The first American comic book, Funnies on Parade, was a giveaway anthology reprinting comic strips from the newspapers. Wanting to get rid of undistributed copies, the story goes, someone slapped a 10 cent tag on them and dropped them off at a few newsstands. They sold out in a flash and so, in 1934, the comics industry was born.
At first comics pages were filled with reprints of syndicated comic strips from the newspapers. Within a few years, though, these were replaced by original content. It was cheaper for the publishers to purchase new material from aspiring cartoonists, suffering from the effects of the Depression and desperate for any kind of work, than to buy reprint rights from the syndicates. Many early comic-book creators had no love for the medium. The pay was meager, the work grueling and usually uncredited. They worked in comic books in the hope that one day they'd "make it" and "graduate" to newspaper comic strips. Ironically, the first big comic-book hit was a feature that had been turned down for years by the comic-strip syndicates: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman.
Cartoonists often worked for studios that mass-produced and packaged stories and titles for the publishers. Will Eisner, best known for his masked detective series, The Spirit, in which he adapted many film techniques to comics and generally developed much of the storytelling grammar now in common usage, ran such a studio from the 30s to the 50s. His all-the-names-have-been-changed autobiographical comics album The Dreamer (1986) chronicles the early years of his studio and portrays Depression-era New York with a moving blend of melancholy and nostalgia.
The success of Superman led to the proliferation, especially during the Second World War, of the costumed characters that, in modern years, have come to be called superheroes: Captain America, Plastic Man, Flash, Green Lantern, and many others. Like most American media of the early 40s, comic books were rife with war propaganda. With the end of the war, sales of "mystery men" (as they were sometimes called then) plummeted. By 1950, the only ones left standing were DC's big three -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman -- and the most popular of them all: Fawcett's Captain Marvel, by C.C. Beck.
Captain Marvel was one of the most sophisticated comics series of the time. It combined high adventure, magic, whimsical fun, absurd stories, outlandish villains and action aplenty in a style that was both ironic and sincere -- a difficult balance to strike. The draftsmanship of Beck and his associates was on par with the quality of the writing and Captain Marvel Adventures frequently outsold the competition. So why is Captain Marvel now mostly forgotten? DC Comics, the owners of Superman, claimed that Captain Marvel was too close in concept to their character and thus constituted copyright infringement. In 1953, after years of court battles, Fawcett decided that Captain Marvel wasn't worth the effort and ceased publishing comics altogether. In an ironic twist, DC now owns Fawcett's Captain Marvel. However, because Marvel Comics owns the trademark to the name "Captain Marvel," DC must publish his adventures under the Shazam! banner, the magic word that transforms young Billy Batson into "The World's Mightiest Mortal."
With the decline of superhero genre in the late 1940s, other genres could now take up more of the available newsstand display space. Science fiction was at first mostly the province of Planet Comics (1940-1953), but by the 1950s the genre really took off with titles such as Mystery In Space (1951-1966), Space Adventures (1952-1969) and Weird Science (1950-1953). Perhaps the most imaginative science fiction cartoonist of that era was Basil Wolverton. Some of his work has been preserved in the collection In Space (1997).
Jungle adventure, the type with leggy jungle girls in minuscule leopard-skin bikinis, was another popular genre. It began with the first appearance of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in Jumbo Comics #1 (1938) and was all the rage until the mid-1950s. The comics that now fill the niche once occupied by these cheesecake comics feature explicitly omnisexual string-bikinied she-vampires and dominatrix she-demons. The less said, the better.
That perennial advocate of sexism and rampant capitalism, Archie, first appeared in Pep Comics #22 (1941). Archie contained many of the elements of the romance genre. The first full-blown romance comic book, however, was Young Romance (1947-1960), by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who, earlier in the decade, had been the dynamic duo of action-adventure comics, creating, among others, Captain America.
Talking animals have populated comics pages since the mid-1930s. Pogo, by Walt Kelly, started out as a comic book series in the first issue of Animal Comics in 1940. By the end of the decade Kelly had achieved the dream of many comic book creators. His series, now a newspaper strip, became a long-lasting nationwide hit. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories starred Disney's animated characters and ran 614 issues from 1940 to 1997. The most important cartoonists to produce work for the title were Carl Barks and Don Rosa. By the 1980s, talking animals had acquired a new name, anthropomorphics, and a flagship title, Critters (1986-1990), which pushed the limits of the genre. The most influential anthropomorphic series from that period was the sexy soap opera Omaha, the Cat Dancer (1981-1995), by Reed Waller and Kate Worley. Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, the story of a samurai rabbit set in a feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphized animals of all stripes, began in 1985 and is still published regularly. The anthropomorphic aesthetic is an important element of Carla Speed McNeil's current science fiction series, Finder.
Mad, before converting to magazine format and content with its 28th issue, started life as a comic book. It was the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman and is possibly the most important humor title in comics history. Other humor highlights include Plop! (1973-1976); the 27 issues, one annual and one treasury edition of Howard the Duck written by Steve Gerber from 1974 to 1977; the comics albums of Kyle Baker, such as The Cowboy Wally Show (1988) and Why I Hate Saturn (1990); Diane Dimassa's Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (1991-1998); and Evan Dorkin's ongoing series Dork and Milk and Cheese.
Harvey Comics made its fortune with tyke comics such as Richie Rich (1953-1990) and Casper, the Friendly Ghost (1952-1989). These were especially popular in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1990s, the tyke genre was wonderfully revisited and reimagined by Steven Weissman. His little monsters -- Li'l Bloody, X-Ray Spence, Dead Boy, Kid Medusa, and others -- can be seen in his series Yikes! (1994-1998) and the comics album Champs (1999).
The first major child character in comics was Robin, Batman's boy-wonder sidekick, introduced in Detective Comics in 1940. The character was hugely successful and pretty soon the Human Torch flew around with young Toro, Captain America punched out spies with Bucky, Sandman fought crime with Sandy, the golden boy, and so on. Boy sidekicks were so popular that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, always busy creating new concepts, went one step further and created two adventure series starring only kids: The Boy Commandos, which ran in Detective Comics from 1942 to 1944 and in its own comic book from 1942 to 1949, and The Newsboy Legion, which appeared in Star Spangled Comics from 1942 to 1946. In 1996, James Robinson and Paul Smith launched the gorgeously illustrated Leave it to Chance, which recounts the modern-day adventures of an intrepid young girl who wants to follow in her father's sorcerous footsteps. Perhaps the finest example of kids' adventure in comics is the Johnny Quest series published by Comico in 1986-1988, written by William Messner-Loebs and illustrated by an all-star roster of 1980s cartoonists. It was a rare example of an adaptation surpassing its source material (although the series was based on the concept and characters of the animated show, the stories themselves were entirely new).
Cinema has been relatively successful in adapting material from literary sources, but comics much less so. Although Classics Illustrated (1941-1971) lasted three decades, sold well for a time, and is now much prized by collectors, its heavily edited stories were poor reflections of the source material and also clumsy, awkward comics. In 1990-1991, First Comics relaunched the Classics Illustrated line. This time, top-notch cartoonists were given more artistic freedom to adapt classic literature to comics. Sales were poor, but the comics themselves were excellent, combining fresh artistic vision with respectful understanding of the original works. Rick Geary's retelling of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man was one outstanding example from that run. P. Craig Russell has released, from 1992 to 1998, three beautiful hardcover comics albums adapting the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. Perhaps the best -- and most daring -- adaptation of a literary work into comics form is the David Mazzucchelli/Paul Karasik version of Paul Auster's postmodern detective fable City of Glass, released by Avon Books in 1994.
At first, Detective Comics, which introduced Batman in 1939, was just what its title proclaimed. Batman's success, however, eventually pushed out straight crime and detective stories from that title. Most crime comics of the 40s and 50s were not great examples of the genre. Titles like Crime Does Not Pay (1942-1955) and Crime SuspenStories (1950-1955), filled with gruesome sensationalistic shockers, were the rage. Horror comics pushed the envelope even further, as evidenced by the covers such titles such as Shock SuspenStories (1952-1955) and Tomb of Terror (1952-1954), with their gory depictions of mutilated faces, decapitations and exploding eyeballs. The paranoid 1950s, so obsessed with "wholesomeness" and so worried about juvenile delinquency, faced with these gruesome comics, produced a vile, misinformed attack on comics, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), by Fredric Wertham. In a fearful response, comics publishers created a self-regulating agency, the Comics Code Authority. That was the end, for a long time, of horror and violent crime in comics. Sandman Mystery Theatre (1993-1998) was a later series that intelligently explored the terrain where horror and crime meet. Set in late-30s New York, it unflinchingly looked at the culture's ubiquitous race, class and sexual bigotry and oppression. In a series of investigations of horrific and gruesome hate crimes, Matt Wagner, Steve Seagle and Guy Davis imbued a previously minor 1940s mystery man, Wesley Dodds, the Sandman, with new depth. The portrayal of the relationship between the title's lead characters, Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, both of them rather dumpy and plain looking, proved to be one of the most frank and moving depictions of romance in adventure comics.
After the Comics Code Authority banished a few competing genres, westerns became more common. One of the most fondly remembered titles is Jack Kirby's Boys' Ranch (1950-1951). In the late 50s and early 60s, Marvel debuted a host of gunslingers -- Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid and others. Kirby worked on a great number of those stories as well. In a manner reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's film Unforgiven, these characters were revisited by John Ostrander and Leonardo Manco in Blaze of Glory (2000).
There were a few war titles, like Our Army at War (1952-1977), whose most significant contributor was Joe Kubert. In 1976, he founded the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. His recent comics album Fax From Sarajevo (1996) indicates that his is still a pertinent voice. The most noteworthy creator of current war comics, Joe Sacco, takes a much-needed radical approach in terms of both style and content, as exemplified by his collections Palestine: A Nation Occupied (1993) and War Junkie (1997).
Out-and-out horror was no longer marketable in the late 1950s, but Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko popularized, in titles such as Strange Tales (1951-1968), Journey Into Mystery (1952-1966) and Tales to Astonish (1959-1968), a strange hybrid of horror and science fiction: monster comics. These monsters -- the most memorable were created by Kirby -- had fabulous names like Fin Fang Foom, Tim Boo Ba, Zzutak and Orrgo. They found their way to Earth from another dimension, or landed with their gigantic spaceships, or were the result of an atomic accident, or crawled out of the bowels of the Earth. Best of all, they looked magnificently weird. The most recent book reprint of some of these stories is Monster Masterworks (1989). By the mid-1960s, the monsters had been pushed out of these titles by Marvel's new superheroes, created by the same three men: Kirby, Ditko and Lee.
The superhero revival started in 1956 with the first appearance of the new Flash in DC's Showcase (1956), an updated version of the 1940s mystery man of the same name. The success of that revival led not only to Flash getting his own comic book but also inspired DC to revive and revitalize a number of their 40s mystery men. Julius Schwartz, a long-time science fiction fan who in the 40s had been a science fiction literary agent, was the editor at the helm of these revivals. Consequently, he gave his new superheroes a more explicit science-fiction background than their predecessors. The new Hawkman was an extraterrestrial police officer (the old one had been the reincarnation of an Ancient Egyptian prince). The new Atom was a scientist who learned to control his weight, size, and mass to the point of being able to shrink down to microscopic size (the 40s version had just been a short guy with a mask and a mean pair of fists). And so on. Schwartz's new scientific superheroes, along with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, were first assembled as the Justice League of America in 1960. Also in 1960, over at Charlton Comics, Steve Ditko initiated Captain Atom, combining Cold War politics with Schwartz's science-hero approach.
In 1961, at Marvel, in response to the success of DC's Justice League of America, Stan Lee was ordered to come up with a superteam. His answer was Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four, which Lee scripted and edited for Kirby's entire run (more than 100 issues) and beyond. The Fantastic Four, a superpowered variation on the Challengers of the Unknown (a team Kirby had created in 1956 for DC), were a hit and soon more superpowered characters appeared in Marvel's comics: Spider-Man, by Lee and Ditko; and, from Kirby's fertile imagination, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Avengers and X-Men.
In the 1960s, Stan Lee invented and promoted the concept of the "Marvelite": devout and loyal readers of Marvel Comics. A "True Marvelite" not only bought all Marvel Comics but saw no need to read any other comics. When Jack Kirby "defected" to DC Comics in 1970, readers didn't follow him and buy his new titles. They had been trained to be Marvelites. Likewise, many in the DC camp didn't quite know what to think of this maverick cartoonist whose work clashed with the DC house style. Kirby, whose total comics output is estimated at more than twenty thousand pages of art (many of which he also wrote), produced some of his best work during his stint at DC in the early 1970s: the mythological science-fiction trilogy that spanned New Gods, Mister Miracle and Forever People; the supernatural thriller The Demon; the cautionary Omac; the post-disaster adventure Kamandi and various one-shots. Kirby, who died in 1994, has been dubbed the "King" of comics and several books and magazines have been published about his work, including The Art of Jack Kirby (1992) and The Jack Kirby Collector (since 1994).
Marvel's biggest innovation was a storytelling technique that would forever change American comics. Before Fantastic Four #1, comics stories had always been, with only a handful of exceptions, self-contained. Lee, Kirby and their collaborators created stories that not only continued directly from one issue to the next -- with subplots and cliffhangers -- of a specific title but, with increasing regularity, spilled over into the events of other series to build Lee's much-touted interlocking "Marvel Universe." Most of today's mainstream comics are written this way, but at the time this was a radical -- and popular -- change. DC's lateness in adopting the new style hurt its sales for many years.
By the mid-1960s, the restrictions placed on content by the Comics Code Authority and the near-total monopoly of corporate-owned characters in comic books were frustrating a new generation of cartoonists who, in keeping with the cultural climate of the times, wanted to explore new methods of expression or, at least, create comics that could be read by adults. Underground comix began to proliferate in the late 60s. They earned their epithet because they were not -- and often, because of the nature of the content, could not have been -- distributed through normal channels. The most important title of the movement was Zap Comix (1967-1998) and its most influential and prolific cartoonist was Robert Crumb, whose collected works are being preserved by Fantagraphics in the ongoing series of books The Complete Crumb (since 1987). Gilbert Shelton's The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers first saw print in 1971 and quickly became a cult phenomenon. The greatest visionary of underground comix was probably Vaughn Bodé. His most regularly reoccurring setting was populated by hopelessly stupid and permanently horny small-penised lizards suffering from a deep misunderstanding of their sexuality and, as a result, from deranged violent behavior. The "Bodé Broads," the luscious naked females who wander through many of his comics, stand in for the planet Earth: abundant and generous, yet repeatedly raped and plundered; needed and desired, yet mistreated and abused; and capable of devastating violence amidst blinding beauty. He died in 1975, but his work has been reprinted in many formats, most recently in a series of more than ten books from Fantagraphics.
Warren Publishing came out with a number of black and white magazine-size comics aimed at adults, mostly in the horror genre, such as Creepy (1964-1985), Eerie (1966-1983), and Vampirella (1969-1983). For the most part, these have not aged well. A few years later Marvel entered the black and white comics magazine field with a number of short-lived titles, again mostly in the horror genre. The most successful of Marvel's black and white magazines, however, was in another genre: The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (1974-1977), which featured kung fu characters from Marvel's color comics, but aimed at an older audience. In 1977, Heavy Metal hit the US newsstands. It was the American counterpart to the French Métal Hurlant and introduced European cartoonists to US audiences. It also published some American content, most notably the serial Changes (1980-1981; collected 1992) by Matt Howarth. Changes introduced the Bugtown cast of characters that has populated a significant portion Howarth's work, including the homicidal psychopath siblings Ron and Russ Post, who later starred in Howarth's most important series, Those Annoying Post Bros. (1985-1998). Heavily inspired by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the German electronic music scene, the Bugtown mythos features characters who can "shift" through reality levels at will, strange aliens, primeval gods, interdimensional musicians, conspiracies imbedded within conspiracies and violence so bizarre, surreal and extreme, it seems to be choreographed by Salvador Dali. No matter how bizarre or violent or complex, Matt Howarth's work is profoundly funny.
Somewhere between the counterculture sex and drugs shenanigans of underground comix and the superheroics of the mainstream ("overground") comics there was the "groundlevel" comic book Star*Reach (1971-1979), an anthology series that showcased a blend of science fiction, adventure and formal experimentation. It announced the arrival of the first generation of cartoonists who grew up reading comic books and consciously set out to work in the field. It launched the careers of several cartoonists who later became big names in the mainstream, including Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin. The biggest groundlevel hit was Canadian Dave Sim's Cerebus, launched in 1977 and scheduled to end with its 300th issue in 2004. Originally a pastiche of Conan the Barbarian and the sword and sorcery genre in general, by the mid-1980s it had evolved, in storylines such as High Society and Church & State, into a complex epic of social and cultural satire. Cerebus is self-published by its creator and the entire story is always kept in print in collected editions. In the 1990s, several cartoonists adopted this business strategy. The most successful of these was Jeff Smith, whose Bone is a charming and intriguing fantasy suitable, as the saying goes, for children of all ages.
In response to Heavy Metal, and fueled by former Star*Reach contributors, Marvel Comics launched Epic Illustrated in 1980. The magazine was edited by Archie Goodwin, possibly the most respected editor in comics history. Goodwin expanded on the Star*Reach approach, bolstered by access to more money and wider distribution than the former title had ever had. Goodwin bought stories by many new young cartoonists, such as Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, Jon J. Muth, Kent Williams and many more. The magazine's contents were astonishingly diverse; perhaps too diverse to maintain a steady audience. It folded in 1986. It was succeeded by a new comics imprint, Epic, also edited by Goodwin and still published by Marvel. The new imprint was never a commercial success, but it did publish two groundbreaking series: Elektra: Assassin (1986), a frenzied thriller incorporating then state-of-the-art graphic design techniques, by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, and Moonshadow (1985-1986), a beautiful and heartbreaking dreamlike allegorical quest, by J.M. DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth.
Marvel's Epic imprint was aimed at the newly established comics specialty distributors and retail stores that had begun to surface in the late 70s. For decades, the overwhelming majority of American comic books had featured corporate-owned characters, from Donald Duck and Jughead to Superman and Spider-Man. The new market released that stranglehold. And the market was flooded with new titles, new cartoonists and new publishers. This era produced some of the best science fiction comics of all time: Scott McCloud's Zot! (1984-1991), Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus (1981-1997), Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown (serialized 1986-1989 in his comic book Yummy Fur), Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld (1985-1993), Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer (1985), Mark Schultz's Xenozoic Tales (1986-1996) and more. The floodgates of comics imagination had burst wide open. Other memorable comics of the era included Bernie Mireault's The Jam (1987-1997), Matt Wagner's Grendel: Devil by the Deed (1986), and Eric Shanower's sequence of original Oz comics albums (1986-1992).
Although there had been pornographic comic books since the dawn of the medium, for example the crudely produced "Tijuana Bibles" from the 30s to the 50s, the new specialty market that bypassed newsstands opened up a new wave of comic book pornography. On the flip side, it also allowed comics to explore issues of sexuality and body image. Cartoonists who have used this new freedom to create taboo-challenging work include Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte, since 1989), Phil Foglio (Xxxenophile, since 1989), Pheobe Gloeckner, Melinda Gebbie, and, most prolifically, Dave Cooper with Cynthia Petal's Really Fantastic Alien Sex Frenzy! (1993), Pressed Tongue (1994) and Suckle (1996).
The 1980s also saw the advent of the mini-comics movement, championed by virtuoso stick-figure cartoonist Matt Feazell. Mini-comics are small, (usually) photocopied, black and white, (often) self-distributed publications. Mini-comics creators sell their wares on the street, through the mail, find shops willing to carry their work and exchange their comics with other like-minded cartoonists. It's a grassroots movement out of which has emerged a number of important cartoonists, including Julie Doucet and Chester Brown.
Of the "Big Two" -- Marvel and DC -- Marvel was, for many years, alone in publishing creator-owned titles. Now, in 2000, the situation is reversed. Marvel only publishes its corporate-owned characters, while DC operates several imprints -- including a number of comics owned by their creators -- that cater to a diversity of tastes. Among these, Vertigo specializes in sophisticated horror (Preacher, Sandman, Hellblazer); Paradox Press publishes quirky documentary anthologies such as The Big Book of Urban Legends and The Big Book of Hoaxes; and, under the DC banner, a line of comics based on animated television shows, such as Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls and Batman Beyond, is aimed at younger children.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, American comic books briefly wandered out of their enclosed universe and, for the first time, received considerable serious attention from the media at large. Magazine articles were printed in Rolling Stone and others, cartoonists appeared on television, film documentaries were made (Comic Book Confidential, 1989; The Masters of Comic Book Art, 1987), book publishers started publishing comic books (including the eye-opening 1991 anthology of women cartoonists Twisted Sisters from Penguin), feature films based on comic books were making millions of dollars... and then, after a few years, it was like none of it had ever happened. On the one hand, the book industry had no idea how to market or sell comic books. On the other, the comics industry had no idea how to cater to an audience other than boys, young men and collectors. A combination of greed, inertia, and ignorance slapped comic books right back into their ghetto.
The attention had been generated by the near-simultaneous appearance of several important comics. Love and Rockets (1982-1996), by the Hernandez Brothers, combined the California punk-rock scene, magic realism, retro science fiction, Archie comics and the Latin American experience. Its deft portrayal of a varied cast of female characters attracted a sizable female readership who discovered that they would read comics if only more would be written that could appeal to them. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) postulated a dystopic future in which the retired Batman, now an old man, once more puts on the Bat-suit to combat urban violence and political corruption, which prompts Ronald Reagan, artificially kept alive and permanently in office, to sic his blue boy scout Superman on him. Miller's take on Batman revitalized a character that had been floundering for many years and received widespread positive reviews. Although Harvey Pekar began writing his memoirs, aided by a number of underground illustrators, in his comic book American Splendor in 1976, it's his 1986 appearance on David Letterman's talk show that turned him into a minor celebrity. And, most importantly, in 1986, Pantheon published Art Spiegelman's holocaust fable Maus. It was an international bestseller (in 1992, combined with its sequel Maus II, it won a Pulitzer). The visibility of this diverse crop of comics signaled the medium's versatility and its potential, like that of any other medium, to create pertinent works of art.
Just as Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets had been inspired by the Los Angeles punk scene, Peter Bagge's later Hate (1990-1998) was deeply rooted in Seattle grunge rock. Harvey Pekar's celebrity helped turn autobiography into a full-fledged genre. Cartoonists who subsequently adopted this genre include Joe Matt, Mary Fleener, and Seth. Maus had originally been serialized in the avant-garde anthology series Raw. Other noteworthy cartoonists who have passed through its pages include Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Richard Sala and Chris Ware. Ware's current series, Acme Novelty Library, is widely considered to be the state-of-the-art in comic books.
Beginning in 1983 with the appointment of British writer Alan Moore on DC's Swamp Thing (a controversial run that included stories on fear of menstruation and sexual intolerance), American comics were revitalized by a string of writers from the United Kingdom. Moore was followed, most notably, by Neil Gaiman, famous for Sandman (1989-1996), Grant Morrison, whose first major work was his bafflingly bizarre take on DC's Doom Patrol (which he wrote 1989-1992), and Warren Ellis, whose current Planetary is an intricate postmodern conspiracy adventure that recontextualizes a century of pop-culture tropes, idioms and clichés. Moore himself now has his own imprint, published by DC Comics, sardonically named America's Best Comics. With some of today's best cartoonists -- in titles such as Tom Strong, Promethea, Tomorrow Stories, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- he is creating an idealized and ironic form of new pulp fiction for modern comic books.
As a publishing phenomenon, comic books -- along with mass-market paperbacks -- succeeded the pulp magazines. No company is more cognizant of that historical reality than Dark Horse which, in addition to publishing new comic-book adventures of classic pulp heroes such as Tarzan, Doc Savage and the Shadow, is also the home of Mike Mignola's occult investigator, Hellboy. This series, begun in 1994, incorporates pulp fiction elements such as the eldritch menace of H.P. Lovecraft, the hard-boiled banter of Raymond Chandler and the heroics of Doc Savage.
In the 1990s, in the wake of exciting crime films by directors such as Quentin Tarantino and John Dahl, crime comics finally made a comeback. They're now better than they've ever been. David Mack's Kabuki, Greg Rucka's Whiteout, Brian Michael Bendis' Jinx, Frank Miller's Sin City, Paul Grist's Kane, and David Lapham's Stray Bullets all testify to the health of the crime genre in current comics.
Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns together with the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons Watchmen (1986-1987) so thoroughly deconstructed the superhero genre that for several years all superhero comics seemed like nothing more than bad parodies of themselves. In 1993-1994, however, two simultaneous series, one each from DC and Marvel, breathed new life into the genre. The Golden Age, by James Robinson and Paul Smith, was a taut McCarthy-era conspiracy thriller that revisited DC's 1940s costumed adventurers, imbuing them with fragile personalities. Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, remythologized the classic era of Marvel Comics (1939-1973) by viewing all of its events at a remove through the eyes of a news photographer whose mundane life is constantly affected by the larger-than-life exploits of the "Marvels." Its commercial and critical success turned both Busiek and Ross into comics superstars. One of Ross' current projects is a series of oversize comics albums, in collaboration with writer Paul Dini, celebrating DC Comics' most iconic characters: Superman: Peace on Earth (1998), Batman: War on Crime (1999) and projected volumes with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. Busiek now writes Marvel's superteam series, Avengers and, with the help of classic Avengers illustrator George Pérez, has turned it into a fan favorite. Busiek's own Astro City continues the approach of Marvels. Although the title's eponymous city is densely populated with superpowered characters, the superheroics are never at the forefront. Rather, Busiek tells intimate stories that speculate on what it would be like to live in such a world.
In 1993, Scott McCloud published what I consider the greatest book ever on comics: Understanding Comics. It's a 215-page essay, done entirely in comics, about comics as an art form. It eloquently discusses comics' relationships to other modes of expression, the elements that contribute to comics' uniqueness and the cognitive experience of reading comics. And all this done so that argument and execution (because comics is both the book's subject and form) substantiate each other throughout. It's a heartfelt intellectual journey through the essence of comics, a medium that, like film or prose or fine arts, inspires passionate devotion from its enthusiasts. Like me. | April 2000
Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.