I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on the history of the comic book industry. It is fascinating. As someone who was born in an era when Marvel and DC had already emerged as The Big Two publishers of mostly superhero comics, learning about the origins of this corner of the publishing industry is eye-opening, to say the least.
Before TV conquered the time and the minds of the public, comics was a much bigger business in this country. Hundreds and hundreds of titles published every month, with the popular ones selling in the millions. In contrast, the highest-selling comic book published in 2017, Marvel Legacy #1, sold around 300,000 copies. The tenth highest-selling book, another Marvel title, sold just over half as many: Secret Empire #0 at around 160,000 copies. Even the most popular newspaper of today just barely reaches the heights where comics once reigned—the best-selling newspaper in 2017 was USA Today, a paper clearly written by and for imbeciles, at a circulation of about 2.2 million.
By the time I started reading comics, c. 1988, the business was already full of people who had grown up reading comics, and went into the business with drawing/writing comics as their professional ambition. Back when comics publishing started, it was the bottom of the barrel for commercial artists. It was a profession nobody would admit to, and the more ambitious folks used it as a springboard into commercial advertising illustration. Comics publishing was a laborious dungeon mill with demanding schedules, sharp deadlines, embarrassingly low pay, and zero conceits of being a worthwhile medium for intelligent adults to work in.
Because there was no “comic art” for them to be influenced by—the early comics artists were essentially inventing the craft as they went—most of the artists were trained commercial artists. They brought styles and sensibilities to their art that were directly linked to commercial illustration. It was a long time before Jack Kirby’s dynamic and exaggerated action became the default mode of mainstream comics. The characters in old school comics mostly look like regular people, straight out of advertisements, embarking on whatever adventures are required by a given genre. And the biggest-selling genre of comics, up until the Censorship Mafia came to crush them, was Horror.
One of the comics-history books I got at the library recently (The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! by Jim Trombetta) is specifically about horror comics , the culture they reflected, and the furor of censorship and moralizing that ended their dominance as a genre. As someone a couple of generations removed from the world that birthed them, I find something endearing and deeply humorous in these comics. I feel that there’s a strong narrative in this culture that wants to believe the 1950s were defined by some kind of “innocence.” All you gotta do to put the lie to this myth is talk to anyone black or native or poor who was alive at the time, and old enough to be conscious of the very real horrors they had to live with every day.
The horror comics of that era are like the dark id of this “innocence narrative.” Watching good, upstanding, suit-and-dress-wearing white folks get terrorized, punished, and mutilated by every conceivable horror is, quite frankly, hilarious.
I’m currently thinking through the subject, and will probably have more to say on the matter. For now I’ll share one more take-away point: until reading about these horror comics, and reading some of the actual comics that are reprinted in Trombetta’s book, I had no idea the extent to which the narrative and visual tropes of these comics had influenced comics generally, and therefore my approach to making comics. I just finished the newest issue of my genre-bending comic The Concrete Shinobi, which has strong horror-comics elements.
I’ve developed a soundbite response for people who ask what my comic is about: It’s about a shamanic bartending ninja and his adventures in the occult underground of Los Angeles, circa 2008—semi-autobiographical.