Comic Books originally started out as "funny books" rather than graphic novels of superhero duels and the traditional good versus evil scenario. We are going to take a look at how the comic book evolved into what it is today. We are also going to go in-depth into comic book censorship in America from the beginning. We'll discuss what the Comics Code Authority is and then we'll jump into the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and see where all of these organizations are taking the comic book industry. Let's start from the beginning and talk about the origin of comic books.
It was in 1754 that Benjamin Franklin began the invention of the comic book through the first political cartoon. It is the famous severed snake that represents the United States with the legend "Join, or Die." Benjamin Franklin created so many things that are still in common use today; however, its very doubtful that he knew he would be the pioneer for comic books. If he did, he probably still wouldn't have realized the strong following that it would have and the huge industry that it would become.
Later on in 1865 their were mass mailings of "adult" illustrated novels sent to troops in the Civil War. Because of this, a Federal Obscenity Law passed that regulated the shipping of media through the mail. While the comic book industry wasn't even an industry yet, no one knew of the effects this law would have on the future of comic books.
The United States defined obscenity (for clarification of the Federal Obscenity Law) by adopting their definition from the 1868 English trial of Regina v. Hicklin. "A work is obscene if any portion of the material has a tendency to corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences..." This general definition of obscenity holds a dark cloud over the comic book industry for many years.
It wasn't until 1873 that someone actually started enforcing the Federal Obscenity Law. Anthony Comstock formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and was given a license by the government to inspect mail for obscenity. Among his targets were pen and ink dirty pictures and dime novels, both of which were forerunners of the comic book.
Then in 1896 (142 years after the first political cartoon), comic strips hit newspapers across the nation and were soon thereafter incorporated into magazines as well. "The Yellow Kid" was one the first well known comic strips because it had gained national attention when it debuted in "The New York World".
One year after the first official comic strip had been published, printing technology had advanced to a level where political cartoons could easily be used and distributed. Thus, politicians proposed legislation to regulate them. New York, California, Pennsylvania and Indiana all passed anti-cartoon legislations. The censorship of comics began, even before the first true comic book had even been published.
This anti-cartoon legislation came to a head when Walt McDougall challenged Pennsylvania's law in 1903. The law forbid the depiction of political figures as animals, and when Walt drew Governor Pennypacker as a tree and beer mug, the repeal of the law drew near.
The growing trend of comics continued upward until it finally had enough of a following in 1910 to publish a paperback comic. "The Funnies" was the first comic book ever published. It was a monthly collection of comic strips that resembled a big tabloid-sized magazine more than a comic book. It was sold and distributed by news stands across the country.
Anthony Comstock (the man who began enforcing the Federal Obscenity Law back in 1873) finally retired in 1915. After 42 years of regulating mail, on his own account he had burned more than sixty train cars worth of books, photos and illustrations. Only two years after his retirement, The Espionage Act was passed and charged a socialist publication ("The Masses") with endangering the efficiency of the U.S. draft because of its political cartoons. The Masses folded and went out of business after being denied the ability to operate through the United States Postal Service. Negative feelings towards comic books and biased stereotypes began to pave the way for a stronger censorship that would occur many years later.
Cue the entrance of comic books that aren't intended to make you laugh. "Dick Tracy" and "The Shadow" play strong roles in developing comic books that stray away from traditional comic strips and their original intent. These two characters help transform comic books from collections of newspaper comic strips into graphic novels. Let's recap; a political cartoon paves the way for comic strips which then evolve into graphic novels. And the ironic part is that while these transformations were taking place, those involved had no clue of what they were eventually helping to create. Yet each small step throughout the creation of comic books was so important.
Other than "Dick Tracy" and "The Shadow", in 1933 "Funnies on Parade" was another of the first true comic books published. The comic book was printed in the same 8" x 11" format that comic books are done in today. There were 10,000 copies printed, all given away free of charge with coupons for Proctor & Gamble products.
With 64 pages and a 10 cent price tag, "Famous Funnies" also printed in 1933. It was the first retail comic that was distributed to the public; however, it was only distributed through department store chains. Dell Publishing (not seeing any profit) decided to stop publishing the comic. Eastern Color Printing then decided to publish the book themselves and got news stand distribution through the American News Company. Comic book giveaways began to die down as retailers discovered they could make small profits.
One year later "Famous Funnies" began its twice a month printing and distribution routine through news stands; however, it took several issues before Eastern Color Printing saw any profit. This was the first routine distribution and printing cycle of comic books though, a sign that they were finally starting to take off. They weren't true "comics books", but they did pave the way for the Golden Age of Superheroes.
1934 was also the year that Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon" adventure strip began. Marking the slow but steady transformation from humor strips to graphic novels. In February of 1935, a company called "New Fun Comics" came out. The creator, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, decided that he didn't want to pay the fees that the newspapers were charging for their old comic strip reprints, so he got new comic material that hadn't yet been published.
"New Fun" was the first comic book that a company later called DC would publish. It was the first comic book to contain advertisements. By issue #6, "New Fun" increased their comic books to 64 pages long. Issue #6 also included a team-up of two important people, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two collaborated and created a character known as Dr. Occult and years later they created Superman.
"The Phantom" also made his debut in 1936 and was noted in history books as being the first costumed hero. "The Phantom" was the kind of hero that despite his average human limitations fought crime with bravery and death defying stunts. Many future heroes would follow his lead straying away from realistic character abilities. Eventually masks and costumes would also be used by almost every comic book character.
The Golden Age of Superheroes began in 1938 when "Action Comics" #1 was released by DC Comics. On the cover of the issue, a man in a strange red and blue costume was pictured holding a car over his head. Superman was born, the very first comic book character to have powers far beyond a normal human being. The word superhero was invented and DC Comics began their journey to becoming the longest lasting comic book company ever.
His creators Siegel and Shuster had tried pitching the Superman idea to newspapers and comic companies when they were younger. One of their earliest proposals was a cartoon character called The Superman. This 1933 pitch was constantly rejected, even to the point that artist Joe Shuster once tore up his Superman artwork and stated that he'd redo the character properly if the time ever came. Today, Superman is one of the 10 most recognized "people" on the face of the planet.
The World held their breath; superheroes were born. Before these characters, all other comics contained people that did not have supernatural powers. Dick Tracy for instance, while a terrific hero, was still just a human with no special powers. DC Comics formed the official comic book industry. Standards were set ever since then and other comic companies began to form and follow the lead and precedents set by DC.
DC does it again in Detective Comics #27 when we see the first appearance of Batman. While Superman was pure and clean, this new 1939 character was dark and mysterious. It was in this comic that a villain fell into a vat of acid, which killed him. Batman didn't show any remorse for causing the death and began curiosity of the intent and role of comic books.
Legalities entered the comic book industry as DC Comics took Wonder Comics to court. Wonder Comics #1 was the first appearance of a superhero called Wonderman. Ironically, Wonderman and Superman had identical powers and abilities. DC, angered by the copyright infringement, won a lawsuit against the publisher Victor Fox. Wonder Comics #2 was still released despite the fact that they couldn't have their Wonderman character anymore. The second issue was the last of the title's run.
In 1939 yet another barrier had been broken. No comic book had ever been successful enough to be fully devoted to telling the story of one hero; that is...until Superman. DC finally released a comic book that focused on Superman, the first comic book ever devoted to a single character's story. This title was obviously very successful and other comic characters followed with a chance at their own titles.
Also in 1939, Marvel Comics was founded and released their first as well as longest running character, Prince Namor. In the back of Marvel's first comic, "Motion Pictures' Funnies Weekly", Namor appeared in an eight page black and white story. Later in Marvel Comics #1, this story was released again with a few additions and expansions.
The stage had been set, superheroes began to take over the comic book racks at newsstands and bookstores. The path from "funnies" to graphic novels was a slow one that only took place because their were a few creators out there that said "Let's try something new." Prince Namor was a clear example of this. The short but successful 8 page story in the back of a "funnies" comic proved what people wanted to read. Comic strips and funnies stuck to the newspapers (for the most part) while superheroes took over the comic book industry. It had taken over a hundred years since the first political cartoon before the comic book industry grew into a giant. And once a giant it still continued to grow.
We'd be more than happy to hear what you think about comic book censorship in America at the Blazedent Message Boards. We've told you about the past of censorship and the Comics Code Authority, but what do you think things will be like in the future. Share your opinions and ideas with us.
- Joseph Lookabaugh