The History of Comics 2


During the 1940s, America was the ‘superhero’ of the world, coming to the rescue of Europe and the Pacific with its extensive military powers. It’s not surprising that the comic book superhero flourished during those period, both amongst the troops and with readers at home. Timely’s Captain America had even punched Hitler in the face on the cover of his comic. Following the end of World War II, though, with the world at large introverting into what was to become the Cold War, the popularity of superheroes declined. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman continued to sell, but stories of cowboys and war gradually replaced other titles. Science fiction began to grow in popularity, especially with its themes of alien invasion, which mirrored the cultural shift towards paranoia. DC launched Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space while Timely Comics cancelled Captain America, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner series, replacing them with horror, science fiction and Western genres as well as teen humour and romance. Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were cutting their comic book teeth on romance work after the war.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, comic books had taken a different turn. From the 19th century heritage of story papers, periodical children’s publications similar to a literary magazine, but with illustrations and text stories, a book-like format grew. Full of close-printed text with few illustrations, these ‘penny dreadfuls’ were essentially no different from a book, except that they were shorter and contained serialised stories to encourage ongoing sales. Charles Dickens had edited a similar kind of thing and many of his novels began their lives in the pages of similar publications. However, in this cheaper version, aimed at working class boys, plagiarism was common and sensationalist tales of horror and the supernatural, featuring pirates, highwaymen, and detectives ran into the early part of the 20th century.

The essence of their success was their accessibility: they were cheap and easily read. They filled the vacuum for the poorer segments of the population where literacy was rising but economics blocked access to theatre or more expensive forms of entertainment.

The emphasis on illustrated stories began to take hold in parallel to this: Ally Sloper's Half Holiday (1884) a weekly comic paper was probably the first comic book or magazine to feature a regular character, cost one penny and was designed for working class adults. It told how Ally, the recurring protagonist, ended up in trouble after some mischief. Towards the end of the 19th century, some of these magazines simply reprinted British and American material, previously published in newspapers and magazines, without permission. Profits rocketed, especially from the youth market, and so publications followed the money accordingly. By 1914, most ‘comics’ were aimed at eight- to twelve-year-olds and contained a great deal of slapstick humour and mischievous children or teenagers ‘getting their come-uppance’.

These publications evolved into cheaper newsprint paper and black and white stories which were released in anthology formats, with strips one or two pages in length. A single issue of a comic contained about a dozen separate strips, featuring different characters in ongoing adventures, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger. As the British model was based on a magazine format, some comics with articles and photograph