A Little Bit of Comics History

I didn’t come to comics by way of superheroes or films. I didn’t read them as a child. I had never even held a comic book in my hands until 2014, when I heard about Ms. Marvel and Lumberjanes through a friend on social media. I picked up my first issue of LJ (a variant cover!) at Motor City Comic Con in 2014, and started reading Ms. Marvel not long after that. Somewhere along the way I had understood comics to be a boy’s world, and so it was exciting to discover there were comics that had women front and center. Since then, I’ve become a regular reader of Saga and Bitch Planet in addition to LJ (though I’ve stopped following Ms. Marvel as closely), and my bookshelves include a number of graphic novels as well (mostly nonfiction).

I had read graphic novels and manga before I started reading comics, but honestly, comics were a harder genre for me to navigate as a new reader – my graphic novel and manga experience prepared me to read the panels, but the entire comic book world was unfamiliar territory. Marvel Universe was a phenomenon I couldn’t find a point of entry to. Same with DC Comics. On top of that, women in comics have historically been portrayed as sex objects, which is a huge issue for me. I had no interest in picking up something displaying a scantily-clad woman with large breasts on its cover (no matter how much I might appreciate the female body). I wanted to read about strong, smart women who didn’t exist solely for the purposes of male pleasure – and those series do exist, if you’re willing to do some digging (and fortunately, there is less digging to be done now that female-friendly comics have become more established in the culture). I do still feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I peruse the shelves at Green Brain Comics here in Dearborn, because there are so many titles. Comic book aficionados know the creators, the big names in the industry, the canon and its criticism, and that can be (okay, it is) very intimidating.

In April 2016, Dan Merritt from Green Brain gave a talk at the Dearborn Public Library on the history of comics. It was a small but fascinating discussion that helped me understand how comics became what they are now. As someone who still has major reservations when it comes to superhero comics, I do feel like an outsider, and maybe I always will. I’m okay with that. I value the history of comics, though, in that it helps me understand the larger context that the literature I do read is a part of.

Comics, traditionally, were seen as young people’s territory. This is partly because we associate pictorial representations with children (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), and because we’ve created a system in which literacy (in this case, the ability to read and write) is a marker of intelligence and status, therefore pictures are for those who are less smart (this is explained in further detail by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics). Comics were, for a long time, regulated by the Comics Code Authority, which limited depictions of violence and graphic imagery believed to be harmful to children. Keep in mind that this was the 1950’s, and what was considered “appropriate” for children was also racially charged (ie: people of color were rarely seen, and could never be portrayed as heroes).

The underground comics (comix) scene developed in response to such regulations. Comics that defied the CCA were published and circulated in underground networks. Mainstream comics were still very much present, though the Code was revised to include lessons of morality; in other words, comics were seen as potential teaching tool, still for an audience of adolescents. Marvel and DC generally followed the CCA; in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a three-part Spiderman story was released in partnership with the U.S. Dept of Health that explicitly portrayed drug use as dangerous. The CCA remained through the 1980’s, though its influence waned as it relaxed, and comics aimed at adult readers became more popular. Marvel and DC currently use their own ratings system to designate appropriate age groups for what they publish.

The Comic Books Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now owns the CCA seal, which serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on comic book creators. The seal was acquired during Banned Books Week:

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “As we reflect upon the challenges facing intellectual freedom during Banned Books Week, the Comics Code Seal is a reminder that it’s possible for an entire creative field to have those rights curtailed because of government, public, and market pressures. Fortunately, today comics are no longer constrained as they were in the days of the Code, but that’s not something we can take for granted. Banned Books Week reminds us that challenges to free speech still occur, and we must always be vigilant in fighting them.”

If you were to walk into your local comic book store today, you may find a designated children’s section, but that section would be just a fraction of what is available for an adult audience. Traditionally, comics have focused on horror, sci-fi/fantasy, and the supernatural, and this is generally still true today though some stories have become darker and others have become more playful. High artistic standards have elevated comics as a recognized form of literature by readers and scholars alike, and film adaptations have brought comics to new audiences. Creators have also regained creative control, and independent publishers like Image (a spin-off of Marvel) formed to honor creator-owned work. There has also been a strong push for more diversity in comics, though one major issue there is with the readership: people who have historically been excluded from comics storylines aren’t likely to know that anything has changed unless they are explicitly, humbly, and kindly invited back to the table.

So where do graphic novels fit in? Graphic novels are essentially book-length comics with more sophisticated and varied content, according to the ALA. While I don’t love the ALA’s language (graphic novels are more “grown up?”), the sentiment may be true: graphic novels are more literary and “cultured:” they deal with subject matter that moves more slowly (compared to the action of comics) and is more intellectually complex. That doesn’t mean it’s “better” or that people who read comics are dumb, graphic novels just do something different; the genre features serve a purpose. The memoir is a common theme in contemporary graphic novels. Blankets is a good example of this, as are both of Alison Bechdel’s books.

I hope I’ve done comics justice here; again, as an outsider working her way in, I don’t always feel confident sharing backstory, because I may not fully understand it. However, the internet makes a lot of information freely available (much love, Wikipedia!), and people care enough to make sure that information is accurate and detailed (thanks to those who wrote, revised, and provided footnotes!). I’ve also picked up some new books to read, including Watchmen by Alan Moore, considered to be one of the key works that brought comics to mainstream readers. I have Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, and Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature on my to-read list this semester as well.

Below are some links to check out:

Much of this post was adapted from the Comics Code Authority Wikipedia page.

We Need Diverse Comics on Facebook

Women Don’t Read Comics (this one has a video *and* the article is a transcript of the video, hooray for accessibility!)

American Splendor is a book and film about Cleveland-based Harvey Pekar, one of the big names in underground comix.

ComiqueCon, a celebration of women in comics, is an event held annually in Dearborn at the Arab American National Museum!

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