Introduction to Comics Studies

Although both film and comics in their currently recognized forms emerged in the nineteenth century, film acquired much earlier critical academic recognition, even though as early as the 1830s the comic strip began to distinguish itself from already established fields of printmaking and caricature. Despite its being the older medium, the comic strip and its cultural significance have only recently begun to be appreciated in academic studies. As a result, the relatively recent rise in comics studies and comics scholarship has led to a number of different debates concerning origins and seminal influences and sources. While some scholars credit Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), others cite the origins of the comic strip with either George Cruikshank (1792-1878) or William Hogarth (1679-1764), the latter’s narrative cycle The Rake’s Progress being offered as a prototype of the comic strip. Other comics scholars have, more radically, assigned the origin of the comic strip to the Bayeux Tapestries (1077), produced after the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England eleven years earlier. There is, though, no absolutely agreed starting point. This article will focus on the development and reception of, briefly, the comic strip, and subsequently the comic book, in the United States through the twentieth century.

Comic strips preceded the comic book in North America, but publishers soon realized the potential of reprinting strips in comic book form. The once widely held view that R. F. Outcault (1863-1928) created what was recognized as the first modern American comic strip with The Yellow Kid (1895) is now discredited, even though Outcault‘s creation, The Yellow Kid, was a hugely popular phenomenon of its time, boosting newspaper sales in which the comic appeared. Amongst scholars of the comic strip, the first American comic book proper is now generally considered to be Funnies on Parade (1933), which was not produced specifically as a comic book, but was reprinted from already published newspaper strips. The early twentieth century was a particularly fruitful period for comic strips: Windsor McCay‘s Little Nemo (1904-13, revived briefly in 1924) and George Herriman‘s Krazy Kat (1916-44) are discussed in almost every scholarly work on comic strips. By 1935, in the midst of the Depression, the comic book established itself as a medium of mass entertainment and communication. As a result, comic-book reproduction of previously printed material in newspapers and magazines was superseded by the regular publication of original material. Soon afterwards, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster‘s Superman opened the floodgates of superhero comics in Action Comics #1 (1938). The ‘Golden Age’ of comic books, a term developed by the collectors’ market, continues from around this time until the early 1950s and has been the subject of much amateur, trade and academic writing over the years.

The number of popular books published about Superman, Batman and other superhero icons born in the Golden Age is, at an initial glance, overwhelming, but as yet, no definitive academic monograph on this period or any of its cartoonists has emerged. The first critical commentaries contemporaneous with the first half of the twentieth century and its comics output were generally less than favourable, tending to dismiss the field as harmful at worst or vapid at best. Favourable criticism was limited to arguments that a specific strip or book was an exception to the rule. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester‘s Arguing Comics (2004) recovers such ‘lost’ criticism, sampling articles from 1895 through to the early 1960s. The most negative and damaging critical attack on comics was Fredric Wertham‘s Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Presently out of print, it was of great significance both at the time of its publication and subsequently, in that it brought about comics’ self-censorship via the institution of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). As a result comic books established in the genres of horror and crime narrative were occasionally forced out of business. EC Comics, the best-regarded of the Horror and Crime comics publishers, all but went under, surviving only in the form of Harvey Kurtzman‘s Mad Magazine. Around the same time at the end of the 1950s, fanzines began to appear, discussing and defending comics, as well as serving to establish art and writing credits (most comic books being, up to this time, uncredited). The turmoil caused by the Comics Code did not have any substantial impact on what are known as ‘funny animal’ comics, one of the medium’s most enduring and best selling genres. Little critical attention has been paid to these comics, or their greatest talent, Carl Barks. After the institution of the Comics Code, the Silver Age of Comics begins, characterized by Spiderman and the X-Men, and given their most significant and inventive interpreters in artist Jack Kirby and editor/writer Stan Lee.

By the end of the 1950s, scholarship on comic strips and comic books had begun to develop in North American universities, even though publication of articles was not modern north american criticism and theory forthcoming. Sol Davidson earned his Ph.D. with a thousand-page dissertation on comics (the first on the subject in the US) in 1959, but no academic books on comics would appear until the 1970s. The underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s varied as widely in quality as they did in distribution, but they contained elements that opened doors for future work and scholarship: the countercultural impulse to break taboos, the artist-writer (already a staple of comic strips), and autobiographical elements. Robert Crumb is the most famous of the underground artists, and his mixture of self-loathing and extreme sexual candor has had a lasting influence. Visual art and design journal Graphis put out two issues, one on comic strips and one on comic books, in 1972. Out of print now, this is an early and key example of how to bring serious writing and lavish art reproductions together and is, in addition, one of the very few transatlantic works on comics.

Amongst the first monographs on comics are David Kunzle‘s The Early Comic Strip: Picture Stories and Narrative Strips in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 and the second volume, The History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century. Kunzle‘s books offer histories and necessary cultural contextualization, while focusing exclusively on comic strips. The nineteenth-century volume is of particular interest, establishing the centrality to comic strip study of early innovators such as Topffer, Hogarth and George Cruikshank, and later popular caricaturists such as Amédée de Noé (Cham), Wilhelm Busch and Léonce Petit – all of whose work appeared in popular magazines of the day, particularly Le Charivari, Punch and Fliegende Blatter. Out of necessity, Kunzle formulates a working definition of the comic strip as dominated by images rather than text and consisting of a sequence of images. However, while such a focus may be now considered as misplaced, Kunzle‘s work did effect important changes. One of Kunzle‘s key insights was to describe comics as mass-produced and topical, thereby anticipating the ‘cultural history’ genre of comics scholarship. Additionally, he established the necessity of taking the comic strip seriously as a field of academic inquiry, while also drawing attention to the lack of such interest. Furthermore, Kunzle’s groundbreaking publications more or less irreversibly exploded the fallacy that comic strips began in North America and are a uniquely North American art form. Since the publication of Kunzle’s work, there has been a great deal of debate as to whether it is primarily sequential images or the combination of text and image that defines comics, but his significance is not to be diminished.

At the same time as Kunzle’s work appeared in print, comics study made its first forays into the university classroom. In 1974, Donald Ault created a ‘Literature and Popular Culture’ course at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the first to include comic books as course readings, placing them alongside animated films, conventional literature and literary theory in the classroom. As a result chiefly of the initiatives of Kunzle and Ault, comics studies has emerged subsequently as a field over a period ironically in which comic book sales have continued to decline and comic strips are increasingly cramped for space. In such difficult times, post-underground comics have taken off in an increasing variety of directions, from Art Spiegelman‘s avant-garde comic  Raw to self-published ‘ground level’ comics and, in addition, to deliberately unpolished mini-comics.

Will Eisner‘s groundbreaking A Contract With God (1979), is often incorrectly identified as ‘the first graphic novel’. It was neither the first graphic novel, nor was it properly a ‘novel’, being instead a collection of short stories. In retrospect such determinations merely reveal on the one hand the lack of academic awareness of the widespread extent of avant- garde and underground work already under way, and on the other, something which comic book readers had known for some time: that the comic book had already established itself, via counter-cultural means, as a serious aesthetic medium. This is not to diminish Eisner‘s significance, however. Eisner did popularize the term ‘graphic novel’, his book proving a crucial turning-point in its being among the first works to reach a wider audience than hitherto. It drew attention to itself in being the work of a single author-artist (it is also, interestingly, semi-autobiographical), like much other underground material, and was intended from the start as a book, not just a comic, for distribution and sale primarily in bookstores, aimed at a general – though generally adult -audience.

Eisner followed this up with the seminal text Comics and Sequential Art (1985). There were already guides to cartooning technique, but Eisner‘s book was broader in scope, conveying a lifetime’s experience about how to use the elements of the medium to achieve dramatic effect. The following year, collected editions were released of Frank Miller‘s revisionist Batman tales, The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘s Watchmen and Spiegelman’s Maus, thereby consolidating previous work and establishing irrevocably the graphic novel as its own genre. This ‘holy trinity’ of comic books would result in the first of many furores over the ‘new’ comics, and all have subsequently become staples of academic teaching and research. Maus is taught in many Holocaust literature classes, while both it and Watchmen have become de rigeur for classes on comics as literature. All three have been the subject of many journal articles book chapters, but as yet none have received dedicated monographs.

A major entry into the field occurred in 1990 with the publication of M. Thomas Inge‘s Comics as Culture and Joseph Witek‘s Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Comics as Culture anthologizes Inge‘s essays, published between 1983 and 1990. Inge, who had studied under Eisner, persistently contextualized American comics, showing how specific writers and artists were influenced by works and cultural influences outside the field of comics and how they, in turn, influenced others, in counterpoint to often-insular fan and popular work. Witek, who had been one of Ault’s students, took an opposite tack, considering how Jackson, Spiegelman and Pekar depicted history in and through their work. Witek‘s tightly focused monograph may be the first to consider a small number of comics in great detail, to offer close readings of the genre and, moreover, to give careful cultural and historical grounding to the narratives. Comics as Culture and Comic Books as History were the first Comics Studies titles published by the University Press of Mississippi, which has since become a major publisher of monographs, essay collections and interview books in the field.

The 1990s witnessed something of a tumult in the comic book industry, the meteoric rise and fall of Image Comics and the collapse of an over-inflated collector’s market being amongst the most notable phenomena. At the same time, there was a marked shift in critical interest, as a result, largely, of the influence of Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1990) as readers started to be more interested in scholarship and the general public became more aware of comics. No book has done more to shape Comics Studies as a field, or readers’ perceptions of comics. From McCloud‘s work, academic readers became more interested in the field as a scholarly concern, while a greater awareness of the comic book and graphic novel developed among the general reading public. Written entirely as a comic book, McCloud‘s Understanding Comics is something of a sea-change. It takes Eisner’s definition of comics as ‘sequential art’ and founds a theory on that definition, making the ‘gutter’ or space between panels the single most important element in any comic. He follows from Kunzle and others in excluding single-panel cartoons and caricatures as ‘not comics’, providing a widely used typology of the transitions modern north american criticism and theory between panels. McCloud, not an academic himself, has drawn some fire from those who feel Understanding Comics is too proscriptive or lacks scholarly rigor. Nonetheless, virtually all books and papers on comics since have cited McCloud, even if only to refute him.

Robert C. Harvey’s The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History (1994) and follow-up book The Art of the Comic Book (1996) are both published by a university press, though Harvey, like McCloud and Eisner, is not an academic but a professional comics creator. Harvey unapologetically focuses on the works he considers to be the best and most innovative, making his books more formal critiques than survey histories. Like McCloud, he takes a proscriptive stance, but his criterion for aesthetic and formal evaluation is governed by elements of verbal-visual blending. He favours comics where image and text are as complementary as possible and only allows for wordless or ‘pantomine’ comics as the exceptions that prove the rule.

One particular critical voice of note emerged during the 1990s from within the university: that of British academic Roger Sabin. His Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993) examines the origins of comics written for adults, both in and before the under-ground commix. It was written largely as a corrective to the idea that comics `grew up’ in the 1980s. Sabin draws examples from manga, bandes dessinees (French comics) and fumetti (Italian comics), but is mostly interested in Anglo-American comics. His follow-up book, Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (1996), is a coffee-table book in a similar vein, though broader in scope. Here, Sabin made the case that British work generally leads rather than follows the American comics scene.

Sabin was not alone, however. By the mid-1990s, two major threads of Comics Scholarship had been established: cultural histories placing and contextualizing comics on the one hand and, on the other, explanatory theories of what the medium is and can do. Notably, writing in the field up to this point tends largely to be defensive, with many publications offering not only critical analysis but also acting as apologia: intent on establishing the bona fides of the field and its subject, showing why comic books are relevant and worth studying, and establishing that they are different from and not inferior to movies, novels and picture-books. As the decade proceeded, the number of academic works on comics increased dramatically and the amount of defensive manoeuvring decreased. By 1998, Amy Kyste Nyberg, typical of comics scholarship at the end of the decade, could produce Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, speaking of the much-reviled CCA as a forerunner to other industry self-regulation, such as the MPAA movie ratings. Similarly, Ian Gordon, in Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (1998), was free to focus on consumer culture and merchandising as a driving force behind comic strips, ignoring many of the most renowned strips.

The turn of the century witnessed a redoubling of the volume and scope of Comics Studies. It also attracted scholars from other fields with an interest in the subject. David Carrier, for example, brought his background as an analytic philosopher and an art historian to The Aesthetics of Comics (2000). Bradford D. Wright compared Golden and Silver Age comics to American culture more broadly perceived in Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (2001). The work of these two men is noteworthy for particular reasons. Carrier’s text offers an explanatory theory most notable for giving credibility to the comparison between Honore Daumier‘s caricatures and other work by `fine’ artists and that of comics; Wright, on the other hand, offers a cultural history that combines extensive cultural analysis grounded in a sense of the historical specificity of popular national identity in the US as this is mediated in the singular form of the comic.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, the breadth and diversity of disciplinary approaches to comics studies has increased markedly, with works applying techniques from the areas of Cultural Studies, Film Studies and Postcolonial Studies. Geoff Klock‘s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (2002) applies Harold Bloom‘s theory of the anxiety of influence to comics, and Neil Cohn‘s self-published work (2002-present), departing from McCloud‘s work, argues that there is a sentence-like grammar to the comic strip or page and that visual elements can be ‘read’. At present, there are no clear divisions among comics scholars, though the emergence of one or more dominant ‘schools’ of comics studies seems likely. There is, though, increasing availability of, and ease of access to, source material and institutional support for those working in the field. The first academic journal devoted to comics studies, Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies (1994-7), was of great significance to the field, only to disappear after three years, leaving a void not filled until 1999 by John Lent‘s The International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA), notable for its proactive internationalism. In 2004, Donald Ault inaugurated ImageTexT, an e-journal for comics and animation studies that places an emphasis on theoretical reflection on and intervention into the field, as the necessary means of producing rigorous analysis from a multidisciplinary base. In 2002 M. Todd Hignite‘s Comic Art emerged as a serious trade publication that welcomed academic input. The other serious trade magazine, Gary Groth‘s The Comics Journal (1977-present) has, unfortunately, traditionally been skeptical of academics and academic writing.

University libraries are expanding their holdings in comics, particularly Michigan State University, whose collection of comics may exceed that of the Library of Congress. Bowling Green State University and the University of California, Riverside also have large collections. Masters and doctoral tracks in Comics Studies have been introduced at the University of Florida (UF), and the library there is expanding its holdings in comics. The University of Mississippi Press is putting out a series of interview books with notable comics creators and animators, including Robert Crumb, Carl Barks, Charles M. Schulz and Milton Caniff. Forums for comics scholarship are well established: the Comics Arts Conference at the San Diego Comic-Con has been going since 1992 and the International Comics Art Fest since 1996. The UF Conference on Comics is fifteen years old and the Pop Culture Association/ American Culture Association has an Area Chair for Comics.

Increasingly specialized works are being put out by popular presses, including Patrick Rosencranz‘s definitive work on the Underground Comics Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975 (2002) and Trina Robbins‘s books on many aspects of women and comics, including most recently, The Great Women Cartoonists (2001). Academic publications are likewise becoming more focused, as with Jeffrey A. Brown‘s press-specific look at race in comics: Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and their Fans (2001). In recent years there has also been a steady growth in the market for ‘alternative’ comics, `zines’, mini-comics and graphic novels, against a continued decline in sales of `mainstream’ comics. Charles Hatfield‘s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005) describes these phenomena and links alternative comics to the underground comix, while Daniel Raeburn‘s Chris Ware (2004) takes a fine-art approach to Ware’s comics, design and objects d’art. As a field, Comics Studies has grown to embrace galley exhibitions and counter-culture(s), art history, cultural studies and the gap between old and new media. Thus, both in the university and beyond, comics studies has developed, often despite prejudice and in unexpected ways, and shows every sign of continuing to do so.

Sourcce: Modern North American Criticism and Theory A Critical Guide Edited by Julian Wolfreys Edinburgh University Press 2002

Further reading and works cited
Barker, M. A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. Jackson, MS,1984.
Brown, J. A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and their Fans. Jackson, MS, 2001.
Carrier, D. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park, PA, 2000.
Cohn, N. Early Writings on Visual Language. Carlsbad, CA, 2003.
Dowd, D. B. and Hignite, M. T. (eds) The Rubber Frame: Essays in Culture and Comics. St Louis, MI, 2004.
Eisner, W. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarack, FL, 1985.
Ð. Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Tamarack, FL, 1996.
ÐÐ. A Contract with God. Tamarack, FL, 1979.
Fingeroth, D. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and our Society. New York, 2004.
Gordon, I. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890±1945. Washington, DC, 1998.
Groth, G. and Fiore, R. (eds) The New Comics. New York, 1988.
Hatfield, C. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson, 2005.
Harvey, R. C. The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History. Jackson, MS, 1994.
Ð. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. Jackson, MS, 1996.
Heer, J. and Worcester, K. (eds) Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. Jackson, MS, 2004.
Herdeg, W. and Pascal, D. (eds) Comics: The Art of The Comic Strip. Zurich, 1972.
Jones, G. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York, 2004.
Klock, G. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York, 2002.
Kunzle, D. The Early Comic Strip: Picture Stories and Narrative Strips in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825. Berkeley, CA, 1973.
Ð. The History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, CA, 1990.
Juno, A. (ed.) Dangerous Drawings: Interviews with Comix and Graphix Artists. New York, 1997.
McAllister, M. P. et al. (eds) Comics and Ideology. New York, 2001.
McCloud, S. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA, 1993.
Ð. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form. New York, 2000.
Nyeberg, A. K. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson, MS, 1998.
Phelps, D. Reading the Funnies. Seattle, WA, 2001.
Raeburn, D. Chris Ware. New Haven, CT, 2004.
Robbins, T. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton, MA, 1996.
Ð. From Girls to Grrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines.
San Francisco, 1999.
Ð. The Great Women Cartoonists. New York, 2001.
Rosenkranz, P. Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963±1975. Seattle, 2002.
Sabin, R. Adult Comics: An Introduction. New York, 1993.
Ð. Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels. New York, 1996.
Schutz, D. and Kitchen, D. (eds) Will Eisner’s Shop Talk. Milwaukie, OR, 2001.
Thomas, I. M. Comics as Culture. Jackson, MS, 2000.
Varnum, R. and Gibbons, C. T. (eds) The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson, MS, 2001.
Wertham, F. Seduction of the Innocent. New York, 1954.
Wiater, S. and Bissette, S. R. (eds) Comic Book Rebels: Conversations with the Creators of the New Comics. New York, 1993.
Wright, B. D. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore, MD, 2001.

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Categories: Comic Studies, Cultural Studies

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