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Few enduring expressions of American popular culture are so instantly recognizable and still so poorly understood as comic books. They have a lengthy history, approximating that of talking motion pictures. They are sold in thousands of outlets and sit in millions of homes. They have figured into the childhoods of most Americans born since the 1920s. They have produced cultural icons recognized in every corner of the globe. And yet they remain inscrutable to most adults, including scholars.

The average thirteen-year-old displays more knowledge about the comics than the average professor of history, even a professor of cultural history. The readers and creators of comics imposed some restrictions on what is suitable for children while nurturing a lively and independent culture.

This is because comic books are ultimately a generational experience. For the most part, they are the domain of young people, who inevitably outgrow them, recall them fondly, and then look at the comic books of their own children and grandchildren with a mixture of bewilderment and, perhaps, concern. Just as each generation writes its own history; each reads its own comic books. The two activities are not unrelated, for comic books are history. Emerging from the shifting interaction of politics, culture, audience tastes, and the economics of publishing, comic books have helped to frame a worldview and define a sense of self for the generations who have grown up with them. They have played a crucial explanatory, therapeutic, and commercial function in young lives. To critically examine the history of comic books is to better understand the changing world of young people as well as the historical forces intersecting to shape it.

Comic books first emerged as a distinct entertainment medium in the 1930s. They communicate narratives through a unique combination of text and sequential illustration that works within its own aesthetic vocabulary. Although they are often grouped together with comic strips, the two mediums are not the same. The key difference lies in marketing. Whereas comic strips are a syndicated feature in newspapers sold to a mass and mostly adult audience, comic books are created, distributed, and sold on their own merits to a paying and overwhelmingly young audience. Although there is some overlap between the two (comic strips have been packaged as comic books, and a few comic book features have been syndicated as comic strips), these different marketing practices and target audiences have given each medium its own distinctive look and character. The content and themes explored in comic books have diverged drastically from those of comic strips. The term comic book, in fact, is one of the great misnomers in entertainment, for they are not books and often are not comical. They have explored virtually every genre of popular entertainment, including adventure, horror, mystery, crime, romance, the western, and humor. But they are most closely associated with superheroes. And it is with fantastic heroes like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man that comic books have made their most lucrative, influential, and enduring contributions to American culture.

Some highly accomplished literary and artistic work has been done in comic books. Laudatory writing by comic book fans and fan-scholars has tended to accentuate these qualities in an effort to make the case for comic books as a mature art form worthy of serious critical evaluation. Such an emphasis, however, distracts from the fact that the vast majority of comic books produced over the years has amounted to junk culture cranked out by anonymous creators who had little more than a paycheck on their minds. Comic books epitomize the accessibility, disposabiliry, and appeal to instant gratification that lie at the core of modern consumer culture. To classify comic books as "junk," however, is not to put them down or imply that they have nothing to say. On the contrary, their perennial lowbrow status has allowed them to develop and thrive outside of the critical, aesthetic, and commercial criteria expected of more "mature" media. That development accounts for their wonderful appeal to young people as well as their unique historical significance. For in these garish comic book images, one glimpses a crude, exaggerated, and absurd caricature of the American experience tailored for young tastes. They offer a revealing fun-house mirror of life, not necessarily as it was or even as it should be but as young people have paid to see it. In this respect, comic books have long predicted the course of consumer culture, a culture so advanced now that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern the reality of our world from the array of images that represent it in our popular culture.

Much of the current scholarship on comic books - and there has not been a great deal - has been produced outside of the historical discipline and without much attention to historical context. First of all, this is a cultural history that seeks to deepen our understanding of the interaction between politics, social change, and popular culture. Accomplishing this requires a close and critical analysis of comic book formulas. The preeminent factor shaping comic books has been the commercial motive of publishers to craft a product that appeals to paying audiences. Because the cover price and profit potential of individual comic books has historically been very low, publishers have tended to emphasize product quantity over the quality of individual works. This has promoted an incessant search for narrative formulas that can be easily duplicated with minimal variation and expense. Yet for formulas to succeed, they must also speak adequately to the concerns and expectations of their audience.

John G. Cawelti, who summarizes them (formulas) as "ways in which specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal story archetypes." Audiences turn to formulaic stories for the escape and enjoyment that comes from experiencing the fulfillment of their expectations within a structured imaginary world. While the market is'nt a purely free exchange in which producers simply give the audience "what it wants," there is a certain democratic, or Darwinian, axiom in the entertainment industry that leads popular ideas to prevail over unpopular ones. Put simply, formulas that appeal to audiences tend to proliferate and endure, while those that do not, do neither. As a means through which changing values and assumptions are packaged into mass commodities, formulas are the consequence of determining pressures exerted by producers and consumers, as well as by the historical conditions affecting them both. Formulas, therefore, are essentially historical constructions, and they are central to understanding comic books as history.

Any scholar seeking to test how deeply popular assumptions about issues like the New Deal, the Vietnam War, gender roles, and religion penetrated into the American consciousness ought to consider what comic books had to say about those topics.

Before television became a fixture in the American home, comic books were the foremost medium of youth entertainment. Indeed, the astonishing proliferation of comic books, especially during the postwar decade, prompted a variety of parents, politicians, civic groups, childstudy experts, and other traditional shapers of youth character to link them with a perceived rise in juvenile delinquency. Viewing certain comic books as the harbingers of a degenerate and disturbingly confrontational youth culture, concerned adults launched widespread efforts to control and censor them. While echoes of this mid-twentieth-century controversy resonate into the twenty-first century in debates over the link between violent images in popular culture and a rash of especially horrific juvenile crimes, the youth market has actually grown ever more expansive and influential - to the point where American culture itself has arguably become "juvenilized." The cultural history of comic books thus helps to trace the emergence, challenge, and triumph of adolescence as both a market and a cultural obsession.

Because economic considerations are so crucial to the production of mass culture, attention to the key individuals and economics of the industry indicate where such discussion has a direct bearing on the emergence, persistence, or disappearance of trends in the comic books, in order to provide important context. Consideration of comic books as a business is necessary to piece together the broad historical context working to shape the final products.

Besides sparking some nostalgia, this will hopefully lead people to reflect anew on the popular culture that worked to shape their own worldview during childhood and perhaps beyond. The cultural history of comic books reminds us that historical inquiry need not be defined only by abstract ideas and distant personalities. On the contrary, the currents of history run and better locates one's own experiences within the stream.

Certainly the narrative content and graphic qualities are bound together in this medium, but most comic books succeed or fail on the merits of their storytelling. The marketing of comic books solely on the appeal of style, without regard to the stories, is a relatively recent development that has not served the industry well. Important artists left a mark on the craft of comic book storytelling.

There are many underground, "adult," and self-published comic books that have appeared sporadically since the late 1960s. On the other extreme, funny animal, cartoon, and teen-humor series like Donald Duck, Richie Rich, and Archie have enjoyed very large preteen audiences, they all possess a certain timeless and unchanging appeal for young children. These aren't irrelevant or have nothing to say about their times, but comic books aimed at a slightly older audience - readers who, in other words, have reached a developmental stage at which they are capable of perceiving texts within a broader social and political context. Adolescents have, in fact, been the primary market driving the dynamics of the industry.

The question of exactly what impact entertainment has on an audience emerges inevitably. Consuming entertainment, much like listening to a political speech or reading a newspaper, is ultimately a very personal and idiosyncratic experience. Ten individuals can read a comic book, watch a movie, or listen to a song and come away with ten completely different impressions, interpretations, and influences. Audiences consume particular forms of entertainment because they hope to find something pleasurable in the experience. There are elements of any narrative that are very difficult for friendly or hostile audiences to miss. One viewer may enjoy the movie Titanic for the romance, and another may deplore the violence in it, but both would surely notice the basic class conflict between the poor heroes and the rich villains, and both would agree that the ship does indeed sink. In other words, while popular culture certainly merits close scrutiny, there are intellectual pitfalls in analyzing something like comic books too deeply. Meanings that were easily perceived by audiences, clearly intended by producers, or suggestive of broad historical developments and cultural assumptions are enough.

To prolong the shelf life of their comic books, publishers have traditionally postdated their issues by several months. DC Comics and Marvel Comics are the two oldest and most important comic book publishers, and both have gone by different names throughout their long histories. For the first forty years of its existence, DC's company name was National Periodical Publications. Marvel was known as Timely Comics from 1939 to about 1950 and as Atlas Comics during most of the 1950s. Both have also consistently published comic books under their more familiar logos of DC and Marvel.

Bradford W. Wright. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore & London. Published 2001.

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