The origin of comic books dates back to newspaper comic strips that first gained popularity in the United States in 1895, when Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid" appeared in the New York World. The huge success of this strip led to merchandise licensing, stage adaptations, and so forth, all revolving around the strip's lead character, a pushy, colorful slum youth. Because "The Yellow Kid" was so profitable, it led others to create such competing strips as "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Little Jimmy," "Barney Google," and "Toonerville Folks." These offerings appeared weekdays in newspapers around the country (usually in black-and-white artwork and often in color for the weekend entries).
Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, newsstands across America were filled increasingly with pulp magazines (which gained their name because they were published on low-cost, coarse pulp paper). They often featured trashy, and sometimes lurid, short fiction. Compared to more costly hardback books, pulp publications were geared to be inexpensive, quick and simple to read, and disposable. The sensational pulp stories—including such standout examples as the jungle adventures of Tarzan of the Apes and the outer space exploits of Buck Rogers—developed quite a strong public following, especially in the post-World War I period of the 1920s and early 1930s.
After pulp fiction magazines became an established reading tradition, a new twist came along in 1933. Harry Wildenberg and Max C. Gaines, who worked for the Eastern Color Printing Company, came up with the idea of a 32-page booklet that would reprint Sunday comic strips in splashy colors. (There had been some earlier efforts to reprint comic strips in black-and-white editions, but they lacked the new convenient format or newsstand distribution to be very successful.) When this first offering—entitled Funnies on Parade—was sold to Proctor & Gamble to be used as a promotional giveaway, it was an instant hit. Wildenberg and Gaines began to sell other such comic reprint collections on the nation's newsstands at a reasonable 10-cent price tag.
By 1935 Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a one-time U.S. cavalry officer and a previous writer of pulp stories, entered the expanding field. He came up with the notion of publishing original comic strips in several panels that made up a short story-length episode. His initial publication was New Fun Comics, an anthology of assorted comic strip narratives featuring entries in the humor, Western, and adventure veins. In 1937 Wheeler-Nicholson formed Detective Comics Inc. (the firm that later changed its name to DC Comics) with two partners, Harry Donnerfield and Jack Liebowitz. The latter two soon bought out the financially strapped Wheeler-Nicholson and, in 1938, published a new comic book, Action Comics #1. This entry featured a man of steel who strode and flew about in his red-and-blue costume, helping people in distress. He was known as Superman.
The ongoing adventures of the amazing Superman proved so popular with readers that, before long, each monthly issue of Action Comics was selling over 1.25 million copies. (A similar triumph was enjoyed by Detective Comics' next big comic book property, Batman, another fantastic costumed avenger of wrong who boasted a sidekick, Robin. Like Superman, Batman and Robin had secret real-life identities.) These major successes induced several other businessmen to rush into the profitable field. Within a few years there were nearly 170 different comic book entries being published on a frequent basis. By now there was an established tradition that comic book artists and writers were paid a page rate (typically around $10 per page) and that ownership of the characters and stories belonged to the publishers (who made and kept all the big profits).
The creation of Superman in 1938 ushered in the Golden Age of Comic Books. This period lasted until the mid 1950s. Comic books were extremely popular during this time and many superheroes made their debut and dominated the medium. During World War II the comic book industry boomed. By 1943 more than 25 million comic books were sold monthly. After the war, business still thrived for the entire comic book industry. Although superhero comics were still popular, they had lost their novelty and edge through overexposure, especially from the many low-caliber rip-offs that filled the newsstand racks. Now the latest hot trends in the ever-changing comic book business were romance tales, crime dramas, Western adventures, and women's stories.
The comic book trade began to realize the great changes that the end of World War II brought to the industry. With millions of servicemen returning home after the war, the U.S. government was no longer ordering and shipping tons of comic books to the armed forces abroad. Once reestablished into civilian life, the flood of ex-G.I.s no longer had the time or spare money to spend on comic books. This loss of comic book readership kept mounting as the 1940s ended.
Also by the late 1940s, commercial television was becoming increasingly popular in the United States as TV sets became more affordable. Former comic book buyers/readers suddenly became glued to the small screen, where they could watch entertainment for free. Adding to the industry's problems was the fact that there were so many established and new comic books flooding the newsstands that the average reader was becoming overwhelmed with the variety of products. Many of these books seemed (and often were) a rehash of what had been published previously in one form or another.
The comic book business also had its share of hard times with censorship. Going back to the early 1900s, civic groups were already protesting newspaper comic strips, which they claimed promoted unruly behavior on the part of the readers—especially children. The argument that comics had a negative moral impact was revived in the 1930s. Then it was argued that the comic-strip capers of "Dick Tracy" and "Terry and the Pirates" were far too racy for innocent youngsters.
Another serious threat to the comic-strip/comic book business occurred in the spring of 1940, when newspaper writer Sterling North wrote the article "A National Disgrace" in the Chicago Daily News. This lengthy article argued that comics were helping to ruin the morality and cultural standards of school children. It led to the formation of many parents groups around the nation who lobbied against the ill effects of comics. In reaction, a few publishers, such as Parents Magazine's True Comics (1941), began to focus on very wholesome characters and bland story lines in their upcoming books. As World War II became a growing reality to Americans, however, the anti-comic book campaign faded—for the time being—and things were much as before within the industry.
After World War II, censorship groups again gained strength and launched campaigns about the bad effects of most comic books on youth. In reaction to this rising tide against the comic book business, some publishers banded together to create a self-censorship organization, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). They assured the angry protest groups that their new, sanitized product was not damaging the minds and morals of America's youth. Despite the anti-censorship efforts of the industry the attacks against comic books reached new heights. In April 1954 the U.S. Senate formed a subcommittee to examine the dangers in the contents of comic books to formative minds. The CMAA established a code to control the contents of their publications. Among the rules established was one that attempted to tone down any examples of violence. Such guidelines made it difficult for writers to present comic book characters, plot, and dialogue in the ways they had in the past.
As the CMAA's code was implemented throughout the industry, comic books became bland and limited in variation. As a result, the public was far less interested in the once-exciting medium. Sales of comic books tumbled. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, superhero comics had gone out of fashion, leaving comics in genres such as romance, women's stories, and Westerns.
Sales and popularity of comic books reemerged with the Silver Age of Comics in the early 1960s. There was a resurgence of superheroes and they became more human and troubled. Marvel Comics was a dominant publisher. In 1961, Marvel sold 7 million copies of its books; the next year their circulation increased to 13 million. The Silver Age lasted until the early 1970s. During the 1970s the CMAA code was gradually relaxed and eventually dropped. The Silver Age was followed by the Bronze Age (early 1970s to mid 1980s) and the Modern Age (mid 1980s until present).
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