Comics, either in the form of newspaper strips (funnies) or comic books, combine text and images to carry a narrative or a joke. Although semblances of comics can be found in Egyptian Pharanoic art, thousand-year-old Indian, Japanese, and Chinese scrolls, eighteenth-century Japanese kibyoshi (yellow books), and thirteenth-century European book illustrations, the nineteenth century is normally credited as their birth date. Strips by Rodolphe Töpffer appeared in Switzerland in 1827, and by Wilhelm Busch a few decades later in Germany, but it was in the US that newspaper comics flourished, especially after New York newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used them to lure readers in the 1890s. After The yellow kid, usually considered the first US strip, was created in 1895, several hundred new funnies were started during the next five years.
These early comics left their imprints on American society, inspiring other literary and art forms, adding to the English lexicon, and even affecting women’s fashion. They also became favorite reading fare abroad, where they were reprinted or cloned, and later replaced by indigenous comics. Some early comic strip adopters were Canada (1901), Japan (1902), Australia (1907), Korea (1914), the UK (1915), and Argentina (1916). By the 1920s, local comic strips appeared in newspapers in China, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Mexico, Denmark, and Finland.
The 1920s represented for the US an era of specialization, with new genres featuring women, average American children, adventure, and family. Playing a key role in the development of some of these comics was Joseph Patterson, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who nurtured new talent and helped conceptualize a number of memorable characters. In other parts of the world, the publication of funnies grew quickly before World War II, although the domestic genre lagged because comics were still a children’s medium in many places, and because female-centered stories did not fit patriarchal norms in Europe and Asia. Although local adventure strips existed, they faced stiff competition from American classics provided through syndication. Countries such as Italy, Australia, and Canada banned or imposed import licensing regulations on foreign comics during the 1940s, giving local strips a chance. During World War II, comic strips thrived as escapist reading material and an effective propaganda vehicle in at least the US, the UK, Italy, and Japan.
Also popular during the war were American comic books, which began as collections of newspaper strips, but by the mid-1930s developed their own stories and characters. Although semblances of comic books had existed earlier in Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, and Mexico, it was the American version that became popular, partly because of its superhero stories. Already in the 1940s, American comic books had left their mark: banned in France, Canada, and Australia because they thwarted local comic books; imitated in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Mexico, which developed their own markets. Mexican comic books were so popular in the 1940s that some published daily (e.g., Pepín, published eight times per week).
When the war ended, some sectors of US and UK society blamed comic books for corrupting children’s morals and education, leading in the US to Senate investigations in 1954 and the passing of a very stringent self-censorship code that nearly destroyed US comic book. Similar actions were taken in about 20 other countries, although overall, comic books fared well in France, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Belgium, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere. In post-war Asian comics, some giants emerged, such as Osamu Tezuka in Japan, with Jungle Taitei and Tetsuwan Atom; Antonio Velasquez, who with publisher Ramon Roces established Ace Publications in the Philippines; and important strip artists Machiko Hasegawa (Japan), Lee Fei-meng (Taiwan), and Kim Song Hwan (Korea).
Significant changes occurred in the US comic book industry in the latter quarter of the century as sales dropped, many companies folded, and surviving firms DC and Marvel shifted to socially relevant superheroes, direct sales approaches, and adult-oriented themes. Actually, underground comix, which grew out of the 1960s counterculture, first showed there was an adult market; rather quickly, local underground comix spread to Australia, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, and Latin America. As the millennium ended, comic books in the US, and gradually elsewhere, reinvented themselves with different styles (more literary-like; better artistic execution), formats (varied panel shapes/sizes, graphic novels), contents (autobiographical, journalistic), companies (independent, alternate publishers), and venues (comic shops and cafes, Internet, movie/TV adaptations). Comic book publication also penetrated Africa (especially Francophone countries and South Africa), the Middle East, and new parts of Asia. During this time, Japan became the leader in comic book sales (more than a billion copies yearly in the 1980s) and overseas influence.
US newspaper comic strips during the latter twentieth century changed drastically, with reduced panel sizes, fewer genres (mostly gag-a-day), and lowered quality. Because of political correctness, bottom-line economics, and inept cartoonists, the strips suffered a lack of spoken dialect, clever puns, rich parody, and skilled artwork. Strips did not face the same dilemma in Belgium, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Japan, where genres such as science fiction, adventure, soap opera, western, police, fantasy, and humor have been kept alive. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, to name a few countries, strips with native characters and in indigenous languages found places in daily newspapers and humor magazines.
Comics, though imperiled at times and often reshaped, have endured as key storytellers and cultural identifiers.
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- Horn, M. (ed.) (1999). The world encyclopedia of comics. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House.
- Lent, J. A. (ed.) (1999). Pulp demons: International dimensions of the postwar anti-comics campaign. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
- Lent, J. A. (ed.) (2001). Illustrating Asia. London: Curzon.
- Lent, J. A. (ed.) (2005). Cartooning in Latin America. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
- Pilcher, T., & Brooks, B. (2005). The essential guide to world comics. London: Collins and Brown.