Novelty Novels: A Guide To Comic Books

For the majority of their history, comic books were geared toward children. Things got bad, the good guy found out, the good guy almost lost, the good guy won. End of story. Since the mid-1980s, however, during what is considered the modern age of comics, there has been a shift. Comic books are no longer solely made for children, but are more complex, darker, appealing to both adult and teenage readers, and even gaining some scholarly recognition in the process. With movie-making technology finally able to handle the artistic demands of a comic book adaptation, there has been a renewed interest in the art of the comic. With their new-found status, comics are becoming “graphic novels,” which is partly an effort by publishing agencies to distance themselves from what many consider an important yet juvenile-centered past, and partly a distinction between longer or collected works and newsstand comics, enough of which could be collected into a more durable graphic novel.



While the modern superhero-centered comic book which has gained so much popularity in the past decade is considered a very American invention, comic books as an art form originate in Europe. In fact, it is believed that Rudolph Topffer of Switzerland created the first comic book (and another seven graphic novels) in 1837. The work was entitled The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck and was published by the author. The comic would not make its way to America until 1842.

It was not until twenty-three years later, in 1865 that another comic book would gain notoriety. Max und Moritz, a German work by the poet and artist Wilhelm Busch, was published that year. The story eventually became so famous it is still to this day read by many German parents to their children. In essence, Max und Moritz is like the American Mother Goose, with the same
level of lighthearted morbidity.

The previous two examples of early comic books would look somewhat odd to the modern comic reader, however, because of the absence of a device we have come to expect in the genre: the word balloon. Until this time, the stories in comic books were told underneath the pictures, making them little more than what we see today in children’s story books. What separated them from traditional storybooks, though, was the fact that the stories were told in multiple frames per page. The Yellow Kid, a lead character in Hogan’s Alley, an 1865 creation of Richard F. Outcault, appeared as a comic strip in New York World. Other than introducing the word bubble, The Yellow Kid is also one of the first examples of a comic having cultural impact, as The Yellow Kid could be found on billboards throughout New York City, as well as on packs of cigarettes, cigars, matchbooks, and many other products.

The Start of Something Different

While these were very early examples of comic books, they would probably not be considered comic books today. Comic books as they are seen today did not really hit the publishing scene until 1928, when a comic strip syndicator by the name of John Flint Dille bought the rights to a story he read in a popular American magazine, All-Story, entitled Armageddon 2419 A.D.. He then hired artist Richard Calkins to illustrate it into a comic strip. The story was then renamed Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. and comic art history was made. Buck Rogers was an immediate commercial success and was followed soon thereafter by Tarzan.
The next innovation in comics came with the introduction of Dick Tracy in October, 1931. The villains in this strip were often so outlandish they could not help but stay in the mind for their sheer uniqueness. The Brow, Mole, The Pouch, and others had both a personal and physical distinctiveness that they are today recognized as the forefathers to the later super villains in superhero comics.

The First Comic Book

The idea for the first comic book did not come from an artist or writer, as one might expect, but from a publisher looking to make some money between jobs. Instead of letting their expensive equipment sit dormant when there was not any work to be done, they made the decision to repackage old comic strips into a book. Not knowing if there would be a market for this kind of publication, they gave the book out for free and, finding it popular, quickly released more, which brought the attention of other publishers. Soon, comic books full of original content were being produced and sold for ten cents apiece, a substantial amount of money for a product of that type.

The Birth of a Genre

In 1938, with comic books as collections of often poorly written and badly drawn strips were old news, and Harry Donenfeld of National Periodicals was looking for a new feature for the first issue of Action Comics. Luckily, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had written an episode of “The Superman of Metropolis” six years earlier and were having trouble selling the idea of a superhuman as a main character to publishers. Donenfeld jumped on the idea, and Superman was born.

Superhero comics continue to the present in popularity, though it is doubtful they will ever again reach their peak of the 1930s. At one point, Captain Marvel was selling over two million copies a month. Once World War II began the characters adapted, fighting Nazis on a monthly basis, doing their part for the war effort.

Meanwhile, comics, especially superhero comics, were reaching what in retrospect was called their Golden Age. After the arrival and success of Superman, DC Comics introduced Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash and more. Timely Comics, the original company of what would become Marvel Comics, introduced Captain America and The Human Torch, among others. 

As it turned out, World War II was one of the best things to happen to the comic book industry, as comics were cheap, easy to read stories about good triumphing over evil. The axis powers stood no chance against heroes like Captain America, and boys and girls alike could imagine their fathers off at war, being the hero they read about. Comic book heroes quickly became symbols of greater things, and marketable symbols at that.  

After the war, the superhero genre began to fall off, replaced by comic books about animals (Disney) for a time, until eventually they were replaced in popularity by crime comics. This genre is famous even today for the depictions portrayed on their covers. These gruesome, ultra-violent pictures sold copies by the hundreds of thousands and would today be considered gruesome even to the jaded American public. A woman having her head shoved onto a hot cook-top, another about to be cleaved while in the company of her murderer and the seven men hanging from a tree behind him, these were the pictures comic fans saw on a daily basis.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age of Comics was followed by what is referred to as the Silver Age, encompassing the years between the early 1950s and early 1970s. This period of time was shaped in large part due to the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a regulatory committee designed to oversee the content in magazines, as there were some supposed links between the violence portrayed in comic books and juvenile delinquency. 

With a crackdown on the types of violence portrayed in the crime and horror comics which had effectively replaced in terms of sales the superhero comics, publishers once again pushed superhero comics to their customers, as these stories were, though universally violent, sending a different message than the crime and horror comics. 

DC and Marvel released issues debuting The Flash and The Fantastic Four respectively, while underground comics came into being as a movement against the CCA. In fact, what the underground comics, with their most famous creator being Robert Crumb, sought to do was chronicle the counter-culture movement. These publications were not produced in color or on glossy paper like the mainstream comics, but in black and white, much in the style of the zine, a type of publication made popular by the punk rock movement.

The Bronze Age

From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the bronze age of comics made the contribution of more mature story lines, usually dealing with contemporary issues such as drug abuse and alcoholism. This period was something of a passing of the torch. Many of the men who created the modern comics, who were young in the 1930s and 40s, were retiring, replaced by a generation who wanted to relate more to the characters they read. It was too much to have Superman so close to deification, and so his powers were brought from infinite down to a more manageable amount. It was also during this time that the “power couple” of comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, parted ways.

The Modern Age

Finally, we come to the present, which is to say we come to a time in the history of comics that started a quarter century ago. It was during this time that iconic characters began to be reimagined. They were darker, grittier, more complex characters, often setting out to fix a dystopian world. Prime examples of this are The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen

Comics began during this time to become more varied, with fantasy (Sandman), horror (Swamp Thing), sophisticated suspense (Y: The Last Man) and a more reality-based variety of comic best exemplified by Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Reboots were also common, and the rise of the trade paperback in comics, which are collections of episodes of a particular comic and are read is graphic novels, caused writers to write less episodically, knowing that a trade paperback meant more sales. 

A History of Art Comics
National Association of Comics Arts Educators
History of Marvel Comics
Further History of Comic Book Censorship
History and Facts About Graphic Novels
Graphic Novels in the Classroom
Embracing Diversity Through Graphic Novels
The Comic Book Code of 1954
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Important People

Of course, all of the above is difficult to remember when trying to inform someone as to the origins and history of comics, and so below is a list and description of some of the most important people in the development of comics.

-        Rudolph Topffer – While The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck may be hardly recognizable as a comic book given today’s standards, Topffer was the man who started the entire movement.

-        Wilhelm Busch – A German poet and illustrator who took Topffer’s idea and continued with it. Many of the poems he set to story frames are still taught today in Germany.

-        Richard F. Outcault – Introduced the word balloon in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley starring The Yellow Kid, who is one of the first successfully marketed characters to come out of a comic.

-        John Flint Dille – Bought the rights to Armageddon 2419 A.D, a comic which would eventually become Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D.. 

-        Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster – Creators of Superman.

-        Harry Donenfeld – Publisher at National Periodicals who published Superman’s first appearance in the first issue of Action Comics

-        Stan Lee – Along with and without Jack Kirby, Lee created such famous comic book characters as Spider Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, and Doctor Strange. He is credited with revamping and ultimately saving Marvel Comics, and is one of the major figures in the recent resurgence of interest in comic books due to the hugely successful movie adaptations of his characters. 

Comic Book Artist’s Guild
Graphic Novels Resources

Important Publishers

Comic books would be nothing more than strips in the newspaper without the idea to collect them into books. Here are some of the most important publishers in comic book history.

-        DC Comics – Originally National Allied Publications (which published the first modern comic book in the 1930s) DC Comics would become one of the top two comic book publishers ever. Their highest grossing comics include Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

-        Marvel Publishing Inc. – Originally founded as Timely Comics, Marvel Publishing Inc. is arguably the most successful comic book publishing company in the world. With characters like Spiderman, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, and The Hulk, they show no signs of slowing down.

-        Vertigo Comics – While admittedly Vertigo is an imprint of DC Comics, they deserve mention here because they provide the most consistent alternative to the conventional superhero comic. Y: The Last Man, 100 Bullets, V for Vendetta, and Sandman are among their most successful products to date.

Comic Book Conventions

Comic book conventions are large meetings of comic book fans where readers can go to view comic book history and future, talk about their favorite works with other comic book fans, and perhaps meet some of their favorite writers and illustrators. 

-        Comic-Con – By far the most famous comic book convention, over 125 thousand people attend this conference a year.

-        Florida Super-Con – Another huge event, this one encompassing more than just comics. Video games, anime, science fiction and more are celebrated at Florida Super-Con

- – A virtual comic book convention, is the only of its kind. Go t?here for information on physical conventions, comic book news, and more.

Valuable Comics

 Though comic books have always been inexpensive upon release, various factors, such as rarity and cultural influence can take a ten cent comic book and, under the right conditions, make it a meal ticket. Here is a list of the top five most valuable comics in the world.

-        Detective Comics #1 - $405,000 – The first in a series which would go on to feature Batman and Superman.

-        All-American Comics #16 - $430,000 – The first ever appearance of The Green Lantern.

-        Superman #1 - $671,000 – The first comic dedicated to the character of Superman.

-        Detective Comics #27 - $1,380,000 – The debut of Batman.

-        Action Comics #1 - $1,500,000 – The holy grail of comic books, this is the debut of Superman and the dawn of the modern comic book era.

Comic Book Grading and Values


Over the past decade, comic book movies have become the norm at the box office. They rake in huge returns, and there are various reasons for this. Take, for example, The Dark Knight Returns. This film, the sequel to Batman Begins, is largely considered the best example of what a comic book movie can be, and it saw people flock to the theaters to watch it. This is largely as a result of the modern age of comics, which has sought to make comics darker, more real. This humbling of superheroes has made them more relatable and as a result, more people find they can root for the character. Also, cinematic technology has advanced enough to really handle the artistic demands of comic book adaptations. Anything is possible on screen, which has been true for decades, but what separates modern comic adaptations from past attempts is the fact that these possibilities no longer look fake or silly.

Is Hollywood Getting it Wrong?

Collecting: Getting Started

The best way to get started collecting something which has such a large and dedicated fan base around the world is to immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible. Read as many comics as you can and get to know the characters. This will help you decide what type of comic book collecting you want to do. If you relate strongly to one character, you may want to collect as many copies of that character’s appearances as you can, and the fact that you will not necessarily be hunting down rare, expensive copies of this or that publication will not bother you. If, on the other hand, you want to make a significant return on investment and find those rare copies, it is only through knowledge of that which you are trying to collect, along with the building and maintenance of various networks within comic book culture that you will be able to find such treasures.

Recommended Reading

The Comic Book Periodic Table of Elements
Comic Book Internet Resources
Fantastic Reading: Comic Books and Popular Culture
Great Graphic Novels for Teens
Teaching the Graphic Novel
Writer’s Intro to Graphic Novels
Graphic Novels for Kids
Graphic Novel Guide for Librarians
Stanford Graphic Novel Project
Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel
Graphic Novel News and Reviews
Comics Research
Yale Comic Books, Strips, and Graphic Novel Resources
The Comics Journal
International Journal of Comic Art
Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics

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