What is a comic/graphic novel?
Modern comics as most people think of them began primarily at the turn of the 20 century. It would surprise many to find out comics have been around for numerous centuries before Superman. If one pondered it long enough, they could even relate hieroglyphics from various ancient cultures to modern comics. Comic’s scholar, Scott McCloud, gives the most accurate definition to date: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response.” (McCloud, Understanding Comics 9).
Using this definition eliminates many things from the discussion table when discussing or studying comics. The category does not include: single image and caption pairings found in most political cartoons, Farside or Family Circus cartoons, individual paintings or pieces of art, films, or animation. It is important to give comics this differentiation because of the unique characteristic comics have in their interaction with the reader. Comics are the only form of media which use one of the five senses to stimulate them all, while also giving a perception which spans both directions of time.
The unique design of comics allows readers to hear sounds with brilliantly placed onomatopoeias and steady yet familiar character definition, through dialogue. Textures and depth are presented masterfully with the use of different lines in the art of comics. Even certain situations and images can move together with wavy lines to let the ready know something smells bad, or may taste sweet. All of this happening through a flow of time the reader can observe. The layout of comics gives readers a sense of past, present, and future; giving a sense of movement, as their eyes follow the panels around the page. Coming together it is easy to see how comics can bring forth a broad array of emotions from a reader.
Most of society is quick to label comics as “kids’ stuff.” This segment ignores the history of comics all together. The target audience for comics is just as dependent on the message within each individual piece as is a film or television show. Any genre one can think of in film or literature can also be found in comics. These “funny books” were actually found to be so beneficial to conveying information they were implemented for use in Army manuals, text books, instructional diagrams, and religious pamphlets.
Without noticing modern society passes by, gathers information, scans through, reads and learns from comics. Just in case an individual slept through the flight attendant’s demonstration on using oxygen masks, flotation devices, and pointing out the location of the exits; there is a handy pamphlet tucked away in the snug pocket in front of each passenger. This comic gives out all of the same information without the crackling robotic overhead voice. In a sense, comics can even save lives.
The modern comic as we think of it found it roots in the strips published by magazines and newspapers as filler, and entertainment. Before characters in America such as Li'l Abner, Batman, and Fritz the Cat, became popular enough to have a life all their own, England had produced the first comic’s superstar almost 50 years prior. Ally Sloper is the first character known to sweep a nation and become part of society. (Sabin, Comics Study Reader 177). Born out of the pages of Judy magazine in 1867, little drunkard conman would also be the beginning of the strong relationship between politics and comics in the more politically oriented Punch. (Sabin, 178).
Sloper could be seen having many misadventures and involved in numerous schemes, making riffs at the government or stereotyped conceptions of foreigners. Sloper was a part of British popular culture for much of the late 19 century and into pre-World War I 20 century. He was used as a marketing tool, and became so popular advertising space was sold to be included into what may have been the first comic book. As amazed as American comic scholars will be, Sloper’s strips were collected in comic book form in a series of 7 books began almost 60 years before Famous Funnies was conceived.
The success of comic strips in Europe began to work its way into the American print media at the turn of the 20 century. The industry grew as more and more immigrants came to the country, even Joseph Pulitzer started using comic strips as a way to communicate and bridge the language barriers between peoples. The inclusion of the funnies in Sunday papers led to increased sales of mainstream news papers printed in English. The strips were similar to those which developed in Europe. Some were to simply entertain and others were used as political messages.
The comic section’s inclusion changed Sundays in the American home, and as early as 1909 led to outcry from conservative church groups. Though most of this was born out of racism, they stood behind ideals and messages about “keeping the Sabbath holy.” (Hajdu, The Ten-Cent Plague, 12). After William Randolph Hearst entered the industry he began to print the comic section in color. News papers at this time were the only means of mass communication for the family home. Through these colorful and sometimes anarchic strips, the first American comic superstars developed in these periodicals. Years later during and after World War I, the opponents of the industry quieted down and a new era in publishing was ushered in with the birth of the American comic book.
Immigrants Maxwell Gaines and Harry Wildenberg collaborated with Dell Publishing to print a 36 page book Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics. After Dell turned down the young entrepreneurs on future printings, the idea was picked up on by rival publisher Eastern Color. (Wright, Comic Book Nation 3). During the Great Depression the American comic book became a phenomenon. Success, as previously stated, was the ease of communication across language barriers coupled with a ten cent price tag. Ten cents was all it took for an American to take a brief break from the hard times brought on by the depression. Printing the books almost destroyed the publisher. The fad had spread across the nation as people would swap books and pass them along. With issue #12 the American comic had become Eastern Color’s most lucrative publication. (Wright, 5). Other publishers followed suit after seeing how lucrative the comic book had become and a 75 year old multi-billion dollar industry was born.
With society, the entity known as the comic book followed trends, culture, and politics. Moving from popular pulp magazines, which usually told science fiction, and crime stories and evolution began as the industry grew. This growth led to the eventual development of the “graphic novel.” Simply using the term novel would connect one’s mind to literature. The industry can thank the father of comics, Will Eisner, for his work and collaboration with Art Spiegelman and Denis Kitchen. They envisioned comics having the ability to be something more than quick stories becoming predictable and cliché. They set forth for comics to have a greater purpose and with Eisner’s Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories; the evolution to graphic novel had begun. The relevancy of the genre was proven with Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust work, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, in 1986. (Weiner, The rise of the Graphic Novel 36).
The popularity of comics and graphic novels has waxed and waned with society. Public involvement, interest, and fascination with the industry are closely tied to politics, technology, and the economy. The industry has evolved with the consumer, adapting to political ideals while making advances in technology. Even now major publishers who don’t already have digital based product are quickly developing them. The marketing is just as strong, if not stronger, than it was in the 1940’s. Multiple movies come out every year based on comic superheroes or epic stories from graphic novels. Even mainstream novelist Stephen King, has allowed his creations to be re-interpreted in comic form. Along with these come video games, music sound tracks, toy lines, spoofs, and an emergence at the forefront of modern American pop-culture.