Comic books are, at least, as old as movies. Their first steps were set in the beginning of XXth Century, in the search of new ways of graphic and visual communication and expression. Usually, comic books are also associated with the prehistoric paintings in caves and Egyptian hieroglyphics, all of them visual narratives of juxtaposed images. The existence of words was not mandatory, but with the adoption of symbols to represent them -- letters --, they were soon added to give more information and boost the narrative flow. The improvement of press and printing technology were strong factors to the development of the medium.
Among the precursors can be mentioned Swiss Rudolph Töpffer, German Wilhelm Bush, French Georges ("Christophe") Colomb and brazilian Angelo Agostini, but it is usual to associate the first comic book to Richard Fenton Outcalt's creation, The Yellow Kid, in 1896. Outcalt essentially synthesized what had been made before him and introduced a new element: the balloon, a space where he wrote what the characters said, and that pointed to their mouth with a kind of tail.
The bases for a brand new kind of art were set, and the adventure begun. In the first decades of its life, comic books were essentially humoristic, and this is the explanation for the name they carry to date in English language. Some of those days' creations can be read until today, and are among the best stories in comic book's History: Little Nemo in Slumberland (by Winsor McCay), Mutt & Jeff (by Bud Fisher), Popeye (by E. Segar) and Krazy Kat (by George Herriman). However, comic books have other denominations, such as Italian fumetti (smoke, an allusion to the shape of the balloon), French bande dessiné; (drawn strip), Japanese manga and Portuguese história em quadradinhos (story in little squares), much more comprehensive.
Stories' themes were mostly about children and pet's frolics, and from that age comes the designations kid strips, animal strips, family strips, boy-dog strips, boy-family-dog strips and whatever else could be created. Such designations still apply, even to more intellectualized strips, such as Calvin and Hobbes.
Calvin dances!Hobbes too!
The Phantom Tarzan de Hal FosterThe crack of the Stock Market in 1929 was a turning point in comic book's history, and in the 30's comic books grew up, starting to picture adventures. Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Hal Foster's adaptation of E. R. Borroughs' Tarzan were those days paradigms, now known as The Golden Age. Three essential types, the science fiction, detective stories and jungle adventures spread their tentacles, respectively based in each of the above stories. While Foster's Tarzan was a full of action, without balloons adaptation of the book by Borroughs, and Gould's Dick Tracy was partially inspired by the gang wars of Chicago (where Gould lived), Flash Gordon was a Prince Valiantproduct of total imagination of Raymond, which would give also Secret Agent X-9, Jim of the Jungle (competing with Dick Tracy and Tarzan, respectively) and Rip Kirby. Foster did also a historic masterpiece on comics, Prince Valiant, medieval adventure with academic accuracy. About this time was created the first costumed character, the Phanton, written by Lee Falk and masterly drawn by Ray Moore. Falk is one of the best comic book writers of all time and probably the one that stood more time with the same character -- more than 50 years! Falk also created Mandrake the Magician, with pencils by Phil Davis.
(About this time there were great comic books in other places besides USA, like France and Belgium, but they were barely known out of their birth countries. Of particular interest is Belgic Hergé's Tintin, who practically created the clean line style, and had lots of followers (and imitators)).
The outcome of this process was that the birth of a typically American comic was born: the super-hero, with Siegel and Shuster's Superman. Superman is a landmark -- for a lot of people his début is the start the Golden Age -- in Comic book History, a perfect archetype, the model to lots of characters and one of the most perfect myths of modern ages. Lots of academic studies and dissection works have been made about him along his near 60 years of life. And lots of bucks, too. Both his creators died in the nineties, without a small fraction of this fortune, because they sold the rights of the character in 40's to DC Comics.
Jack Kirby's Captain America The Comics evolved, and spread its arms, becoming part of mass culture. In the period 1940-1945 some four hundred super heroes were created, mostly based in Superman's model, though only a few survived. Two of them deserve to be highlighted: Batman, created in 1939 by Bob Kane, a darker character (inspired in Da Vinci's flying machine and Zorro) whose fame would exceed Superman's in the 80's, and Captain Marvel, by C.C. Beck, a yon boy that earned magical powers every time he said the magic word Shazam!, an acronym of names of old gods. A lot of characters were enlisted and went to the World War II, and comic books became ideological weapons to increase soldiers and people moral. The greatest icon of those war days is Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's Captain America. To say the least, in the cover of his first magazine, Captain America battled no one other than Adolf Hitler himself.
Batman's cover In the 40's, the magazine format of comic books as we know today was created, as well as one of the best comic books ever conceived, Will Eisner's The Spirit, an anthological work that last twelve years with the help of soon-to-be-known famous names, like Bob Kane (creator of Batman), Jack Kirby and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. With only seven weekly pages, inserted in the Sunday supplement of a journal, Eisner created a full encyclopedia of comic books, using each of the comic books' basic elements in a new and creative way, beginning each story with a different logo for The Spirit, with an intense use of perspective and shadow. With subjects far more mature than the typically super-hero's stories, The Spirit is the starting point for a series of tales dealing with everyman's life and problems, usual subjects in later Eisner's works. Aside with Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, The Spirit is one of the best comic books of that decade (if not the one ever made).
The 50's staged the greatest witch-hunt of comics ever, and a lot of prejudice from those Comics Code Stampdays still remains. Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote a book, The Seduction of the Innocent, where he accused comic books of causing youth corruption and juvenile delinquency. Among any other weird subjects, he accused comics of inciting youth to violence (what had already happened with rock'n'roll). A Comics Code was then created destined to limit and rule on what could appear (and what could not) in the pages. It destroyed all horror titles from EC Comics, except for one, an humoristic mag, that remains until today: Mad.
Charlie BrownAnother great story was born those hard days, an apparently innocent strip about a group of children: Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. Charlie Brown, the main character, is a 6 year old boy, born to loose. He symbolizes the insecurity, the ingenuity, the lack of initiative; an eternal hopper. His dog, Snoopy, is a philosophic beagle in the top of his red house. This strip starts the thinking and intellectual age of comics, with a greater valorization of the text over the images. The other great name of the 50's intellectual comics is Jules Feiffer, who retracted paranoia and obsessions of compulsive people from the American society with a free, undefined drawing style, without background, mainly in monologues, in the Village Voice. In times of limited freedom of speech and witch-hunt, the creators (in theater and in movies as much as in comics) used apparently inoffensive stories to say in the interlineation what they wanted. Walt Kelly's Pogo is another example, which used small animals in the swamps of Florida to discuss politics.
Asterix le gaulois In Europe, by those days, was created one of the best comic books ever made, the French Astérix, by René Goscinny (text) and Albert Uderzo (pencils), in Pilote magazine, in 1959. With a huge humor sense, great historic research, wonderful pencils, Astérix is without any question, a masterpiece. The stories of the inhabitants of a gaul village, in 50 b.C., mixed adventure, jokes about mostly European countries (and their people), Latin quotes, caricatures of French personalities from the 60's and detailed backgrounds in an easy reading narrative. In 1977 Goscinny died, but the story didn't end: Uderzo followed drawing and, then, also writing the albums -- until today. Astérix is the top-one best seller in French.
Marvel Universe In the sixties we can see the remake of the super hero with the Marvel Comics, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee and Kirby already worked with comic books and super heroes, but then, they had the opportunity of creating an entire new fictional universe. The surprise was that the characters had some kind of weakness or defect in opposition to their super powers. Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Thor, Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man, Dr. Strange were the first of an empire that soon would turn Marvel in the number one in comic book market. But the most popular character and one of the most interesting super heroes ever created is the Spiderman, the secret identity of frail and shy teenager Peter Parker.
Jean (Moebius) Giraud's Grubert
R. Crumb's Snoid Times changes, and so comic books, in sixties. Examples of what we call today adult comics became more usual, opening space for the creation of stories such as French Barbarella, by Jean Claude Forest; argentine Mafalda, by Quino; Italian Valentina, by Guido Crepax; north American Fritz the Cat, by Robert Crumb (who introduced the underground in comic books); and for the embryonic works in science fiction and fantasy of Parisian penciller Jean Giraud, who later would be better known as Moebius. In all those works it could be seen sex, violence, intellectual insight, critics to the society, use of color and page design in very different ways and intensities than what has been done so far. Comic books are not more only for kids; they grew up and sophisticated themselves in unexpected ways. Adult comics existed since the first times, but they increase in number in the 70's. Conventions and exposition in museums began at the end of that decade, as much as academic studies.
Heavy Metal logo The seventies are no more than a natural consequence of what had begun to happen in the sixties. Underground comics definitively conquered their space, been sold either in head shops or hand to hand. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton's Freak Brothers, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Dan Griffin are among the most known names, if you can say so, in underground. On the other side of the ocean, a few French pencillers -- Moebius, Phillipe Druillet, Jean Pierre Dionnet, and Bernard Farkas --, joined under the name of Les humanoides associés, created in 1974 a historic magazine, Métal Hurlant, that came to the USA in 1977, as Heavy Metal. Fantasy, science fiction, acid trips, rock'n'roll, naked bodies, incredible use of color, new ways of page design and literature are part of the confuse mix that made the success of the magazine. From Itally comes great fumetti, such as Ken Parker, by Berardi and Milazzo, Corto Maltese, by Hugo Pratt, and The Click, by Milo Manara. Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese
In the end of the seventies Will Eisner returns to the comic's stage, inaugurating a new genre, the graphic novel, with A Contract with God. It is the first of a series of tales ambiented in the Bronx that would prove definitively that the master hasn't loose his hand.
I haven't yet write about the comic book History in the eighties, but I encourage you to visit the wonderfull site http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8580 , where you may find a complete and interesting study about the super hero History, from the begining to the 90's, by Jaime Coville.