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PROLOGUEIn 1992, Malibu Graphics offered me the opportunity to write the History of Comic Books. It was great fun working with Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich and Scott Rosenberg as they were always encouraging and they were always tossing interesting assignments my way. The restrictions were that it had to be a twelve part series and that each installment had to be just long enough to cover one printed page usually the inside back cover of the comic books they were printing.
Malibu Graphics did not pay much for this writing, certainly not enough to cover research time let alone the writing time, but they did pay something and even better they allowed me to retain the copyright of everything I wrote for them. So digging through my files, I ran across this series and thought the readers of JIMHILLMEDIA might enjoy this "Cliff Notes" version of the History of Comics. For publication here, I did do some revisions, correcting some information and adding some additional material but tried to keep to the original concept.
I had to make some hard decisions on what to include and what to exclude. I couldn't include all the great stories I knew about why certain things happened in the comics world and certain things that didn't interest me personally needed to be included because of their historical significance. I had to make sure the history was accessible to those people who had little or no knowledge of comic books but also interesting enough for comic fans like myself who had an obsessive interest in comic history.
In the Beginning ...Veteran newspaper cartoonist Coulton Waugh wrote about comic books in 1947 that "it doesn't seem possible that anything so raw, so purely ugly, should be so important. Comic books are ugly; it is hard to find anything to admire about their appearance. The paper-it's like using sand in cooking. And the drawing: it's true that these artists are capable in a certain sense; the figures are usually well located in depth, they get across action... but there is a soulless emptiness to them, an outrageous vulgarity; and if you do find some that seem, at least funny and gay, there's the color... which screams, shrieks with the strongest discord... yet the people who object to these things are always adults. While they are busy frowning, the kids are busy reading the comic books."
Waugh, like most newspaper cartoonists, regarded the early comic books as merely a bastardized version of the more respectable newspaper strips and, in fact, the earliest comic books were merely reprints of popular strips of the time.
Richard Outcault's "Yellow Kid" arguably the first American continuing comic character in a newspaper, debuted in 1896 and was so popular that a collection of his comic appearances were collected in a magazine the following year. It was the first published collection of an American comic strip and within a dozen years over seventy hardcover collections of newspaper strips were released. These collections featured such cartoon stars as Buster Brown and Little Nemo.
In 1911, the promotion manager of the Chicago American, Calvin Harris, thought it would be a great circulation stunt to offer a book of "Mutt and Jeff" strip reprints to the public for six coupons plus a few cents additional charge. He ordered 10,000 copies and was promptly fired shortly before the final coupon appeared in print because the newspaper felt that Harris had over ordered. When over 450,000 orders came in almost immediately and the newspaper found it had made a profit of approximately $6,000, Harris was rehired a higher salary.
Yet this indication of the public's desire for books of comics didn't spark any major action from any publisher. For the next two decades, a variety of publications experimented with different formats and packaging.
In 1917, Saalfield issued the first publication to call itself a "comic book". In 1922, Embee Publishing issued a monthly publication called appropriately enough COMIC MONTHLY, with each issue reprinting a different newspaper strip. It lasted for twelve issues and sold for ten cents a copy.
In 1929, George Delacorte of Dell Publishing took a bold move and released a newsstand publication called THE FUNNIES. The previous books had all been reprints of newspaper strips but this publication featured comics that were written and drawn especially for it. But it did not look like a comic book; it was the size of a newspaper tabloid. Some felt cheated that the rest of the newspaper was apparently missing and THE FUNNIES died after only thirteen issues.
However, it had been printed by Easter Color Printing Company and it made an impression on three men who worked for the company. Harry Wildenberg, George Janosik and Max C. Gaines (the father of MAD's William Gaines) hit upon the idea of folding over the tabloid pages so that they became the now traditional comic book size of approximately eight by eleven inches. They made arrangements to reprint newspaper strips like "Joe Palooka" and "Hairbreadth Harry" in a comic book.
Learning from the success of the earlier "Mutt and Jeff" promotion, they convinced Proctor and Gamble to offer the new publication to their customers who sent in coupons from their soap products. FUNNIES ON PARADE was released in 1933 and it is considered the first modern comic book. Its 10,000 copy print run quickly disappeared prompting Eastern Color to issue two more promotional comic books of strip reprints, FAMOUS FUNNIES and A CENTURY OF COMICS.
Gaines had successfully experimented taking a few issues and sticking a ten cent price tag on them to sell on newsstands. With the involvement of George Dealcorte, a sample issue was prepared and sold 35,000 copies through big chain department stores. Perhaps remembering his earlier failure with THE FUNNIES, Delacorte let his option lapse and Eastern Color went on to publish the first issue of FAMOUS FUNNIES (Series 2) in May 1934 and within months the new monthly newsstand comic book of full color funny reprints began showing a profit.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (of what was to become National Periodical Publications-and later, DC Comics) saw the success of FAMOUS FUNNIES and issued his own comic tabloid called NEW FUN in 1935, which featured all original comics, not reprints. NEW FUN eventually evolved into MORE FUN and adopted the same size package as FAMOUS FUNNIES.
By 1936, the flood had begun with Delacorte publishing POPULAR COMICS (News-Tribune strips) and THE FUNNIES (NEA strips); United Features reprinting its strips in TIP TOP COMICS and King Features through the McCay Company doing KING COMICS. Even Wheeler-Nicholson's ex-business manger started his own comic book company to publish new material.
The comic book had finally been born but an event was to take place in about a year and a half that would change comic books forever.