Camelot In Four Colors

Sources and Resources

A Brief History of the American Comic Book Industry

The following is intended as a helpful overview for Arthurian scholars or enthusiasts who may be unfamiliar with the comics medium as it has evolved in the United States. It is primarily based upon "Comics Around the World: A Short History" by Maurice Horn in The World Encyclopedia of Comics and "A Chronology of the Development of the American Comic Book" by M. Thomas Inge in The Official Overstreet Price Guide (see citations under "Printed Resources").

The American comic book developed from the American newspaper comic strip in the first decades of the 20th century. While reprint collections of newspaper strips appeared as early as 1897, the first modern American comic book is generally acknowledged to be Funnies on Parade, published in 1933. Most comic books published in the next few years featured strip reprints, or a combination of reprinted and original material. New Fun (later known as More Fun) became the first standard-size comic book to feature all original material. It was published by National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics), which in 1938 introduced Superman in the first issue of Action Comics. Superman was an instant sensation, spawning a host of imitators (beginning with National's own Batman in Detective Comics #27) and, in fact, a new genre of fiction, the superhero story.

Through the World War II era comic books continued to grow in popularity, while companies such as Timely (later Marvel Comics) emerged. In addition to superheroes, genres such as Westerns, teen humor (Archie), funny-animal, and crime were very much present on the newsstand. (This era is often referred to by superhero comics fans as the "Golden Age".) After the war the public's interest in superheroes diminished while horror comics, as published by E.C. Comics and others, increased in popularity. Public concern over the effect of crime and horror comics on young readers came to a head in 1954 with the publication of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and an investigation of comic books by the U. S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Several major publishers joined together late that year to establish a self-regulating organization, the Comics Code Authority. This action may have saved the industry from immediate ruin, but it is also widely considered to have had a severely detrimental effect on the creative development of the comic book in America.

In the late 1950's the superhero genre began to enjoy a period of renewal (later described as the "Silver Age") with DC Comics' revival of the Flash in Showcase #4, followed by Marvel Comics' introduction of the Fantastic Four in 1961. An active community of comics fans and collectors (or "fandom") emerged in the 1960's, and by the end of the decade, a generation that had grown up with comic books as fans were becoming comics writers and artists themselves. At the same time, other young cartoonists such as Robert Crumb brought the comic book into the 1960's counterculture (or vice versa) with the development of underground "comix".

During the 1970's, the distribution system for comic books became more and more problematic, with fewer and fewer of the traditional retail outlets (newsstands, drugstores, convenience stores, and so on) carrying comics. At the same time, the fan and collector market was growing larger. Eventually, a comics dealer and fan convention organizer named Phil Seuling convinced the major publishers to sell him comics directly, at a deep discount, but on a non-returnable basis (unlike in traditional magazine or book distribution, where unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for credit). This innovation eventually led to an entirely new distribution system, where the comics specialty shop became the primary retail outlet for new comics.

The development of this new "direct" market opened new possibilities for comics creators as well as would-be publishers beginning in the late 1970's and continuing into the 1980's. Following the example of the underground cartoonists, some creators began self-publishing their own work in black & white editions with small press runs. Other, more established creators, such as Jack Kirby, took their new creations to newly established publishing firms such as Pacific and Eclipse, whose color comics had production values equal to (or sometimes surpassing) those of the major publishers, and who offered the creators ownership of their own work. Marvel and DC responded by offering better deals to creators. Both the majors and independents began producing comics in less ephemeral formats than the traditional newsprint periodicals, with hardcover and trade paperback "graphic novels" and reprints of earlier stories becoming commonplace.

As far as the content of comic books were concerned, there were several repercussions from the ascension of the fan market. As most fans were primarily interested in superheroes, this genre became more and more dominant, and the aspects of the genre that the majority of fans favored, such as close continuity between all the series from one publisher, became near-requirements for storytelling in the genre; at the same time, reflecting the fact that the fan audience tended to be somewhat older than the traditional comic book audience, the content of comics in general became more sophisticated. And while superheroes dominated, there was plenty of room in the market for alternative visions from creators willing to settle for a smaller audience.

The last two decades have been especially tumultuous for the industry. In 1984 two young creators self-published the black & white parody title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The surprise success of this comic not only made the creators wealthy (through licensing the characters for TV, toys, etc.), but inspired a publishing explosion of new black & white comics, many of which would not have been deemed to be of professional and publishable quality a few years earlier. Most of these new titles did not last, but black & white publishing remains a wide-open field with a low entry threshold. In 1992, a number of Marvel Comics' most popular freelance artists left Marvel to form their own publishing company, Image Comics. The idea behind Image was that each artist would maintain ownership and control over his own creations while having the advantage of publishing as part of a larger company. In practice, several of the founding creators soon hired studios of writers and artists to produce work under their direction while they became more involved in other aspects of the field, such as licensing. (One example is Todd McFarlane, whose first issue of Spawn is pictured at the left.) Also during the1990's, comics publishers exploited the collectors' market by producing variant editions of the same comic. Such actions fueled a speculators' market which drove the comics industry to record profits before imploding in the mid-'90's. Today, many of the most popular comics titles sell in numbers that are a small fraction of what they sold at their peak. Many industry observers believe that the comic book industry is in greater danger than at any time since the mid-1950's. Yet, today's comics readers can find a number of comics of high quality, in a variety of genres and styles, published each month by an assortment of companies. Whether this quality and variety can be sustained in current market conditions, or until the market improves, remains to be seen.

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Last updated 4/4/00. E-mail your comments and suggestions to the author, Alan Stewart .