A Brief History of the Graphic Novel
by Stan Tychinski
Since the days of prehistoric man, people have been telling stories by using pictures instead of prose. From the cave paintings of the Cro-Magnon Men to the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians, graphic storytelling has been used as a popular means for communicating thoughts and ideas.
In most early civilizations (and well into the current century) the majority of the world’s population was illiterate. Reading was a luxury reserved for the well to do. Instead of written announcements, in many cases drawings and cartoons were used as a simple way to convey ideas or sentiments to the working class populace. As the world entered the Industrial Age and people began using machines to do tasks quickly & more efficiently, these working class people suddenly had more leisure time… time that was spent looking for entertainment. As more folks began reading for entertainment, the daily or weekly periodicals began to appear, many of them jokebooks or humor publications. Humor was an effective way to address social ills or political agendas. One of the best examples of this type of publication is POOR RICHARD’S ALMANAC, printed in 1732 by Benjamin Franklin. In it, Franklin used satirical cartoons to advance the cause of American Revolution. Political cartoons have been an important part of newspaper publishing ever since.
Another popular form of entertainment periodical was the Dime Novel Magazine, an early form of today’s paperback book. These were usually illustrated, and most involved a sensational adventure or mystery. Many were set in the American Wild West, and they help popularize men like Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill. Dime novels were also known as “penny dreadfuls.”
In 1842, the first major graphic novel was published in the United States. THE ADVENTURES OF OBADIAH OLDBUCK by humorist Rodolphe Toffler, it originally appeared as a serial in a weekly humor magazine called Brother Jonathan. It concerned the misadventures of a young man and his “lady-louve”, using captioned cartoons arranged in tiered or strip like fashion. THE YELLOW KID appeared in 1895, and quickly became the first successfully merchandised comic strip character. Created by Richard Outcault, The Yellow Kid was so popular that the strip’s presence actually increased newspaper sales. In 1897, the Hearst Syndicate released the first collected edition of Yellow Kid cartoons in book form. This best selling collection could be considered the very first financially successful graphic novel. Other companies also started using popular comic characters to promote their products. In 1903 Sears & Roebuck distributed a promotional comic starring Buster Brown (also by Outcault), the first nationally distributed comic book.
A few book publishers (notably Cupples & Leon) began collecting popular daily comic strips such as Bringing Up Father by George McManus & Tillie the Toiler by Russ Westover into softcover “album” form. These series were published regularly from around 1915 through the mid 1930S and were very successful. Other companies such as Whitman published actual prose novels based on comic strip characters such as Little Orphan Annie, Smilin’ Jack, and Blondie, among others.
A popular form of entertainment periodical began to appear in the United States after WW1…the Pulp magazine novels. Named as such for the cheap pulp paper they were printed on, they usually featured adventure stories aimed at male readers, with topics such as war stories, westerns, and science fiction. Many popular pulp heroes such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider were spun off into popular radio series (& vice-versa). Most pulps had spectacular covers and illustrations throughout.
As publishers began to look for new genres and ways to expand their readership, they hit upon reprinting the daily newspaper strips, many of which featured serialized adventure stories.
In 1933, M.C. Gaines created the first comic book, called NEW FUNNIES, which reprinted daily comic strips. Later that year, a company called Humor Publications printed the first all original comic book, DETECTIVE DAN.
And in 1938, everything exploded with the publication of ACTION COMICS #1 and its star, a guy named Superman!
Superman and his fellow “mystery-men” paved the way for the comic book’s Golden Age, and a vast array of costumed heroes, detectives, cowboys, and the like flooded the newsstands. During the 1940’s comic books sold millions of copies, and to readers of all ages, including many adults.
Comics were especially popular with soldiers. The paperback book debuted around this period, selling wellbecause they were portable & inexpensive .There was a few attempts to crossover comic books into the more popular paperback format: Among them notably IT RHYMES WITH LUST, by Arnold Drake and Matt Baker…considered by many to be the first popularly printed graphic novel. This book is now a very rare and very sought after collector’s item.
However, in the mid-1950s, the comic book scene changed dramatically. The new medium of television was attracting the attention of the general public. Publication of Frederic Wertham’s book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT led to a growing social concern over the content of horror and crime comics aimed at childeren. With parental concerns over such lurid content increasing, sales began to drop. In an effort to control this decline, publishers began to offer a more acceptable, if somewhat bland, type of comic. Western and TV stars became the popular subjects, and the Comics Code was instituted to appease the parental complaints of violence and sensationalism. The Code, a self-imposed regulating device, eventually led to the stagnation of comic books here in the United States as publishers bounced from genre to genre, always looking for the next big trend. Comic books in America became increasingly known as children’s fare starring cartoon characters and buffoonish super-heroes, particulaly after the Batman TV series debuted in 1966.
But in many other countries, comics were marketed on different levels for different readership groups. In Japan, Manga comics appeared, first as individual issues, then as wholly created album type comic books. Manga is distinguished as being published in multiple genres, each aimed at a specific age or type of reader. Manga would become a major graphic novel genre in the late 1990s here in America, eventually becoming one of the biggest, if not THE biggest sections of the graphic novel trade. Most major bookstores now carry a very large Manga section.
The concept of album style graphic novels also became popular in other countries, France & Germany in particular. In 1930 a Belgian artist named Herge created an adventure story of a boy and his dog, Tintin. The first graphic album, TINTIN IN THE LAND OF THE SOVIETS was a major success and eventually Herge produced 24 Tintin albums, up until his passing in the late 1980s. Tintin is still being published in over 29 languages. Other major Belgian graphic novel series include ASTERIX THE GAUL by Goscinny and Uderzo (starting in 1961 with 37 albums to date in 30 countries) and Peyo’s THE SMURFS, arguably one of the most successful comic album series of all time.
Back in the United States, underground comics began to appear in the mid-sixties. Undergrounds were self- published comics that did not conform to the restrictions of the Comics Code. Although many underground comics dealt with sexual themes and drug related culture, many used satire to comment on political and social issues of the times such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.
During the late 1970s and early 80s, a new factor entered the picture. The changing face of retailing, such as the advent of malls and mass merchandisers, were eliminating the local mom-and-pop corner store retailers, a major outlet for comic book rack sales. Comic publishers began to sell to the direct market, stores that sold mainly comic books and related merchandise. This direct market opened up the way for creators to do comics and albums using specific themes and target audiences, similar to what the overseas market had been creating for years. Creator’s rights, such as character ownership and profit sharing, became an issue between the publishers and the creators. Most comics were created under a work-for-hire clause, but that would soon change as creator’s demanded more control over their creations, as well as a cut of the profits from sales.
In 1978, Marvel Comics produced the first original mass-market trade paperback graphic novel, THE SILVER SURFER, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee and Kirby were paid standard rates for their work, but Marvel reaped all the profit. Later that year, Eclipse Comics released SABRE by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. Sabre, a science-fiction adventure story, was the first graphic novel that granted full copyright ownership and sales royalties to its creators. Other major creator graphic novels also released around this time were A CONTRACT WITH GOD by Will Eisner (the first creator owned and published graphic novel) and ELFQUEST by Wendy and Richard Pini (the first creator owned series to receive mass market distribution in mainstream bookstores).
1985 saw the release of DC Comics’ THE WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen was notable as being the first collected series graphic novel, spinning out of a new comics vehicle called the limited series, which were designed to only last a finite number of issues. This limited series concept would prove to be a major factor in today’s collected series graphic novels. WATCHMEN remains one of the most best-selling graphic novels of all time, continuing to make top ten sales lists over 20 years later.
Meanwhile, many of the artists from the underground comics were becoming involved in self-publishing graphic novels. Art Spiegleman, whose work first appeared in ‘Raw’, released MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE. MAUS, the biographical story of Spiegleman’s parents in World War 2 during the Holocaust, was nominated for several literary awards, and in 1992 received a special Pulitzer Prize.
Arguably the most successful graphic novel series in the United States so far has been Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series, published by DC Comics under their Vertigo imprint. Collecting the original comic book series into book form, there are currently 10 volumes with estimated sales of over one million copies.
An odd twist concerning graphic novels involves American creations who have had limited success here in the States, but enjoy enormous popularity overseas. A great example of this is the Phantom. While still done as a continuing daily strip in American papers, he is extremely popular in graphic novel form throughout Europe and Australia. By far the most popular graphic album series of all time features the characters of Walt Disney. Although Disney comics have been sporadically published in the United States since the late 70s, they have been in constant publication all over the world, usually in graphic novel form not comic books. Currently Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Uncle Scrooge albums are printed in over 90 languages worldwide.
Today, graphic novels are an increasingly important part of comic book publishing. Along with a growing US market for import books like Manga, traditional bookstores and libraries are carrying larger selections of graphic novels. With an ever-shrinking base of direct comic shops to sell from, publishers are finding that packaged collections (trade paperbacks) are very appealing to mainstream bookstores & libraries. Comic readers now “wait for the trade”, because many of today’s comics are produced in “story-arcs”, basically limited series within the actual comic series’ run. Many of these arcs are produced by big-name industry writers & artists, anxious to do a story about Batman or Spiderman, but unable to commit long-term to any given series. These “made-for-trade” five or six issue runs are usually collected into book form very soon after the final issue is released, and many of the trades feature expanded story or bonus features, similar to DVD packaging.
The success of such films as Spiderman & X-Men has led to Hollywood movie studios seeking out other comic related material. Films such as 300, V FOR VENDETTA, and soon WATCHMEN, all based on original comics & graphic novel series, have favorably increased the general public’s awareness and opinion of comic books here in the United States. Other non-mainstream creators such as Dan Clowes (Ghost World) and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) have seen their graphic novels turned into critically acclaimed motion pictures. As current media interest continues to focus on comic books and related series, the popularity of the graphic novel will continue to grow. The time has come for graphic novels to take their place as valid literature in the United States, as they have been for years in the rest of the world.