Comic Books

from The New Book of Knowledge®


Comic books are magazines that use a series of pictures, usually accompanied by words, to tell stories. They typically feature a single long story or several shorter stories about a single set of characters. And they are typically published on a regular basis (such as every month, every two months, or once a year). Today comic books are created and published all over the world. But they are an American original.

Kinds of Comic Books

We may be most familiar with comic books featuring the adventures of superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Captain America. But there are many other kinds of comic books. Some feature stories about romance, religion, science fiction, animals, crime, or the military. Others provide biographies of famous people or recount historic events. Classic works of literature have also been put into comic book form.

Most comic books are published to entertain young readers. But the popularity of comic books has led many kinds of organizations to use them for different purposes. For instance, companies have used comic books to promote their product or services. And the United States military has used comic books to train soldiers.


The comic book developed from the comic strip. A comic strip is a series of three or four cartoon drawings that tells a story with one or more characters. Comic strips began appearing in American newspapers and magazines in the late 1800's. The first comic book was Funnies on Parade. It was published in the early 1930's and featured a collection of comic strips published in a magazine format. In 1935 New Fun Comics became the first comic book to contain all new art and stories.In 1938 the publisher DC Comics produced the first successful comic book superhero, Superman. This launched a popular trend. Throughout the 1940's, comic books featured costumed superheroes with amazing powers. They battled bullies and criminals as well as the enemies of the United States during World War II (1939-45). When the war ended, however, interest in comic book superheroes waned. Publishers had to find a new way to capture the public's imagination. The answer was comic books filled with stories of romance, crime, and horror.

In the 1950's, a public outcry arose against the violence and adult themes depicted in these comic books. This prompted members of the comic book industry (the publishers, printers, and distributors) to organize the Comics Magazine Association of America. The purpose of the association was to establish a code of approval for comic books. The code ensured that the text, artwork, and even the advertisements in comic books were suitable for young readers. Comic books published by members of the Comics Magazine Association of America were carefully scrutinized. If the stories conformed to the code, the comic book was published with the code authority's seal on the upper half of the front cover. Most comic book publishers no longer try to conform to the code.

During the 1960's, comic book fans began to organize clubs and publish magazines (called fanzines). The first major comic book convention was held in New York City. Publishers began selling their comic books directly to specialty stores that focused solely on comic books and related products. These stores remain the primary outlet for comic books today. It was also during this time that the publisher Marvel Comics began introducing a new kind of superhero. Despite their superpowers, these characters had many of the same qualities as average people, such as feelings of insecurity or anger. Among the most popular of these Marvel superheroes were Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men.

Another development in the 1960's was the appearance of so-called underground comic books. These comic books were published and distributed outside the regular channels. They often featured political or sexual subject matter. They also tended to be outrageous and satirical. Many creators of underground comic books were influenced by the comic books that came before them. Robert Crumb's famous underground comic books show the influence of the early MAD. MAD is a humorous and satirical magazine that began as a comic book in 1952.

A new kind of comic book called the graphic novel appeared in 1978 with the publication of A Contract with God, written and illustrated by Will Eisner. Graphic novels contain more pages than typical comic books, they often contain chapters, and they are usually printed on high-quality paper. In 1992, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to writer and illustrator Art Spiegelman for his two-part graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986, 1991). This graphic novel used mice and cats to chronicle the Holocaust.

Big-budget motion pictures such as Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) attracted a larger (and older) audience to comic books. The success of these films proved that comic books were a great source of profitable material for movie studios. Many other successful films followed. These included X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and Hellboy (2004).

Comic Books Today

Comic books today are widely appreciated for their literacy and artistic style. Many are considered collectable. Colleges offer courses on them, and some comic book artists have exhibited their work at the Museum of Modern Art. Museums such as San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and New York City's Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art celebrate comic books as a highly creative and entertaining form of American art that will endure in our culture for many years to come.

Jim Simon
Coauthor, The Comic Book Makers


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