When Did the Publication of Comic Books Begin?
Comics as a print medium have existed in America since the printing of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842 in hardcover, making it the first known American prototype comic book. Although it looked more like a picture book than what most Americans would consider to be a comic book, its author, Switzerland’s Rudolphe Töpffer, is widely considered to be the creator of the picture story, comic strip, and graphic novel/comic book.
Proto-comics periodicals began appearing early in the 20th century, with historians generally citing Dell Publishing’s 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics as the first true American comic book; Goulart, for example, calls it “the cornerstone for one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing”. Rather than original content, however, it was composed of reprinted comic strips from newspapers, including such favorites as Mutt and Jeff, Joe Palooka, and Skippy.
It was very popular and led to the publication of other syndicated comic strips from newspapers. It wasn’t long, though, before demand for comic books led aspiring cartoonists, suffering from high unemployment as a result of the Great Depression, to create inexpensive original content. The introduction of Jerry Siegeland Joe Shuster’s Superman in 1938 turned comic books into a major industry, and ushered the Golden Age of Comics. The Golden Age originated the archetype of the superhero.
Historians generally divide the timeline of the American comic book into eras. The Golden Age of Comic Books began with the introduction of Superman in 1938, spurring a period of high sales. The Silver Age of comic books is generally considered to date from the first successful revival of the then-dormant superhero form, with the debut of the Flash in Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956).
The Silver Age lasted through the late 1960s or early 1970s, during which time Marvel Comics revolutionized the medium with such naturalistic superheroes as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. The demarcation between the Silver Age and the following era, the Bronze Age of Comic Books, is less well-defined, with the Bronze Age running from the very early 1970s through the mid-1980s. The Modern Age of Comic Books runs from the mid-1980s to the present day.
A notable event in the history of the American comic book came with psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s criticisms of the medium in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which prompted the American Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to investigate comic books. In response to attention from the government and from the media, the U.S. comic book industry set up the Comics Magazine Association of America.
The CMAA instilled the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval. It was not until the 1970s that comic books could be published without passing through the inspection of the CMAA. The Code was made formally defunct in 2011.
The 1970s saw the advent of specialty comic book stores. Initially, comic books were marketed by publishers to children because comic books were perceived as children’s entertainment. However, with increasing recognition of comics as an art form and the growing pop culture presence of comic book conventions, they are now embraced by many adults.
Comic book sales increased dramatically during World War II. People could not get enough of the patriotic, inspirational stories of good overcoming evil. Plus, they were cheap. Captain America was particular popular during the war. Comic books remain popular today. Classic comic books can also be extremely valuable. Action Comics #1, in which Superman made his debut, is still considered the most valuable comic book in the world. In 2014, a copy of the classic comic sold for over $3 million!