The History of Comics 1

We are all born into an already existing culture, much of which we take completely for granted.

Take ‘comics’, for example. They have been around for all of the 21st century and most of the 20th and we see them currently being translated at an intense rate, usually with immense success, into that other commonly-accepted medium, cinema. But what exactly is a ‘comic’? Why is it even called a ‘comic’ (the initiative to call comics ‘graphic novels’ hasn’t yet reached the mainstream)? And how did it evolve into a goldmine for film producers today?

What makes comics tick?

Comics started off being aimed at the semi-literate working class, but as that group gradually became more literate over time, the medium eventually came to be seen as childish, and hence was marketed at children. Comics managed to strike the balance between text and picture which many young children still need today in order to read anything. Those children who expressed a degree of boredom about reading prose - a dense page of text staring at them made some feel exasperated, as it still does - were ready to be attracted by something which offered a better balance of words and pictures on the page. It was possible to criticise early comics as ‘lazy reading’, and later critics pointed out that any visual medium that supplied readers with page after page of pictures was detracting from their use of their own imaginations. (The same criticisms are still offered today about comics and films.) But comics enabled children to access stories while feeling less challenged or overwhelmed by the page. They could gradually 'ease into' the story, experiencing its pleasures without being put off. And the stories themselves were unchallenging too, mainly short comical skits ending with punchlines (hence the name ‘comic magazine’ or just ‘comic’). Early versions were merely compilations of newspaper strips.

In Britain, comics were usually comics anthologies, published weekly. Some of the longest-running comics in the world, The Dandy and The Beano, are still published in Dundee, Scotland for world-wide distribution (though The Dandy is now delivered only in an online format), and still hug closely to their original pattern: rambunctious and often shallow and short episodes about larger-than-life comic characters such as the enormously strong ‘Desperate Dan’ or the continually misbehaving ‘Dennis the Menace’. While these types of publication were being launched in Britain, however, something which would change the nature of the medium was happening across the Atlantic.