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What Makes Comics Tick?

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.

In June 1938, an editor pulled a Siegel/Shuster creation from a pile of discarded stories and used it as the cover feature in Action Comics #1. The story featured a character called Superman, dressed in a cape and colourful tights based on the costume of the popular science fiction hero Flash Gordon. Little did anyone suspect that Superman would become the a new kind of archetype, a ‘superhero’. He fitted the template later outlined by Canadian academic Northrop Frye: one who has powers different in degree from those around him or her. In tales featuring such characters, ordinary nature is slightly suspended: such things as magic are real, animals can talk, monsters abound and objects possess supernatural power. The superhero story, at that point unknown in the comics medium, was largely to fit into this category. In stories about such beings, myth was to become legend.

Siegel and Shuster's Superman was allegedly influenced by the legend of the Golem of Prague, possessing, like the Golem, superhuman strength, speed and other abilities (but the Golem was created out of clay and more resembles the origin story of Wonder Woman). The first stories were a simple mix of science fiction (the hero was sent to Earth in a rocket launched from a dying world) and straightforward physical adventure. They hit on a powerful motif - the secret identity - which drew from the society on which they were created: Superman lived day-to-day as his alter-ego, a mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent, becoming one of us, neither greater than the environment nor other people. Frye later called this the ‘low mimetic’: the central character is still often called a ‘hero’ but lacks traditional heroic qualities. Readers or audiences feel closer to these characters as they seem ordinary. The initial stories were hardly deeply significant, but the combination of science-fiction, the Epic template of the superhuman hero, and the connection to ordinary life was a strong elixir: by 1940, most comic-book companies had started publishing large lines of superhero titles, and Superman went on to become one of the world's most recognisable protagonists, appearing in comics, on radio and in various film versions even up to the present day.

The American publishers had launched what would later be known as the Golden Age of comic books, with large print-runs, with Action Comics and Captain Marvel selling over half a million copies a month each. (Although Superman and other characters are well-remembered today, circulation figures of 1.4 million copies per issue suggest that the best-selling superhero title of the era was Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose comic was at one point published biweekly to make the most of its popularity.) Comics provided very popular cheap entertainment during the Second World War not only among soldiers: over 90 percent of girls and boys read comic books despite their variations in quality.

For a time, comics, in America at least, had struck a cultural note: in the face of war and economic hardship, young and older readers turned to the simple escapism that such stories elicited. Here were characters whose strange powers were gained mysteriously, requiring no scientific basis; here were stories which could be confronted without having to have command of a large vocabulary; and here was a medium which was colourful, cheap and portable.

A new cultural element had been born.


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