Comics

Tagged: Theme | Comics

This rubric covers the comic strip in daily and Sunday newspapers, European comic papers and the US-style comic book; it does not cover the Graphic Novel per se, although clearly there is a more than casual overlap between the two categories.

Comics stories use some interaction of text and picture, as opposed to the "storybook" or "picture book" use of words plus illustrations. Design, drawing style, caption and word-balloon continuity all serve to make comics a medium with its own syntax and frame of reference, one which may have been best defined, by Scott McCloud (1960-    ) in his seminal Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (graph 1993), as "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

Like the history of sf, the history of the comic strip is far more complex, and extends much further into the past, than had been assumed until recent decades, when researchers (see "further reading" list below) began properly to examine the record, and to establish a continuity between the graphic work of the eighteenth century and the comic papers and Sunday newspaper supplements which flourished so conspicuously in the USA a century later. Sf comic strips as such, however, were slow to develop. By the end of the nineteenth century, though the comic strip had achieved very considerable sophistication and was capable of treating very widely varied subject matter, there was virtually no sf presented in a credible manner, nor would there be for another 30 years. Prior to this, the emphasis on humour in the comic strips had relegated sf to the realms of fantasy, as in Our Office Boy's Fairy Tales (1895 The Funny Wonder), an anonymous UK series depicting a family on Mars facing totally impossible hardships and jubilations. More mature in its approach was Winsor McCay's fantasy Little Nemo in Slumberland/Land of Wonderful Dreams (1905-1911 and 1924-1927 New York Herald, 1911-1914 New York American), which depicted the dream adventures of a young boy and an ever-increasing array of characters from the court of King Morpheus. McCay's manipulation of the size, shape and position of each panel, together with his use of perspective, gave added emphasis to the narrative and indicated how artistic technique could augment the text. (These techniques were sometimes themselves used to create the fantasy element, as in Krazy Kat [1911-1944] by George Herriman [1880-1944], where the scenic background, changing from panel to panel, created a surrealistically alien environment, or in Felix The Cat [1923 onwards] by Otto Messmer [1892-1983], where the eponymous feline gave substance to his imagination by treating the contents of his thought balloons as physical realities.) McCay's artistic fantasies were perhaps only matched at the time by the expressionist whimsy of his contemporary, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), whose brief work in comics included the strips Wee Willy Winky's World and The Kin-Der Kids (both 1906-1907). A rare early instance – apparently the first – of an Alien comic-strip protagonist is the eponym of A D Condo's Mr Skygack, From Mars (1907-1917).

In the 1920s, when economic depression brought about a change in public outlook, a demand was created for action-adventure strips, making publication of outright sf comic strips feasible. The transition came with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1929-1967), a comic strip inspired by a Philip Francis Nowlan novel in Amazing Stories; it spawned several rivals, among them Brick Bradford (1933-1987), Flash Gordon (1934-2003), Speed Spaulding (1939), adapted from Edwin Balmer's and Philip Wylie's When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) and illustrated by Marvin Bradley, and Frank Godwin's Connie (1927-1944), which in the mid-1930s abandoned its everyday terrestrial setting for outer-space intrigue. These all drew their plots extensively from the epics of classical literature, modernized by the inclusion of Spaceships and Ray-Guns, and distanced from reality by being located in the far future or remote past. In contrast, artist V T Hamlin created the comic strip Alley Oop (1932-current), featuring the comical adventures of a caveman whose adventures quickly turned to Time Travel, starting in 1939.

Similar innovations occurred in Europe following the reprintings there of the major US comic strips. High points were the appearances of: in France, Futuropolis (1937-1938 Junior) and Electropolis (1939 Jean-Pierre), both written and illustrated by René Pellos; in Italy, Saturno Contro la Terra (1937-1943), written by Federico Pedrocchi (1907-1945) and illustrated by Giovanni Scolari (1882-1956); and, in the UK, Garth (1943 onwards).

The growth in the number of sf comic strips was, however, largely a reflection of the increased number of comic strips in general; they were now so popular in the USA that methods of repackaging them after their initial newspaper publication were being explored. Out of this experimentation – which first saw comics reprinted as Big Little Books starting with The Adventures of Dick Tracy in December 1932 – developed the periodical comic book, beginning in 1934 with Famous Funnies (1934-1955). These initial comic books contained merely reprints of the newspaper strips – e.g., Buck Rogers in Famous Funnies and Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford in King Comics (1936-1951) – but soon the available existing strips were used up, and comic books featuring original strips were the inevitable second stage. In the first issue of one of these new titles, Action Comics (1938 onwards) (see DC Comics), Superman appeared. Featuring a larger-than-life figure, omnipotent (mostly) in the face of all adversity, Superman both took over Action Comics and gained his own eponymous title (1939 onwards) and proved so popular that numerous imitation Superheroes appeared, from Batman through Captain Marvel to the heroes featured by progenitors of the Marvel Comics group and hundreds of other characters from other, shorter-lived companies.

In many of these comic books a central sf story was backed up by strips from outside the genre, but some comics were entirely devoted to sf. The first sf comic book was Amazing Mystery Funnies (1938-1940), which contained a pot-pourri of superhero and Space-Opera strips, its artists including Bill Everett (1917-1973), Will Eisner (1917-2005) and Basil Wolverton (1909-1979). Hugo Gernsback briefly entered the field with Superworld Comics (1940). Buck Rogers (1940-1943) and Flash Gordon (intermittently 1943-1953) also appeared as titles. Most successful was Planet Comics (1940-1954), a companion to Planet Stories, which featured Star Pirate by Murphy Anderson (1926-    ), Lost World by George Evans (1920-2001), Auro, Lord of Jupiter by Graham Ingels (1915-1991) and other memorable strips.

In such a competitive market it was inevitable that publishers would turn to the sf Pulp magazines for help. National Periodicals (DC Comics) offered Mort Weisinger, then editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories, an editorial post. Accepting it, he worked initially on Superman, using authors of the calibre of Alfred Bester, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner and Manly Wade Wellman to help compete with the rival publication, Captain Marvel, scripted by Otto Binder (see Eando Binder). Well-known artists from the sf magazines were also used. Alex Schomburg appeared in Startling Comics (1940-1951), Edd Cartier in Shadow Comics (1940-1950) and Red Dragon, second series (1947-1948), and Virgil Finlay in Real Fact Comics (1946-1949). Similarly, in the UK Serge Drigin (1894-1977), artist on Scoops and Fantasy, illustrated Space Police (1940 Everyday Novels and Comics).

A wave of new sf comic books started to appear in the early 1950s, among them: Lars of Mars (1951) and Space Patrol (1952), both issued by Ziff-Davis, publishers of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures; and Rocket to the Moon (1951) and An Earthman on Venus (1952), both published by Avon and featuring adaptations of, respectively, Otis Adelbert Kline's Maza of the Moon (1930) and Ralph Milne Farley's The Radio Man (28 June-19 July 1924 Argosy All-Story Weekly; 1948; vt An Earthman on Venus 1950); and an anti-communist propaganda sf comic book, Is This Tomorrow? (1947). More durable were Mystery in Space (1951-1966) and Strange Adventures (1950-1973), both from DC, Harvey's Race for the Moon (1956) and Richard E Hughes's Forbidden Worlds (1951-1967), all of which managed some consistency, albeit of a distinctly juvenile nature. Distinguished artwork came from the likes of Sid Greene (1906-1972), Carmine Infantino (1925-2013), Gil Kane (1926-2000), Jack Kirby, Mike Sekowsky (1923-1989), Al Williamson (1931-2010) and sometime Buck Rogers illustrator Murphy Anderson (1926-    ).

All the while, new sf comic strips were appearing in newspapers, two of the better titles being Beyond Mars (1951-1953 New York Sunday News), scripted by Jack Williamson from his two Will Stewart Seetee novels Seetee Ship (July and November 1942, January-February 1943 Astounding; fixup 1951) and Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding; 1950), with illustrations by Lee Elias (1920-1998), and Twin Earths (1951-1954), a Counter-Earth story created and written by Oskar Lebeck illustrated by Alden McWilliams (1916-1993) – not to forget Sky Masters (1959-1961), drawn by Kirby and written by Bob and Dick Wood, doing their best to second-guess a space programme that still lay ten years in the future.

The most important of this period, however, were the sf comic books published by EC Comics. Appearing initially at the suggestion of Harry Harrison, who had been working in comics as artist and scriptwriter since 1946, Weird Science (1950-1953) and Weird Fantasy (1950-1953) – which later merged to form Weird Science Fantasy (1953-1955) before being finally renamed Incredible Science Fiction (1955-1956) – published the most sophisticated sf stories yet to appear in the comic books, often featuring ironic or twist endings. Illustrated by such well known sf artists as George Evans (1920-2001), Frank Frazetta, Roy G Krenkel, Bernard Krigstein (1919-1990), Al Williamson and Wallace Wood, they often included adaptations of stories by popular sf authors, in particular Ray Bradbury. With the imposition of the Comics Code in 1955, these and many other titles ceased, and comics then went through a period of restraint and unoriginality.

A similar boom in sf comic books was taking place in Europe. Included in these titles were Super Science Thrills (1945), Tit-Bits Science Fiction Comics (1953) and The Jet Comic (1953), a companion to Authentic Science Fiction, which appeared in the UK, and Espace (1953-1954) and L'An 2,000 (1953-1954), in France. Also of interest was Tarzan Adventures (1953-1959) which, under Michael Moorcock's editorship from 1957, published several sf comic strips, including James Cawthorn's Peril Planet. It was in the weekly comic papers, however, that the best-drawn and best-plotted sf comic strips were to appear. Foremost was Dan Dare (1950-1967 Eagle). With its clean linework by Frank Hampson, this became the UK's most influential sf comic strip, inspiring several rivals – including Jeff Hawke, Captain Condor (1952-1955 Lion), at one time illustrated by Brian Lewis (who also did many New Worlds covers), and Jet-Ace Logan (1956-1959 Comet; 1959-1960 Tiger), written by Mike Butterworth (1924-1986), David Motton (1932-    ) and Frank S Pepper (1910-1988). Rick Random, Space Ace was drawn by Ron Turner for Thriller Picture Library. Equally notable was Rocket (1956), an sf comic paper which featured US reprints and others, including Escape from Earth, Seabed Citadel and Captain Falcon; it ran to 32 issues. More successful was Boy's World (1963-1964) which, prior to its merger with Eagle, published Wrath of the Gods, written by Willie Patterson (1929-1986) and initially illustrated by Ron Embleton (1930-1988), then by John M Burns (1938-    ); and The Angry Planet, adapted by Harry Harrison and artist Frank Langford (1926-1996) from Harrison's novel Deathworld (1960) to feature the character Brett Million, whose adventures were continued in Ghost World, illustrated by Frank Bellamy (1917-1976). Mention should also be made of TV Century 21 (1965-1969), which published material based on Gerry Anderson's television puppet shows Stingray, Fireball Xl5, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and on Terry Nation's horrors, the Daleks.

A turning point was the publication by Marvel Comics – which had published innumerable horror, fantasy and sf anthology titles throughout the 1950s and early 1960s – of The Fantastic Four (1961 onwards), whose success heralded a new wave of superhero comics, starring new characters (Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk) and older heroes (like Captain America and Sub-Mariner) resuscitated from Marvel productions of the period during and immediately after World War II. National Periodicals (DC Comics), publishers of Superman, was already in the process of expanding its superhero list, so DC and Marvel very soon became established as the "Big Two" in the field.

Beginning in the late 1960s, innovations in form and content appeared in the "underground" comics, where sf supplied an ideal framework for often scatological examinations of society's neuroses and phobias; original artistic styles were developed by Richard Corben, Vaughn Bodé and others.

In the 1970s, two notable attempts to attract sf readers to comics failed to attract any substantial readership. The Marvel Comics magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction (1975) edited by Roy Thomas, adapted stories by Moorcock, Bob Shaw, Stanley G Weinbaum and others. It ran for six issues. Roger Elwood edited Starstream Comics (1976) in an attempt to introduce adaptations of work by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Robert Silverberg and others. Published by Whitman, it lasted four issues.

The mid-1970s saw a growing number of adaptations of sf Television series, notably Star Trek and Doctor Who, which both appeared in a variety of publications. Several other sf comics appeared in this period, notably Charlton Comics's Space 1999 Magazine (a companion to the Gerry Anderson television series Space: 1999), the apocalyptic colour comic Doomsday Plus 1 – reprinted in the 1990s due to the popularity of artist John Byrne (1950-    ), by Fantagraphics – and Marvel's Planet of the Apes magazine (based on the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes and its sequels), which was immensely popular in the UK in 1975.

Mike Friedrich's titles Star Reach (1975-1978) and Imagine (1976-1978), which graduated in 1977 from underground comics to small-magazine format, had a heavy sf and fantasy bias. Friedrich's list of contributors reads like a who's who of comics experimenters and stars: Howard V Chaykin, Michael T Gilbert, Lee Marrs, P Craig Russell (1950-    ) (well remembered for his work on Marvel's Killraven space opera – see below – which ran in Amazing Adventures 1975-1976 and was republished as a graphic novel, 1983), Jim Starlin (1949-    ) ... the list is a long one.

Mention should also be made of Marvel's 1977 adaptation of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, who also had a 100-page novella, The Silver Surfer (graph 1977), co-authored with Stan Lee, published in that year.

In the UK interest in Jeff Hawke had waned sufficiently for the London Daily Express, the national newspaper in which it had appeared, to discontinue the strip – although the Express's sister newspaper, the Scottish Daily Record, missed Jeff Hawke enough that it commissioned a new and exceptionally similar strip from Sydney Jordan (1931-    ): this was Lance McLane, which ran from 1976 until the mid-1980s.

In 1977 the first truly UK sf comic arrived in the shape of 2000 AD, starring the quasi-fascist supercop Judge Dredd. Also that year, in the USA, Gil Kane and Ron Goulart embarked on a daily space-adventure strip, Star Hawks (1977-1981), cleverly jumping in before the release, later that year, of the movie space opera Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

With the success of that film came a renewed interest in sf proper, rather than the fringe-sf of the superhero adventure. The 1970s had seen their fair share of interesting though often short-lived features, such as: Mike Kaluta's elegant adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Carson of Venus adventures in Korak (1972-1974); Killraven (1973-1976 Amazing Adventures) by Don MacGregor, initially drawn by Howard V Chaykin and after 1975 by Russell, which was an attempt at a sequel to H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898); Monark Starstalker by Chaykin; Deathlok; Star Hunters; Warlock and Captain Marvel, both these latter by Jim Starlin; Guardians of the Galaxy (written by Steve Gerber); Jack Kirby's The Eternals (inspired by the notions of Erich von Däniken) – as well as the many excellent stories published by James Warren in his black-and-white magazines Eerie (1965-1983), Creepy (1965-1983), 1984 (1978-1980) and Comix International (1974-1977). Baronet Books issued The Illustrated Roger Zelazny (graph coll 1978) by Gray Morrow and followed up with The Illustrated Harlan Ellison. Heavy Metal – a US avatar of France's Métal Hurlant – republished European comics stars such as Moebius (Jean Giraud), later creator of The Airtight Garage (graph coll trans 1987), and Philippe Druillet, with Lone Sloane (graph 1967) and Delirius (graph 1973). Star Wars and, to a lesser extent, Logan's Run (1976) began the deluge of late 1970s/early 1980s sf in film and television. Alien (1979), Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), Blade Runner (1982), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), Outland (1981), 2010 (1984) and UFO (1970-1973) all had comics adaptations. Star Wars's own comic series from Marvel ran for 10 years (1977-1986), then, started again five years later from Dark Horse Comics (1991-current); and, despite its having to change publishers numerous times, there has been a Star Trek comic book running almost continuously from the 1970s to today. In the UK at this time it was the television-related magazines that produced the best comic-strip sf. Countdown (later renamed TV Action 1970-1974) ran a Doctor Who strip and another based loosely on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Look In had some excellent stories with sources ranging from The Tomorrow People (1973-1979) through Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).

Starting in the 1980s, smaller independent companies like Pacific Comics and First Comics used new distribution channels and creator ownership to allow the gestation of a new wave of mould-breaking titles, such as: Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (1981-1984) by Jack Kirby; Mars (1984) by Marc Hempel (1957-    ) and Mark Wheatley (1954-    ), a tale of Earth science and colonists versus Martian Mother Nature; Nexus (1981-2009) by Mike Baron (1949-    ) and Steve Rude (1956-    ), possibly the ultimate mixture of Hard SF and Superhero genres; American Flagg! (1983-1988; 2nd series 1988-1989), Chaykin's Dystopian masterpiece, followed by his two stylish Time2 novellas, The Epiphany (graph 1986) and The Satisfaction of Black Mariah (graph 1987). First Comics also continued the comics adaptations of Michael Moorcock's Elric books after Pacific Comics had expired – Elric of Melniboné (1984), Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1985-1986), Weird of the White Wolf (1986-1987), The Vanishing Tower (1987-1988) and Bane of the Black Sword (1988-1989) – as well as initiating further Moorcock series: Hawkmoon (5 series, 1986-1989) and Corum (1987-1989).

Also in this period, Marvel Comics brought out a glossy magazine anthology in the Heavy Metal mould called Epic Illustrated (1980-1986; rev 1992), and this led Marvel to set up in 1984 a separate imprint, Epic Comics, which put out some excellent material: Starstruck (1985-1986; graph exp vt Starstruck: The Expanding Universe 1990-1991; also adapted as a stage play) by Elaine Lee and Mike Kaluta; Void Indigo (1984-1985) by Steve Gerber, which dealt with a few too many Taboos and was left unfinished; Alien Legion (1984-1990); and Plastic Forks (1990), a Philip K Dick-style adventure by Ted McKeever. Other items of interest in the 1980s include: Frank Miller story Ronin (1983-1984; graph 1987), a fascinating mixture in which Post-Holocaust techno-principality (New York) meets Samurai drama; and comics's answer to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), Mister X (1984-1991) by Dean Motter and Paul Rivoche, issued by Canadian publisher Vortex and produced briefly by the Love and Rockets creators Gilbert (1957-    ), Jaime (1959-    ) and Mario Hernandez.

Inspired by the "underground" comics of the 1960s, the growth in creator ownership of the 1980s, and the rise of a new generator of writers and artists, the 1990s saw "adult" comics finally begun to find their way into bookshops and away from the "funnies" sections of the newspapers. This was the period of the rise of the graphic novel, which even today still sees most long-form comics being serialized in periodical form before being collected in paperback or hardcover editions. All of this was made possible by a trio of titles: the anthropomorphic Jews-as-mice and Nazis-as-cats allegorical biography, Maus (1980-1985 Raw; graph 1987) by Art Spiegelman (1948-    ), the Hugo-winning Watchmen (1986-1987; graph 1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (books #1-#4 1986; graph 1986) by Frank Miller (see Batman; Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) – all of which raised the profile of the serious narrative comic book both as an art form and as a commercially viable publication format. Other notable titles in this early wave of serious graphic novels include V for Vendetta (March 1982-February 1985 Warrior; exp graph 1990) by Moore and artist David Lloyd (1950-    ) and the Luther Arkwright trilogy (graph coll 1989) by Bryan Talbot, which involves an understanding of the language of comics, especially in layout.

The 1990s and 2000s saw these trends continue, with more publishers entering the field, more book-length comics being published, more serialized comics being written with an eye toward eventual publication of a collected edition, and the introduction of a broader range of original creative voices. The rise of the Internet and the subsequent shrinkage of the newspaper industry has hurt the comic strip field, but given rise to a new wave of "webcomics", which are distributed online, often by the artists themselves, without the need of a commercial publisher. (Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius [2001-current], which became a webcomic in April 2005, won Hugo awards as best graphic story in 2009, 2010 and 2011.) Similarly, the US comics market, once dominated by speciality comics shops, is in a waning phase, but the rise of the Graphic Novel and comics as books rather than periodicals, plus growing online distribution channels, have given comics and their creators wider opportunities for readership.

Of course, today there is still no shortage of trashy adventure comics and kid-oriented newspaper strips, just as was the case in the early days of comics and onward through much of the twentieth century. The difference is that now there are many more intelligent comic strips, comic books and graphic novels as well, both in print and online. [JE/SW/SH/JC/JP/DRL]

see also: AC Comics; Archie Adventure Comics; Atlas/Seaboard Comics; Avon Comics; Classics Illustrated; Comics Buyer's Guide; Comics Collector; Comics Scene; Dell Comics; Eerie Publications; Gold Key Comics; M F Enterprises; NOW Comics; Quality Comics; Rocket's Blast Comicollector; Skywald Publications; Tower Comics; Xero.

further reading

The best studies of the comic strip before the end of the nineteenth century, both by David Kunzle (1936-    ), are The Early Comic Strip (1973) and The History of the Comic Strips: The 19th Century (1990), the first two volumes of an extended and intensive overview; and The American Comic Book Catalogue: The Evolutionary Era, 1884-1939 (1990) by Denis Gifford (1927-2000), which lists nearly 500 separate titles and series, is an important aid. For later periods, see further titles below. A useful annual bibliography is The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (1970-current; sometimes vt Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide) by Robert M Overstreet.

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