Stay Geeky, My Friends #4: The Very First Comics

It’s been a while since I’ve written this column. Sorry about that. Life got in the way, along with some major projects and several trips around the country to different conventions. Plus, we kind of just had a hurricane on the East coast, which led to my having to stay in Austin, Texas for a few extra days (I was initially there for the WizardWorld comic/sci-fi convention where I moderated a panel on web-series and spoke on a panel about the psychology of Batman and his related characters). I must say, if you’re going to get stranded, there are worse places to be than Austin, a fun city where I’m fortunate enough to have good friends. I even got to attend the “quote-along” screening of So I Married an Axe Murderer at the Alamo Draft House.

So let’s get back on schedule and jump back into things.

A few folks have been asking me recently about just how the comic book medium began. There are different places you can look this up. There’s a fun mini-series that recently was collected, entitled The Comic Book History of Comics. This is just my own way of explaining the origin of this medium, focusing on facts and dates that I personally think are essential and interesting. In the future, I’ll discuss other aspects of this medium and its history.

So first, what is a comic? And why are they called “comics” when many of the stories aren’t funny?

The first true comic strips and comic books featured comedy stories with funny characters. Hence, they were literally comical and also known as “the funnies” or “the funny papers.” So there we go, that’s the name they got when they arrived and we still haven’t come up with another one that seems to fit as well in the minds of others. Some folks try to call comics “graphic novels” but this technically only refers to special stories published with book-like binding rather than in standard comic book format with cheaper paper and staples.

Aside from the binding, there really is no difference between a graphic novel or a comic book issue. Those who insist that “graphic novel” refers to art whereas “comics” refers to the lowest form of entertainment are being pretentious jerks. You should feel free to hit them with a rolled up newspaper and say: “NO.”

Some folks have occasionally referred to comic strips and comic books as representing a medium called “sequential art,” meaning a series of pictures that shows a passage of time and multiple actions, often also involving dialogue. Occasionally, some comics do have only narration, not dialogue, but this is seen as pushing the medium into something very close to a prose story with illustrations, not very different from novels that had a picture in every chapter. Silent comics do happen to this day, but are pretty uncommon and usually treated as a special event or an experiment in storytelling.

Cave paintings showing stories were a form of sequential art. Similarly, ancient civilizations would sometimes depict a series of actions across the surfaces of vases and walls. As with cave paintings, these were images and were meant to convey a myth or a historical account. We didn’t get our first political cartoon until the 1500s it seems, in the decade that followed the invention of the printing press. This cartoon, and others that followed, usually depicted a single animated scene with dialogue or narration. So there weren’t multiple actions or a passage of time.

Starting in 1799, “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck” was a recurring strip involving two images with a narration. These showed a passage of time, but there was still a distance from the character as we had no dialogue or thought bubbles. These were called “a series of comic drawings” (the word “comic” still being used strictly to mean “funny”) but we did not yet have a true comic strip. A collection of Oldbuck’s stories was published in 1842. Some people refer to this as the first graphic novel.

It’s generally considered that what we now refer to as a comic strip, the direct parent of the comic book, came to the world in 1896 when Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid” was published in William Randolph Hearst’s The American Humorist.

The titular character had first appeared in 1894 in cartoon panels (each with a different title) that Occault drew for Truth Magazine. In 1895, these cartoons were reprinted in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Occault then drew a series of cartoon panels for New York World under the title “Hogan’s Alley,” depicting a street of the same name where many odd kids lived, including the Yellow Kid himself, who’s real name was Mickey Dugan. Mickey became quite a popular character, partly based on his odd nightshirt (a hand-me-down from an older sister) that went down to his feet and often had different jokes on it, satirizing political slogans and billboard advertisements. Originally, this shirt was white or light blue, but then became yellow, hence his nickname at Hogan’s Alley.

These were not meant for children. Pulitzer’s audience was considered to be adult and so the cartoons involved political and social humor. Seeing that this could be a popular feature, William Randolph Hearst stole away Occault from Pulitzer. Rather than attempt publishing “Hogan’s Alley” in another magazine, recognizable title and all, Occault simply created a new cartoon called “The Yellow Kid” which now focused on Mickey Dugan.

The first adventure did something rather remarkable. It depicted two scenes of the Yellow Kid, one after the other, with dialogue balloons. Essentially, it was the first time we saw a true conversation in a cartoon that involved not just a passage of time being shown but also relied on pacing and comic timing. It was sequential art with dialogue, the first true comic strip.

“The Yellow Kid” exploded in popularity, leading to lots of merchandising, including clothing, pins, cigarettes and sweets. Pulitzer was very angry so continued printing “Hogan’s Alley” stories with new creators, hoping to get some of that Yellow Kid attention and money. The fact that he and Hearts both now technically had the same Yellow Kid character inspired people to refer to their more suspect news reporting practices as “yellow journalism.”

The new form of storytelling led to many others creating their own comic strips. While Occault’s stories began as black and white and later involved touches of a single color, the first “full-color” comic strip was “The Blackberries,” which debuted in 1901. Winsor McKay created a comic strip that was not just focused on humor but actually featured a fairy tale style adventure of a young boy journeying through dreams. “Little Nemo in Slumberland” debuted in 1905 in Hearst’s New American. It would later change papers and be retitled “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams.”

In 1907, Bud Fisher came up with his own comic strip, entitled “A. Mutt.” This strip had a new storytelling device: panel borders. The scenes in “A. Mutt” were clearly divided into separate boxes. This idea took off and other comic strips were copying it. By the way, “A. Mutt” was later retitled “Muff and Jeff.”

In 1908, Winsor McKay experimented with the idea of comic strip panels and was able to alter the story’s focus and pacing by making some panels larger than others and having some connect or overlap.

In 1922, Comics Monthly began publication. This was a book that collected reprints of comical newspaper strips. The books were printed in hardback and were pricier than many customers liked, so the idea didn’t catch on. In 1929, Dell published a similar idea, a mini-newspaper called The Funnies. Similar to Comics Monthly, this featured reprints of previous publications rather than original material. It also didn’t catch on.

Just as McKay used Nemo to show that comic strips could tell stories in a fantasy genre rather than political satire or situational comedy, other writers and artists began creating comic strips drawn more realistically that featured high adventure, science fiction and crime drama. Characters such as Tarzan and Buck Rogers, who began in prose and pulp fiction magazines, began appearing in comic strips, the style of the drawings and stories marking them as very different from “the funnies.”

In 1933, the Eastern Color Printing Company published reprinted comic strips in a smaller format: a comic book, similar to The Funnies but folded so that it looked closer to a magazine rather than a mini-newspaper. It was affordable, easy to manage and fit nicely on a newstand. People loved this idea and soon many publishers were reprinting old newspaper strips in this new “comic book” form. It wasn’t long before comic books were featuring original stories in a variety of genres.

In 1938, a new genre was born in the comic book medium itself when Detective Comics, Inc. (which later would be renamed DC Comics and is now named DC Entertainment) published Action Comics #1, introducing Superman to the world. The character had been created for newspaper comic strips years before by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but it had faced rejection time and time again. Siegel and Shuster still entered the comic book industry, publishing characters such as detective Slam Bradley and the mystical adventurer Dr. Occult, both of whom appeared in publications by Detective Comics, Inc. a year before Superman’s debut.

Finally, editor Sheldon Mayer rescued Siegel and Shuster’s Superman story from the slush pile in order to fill up content for the debut issue of Action Comics. By this point in time, the story had been rejected by 17 other publishers. It had even been rejected by Will Eisner, who would himself later redefine comic book storytelling through his works such as The Spirit and A Contract with God. Eisner rejected the Superman story due to its, in his opinion, poor art quality. Other publishers rejected it because they felt the story was unrealistic and outlandish even for children.

Though there were masked vigilantes beforehand in newspaper comic strips, radio and prose (and a few even wore costumes), Superman took things to whole new level. The superhero genre grew almost overnight and has dominated U.S comic books since.

So that’s how what we now consider comic books evolved. How did superheroes evolve exactly? What were the factors that inspired Superman? Which characters were called “superhero” before he even appeared? We can discuss all that at another time.

Stay geeky, my friends.


QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” – Harvey Pekar, creator of American Splendor

THIS WEEK’S RECOMMENDED READING: Grant Morrison’s book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human