The History of Comix: A Distorted World

Sam MillerOctober 27, 2017Exploring HumorFeatures
The History of Comix: A Distorted World

Comics are one of the great, unique art forms. Throughout history, comics have taken on a variety of approaches, and have evolved dramatically. Although comics are prevalent in our modern world, most people are unfamiliar with their history.

There is much debate about where the comic originated, but many experts agree that they were born with the invention of the printing press. This machine allowed the separation of images and words, eventually leading to the speech bubble. Simultaneously, artists began to satirize and use humor in their art. Although it wasn’t until the 19th century that comics and cartoons began to be seen as a true art form, the earliest known example of the satirical comic is William Hogarth’s, A Rake’s Progress, from 1732 to 1733. It was influential not only because it is considered the birth of the satirical cartoon, but also because Hogarth used separate panels to tell a story.

In addition to satire, humor is frequently portrayed in cartoons. One famous example of a comic illustrating humor is James Gillray’s 1792 piece, “French Liberty/British Slavery.” The strip poked fun at the French Revolution, using two caricatures talking through speech bubbles. Rodolphe Töpffer, one of the most influential early cartoonists, described comics as, “making a book: Good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense.” Throughout the mid 1800s, comics were used as pro-slavery advertisements as well. They frequently compared British and American slavery, in a style that greatly resembled “French Liberty.”

Cartoons involving humor date back to the 1880s, when PUNCH magazine was published. Published by Henry Mayhew, the British magazine helped coin the term “cartoon” and used comics to ridicule many political situations at the time. It introduced the very popular characters “Punch and Judy.” PUNCH magazine helped launch many other comics and cartoons involving satire.

During the 1860s, the Asian form of comics Manhua (a Chinese word that became “Manga” in Japanese) began to form. Lithographic printing methods, inspired by the West were being used, along with vibrant colors. As in Europe and America, humorous and satirical drawings were used.

Another early comic magazine was published in 1884, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. It is said to be the first magazine to feature a constant set of characters, sharing similar themes. Half Holiday would be influential to many artists.

Comics continued to gain popularity throughout the early 1900s. In The Roaring 20’s, cartoons became extremely popular, the time became known as “The Golden Age of Comics.” Modern comic books were being produced on a very large scale, and amongst the most popular were superhero comic magazines such as Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. These comics were created by the two biggest comic companies, DC and Marvel, founded in the 1930s. They specialized in creating action filled graphic novels, using “Ben-Day dots” for color. Later named by Roy Lichtenstein, Ben-Day dots were a way to color comics using many tiny dots, inspired by early printing.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, known as “The Silver Age of Comics,” many unique and new forms of cartoons were created in the United States. One of the most popular humor magazines was founded in 1952. MAD Magazine, founded by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines, was intended to criticize almost everything from pop culture to current politics. Kurtzman and Gaine’s sense of humor was made apparent in the first issue. On the cover it read, “This new magazine is vital for you to read and inside you will find a very important message.” The “very important message” being: “PLEASE BUY THIS MAGAZINE!!” It is incredibly satirical, with many of the ideas expressed through the cartoon character, Alfred E. Newman.

For those that did not fit mainstream taste, a series of underground circuits came into being. This movement incorporated elements of avant-garde art into the cartoons, and two influential artists included Frank Stack and Robert Crumb. Magazines such as Rip off Comix, and Zap Comix, specialized in making controversial and experimental art, which never quite caught on. Throughout the 1960s, popular children’s comics included Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, and The Amazing Spider Man — inspiring many television series and films. As the 60’s came to a close, a new comic style was being born.

In 1976, alternative comics were forever changed with PUNK magazine. PUNK was a comic fanzine created by cartoonist John Holstom, which promoted the local music scene of NYC through comics. PUNK was extremely influential, launching an underground revolution of “zines,” associated with the punk rock scene. As important as this cartoon movement was, it never gained mainstream attention.

In addition to underground comics, newspaper comic strips continued to evolve throughout the 1980s and 90s. One of the most popular comic strips was Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Told through an imaginary tiger and a little boy, the strip combined philosophical questions with extraordinary, colorful cartoons. It shows a seven-year-old boy’s view of the world. Another great comic strip, Doonesbury, by Garry Trudeau shows the life of a middle-aged father. Commonly political, Doonesbury has sparked much criticism because of Trudeau’s portrayal of various politicians. Although it was in existence since 1970, it gained popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as well.

In 1991, one of the most prominent and influential graphic novels of all time was released, Maus. Created by Art Spiegelman, it is the story of the Holocaust told through cartoons, with the Nazis portrayed as cats, and Jewish people as mice. Incredibly disturbing, touching, and intelligent, Maus bravely went where no comic had gone before. The book received a Pulitzer Prize as well. Another book released shortly after Maus was the highly acclaimed graphic novel, Persepolis. The two shared similar political themes, dark cartooning styles, and had a touching plot. Persepolis told the story of author Marjane Satrapi growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. It has been translated into many languages, and sold 150,000 copies worldwide.

From the 1700s to this day, political cartoons continue to be a popular form of comics. A political cartoon usually contains a message, ridiculing current events or people. Political cartoons tend to be less silly, and take on a more intelligent and realistic approach.

Although some comics tend to be more serious, cartoons will always make us laugh. I think comics even give us a sense of security. I mean, has Snoopy ever made anybody sad? It is also a thrill knowing that there is always a character we can relate to, following their adventures.

Comics put our imaginative ideas into art, and can be daring and bold. Cartoons are a distorted view of the world, blowing things out of proportion. Cartoons make us laugh, think, and maybe even cry, but most of all, cartoons make us happy.

The future of comics is absolutely unpredictable. Throughout the history of this vast art form, comics have taken many unexpected twist and turns. Since the first cartoon, the art world has not been the same. Comics showed people they could make any kind of art they want to.

Sam Miller is 14 years old, lives in Connecticut, and has been on the Editorial Board of KidSpirit for four years. He enjoys playing the drums, listening to music, and making films.