Contemporary comics - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


29. Contemporary comics


Katia Pizzi


At the thirteenth Festival Internacional de Banda Desenhada (Amadora, Portugal, 18 October-3 November 2002) an international panel convened with a view to listing the hundred best comics of the twentieth century. This exercise caused at least ‘one hundred headaches’, as Michael Dean put it in his presentation, excerpted in Comics Journal (2002: 21). Quite apart from the difficulty of allocating aesthetic and value judgments on their century-long history, a definition of comics today is extremely elusive, due to cultural variables, intersections with cognate media such as video-art, cinema and advertising and, more generally, the number of transformations undergone by comics worldwide in the past few decades. This overview of contemporary comics focuses on three aspects in particular: the survival of older comic characters, in particular favourite ones from Marvel and DC Comics; the incisive and widespread presence of Japanese comics, or mangas; and the cross-pollination between traditional, for example mainly text-based, comics and new technologies leading to non-textual final products.

The crisis affecting post-war comics in the western hemisphere has been compensated, more recently, by ‘enormous improvements in printing technology coupled with the emergence of a “direct sales” system of marketing to specialist comics shops’ which not only improved the aesthetic and material quality of comic books, but also ‘opened up new spaces for more complex and imaginative stories and artwork than ever before’, ensuring the ‘revival of the entire industry’ (Sabin 1996: 7). Comics evolved in parallel with the entertainment industry while the market at large adapted to young consumers’ new competences and requirements. While television made the most significant impact on comics from the 1950s, and comics have similarly long been elaborating ideas later appropriated by both television and cinema, advances in and wider access to information technology have led to further changes, placing contemporary comics at the interface of a variety of complex communicative technologies. Communicative systems evolved in ways that occasionally forced traditional comics to metamorphose even radically in an effort to remain competitive. Comics, on the other hand, have not become obsolete, maintaining a capacity, unknown to other media, to evolve and keep abreast of modern developments.

Comics from the Far East, rising steadily in numbers since the Second World War, have also penetrated western markets, feeding new ideas and technologies into what at times appeared to be a languishing industry. Though traditional comics have survived and continue to thrive, albeit in possibly less canonical areas, hybrid forms, which incorporate traditional forms of comics with more or less related forms of visual and textual communication, have also become the norm. Traditional characters have survived a number of metamorphoses, re-emerging later as parodied versions of their previous selves, at times in a number of different incarnations (see especially Superman, Spider-Man and Batman). Contemporary comics have become increasingly parodical, relying on a substantive history of traditional narratives now reworked in meta-fictional form.

In short, contemporary comics have retained their specificity as well as reflecting both traditional media such as television, cinema and popular literature, and more advanced and increasingly less cognate new technologies (Frezza 1995: 143). Comics have progressively become a communicative system in themselves, speaking the language of our collective imagination at large.

Since the late 1950s and 1960s comics have gravitated towards television. In the UK, this is best demonstrated by TV Century 21 (1965), TV Tornado (1967) and Playland (1968) (Gifford 1975: 120). Since the 1960s, many nursery comics have borrowed their characters and story-lines from children’s television programmes, for instance Playhour, featuring the Magic Roundabout. ‘The picture stories in these comics, generally arranged as symmetrical frames with short captions, seldom with speech balloons, present incidents in the lives of frolicking humanized animals, cute animated little dolls and unbelievably well-behaved and neatly dressed children’ (Carpenter 1983: 97). ‘The trend towards separate comics for each class of reader’ was also carried forward from the 1950s, with new titles such as Romeo (1957), Bunty (1958) and Twinkle (1968) designed to appeal to young girls (Gifford 1975: 125). In France, Asterix (1958) by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo appealed both to children, thanks to its fast and punchy script and narrative rhythm, and also to adults on a political-satirical level (‘Asterix le Gaulois’ satirised General de Gaulle and his intentions to defend France’s dignity and power with xenophobic suggestions).

Walt Disney’s original favourites Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck thrived in both comic and cartoon form, as did Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and the Flintstones (Perry and Aldridge 1971: 242-4). However, comic books and traditional USA newspaper comic strips experienced a decade-long crisis starting in 1960. The only successful new strips of the years 1960-75 were The Wizard of Id by Johnny Hart and Brant Parker, Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau, and Hdgar the Horrible by Dik Browne. The 1975 issue of Editor and Publisher listed fewer than 200 current comic strips: a significantly low set of figures. The whole comics industry in the UK and USA experienced a crisis between the 1960s and the early 1970s, a crisis leading to significant changes. Even though particular sections of the market, such as newsagent sales, never fully recovered, comics developed nonetheless worldwide, finding new ideas and new distribution channels.

In the USA, the renaissance of comics was effected through irony and tongue-in-cheek: Peanuts by Charles Schulz became extremely popular among all ages and categories of readers, proceeding to become a sort of ‘national myth’ (Moliterni et al. 1996: 71). Artists Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko experimented with new ideas and eventually developed vulnerable superheroes who carried an all-too-human baggage of anxieties and existential problems (a trend which became especially prominent in the mid-1980s). These heroes included the Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man and, especially, Spider-Man, all published by Marvel (Horn and Secchi 1978: 34). The Fantastic Four (1961), by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were painfully aware of the responsibilities attached to their superpowers, resenting their superhuman status. This is best exemplified by Ben Grimm, the ‘thing’, whose revulsion for his grotesque and bestial appearance is overcome by his strenuous efforts to cling to the human half of his semi-animalesque nature. Other experiments were made, such as introducing more ‘politically correct’ characters. The Avengers (1963), by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, integrated within their group for the first time in comics history a coloured colleague, Black Panther (originally in the Fantastic Four), after the death of Captain America. Lobo was the first coloured cowboy in comics history who became the protagonist of his own strip (published by Dell in 1965). Lobo, however, came out in only two issues and the character disappeared after having been unjustly accused of murder (Bertieri 1969: 107). Batgirl (1967) by Bob Kane was created, in part at least, in order to redress the suspected misogyny of Batman.

In 1960 Marvel comic books sold 14 million copies, increasing to 34 million in 1965 and nearly 40 million in 1970 (Moliterni et al. 1996: 66). Marvel was closely followed by its competitor DC Comics, who also published characters destined to become classics, such as Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman, Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman. Batman (1939), originally by Bill Finger and Bob Kane (later by Gardner Fox, Frank Robbins, Carmine Infantino and others), was initially modelled on Superman but after the film Batman (1965) by Leslie H. Martinson, the TV series of 1966 and the TV animated series of 1968, he acquired more specific characteristics. Batman introduced a dark, gothic dimension into the realm of comics, as well as more than a hint of human vulnerability. Phantom (1936) came out in comic book form in 1961 while Nick Cardy created Aquaman, Teen Titans and Bat Lash for DC. Conan the Barbarian (1970) by Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas was an unlikely yet popular Marvel superhero who went on to inspire the Conan movies released in the 1980s (Sabin 1996: 150).

Successful comics launched and developed in this decade include, in the UK, Bristow (1960) by Frank Dickens, The Forsdyke Saga by Bill Tidy, Barry McKenzie by Nicholas Garland, Modesty Blaise by James Holdaway, Tiffany Jones by Pat Tourret and Jenny Butterworth, and Frazer of Africa by Frank Bellamy. The prolific and influential artist Leo Baxendale produced Wham! (1964) and proceeded to work for ‘virtually all the post-war humorous comics’ by the early 1970s. Girls’ comics also continued to thrive, evolving in the direction of glossy magazines such as Oh Boy!, My Guy, Mates and Love Affair. Sex, fashion and pop music became widespread interests here, as these publications cultivated a young consumer’s mentality (Carpenter 1983: 102, 112). In France new comics included Achille Talon by Greg, Gai Luron by Marcel Gotlib, Lieutenant Blueberry by Jean Giraud, Philemon by Fred; and in Belgium: Bernard Prince and Comanche by Herman Huppen and Greg, Chevalier Ardent by Francois Craenhals, Les Schtroumpfs by Peyo. Other popular characters emerging from the Journal de Spirou and drawn in the manner of the Charleroi school were Vieux Nick et Barbe Noire by Remacle, Marc Dacier by Paape and Charlier, Benoit Brisefer by Peyo, Boule et Bill by Roba, Cesar by Tillieux, La Rimbambelle by Roba, Les Petits Hommes by Seron, Natacha by Walthery, and Yoko Tsuno by Leloup (Moliterni et al. 1996: 74). The old guard of artists of the Brussels school, such as Herge, Edgar-Pierre Jacobs, Paul Cuvelier, Jacques Martin, Jacques Laudy and Willy Vandersteen, who had created the weekly Tintin (1946), were joined by ‘new blood’ in the persons of Greg, Godard, Dany, Dupa, Bob de Groot, Hermann, Denayer, Paape and others (Moliterni et al. 1996: 77). The ‘ligne claire’, invented by Herge in the 1920s with Tintin and characterised by simple, neat drawings, a distinctive lack of greys and shadowing, an emphasis on the brightness of the image achieved through skilful colouring and simplified human traits contrasting with laboriously detailed backgrounds, continued to thrive in the 1960s and 1970s. Michel Vaillant by Jean Graton, Albany et Sturgess (1977) by Floch and Riviere, Sam Pezzo (1979), and later Jonas Fink (1991) by Vittorio Giardino were all reliant on la ligne claire half a century later.

In Italy, traditional comics evolved in more ‘adult’ directions, paving the way for violent and erotic stories, see for instance: Diabolik (1962) by Marchesi and the sisters Giussani, Kriminal by Max Bunker, Sturmtruppen by Bonvi, Una ballata del Mare Salato and Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt. A master of adventures drawn in black and white, Pratt became later widely influential, particularly on the Argentinians Jose Munoz and Walter Fahrer (Harry Chase), the Belgian Didier Comes and the Spaniard Manfred Sommer (Moliterni et al. 1996: 113). In Spain Carlos Gimenez created Delta 99 and Dani Futuro, Victor de la Fuente Haxtur and Esteban Maroto Cinco por Infinito and Wolff (Horn and Secchi 1978: 36). In Argentina sci-fi was used as a pretext to expose the oppressive regime ruling the country. Hector German Oesterheld, who became a desaparecido in 1977, wrote the influential Eternauta (1957). Copi and Quino created Mafalda (1964), a disenchanted, humorous and candid little girl. During this decade comics started attracting critical attention. The first international conference devoted to comics was hosted in Bordighera in Italy in 1965. International exhibitions (for example, Bande Dessinnee et Figuration Narrative at the Louvre in Paris in 1967 and 75 Years of Comics at the New York Cultural Center), and permanent museums (the first one, the City Museum of Cartoon Art, was founded in Omiya, Japan in 1966) all contributed to increasing the visibility of and attention paid to comics (Horn and Secchi 1978: 37).

The 1960s and 1970s also witnessed the establishment of Japanese comics, or mangas. Originally created for ten- to eleven-year-olds, their readership quickly expanded to include all age groups and social and professional categories. The main themes are ‘dramatic stories of sports, adventure, ghosts, science fiction’ in boys’ comics, while girls’ magazines tend to emphasise ‘idealized love, featuring stylized heroes and heroines’ (Schodt 1983: 15). Scatology, violence and erotica are not uncommon to mangas and indeed the breaking of taboos must be regarded as a major contributing factor to the growth of the whole medium (Schodt 1983: 126). The main artists (mangakas) were, alongside the world-renowned Osamu Tezuka (Hi no Tori), Sanpei Shirato (Sasuke, Kamui Den), Gosei Kojima (Kozure Okami), Tetsuya Chiba (Harisu no kaze and Ashita no Joe), Takao Saito (Golgo 13), Shunji Sonoyama (Gyatoruzu), Fujio Akatsuka (Osomatsu- kun), Tatsuhiko Yamagami (Gaki Deka) and, particularly, Hiroshi Hirata and Koo Kojima (Horn and Secchi 1978: 37). Tezuka started experimenting with a sustained integration between comics and television with significant implications for the development of computer animation: by reducing the number of drawings per second to a maximum of five, he both simplified and speeded up the whole montage process, putting for the first time into practice the multi-media approach employed extensively today (Brancato 1994: 124). Akatsuka created serialised gag strips for comics magazines. These were ‘fast-paced and whacky ... his new style of irreverent parody of the real world ... cleared the way for later, more radical artists’ (Schodt 1983: 121). ‘Japanese artists’ are ‘experts at page layout’ and the use of ‘cinematic techniques of fade-out, fade-in, montage, and even superimposition’ (Schodt 1983: 20). In thess decades mangas started penetrating western markets: the USA Astro Boy, originally a comic story entitled Tetsuwan Atomu (1951) by Tezuka, came out in 1965 (Schodt 1983: 154).

The most significant innovation of the 1970s was underground comics (or ‘comix’) that witnessed at the same time a return to the origins and a freedom to experiment with new contents, including pornography and scatology. Early titles include The East Village Other and Zap Comix. Despite inevitable controversies, comix became extremely successful and helped launch famous artists such as Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat and Mr Natural) and Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) (Horn and Secchi 1978: 35). Artists such as Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, Art Spiegelman, Bernie Wrightson, Roger Brand, Denis Kitchen, Justin Green, Robert Williams, Willie Murphy and Bill Griffith refused to continue working for the traditional syndicates and joined avant-garde magazines such as Trump and Humbug (Moliterni et al. 1996: 84). European underground comics, clustered around a number of ‘fanzines’, followed from USA underground. In France, Philippe Drouillet published Lone Sloane (1966), the first Western in the history of comics to be set in a distant future and in a space age. Lone Sloane was revolutionary in that drawings were not necessarily enclosed in predetermined frames but spread out and roamed across the page, multiplying opportunities for a display of the artist’s talent (Moliterni et al. 1996: 106). The Italian underground, greatly influenced by the French artists Drouillet, Moebius, Fred and Gigi, is best represented by the provocative strip Ranxerox, by Liberatore and Tamburini (Moliterni et al. 1996: 110). In the late 1970s comics thrived Europe-wide, from the Danish Rasmus Klump to the German Roy Tiger by Rolf Kauka, to the Dutch Dzjengis Khan, to Herlock Sholmes in Yugoslavia (Horn and Secchi 1978: 36).

Horror and war comics experienced a revival. Even though horror as a genre had been censored by the ‘Comics Code’, publications such as Creepy (1964), Eerie (1965) and Vampirella (1966) by Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall, John Severin, Johnny Craig, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Gray Morrow, survived (Moliterni et al. 1996: 84). Later in the 1980s, Stephen King would script Heroes for Hope Starring the X-Men (1985) by artist Berni Wrightson. The magazine Splatter (1989) inaugurated a series of successful horror magazines in Italy for a target audience of fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds. In Italy, horror in this period is best represented by Dylan Dog (1986) by Tiziano Sclavi, achieving such popularity that it was able to sustain the faltering fortunes of its publishers Bonelli. Originally dating back to 1958 and 1961, war comics remained a favourite in the UK, in particular Warlord (1974), Battle (1975; featuring, among others, strips on the Falklands War), and Bullet (1976). Youth culture came powerfully to the fore in Italy with Penthotal (1977) and Zanardi (1980) by Andrea Pazienza, while in France Frank Margerin portrayed ironically a young man entangled in generational conflicts (Lucien (1979)).

In the years between 1970 and 1980 a number of traditional characters and publications survived or resurfaced: Dan Dare was resurrected in 1977 in 2000 AD while in 1982 Eagle ‘was revived as a glossy comic, with most of the adventure stories presented in photo-strip form’ (Carpenter 1983: 94). In Italy the Western strip Tex Willer (1948) by Gian Luigi Bonelli and Galep continued selling well through the 1970s-90s (in the 1990s approximately 800,000 monthly copies of Tex were printed and distributed). Rupert Bear, who first appeared in 1920, remained incredibly popular thanks to Rupert Weekly (1982). Dandy (1937) and Beano (1938) also retained their immense popularity among ‘boys and girls of all age groups’ (Carpenter 1983: 101). Desperate Dan (1937) and Beryl the Peril (1953) continued to thrive, together with the British version of Dennis the Menace (1951) who took over the front page of Beano in 1974. In Dandy and Beano ‘rebellious youth fearlessly challenges authority ... violence in society and in personality is acknowledged ... but neutralized by humour’ (Carpenter 1983: 102).

Three news-stand comics became particularly successful in the UK: 2000 AD (1977), Viz (1979) and Deadline (1988). All three came out as magazines and were influenced by the punk movement (Sabin 1996: 133). The closest to punk ideology and most influential of all was 2000 AD, a comic that combined science fiction and war, ‘reporting on the attempts by Judge Dredd and fellow Mega City judges to hold up the advance of the East- Meg army’ (Carpenter 1983: 117). It was set in the future in order to avoid the controversies and censorship incurred by its precursor Action (1976). Its success was largely due to the number of excellent writers, including Pat Mills, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Alan Grant; artists such as Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson and Kevin O’Neill, many of whom had become famous through underground comix; and, last but not least, its charismatic protagonist Judge Dredd. ‘By the early 1980s, 2000 AD was selling around 120,000 an issue’ which was impressive ‘in the context of the market conditions prevailing at the time’ (Sabin 1996: 138).

In the 1980s French comics became internationally renowned and France the undisputed leader in producing ‘artistic’ comics, frequently published in monthlies such as Metal Hurlant (1975) by Margerin and Vuillemin, A Suivre (1978), by Tardi, Cabanes, Benoit, Montellier, Schuiten and Pilote (1959), the latter conflated in 1986 with Charlie Mensuel to create Pilote et Charlie. All three welcomed international contributions and an equally international panel of artists (Moliterni et al. 1996: 108-9). French comics of this time deeply influenced European comics at large and, in particular, the German artists Birger Grave, Andreas Marschall and Matthias Schultheiss, as well as a number of Argentinean artists exiled in the 1970s, such as Munoz, Sampayo, Juan Gimenez and Horacio Altuna, who used French comic books as a springboard to reach wider readerships (Moliterni et al. 1996: 121-2). In Italy, the French influence was apparent in the new wave of culturally and aesthetically engaged magazines such as Linus, Pilot, Orient Express, Comic Art, Totem and Eureka. Famous artists who welcomed French influences, such as Giardino, Magnus, Manara and Bilal, emerged in this period. Altan’s spotty dog La Pimpa (1975), created for young children, became famous in the pages of 1l Corriere dei Piccoli. In 1980 Massimo Mattioli produced Squeak the Mouse, inspired by USA underground, while Lorenzo Mattotti founded the review Valvoline (Moliterni et al. 1996: 121).

American and European comics engaged in a fruitful dialogue. The genre of ‘heroic fantasy’, fashionable in the USA in the 1970s, became prominent in Europe after Regis Loisel and Serge Le Tendre published La Quite de l’oiseau du temps (1982) in Charlie Mensuel. On the other hand, the European revolution in graphic art also influenced to some extent the traditional USA strip. The acclaimed Superman movie of 1978, starring Christopher Reeve, boosted sales of the comic book (Sabin 1996: 151) and Superman’s legend was then elaborated on by John Byrne in the series The Man of Steel (1987) where Superman’s identity is no longer a secret for Lois Lane. Frank Miller’s extraordinary The Dark Knight’s Return (1984) featured an aging, self-doubting Batman who influenced deeply the film Batman by Tim Burton (1989), a postmodern portrayal that incorporated further influences from Japanese mangas and European artists. Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, who had both contributed to drawing The Dark Knight’s Return, created the sci- fi series Watchmen (1986), intent at revisiting the superhero myth, emphasising his schizophrenic identity, ideological ambiguity, and social and political anxieties. Watchmen immediately became a cult series, boasting more than three million readers worldwide (Frezza 1995: 182; Moliterni et al. 1996: 111-12).

The 1980s are characterised by the birth and development of cyberpunk comics, based on a hegemony of electronics and genetics, the explosion of the modernist metropolis, the revenge of the slums, and creeping fears relating to an all-encompassing technocracy. In Ronin (1983) by Frank Miller, east and west, comics and television, mangas (the Japanese samurai classic Kozure Okami was credited as Miller’s main inspiration) and superheroes, cybernetics and punk overlap in what Brancato aptly termed a ‘semiotic gridlock’ (Brancato 1994: 118-19; Schodt 1983: 156). Comics of the 1980s tend to reflect apocalyptic fears embedded in western technological economies, also prominent in related films such as Tron (1982), Terminator, Robocop and Hardware (1990). A precursor of cyberpunk comics was The Long Tomorrow (1975) by Moebius and Dan O’Bannon (who also wrote the script for the film Alien). Inspired by the novel The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, The Long Tomorrow is set in a megalopolis later reproduced by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, and it became extremely influential on cyberpunk comics (Brancato 1994: 121). Comics fed more frequently than ever before into film, and the reverse was also true when ‘virtually every new movie released for a children’s or teen audience had its comic counterpart’ (Sabin 1996: 132). By the same process television series and characters generated comic counterparts, as best exemplified by the enormously successful Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (1990) and The Simpsons by Matt Groening, generating a comic strip in 1999.

In the 1980s, Japan’s massive production of mangas was translated into a variety of media and distributed through a wide network of channels of consumption (Brancato 1994: 124-7). Mangas now included two new areas: home videos and home computers. Animated cartoons (anime) became lucrative spin-offs of comic magazines: ‘in 1981 there were over a hundred animated programs showing on Japanese television. More than half ... were based on comic stories’ stimulating ‘further sales of magazines, reprints of comic paperbacks, and massive merchandising’ (124-7) (see for instance the series Candy Candy, serialised in 1975 in Kddansha’s Nakayoshi and animated for television in the same year by the animation company Tdei. Some $650 million was earned in profit from merchandise carrying the licensed image of Candy Candy). By the mid-1980s, the comic paperback series had sold 13.5 million copies (Schodt 1983: 146-7). In the period 1984-5, animation series like Voltron, Defender of the Universe, Robotech, Transformers and Gobots spread Japanese animation, comics and merchandise worldwide (Schodt 1983: 156). New series were also released on videotape. Cyberpunk overlapped with mangas to produce cybermangas, for example, Akira (1982) by Katsushiro Otomo and especially Appleseed (1985) by Masamune Shirow, who specialised in catastrophic scenarios. From 1982, samurais, the Japanese equivalent of American superheroes, became recurrent figures in comic magazines for young men (Schodt 1983: 70, 77-8). Japanese mangas were also exported successfully to the whole Far East: Korea’s equivalent (manhuas) were best represented by Hyun Se Lee who became renowned after publishing Gongpoui Oeingundan (1982) and Armageddon, manhua (1988), also available as a cartoon animation film in 1996. Comics in Hong Kong enjoyed the multi-cultural influence of Japan, China and the USA and produced extremely original work as a result. Tony Wong (or Wong Yuk Long), who was particularly influenced by Chinese painting and stories, published Legend of an Emperor, Clique of Brave and Justice and Master of Sword. The skilful use of colour and computer graphics employed by Andy Seto (Cyber Weapon 2), Patrick Yu (Celia) and, particularly, Chris Lau (Club Mad) can be attributed to the influence of American comics. Finally, Taiwan showed European influences in the sci-fi series Baron by Tend Bo-Wen and Lin Chi and The Shadow of the Moon by Weijung Lu. Comic, the Love Story by Eiderdy, on the other hand, relied on purely Oriental sources (Pesci et al. 1999: 182-3). Finally, South Korea and even China did not remain insensitive to Japanese mangas (Schodt 1983: 156).

The 1980s inaugurated the era of interactive video-games growing, to a large extent, to the detriment of comic magazines. On the other hand, video-games borrowed extensively from traditional comics, employing, for example, the stories of Mickey Mouse, Flash Gordon, Peanuts and Judge Dredd (Brancato 1994: 135). Mangas also featured prominently in video-games, such as Pokemon and, in the late 1990s, Parasite Eve. Comics in the 1980s also interfaced more frequently with advertising, competing more and more fiercely with USA and Japanese cartoon animation (the ‘Disney Channel’, broadcasting exclusively Disney films and cartoons, was launched in 1983) and interactive games on videotape. Traditional comics found strategies of survival, such as paperback publishing, developing merchandising and collectors’ items, and adapting to new technologies able to supplement or integrate information technology. Probably the best-known computergenerated comic is Digital Justice (1989-90) a cyberpunk computer-graphic story featuring Batman and designed by Pepe Moreno with a Macintosh II 8 Mega Ram computer (Brancato 1994: 136). The first proper example of a digital comic was Shatter (1984) by Mike Saenz, also with the aid of a Macintosh computer (Saenz proceeded to develop Iron Man: Crash, a virtual version of ‘Iron Man’ commissioned by Marvel, and Donna Matrix in 1993). The process seems to have reversed now with comics launched on the Internet prior to being released on paper: the first example is probably the basketball manga Buzzer Beater (1997) by Takehiko Inoue (see also Nibelung Ring II by Leiji Matsumoto). While the graphic rendering of digital comics remained somewhat unsatisfactory, info-comics seemed to be a more appealing product. Info-comics are more like video-games since they are entirely supported by computer technology. They are also interactive, allowing users to select alternative developments in the plot via their computer keyboard (Brancato 1994: 137). Another interesting hybridisation of comics with animation is animekomikkusu, or ‘animation comics’: ‘full-color comic paperbacks that are created not from the original comic artwork but from a print of an animated film’ (Schodt 1983: 147). There is now a range of comics published exclusively on the World Wide Web. They have not, however, replaced comics on paper. Periodicals such as Web Comics provide mangas and computer-generated illustrations both in print and on-line (Pesci et al. 1999: 172).

The 1990s witnessed the demise of long-running children’s periodicals such as Tintin (or Tintin Reporter) in 1989 and Pif in 1993. Hello Bede and Vecu also closed down in 1993. In the 1990s there was a general return to favour of comics aimed at teenagers, the so-called ‘bit-generation’. Crossovers, ‘elseworlds’ and self-referential, nostalgic re-readings prevailed. DC and Marvel superheroes, presented in ‘trash’ or demented versions of their previously idealised selves, continued to find a market - see for instance the series Marvels (1994) by Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek. Marvels relates the advent of Marvel superheroes, from Submariner and Captain America, through to Thor, the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spider-Man, and their impact on the daily life of the average American citizen (Giromini et al. 1996: 274-5). DC on the other hand skilfully orchestrated The Death of Superman (1992) by the hands of Doomsday. All DC characters attended Superman’s funeral, a device already used effectively in the 1980s, following the death of Batman’s alter ego, Robin (Marvel had also used it, featuring a battery of superheroes paying respect to a defunct Captain Marvel). Four Superman alter egos resurrected in four different publications: Superman, Adventures of Superman, Action Comics and Man of Steel, providing an opportunity for the old hero to be rejuvenated and re-launched worldwide (Giromini et al. 1996: 275-6). Batman revivals also abounded in this period: from Batman Adventures (1992), inspired by the TV cartoon animation series, to Legends of the Dark Knight by Kevin O’Neill and Mike McMahon, and Catwoman (1993) by Jim Balent, Mary Jo Duffy, Chick Dixon and others. In 1991 Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino left Marvel and founded an independent company called Image, releasing, among others, Spawn (1992). Marvel UK issued the sophisticated ClanDestine (1994) by Alan Davis.

In the mid-1990s, a hundred years after comics began, the Italian scene was dominated by cyberpunk comics circulated in the magazines Decoder and Cyborg (1991) by Daniele Brolli, Davide Fabbri, Onofrio Catacchio, Massimo Semerano, Marco Nizzoli, Antonio Fara, Francesca Ghermandi and Giuseppe Palumbo. The popular sci-fi series Nathan Never by Michele Medda, Antonio Serra, Bepi Vigna and Claudio Castellini, was published by Bonelli in 1991 (Brancato 1994: 131). Sales of indigenous comics dropped significantly in the UK as American comics continued to be preferred (see, for instance, the magazine Zenith (1986) by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell (Sabin 1996: 140)). In Japan mangas were more popular than ever. In 1989 the Japanese spent over 440 billion yen in purchasing mangas, and these figures are constantly rising. There are more than 300 weekly titles selling up to 5 million copies each, representing a 33 per cent share of the whole publishing market. The weekly Shonen Jump, a best seller for a good number of years, was replaced by its rival Shonen Magazine when sales of the former decreased to 4 million copies while sales of the latter escalated to 5 million. Mangas attract millions of readers. There are mangas for each age group, social and professional category, individual tastes and preferences (Brancato 1994: 128; Pesci et al. 1999: 175). Shojo mangas, for instance, are intended for female readers aged between six and eighteen, while shonen mangas are intended for boys. Usually drawn by female mangakas, such as Taeko Watanabe (Hajimechanga ichiban), Mariko Nakamura (Girlboy!), Nanae Haruno (Papa Told Me), Kyoko Okazaki (Pink) and Moyoko Anno (Happy Mania was turned into a soap opera broadcast by the Fuji TV channel in 1998), shojo mangas ‘do not always reflect a ... feminist consciousness’ (Schodt 1983: 97). They also typically either derive from or generate successful TV series, as was the case with Sailormoon, Manatsu no Koibito, Angel Wars, Oh! My Darling, to quote just a few (Pesci et al. 1999: 175). Extremely popular shojo manga magazines include Ribbon, Nakayoshi, Special Edition Margaret, tankobons, that is, small volumes collecting mangas previously published elsewhere in serialised form; and dojinshi (‘fanzines’) specialising in parodies (aniparo) of popular mangas, anime and video-games, spawning a large series of sub-genres (Pesci et al. 1999: 175; Sabucco 2000: 35). In 1997 the biggest publishers were Shueisha (26.8 per cent), Kodansha (23.5 per cent), and Shogakkan (21.3 per cent) (Pesci et al. 1999: 175; Schodt 1983: 14). Mangas continued spreading westwards in the 1990s; in Europe, Spain, Italy and Germany were particularly receptive to their influence whereas France and Belgium remained largely unaffected. In the USA the ostensible influence of mangas was negligible and yet apparent in the exasperated graphics used in re-drawing indigenous characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonderwoman (Moliterni et al. 1996: 126-7).

The contemporary scene is characterised by more articulate and complex cross-pollination between comics and television (including digital and satellite TV), cinema, literature, video-games, Internet and computer software, graphics and animation in general. While film continues to influence comics, comics continue to inspire the film industry, thanks to the development of computer graphics and digital technologies: see for instance the films The Fifth Element (1998) by Luc Besson, engaging in a dialogue with comics by Jordan, Jean Claude Mezieres and Moebius, and also Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers, who include a number of visual quotations taken from the Marvel strip Shang-Chi (Frezza 1999: 115, 120). The synergy between comics and film is well illustrated by The Mask, originally a comic strip in Mayhem (1989), subsequently turned into a film starring Jim Carrey, which in turn inspired a new comic in 1994, by Mike Richardson and Kilian Plunkett (Giromini et al. 1996: 282). The Hollywood blockbuster Daredevil (2002), starring Ben Affleck, revives the Marvel superhero in film form with the aid of increasingly sophisticated special effects. These synergies and cross-fertilisations are also currently projecting comics in more intercultural and international directions. Marvel and DC, for instance, now employ European artists more frequently. Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic comics have also appeared, following prominent social and cultural trends (Frezza 1999: 19-20, 22). Renowned artists today include Lewis Trondheim (Blacktown), O’Groj and Nicholas de Crecy (Moliterni et al. 1996: 124-5). Young artists such as Anders Brekhus Nilsen (Nothingness: Big Questions # 5) and women artists such as Debbie Drechsler (Daddy’s Girl, Summer of Love) have also come to the fore. Sin City (1996), a postmetropolitan comic created by Frank Miller, is also worthy of note. The genre of heroic fantasy, best illustrated in France by the series Donjon (1998), an epic saga constantly undercut by humour and irony, by Trondheim, Joann Sfar and Christopher Blain, is popular in Europe (Comics Journal 2002: 51). Tintin et les heritiers details in comic form the legal disputes involved in securing the copyright of the lucrative Tintin comics, following the death of Herge (Giordani 2000: 13). The French sci-fi magazine Metal Hurlant is being re-issued in comic-book form in English as Metal Hurlant #1 (2002): computer colouring and lettering have now replaced the airbrushing techniques preferred in the original. Other traditional publications revived recently include The Rocket’s Blast and The Comicollector (2002), based on the 1970s American series. In the USA, Stan Lee filed a $10 million lawsuit against Marvel, whom he alleges are withholding profits from Spider-Man, the blockbuster movie (Comics Journal 2002: 29). Comics enjoy a healthy circulation in Portugal thanks to the activities of long-established publishers Asa, Devir, Book Tree and more recent initiatives from Witloof, Iman and Polvo (the last of these is publishing Portugal’s rising star, artist Pedro Brito (Comics Journal 2002: 22)). In Italy, comics have continued to shift from the newsagent to the specialised bookshop. A decrease in sales has, however, been compensated by an improvement in aesthetic quality and editing at large.

The advent of global economies and global markets ensures the survival and dissemination of traditional characters throughout the developed world, from the recent Hollywood blockbuster movie X-Men, to text-messaging on mobile phones, frequently accompanied by logos featuring characters such as Mickey Mouse, Peanuts and the Simpsons, to phone cards bearing images of Disney and other characters (see the series ‘Pippo olimpionico’ or ‘Olympic Goofy’ in Italy, and also Tintin in Belgium and mangas in Japan) which have now become highly collectable items. In short, the daily activities, as well as the free time, of children and teenagers are saturated with comics and there are no signs of comics losing their powerful hold on the collective imagination of young consumers worldwide.



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Carpenter, K. (1983) Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: English Periodicals for Children from Victorian Times to the Present Day, London: Victoria and Albert Museum.

Comics Journal (2002) 249: 1-128.

Frezza, G. (1995) La macchina del mito tra film e fumetti, Florence: La Nuova Italia.

- (1999) Fumetti, anime del visibile, Rome: Meltemi.

Gifford, D. (1975) Happy Days: A Century of Comics, London: Jupiter.

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Giromini, F., Martelli, M., Pavesi, E. et al. (1996) ‘Anni Novanta’, Gulp! 100 Anni a Fumetti, Milan: Electa, 272-93.

Horn, M. (ed) (1981) The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, New York and London: Chelsea House.

Horn, M. and Secchi, L. (1978) Enciclopedia mondiale del fumetto, Milan: Corno.

Moliterni, C., Mellot, P. and Denni, M. (1996) Il fumetto: Cent’anni di avventura, Trieste: Libraria/Electa/Gallimard.

Perry, G. and Aldridge, A. (1971) The Penguin Book of Comics, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Pesci, R., Baglini, C. and Castellazzi, D. (1999) ‘I manga di fine secolo’, If(Immagini and Fumetti): Mangamania: 20 anni di Giappone in Italia-Cartoon Comics ’99, Milan: Epierre, 172-83.

Sabin, R. (1996) Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, London: Phaidon.

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Schodt, F. L. (1983) Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, New York: Kodansha International.


Further reading

Arcieri, M., De Vito, M. and Mercuri, S. (n.d., c. 1987) I Bonelli: 50 anni di fumetti, Reggio Calabria: La Striscia.

Comic Art (1984) 1: 1-120.

Crompton, A. (1985) The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, Bournemouth: Who Dares.

Farr, M. (2001) Tintin: The Complete Companion, London: John Murray.

Guerrera, M. (1995) Storia del fumetto: Autori e personaggi dalle origini a oggi, Rome: Newton Compton.

Gundle, S. (2002) ‘Comics’, in Hainsworth, P. and Robey, D. (eds) The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 140.

Manetti, F. (1996) ‘Praterie, citta e galassie: Il collezionista nella dimensione bonelliana’, If (Immagini and Fumetti): Collezionismo e collezionisti. Guida ai rarissimi cartoonomics ’97, 6: 104-13.

Semellini, O. (2001) Fumetteria dello spazio, Milan: Unicopli.

Strazzulla, G. (ed) (1970) Enciclopedia dei fumetti, Florence: Sansoni.

Traini, R. (ed) (1971) Autobiografia del fumetto americano, Rome: Salone Internazionale dei Comics.