Wednesday 3 August 2011

Comic books: What has happened to them?

A comic book (often shortened to simply comics and sometimes called a funny book,) is a magazine made up of comics, narrative artwork in the form of separate panels that represent individual scenes, often accompanied by dialog (usually in word balloons,) as well as including brief descriptive prose.

The development of the modern American comic book took place in stages. Book publishers had collected comic strips in hardcover book form as early as 1833, with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which appeared in New York in 1842, with the first example being published in English.

The G. W. Dillingham Company published the first known proto-comic-book magazine in the U.S., The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, in 1897. It reprinted comics primarily the October 18, 1896 to January 10, 1897 with its sequence titled McFadden's Row of Flats – from cartoonist Richard F. Outcault's newspaper comic strip Hogan's Alley, starring a character called the Yellow Kid. The 196-page, square-bound, black-and-white publication, which also included introductory text by E. W. Townsend, measured 5x7 inches and sold for 50 cents. (That was a lot of money then. In 2009 money that would be equivalent to $93.30) The neologism ‘comic book’ appears on the back cover. Despite the publication of a series of related Hearst comics soon came afterward (including the first known full-color comic, The Blackberries, in 1901). The first monthly comic book, Comics Monthly, did not appear until 1922 and only lasted a year. Produced in an 8½-by-9-inch format, it was reprinted as newspaper comic strips.

The first regular comic books appeared in the United States in 1932, reprinting the earlier newspaper comic strips, which established many of the story-telling devices used in comics. The term ‘comic book’ arose because the first comic books reprinted humor comic strips. Despite their name, however, comic books do not necessarily operate in humorous mode; in fact most modern comic books tell stories in a variety of genres. The Japanese and European comic book markets demonstrate this clearly however, in the United States, the superhero genre dominates the market.

Since the introduction of the regular comic book format in 1934 with the publication of Famous Funnies, the United States has produced the most titles, with only the British comic and Japanese comics as close competitors in terms of quantity of titles.

The Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in the history of American comic books, generally thought of as lasting from the late 1930s until the late 1940s or early 1950s. During this time, modern comic books that were first published and enjoyed a surge of popularity were the archetype of the hero that created and defined and many of the most famous superheroes debuted, were Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. One event cited for the beginning of the Golden Age of comic books was the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by DC Comics. Superman's creation made comic books into a major industry. That edition is worth a fortune nowadays.

Between early 1939 and late 1941, DC and sister company All-American Comics introduced such popular superheroes as Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and Aquaman, while Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America. As we all know, the movie industry made movies of Batman and Robin, Green Lantern, and Captain America.

Although DC and Timely characters are more famous today, circulation figures suggest that the best-selling superhero title of the era may have been Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose approximately 1.4 million copies per issue made it "the most widely circulated comic book in America." Captain Marvel's sales soundly trounced Superman's self-titled series and Action Comics alike, and the comic at one point was issued biweekly to capitalize upon that popular interest

World War II had a significant impact on comics, as reflected in the war-themed subject matter of the time. Comic books, particularly superhero comics, gained immense popularity during the war as cheap, portable, easily read tales of good triumphing over evil. American comic book companies showcased their heroes battling the Axis Powers: covers featuring superheroes punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or fighting buck-toothed caricatures of Japanese soldiers have become relics of the age.

Although the creation of the superhero was the Golden Age's most significant contribution to pop culture, many genres appeared on the newsstands, including humor, Western, romance, and jungle stories. The Steranko History of Comics notes that it was the non-superhero characters of Dell Comics — most notably the licensed Walt Disney animated character comics — that outsold all the supermen of the day. Dell comics, featuring such licensed movie and literary properties as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, and Tarzan, boasted circulations of over two million copies a month, and Donald Duck writer-artist Carl Barks is considered one of the era's major talents.

As with World War II, the ushering in of the era following the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 colored the content and subject matter of comic books in the mid to late 1940s. One blunt example is the educational comic book Dagwood Splits the Atom, using characters from the comic strip Blondie. Superheroes with nuclear-derived powers began to emerge, such as the Atomic Thunderbolt and Atoman. In the movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman, the titular hero fought a villain named Atom Man, while Superman's weakness to kryptonite recalled the dangers of atomic radiation.

Contrasting these serious characters were atomic funny animal characters such as Atomic Mouse and Atomic Rabbit. One historian argues that these cute creations helped ease young readers' fears over the prospect of nuclear war and neutralize anxieties over the questions posed by atomic power. The heroes began to fight communists, and some involved fighting in the Korean War.

As World War II ended the popularity of the superhero comics diminished, and in an effort to retain readers comic publishers began diversifying more than ever into war, Western, science fiction, romance, crime and horror comics. As a result, many superheroes titles were canceled. One series of popular comic books that were published were those that told history stories and also told the popular stories such as A Tale of Two Cities.

The Modern Age of Comic Books is an informal name for the period in the history of mainstream American comic books generally considered to appear between the mid-1980s until present day. In this period, comic book characters generally became darker and more psychologically complex, creators became better-known and active in changing the industry, independent comics flourished, and larger publishing houses became more commercialized

Horror and science fiction titles were absent from the mainstream comics market since the establishment of the restrictive Comics Code in the 1950s though independents like Gold Key comics did start doing horror titles as early as 1965. In the early 1970s (during the Bronze Age), Marvel revived these genres with their new fantasy and horror comics, including Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas, and The Tomb of Dracula. Steve Gerber’s work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck was also very influential in this period based on its philosophical impact of questioning society. These titles would be the foundation for what was to come in the mid-1980s (the beginning of the Modern Age of comics).

Starting with Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on DC Comics' Swamp Thing in the early 1980s, horror comic books incorporated elements of science fiction/fantasy and strove to a new artistic standard. Other examples include Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman followed a few years later by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. These new comics transcended easily identifiable genres.

Striving to apply some label to these titles, some of which did have at a similar feel and approach, some people began to use the phrase "sophisticated suspense".] DC’s Vertigo line, under the editorship of Karen Berger, was launched in 1993, with the goal of specializing in this genre.

Existing titles such as Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Hellblazer, and Shade, the Changing Man were absorbed into this new line. Later in the decade, popular titles such as The Books of Magic, The Dreaming, The Invisibles, Lucifer, and Sandman Mystery Theatre would continue to exert Vertigo’s influence. Vertigo would prove to be a very influential line of comics as it would continue to be published into the 21st Century. Titles such as 100 Bullets, American Virgin, Fables, Y: The Last Man, and the publishing of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor would cement Vertigo’s reputation as a viable alternative to the superhero genre.

The comic book business's last good year was 1993, when the industry reported gross revenues of close to $1-billion (U.S.). This was at a time when collectibles were king; when a mint-condition premiere edition of a 12-cent comic from the 1950s or 1960s could fetch $3,000 on the resale market when speculators would buy 12 copies of one issue and put 11 in storage in anticipation of a future windfall; when comic publishers would sometimes spin off six or seven titles from one character and print five or six different covers for the same issue. The poor suckers who bought them didn’t realize that they had been had until they got home and compared them with the ones they purchased a month or so previous. I can't help but wonder if that's where the phrase, "You can't tell a book from its cover." came from.

Marvel Comics finally decided to abandon the Comics Code Authority. The code is a self-policing mechanism that the American industry created in 1954 to counter charges in Frank Wertham's influential book, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham, a psychologist who had the ear of Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower, argued that comics propagated communism, juvenile delinquency, premarital sex and disrespect of authority. The Comics Code was once the primary way distributors gained access to newsstands, confectioneries and drug and department stores while easing parental concerns about the comic-book ‘menace’. The Comics Code in this current era is pretty much an anachronism.

Contrary to the belief of some, the Comics Code Authority does not run to dozens of pages or involve detailed rules and regulations governing every kind of human and superhuman behaviour. It totals about 1,800 words that are organized into two overarching categories (Code for Editorial Matter and Code for Advertising Matter). Here are some of its edicts:

In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds―scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crimes was to be eliminated――scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism were prohibited. Further, it dictated that all characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society. Seduction and rape was never to be shown or suggested; females were to be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities. Advertising for the sale of knives, concealable weapons or realistic gun facsimiles was prohibited.

Comics Code Authority has been such a whipping boy for publishers, comic fans and freedom-of-expression advocates for so long that it's a bit of a surprise to discover that its current incarnation (the year 2000) was just an operation of one person (a woman) alone functioning with a budget on such a shoestring that couldn’t even afford a Web site. Working from a small office on the 17th floor headquarters of the Comics Magazine Association of America in Manhattan, Heidi Koenig perused about 100 comic titles a month in their pre-published form, looking for, variously, scenes of nudity, drug use and religion-bashing, as well as word balloons with curses and obscenities. If she spotted something questionable, for example on Page 8, middle-deck, far-right panel, she phoned the publisher.

The Code was voluntary and existed primarily to protect younger readers and guide the 15 per cent of the market that were not specialty stores. There were no fines or bans. If a publisher felt strongly about a particular story line that transgressed the Code in some way, he could still publish the work, albeit with the realization that some distributors and shops might not carry it since its cover would be minus the Comics Code seal.

In Canada, parliament passed a law prohibiting certain kinds of stories that could be printed in comic books. Section 163(1)(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada (2002) makes it an offence to publish or distribute a crime comic, and section 163(8) which makes it an offence to publish or distribute anything where the content is the undue exploitation of sex or of sex and violence and any of the following, crime, horror, cruelty and violence, the punishment being as much as two years in prison. In essence what that means that even if someone has in his possession one of the originals of such a comic book that is in mint condition and could be worth $3000 or more on the open market, the moment he attempts to sell it, he could be sent to prison.

However, it is conceivable that that aspect of the law may be an anachronism because parliament has created a defense in ss. 163.1 (3) of the Code which should be liberally construed as they further the values protected by the guarantee of free expression. The defense of ‘artistic merit’ can be established objectively and can be interpreted as including any expression that may reasonably be viewed as art. This defense could apply to material that serves an ‘educational, scientific or medical purpose’. This refers to the purpose the material, viewed objectively, may serve, not the purpose for which the possessor actually holds it. Parliament has made available a ‘public good’ defense. As with the medical, educational or scientific purpose defenses, the defense of public good can be liberally construed. In other words, is it conceivable that a crime comic which depicts the likes of the notorious gangster, Al Capone spending the last years of his life in prison before he succumbed to syphilis a few years after his release from Alcatraz is a good example.

In the fall of 2001, Marvel replaced the Code with its own ratings system, using categories such as; ‘All Ages, Marvel PG, Marvel PG Plus, Parental Advisory/Explicit Content’ that, unsurprisingly is not unlike the classifications adopted by movie ratings boards.

A more recent issue of one of their comic books was a 24-page non-stop profanity-laced gorefest. Half of it is taken up with hand-to-hand combat between Nick Fury and a one-time Cold War nemesis, Colonel Gagarin. Noses and ears are chewed; groins are grabbed; heads are stomped on by men wearing hobnailed boots. Finally, Fury puts an end to it all by sticking a hunter's knife in Gagarin's abdomen, yanking out his entrails and strangling the man to death, using his intestines as a garrotte. The original comic was a kind of balancing act. On the one hand, it was a relatively authentic portrayal of a tight-knit group of soldiers who talked tough and acted Macho; on the other hand, it respected the Comics Code by ‘not using dirty words’ or revelling in violence. It certainly wouldn’t pass muster under the old code but it passed their censors under the Parental Advisory/Explicit Content aspect of their own code. As a child, I certainly didn’t see anything like that and even when I was reading comics at our navy base at Cornwallis, Nova Scotia in 1951/52, there weren’t any comics like that for sale at the base’s store.

At the same time, the Wal-Mart’s of this world, with their relentless demand for super-profits, have by and large forsaken the sale of comics, realizing that the rack that once featured Archie and Flash Gordon generates greater revenue when it displays tennis shoes or porcelain figurines. Nowadays, the characters in the comics will sometimes say “shit” and “ass”. Although I haven’t seen the word ‘fuck’ in any comic book but if it was used, similarly like kids in school use it daily, it’s not that onerous. I believe that the comic book industry is eventually going by the way of the dodo bird as it’s has slowly been replaced by cartoons on television.

It wasn’t until 1941 (when I was eight years old) that I began to read comic books while I lived in Wells, a small gold mining town in the middle of British Columbia. The comic books were not in colour then. They were in colour prior to the Second World War but because the coloured ink had metal in it and metal was in need for the war effort, the comics were published in black and white only. It was only after the war ended that colour returned to the comic books.

When the Children’s Aid sent me to a farm in Lulu Island (now called Richmond) in British Columbia as an eleven-year-old, there were at least a hundred comic books in the farmhouse where I and three other boys lived. I read and re-read them all.

In 1951, there was a second-hand comic book store nearby where I lived in Vancouver and since I had a part-time job washing the large windows of a Dominion store and was earning 50 cents for an hour’s work twice a week, I spent most of my earnings on comic books. Although TV was popular, I never really got to watch TV until I was in my mid twenties while living in Winnipeg in the second half of the 1950s.

When I was seventeen and eighteen in 1951 and part of 1952, I used to read comic books quite often while I was in the Canadian navy boot camp in Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. They cost only ten cents at the PX at the base. I bought the real scary horror comic books and exciting war comics; one of them each evening. After supper, I would purchase a comic book and take it back to my barracks and with a small container of ice cream in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other hand and a comic book spread out on my bed, I would spend an hour reading the comic book. It was only when I left Cornwallis that I rarely read comic books after that.

I remember a strange kind of comic book that was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s. They were approximate three inches by four and a half inches in size and had at least 500 pages. On the right page were the pictures and on the left was the text. If you flipped the pages quickly, on the lower right corner of the right side of the book, images would move as if you were watching a movie.

If I had kept all the comic books I purchased over the years between 1950 and 1952, I would have a fortune in comic books. However in the 1970s and on, I began purchasing regular books and as a result I have an enormous library of books, most of them text and educational books in my home which includes three encyclopaedias. When my two daughters were going to school, they rarely went to public libraries to research their essays. They simply went to my library in my large study for the information they were seeking. Strangely enough, over the years, I find myself rarely going to the library in my study for information. I go to Google instead. It is a sign of the times.

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