Comic-Books, a truly American Literary Format
Many of us are able to remember the first time we truly connected to a book as readers. These books may have been introduced into our lives by a family member, or a friend or a teacher at school. Although I am not exactly sure how comic-books snuck into my repertoire (although it was most likely through my cousins who were prolific comic-book readers), I vividly remember reading and collecting them before I even started first-grade. Having grown up in former-Yugoslavia, many of these books were Italian imports (books like Alan Ford, Zagor, and later Dylan Dog, Martin Mystère), beloved and translated into my native language. Other comic-books I loved at this time included Lucky Luke, The Adventures of Asterix, and later Modesty Blaise. Comic-books provided me with an interesting story narrative aided by entertaining pictorial images essential for the development of an enthusiastic reader. I didn’t read books, I devoured them.
I currently work as a Youth Services Librarian at the West Windsor Branch Library (of greater Mercer County Library System), where I have developed an intensive twelve-session comic-book writing workshop for children ages 7-11. As part of this program, children not only learn about the history and format of comic-books, but they also learn how to write and script stories (simultaneously practicing spelling and other grammatical aspects of writing); they learn how to conduct image research; they practice penciling and inking their drawings, and learn about self-publishing as the workshops’ completed comics are compiled and printed into zine-formatted anthologies.
Comic-books are a huge part of my life and I have spent a significant chunk of my life in their company. I even took my passion for comic-books to Rutgers Graduate School, where I invested plenty of research into their history, culture, and even socio-political analysis. In my opinion, there has never existed a more utilitarian and reflective format than the one offered by comic-books. Having said that, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the American history behind this versatile literary format and make brief note of some exemplary titles. Also included is a section on criticism that arose following unfounded claims that comic-books incited the raise in juvenile delinquency in 1950s.
Comic-formatted stories have appeared in print prior to the end of nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until Joseph Pulitzer purchased one of the first color printing newsprint presses that they began appearing as a supplement in the Sunday papers he published. The popularity of Hogan’s Alley, the first comic published in Sunday papers, led to the creation of similar strips like Happy Hooligan and Katzenjammer Kids. Due to the fact that they were regarded as “low culture”, criticisms and calls for comic strip censorship began to appear. Some of those very same “low culture” comics are now praised as exemplars of American culture, comics like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater, and one of my personal favorites, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.
Years after World War I
Following World War I, newspaper strips changed in tone and style. Many comic strip authors drew inspiration from stories found in pulp magazines such as the Amazing Stories and Dime Detective Magazine. After all, children that read Katzenjammer Kids were now adolescents and their interests shifted toward fantasy and adventure. Poverty was the living reality of many Depression-era families from which comic-book’s first fans (and later comic-book producers) rose.
Some of the most beloved titles of this time include Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (1929), Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck Rodgers (first appearing in Amazing Stories in 1928), as well as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (a comic profoundly influenced by Buck Rodgers), Harold Foster’s Tarzan (1930) and Prince Valiant (1937), as well as Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates (1930). Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster delivered Superman, the “Champion of the Oppressed,” on the debut cover of Action Comics (June, 1938). Much like his nickname suggests, Superman’s appeal lay in the fact that the populace could identify with being a born immigrant and embodying the Rooseveltian-era of power employed for public good.
World War II, Crime and Superhero Comics
In 1942, America threw itself into World War II and every form of media (including comics, movies, radio and pulp magazines) served in a patriotic movement benefiting the war efforts. Many comic book superheroes found themselves taking on the Nazi regime, and at times more than one cover featured Hitler as the villain. Superheroes took on fighting Nazis whenever not fighting criminals. “A few heroes worked outside the law, nearly all above it, but none worked against it.” (Hajdu, p. 61) Crime became a topic so popular that even J. Edgar Hoover initiated a crime comic of his own. Following the war however, a sudden shift in tone took place with Charles Biro’s Crime Does Not Pay. The rise of crime as the comic’s favored narrative reflected popular culture’s demand for crime and mystery paperbacks. Criminals took up leading roles and there was little restraint in what was shown and prohibited. As the comic-book’s first generation of readers matured, so did the themes in its most popular titles. At the time, dozens of crime titles were available to the core of comic-book’s audience comprised mainly of young adults.
1950s and the “New Trend” comics
“New Trend” comics were initiated by EC’s (Entertaining Comics) Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein in early 1950s. They introduced two titles that shifted in tone and style from other comics displayed at newsstands; titles that drew inspiration from other popular culture formats, including those found in Mickey Spillane’s pulp novels, heard on radio in The Witch’s Tale and Lights Out, and reflected in horror, monster and sci-fi movies of the time. “Citizens of a derivative society, comic-book creators took ideas from all the popular arts, as well as each other’s work and horror had been a staple of the pulps and Hollywood films since the 1930s, although the genre tended to drift in and out of vogue” (Hajdu, p. 177). EC comics also borrowed from Ray Bradbury, or in words of Al Feldstein, “…not only borrowings in terms of plot, but borrowings in terms of writing style. I was very impressed with Ray Bradbury. I read Dark Carnival and The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and whatever else I could get a hold of Bradbury's at the time. I was very impressed with his writing style and tried to emulate it, in the comic style” (Squa Tront, 1967).
Although earlier forms of horror comics appeared in print with Spook Comics (1946) and Eerie Comics (1947), it wasn’t until “New Trend” that the industry’s tone shifted to horror comics. At the time, the United States’ government discovered that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and comic-books depicting zombies whose skin and bones were disintegrating were not far removed from frightening images present in the minds of those living in wake of a nuclear war. By the end of 1952, EC had several horror and science fiction titles under its belt, including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, Crime SuspeStories and Shock SuspenStories. EC succeeded in reviving an interest in comic-books for those discouraged by lack of thrilling comics following the ACMP organization’s code by showcasing stories featuring exquisite art by artists like Jack Davis, Johnny Craig, Will Elder, Reed Crandall, George Evans, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Bernard Krigstein, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Al Williams, Basil Wolverton and Wally Wood. In addition to the art, these comic-book narratives featuring exciting “O. Henry” twist-endings. Enthusiasm for such stories is shared by Bhob Stewart who almost stopped reading comics when he discovered EC’s exciting “New Trend” comics. In an interview with David Hajdu he said, “The stories were like radio stories rather than comic-book stories, and they had a point of view that seemed original and provocative to me. They had an attitude that connected me at the age of thirteen” (p. 178). Stewart’s enthusiasm proved so strong that in 1953 he created one of the very first comic-book fanzines dedicated to EC, The EC Fan Bulletin. To him and many other readers, EC provided an alternative view on the glorified suburban lifestyle of modern American Era.
Controversy and Calls for Censorship During 1950s
In February 1952, a claim that comic-books incite juvenile delinquency returned with a voluntary ban on crime titles in Walden, NY, following which the New York State Legislature returned to the issue. Horror comics stirred up harsh criticism that called for legislature regulating the books, but were vetoed on grounds of vagueness. That same year, the United States Children’s Bureau announced a 10 percent increase in juvenile delinquency nationwide, with a 20 percent increase in New York City as compared to 1950. Despite the criticism surrounding comic-books, many analysts blamed the increase in juvenile delinquency on The Korean War (war disrupts the balance of family life) and the display of violence already present on television (Hajdu, p. 202). Some analysis of the socio-political climate in America at the time hinted at the possibility that increased criticism on comic-books was due to increasing paranoia surrounding communism as perpetrated by McCarthy’s office. “It was a bad time to be weird,” says Al Williamson, one of the artists working for EC, in an interview with David Hajdu. “You were either a communist or a juvenile delinquent.” Comic-books quickly became looked down upon, but so did everything that presented heterodox views of the sociopolitical climate. The reports on juvenile delinquency and its causes varied in source and severity. Despite a headline in The New York Times (April 16, 1953) reporting “Youth Delinquency Down,” the United States Senate launched an investigation into causes and effects of juvenile delinquency, an act co-sponsored by Kefauver and Hendrickson who claimed that juvenile delinquency was at its peak and that comic-books were their culprit. With the investigation ongoing, harsh (and unfounded) criticism of comic-books appeared in Frederic Wertham’s new book, Seduction of the Innocent (1953). According to David Hajdu’s analysis of the book, Wertham’s “main objections to superheroes, and indeed to all comic books, was the cynicism towards authority elemental to the comic’s nature as an outlet of expression for artists and writers who saw themselves as cultural outcasts and viewed their medium as undervalued or misunderstood. This sensibility lay at the heart of the comics’ appeal to young people struggling to establish their generational identity, and Wertham abhorred it.” In Wertham’s mind the criticism was just because, “The contempt for law and police and the brutality of punishment in comic books is subconsciously translate by children into conflict with authority, and they develop a special indifference to it” (Wertham, 1953). Wertham’s critics pointed to inconclusive evidence and lack of statistical data necessary to make such claims.
Comic-books have held a very important place in American history and culture. Their evolution as a medium (and voice) of their own begun when first color newspaper presses began operating; they reflected upon and drew inspiration from societal changes following wars, technological advances, and other forms of American culture present in print, film and radio. As reflected in research of many academics, comic-books have in recent years risen in stature as a literacy tool, aiding readers in academic and recreational fields. As observed in West Windsor Library’s Comic Workshops, comic-book creators ages 7-11 have actively engaged in twelve-session programs during which they reinforced their story-telling abilities, practiced grammar, penmanship and artistic abilities. Although I haven’t considered their literary value until conducting research for graduate school, I believe that they helped shape me into a ferocious reader. Comic-books have truly captured the hearts and minds of the American populace by developing as a native cultural format akin to baseball and jazz. It is my hope that this informative guide serves as an aid to better understanding the history of American comics and their place in oft tumultuous American history.
Hajdu, D. (2008). The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed
America. Farar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Wertham, F. (1953). Seduction of the Innocents.
_____. (1967). “An Interview with Al Feldstein”. Squa Tront. Issue #9
CCL. (2010). “More than just funny books: Comics and prose literacy for boys.” Canadian Council On Learning. Retrieved December 18, 2012 from
- Dragana D.