The beginning of the 1900’s up until mid century, comics were mostly innocent, concise, and simple. During this era, they can be considered to be in their infant and adolescent stages. In the mid 1950’s, with the Comics Code established, they start to go through some growing pains and artists are working out what they can and can’t do. After a decade of intense censorship, the code starts to loose it’s power and we find people publishing comics without the stamp of approval by the Comics Code. Around the same time of people disregarding the Code, a new method of distribution starts to arise and that’s the comic specialty shop. These shops allow people to gather in a space solely for comics and a new culture is created by distributors being directly connected to the market. Towards the end of the century, in the late 70’s, comics grow into a more mature stage and we start seeing the first publications of graphic novels.
The Comics Code had a devastating effect on the industry. From the American Comic Chronicles: The 1950’s they say that “from an industry high of slightly more than 3,150 issues published with 1952 dates, only about 2,300 were produced with 1955 dates. The downward trend was just beginning. Within two more years, so many companies gave up comics that only fifteen companies produced as many as a dozen issues in 1957.” All those people that had been in the industry were now having to find jobs in other places like freelance work for hunting, fishing, and men’s magazines; creating coloring and puzzle books and doing cover art for various other publications, and some worked as ghosts artists for preexisting syndicated strips.
A number of factors went into this decline. Since the CMAA was formed by the publishers themselves, they had to reallocate their resources on reviewing the massive of amount of content for censorship. “Before the code, a significant percentage of adults read comic books.” After the code, the publications that got the Comics Code approval resulted in “adult consumption of comic books decreasing considerably because the contents no longer suited an adult’s interest.” While comics were declining, television was on the rise, so they shifted their entertainment needs to the new technology.
The comics industry doesn’t get revitalized until 1961 when Atlas Comics re-branded itself as Marvel Comics with the launch of the Fantastic Four. The creation of this new comic book was by Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby (artist), and Steve Ditko (artist). Stan Lee was on the verge of quitting because of the limiting effects the comics code created. Stan Lee went on to say that the “stories meant nothing. They weren’t well written, they have no characterization; they’re just stories, people read them and forget them.” Stan Lee had been in the industry for nearly 25 years at this point and had been working under Martian Goodman for both Timely Comics and it’s predecessor Atlas Comics. Martian would direct the production of comics quickly and cheaply for whatever trend was popular at the time, from the horror to romance to animal comics, Stan Lee wrote for all of them.
The pivotal point that changed Stan Lee’s mind from leaving the industry was when he had a conversation with his wife and she told him that “if you want to quit, before you do why don’t you write one story the way you’d like to do it.” Thus the creation of the Fantastic Four. This comic hit a niche that the Comics Code created because it didn’t have monsters as terrorizing and gruesome, but instead as the heroes themselves. They also didn’t disrespect authority figures, because superheros is essentially good guys fighting bad guy. He also gave each character of The Fantastic Four a complex and interesting personality, a depth that wasn’t previously seen in comics, that made this comics that much more captivating.
In the 1960’s Marvel dominated the market with their new superheros. Not only The Fantastic Four, but the Incredible Hulk, Spider Man, Thor, Ant Man, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, the whole marvel pantheon was created during this decade. All of them had complex characters and stories that appealed to an older audience. Alongside Marvel, DC was bringing back previous superheros like Superman, The Flash, Batman and the Justice League. Together, the comic book industry came back to life, and this is where they would grow into the cultural super giants they are today. Each company, in their own universes captured the counterculture of the time they lived in by including current events, women, colored people, etc and eventually Stan Lee published books without the Comics Code approval.
The first books that Stan Lee published without the approval of the comics code is the 96 through 98 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. The government Department of Health, Education, and Welfare came to Stan Lee and said, “that they recognized the great influence that Marvel Comics and Spider-Man have on young people. And they thought it would really be beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction.” When Marvel ran the publications through the censorship organization, even though the theme was anti-drug use, they still rejected it because they showed and mentioned drugs in the stories.
Upon examination of the incident, the guidelines for the comics code never specifically says that drugs are prohibited. The rule that stemmed from the rejection was from “general section entitled Standards Part C, which prohibited ‘All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency.” Stan Lee eventually went to Martian Goodman, the publisher, and pleaded to him that the story was good for kids and that it was suggested by a government agency. Goodman saw the logic in his case and allowed for it to be published and would back him up if he ran into trouble. The book got good reviews and was praised by community members for it’s anti-drug message and was only lightly scrutinized in smaller papers.
Not only was Stan Lee running comic books without the approval, but there was an underground comics movement happening across America where artists were publishing comics to a into small magazines or on their own that completely disregarded any regulations that were imposed upon comics. Notable people were Robert Crumb, Dan O’Neil, and the general area of the 1960’s Haight-Ashbury where the counterculture of that time flourished.
Robert Crumb grew up drawing cartoons for his friends and family, then got a job as a Greeting Card Artist in Ohio. On the side, he was publishing comics that would be the precursor to Fritz the Cat to underground publishers. This comic of his features “a feline con artist who frequently goes on adventures that sometimes involves sexual escapades.” During his time at the greeting card company, someone had brought some psychedelic posters from California to his office and he was inspire by them. At the time, Crumb was experimenting with LSD, he was fed up with drawing greeting cards, and also disregarded the comic book industry because of the state it was in – the control didn’t appeal to him. So, he set out to San Francisco to connect to the artists who were creating art inspired by the same drugs he was taking.
When Robert got to the Haight-Ashbury, he started to collaborate with other artists in the Underground Comix culture. These comics were heavily saturated with adult themes, like sex, drugs, violence, anti-establishment, etc. When asked what comix were, he replied, “It’s just absolute freedom that’s involved. That’s why we did it because we didn’t have anybody standing over your shoulder, saying no, you can’t draw this. You can’t show this. You can’t make fun of Catholics. You can’t make fun of this or that. We just drew whatever we wanted. In the process, we had to break every taboo first. Drawing racist images, any sexual perversion that came to your mind, making fun of authority figures.” With anything up for grabs for these artists, in 1967, they created adult-themed titles like Head Comix, Fritz the Cat, The East Village Other, Nose God, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Independent Publishers were on the rise at this time too. With artists collaboratively working together, they would self publish or publish through small publishers in the area. They first distributed them to the local head shops, where their content fit in with the counterculture. Later, they started distributing comix into local counterculture newspapers like the comic The East Village Other in the L.A. Free Press. With these new means of publishing, it started to have an effect on the legal rights for artist and writers because the “creators were paid royalties on subsequent printings, enabling them to reap the rewards of a best selling comic,” and the “creators (also were able to) retain their copyright on characters, stories, and original art, instead of those rights being usurped by the publisher.” These changes in legal rights for artists would ripple into the future with other companies adopting the same policies.
Another notable independent publisher is Rip Off Press, which was a printing company started by the cartoonists Gilbert Shelton of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Jack Jackson of God Nose. These two, with the help of some other friends opened their own make-shift printing press in 1969, printing titles from Robert Crumb, Shelton’s and Jackson’s work, along with other artists that they syndicated for college magazines. Their early history is plagued with failures and financial struggles since none of them really knew anything about printing presses and eventually relocated to Europe and finding talent there. But, during it’s time, it helped these underground artists come to the surface and make their mark in the comic history.
The people in the underground comix movement also came together in a place that was the first comic book store. In 1967, Gary Arlington opened up a retail shop that was dedicated solely to comic books, as a means to make ends meet. Not only did the underground artists gathered here, but the fans congregated here and a collective brain storm began to happen within the graphically saturated walls that would inevitably change the way that the comic book industry operated.
The comic book stores got their books by “buying the comic books through the distributors and they own them. Whereas in the past, comic book publishers distributed to newsstands and what wasn’t sold was returned to the publisher.” The comic books stores acted as a central hub dedicated to this art form; large publishers, small publishers, or just people “publishing comic books out of their garage” were able to sell their work and get it out there for people to consume.
With this new place for comic books, the content started to diversify because publishers, small or large, had direct access to their market and could be there for the conversations about the books. Conversations about what was working and what hasn’t been seen. In result, the content started to diversify and “more intelligent, more demanding artists were coming into the field, who were begetting a more intelligent and more adult audience.” (Will Eisner) We start to see artists evolve the fantasy genre with titles like Elf Quest and Cerebus the Aardvark and also stray away from fantasy into more contemporary type of material with titles like Love and Rockets and American Splendor; that showcase events of everyday life which is something that hasn’t been seen as much in the art of comic books.
This new air of comic books hits a pivotal point when Will Eisner releases A Contract With God in 1978. This publication was the first comic book to shy away from using panels in the traditional sense, and featured a more literary story. This book shook the medium so hard that they needed a new term to classify it as, and this is the start of the graphic novel and into a new era of comics.