While we aren’t your typical comics readers and we didn’t grow up during the “Golden Age” of comics, each of us has developed personal enjoyment and professional respect for comics. Although we buy comics for pleasure reading, we also recognize their cultural importance and their infiuence on other forms. We find comics fascinating for their interplay between image and text, and we study this interplay as it applies to comics, children’s picture books, digital media such as video games and other forms of visual rhetoric.
Comics have long been regarded as popular and disposable reading for all ages. Now preservationists and collectors meticulously place comics in mylar plastic bags to protect them and to keep them for years to come. Many have recognized the need to save comics because of their massive infiuence despite their often-transient form.
Comics around the turn of the twentieth century were primarily found in newspaper inserts. Newspapers quickly realized that they could use comics to entice readers and they competed for the best strips. The fierce competition between two newspaper moguls, Hearst and Pulitzer, over the Yellow Kid comic strip, led to the term “yellow journalism.” This term generally means slanderous writing, the type that both Hearst and Pulitzer engaged in when trying to win the Yellow Kid.
Later, these comic strips were bound together and sold as books. From these, comic books in their contemporary form arose. Along with this, comics moved from being an adult’s medium in newspapers to a comic book medium, which was often believed to be for a younger audience. Early comic books presented many genres, including romance, mystery, horror, action, and many others. Horror comics were some of the most popular, with titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, which regularly featured zombies and other monsters along with murder, betrayal, and sex. In 1954 at the urging of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Frederic Wertham, the comics code was enacted.
Comics bearing the approval of the comics code removed almost all sex, blood, horror, and graphic depictions of violence. The code also required several stifiing conditions, including that divorce could never be shown positively and “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority” (Comics Code).
The code resulted in the demise of horror comics. In their place rose superhero
comics with the likes of single superheroes, Captain America, Superman, Batman,
Spiderman, Green Lantern, and superhero teams like the X-Men. While these
are the most familiar comics, for most people, the history of comics doesn’t
stop there. In fact, soon after the boom of superheroes, Underground Comics,
or Comix, were born. Emerging in the culture of the 1960s, Underground Comix
fiagrantly disregarded the comics code and included scenes of graphic sex,
violence, and drug use. Comic artists like Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, Diane
Noomin, and Kim Deitch all wrote Comix and their works proved revolutionary
for comics. It was during this time that Sol Davidson received the first PhD
in comics in the United States; it was the beginning of comics scholarship
in the United States, which
was desperately needed.
Another revolutionary moment in comic history occurred in 1978, when Will Eisner, famous for his work on comic strips, comic books, and comics for military, published his newest work, A Contract with God, as a graphic novel. Eisner explained that he wanted to use the term graphic novel instead of comic because there was nothing comic about these stories. A Contract with God focused on the lives of several people in a tenement building during the Depression and their battles with everyday life and their faith in God. Eisner wrote the story in typical illustrated form. On the heels of his publication came many other graphic novels dealing with serious themes, including superhero stories that dropped the comics code.
Completing this revolutionary opening Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which told the story of his family in the Holocaust, was released starting in the 1980s in Raw magazine. While comics had addressed significant events, Art Spiegelman’s Maus received the recognition it deserved by winning the Pulitzer Prize, being taught in colleges all around the country, and by putting comics back into the vital place they deserve.
Following serious works like Maus as well as more serious takes on superhero and romance comics, comics and graphic novelsfi have only continued to grow. However, their place in academia has only recently begun to truly prosper. In some ways, academicfi research on comics still struggles to gain the legitimacy it deserves, but help is on the way. Comics scholars and programsfi on comic scholarship are popping up in numerous universities around the country. ICAF, the International Comic Art Festival, brings together artists and academics at its annual meeting. In addition, Ohio State University has a library devoted to comics' and other schools are slowly acquiring comics libraries and special collections, like the comics from our special collection in this display. Ohio State also hosts an annual conference, as does the University of Florida. Other schools focus more heavily on teaching the production side of comics, like the Ringling School of Art and Design and the Savannah College of Art and Design. Part of the difficulty with and the benefits from studying comics arises from their hybrid form, which requires interdisciplinaryfi approaches. Many schools have begun incorporating comics into their programs specifically because of their hybrid form and its implication for digital media. For example, programs like the University of Florida’s Digital Arts and Sciences program fuse art and computer programming for comics in the digital age.
With all of these programs, and many others that are developing daily, the University of Florida is helping comics to earn the legitimatefi place in academic scholarship that they deserve. In addition to the numerous classes on comics taught each semester, the University hosts an annual comics conference, the comixscholars list-serve where academics discuss comics scholarship, and the new online journal ImageTexT which is devoted to publishing articles on comics' scholarship.
Laurie Taylor, Cathlena Martin, and Trena Houp
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