American comics and comic books - Comics, dime novels, pulps and Penny Dreadfuls - Popular literature - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


28. Popular literature


Comics, dime novels, pulps and Penny Dreadfuls


Denis Gifford


American comics and comic books


Superficially, the American comic book is virtually the same as when it began in 1933, a sturdy monthly magazine of comedy and adventure strips told purely in pictures, the textual detail being carried in ‘speech balloons’ and descriptive boxes within the pictures. The fictional stories, always dominant in the British comic, supported by a single illustration, were never more than a page or two in the American comic books, and were there only to pacify the US Post Office into allowing comics to receive a low-price subscription postal permit.

The history of the American comic book, which was to become such an influence on the world’s comic publishing style, begins in a remarkably similar fashion to the British comic, and more especially the European. American comic books have their roots in reprints from magazine and newspaper publication. The first appears to be a book entitled Scraps, published in 1849 by the cartoonist himself, D. C. Johnston of Boston. This was a mixture of cartoons and sequential striplets in the form of ‘scrap sheets’, but whether they were originally issued as separate sheets is not known.

The first comic books intended for children were issued before 1876 by the Broadway publishing house of Stroefer and Kirchner, who had links with Germany, where for some time the large-size picture-story sheets had been published as Munchener Bilderbogen in Munich. Two sets of twenty numbered sheets were issued, both loose and bound in two hardback volumes. Translated into English, they were also reprinted in Britain by Griffith and Farran of St Paul’s Churchyard. Titles and artists included strip stories such as ‘Scenes from Fairyland’ by Thomas Hosemann, ‘Puck and the Peasant’ by H. Scherenberg, and ‘Munchhausen’s Travels and Adventures’ by W. Simmler. The books were entitled Illustrated Flying Sheets for Young and Old and sold for $1.25 a volume ($2 for colour). The same publisher also issued the pioneering picture-strip books written and drawn by Wilhelm Busch, the German credited with creating the modern comic strip with Max und Moritz (1865).

More natively American was Stuff and Nonsense (1884), a collection of cartoons and strips drawn by Arthur Burdett Frost for the magazine Harper’s Monthly, published as a hardback book by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The book was divided into two parts: ‘Stuff’ being the strips, such as ‘Ye Aesthete, Ye Boy and Ye Bullfrog’, and ‘Nonsense’ being the single cartoons. (This book also had a British edition, being reprinted by John C. Nimmo no fewer than three times, and again in 1910 by George Routledge.) The same year saw the start of strip and cartoon reprints from Life Magazine (then a weekly humorous publication unrelated to the photo-journal of today), starting with The Good Things of Life (1884) and followed by The Spice of Life (1888).

Joseph Keppler, a Viennese cartoonist, emigrated to New York and started Puck, a German-language humorous weekly, in September 1876. An English-language edition followed six months later, and by 1880 Frederick Burr Opper, who became one of the founding fathers of the American strip cartoon, had joined the staff. The following year a rival weekly, Judge, appeared, to be followed in 1883 by Life. In this illustrated trio can be found the work of all the men who founded American strips: Richard F. Outcault who gave the world The Yellow Kid, often considered the first newspaper strip hero (1896), Rudolph Dirks, who created The Katzenjammer Kids in the likeness of the German bad boys Max und Moritz, and George Herriman, who would evolve the most surrealistic character ever seen in the funnies, Krazy Kat (1910).

The beginnings of the American newspaper strip can be seen in the translations of the well-established Imagerie d’Epinal, published in France by Pellerin et Cie from the 1830s. These single sheets of stories for children, printed on extremely thin standard Pellerin paper and illustrated in twelve to sixteen pictures, were translated and distributed in the USA from 1888 by the Humoristic Publishing Company of Kansas City. (Sets have also been found in Britain, which suggests that they were also sold there.) A total of sixty different sheets were issued, beginning with ‘Impossible Adventures’, the wild boastings of an old braggart in the style of Baron Munchhausen. Echoes of many strips yet unborn may be found in these sheets, from fantastic adventures (number 1: ‘Impossible Adventures’), fairy tales (number 59: ‘Cinderella’), science fiction (number 22: ‘King of the Moon’) and illustrated ‘classics’ (number 36: ‘Don Quichotte’ [sic]). Unfortunately it has proved impossible to discover whether these sheets were sold singly or in sets, and at what price.

These Anglo-French sheets did not introduce any continuing characters, but their French-printed fullness of colour, alongside the Munchener Bilderbogen, acted as inspiration to the press barons, who were seeking to expand their already flourishing empires.

The first paper to pioneer cheap colour printing in the USA was the Chicago InterOcean. This paper introduced a family supplement in colour on 18 September 1892, and the following year added a detachable children’s section, The Youth’s Department. In the spring of 1894, cartoonist Charles Saalburg introduced ‘The Ting-Lings’, a weekly full- page escapade in which a crowd of pint-sized Orientals wreaked topical havoc. In May 1897 they even crossed to Britain and helped Queen Victoria to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, an event reprinted ‘at a tremendous price’ in the woman’s weekly, Home Chat.

Occasionally these juvenile strips would be reprinted in books, such as Funny Folks (1899), a compilation of forty strips by Franklin M. Howarth selected from Puck, and Little Johnny and the Teddy Bears (1907), a full-colour book reprinting John R Bray’s strip from Judge.

More influential than the magazine strips, however, were the Sunday newspapers. The circulation war between New York press barons William Randolph Hearst and his New York Sunday Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Sunday World, led to ever burgeoning weekly packages of several sections. Then, using the new colour printing press, Pulitzer introduced his Sunday Comic Weekly in The New York Sunday World (21 May 1893), and two years later this supplement included Outcault’s single-panel series ‘Hogan’s Alley’. Among the crowds in that panel lurked a dumb, moronic, oriental character soon to be known colloquially as The Yellow Kid, who made his comments, not by talking, but via slangy scrawl on his bright yellow night-gown, his only clothing! This series eventually evolved into a strip and has come to be thought of (erroneously) as the origin of American comics. This is not to decry the Kid’s enormous popularity: he was merchandised in many collectable forms; he was the first comic-strip hero to have his own regular magazine (The Yellow Kid, published at five cents by Howard Ainslee), and a book written about him, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats by E. W. Townsend (popular author of the Chimmie Fadden tales), illustrated by Outcault (1897). The success of the strip led to the cartoonist being lured away with a considerable pay hike by the legendary press baron, William Randolph Hearst. Buster made his Hearst debut in the New York World comic section on 14 January 1906. A historic contest over the copyright of the character ensued, with the courts deciding that, while Outcault had every right to Buster Brown, his original employer had equal rights in Buster’s name! Thus both the New York Herald and the New York World could run new adventures of the bad boy but only World could have Outcault, while the Herald had to find a new cartoonist, and only the Herald could call their page ‘Buster Brown’, the World having to be content with a rather anonymous ‘He’: as in ‘He’s At It Again!’, ‘He Makes a New Resolution’, and so on. This legal decision was reestablished a few years later when a similar situation arose with cartoonist Rudolph Dirks. He kept drawing his twin terrors’ tales for another newspaper, still calling them Hans and Fritz, but under the title ‘The Captain and the Kids’, while the other pair went under their original title, ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’, now drawn by Harold Knerr!

On 12 December 1897, the Sunday World published the grandfather of all American comic books, The Children’s Christmas Book, a free supplement which had sixteen pages, eight of them in full colour, and featured strips and cartoons by George Luks, whom Pulitzer had hired to continue his strips about The Yellow Kid after Outcault had been lured away.

In 1900 the first reprint books of newspaper strips began to appear. Carl Schultze, who signed himself ‘Bunny’, drew a regular half-page set entitled ‘The Herald’s Vaudeville Show’. This was issued in book form as Vaudevilles and Other Things by Isaac Blanchard, using an oblong format to cope with the half-page broadsheet format of the original strips, and a cardboard cover, newly drawn by ‘Bunny’, necessitated by the awkward shape of the book. This became the standard format for the newspaper reprint comic book through the first quarter of the twentieth century. ‘Bunny’ replaced his comic vaudeville with a regular character, Foxy Grandpa, and by December 1900 the first reprint book was issued by his own company. Some twenty followed and the character also appeared in a play and some very early movies, and was revived in the comic book Star Comics as late as 1937.

The history of American comics now makes its radical departure from the well-established European format. The broadsheet newspaper supplement, originally four pages in full colour (although frequently only front and back), given away every Sunday (and sometimes on a Saturday where no Sunday edition was issued), became standardised throughout the country, and syndicates were formed to supply papers with strips. Characters emerged and became regularised, such as ‘Buster Brown’, the classic naughty boy whose middle-class pranks and regular ‘resolutions’ established him as the nation’s number one comic star. Buster was drawn by the same R F. Outcault who gave America The Yellow Kid - a remarkable switch of social strata as well as of style. Buster books were assembled out of the strips and sold, not only in the USA, but throughout the Empire, thanks to British editions published by Chambers of London and Edinburgh.

The Buster Brown books, enormously popular despite their huge awkward oblong format, began at Christmas 1903 with Buster Brown and His Resolutions, probably the most popular of the series, leading to a total of thirty-five books in all, some of which were not by Outcault. (Buster was father to Scotland’s Oor Wullie by Dudley D. Watkins (Sunday Post Fun Section from 1936) and grandfather to England’s Dennis the Menace (Beano from 1951).)

The cardboard-covered comic book containing reprints of Sunday strips became well and truly established when William R Hearst entered the field on 23 November 1902. At the top of his New York Journal supplement appeared this startling announcement: ‘The popular characters of the comic supplement have been published in book form. Your newsdealer can get them for you. They are the best comic-books that have ever been published.’ A historic moment, and the first use of the term ‘comic book’. Out came no fewer than five books, all priced at fifty cents. They were Happy Hooligan, Fred Opper’s tramp in a tin-can hat; The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks; The Tigers by James Swinnerton, the first in the funny animals field; Alphonse and Gaston and their Friend Leon, the funny Frenchmen, another Opper creation; and On and Off Mount Ararat, a Noah’s Ark with animals, also by Swinnerton. But these hard-to-handle landscape-format books were child’s play compared to the first Mutt and Jeff comic book. Published by Ball and Co. in 1910, this featured one strip per page and measured 5 inches high by 15% inches wide!

‘Mutt and Jeff’ is frequently credited with being the first daily newspaper strip, but in fact it was preceded by several others, including ‘A. Piker Clerk’ by Clare Briggs (1904) and A. D. Condo’s ‘The Outbursts of Everett True’ (1905). Harry Conway Fisher, better known as ‘Bud’, began his series as a tipster strip, having his hero, Augustus Mutt, forever losing his shirt on sure things. Jeff, shortened from Jefferson, was an escapee from the lunatic asylum who teamed up with the lanky gambler some time into the series. Bud Fisher was the first cartoonist to personally copyright his creation, and thus was able to move from newspaper to newspaper without copyright prosecution, finally becoming the richest cartoonist in the world with such spin-offs as the longest run of any cinema animated-cartoon series (via the Fox Film Corporation). He even gave up drawing the strip, although his signature was ably forged by a string of assistants including Al Smith, who finally took it over in recent times.

The main publishers of cardboard comic books became Cupples and Leon of New York. They added ‘Mutt and Jeff’ to their chain, which by the 1920s included George McManus’s ‘Bringing up Father’ (one of the first American strips to be reprinted in England by the Daily Sketch), Harold Gray’s ‘Little Orphan Annie’ (later to inspire ‘Belinda Blue-Eyes’ in the Daily Mirror) and Sidney Smith’s family saga ‘The Gumps’ (models for another Daily Mirror strip, ‘The Ruggles’). These and many other square comic books were quickly established as the popular format, selling at twenty-five cents and containing reprints of forty-six newspaper strips apiece. These, being daily strips, did not come in colour, which helped keep the price down, but it would be the addition of full colour that would see the end of Cupples and Leon comic books and establish the format that remains supreme to this day.

The first attempt at a new-look style of American comic was published on 16 January 1929 by George T. Delacorte Jr, head of Dell Publications. It was entitled The Funnies and followed the newly popular tabloid (or half-broadsheet) comic supplements of several newspapers. Under the joint editorial control of Harry Steeger and Abril Lamarque (billed as Comic Art Editor), this twenty-four-page comic sold at ten cents and looked like a Sunday supplement crossed with a British comic paper: between the strips appeared several pages of text stories, puzzles and features. Its resemblance to the giveaway Sunday comics would prove its downfall: why should children pay for what came free with Dad’s newspaper? Dell tried many ways to expand sales - increased pages (up to thirty-two), decreased price (down to five cents), but it was all to no avail. The Funnies wound up after thirty-six issues, and it was good-bye to ‘Frosty Ayre’ by Joe Archibald, ‘Rock Age Roy’ by Boody Rogers, and all the other original strips that the Comic Art Editor had supervised.

The true father of the modern American comic book did not appear until 1933, and even then it took a while to catch on. The now familiar format was devised by Max Gaines and Harry Donenfield, who worked for the Eastern Colour Printing Co. By folding a tabloid comic section in half, they came up with a handy sixty-four-page booklet measuring 7% by 10% inches. Into this they packed miniaturised reprints of popular syndicated strips including ‘Reg’lar Fellers’, ‘Joe Palooka’ and the ubiquitous ‘Mutt and Jeff’. The result, entitled Funnies on Parade, was not sold but given away as promotion by the company Proctor and Gamble. They produced two further booklets: Century of Comics was a one- hundred-page edition; Famous Funnies was also a success, so they decided to try selling their comic on news-stands at ten cents a time. Famous Funnies Series One (1934) led to a regular monthly run, finally expiring at number 218 in July 1955.

The next step was an all-original comic book, which came from Major Malcolm Wheeler- Nicholson, a pulp-magazine writer, in February 1936. Entitled New Fun, subtitled ‘The Big Comic Magazine’, this ten-cent monthly initially made the mistake of printing in Dell’s failed Funnies format, a large tabloid. However, after six issues and a retitle to More Fun, it reduced to the Famous Funnies format; subtitled ‘The National Comics Magazine’, it ran to 127 editions. Its partner, New Comics, began in the now popular small size in December 1936 and, with a name change to New Adventure Comics, later Adventure, reached its 503rd edition before closing in September 1983.

Wheeler-Nicholson did not remain at the helm, however. He lost control quite early on and the series was taken over by the same Harry Donenfield who had started Famous Funnies. The company was known variously as National Periodicals and D. C. Comics, under which style it continues to this day as America’s leading comic book publisher.

Comic books became the newest form of children’s publishing, and sixty-four-page magazines (sixty-eight-page if you include the higher-quality paper covers) began to flood the market. Several (Popular Comics, Super Comics) stuck to the old Famous Funnies formula of reprinting popular newspaper strips, but others (Funny Pages, Funny Picture Stories) preferred the ‘all new’ approach. Specialised comic books began to appear (Western Picture Stories, Keen Detective Funnies) and finally, in June 1938, Donenfield issued number 1 of the comic book that would set the seal on the form and set the style that would take the American comic book around the world, conquering all other national variations.

Action Comics number 1, seeking some new character, encountered a failed newspaper strip that two young friends had been trying to get off the ground for five years. The partnership, stemming from schooldays, was that of Jerry Siegel, writer, and Joe Shuster, cartoonist; the strip was called ‘Superman’. It told the farfetched yarn of an alien shot from his exploding home planet, Krypton, and growing up on Earth as the adopted child of homespun farming folks. When his powers continue to expand (‘Faster than a Speeding Bullet! Able to Leap Tall Buildings at a Single Bound!’), he conceives the idea of changing himself into Superman and, clad in cloak and costume, he zips into action to save the world from gangsters, spies and assorted mad scientists. The concept, considered ‘unreal’ by many newspaper editors and even his eventual publisher, hit home with the young readership, and soon Action Comics was outselling its rivals. Very soon, Superman was being featured in a radio serial, a movie serial, a novel and all the other manifestations of modern commercialisation. This success was sustained into television series, feature films (among the world’s largest-grossing), and animated cartoons - and gone for ever (almost) was the reliance on reprinting old newspaper strips. But although the publishers prospered, Siegel and Shuster made little more than the price of their comic pages. Siegel soldiered on, but Shuster lost his eyesight and, if it had not been for the pressure by fellow comic artists and fans, they would never have received the life pensions eventually awarded to them by the company.

Superman soon conquered Britain, which first imported the original comic books, and then reprinted the daily strip which was syndicated to American newspapers. This began in the British boys’ story paper Triumph in July 1939, with the strips pasted up into a four-page centre section. The covers, although printed only in blue and orange, showed the new hero in action, and were drawn by John (Jock) McCail, a Scottish illustrator. After the war, Superman comics were reprinted in Australia and exported to Britain before receiving British publication in their own right. In 1959 the traditional comic weekly Radio Fun began reprinting the strips, and later several smaller publishers tried their hands. Superman became the most copied comic character in history, by both his own publishers (Bob Kane’s ‘Batman’) and his rivals.

Fawcett Publications, whose original paperback magazine Captain Billy’s Whizbang had founded their fortune, entered the comic-book field with Whiz Comics and their own superhero Captain Marvel. This red-suited strongman was soon outselling Superman, whose publisher brought a copyright suit. This dragged on for so long in the courts that it outlasted the comic’s best-selling years; eventually, Fawcett decided that it was easier to get out of the comic-book business altogether, and capitulated without the legal decision being finalised. But in their wartime years, Fawcett’s comics had spread where National-D.C.’s had failed to penetrate, and in England a small publisher, Leonard Miller and Son, issued cut-down versions of Captain Marvel (and his sister, Mary Marvel and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny!).

The war years were important to American comic books: they became required reading for the armed forces and millions of copies were issued to the military post exchanges. Publishers upgraded their content to embrace not only more adult-oriented stories, often based on crime and detection, but added pretty pin-up girls. These girls graced every kind of comic from superheroes to college boy capers, and especially, perhaps, science-fiction comics such as Planet, published by Fiction House, a former pulp-magazine purveyor. Fiction House comics, including the Tarzan-like series Jungle Comics with its leopard-skin-clad ladies swinging around the trees, were the nearest thing to illustrated erotica many a young soldier had ever seen. These comics were also on sale at America’s local news-stands, and were naturally bought by youngsters not yet in their teens. It was the beginning of a new wave of comic books and eventually a new wave of adult criticism which, after the war, would lead to the temporary downfall of the whole comic-book business.

Frederick Wertham, a psychologist, wrote a series of articles focusing on the comic book as a corrupter of childhood; his Seduction of the Innocent (British edition 1955) blamed comics for leading children into crime and sexual depravity. The illustrations from horror comics in the book made a convincing case; Senate hearings followed, and horror-comic publishers rapidly went out of business - although their legacy is still with us. It was a dark decade for the American comic book, leading to an uninteresting period of ‘approved’ comics, subject to the seal of an industry-owned censoring board.

Thus the American comic book has grown from localised reprints to world domination in less than sixty years. Early examples can command thousands of dollars from collectors, there are specialist shops selling them in Britain, and there are regular comic markets and annual comic conventions where dealers, artists and fans congregate to spend small fortunes on ‘rare’ comics and original artwork, and even to dress up as their favourite fantasy heroes for prizes (comics, of course!).