The history of comic books:
A billion-dollar business

19 November 2019
By : César Montejo

Without a doubt, comic books have driven me to become a graphic designer. They’ve inspired me since the day my mom gave me copies of the Flash, Batman, the Smurfs, and Condorito. I was immediately captivated by the stories, and in that moment, I decided my future would always incorporate the imaginative world of comics.

My work has many parallels to the process of creating a comic book. Coincidentally, our different positions also reflect the varying purposes of a comic’s team. The creative director works similar to an editor; the copywriter’s role fulfills the duties of a screenwriter; I, the designer, mirror the tasks of the illustrator, inker, and typographer. Lastly, the art director acts as a colorist.

When I receive work orders at the agency for TV commercials, I’m ecstatic, because I know what’s to follow… Storyboards. They’re my favorite part of the entire process. Call it nostalgic whimsy, but there’s something truly magical about capturing sequences and scenarios with my pencil before they mature into finished tv or digital spots.

No different than comic books securing themselves in my life and work, they’ve also captivated people across the world. Since their inception, comics have evolved into a considerable artform and they continue to engage millions of minds daily. As of now, the entire world of comics has proliferated to become the largest it’s ever been—far bigger than you might imagine. But first, let me tell you about a little heroic story that inspired me to be the person I am today.

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Let’s start from the beginning –
a time I refer to as the Golden Age.

A comic is essentially a story told through a stream of illustrated vignettes. It’s reinforced with speech bubbles, onomatopoeia, and dialogue captions.

The origin of the first comic dates back to the early twentieth century. They were known as “comic strips” and began their debut in the Sunday newspapers. Due to their popularity, the editors decided to reprint them in magazine format. However, the existing material was insufficient, so they decided to hire low-cost creative staff to produce new material.

In June 1938, the nascent publishing house, Detective Comics, published the creation of two, European migrants: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Thanks to them, the first superhero in history entered our world. Was it a bird? A plane? No. It was Superman! As you know, this iconic character that hailed from another planet was raised by farmers and possessed superpowers that exceeded the capabilities of all humans. Millions of people began reading the comic. Its success naturally caught
the attention of radio and film producers, who first took it to radio as a series in 1940. Then it progressed to the big screen in 1948. Because the concept was such a hit, Max Fleischer produced 9 animated episodes in 1941 that were of exceptional quality for their time. This earned him a 1942 Oscar nomination for the Best Short Subject Cartoon, but he ended up losing to Walt Disney’s “Lend a Paw.”

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In 1939, DC achieved another great success with “Batman: The Cape Crusader.” Batman represented the human apex of wit and physical prowess. For him, films and radio series were also created, and his popularity quickly competed with Superman´s. Once again, many publishers wanted to take advantage of the situation and superheroes began to pop out of nowhere; names like the Flash, Captain America, Robin, the Human Torch, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman flooded the magazine kiosks of the time. Unfortunately, at the end of the 50s, the industry suffered a heavy blow. Life can’t be cupcakes and rainbows forever, and when a book called “The seduction of the innocent” was published, comic books fell under fire. The book directly blamed comics for the criminal behavior of some children, which led to the creation of the Comic Code Authority ­– a censorship bureau that diluted the contents of the stories to the point of being unrecognizable. The golden age of the superhero comic had officially come to a close.

 

Marvel Age

By 1961 Marvel Comics, formerly known as Timely Comics, reinvented
the wheel with more life like and empathic characters. People were able to identify and relate to these personages more naturally, unlike those in DC. As an additional component, Marvel decided to develop their stories in the real world which is why Gotham, Metropolis, or Coast City shared similar qualities to New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Fantastic Four, Spiderman, X-Men, and The Avengers revitalized the industry and gave a fresh improvement over their competitor, who also forcefully reinvented their characters. It wasn’t just the United States where the comic industry enjoyed good health. Comics became extremely popular in Japan and central Europe, as well. In fact, comics became such a respectable business in the old continent during 1964, the French critic of cinema, Claude Beylie referred to comics as “the ninth art” in his article, “Lettres et Medecins.”

Returning to the U.S., the momentum of the Marvel movement, or Silver era, drove a real-life TV series, such as Batman (1966), The Amazing Spiderman (1977), The Incredible Hulk (1977), and Wonder Woman (1978). For the first time ever, action figures were driven by the comics themselves. This was best revealed through Marvel’s release of The Secret Wars in 1981, or DC’s production of The Superpowers in 1976, which was reinforced by Hanna Barbera’s animated series called Superfriends.

Superman was released in 1978 and was the first superhero film to feature renowned actors. It was also the first time a superhero genre received an Oscar in the Special Achievement Award category. It was also the first to be considered a “Blockbuster.”

The success gave way to the first boom in Superhero movies. Unfortunately, none of them achieved the success of Superman.
Among them, the most notable is the adaptation of Flash Gordon in 1981, which featured a soundtrack by one of the most legendary rock groups of all time, Queen. The soundtrack garnered multimillion-dollar sales around the world and the main theme, the Flash Theme, is still a benchmark. Since then, U2, Prince, Maroon 5, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden, among others, became renowned collaborators for different films of this type.

 

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The comic grew up

1986 was a very important year. Two masterpieces broke the Marvel era and gave birth to the dark era: Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These works transitioned the ninth art to a mature, adult audience. Great writers appeared in the business as they began enriching the stories and improving their content. To bring things together, highly talented illustrators and inkers joined the ranks too.

Aggressive marketing and comics

The success of the action figures attracted the attention of Mattel, Kenner, and Hasbro, who recognized comic books and animated series as a perfect outlet to sell their products. G.I. Joe (1985), Transformers (1984), and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) were its star products, achieving multimillion-dollar sales. Interestingly, these three noteworthy television series that were originally toy infomercials, achieved film adaptations with some more successful than others.

By 1989, Warner and DC decided to give another one of their big shots a chance. Tim Burton’s Batman overcame Superman’s success and demonstrated that the genre could be seen as a great player in the movie scene. This movie gave life to an animated series, winning a Primetime Emmy in 1993. Sales on videocassettes, DVDs, and action figures were tremendous.

Breaking barriers

While lady fortune favored the two main comic companies, a third appeared: Image. This company originated thanks to a revolt led by
the main writers and illustrators of Marvel. Among them was Todd Mcfarlane. As the creator of Spawn, his character was featured in live action flicks and also became a successful cartoon series for HBO, both in 1997. Aside from that, Mcfarlane ventured into the manufacturing of action figures and sculptures that soon rivaled companies such as Bowen Designs and Gentle Giant; the company responsible for making the collectible action figures for Star Wars. In light of this renowned franchise, he also ventured into the world of comics around 1980 with monthly magazines and graphic novels that have been published continuously by Marvel and Darkhorse. Do you think Star Wars is the only film franchise that has continued to extend its life in the world of cartoons? Surprisingly, the list extends further with titles like the Planet of the Apes, Aliens, Star Trek, Predator, Robocop, and Terminator to name a few.

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The ninth and seventh art: the golden binomial

The comic book world was in poor health at the end of the 90s, but once again, cinema and television came to its rescue. This was when Spiderman (2002), X-Men United (2003), and Batman Begins (2005) achieved serious accolades that caught the attention of the general public. By gaining respectability, writers, directors, and renowned actors managed to raise the quality of these productions. The Dark Knight (2008), was critically acclaimed and a box office hit. It won 2 Oscars, 1 Golden Globe, and most importantly, it cemented the superhero genre in cinemas as a competitor.

However, Marvel felt they had fallen behind. As a response, they proceeded to achieve the impossible by adapting their comics to the big screen. It’s how they managed to collect over 10 billion dollars at the box office, 6 Oscars, multiple television shows, and even an exclusive series with streaming services such as Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime. Now, comic book adaptations have finally created their own film universe. This widespread acceptance drove new superhero-focused partnerships with cereals, junk food, beverages, clothing, and accessories. As you can see today, superheroes have implanted themselves in our imaginations and secured their position in pop culture across the world.

It’s interesting that at this very moment the comic is affected by its own success. People are paying to see the movies, but not the comic book. Sadly, sales of printed comics have significantly diminished. History tends to repeat itself and the current crisis appears to be another roadblock for comics. A necessary renewal could be on the horizon, so that people will revert to enjoying comics in their original printed form. Who knows, maybe two migrant children will reappear to reinvent the comic similar to how Superman came to be. It’s not as far-fetched as many may think. After all, working in a multicultural agency full of talented people from many different countries has shown me that the potential is in our hands.

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The images used in this article are the intellectual property of DC Comics, Vertigo, Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, Warner Bros, Mattel, and Pepsi. This article is for informational and non-profit entertainment purposes only.

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