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Brief History of American Comics

Brief History of American Comics
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American comics have spent quite a lot of time in the pupal stage, though not without undergoing many changes and birthing many different styles throughout. 

Many attribute the first comic to Ben Franklin on May 9, 1754, when the Pennsylvania Gazette published Franklin’s woodcut Join, or Die, a political cartoon which depicted a snake cut into sections representing the American colonies. It was created in conjunction with his editorial promoting colonial unity. Although political cartoons today still follow the same one panel, satirical edge as Ben Franklin’s (if not more acerbic and refined), it’s hard to say how much of a direct effect it had on the rest of comics to come.

Newspapers in the late 19th century started publishing full comic strips with the birth of The Yellow Kid, a strip about a snaggle-toothed boy in an oversized yellow shirt who hung around slums and typified the lower income areas of contemporary New York City. Made with adults in mind, the comic often addressed racial and class issues. Other strips emerged, such as Mutt and Jeff and Little Nemo in Slumberland. This was closely tied to the invention of the color press.
More specifically, funny comic strips soon followed. After enough of them were published, it was inevitable that someone would then compile them into the first comic book. This happened in 1929, with the publication of The Funnies.

Publishers soon surpassed the publication speed of newspapers and began seeking out new material instead of reprints of old comics. Thus began the Golden Age of Comic Books. Many mark the beginning with the publication of the first issue of Action Comic, Superman (1938). The first superhero to get his own comic book, Superman was not the first superhero. Characters like Popeye, The Phantom, and The Clock appeared in newspapers and in the back of Funny Pages issues up to three years prior.
Most of comics at this time carried a bigger agenda. The Golden Age sprang up around the time of the Great Depression and World War II and used many superheroes to inspire kids to find heroes again. Comics also served as propaganda devices for pro-American, anti-enemy sentiments. Captain America for example, born in 1941, became a kind of Uncle Sam of the comic book world, and was often seen fighting hideously portrayed versions of Nazis and Japanese.

Characters, writers, and the readers’ concept of the comic book evolved, particularly with the coming of the modern age. Characters grew more complex, science began to take a front seat in stories, backstories became more realistic, and many superheroes comics began taking on humanistic problems such as alcoholism and love affairs. That evolution led to the 1986 publication of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which gained recognition and awards in the literary world. While light hearted, funny comics are still being published today, 1986 helped the world realize that comic books could and would do much more.

By Thad Higa
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