventies saw the invention of what was to become known as the graphic novel. The first example of this new format: the full length, square bound “serious” comic book aimed at adults, is often said to be Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract With God. He used the term which, had been coined in 1964 by publisher Richard Kyle (Gravett 2005:8) to describe the work. Eisner, a veteran working since the 30's, wanted to push the medium further as a vehicle for personal and political statement (Weiner 2003:18-20):

  his reasoning was clear. Eisner observed that children who had read comics in the 1940s would be in their thirties in the mid 70s. Those people had not given up on comics but the comics field had given up on them.

Using high production quality, these hardcover collections of sophisticated stories were able to recruit readers from outside the usual comic demographic. Books presented in comic book format had been a side interest of the trade publishing houses for some time (Weiner 2003:21): collections of classics like Krazy Kat in had been published in the 1960s and collected editions of Peanuts and Tintin were produced in the 1970’s. Richard Kyle had been importing and championing French bandes dessinées in colour hardback albums and thick Japanese paperbacks of manga (Gravett 2005:8). On this side of the atlantic, in 1981 Raymond Briggs published his tale of post-nuclear Britain When the Wind Blows, ushering in another boom in comics and graphic fiction. 1986 saw something of a turning point with the arrival of three enduring classics: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Maus featured a complicated narrative that told three stories simultaneously. Spiegelman’s parents were survivors of Auschwitz, and it follows the story of their hiding from the nazis in their native poland to their capture and their internment in the concentration camp. it also tells of the story of the artists relationship with his somewhat difficult father Vladek who, in some ways was still reliving the war, his mothers suicide and the story of the author himself, who struggled against his families history (Weiner 2003:35) It became, and has remained, the most influential graphic novel to date. Winning many awards, including a Pulitzer prize, Maus drew skeptics and academics into reading books in comics format. Its critical and commercial success left Spiegelman feeling shocked, depressed and guilty at the fact that he had found fame and fortune through the atrocities and miseries of the Holocaust.

The other branch of graphic fiction that should be mentioned at this point is Manga (japanese graphic fiction) which has had a significant influence on western graphic and product design and the reading habits of teenagers and young adults. Whole aisles of the large bookstore chains now groan under the volumes of imported or reproduced manga and many people will have got used to the right to left, back to front reading style. Manga, of course has its own history, and I am not going to attempt to cover it here, I will only say that current day manga has grown out of a fusion of traditional Japanese narrative woodcuts with western comics and animation, the large heads and eyes of Disney characters are said to have been appropriated by postwar japanese manga artists (Wigan 2007:73).

Boom is usually followed by bust, and another bust followed the 90’s boom. Now comics are popular once more. This maybe due in part to film adaptations, but over the past decade, the medium has begun to receive recognition and acclaim from literary critics, academics, and broadsheet reviewers.

McCloud S Understanding comics 1993 New York Harper Collins
Wigan, M Sequential Images 2007 Lausanne, AVA
Gravett, P Graphic Novels-Stories to Change Your Life  2005 London, Aurum Press
Weiner, S Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel 2003, New York Nantier, Beal, Minoustchine
Versaci, R This Book Contains Graphic Language - Comics As Literature 2007, London, Continuum
Hatfield, C Alternative Comics- An Emerging Literature. 2005 University Press of Missisipi
Sabin, R Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels- a history of comic art 2001Phaidon Press Ltd

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