Being from France, comic books were always present in my life—it’s called “bande dessinée” here (it means drawn strips). It’s part of our culture. American comic books were and still are (but less) however not really well represented. It didn’t stop me from becoming an avid reader and collector (I also wrote for a comic book website). I mostly read Marvel Comics at first, the easiest to find, but I gradually broaden my horizon. I started to read about the history of American Comics, becoming curious about its origins. You know me, I asked myself…
Who invented comic books?
The answer is not simple. First, we have to ask, what do you call comic books? It didn’t start one day with Superman #1 on the stand or something like that. The form changed, the way it was published too.
In fact, at the beginning, it was called the “funny pages” or the “funnies,“ and it was newspaper comic strips. Well, before that, there were also satirical illustrations and other types of caricatures, mostly in early 18th-century Europe (some want to go back and start with prehistoric cave paintings, but it’s a bit much). That’s why, the first answer to the question, “Who invented comic books?” you find is: Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer. He created the first horizontal multi-panel comic in 1827. Later, he published “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck,” but it was more of a picture book than a comic book. That said, it was so big that his work found a way to the U.S.
During the second half of the 19th century in Europe, mostly in France, Belgium, Germany and Britain, Rodolphe Töpffer inspired a lot of artists and their works were published in newspapers-mostly satirical strips. The form started to evolve in Germany with full-page stories and wordless comics. Artist Wilhelm Busch left its mark in that particular domain, but also with his way to mix his drawing with poems in the series “Max und Moritz” (it was a hit at that time, kids loved it). In France, some artists found fame when their work was collected in hardcover editions (starting 1870). But what about the American comic strips?
Who invented the American comic strips?
In the U.S. too political cartoons became popular. It started with Benjamin Franklin in 1754. He was the first to have an editorial cartoon published in an American newspaper—his famous “Join or Die” snake. Others followed.
Rodolphe Töpffer’s work was imported and became quite influential, and we can see that in James A. and Donald F. Read’s “Journey to the Gold Diggins of Jeremiah Saddlebags” published in 1849. But it was in 1893 that the first comic strip with a regular cast of characters was published.
Created by Jimmy Swinnerton, “The Little Bears” appeared in the page of the San Francisco Examiner, one of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. At first, the Examiner used an illustration by Frank Noble of a bear as the paper’s mascot for the San Francisco Mid-Winter Exposition of 1894. After that, Swinnerton produced every day a new bear until the end of the fair. He did bring back the bear a few months later, his cartoons were then printed in color next to the weather forecast.
Who started using the word “cartoon” as we do today?
The word cartoon came from Punch—or The London Charivari—a British weekly magazine of humor and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and wood-engraver Ebenezer Landells.
So, who invented the American comic book?
From comic strips to comic books, the road was easy. In fact, what is known as the first American comic book was in fact a collection of works previously published on a comic strip. It was The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats. The Yellow Kid was an American comic strip character created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley that appeared from 1895 to 1898 in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World—and later in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats is known for being the first book described as a “comic book.” Before it, this terminology wasn’t used.
Naturally, others followed, like “Happy Hooligan,” “Buster Brown,” “Mutt & Jeff,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Popeye,” “Little Orphan Annie,” and “The Katzenjammer Kids.” This last one was created by German immigrant Rudolph Dirks in 1897, and was inspired by “Max und Moritz.” It was the adventures of two German-American boys. And it was really popular. Unlike The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids left one of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers to join one of Joseph Pulitzer’s, leading to the first comic-strip copyright ownership suits in the history of the medium. The court decided that Hearst retained the rights to the name “Katzenjammer Kids,” but Dirks kept the rights to the characters. Obviously, Hearst quickly hired an artist to keep the strip alive. Dirks renamed his kids Hans and Fritz and the story continued for a long time (until 1979!).
When did the first monthly American comic book was published?
The answer is 1922. The first monthly comic book was titled Comics Monthly, and was published by King Features. The content was not original though, it was reprints of daily newspaper comic strips.
A decade later, in 1933, the first color comic book was Eastern Color Printing’s Funnies on Parade, an eight-page newsprint magazine reprinting several comic strips licensed from the McNaught Syndicate and the McClure Syndicate. It was not sold on newsstands. Instead, it was sent free as a promotional item to consumers who mailed in coupons clipped from Procter & Gamble soap and toiletries products. It was such a success, Eastern Color started to print more books for other brands with print runs going up to 250,000 copies.
Also, Funnies on Parade was the first comic book printed in the now-standard modern size of 6 5/8 x 10 1/4 inches. The size was chosen by Max Gaines who was producing the book. It was not his only contribution to the medium. In fact, he founded All-American Publications, the company behind a lot of DC Comics’ superheroes (like The Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern…), and later founded EC Comics.
Funnies On Parade was not a book fill with completely original material. For that, we had to wait until February 1935 with National Allied Publications’ New Fun #1—this company will later merge with All-American Publications to become DC Comics. In fact, Detective Comics #1 was published in March 1937 and featured the famous character Slam Bradley, a fist-fighting vigilante.
Being a promotional gift, Funnies on Parade is not considered the first true American comic book. Some historians preferred Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics (also by Eastern Color Printing) because, even if it was only reprints of comic strips, this book was sold—for 10cts. Its commercial success helped the title to become a monthly periodical.
Who invented the superhero comic books?
Today, American comic books are indissociable with superheroes—even if it’s only a part of the stories produced each month. As you may have noticed, there was not a single superhero until now.
That fact changed in 1938 with Action Comics #1. Published by National Allied Publications, these books featured the first adventures of Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the duo behind Slam Bradley.
Of course, some may want to debate that, but Phantom (1936) for example was a comic strip hero, like Popeye (1929) and others. Superman was the first comic book superhero. With him started what is now called the Golden Age of comics. He put an end to the Platinum Age.