Comic Books Incorporated: How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood

Comic Books Incorporated: How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood

by Shawna Kidman

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Comic Books
tells the story of the US comic book business, reframing the history of the medium through an industrial and transmedial lens. Comic books wielded their influence from the margins and in-between spaces of the entertainment business for half a century before moving to the center of mainstream film and television production. This extraordinary history begins at the medium’s origin in the 1930s, when comics were a reviled, disorganized, and lowbrow mass medium, and surveys critical moments along the way—market crashes, corporate takeovers, upheavals in distribution, and financial transformations. Shawna Kidman concludes this revisionist history in the early 2000s, when Hollywood had fully incorporated comic book properties and strategies into its business models and transformed the medium into the heavily exploited, exceedingly corporate, and yet highly esteemed niche art form we know so well today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520297562
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 682,728
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Shawna Kidman is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

Read an Excerpt


Incorporating Comics

A Brief Transmedia History of the U.S. Comic Book Industry


There are many histories of the American comic book in print. They tell both truth and lore, often detailing the backstories of fans' favorite characters and creators. This is not one of those histories, in three important ways. First, it offers a reperiodization. Most popular accounts look to the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages to break down the development of the comic book. Each of these eras refers to a stage in the evolution of the superhero, many of which were conceived and developed during the Golden Age of the 1940s. They were resurrected and reconceived for a more established readership during the Silver Age of the late 1950s and 1960s. And they were reimagined as more sophisticated and relevant during the Bronze Age of the 1970s and early 1980s. While this framework allows for flexibility, as well as the addition of new ages (critics have proposed Iron, Dark, and Modern Ages too), its underlying emphasis on superheroes sidelines the medium's many other notable genres and formats.

Moreover, its preoccupation with comic book content sometimes comes at the expense of good history. This tends to happen when an event that was important to readers, workers, or publishers failed to directly impact the evolution of the superhero and, as such, gets relegated as a footnote of this framework (e.g., the 1954 market crash, the 1967 purchase of DC Comics, or the 1978 release of the Superman movie). To remedy this, historians have offered a number of alternative periodizations, but none has caught on quite yet. So I offer one more here, in the hope that it may be more relevant in the current moment, when the comic book adaptation is generally outshining the comic book itself. Pegged to the development of licensing instead of publishing, this framework also consists of three major periods: an establishing era (1933–1954), a phase of crisis and experimentation (1955–1988), and an age of institutionalization (1989–2010). In deemphasizing comic book content and its creative evolution, this periodization has the benefit of an unencumbered look at other facets of comic book development.

That brings us to a second distinguishing feature: this brief history takes industry as its focus. In so doing, it deemphasizes questions about aesthetics, narratives, and creators, which are already the focus of many excellent books about comics. These cultural histories excel at showing how readers interpreted meanings, appropriated texts, and navigated this mass medium in ways that have enriched their lives and enhanced the social and cultural impact of the comic books themselves. They also, unfortunately, often minimize the importance of industry actions, by either ignoring the business of comic books entirely or giving it only a minor role. This history shifts the comic book industry from the margins of the narrative to its center. It thus offers a different perspective, one motivated by questions of power and rooted in institutional, economic, and political context. These concerns come from a long tradition of media and communication scholarship that has made the culture industries a critical focus of study. A substantial body of work ranging from critical theorists like Theodor Adorno to political economists like Herb Schiller reminds us of the tremendous influence media-makers can have on all facets of life, from presidential elections to American ideological values to basic social patterns. When we restrict ourselves to examining only the end use of media (point of consumption, audience experience, the text itself) and not development, production, and distribution, this power can fade from view. With that in mind, this history examines the comic book industry — including the workers, the companies, the everyday business practices, the organizational rules, etc. — as a determining influence on both the comic books themselves and the society that consumes them.

Finally, this account positions comic books as being, fundamentally and quintessentially, a transmedial form. Henry Jenkins has defined a transmedia story as any that "unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole." Comic book stories tend to fit this category exceedingly well, to which anyone who has been to a movie theater or turned on a television in the last twenty years can easily attest. Characters born in comics often leap off the page to appear in not only film and television but video games, toys, novels, and even fine art. There can be no doubt, then, that comic books adapt well across media. Conventional wisdom, however, largely identifies this adaptability across media platforms as a relatively new phenomenon. And many fans assume that comic book characters used to live primarily in the pages of the comic books themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth: comic books and comic book characters have been groomed for adaptation almost from their inception.

Despite this, some fans and scholars have historically been (perhaps overly) invested in the boundaries that define comic books as comic books; whether big movie studios choose to adapt them or not, the thesis goes, the medium-specific qualities of the form are paramount. Medium specificity is a condition in which artwork is essentially constituted by the characteristic qualities of the raw material of its form. This idea dictates that any text in any form should, ideally, respond to the specific physical elements of that form and fulfill that medium's representational potential. Under this guiding principle, a character or story created to shine in a comic book — embodied by both the flatness of the page and the brightness of the color, by the borders of the panels and the limitations of the physical pages — could hardly be the best subject of a film, which boasts a vastly different (though not necessarily superior) set of affordances.

Instead of critiquing the nature of transmedial adaptations, this history celebrates them and acknowledges their significance. More specifically, it highlights the extent to which comic books have always functioned as a springboard for transmedia. Never bound by its printed form, this medium and the stories it has generated have long lived between and across other media. Far from limiting their development, this itinerant existence has been the core of comic books' power and creativity. (For a complete list of comic book adaptations in film and television, from 1940 to 2010, see Appendix A.)


Before beginning this industrial transmedia history, it is important to establish exactly how and why the media industries at large have considered comic book stories so ripe for transmedia exploitation. Scholars have offered a variety of explanations, particularly as adaptations become ever more common in the digital era. Jared Gardener, for example, points to the development of home video and digital viewing technologies that allow film audiences to consume texts in the same way comic book fans read comics. That is, they go at their own speed and stop, rewind, start over, zoom in, and freeze frame as they please, analyzing the story in a far more layered and complex fashion. As a result, Gardner argues, the two media have moved closer together, pursuing similar visual and story elements (like the Easter egg) that celebrate these shared possibilities. While Gardner's observation here, among explanations from many other scholars, is insightful, the long history of comic books' transmediality and the extent to which it was so often driven by industrial as opposed to creative needs points in a different direction. The medium's regulatory, legal, and financial history offers an abundance of reasons as to why corporate multimedia producers have been adapting comic books for so many decades.

One factor in particular has played a determining role in comic books' tendency to cross between media: copyrightability. Comic book characters are among the easiest properties to copyright and trademark, a characteristic that makes them attractive to licensors as well as corporations interested in exploiting synergies. As legal scholar Leslie Kurtz has explained, this is largely due to their pictorial nature, which makes them less abstract and, accordingly, easier to protect against copyright infringement than most literary characters; visuality makes the ideas behind comic books seem more concrete and well-defined. This becomes especially clear in the context of the courtroom, where images have often been the subject of seemingly more objective side-by-side comparisons. A similarity in appearance between two images has on many occasions been enough, all on its own, to constitute infringement (for an early and very formative example of this principle in action, see figures 1 and 2); written descriptions are far less effective in this regard. That cartoon and comic book characters can often be perceived in their entirety through a single vivid mental image only furthers this legal protection, since courts can look to an isolated text, or a single page even, to completely define a distinguishable look, personality, and manner of movement.

This inherent legal strength only improved over time. Case law in the 1950s established that characters who were flatter, consistent, memorable, and easily removed from the story or context in which they were created ultimately received more protection than more complex and fully human characters. Many of today's most beloved comic book characters are of course profoundly human and their stories deeply complex. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, publishers were motivated largely by the need to find visually striking and communicative cover art that would attract returning child-age readers. Unpredictable distribution channels, irregular publishing schedules, and too much competition on overcrowded newsstands meant that customers were not expected to follow titles on a regular basis. But a bright cover with a recognizable protagonist, even in the absence of a strong story within the pages of the comic, could hope to build an audience anyway. The result of this strategy in comic books — and it was similar in other media targeted at kids — was characters defined by simple and vibrant visuality. Strong story and character were an afterthought. These forms reached their young audience through consistent and memorable images that could be caught by just a glance, simple stories that did not rely on a continuing or sequential narrative, and characters who could cross over into multiple titles (or media) should they prove popular.

The resulting fixedness of comic book heroes like Superman has long been remarked upon. Back in 1962, Umberto Eco wrote the now infamous essay "The Myth of Superman," in which he describes the character as archetypal and immutable, "aesthetically and commercially deprived of the possibility of development." Not only did this flatness, typical of so many comic book characters, give the medium strong copyright protection, but their intensely visual nature also gave them strong trademark protection. That these characters could often be roughly attributed to individual, living, breathing creators additionally satisfied the rhetorical needs of copyright law and thus further strengthened their protections in court. Chapter 3 explores this particular requirement of the law, as well as its substantial impact on the industry's creative laborers. In short, by the distinctiveness of copyright and trademark law, the complementary pressures of early retail sales at newsstands, and their fundamental visuality, comic books became a medium that naturally produced very reliable intellectual properties. This essential characteristic of the form would go on to shape the entirety of its future by pushing comic books toward licensing opportunities from the very start.


In 1933, a print salesman named Max C. Gaines issued the first modern comic book to newsstands. It was titled Famous Funnies, and, like most of the comic books that followed over the next few years, it consisted entirely of reprints from newspaper comic strips. At only ten cents a copy, these early comic books sold well to children, who were still just emerging as a distinct demographic to producers of mass media and consumer goods. The Great Depression was at its height, times were tough, comic books were affordable, and unlike radio and film, they constituted a possession — one that could be traded, reread, and cherished. Still, since reprints were popular enough, it took until the late 1930s for publishers to actively seek out original content. Among the first who did were Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who ran the publishing house National Allied Publications (later known as National Comics, and then DC Comics, after one of its first titles, Detective Comics) along with a distribution operation called Independent News Company. In 1938, they released Action Comics #1, and on the cover was a character called Superman (see figure 3). Like most other comics at the time, the issue was thirty-two pages long and consisted of a number of different stories featuring different characters. The Superman piece was just thirteen pages, but boosted by the cover image — vivid, dynamic, and in its clarity and simplicity already somehow iconic — it became a smash with kids, who began requesting follow-ups immediately. Word of the character's popularity and demands for more copies worked their way up through the distribution chain, from newsstand retailers, to wholesalers, and eventually to publishers, who learned of it at some point that summer.

The phenomenal and quite immediate success of Superman had three dramatic and very significant results. First, it helped establish the industry as an industry. A few publishers had been active in this budding medium in the mid-thirties, most notably National, Dell, and Eastern Color. All three companies had grown out of other businesses, and none ever worked exclusively in comic book publishing. The composition of the industry changed quickly after Superman. The success of Action Comics turned comic books from an experimental form, of interest to companies with established ventures in printing or distribution, into a financially viable medium that could stand on its own. New publishers, most of which dealt exclusively in publishing and used original content (if not always the most original characters and stories), started popping up almost immediately. Archie, Fox, Harvey, Timely (later Atlas, then Marvel), and Quality all opened their doors in 1939.

Second, Superman's rise in popularity triggered a pattern of genre fads that would dictate the creative development of the medium for the next thirty years. As the first modern American superhero, the character launched a genre that seemed to capture the zeitgeist of a nation on the verge of World War II. Courageous, noble, and aggressively patriotic, superheroes like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America fought crime on the home front and axis forces overseas, promising an Allied victory that, for years, remained elusive. So it comes as little surprise that as the war came to an end, so did superheroes. There were at least forty superhero titles in print in 1944, but that number started dropping as soon as peace came in 1945, and there were only three remaining — Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman — by 1952.

The end of this particular genre, however, was only the beginning of a long procession of replacement genres. First to come, in 1946, were teen comics, popularized by Archie, and funny animals, propelled by the medium's youngest readers. Next were the more mature genres, beginning with crime in 1948, followed by romance in 1949, and horror in 1951. The pattern was almost always the same: a handful of comics in the new genre would appear, sell extraordinarily well, and inspire a flood of imitators, creating a glut in the market and thus triggering a gradual decline. The first genre to rise and fall, superheroes enjoyed a relatively long period of popularity, but ultimately fell even harder, disappearing from newsstands more completely than other failed genres would after it. These characters nonetheless maintain a strong hold on the popular imagination, and decades later, we still strongly associate this time with classic superheroes. Their legacy, however, and Superman's in particular, was less about dominating the entire era than it was about establishing comic books as a fad-based medium. Content in the 1940s and 1950s was amazingly diverse, and characterized primarily by the ebb and flow of various genres.


Excerpted from "Comic Books Incorporated"
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Copyright © 2019 Shawna Kidman.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: An Unruly Medium 1

1 Incorporating Comics: A Brief Transmedia History of the U.S. Comic Book Industry 18

2 Comic Book Crisis: Public Relations, Regulation, and Distribution in the 1950s 46

3 Super Origins: Authorship, Creative Labor, and Copyright in the 1960s-1970s 91

4 Tales of the Comic Book Cult: Quality Demographics and Insider Fans in the 1970s-1980s 136

5 Mutant Risk: Speculation and Comic Book Films in the 1990s-2000s 180

Epilogue: A Powerful Medium 230

Appendix A Comic Book Adaptations for Film and Television 235

Appendix B Comic Book Film Adaptations, 1955-2010 243

Notes 249

Index 303

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