Steve Woods

Etchings and Sketchings : A Short History of the Comic Book

In What Day is it? on September 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm
Anasazi Cave Drawing

Anasazi Cave Drawing

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Over the barely visible rising steam of sleeping, tangled bodies, rolled into each other as a barrier against the cold morning air, the quiet scrawling was barely perceptible, a long whispering scrutching. Breath held, hoping to not add one more sound over the quiet snores nearby, he moved the stone carefully, as his narrowed eyes flittering left and right, wanting to see how the new figure would fit with the previous ones.  It was so hard to hold his breath, quiet slow gasps escaping his lips, as his heart pumped joyously in the excitement, in the memory of the hunt….

Our earliest known manifestations of comic book-like narrative began in France, some 32,000 years ago, rough prehistoric cave carvings, typically portraying the men and animals involved in massive hunting exhibitions, proud boastings of early organization and success.  Soon thereafter color was introduced to the etchings, bringing them to life even now.

The ancient Egyptians, through the use of hieroglyphics, began the tradition of linear story-telling by placing images alongside each other with a narrative. Military defeats, rises and falls from power and glory, tragedy and triumph were reawakened through the almost-magical working of stone. And color, brilliant color, brought the story to life…

The use of illustration to tell a narrative has never been the fodder of limited intelligence or juvenility; rather, stories told through the magic of a skilled artist have caught the continuing attentions of other artisans, collegians, world leaders as well as the populace in general, learned and unlearned.  The gifts of Michelangelo and Da Vinci have eternally moved our hearts with a single frame….

The Yellow Kid, #1

The Yellow Kid, #1

We can trace the origins of the modern-day comic book to Richard Fenton Outcalt’s work, The Yellow Kid, circa 1896. Using the traditions of his artistic predecessors, Richard added on an extremely important graphic device – the balloon. He reserved areas devoid of background imagery, and wrote in text spoken by the characters. Suddenly, the individual cartoon images of his time became short graphic novels, of sorts. The reader had to then add a voice in his mind to match the character, which was only a synapse or two away from imagining motion, background noise, smells, and what might lie beyond the drawn square. It moved us from the happy stare to the desire to see what would occur next.  In other words, our minds were now set in motion, our imaginations lit on fire…

The first comic books tended to maintain a humorous tone, hence the very early adoption of the word “comic” when describing them.  Light-hearted comic books began to gain popularity in Italy, France, Japan and Portugal, among other countries with largely literate populaces and cheap printing presses.

During the Great Depression, not only a desire for old-fashioned humor but also escapism from the travails of daily life moved the comic book into the realm of adventure.  Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy comics gained prominence, as well as Prince Valiant and the Phantom, as we were brought out of the misery to take part in saving others on the street, forest, and netherworlds. Overseas, the adventurous Tintin took a foothold in Belgium, and soon therafter, the Superhero emerged…

Action Comics #1 - Superman

Action Comics #1 - Superman

The first Superman comic book was introduced through the Action Comics series, on June 30, 1938. Afterward and through 1945, over 400 comic book heroes were introduced trying to capitalize on Superman’s successful formula, but most faded away due to a lack of interest in establishing relationships with so many others. We were a illustratively monogamous bunch. The character Batman was introduced in 1939, developing a slow but steady following.  When Captain America was introduced, the cover featured him fighting Adolf Hitler, an outlet for American children to believe that a patriotic superhero was helping their fathers (and mothers) in the battle against the Axis Powers .

During the somber and defensive era of McCarthyism, comic books also took a blow to the gut, after Psychiatrist Freferic Wertham wrote The Seduction of the Innocent, accusing comics of corrupting our youth, inciting them to mimic the violence therein. From this, a code of conduct for comic book writers called the Comics Code Authority was introduced, decimating a number of popular titles and/or the characters therein, saddening their devoted yet silently brooding fans.

During the 1950 and 1960s, Marvel Comics emerged with a rapidly growing fanbase following the exploits of The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, and Spiderman. It is interesting to note that the SuperHeroes that emerged during the period held in check by the most stringent period of the Comics Code Authority are dominating the film industry of today…

The sexual revolution of the 1970s began spicing things up in the comic book industry, as Barbarella made her scantily clad appearance in stores, and Conan the Barbarian made us all seem so puny in the mirror. Society’s mores were questioned, authority condemned, violence enacted for the sake of justice, and sex was rampant.  In comic books too!  In the later 70’s as Rock music began its rapid march to take over the buttons in the local jukebox, Heavy Metal made its way into many a teenager’s hand (and under his mattress, safely away from Mom’s glance.)

The comic book took a bit of a dark turn during the 1970s, some say beginning with the murder of Spiderman’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, by the villainous Green Goblin. Superheroes began to appear more human, with frailties, despite skin as hard as diamonds.  Superheroes could be challenged, beat, or stamped into utter misery, if the proper lever could be found. After Stan Lee agreed to write a three-part Spiderman series decrying drug use, the Comics Code Authority began to lessen its influence over the industry, allowing drug use to be mentioned, as long as it was in a negative way. The Comics Code was soon loosened further, allowing writers to include otherworldly creatures such as ghosts, vampires and werewolves in their story lines; Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider emerged in response.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

Today’s comic books (and graphic novels) have almost all of the complexity of any major piece of literature, albeit portrayed in richly drawn detail, and obviously with far, far fewer words.  Independent publishers of comic fare such as Pacific, Eclipse and First challenged the powerhouses of comicdom. In response to the challenge, Superman was revamped, Wonder Woman became sexier, and Batman got a complete makeover, cape, car, muscles and all.  The emphasis was on creating an iconic art piece on every page, replete with a storyline that absolutely could not be put down. These are not your father’s comics, as the cynicism of the 1980s and advent of modern Psychology brought with it enhanced character development in the comic world.

Our faithful SuperHeroes no longer battle evil in a quest for simple goodness or for a better America, in response to an almost cellular sense of Patriotism.  The new Men and Women of Steel and Gotham simply have a deep, undeniable psychological desire to crush the criminal, often in reponse to a wrong they suffered or witnessed during their formative years.  And the villains have followed suit, rising to this challenge by transforming from bad guys into psychologically challenged menaces of society, bent on ever-increasing destruction.

Oh, to be able to put a fresh copy of The Dark Knight into the hands of that young man so many thousands of years ago, to see what he would think as his eyes scanned the pages, recognition on his face to the eternal symbols of fear, love, joy and hate, dropping his sharp stone and slowly sitting down next to his sleeping family, comic book in hand…


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