Comic Books: History and Impact on Society

Modified: 4th May 2018
Wordcount: 1883 words
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Comic books hold an undeniable significance in modern history. Three aspects of significance include the history of comic books, the use of comics for social commentary, and the cultural impact comics have had on our daily lives.

Comic books had humble beginnings, soon they grew into a major threat during Cold War era American society and then became an outlet to hippie counter-culture in the 1960’s. The earliest ancestors to comics can be found in caves, little stick men spearing blob-shaped beasts. Rodolphe Töpffer is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Comics.” Töpffer was the first to comment on the interwoven nature that words and pictures held, “The pictures without the text, would have only an obscure meaning; the text, without the pictures, would mean nothing” (Fingeroth 2008, p. 12). In 1895, Richard F. Outcault’s character, the Yellow Kid, was the first successful reappearing comic character. In 1935, Max Gaines found funding to begin reprinting comic serials into paper bound books, or comic books. Through the 1940’s and 50’s comic books were a main focus of attack for Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham claimed that comics were corrupting the morals of kids; this included accusations of Batman and Robin having homosexual tendencies, that Superman’s power of flight distorted a child’s understanding of physics, and that Wonder Woman gave young girls the wrong impression of the role of women in society (Coville 1996, para 19). In 1954, the industry responded by instituting the Comic Code Authority (CCA), which handed out seals of approval to comics it deemed passed its strict criteria. This included censoring all gore, any story without a happy ending, and nearly any form of sexuality (relationships had to uphold the “sanctity of marriage”). Although the CCA had no legal authority, shops wouldn’t sell comics without the seal which led to a decline in the comic book industry in profit and creativity. Enter the 1960’s and the emergence of the hippie counter-culture. A product of this era was the development of underground comics, or comix, which was a direct reaction to the rules of the CCA and the idea of the institution as a whole. Artists within the underground comix scene focused on adult-themed topics, such as hallucinogen use, pushing sexual taboos and rejecting established views of morality, religion and social class. Two huge influences in the scene include Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, whose work could be found in record stores and head shops. In the early 1970’s mainstream comic brands started to pick up on these more serious topics, which led to the weakening of the CCA. The 70’s also saw a shift in focus amongst comic books, relevance to real life issues became the dominant idea. This led to stories about drug abuse, racial prejudice and a peppering of feminist thought. Ethnic minorities also had more roles in comic books, if still secondary and stereotyped. The 1980’s to the present day have seen a shift in comics towards graphic novels, emotionally complex characters with human weaknesses, politically stimulated story lines, gritty dystopian-esque cities and a prevalence of anti-hero protagonists (Coville 1996, para 16-23). The history of comics is so rich in detail that this could be considered just the tip of the iceberg. One thing is clear though; the comic book industry rebounded from serious attacks and became stronger than ever, pushing for personal expression amongst its artists and writers.

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As made evident by the past 40 odd years of comics, the reflection of real life social issues has been a popular trend. Hot topics that are still relevant to this day include the views of women, LGBT persons and ethnic minorities within society. Women have had a role in comics since their creation. Early depictions of women usually put them in the role of damsel in distress/ plot device or purely as a sex symbol. In 1940, the first true, although mostly unheard of, female superhero was created: Fantomah (Markstein n.d, para 3). Fantomah, along with other early female comic protagonists Wonder Woman and Sheena, fell into the Jungle Goddess category. The role of the female was put in the background with the creation of the CCA. Female characters didn’t find a positive voice in comics until the 1980’s and 1990’s (Felton n.d., para 1). Series such as Love & Rockets, Ghost World, and Tank Girl promoted strong portrayals of women, often with feminist leanings dealing with the exploration of sexuality in positive ways and the dismissal of expected roles in society. Gay characters also began to make an emergence during this same period. For example, the series Y: The Last Man toyed with the idea of all the men in the world but one dying off at once. Not only did it take a serious look at the complete reinventing of civilization through the hands of women, it delved heavily into lesbian culture: the views of women as masculine and feminine, theories of dominance and ideas of where man would be in a female dominant society. A more mainstream example would be Batwoman, who was recently written as an openly gay character in the series 52 (Gustines 2006, para 2). Ethnic minorities have been in comic books for the past 100 years, but they were usually given stereotypical, often outright racist, roles with no depth of character. Nowadays there are countless comic book characters of color that are portrayed in the same light as white characters. Examples of this would be superheroes such as Storm, a black woman who was leader of the X-Men­, and Cyborg, black male leader of the Teen Titans. Not to mention nearly the entire cast of Love & Rockets who are of Mexican descent. One of the earliest well-known black superheroes, Black Panther, has recently gone through a revival. Reginald Hudlin, Black Entertainment Television’s President for Entertainment, who wrote the new series has stated:

The reality is that there’s been so few black characters who have their own book, who have been consistently published, let alone a black character who has been written by a black writer and the perspective that comes from that (Gustines 2006, para 7).

In closing, the effort being made to turn comics into tools for personal reflection on one’s values seems to be growing significantly. Established views are being challenged in a creative format, with people having control in how much they want to expose themselves.

Lastly, the cultural impact of comic books on the world is noteworthy; film and television adaptations of comic books throughout the world and their acceptance as literature, the extension of the fictional superhero identity into real-life groups and individuals donning costumes, and the use of comic books to push ideological views has had a resounding effect on society. Though adaptations of comics had been put onto the big screen for many years, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials being prominent, it wasn’t until 1978 when the first Superman movie was released that audiences and film makers took it seriously (Booker 2007, pp. x-xi). Superman was extremely popular, and until nearly a decade later it reigned as the most well-known comic movie available. With new progress made into computer-generated imagery (CGI), the trend was ready to take off. Dozens of comic book movies and television shows have been made, a good amount of which aren’t superhero related, thanks to the nearly infinite potential of CGI (10 Interesting Comic Book Facts You Probably Didn’t Know 2009, para 6). These include classic superheroes such as Batman, Superman and Spiderman that have been replicated and assimilated in foreign countries.

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Another notable trend is the view of comic books as legitimate literature, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus receiving a special Pulitzer in 1992 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen being entered into Time magazine’s 2005 list of “100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to the present” (10 Interesting Comic Book Facts You Probably Didn’t Know 2009, para 8). By now it can be claimed that superheroes are indeed a part of our society, but some individuals take it one step further. Take for example the New York based real life superhero Terrifica. Terrifica dons a blond wig and red boots, complete with red cape and utility belt at night. Her mission is to prevent drunken women from being taken advantage of by sexual predators, which keeps her mostly in bars and party scenes. Her arch-nemesis, Fantastico, is a full-time seducer of women, whom Terrfica has been known to peel women off of (Robinson 2002, para 4). It sounds like a joke, but there are dozens of real life superheroes in the world. Another is Angle-Grinder Man, a resident of the London area who travels around at night, in full costume, with an angle-grinder that he uses to cut off clamps he finds on peoples cars. He even has a hotline (‘Superhero’ takes on clampers 2003, para 1-4). A far more touching example would be the group who call themselves Superheroes Anonymous. This is a group of costumed heroes who have been walking the streets of New York since 2007, handing out food and support to the homeless (Superheroes Anonymous 2010, para 2). A comic being used as a vehicle for ideology goes way back to the original serialized character, Yellow Kid. Though the premise of Yellow Kid and his colleagues was lighthearted and whimsical in nature, the underlying theme and artistic style of the comic was seen as a critical satire of the severe poverty following the industrial revolution. All the characters were dirty, rag covered, homeless-looking children who poked fun at upper-class customs (McAllister et al. 2001, pp.1-2). J. Robyn Goodman made the observation that throughout popular comics in 1909 to 1914 “over 80% of the cartoons reflected anti-suffragist ideology” (Goodman in McAllister et al. 2001, p. 9). Topics that have been covered such as the blossoming of underground comix and the progressive feminist/sexual views between the 1960’s and current comic books can be seen as forms of ideology being present too. To clarify, comic books as a whole have affected our world culture in profound ways. It can be said that they are engrained in our psyche; through print, film and television they have reached millions and have cemented archetypes and ideologies along the way.

By now it should be clear that comic books are here to stay. Even after grievous attacks the medium of comic books has triumphed and made its place in society known. They have grown with us; as children we see the world as black and white, and comics reflected this by depicting battles clearly as good versus evil. As we grow older the shades of grey start to take shape and to mirror this, comics have taken on ambiguous topics and played with our sense of morality. While there are many who have no interest in comic books, it’s near impossible to find someone who has never heard of Superman, Batman or Spiderman. Yes, comic books truly are a significant man-made facet of civilization.


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