Com-ics (kom'iks) n. plural in form,
used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and
other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey
information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in
the viewer. (From the excellent Understanding
Comics - The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud)
Comic art has a long and illustrious history, far beyond
our memory of the Sunday funnies or superheros. The concept
of using pictures to tell stories dates back to pre-history.
Cave paintings tell us about the world before written language.
Pre-Columbian artifacts, the Bayeax Tapestry, Egyptian painting
and Japanese scrolls all reach out visually to commorate
events and give insight into the past.
The development of the printing press changed everything.
Broadsides and advertisements could be widely distributed.
Assuming a low rate of literacy, the use of woodcuts and
other graphic elements to tell a story is easy to understand.
Sequential art was popularized in the 18th Century and the
production of political satire and caricature continued
to rise thereafter.
Burlesque diversions and 'spicy' stories of the late 19th
Century led to incredible popularity for tabloid periodicals
like the Police Gazette.
The birth of photography further fueled appitite for depictions
of salicious nature.
Most comic historians agree that
the birth of the modern comic art form began with an unassuming
character called The Yellow Kid in 1895 (Although
the British lay claim to an earlier figure, All Sloper,
dating from 1884). This street urchin created a frenzy and
started Hearst and Pulitzer on a bidding war for the talents
of illustrators to fill their funny pages with an increasing
cast of characters, many based on ethnic (The Katzenjammer
Kids) and class stereotypes (Mutt and Jeff).
One high point in the early comic universe was the inimitable
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman,
who gained her/his own strip in 1913. Although Herriman
fretted about the presumed lack of popularity Krazy enjoyed,
Hearst instrinctively recognized the poetry and art of Coconino.
Still, comics were filled with reprints of existing newspaper
strips, starting with The Chicago American in 1911.
It wasn't until 1929 that original creations made it to
the pages of The Funnies. Much of the inspiration
for comic characters could be found easily in the pulps,
which were in their glory years between the wars. Crime
and science fiction, pioneered
by pulps, were quickly adopted by comics following the war.
Mickey Mouse's first 'talkie', Steamboat Willie,
released in 1928, marked the beginning of Disney's hold
on animated films. Although most of Disney's later female
characters were purposefully asexual, a mention should be
made of Tinkerbell from the Peter Pan movie.
She looks like she could've flown out of the pages of Esquire
and probably kept many a dad awake for a matinee showing.
It didn't take long for cross promotion to begin with Hollywood
as many celluloid comic acts were soon appearing in comicbook
form. At the same time, adventerous heros like Lawmen (Dick
Tracy, 1931) and Spacemen (Buck Rogers 1929)
and more demanding readership follow their unfolding exploits.
While they may seem quaint and Victorian, adventurous heros
like Harold R. Foster's Tarzan
(1929) and Prince Valiant (1937) have stood the test
of time, but these characters were still largely confined
to newpaper circulation.
The Roaring Twenties pushed the boundaries of taste. How else can
you explain the enduring popularity of the megacephalic Betty
Boop who made her debut in 1930. Pulps like Amazing
Stories and Weird Tales
were able to attract the considerable talents of Virgil
Finley and other fine artists. L'il Abner, 1934, introduced
us to Daisy Mae and her well-known short shorts. The same
year saw the introduction of Mandrake the Magician, Flash
Gordon (drawn brilliantly by Alex Raymond)
and Terry and the Pirates. The ever shaply Blondie
Boopadoop married Dagwood Bumstead in 1933.
Walt Kelly debuted Pogo in 1941, who had such high
political aspirations that the character ran for president
in 1952. The use of comics as a sociopolitical tool has
continued unabated, through Jules Pfeiffer, Gary Trudeau
and others. Will Eisner introduced
The Spirit and his Femme
Fatale nemisis, P'Gell. Will was instrumental
in gaining acceptance for the adult graphic novel and his
torch has been passed to such storytellers as Art Speigelman.
In addition to their G.I.
Military Kits of pin-ups, soldiers eagerly followed
the adventures of Milton Caniff's
'Male Call' (Caniff was
also responsible for such popular features as Terry and
the Pirates and Steve Canyon) and the British morale booster,
Jane. Archie, in 1941,
introduced us to the architypical babes, Betty
Comics took a new direction with the introduction of Superman
in 1938 and Batman shortly after. Although these
were based on characters in the pulps, as were Tarzan
and Buck Rogers for that matter, the superhero was
born and is still going strong today. The pulps disappeared
after World War II and their readership was split between
the comics and paperback books. Comics, appealing to the
younger set, quickly incorporated juvenile wish fulfillment
and fantasy. The 'Golden Age' of comics was defined by a
pantheon of new mythological figures: Visitors from other
planets, inhabitants of Atlantis and an island of Amazon
women. Thankfully, following a jingoistic period fighting
Nazis and 'Japs', Captain America and his crowd settled
into more humorous relief.
To boost news stand sales during this period,
publishers often resorted to the pulp tactic of scantily clad women
on the covers. There seem to be only two classes of female in post-war
comic illustrations: The Jungle Girl,
beginning with Sheena in 1938, and countless
'Good Girls' in dire situations,
most often needing a heroic man to save her from the clutches of
some foul menace. Some cover art were shameless rip-offs of superior
pulp art, but some examples of this work include the brief but memorable
character 'Phantom Lady' of 1941, arguably the first woman
action hero although Wonder Woman
and Supergirl quickly followed and are
still popular today.
EC Comics, after the war, started an assault
on traditional forms and genres. Bill Gaines inherited his father's
Educational Comics and put his impressive roster of artists (Wally
Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank
Frazetta and others) to work on graphic
horror, war and science fiction titles, many of the latter adapted
from stories by Ray Bradbury. Then came the publication of an 'expert
opinion': Seduction of
the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham in 1954. Comic publishers
realized their livlihood was being threatened with regulation, so
they imposed their own 'Comic Code Authority'. Obstensively they
acted to protect the youth of America, but succeeded in little more
than forcing EC out of business. Bill Gaines and company continued
to produce their irreverant MAD, but in magazine form.
Innovation in mainstream comics ground to a halt. Slowly, during
the 1960s, sex crept back into the comic universe. Playboy
had long done cartoons, but later introduced Little
Annie Fanny, by Kurtzman. Vampirella
wore briefer and briefer outfits. Barbarella,
based on a comic book, was made into a sexy film vehicle starring
Jane Fonda in 1968. And who can forget catwoman
Subversion crept back into vogue following
the sucess of underground comics, also during the 1960s. The underground
scene produced some of the great modern comic artists and social
commentators: Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith, Fritz
the Cat by R. Crumb, The Fabulous
Furry Freak Brothers and many, many more. One of the most influential,
especially among the grafitti crowd was the mysterious Vaughn
Bode. Comix also introduced blatently sexual characters like
Cherry and Doll. Since they,
like much Japanese anime, are considerably
more graphic than my definition of pin-up related features, they
deserve a seperate history exploring the relationship between pornography
and the comic industry.
Social consciousness was soon explored by protagonists at both
DC and Marvel. Well known illustrators like Jack
Kirby, Neal Adams and Joe Kubert revived
stagnant franchises. Kubert, in fact, returned to pulp roots in
Enemy Ace and Tarzan comics. Later, Tim Burton helped
revive interest in Batman following Frank
Miller's hardboiled work on The Dark Knight. Alex Ross
has brought a painter's touch to the genre. Bruce
Timm has revolutionized animation and brought sex appeal to
cartoon art. In the mid 1970s a new magazine came out in France
called Métal Hurlant. It featured adult graphic stories
by some of the best fantasy artists, including Serpieri.
It arrived in the States a couple years later as Heavy
Today, many anatomically enhanced female superhero battles the
forces of evil in spandex so tight as to be painted on. The industry has capitalized on the resurgence in the 'Lad Mag' popularity by producing their own line of swimsuit and lingerie issues. Still, in
addition to Dave Stevens fine work, there
are promising signs that well drawn and strong heroines might maintain
their sexual attraction without pandering to the lowest hormonal
denominator. Lisner's Dawn is one
example that comes to mind, as are William Tucci's Shi,
Dean Yeagle's Mandy, Adam
Hughes' Ghost, J. Scott Campbell's
Danger Girl and work by Frank Cho.