[Outside the Frame] A Brief History of Independent Comics in the United States, Part 1
When I started this column I talked a little about what independent comics were, but not how we got here. Presently there are two major “mainstream” comics publishers in the United States: DC and Marvel. DC also produces comics under the Vertigo imprint. There are a handful of other large publishers, also working in the superhero genre, who are considered mainstream for a combination of size and content (though some of their titles are “creator owned”): Dark Horse, Image, Valiant, and so on. It wasn’t always this way.
Before there was the independent comics of today, there were the alternative comics of the 1970s and 80s. Before that, we had underground comix, bringing all of the sex and drugs and violence the Comics Code Authority (formed in 1954) banned from mainstream comics. Before that was twenty years of transition from comic strips to comic books to angry parents and preachers burning comic books in defiance of their wicked depictions.
We call that the Golden Age of comics.
What led up to that time is sometimes called the Platinum Age: when comic strip art, the three and four panel sequential art that we can all recognize now, started to be collected into books instead of being published one strip at a time, in newspapers and magazines.
The first comic books were hardcover collections of newspaper comic strips, with the first English-language example appearing in New York in 1842*. In 1897 we first see “comic book” actually printed on one of these collections – The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats, which reprinted strips from Richard F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley. This is the book that most historians agree begins the Platinum Age. Other collections soon followed, but each, like the 1899 collection of reprints from Puck Magazine (Funny Folks) or Hearst’s The Blackberries (the first full-color comics, published in 1901), were assembled from a single paper or magazine’s pool of artists.
Reporting services like Newspaper Enterprise Association, based in Cleveland, Ohio, offered feature articles, pictures, and comic strips to various newspapers at the beginning of the 1900s. When they published reprint books, they could collect several different artists, which inspired 1922’s Comics Monthly (a reprint book which was the first monthly comics periodical in the US) and saw Dell Publishing‘s The Funnies in 1929, a 16 page newspaper insert which wasn’t quite a true comic book, but did offer all-original material.
Comic books, the way we know them today, were almost here.
The first comic book of original material sold on the newsstands was 1933’s Detective Dan, Secret Op. 48, sold by Humor Publishers Corp. for 10 cents. He didn’t last but he inspired others to get into comics. A salesman named Harry I. Wildenberg realized you could sell advertising in the books, and give comics away, making money from the ad sales. He tried it out on Gulf gas stations and the four-page starter comic flew out the door so quickly that Gulf began ordering 3 million copies a week. That year saw Wildenberg develop Funnies on Parade, notable because it used the size we use today. Still meant as a giveway (it came with coupons for Proctor & Gamble products) it took one of Wildenberg’s salesmen to convince him that people would actually spend money to buy comics.
M.C. Gaines slapped “10 cent” stickers on a handful of comic books, dropped them off at newsstand explaining that it was a test run – if the books sold, the newsstands could pay him then. He wanted to prove a point to Wildenberg, and that method of “here, take my comics, pay me when they sell” is how many micro-publishers get their books into comic shops today. They sold, of course, with customers begging for more, and the comic book as an actual thing you could buy, with original material, separate from coupons and newspapers, was born.
National Allied Publications was founded in 1934 to publish comics with all original material. New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1 was a huge, tabloid-sized (11″x17″), endeavour, and the publishers quickly moved toward a smaller book. Their second title, 1935’s New Comics #1, was only slightly larger than today’s books. New Comics would eventually become Action Comics, but not before one other important title was introduced: 1936’s Detective Comics.
Heroic figures like Flash Gordon were already a part of comic strips, and the comic book format allowed companies to print a larger story, hook in more readers, and charge for the comics themselves – which kids would buy – instead of a newspaper. Action Comics #1, published April 18, 1938 (cover-dated to June 1938), introduced Superman to the world, and the success of that character (along with Batman, who appeared in Detective Comics #27, May 1939) led other companies to create their own superheroes.
The Golden Age of comics had arrived.
Though the rush toward mainstream comics seemed inevitable, indie comics were right alongside the fledgling publishers the whole time. Superman, that invincible, iconic hero, first appeared in a fanzine in 1933.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman’s creators, played around with the concept and art for six years while looking for a traditional publisher, and while Superman evolved from that first appearance, he got his start as an indie comic book character.
See, there have always been comics outside of the norm. We’ve just changed what we consider to be the inside.
Next week: A Brief History of Independent Comics in the United States, Part 2.
* The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which was popular in Europe and published in multiple languages there, before being imported to Britain in English in 1841. We got it a year later, and since it was actually printed in NY, it’s considered our first comic book.
Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
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