Comics As We Know Them

From the beginning of the 20th century to today, comics went through a lot of changes. Notable changes in the medium were how they were printed from being in newspapers through syndicates, to their own magazines collections to actual books through independent and traditional printing and publishing companies. Along with their physical formats, their subject matter went through various changes as well. Their material started off as simple and innocent and grew into more complex and serious subjects.

At first, comics were exclusively found in newspapers in the form of short strip series that were published regularly. Some strips ran for a month, some have ran for over a century. The first syndicated comic strip to be published into a newspaper was Katzenjammer Kids which was “created by nineteen year old Rudolph Dirks in 1897. William Randolph Heart published the strip in the American Humorist, the Sunday comic supplemented in his New York Journal.” Dirks eventually gave the copyrights to the comic over to the New York Journal in 1912 and the paper still runs the strip to this day, over a century after it’s conception, being the longest running syndicated comic strip to this day.

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Rudolph Dirks and Katzenjammer Kids (1916)

The first newspaper syndicate was McClure Newspaper Syndicate, launched in 1884, that would set the example for many more companies in the following centuries. Business with the newspaper syndicates worked something like this: “An artist draws a comic strip everyday and sends it off to their syndicate. Then the syndicate salesman travels across the country, selling the strip everywhere.” [Stripped] The artist-syndicate relationship was perfect at the time because by having the “salesman on the road, selling your strips, doing the billing, sending your strips to the paper, and doing all the legal stuff,” it allowed the artist to have more time to be the artist and produce more and better content.

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Popular Comic Strips published from Universal Press Syndicate, (left to right) Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, and Foxtrot

This all sounds so straight forwards and easy to do, but it was highly competitive. Newspapers were everywhere, and they had to appeal to a large demographic, from elderly people, young adults, and small children. So out of the large pool of submissions that newspapers got, they had to carefully curate the content that went into their publications so that way they’d attract everyone to at least one place in the comic section. Some notable strips that fit into a demographic niche were Peanuts that featured children, Zits featuring young adults, and Moon Mullins that had older people featured. Even though these comics were targeted at a specific audience, people outside of that niche could enjoy them and that’s another aspect to their successes.

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Left to Right: Moon Mullins, Zits, Peanuts.

“The thing about syndicates is they want to know, can you produce under pressure? Can you produce fast, are you responsible? Are you reliable, are you that creative that you can just keep on producing? And so, they put you under a lot of pressure right at the beginning.” [Stripped]

This statement alludes to how intense the work can be. These artists are making a daily comic strip, which means that they have to produce content everyday to publish it for their readers. They don’t get vacations or breaks, in the traditional sense of the term, they end up becoming workaholics. But, to these people, they draw everyday and get paid for it, so some don’t even realize that they are workaholics until they actually think about it because it’s a part of who they are and they do what they love which overcomes some of the grueling aspects of the job.

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George Storm, cartoonist and creator of Bobby Thatcher (1929-1937)

For some artists, that hard work really paid off. When dealing with syndicated comic strips, the artist got paid for how many newspapers bought the comic. So, with that being said, this is where some lived luxuriously, others lived frugally, and a lot did it as a hobby with a primary job. A good example of an artist reaching luxurious success is through the work of George Storm, the creator of the strip series, Bobby Thatcher. George Storm worked on the comic from 1927 – 1937 and in September 1929, it was published into 57 newspapers and for that month alone, earned $1,833 cumulatively. If you account for inflation, that amount of money “in 1929 had the same purchasing power as $25,063 in 2014.”

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George Storm’s receipt for September 1929 for Bobby Thatcher‘s newspaper sales.

Up until 1933, comics were exclusively found in newspapers, that year is when we see the first full length magazine dedicated to comics. Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, a collection of newspaper comics was published by the Eastern Color Printing Company as a 36-page magazine. In the following year, 1934, they expanded it to 64 pages and distributed them through “several newsstands. The issue sold out, demonstrating a new market for the new format.” (University of Iowa) This collection of comics gives birth to the comics getting their own printed feature instead of being hidden away in newspapers. By transitioning comics out of newspapers, it allows for comics to become more in depth and complex by having more space for the artists to develop comics even further.

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Comic Stand (Left) and Newspaper Stand (right) selling a variety of comics (colored, upper left corner) among other magazines and newspapers

After Famous Funnies, many other publishers started printing comic-exclusive magazines and selling them alongside newspapers (as shown above). This opened up the flood gates for comics to expand their capabilities. Creators, at first, were targeting children with these comic magazines, being an expanded version of what they found in their parent’s newspapers. Comics during the 30’s and 40’s contained mostly funny animal comics, romance comics, and war comics that would transition into the superhero comics that we have today. Their content was innocent and was simple entertainment, that was until EC Comics arrives on the scene.

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Comics publishing from Educational Comics

EC Comics first stood for Educational Comics and was under the administration of Max Gaines, who had previously worked on the Famous Funnies (as mentioned above) and his company produced titles like Picture Stories from the Bible and the children’s animal comic book, Land of the Lost. It wasn’t until Max died in 1947 and his son, William, took over the company and re-branded it as Entertaining Comics that problems began to arise. Under William’s administration, the innocent children’s comics turned into comics with gore, horror, war, and crime. Titles that William started to published consisted of Tales from the Crypt, Dark Mysteries, Journey into Fear, and tag lines like Tales of Terror and Suspense and Weird Fantastic Tales. This barely scratches the surface to what EC Comics was producing.

In The Horror! The Horror!a book about these comic specifically, tells us that “from about 1950 to 1955, they were so popular that fifty to one hundred horror titles were released monthly.” With a high amount of content like that being created, it’s hard to ignore. It should be noted here William wasn’t making these comics for children like his father had done before him. He was in the armed services prior to taking over the family business and saw numerous soldiers reading comics, so naturally he started making comics that were targeted at an adult readership. Where William ran into problems is that the preexisting market was targeting children, with this being the first full blown adult comic, it inevitably landed in the wrong hands and the parent’s of these kids were upset and an uproar began.

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Comics published from Entertaining Comics

Compared to what America was used to seeing, William Gaines and this staff at EC definitely shocked the country with his comics. So much so that in 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book titled Seduction of the Innocent. This book was a “detailed report … on the pernicious influences of comic books on the youth.” This book had so much influence that it sparked a series of hearings in the United States Senate to “investigate juvenile delinquency [by] going into the problem of horror and crime comic books.” After William Gaines heard about these hearings, he requested that he be in attendance, since he was the cause for all this stir. Here’s a direct quote from the archives of that hearing Gaines attended:

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William Gaines (1954) at the senate hearings
I publish comic magazines in addition to picture stories from the 
Bible. For example, I publish horror comics. I was the first pub- 
lisher in these United States to publish horror comics. I am respon- 
sible, I started them. 

Some may not like them. That is a matter of personal taste. It 
would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror 
story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of 
love to a frigid old maid. 

My father was proud of the comics he published, and I am proud 
of the comics I publish. We use the best writers, the finest artists; 
we spare nothing to make each magazine, each story, each page, a 
work of art. 

...

It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned. 

May I repeat, he said, "It is only with the normal person that the 
law is concerned." Our American children are for the most part 
normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to 
prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted mon- 
sters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. 

Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don't 
read comics. The chances are most of them are in schools for retarded 
children. 

What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do 
we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to 
read or do? We think our children are so evil, simple minded, that 
it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery 
to set them to robbery ? 

Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined 
by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic. 

As has already been pointed out by previous testimony, a little, 
healthy, normal child has never been made worse for reading comic 
magazines. 

The basic personality of a child is established before he reaches the 
age of comic-book reading. I don't believe anything that has ever 
been written can make a child overaggressive or delinquent. 

The roots of such characteristics are much deeper. The truth is 
that delinquency is the product of real environment in which the 
child lives and not of the fiction he reads. 

There are many problems that reach our children today. They 
are tied up with insecurity. No pill can cure them. No law will 
legislate them out of being. The problems are economic and social 
and they are complex. 
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Marvel Sales drop in the mid-late 1950s due to the Comics Code

Despite William Gaines’ efforts in court and the hearings being a direct response to his work at EC, the damage had been done already and the whole industry of comics felt the shock. The discussion of comics being related to juvenile delinquency had spread across the country and comic sales started to drop and “over 800 people lost their jobs” (Denny O’Neil 13:00) in Marvel alone.  In fear of publishing content that was questionable, individual publishing companies banded together to form the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), and through this industry trade group, they had other comic publishers send their publications to get a seal of approval that their comic had met the guidelines of the Comics Code Authority. This seal of approval told the public that a published comic had met the guideline that the material was “decent” for viewership. Some of the regulation codes included:

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Stamp that would appeared on comics that were approve by the Comics Code
  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
  • No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as in indecent or undue exposure.
  • Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for morbid distortion.

These are just 6 of the regulations out of 41 under the Comics Code seal of approval. As you can see by the third one, that they were a direct response to what William Gaines was doing at EC Comics. Afterwards, he tried to adhere but eventually “resigned from the CMAA on October 25, 1955. He folded his comic book business and [only continued with] MAD magazine, which was not subject to the Comic Code Authority.” At this point, other companies went under or they adhered to the Comics Code guidelines.

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