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Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel
By Stephen Weiner
NBM PublishingCopyright © 2012 Stephen Weiner
All rights reserved.
The First Comics
Americans Embrace a New Art Form
Americans had seen comics published before 1895, but Richard F. Outcault's single-panel cartoon, The Yellow Kid, was the first to catch widespread public attention. America was undergoing a cultural revolution. The movie industry was beginning, and tinkering with the product that would become radio had begun a few years earlier. Comics in the newspaper were another new form of entertainment, and the public embraced them. Soon products featuring the image of the Yellow Kid were everywhere: on shirts and cigars, lunch pails and cigarette cards, stationery and dolls.
Within a few short years, comic strips themselves were omnipresent, and not only because newspaper editors liked them. Publishers discovered that comic strips sold newspapers. Radios became widely available by the 1920s, but they were not a visual medium. Comic strips were a welcome relief in homes that otherwise had only novels as printed entertainment. Most of the comic strips published were forgettable, as with any medium, but some were terrific: E. C. Segar's Popeye, Al Capp's Li'l Abner, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. Comics appealed to readers because they seemed easy to decode, and words were tacked on as dialogue to make the messages even clearer. Every picture told a story.
Comic books, magazines containing a few stories, were first published in the early 1930s, and were initially reprints of newspaper comic strips. But quickly comic book publishers realized that there was a market for new stories and sought out fresh material.
Early comic book magazines consisted of genre stories told in comic book format, including mysteries, adventure, and romance. To provide publishers with fresh stories for this burgeoning medium, companies sprang up, employing teams of artists and writers to create the stories as quickly and cheaply as possible. Completed stories were sold to comic book publishers such as DC and Timely (later Marvel).
The comic book world really exploded, however, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Jewish kids from the Midwest, created Superman, ushering in a new tradition in heroic storytelling. Other superheroes followed Superman. Just as with comic strips, most of the new creations were mediocre, but some stood out — Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and Plastic Man. Popeye, Little Orphan Annie and Li'l Abner found the doorway out of the comic strip into successful adaptations in other media, and many superheroes have become stars of film, plays, and novels.
During the Second World War, comic books featured decidedly patriotic heroes. Led by Captain America, who landed a roundhouse punch on Hitler's chin on the cover of his very first issue, these heroes had the war well underway before the country officially began fighting. Once the war began, many heroes, super and otherwise, spent a great deal of their energy fighting with the Allies. Stories were predictable, often crude and enthusiastic propaganda, and the craftsmanship of the comics rarely was more than mediocre. Many of the best writers and artists were overseas, fighting the real war.
Newspaper comic strips were always recognized as something read by everyone, but from the beginnings of the new medium, comic books were perceived as a format for children. In order to help children participate more fully in the stories, superheroes were given teenage sidekicks, such as Batman's Robin, Captain America's Bucky, Wonder Woman's Wonder Girl, and the Human Torch's Toro.
Until the end of World War II, superheroes had plenty of fighting to do, and were very popular. Comic books and their heroes promoted the war effort by battling the enemy and encouraging readers to purchase war bonds. After the war, however, the superheroes seemed as confused as their creators about what to do next. There was no longer a genuine enemy to fight and, as a bunch, the costumed brawlers battled aimlessly.
In postwar America, society was changing as well. A new American subgroup, the "Teen-ager," was defined by the media and marketers when this term was coined in 1945. Segments of the entertainment industry, such as popular music, began to be produced for consumption by this newly defined group, those in the period between childhood and adulthood. They were the first generation to have grown up with comic books, and they liked them. As a result, comic books appeared everywhere teens hung out.
Despite the talent pool within the comic book industry, few professionals saw the field as a real career. Comic books were the lowest rung of the cultural ladder; the pay was poor, the production shoddy. Given the opportunity, many moved on. One prominent comic book writer and artist who broke out of the comic book industry was Jack Cole. Cole's major contribution to the comic book field was the creation of Plastic Man, a superhero who could stretch and mold his body into any shape. The stories were full of irreverence and quirky humor, and Cole's highly individualistic work demonstrated that an artist's personality could be expressed through the comic book medium. Cole moved on to become one of Playboy magazine's first cartoonists. Some comic book artists followed him into the world of magazine illustration if they were good enough. Others, such as Jack Kirby, continued working in the comic book field, exploring different genres, because they liked the comic book method of storytelling.
As the 1940s drew to a close, interest in superheroes waned. But if they could find subjects that appealed to them, comic book publishers had a new group of readers who were in the process of remaking popular entertainment and who could secure the future sales of the medium: teenagers.CHAPTER 2
The Shadow of McCarthyism
In the 1950s, a new era dawned for the comic book industry as comics publishers began to focus on new genres of titles and a new audience. As America put World War II further and further behind it, interest in superheroes decreased. Superheroes had enthusiastically battled the Axis powers, but the public's attitude toward Korean War was far more ambivalent. For the most part, the superheroes stayed out of the conflict. Instead, the comic book response to the war in Korea might best be represented by Harvey Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales, a meticulously researched war comic book that unflinchingly depicted the horrors of war rather than glorifying it.
The comic book industry invested in other genres: funny animal stories, romance comics, and crime and horror titles. The inventive and adaptable Jack Kirby, together with his partner Joe Simon, brought the romance genre to comics in the late 1940s, helping to broaden the medium's potential appeal. Funny animal comics entertained the kids that returning G.I.s were producing in abundance, while romance, crime, and horror comic books were published with a teen audience in mind. The romance story was hugely popular and, in the context of the 1950s, reinforced conservative social values. Horror and crime comics, on the other hand, dealt with topics that by their nature are transgressive, disturbing, and can lead readers to ask questions about social norms and the limits of authority.
Although the major companies which had ridden to the top of the industry on the success of superheroes like Superman, Batman and Captain America continued to dominate the comic book business, a new player emerged: EC Comics. EC Comics had originally been named Educational Comics, and had published such titles as Picture Stories from the Bible, comic book adaptations that were meant to be uplifting, but tended more toward the stultifying. The company was owned by Max Gaines, who had been instrumental in publishing the first comic book, Famous Funnies, in 1933. When Gaines died in 1947, his son William inherited the company. The new Gaines changed the direction of the company and the course of the comic book industry by focusing on horror comics. Where Gaines the father had published Pictures Stories from American History and Animal Fables, his son published Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. EC no longer stood for Educational Comics, but rather Entertaining Comics. The EC books were better drawn and better written than their contemporaries, perhaps because William Gaines was a young man and questioned authority himself, and because he paid more than other companies. As a result, EC attracted some of the most innovative talent in the comics field.
The kids loved EC's books. Teenagers are always fascinated with death and violence, and EC's books were bloodier than their counterparts. And the books offered something that just wasn't available anywhere else — a subversive attitude. The underlying message of EC comic book stories was clear for those with the eyes to read it: the façade America was living in the 1950s was a sham. In the world of EC Comics, parents divorced, politicians were corrupt, and children were far from innocent. Of course, in an EC Comic book, divorce was not the only cause of marital break-ups — murdering your spouse did the trick as well. The tensions of the nuclear age formed the subtext for war stories in comic books like Shock Suspenstories that showed the reader that the next world war would have no winner, and that the whole human race would be the loser. EC's lineup expanded to include such science fiction titles as Weird Science Fantasy and a variety of crime comic books. The same dark beauty in the artwork and subversive social subtexts in the stories were found in titles in these genres as well.
EC's most lasting contribution to the comics field was MAD magazine. Produced under the direction of Harvey Kurtzman, a veteran humorist who had worked for several comic book publishers, MAD initially satirized the comic book industry. Prior to MAD, there had been no consistent satire appearing in comic books. Many of the same readers who liked EC's horror books delighted in MAD. The James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause expressed many of the same social ambiguities of the 1950s, but for many teenagers, an early rallying point was EC Comics. Teens were not the only readers of comic books during the 1950s. During World War II, the United States military had supplied the armed forces with comic books as entertainment and evidence of homefront support, and by the end of the war many soldiers were hooked on words-and-pictures storytelling.
This is not to suggest that other comic book publishing houses had little impact on mass culture in the 1950s, but they had a background role. Romance stories depicting domestic tranquility balanced out the subverting influence of EC comics, and a few superheroes either expanded their own mythology or battled the Cold War, but much of the energy the comics industry created in the 1950s could be traced back to EC (or its imitators) who produced moody, weird fantasy stories for which readers pried coins out of their pockets.
In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published a book about troubled American youth, Seduction of the Innocent. He cited more than one cause for youthful rebellion, but he pinpointed the influence of comic books as a motivating factor in youthful disturbance. A practicing psychiatrist, Wertham noted that comic books were found in the rooms of teen suicides. He also argued that a steady diet of comic books would ruin an adolescent's taste for fine literature. Comic books, he believed, were too violent, too sexual, too bloody, and openly showed disrespect for authority. Comic books incited rather than reflected youthful aggression. Seduction of the Innocent was the culmination of several years of work on the part of Wertham, who had become a recognized speaker on the topic by the time his book reached publication.
Wertham's book caused quite a stir, and dovetailed nicely with the anticommunist sentiment that hypnotized the country. Although Wertham never explicitly linked comic books with communism, the same political currents that led to Hollywood's blacklist now flowed against the smaller and more vulnerable comic book industry. The United States Senate held hearings on comic books and youth. In fear of being shut down, comic book publishers banded together and formed a trade organization to deal with the crisis. The new group, called the Comic Magazine Association of America, then created a series of regulations governing acceptable comic book material, set up an agency to oversee the program, and prayed. Under the new guidelines, called the Comics Code, women were to be properly clad, authority figures respected, and the violence toned down. EC Comics, whose product line had been a catalyst for Wertham's charges, was soon out of the comic book business. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, publisher Gaines responded by upgrading his premier satire comic book, MAD, to a magazine format, thus avoiding the regulations of the CMAA and achieving greater financial success and social impact than he ever would have in the comics business.
There was at least one advantage to the new regulations. The boom in sales in crime and horror comics in the 1950s had led to the publication of a lot of sensationalistic material that was produced hurriedly and with little care. The quality level of comic book product rose once the sensationalistic stories that flooded much of the comic book market had been minimized. Comic book publishers tried their hand at different genres whose stories could entertain within the confines of the regulations imposed by the Comics Code. But the underlying messages — that the authority figures were always right, that no police officer was corrupt, that parents lived in marital bliss — were false ones, and the kids knew it. The escapist trip that comic books had always provided survived both Dr. Wertham's charges and McCarthyism, but the energy was gone. Comic books had lost their social relevance.CHAPTER 3
Troubled Heroes for Troubled Times
Surprisingly, the 1960s became a vibrant period for American comic books. To recover from the aftermath of the 1950s, the comic book industry had to reinvent itself. Restrictions imposed by the Comics Code made it impossible to tell many of the kinds of stories that had been most successful in the 1950s. Teens and older readers had been attracted to the crime and horror stories in published by EC and other companies, but now these were gone. However, and much to the surprise of those who worked in the industry, one type of story that did work well in the sanitized environment was the superhero story. DC Comics had revived The Flash ("The fastest man alive") in 1956, and the book sold. More superheroes followed, some recreations of earlier heroes and some completely new. DC had an army of good guys perennially fighting an army of bad guys. Of course, no one could ever really win, because then the fun would be over.
EC had left the comic book business to concentrate on MAD magazine, and other companies had closed. DC's success with superhero stories did not go unnoticed. Marvel Comics, which had published superheroes under a variety of corporate names in the past, was one of DC Comics's remaining competitors,. Stan Lee, Marvel's editor and head writer, decided to create a competing band of superheroes. Lee had been a comics writer for over twenty years, and wanted to write something more complex than simplistic children's stories. He decided that the new Marvel heroes would be as closely grounded in the real world as it was possible for costumed superheroes to be. This meant that these heroes would experience the problems everyday people face as well as the problems that went with battling super-villains. Because the 1960s was a period of anxiety stemming from fears of nuclear war, most of Marvel's heroes were empowered as a result of nuclear accidents, offering an upside to the arms race.
Excerpted from Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel by Stephen Weiner. Copyright © 2012 Stephen Weiner. Excerpted by permission of NBM Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Will Eisner,
1. The First Comics: Americans Embrace a New Art Form,
2. The 1950s: The Shadow of McCarthyism,
3. The 1960s: Troubled Heroes for Troubled Times,
4. The Comic Book Store: Fans Find a Home,
5. The Graphic Novel: Comics Take Themselves Seriously,
6. Trade Publishers and Comics: An Uneasy Alliance,
7. Opening the Gates: The Comics Field Grows,
8. The New Heroes: Would You Let this Man Marry Your Sister?,
9. Maus: Surviving and Thriving,
10. The Sandman: A New Mythology,
11. Bone Wars: The Paradigm Shifts into High Gear,
12. Understanding Comics: The Dream of a Common Language,
13. A Message in a Bottle: Notes from the Underground,
14. A New Millennium For Comics,
15. What's Next for Graphic Novels,
What People are Saying About This
"A solid work on American publications." —Library Journal
"A superb detailed history." —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"This is a perfect book for anyone trying to wrap her or his head around the field of comics, a quick and smart overview of the field that spans both decades and genres." —www.BoingBoing.net