History of American Comics (Abridged)

WARNING: The following is a rough summation of actual events. However, I have paraphrased dialogue. These events DID happen in real life, just (sometimes) not as absurdly as depicted.

So way back in the 1890s, aka back when men dressed like Mister Peanut, the first comics in the United States were one-panel cartoons making fun of politicians and businessmen who owned ALL THE THINGS.

Then, someone got the idea to put these single-panel comics into sequence. Thus was birthed such classically racist works like The Yellow Kid.

the yellow kid comic strip
What the Hell, History?

Of course there were other comic strips that came out, too, not just the racist ones.

Then came the 1920s, when newspapers started having their own dedicated comics sections. Of course, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland took up an entire page, forcing many other comic strips to cram themselves into the remaining pages. This included classics like Popeye and Krazy Kat.

krazy kat comics
A typical Krazy Kat page. Many comics of that era were VERY experimental.

Then in the 30s came these two guys who created a guy they called Superman, and he had these powers that made you go THAT’S JUST BANANA PANTS. But they didn’t want to run this weird story as a comic strip, so they made a new thing called a comic book, which was 32 comic pages that told a continuous story, and BAM. The game was changed.

And then throughout the 30s and 40s there was this GINORMOUS EXPLOSION of people creating people they called “Superheroes,” or people who fought crimes in disguises that…were fashionable at the time?

1940s comic books
Many artists of the era say they were inspired by circus performers, and…that doesn’t surprise me at all.

Anyway, other comic shops said to themselves, “You know what? I don’t want to make superhero stuff. I want to make romances for teen girls.” And the market for that EXPLODED because romances never die! Except when they do because it’s romantic.

1940s romance comic books
This was the least sexy comic cover of the genre I could find from the era. All the other covers feature crying girls or studly beefcakes. Or both.

And then there was EC Comics, who said to themselves, “You know what? I wanna’ make comics full of horror stories for the young men out there who love death, because death sells!” AND THEY WERE RIGHT.

ec comics horror comic book cover
…And no fucks were given (yet).

Not to mention the dozens, if not hundreds, of off-shoot genres. There were even comics entirely for black folks!

negro romance 1940s black comic book
Yes, this was real!
1940s negro comic books
Yes, this was a thing.

But then the 50s came, and a crochity old man wrote this crochity old book called “Seduction of the Innocent” and (to the dismay of perverts who thought this was a primer) detailed how violent comics were, and how comic books made pre-adolescent boys rape and murder ALL THE THINGS.

seduction of the innocent frank wertham book
It is my moral obligation to spit on this book whenever possible.

So, because it was the 50s and people were terrified of anything not Leave it to Beaver, comic companies were taken TO COURT and told, “Stop publishing this shit and publish something wholesome, like superheroes and talking animals.” Because children can OF COURSE believe talking animals but not death.

Then these twatrockets formed something called the Comics Code Authority to make sure all comics on the shelves were superheroes or talking animals, because comics were FOR THE CHILDREN.

comics code authority seal
This is what real censorship looks like.

This really annoyed a lot of actual adults, who went to each other in record stores and said, “Fuck this noise, I’m making comics on my own terms and selling directly to the adults who want REAL dirty humor.”

r crumb underground comix
There were tons of artists in the scene but the most well-known one is (unfortunately?) R. Crumb.

And the market was like this from the late 50s to the early 70s – half child-friendly mass-produced candy vomit that sat on the shelves in public, and half horribly-written, sometimes-adequately-drawn sexual humor sold in place friendly to the underground comix scene (the ‘x’ in ‘comix’ made it stand out from the candy vomit, you see).


maus graphic novel comic book

And this story, about a man writing the story of his Jewish father’s time in Nazi Germany, was something that made people in the mainstream go, “Wait, mice are Jews and Cats are Nazis and it’s not funny animals – CANNOT COMPUTE IT MUST BE ART BECAUSE I DON’T GET IT.”

And then Watchmen was a thing and it made people go, “Holy crap superheroes are, like, ACTUAL ADULTS WUT?”

And then The Dark Knight Returns came out and people were like “THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY IS A SHAM.”

Just a few years later Japanese comics – or manga, because that’s the actual goddamn name for them – came onto the scene and at first they were printed for the English language so people weren’t looking at the books going, “Why is this backwards?!” (Because the original Japanese language runs right-to-left. So to them, we’re the backwards ones.)

lone wolf and cub manga
Lone Wolf and Cub, the premier manga before we were swamped with adorable big-eyed girls with large boobs. (Seriously, they’re everywhere now.)

Later on, Tokyopop changed that, so manga was printed in the original right-to-left reading format much to the confusion of EVERYONE for the first ten years of publications.

Once people got used to the idea of teenage sailor aliens, sexy robots, and deep and unanswerable questions about the meaning of life being in manga, people were like “Dude, American comics need more of this!”

As this was happening the Internet became a thing and suddenly a handful of creators were like, “Let’s put comics on the internet so EVERYONE ALL OVER THE WORLD CAN READ THEM.” Only it didn’t really happen like that for the first few years because the Internet was still new and very. Very. Very. Very. Very. Very. Very. Slow.

A short time later the internet got faster and more people got online and went, “THERE ARE COMICS HERE ERMAHGERD.”

And now we have the American comics of today. There are American comics, manga, European comics (oh yeah, that happened), webcomics, graphic novels, comic strips, COMICS EVERYWHERE.

And in the future…. ?????

For actual books on comics history (yes, these are things, and yes, they are GLORIOUS), be sure to check these out:

From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines by Trina Robbins

The Essential Guide to World Comics by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks

KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games+ Art with Bruce Grenville (senior curator)

The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Thank you for reading!

You. Are, Awesome.

EDIT: The Comics Code Authority was actually created BY comic companies to protect themselves from the future wrath of 1950s parents. To read more about it, check out this article.

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