Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.
By Joe Chavez and Sandra Pierce
Few children read comic books anymore. And comic books are not easy to find, either. Television and computer games have taken over the attention of children, and the remaining comic books are often read by adults and/or collectors. But comic books evolved from comic strips in newspapers, and these comics continue to have their devotees. Many a reader grabs the comics section first of the Sunday newspaper to read as they savor their first cup of coffee.
American comics grew into an industry from two developments at the end of the 19th century: photoengraving made relatively cheap newspaper illustration possible; and European immigrants who knew very little English learned to read through the pictures and one line comics. Artist used speech balloons for their comics, a technique taken from eighteen-century caricaturist.
In 1896, "Hogan's Alley," an already well-known comic strip, featured a jug-eared urchin who came to be known as the 'Yellow Kid," marking the beginning of modern comics. A series based on the Yellow Kid proved that comic strips could sell newspapers. Bud Fisher drew the first successful daily comic strip, "Mutt and Jeff,' originally appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907.
Among other early strips was "Popeye", created by Elzie Segar in 1929, whose hero was a forerunner of the superhero comic character capable of amazing feats. "Dick Tracy," drawn by Chester Gould from 1931 to 1985, featured a detective who stood for law, order and civilized society. Readers love to see mobsters getting what they deserved. "Little Orphan Annie," drawn by Harold Gray from 1924 to 1968, was the comic that brought politics into the big cartoon picture by attacking President Roosevelt and the New Deal.
"Peanuts," a popular strip for over 30 years, is carried by over 200 newspapers, in 60 different countries, and has 90 millions readers. It is perceptive, funny, wise and contains simple morality. Its various characters, from the lovable loser Charlie Brown to the wise, articulate beagle Snoopy to the sarcastic Lucy and genius Schroeder, reflect different aspects of humanity.
Though comic strips existed for decades in newspapers, the first comic book didn't appear in its definitive form until 1933, although a collection of the "Mutt and Jeff" comic strips was published in 1911. The Action Comics, whose principal character was Superman, did much to establish the phenomenon of comic books.
In the past 64 years, these books have come to be considered an art form and a part of our popular culture. Americans over the age of 30 grew up buying, reading, and collecting comics. Comic books entertained as well as educated children in the first three quarters of the 20th century.
Favorite comic book characters of the 1950s included Dick Tracy, Bugs Bunny, Little LuLu, Roy Rogers, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Casper the friendly ghost, The Lone Star Ranger, Superman, Katy Keene, and, of course, Archie (See related story, p.16).
Ruben Chavez, a business owner who grew up with comic books in the 1950s, said he collected them and they really influenced his life. "Comics were very important to me because my family did not own a television set and, therefore, reading was a big part of my life. My favorites were "Superman", "Batman," and "Dick Tracy." Reading comic books helped me to better my English."
Single comic books cost only 10 cents in the 1950s, and children saved their pennies, waiting for the next issue to be published. After reading the book themselves, sometimes several times, they would go down the street and trade them for books they hadn't read yet. Books were traded until they literally fell apart and were no longer readable.
From early immigrant and ethnic themes to adventure and detective strips, comics have also featured science fiction, medieval knighthood, fantasy, horror, political satire, counterculture life, antihero animals, and romance. Comics have always reflected American life.
According to Elizabeth Fenner in Money magazine, 48% of comic book readers were female in the 1950s, so it was not only boys who read and collected. Just 10 years ago, Victor Gorelick, editor of "Jughead" comic books, said, "Most of our readers are pre-teen girls. We wanted to make Jughead more appealing to girls because his being a women-hater just doesn't fit in anymore." And so the famous "Archie" character, usually more interested in food than women, fell in love.
Comic book and comic strip figures have come a long way in the years since they first captured the attention of newspaper readers. Today the adventures of these characters are found in serious bound collections, and their images appear on greeting cards, magazines, t-shirts, stuffed animals and postage stamps. Dolls and other figures are also very popular with all ages. Comic strips are read by adults and children alike in America and all over the world.
As times have changed, so have comic strips. When divorced mothers became an America phenomenon, "Francie" appeared in newspapers, a strip that details the adventures of a divorced mother with bright but mischievous children and a nosy mother who is always giving her advice. Amid great apprehension among newspapers, the title character of "Blondie," long a traditional housewife and mother, opened her own catering business, and the strip has flourished. "Dilbert is a favorite comic strip today, satirizing American business and technology.
Comic books, likewise, have change. Action comics dominate today, and avid readers are not nearly as numerous as in the '50s. However, comic book collecting has become big business. Entire stores are now dedicated tot he purchase and collection of comic books. Conventions are held all over the country yearly for serious collectors.
Although children no longer pull collections of comic books from house to house in their Radio Flyers, the comic strip continues to have its niche in American society. While some strips change to reflect society, others remain relatively unchanged, providing comfort to readers entering the 21st century.