Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part II: A Brief History of Comics

Blog note: The new “comic books” tag is also getting applied to Monday’s Part I. Today’s discussion will actually have more to do with comic books than webcomics. Part III will tie it all back in with webcomics. Also note that this part is almost entirely based on memory and you should consult “real” sources; even Wikipedia is more reliable than this post.

For much of the twentieth century in the United States, comics had two major forms of distribution: the comic strip, usually printed on a daily basis in the newspaper, and the comic book, distributed as an entire magazine and until the 1970s or so appearing on newsstands alongside “real” magazines. During the 1990s a third distribution avenue arose: the webcomic, distributed (as the name implies) on the web.

For many in the print comic field this may seem almost blasphemous, or at least it would have seemed such a decade ago. To compare the twaddle being released on the web by people who aren’t good enough to make it in “real” print comics, to the likes of Peanuts and Watchmen? But for reasons I’ll return to for the rest of this series, there are some very good reasons to rate comics on the web on the same level as comics in the newspaper and comics in magazines, if only because they are using the same art form.

The modern comic strip was born late in the nineteenth century, though it had been evolving long before that in the form of editorial cartoons. (I don’t count editorial cartoons as anything other than a subset of comic strips.) Somewhat arbitrarily, most histories of comics as a medium begin with Richard Felton Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid”, a key figure in the New York newspaper wars between the World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) and the Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst), getting his start at the former and eventually swiped away for the latter. (Those two papers went through various permutations before merging in 1966 and folding in 1967.) The Kid was – at least in America – one of the first continuing characters in comics, his feature one of the first ongoing fictional comic features, and most importantly, his move from the World to the Journal demonstrated the value a comic strip could have to a paper at a time when there were still more papers in a given market than you could shake a stick at. (Really, the newspaper industry has been dying for a long time, well before the Internet came along.)

So new comics popped up all over the country in newspapers desperate to stoke sales, including The Katzenjammer Kids, which introduced the sequential format and broke what we consider the “comic strip” away from the editorial cartoon altogether, and Mutt and Jeff, which was such a hit in San Francisco (where it had also made a move from one paper to another, Hearst-owned paper) it was picked up for syndication and seen all over the country. Naturally, other highlights of the comic strips swiftly made the move to national distribution. (Note: I don’t know if M&J was the first comic strip to be syndicated, or even the one that started the trend. That’s a startlingly under-studied part of comics history. But Wikipedia does say that its creator was “the first big celebrity of the comics industry”, so that’s why I’m singling it out.)

Early comic strips were either what we would call “gag-a-day” today, or in rarer cases (like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat), travels through bizarre landscapes. During the 1920s both types gave way to the adventure comic, spearheaded by comics such as Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon, which could tell a continuing story day by day for months at a time. As these were even better at drawing people’s eyes to newspapers, since people had to come back to see what happened next, soon adventure strips were all the rage in comics.

Not long after the first comic strips came the first comic strip collections, which took a bunch of daily strips from a certain period of time and bound them all together in a book. As the story goes, someone at the Eastern Color printing company got the bright idea to take several different comics and publish a few of each in a single book. After experiments in distributing the books through mail-in coupon programs and department stores, in 1934 Famous Funnies first appeared on newsstands, and the modern comic book was born. It wasn’t long before people got the bright idea to include new material in the comic books, and before long someone by the name of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson brought in several people to create enough new material to fill an entire comic book without a single reprint, called New Fun. Thus was born the company now known as DC Comics.

I should point out that in these early days in the mid-30s, comic books were not that different from where webcomics is now. The full page of the comic book was the original infinite canvas; every month you had the full page that was then the standard for Sunday strips, without any additional daily strips to muck up the waterworks. What’s more, you could tell a story for several pages at a time (usually six to eight) every month, partly making up for the lack of storytelling over the course of the week, or at least on a weekly basis. On the other hand, having your work distributed in the likes of New Fun or its successors New Comics (later New Adventure Comics and then just Adventure Comics) or Detective Comics was considered the fate of those who couldn’t get work in real newspaper comic strips.

Such was what initially happened to the proposed comic strip from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster about an alien from another planet who ran around fighting crime in an outlandish costume while maintaining a mild-mannered secret identity as a newspaper reporter. Unable to get a newspaper or syndicate to bite on the fantastic premise, they took their creation to DC, and even there it sat in the slush pile until an editor noticed it and made it the lead feature in the first issue of the company’s latest title, Action Comics. Almost instantly, Superman was a runaway success that spawned hordes of other costumed crime fighters (including no small number at DC itself), and helped comic books climb out of the shadows of their newspaper cousins. (And ironically, led to Siegel and Shuster getting the comic strip gig they’d wanted all along.)

With adventure strips taking readers to lushly drawn faraway places and battles with pirates and evil overlords in the newspapers, and costumed crime fighters becoming an outlet for readers’ fantasies and beating up the boogeymen of the day (initially corrupt businessmen, later Nazis) in the (cheap as all get out) comic books, this was the period known as the Golden Age of Comics.

But while World War II helped bring comics’ popularity to even higher heights by giving its heroes easy villains to fight, it also helped mark the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, thanks to wartime restrictions on paper – though the changes continued later into the 1940s. Newspapers reduced the size of comic strips and replaced the full-page Sunday strip with a half-page; syndicates introduced a format that allowed Sunday strips to be reduced even further, by mandating that the first two panels be easily removed (resulting in a strip taking up one-third of a page) and mandatory panel borders be drawn that allowed the entire strip, including first two panels, to take up two lines on a fourth of the page. Ideally, if every panel was roughly square, the strip could even be run down the side. Many strips also suffered the indignation of mandatory panel borders on daily strips that forced every strip to be four square panels that could be rearranged. This effectively killed the adventure strips that thrived on freedom to roam and giving a sense of wonder, though most of the big ones stuck around, some into the present day. In 1950, Peanuts started, and would ultimately point the way forward for comic strips; gag-a-day comics proliferated on the comics pages and do so to this day.

As for comic books, the end of World War II – even with the rise of communism – meant superheroes were no longer in the cultural zeitgeist, and most of them quietly fell away. Comic books entered the only real period in their history where superheroes were not the most popular genre, as crime, romance, and horror comics started dominating newsstands. One company, EC Comics, got rich with horror comics such as the original Tales from the Crypt, but their stories helped bring the whole party to a halt, with the 1954 publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which charged comic books with corrupting the youth and leading them to delinquency, including the disturbing images in EC’s horror comics and perhaps the first glimpse of the modern-day Internet meme that Batman and Robin might be homosexuals. Threatened with Senate action, the comics industry devised a ridiculously restrictive code of censorship known as the Comics Code, and announced that any comic had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and receive a sticker indicating such on its cover if it wanted newsstands’ trust that no objectionable material was in there.

The whole thing drove EC out of business with the exception of Mad, which switched to becoming technically a regular old magazine and became one of the cultural touchstones of the 1960s. Left without virtually anything to publish that would pass Comics Code muster, comic books, led by DC, ran back to superheroes, which offered simple good-vs.-evil morality tales that were easier to pass the Comics Code’s bar. At first, this meant DC and no one else. But one of the imitators of the original Golden Age run, which had stumbled along at the edge of bankruptcy and had become reliant on DC for its distribution, suddenly hit a run of successes with deconstructions of the superhero like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and the modern Marvel Comics was born. This period also saw the first birth pangs of modern geeky comics fandom, who saw fit to label this era the Silver Age. (Because you can’t just call it the second Golden Age, you have to show off how deep your knowledge of Greek mythology is…)

The Comics Code left mainstream comic books ridiculously ill-positioned to capitalize on the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. (Thanks to politically charged strips like Pogo, comic strips were slightly better prepared.) It also created a market for “underground” independent “comix” that were free from the Code’s draconian rules and were thus free to cover a wider array of subject matter. American mainstream comic books did not overcome the Code and catch up to American culture until the early 1970s, when Marvel, tasked by the US government to create some anti-drug issues of Spider-Man, saw them rejected by the Authority for daring to even mention drugs. Marvel released the issues without Code approval, and the Authority was left with egg on its face. DC also broke new ground with a series teaming conservative superhero Green Lantern with liberal Green Arrow in an examination of all the problems America faced. The Code was forced to revise its guidelines, and by the early part of this decade even Marvel had dropped the Code entirely.

(Note: Many in comic book fandom use the term “Bronze Age” to describe comics published after a number of shifts around 1969-1973. I think the spot that’s closest in spirit to the division of the Golden and Silver Ages, at least in terms of overall industry sales and the popularity of superheroes, is a decline in sales related to an ongoing recession and the shift in distribution paradigms below, in the mid-to-late 70s.)

Later in the 70s, comics were effectively forced off newsstands and into stores devoted to selling only comic books. Comics left the newsstand distribution system and moved to what became known as the “direct market”, originally used to describe a middleman-free system where comic shop owners bought their comics direct from the publisher. After a period of declining sales, what was left of comics fandom had effectively been thinned out to an almost exclusively geek crowd. Eventually the middleman-free system would evolve into a system involving a number of comics-specific distribution companies, eventually thinned out to one with an effective monopoly on mainstream comics distribution, Diamond Comic Distributors.

The new comic shops were places of superhero fandom (DC and Marvel, often now written by people raised on Silver Age comics), by superhero fandom (think the “Comic Book Guy” on The Simpsons), and for superhero fandom. Nonetheless, if you had a comic book and you wanted to be distributed, until this decade the comic shops were the way to go. Some in the business worked on the concept of the “graphic novel”, attempting to liberate the comic book from its magazine origins and write longer works in comic form, helping to inspire things like Understanding Comics. Despite the ghettoization of comics, they enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s as a fad linked to stories of the high prices commanded by classic Golden Age comics, bringing hordes of people into the comic book stores looking to buy a retirement fund. Ignoring rules of supply and demand, Marvel and DC resorted to all sorts of ridiculous gimmicks to sell massive numbers of comics – then the bottom fell out and took the comics industry down so hard Marvel declared bankruptcy.

By the mid-to-late 90s, when comics started appearing on the web, both of the existing types of comics were either in ongoing or entering states of flux. The comic strip has not changed much from the example set by Peanuts of simple, gag-a-day storylines; daily newspaper comic strips with ongoing storylines are the exception and not the rule. Part of the vitriol directed at Garfield is that it is perceived as further imbecilizing the comics pages by encouraging easy-pitch formulaic premises produced in assembly line manner. Comics such as Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes attempted to raise the quality of the comics pages, but little real change has happened.

And it’s getting worse. What comics have anything even approaching being memorable since the 1989 start of Dilbert? The Boondocks? Maybe critically-acclaimed “quirky” strips like Pearls Before Swine or Get Fuzzy? So many of the comics lining the comics pages these days seem to just be unmemorable copies of one another over and over. Imagine what an impact Penny Arcade might have had in newspapers, how different it might have been just by rising above the sea of mediocrity – or maybe it would have been lost in the shuffle and never had anywhere near the impact it did. Or both. Newspapers have always relied on comics as a way to sell newspapers, but just as the Internet started challenging their dominion in this decade, the comics they had always carried could be found on the web as well, and most of them aren’t worth reading anyway. Comics can’t save newspapers this time.

At the same time, the distribution system of comic books in place for 30 years is starting to crack. Graphic novels and collections of the monthly comics (and even the monthly comics themselves) have started to crack bookstores (if slowly), and the rising popularity of Japanese manga since the 90s have turned bookstores into a primary place to get the comics. I’ll expand on that later in the series in Part III or IV with a discussion of a recent development at Diamond with potential for great impact on webcomics. For now know this: old monthly comic books increasingly look like relics from a bygone era.

Between these developments, by 2020 webcomics could be the only first-run distribution mechanism for comics that I mentioned at the start of this post, and one of two with graphic novels. Figuring out what to do with that possibility looming is part of the point of this series.

Then there’s all the issues of creator control and creator’s rights that afflicts both comic strips and comic books. In addition to all the size and layout constraints, comic strips are a very regimented world where you are basically a hired hand and take a lot of guff from syndicates who are afraid of potentially offending anyone, and where the syndicate reaps most of the benefits of your work. The rights of the creator has been a big issue since at least the 70s, and in the 80s and 90s some cartoonists such as Bill Watterson made inroads on creative and financial control of their work (oddly, Jim Davis of all people had a lot of success with the latter), but Eric Burns(-White) suggested back in 2004 that they may have actually hurt the cause of creator’s rights in the long run, simply because they ended their strips after only ten years or so instead of continuing for decades, meaning they sent the message that giving cartoonists what they wanted wasn’t worth the trouble. One may surmise the flip side of this: wannabe edgy cartoonists going to the web instead. (Of course, only two years later Diesel Sweeties was distributed to newspapers by United Features in a deal that meant little more than a little extra work for R. Stevens, who merely wrote a parallel strip – a sign of just how far in the dumper newspapers had already fallen.)

In comic books, the problem is more with the creators of Golden Age properties and the like; you may have heard about the legal troubles DC has had with Siegel, Shuster, and their estates over various Superman rights since the 70s. Comic book writers and artists are even more hired hands in superhero comics, effectively writing what amounts to fanfic. Once again people have been pushing for more control over what they create, and early in the 90s several superstar Marvel artists left to form their own company, Image, that would serve merely as a publishing platform for comics owned by their creators. The problem, as we’ll get to later, is that only a few publishers are able to make inroads in Diamond’s catalog and while financial success isn’t exactly a sane goal in traditional American monthly comic books at all, it’s pretty much a fool’s errand if you don’t work for DC or Marvel (meaning you make superhero comics), and hard to even get started (harder now – again, for reasons we’ll get to) if you don’t align yourself with one of a handful of other companies, maybe five or so, and that includes DC and Marvel.

So that’s another reason we could be left with webcomics and graphic novels by 2020: an artist (here used as a broad term) would be insane to deal with the antiquated ways of old.

This part would serve as a great lead-in to the first current topic that inspired this series. But first, we need to take a detour through Scott McCloud’s vision of webcomics to figure out where we are and where we could be going. And as I write this, I’m not sure which I’m going to do first, and I may do them simultaneously.

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