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Comics historians might argue that the first comics were cave paintings depicting battles and tribal rituals, but American comics began in 1895, with the publication of the first newspaper strip, The Yellow Kid by R.F. Outcault. The comic strip form caught the attention of the reading public and, as a result, the comic strip became very popular in the early part of this century. Sunday and daily comic strips continue to be featured in almost every newspaper in the United States.
Comic books didn't become popular until the 1930s, and were initially reprints of newspaper strips. However, with the growing popularity of pulp fiction, publishers were looking for new ways to compete in the market. Soon, original stories started appearing in comic book periodicals that previously only reprinted strips. For many people who observe the field peripherally, the 1930s remain the defining moment of comic book history: many of the superheroes who remain popular today were created in the years just prior to World War II.
As a genre, comic books mirrored popular culture. Comic books in the early 1940s had a distinctly patriotic flavor-indeed, many were straight-out Allied propaganda. Those in the 1950shad a more conservative tone-it was in this decade that the romance and Western comics flourished. Coexisting with those, however, was a radical strain-the EC horror, crime, and science fiction comics. The 1950s were also the period when the comic book field came under attack as deleterious to the morals of American youth. Dr. Frederic Wertham's book, The Seduction of the Innocent, blamed juvenile delinquency on the effect of comic books. Worried, comic book publishers, created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which created guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable content. EC dropped its radical comics rather than adopt the CCA's rules, and turned Mad magazine into a newsstand periodical not bound by the new regulations. Romances and Westerns flourished.
Superhero comics returned in the late 1950s and flourished in the 1960s. As America had become a more introspective society, the new superheroes, embodied by Spider-Man, were imbued with phobias and challenges. The 1960s also witnessed the emergence of underground comix, which expressed discontent with middle-American values. Superhero and other mainstream comic books were sold in drugstores and newsstands; underground comix couldn't be sold there because they were not approved by the CCA. Instead, they were sold where their intended audience shopped: head shops. This was the first time anyone in the comics field attempted to niche market; previously, comic book publishers had attempted to sell to the largest audience possible, but the underground comix' success proved that one could make a profit by appealing directly to readers with a similar political ideal or artistic aesthetic as the comics' creators.
In the early 1970s, the comic book convention was initiated, allowing comic book dealers direct access to collectors. The comic book industry was beginning to turn inside. At conventions, rare and prized comic books were sold at collector's prices. Soon, the comic book specialty shop was pioneered: a place where underground comix and mainstream comics found common ground, perhaps because both strains of popular culture existed outside the mainstream. As a concept, the comic book specialty shop thrived in part because the forum allowed publishers direct contact with their readership. As a result, many publishers experimented with different kinds of books, directed at different segments of the comic book store patronage.
Other factors were important as well. Comic book creators in the United States were utilizing cartooning methods developed by Japanese and European creators, bringing a new sophistication into American comic books. Underground comix moved closer to the mainstream and used accepted comic book characters to examine attitudes and beliefs previously left unexplored by more conventional comic book creators.
In the 1980s, superheroes became societal outcasts, burdened with complex personalities and problems. These were stories not meant for ten-year-olds, but ten-year-olds who had matured but still liked reading comics. Artwork became more expressive and storylines increasingly demanding. Comic books featuring heroes that weren't so super grew more intricate and literary than they had been previously. Comic book readers had to grow more literate to comprehend the involved storylines. Ironically, comics became more literate at the same time that national reading scores began to decline.
The graphic novel grew out of experimentation in the comic book field in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and attempted to create a sophisticated story, told in comic book format, in one full-length book. The form became popular with readers who tired of visiting their favorite (or any!) comic book shop only to find that the next issue of the storyline they were interested in was unavailable. By the end of the 1980s, several publishers ceased producing serials, and concentrated their efforts solely on graphic novels. It also proved a handy format for collecting self-contained stories that ran over several issues.
Now, over a century after The Yellow Kid, the graphic novel comes in many forms: the strip collection that started it all is still going strong, as are reprints of other serialized stories, with original works still being published ranging from the historical to the biographical, and from high adventure to low comedy.
And who knows what this new century might bring?
The 101 Best Graphic Novels
Narrowing the tremendous field of choices to 101 was difficult enough-to rank them within that would be impossible. Therefore the following list is in the indiscrimate form of alphabetical by creator(s). Each entry is also given an indicator as to reading level: C for all ages; Y for all ages above 12; A: adults, too complex for children. Note well that these choices were made based on what is currently in print and available!
Allred, Michael. Madman: The Oddity Odyssey. Acacia Press, 1999, $14.95, ISBN 087816314X, BLDBLD
Madman is a charmingly goofy hero in the tradition of the 1960s Batman television series rather than the brutally realistic Batman movies of the 1980s and 1990s. This first book of his adventures finds Madman at the clutches of his arch enemy, Mr. Monstadt, fighting for the secret journals of Dr. Boiffard!
Aragones, Sergio & Mark Evanier. Groo & Rufferto. Dark Horse, 2000, $9.95, ISBN 1569714479, BLDBLD
This spoof of the barbarian comic popularized by Marvel's Conan comics of the 1970s features the helpless, hapless, and hopeless barbarian Groo. Aragones honed his craft as an artist at MAD magazine, and his skill is consummate and his product hilarious. Other titles include Groo: The Most Intelligent Man in the World, The Groo Bazaar, The Groo Houndbook, The Groo Inferno, and The Life of Groo.
Bagge, Peter. Hey Buddy! Volume 1 of the Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from Hate. Fantagraphics Books, 1995, $12.95, ISBN 1560971134, A
Hate is Peter Bagge's ode to those who live on the edge, whose world consists of comic book shops, used record and book stores, and whose idea of horror is holding a job requiring some responsibility. Hey Buddy! is an engaging look at peripheral people who exist primarily for the next issue, next CD, or next book sale. One can sense the influence of Robert Crumb in these black-and-white illustrations.
Baker, Kyle. Why I Hate Saturn. DC Comics, 1998 (reprint of 1990 edition), $17.95, ISBN 0930289722, Y
Annie and Ricky are fringe players, who eke out a living as columnists for Daddy-O, a magazine appealing to the the hip and disenfranchised. When Annie's crazy sister suddenly reappears, Annie is forced to make a commitment to someone other than herself. In doing so, she willingly puts herself in danger and confronts the U.S. military. Why I Hate Saturn is saturated with irreverance and tongue-in-cheek humor.
Bechdel, Alison. Dykes to Watch Out For. Firebrand Books, 1995, $8.95, ISBN 0932379176, A
This early novella of lesbian friends and lovers Clarice, Toni, Lois, and Mo are funny, insightful, and heartbreaking. The universality of the characters and the situations makes this book of interest to anyone intrigued by romantic trauma and career dilemmas. Other titles include Dykes to Watch Out For: The Sequel; Hot Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For; More Dykes to Watch Out For, New Improved! Dykes to Watch Out For, Post-Dykes to Watch Out For; Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For, and Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For.
Bendis, Brian Michael. Fortune and Glory. Oni Press, 2000, $14.95, ISBN 1929998066, Y
This book is a "journal" in comics form of successful comic book writer Bendis's experiences while trying to break into the world of Hollywood screen writing. A good choice for non-comic book readers, and a biting look at the movie industry.
Brabner, Joyce, Harvey Pekar & Frank Stack. Our Cancer Year. Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1994, $17.95, ISBN 1568580118, A
This account of Pekar's battle with cancer as told by him and his coauthor/wife Brabner is illustrated with compassion by Frank Stack. The result is a gut-wrenching reading experience.
Briggs, Raymond. Ethel & Ernest. Jonathan Cape, 1998, $21.00, ISBN 0224046624, Y.
Briggs is possibly the premier cartoonist publishing exclusively with major publishing houses, and any new work of his deserves a very careful reading. Here, we are presented with a story for adults, the cartoon version of Briggs' parents lives. What comes across is a social history of Britain from the years prior to the Second World War to the death of both Briggs' parents in 1971, as his parents lives and his own are caught within larger political events.
Briggs, Raymond. The Snowman. Random House, 1995 (reprint of 1978 edition), $3.99, ISBN 0679872736, BLDBLD
This magical adventure of a boy and his snowman teaches children about various stages of life. Told wordlessly, readers follow nameless characters on a journey through life to death.
Brown, Chester. I Never Liked You. Drawn & Quarterly, 1994, $12.95, ISBN 0969670168, A
Brown's biting commentary on adolescent insecurity and search for love is moving and true to life. The book design is particularly effective in conveying teen isolation and yearning. Clearly, this is one of best graphic novels articulating a realistic coming of age. For readers who read (and re-read) J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
Burns, Charles. Big Baby. Fantagraphics Books, 1999, $24.95, ISBN 1560973617, A
Tony's overactive imagination is stimulated by television and comic books, but somehow his imaginary world clarifies the real world as the two intersect in each of these 4 stories. Exquisitely rendered in black and white, these stories both parody and articulate the repressive culture of 1950's America. Also of interest: EL BORBAH(Fantagraphics).
Busiek, Kurt & Brent Anderson. Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Life in the Big City. DC Comics, 2000 (reprint of 1996 edition), $19.95, ISBN 156389551X, Y
This tribute to golden age superhero lore is a charmer. Busiek plays both raconteur and historian in this collection of volumes from the serial, as he aptly tells a variety of tales about the heroes of Astro City, from the Samaritan, who quests for a normal life but is prevented from it by world-saving and crime fighting, to a lowly thug who accidentally discovers Jack-in-the-Box's secret identity, a revelation that does not bring him the good fortune he expects. Anderson's illustrations are slow and musing, providing a good vehicle for these stories. Other titles include Family Album and Confessions.
Excerpted from the 101 BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS by Stephen Weiner Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Weiner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Very Short History of Comics and Graphic Novels||11|
|The 101 Best Graphic Novels||17|
|Novels Featuring Comic Book Characters||59|
|Further Reading About and Related to Comics||67|