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The Comic Book

Updated on January 16, 2010

The comic book developed from the newspaper comic strip. Although the comic strip had expanded to include a wide range of non-humorous subject matter (family life, romance, fantasy, science fiction, the West, detective adventures) the name "comics" remained. This subject matter carried over to the comic book, whose name is descriptive of a format rather than an editorial content. The many comic books published monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly include cartoon comics in the broadly humorous category, but the majority of titles feature fantasy, romance, or adventures in space, the American West, or the military.

Comic books might have been more appropriately called magazines, since almost from the beginning they were published on a periodical basis. Some were geared to very young readers, and others to the specific interests of teenagers. Some were aimed at boys' love of action and adventure, and some, with heavy emphasis on fashions and romance, were directed toward female audiences. The heaviest readership of comic books appeared to be in the 7-to-14 age group, although there was a substantial readership in the preschool and high school age groups. During World War II, comic books outsold Life and the Reader's Digest ten to one at U.S. Army post exchanges. Comic books sold at the rate of millions of copies per month, with a probable "pass on" readership of at least three for each copy sold.

History of Comic Books

Primarily an American product, the comic book is a relative newcomer to publishing. Although the Chicago American reprinted a group of its old Mutt and Jeff plates and bound the pages together in a book in 1911, the first comic book in its familiar format did not make its appearance until 1933. This pioneer, Funnies on Parade, consisted of reruns of Sunday newspaper comic strips reduced to standard magazine size. It was conceived initially as a sales promotion device. When the enterprising publisher decided to experiment with some copies by placing them on a few newsstands with a 10-cent price tag, they were sold in a weekend.

The first comic books to use original material began in 1935, but it was not until 1937, with the publication of Detective Comics, that a publication devoted itself entirely to a single theme or predominant character. This subsequently became the standard format. The industry moved ahead quickly with the appearance in 1938 of a personality named Superman, who "flew" through the pages of the first issue of Action Comics.

The great success of Action Comics brought many other publishers into the field. By 1940 there were 60 titles, and a year later there were 168. Some publishers specialized in horror comics with such titles as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, some specialized in crime comics in which violence became an end in itself, and others concentrated on offensive themes that disturbed the parents of many young readers.

Reform of Comic Books

By the early 1950's there was considerable demand for some form of censorship of the offensive comic books. The most severe critic of the comic books was Frederic Wertham, a New York psychiatrist. In his book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) Wertham described the effects of the particularly brutal and perverted horror comics he studied as the "psychological erosion of children." However, his material was gathered from the clinical study of disturbed children and contained little empirical evidence regarding the influence of horror comics on the normal child. Nevertheless, Wertham's account increased the anxiety of certain groups over the possible effects of comic books on children.

Facing the prospect of lengthy litigation throughout the United States, the comic book publishers formed an association in 1954, and later set up a comics code authority. The code covered both the editorial content and the advertisements in comics magazines. Members of the association agreed to adhere to the terms of the code, and to submit all material intended for publication to the code authority for advance review and judgment. The code worked well, serving to allay most of the fears of those who once termed comic books "the marijuana of the nursery." Publishers who could not abide by the code did not join the association and gradually left the field. As a consequence of the elimination of much of the gore and horror elements from comic books, the number of readers diminished.

With the adoption of the Comic Authority Code in 1954, the major anxieties in relation to comic books were allayed. However, in 1967 the Comics Magazine Association warned that another flood of comic books featuring horror and other objectionable material had been seen on newsstands. Since the code could be applied only to members of the association as a self-regulating force, there was Little to thwart the unscrupulous publisher of objectionable material.

Also in 1967, social scientists at Oxford University made a study of 40 weekly comic books in England. It indicated that young readers acquire prejudiced stereotypes of foreigners through reading war comics. Their report expressed concern that these stereotypes would shape later attitudes.

The influence of comic books on young readers is a recurrent and hotly debated subject. However, the value of the comic book technique as a highly effective communications medium is shown by the increasing number of comic booklets sponsored by government and private agencies and by leading industrial firms. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission used a comic book to describe what an atom is, how it is split, and what happens when it is split. The General Electric Corporation published a number of comic booklets dealing not only with electricity, atoms, and other scientific subjects, but also with historical topics. Public welfare organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, used comic books to spread the principles of tolerance and brotherhood. Archie Comics in 1967 produced What Happened to Joe and His Drinking Problem for Alcoholics Anonymous, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare used a comic booklet called Hooked in its drive against narcotics addiction.


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