The History of American and Japanese Comics to Wwii

What are comics, and why should their history matter? how are comics still relevant today. this is part one of a research paper drawing on writers like Gablliet, Paul Lopes, David Hajdu Paul Garvett, and Frederick Schodt.

Comic History


 How I Stopped Scoffing and learned to Love the Medium

            In August 11, 2011, Superman publically made the decision to relinquish his United States citizenship in front of the United Nations in the 900th issue of Action Comics.  Superman’s action brought in criticism from right wingers for betraying his American heritage and mocked in some left wing circles and even made it as a story on the Colbert Report.  Story aside, Superman’s actions raise up a variety of questions: why is superman still an important symbol for Americans today, why are American Comic Book heroes the subject of blockbuster movies today while the American Comics industry is standing on a tightrope over the abyss of extinction as the manga market continues to grow, and why there is such a fuss over giving the comic medium the respect it deserves.  Ultimately, what has made Japanese comics so diverse and American comic industry so stubborn is their respective histories that created their modern forms.   

            Before current issues concerning comics can be addressed, it is important to define what a comic is.  During the 1990’s two voices spoke up in an attempt to define what comics are.  Scott McCloud defined comics in his arguably most famous work Understanding Comics with the definition that comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”[i] McCloud’s definition focuses mostly on the idea that the essence of comics is found in its ability to tell a story.  McCloud also believes that while words are often an important in telling a story, they are not necessary in defining a piece of work as a comic.  In fact, he includes modern picture narratives as true comics.  McCloud often cites works such as the Bayeux Tapestry (8th century) and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as forms of comics.[ii]  A second aspect that McCloud uses to define comics is the emphasis on closure, or the perception of “observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”[iii]  Sequential art, like comics, requires the use of closure to create the illusion of motion, or perception of what events are occurring between shown events.  McCloud believes that the most fundamental aspect of comics is closure stating that comics “[are] closure” in of themselves and actively requires the reader’s imagination to make any of the events actually happen in the story.  Though McCloud’s theory is widely held in the west, it is by no means the only opinion.  Critics like Robert Harvey and comic book artist Will Eisner emphasize the union of picture and words in their definition of comics.  Eisner defined comics in his book Graphic Story Telling as “the printed arrangement of art and balloons in sequence, particularly in comic books.”[iv] 

            Both Eisner and McCloud define comics through aesthetic values.  Aesthetic values refer to focusing on how comics are arranged, drawn or method of creation and how these values are used to create the parameters of what is or is not a comic.  In so doing, they often leave too many forms of the comic medium out, or incorporate too many items and makes the medium overtly vague.  Eisner excludes the possibility of picture narratives as possible forms of the comic medium, which McCloud excellently describes as having the potential of being different from a single piece of art.  Furthermore, Eisner’s definition struggles in that not all comics as we know them use word balloons in their stories on a regular basis.  Still, comics with word balloons cover most of the comic medium today.  On the other hand, McCloud claims that “if you did a series of stained-glass windows telling the story of your life you’d be making comics” makes the medium too general to use and can hinder the ability for scholars to accurately describe the way comics have developed from the mid 1800’s to the present day.[v]  After all, there is something intrinsically different between Superman and the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

            Aesthetics in the comic industry can be debated over and over and there is no rationale to really claim that either McCloud or Eisner is more correct than the other using the Aesthetic method.  Comics are ultimately a diverse medium that can cover a variety of genres through the use of pictures.  Regardless of diversity, it is still important to determine an accurate and objective definition to use to best understand the developments of comics during the 19th and 20th century.  McCloud in an interview in 2007 defended his definition by claiming that his definition creates a “much more interesting landscape.”[vi]  Pleasant as it sounds, the definition is far from objective.  Yet, in 2005, Jean-Paul Gabilliet, a professor of American studies at the University of Bordeaux, France, divides comics based on the production of culture theory.  In the introduction to his book, Of Comics and Men, Gabilliet credits comics as a medium dependent on the invention of the printing press.[vii]  Not only this, but comics are in part regulated into their association with the development of mass culture and the growth of leisure time in society.  Gablliet does not deny the possibility or linkages of pictorial narratives such as hieroglyphs or the Bayeux tapestry in relation to the development of comics, however, they are simply that; they are precursors to what would become modern comics but are not a direct relation in of themselves.  Gablliet’s definition is probably then the most advanced and developed of the definitions so far.  Strictly he defines comics as a medium that “applies to all narratives constructed with images (engraved, written, painted, photographed etc) which: 1. Are characterized by the not necessarily actualized possibility of an interaction between the iconic message and the written message where the iconic does not function simple as a adjuvant to the written but rather as an indispensible component to the formulation of the narrative; 2. Have been produced in the context of mass publishing since the 1830’s.”[viii]  In simpler terms, comics are pictures where words and pictures are directly and dependently intertwined alongside iconic images and must be produced in mass quantities.  Such a definition would then eliminate McCloud’s notion that a stain-glass window can qualify as a comic, but it would also include pictorial narratives and comic strips which the Eisner definition tends to neglect.

            Almost all comic historians mark the beginning of western styled comics with the comics of Rodolphe Topffer in 1837.  The idea of pictures and words in a panel were not unfamiliar in Europe at the time; however, they were typical of political cartoons than of sections of individual strips.  Thus, while cartoons, which are generally not directly associated with comics, do not play a key role in the development of comics in the west but exist as a separate entity.  Topffer created a variety of titles such as Obadiah Oldbuck and Bachelor Butterfly which were translated to English and sold in the United States.[ix]  Topffer’s works were purchased in the states at $.25 during the 1840s; at the same time, newspapers were priced at one cent per paper.  It was a radical concept for publishers to see consumers pay an expensive $.25 for a picture book than spend the money elsewhere or buy a “real” book.  While his works were not necessarily critical in developing American genres, his works were important as a message to American publishers that comics could be a popular medium.

Comic strips were to be incorporated as a regular product by the Civil War, now filled with authentic American titles like Wild Oats and Harper’s Bazaar.  Importantly, during the 1840’s through 1860 marks the rapid increase of American industrialism and increase in the new working class to which comics were targeted to and regularly purchased.[x]  By 1897, Pulitzer and his newspaper, The World began serializing its own comics like The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats (or The Yellow Kid for short).  The Yellow Kid marks developments in the American comics history: first that newspapers now believed that comics were lucrative which would give birth to the comic industry in the 1920’s, and second, the creation of a common logic tradition that comics were for the uneducated.  While The Yellow Kid was popular and led to the development of more and more comic strip characters with their own respective series, comic creators did not grasp the potential that comics could cover higher ideological grounds.   The strip did not use its illustrations for “refined expression” or “use Hooligan’s clashes with the law…to expose the powerful to the plight of the underclass.”  In short, comics were meant to be funny, and parodies to the vernacular culture lacking higher ideas.  David Hajdu describes the nature of comics during this period as “familial, intimate, knowing, affectionate and merciless.”[xi]  Comics were merciless in that it perpetuated the social class structure in America and helped to reaffirm the belief that poorer people were not capable of upper class though.  But for those who read the comics, the lower class readers, could still find the comics funny and resonating to their own world like an industrial inside joke.  Further, the lack of higher ideas directed the comic medium strictly as a low brow form of entertainment, though this is expected as class society at the time referred to higher class as needing a “refined” taste to appreciate, and comics did not fill this requirement.

            Ultimately, modern American Comics came from two sources that developed isochronously.  First of these developments were the development of the comic magazines on a large scale and secondly, the integration of pulp logic in the production of comic books.  Comic magazines before the 1930s were often reprints of old comics to collect like the magazine Famous Funnies and as a way to get more money from an old product.[xii]  However, during the 30’s, when comic magazines were beginning to wane, publishers attempted to print original comics in their magazines.  Max Gaines allegedly experimented with the success with original comics by leaving a ten cent sticker on several issues of Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Fun and found that all the issues were sold out by Monday morning.[xiii]  However, what really made comic magazines successful was their ability to be distributed.  Donenfield, one of the early executives of DC Comics began as a publisher and distributor.  Crediting partner Major Wheeler-Nicholson, Donenfield created large distribution networks from New York to as many small towns and other areas as possible.[xiv]  Gabilliet credits the impact of distribution as appearing in retrospect “as a much more powerful factor accounting for the initial success…for the first time…comic books became lucrative.”

            Secondly, the other great development for American comic books was the development of Pulp Fiction during the 1920’s.  American Comics are almost directly tied to pulp fiction in the industries style of art and industrial logic which prevails into the twenty first century.  Pulp Fiction were short stories, or series of stories with illustrations commonly sold for ten cents and thus giving them the nickname of “Dime Novels”  Dime Novels were probably the most direct precursor to the modern American comic book.  These works were known for their elaborate and semi realistic covers more than anything else and were a popular source of literature for all ages.  Famous authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London and Upton Sinclair all reportedly wrote for pulp fiction magazines.[xv]  Pulp fictions were adopted into radio shows, and television shows such as The Shadow, which is famously known for its radio show during the 1920’s.  However, more importantly, pulp fiction gave to the comic industry a basis for narrative stories with art.  Paul Lopes describes comics as being the “child” of pulp fiction.  This is entirely true.  Pulp narratives gave the comic books the ability to create their own narratives which further manifested in the growing number of specific genre magazines during the late ‘30s.  Further, pulp fiction also influenced comics and their priority in using colors.  Since the colorful artwork of the covers of pulp magazine were popular and are still coveted by collectors today, it would make sense that the American comic book industry would also adapt these tactics to entice more readers.  Of course, comics were also restructured in part because many publishers of comic books were also publishers of pulp magazines.  As time passed, the pulp style of comics would become the dominant style of produced comics in the United States.  There was now only one item missing from the complete revolution and overtake of comic books into popular culture: the superhero.

            In 1938, Max Gaines brought a story written by Sheldon Mayer, about an alien with super human strength that defended American citizens for justice, to Vincent Sullivan, the new head of Action Comics.  While Donenfield was appalled when he saw the first saw the title cover of Superman by the concept of a man wearing tights being the protagonist, and felt it was everything less than good entertainment, he quickly changed his mind when the first issue of Superman sold for more than 200,000 copies.[xvi]  Thus success of superman led to the creation of superheroes everywhere including Batman by DC comics in 1939 and Captain American in 1941.  Superman was reported to have brought in approximately 1.5 million dollars between 1940-41.  By 1943, there were 36 comic magazines with superhero titles. [xvii] 

            The rise of the superhero and the continual success of the superhero relates to a pulp industry strategy known as “recombinant culture.”  Todd Gitlin summarized recombinant culture under the motto that “nothing succeeds like success” which implies that when the industry finds something that sells, the industry will expand it.[xviii]  Recombinant culture basis itself on the idea of replication of popular themes, selling items related to popular characters and recreating series in other mediums.  Superheroes best represent this theory.  Superhero comics were not written by single authors or single artists but were industrialized and were written by teams of artists and writers.  Even today, many superhero comics are the result of team effort and reusing once popular characters.  Superhero stories are episodic and despite being narrative, never intend to have an end.  The strength of recombinant culture is critical in future understanding of what is currently occurring in the comic book market and how the American comic industry attempts to deal with the growth of Japanese manga. 

               Japan’s comic industry developed completely differently from its western counterpart.  Frederik Schodt cites Will Eisner’s reaction when he went to the Tokyo Museum of manga saying that the Japanese “had comics all the time.”[xix]  Japan has a much different history with pictures than the west.  Most painted scrolls had an essence of narrative already.  An even greater tradition was that pictures were vital to telling a story.  Famously, during the Heian Period was the creation of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu in about 1120 AD.  The Tale of Genji had long intervals of writing followed by elegant paintings to show the scene in full.  In this respect, The Tale of Genji is similar to pulp works save for the fact that pulp writing emerged under industrialization as popular fiction, while The Tale of Genji was artwork intended for the elite.[xx]  Also, while The Tale of Genji does not correlate with modern manga, but it establishes a tradition where pictures in written works were respected as a good form of literature than in the west.

            Another important precursor is the Toba-e scrolls, or the Choju Giga scrolls also in the 12th century.  These scrolls use illustrations to poke fun of the Buddhist monks, especially criticizing their corruption.[xxi]  These playful scrolls use animals to symbolize figures in real life.  Further, the Toba-e scrolls help establish a tradition of artists criticizing authority.  Another important item to note is the artistic tradition in Japan that emphasized emotion and line over color and realism.  There are few instances in Japan where figures were drawn entirely realistic.  Color has historically kept at a minimum which has held into today’s manga. 

            Manga developed in two different time periods.  While in the United States, comics grew as an offshoot of pulp fiction, Japan’s manga is derived from historic influence and influence from the United States.  During the Tokugawa Era, or Edo Period, high forms of artwork for the most part declined while “lowbrow” art of the merchants increased.  The type of artwork created by the merchants became known as the Ukiyo-e which literally translates into “scrolls of the floating world.”[xxii] Woodblock printing developed in the 17th century and carried through up till the mid 18th century.  It was during this period that Hokusai would coin the term “manga.”  Manga literally means “whimsical” or “irresponsible” pictures.[xxiii]  Artwork clearly proves his word whether it is pictures of a man making funny faces with chopsticks or a prostitute posing seductively.  Wood block prints focused on the fleeting pleasures of the world and regularly focused on day to day activity, but it could also specialize in horror genres like in the Yokai prints.  Ukiyo-e truly represents some of the earliest forms of comics ever printed containing its own wide variety of genres.  Pictures like that of Characters of Worldly Young Men by Kiseki Ejima were collected, bound and sold together as a collection.[xxiv]  Stories using the Ukiyo-e style were known as Ukiyo-Zoshi, or “novels of the floating world.”[xxv]  In an industrial sense, by 1850, comics were decades ahead of its western counterparts.

            Katsushika Hokusai has become known as the “father of modern manga.”  As brilliant as the title seems, he shortly becomes less important as one of his predecessor, Osamu Tezuka who would revolutionize comics in the 1950s.  Hokusai is important in manga for the creation of the term and for developing manga into a more commercial industry than it had been previously.  Hokusai is also important for adapting to American style comics.  When Japan was opened up after the intervention of Mathew Perry, foreigners began to settle in Japan.  British Officer, Charels Wirgman, established the newspaper, the Japan Punch in 1862 and used this paper to bring in western comics to Japan, particularly satirical comics and political cartoons.[xxvi]  In 1905, Hokusai established a magazine called Tokyo Puck  which was the first time a place for Japanese artists to showcase their cartoons ergo reclaiming comics from the west.[xxvii]  Hokusai’s creation of Tokyo Puck would allow for a reemergence of Japanese comics as a popular medium, however, Japan would adapt Western style format and incorporate more color in their artwork and lose many of the artistic styles of the Ukiyo-e.

            While Hokusai is known as the “Father of Manga,” Osuma Tezuka is known as the “God of Manga.”  Hokusai established an industry and Tezuka recreated it from within through the production of over 150,000 pages and about 400 published stories.[xxviii]  Tezuka was more than a prolific writer or simply incredibly popular, but is responsible for the changes in manga that most Americans recognize today into what ought to be reffered as modern manga.  Hokusai allowed for manga breaking from its Ukiyo-e roots, but Tezuka has made Manga a respected medium today.  In short, how superheroes have defined American comics, Tezuka has done to define Japan.    Also, more than any other individual, Tezuka helped to firmly establish traditions that separate it from its western counterpart.  During the 1940’s in the United States, comics were serially run with rarely a specific author to its credit.  However, in Japan, artists would clearly own their story and its rights.  While more of this will be elaborated on in future sections, for now, this paper will focus on the artistic changes that Tezuka is responsible for and how it has led to what is now known as modern manga.  Tezuka was heavily influenced by the U.S. after World War II.  Being a fan of animation and America’s Walt Disney, he believed that comics could act very similarly in the sense that comics could mimic movement like a film.[xxix]  Thus, his works contain more panels that have no other purpose than to demonstrate movement.  In post war Japan, where resources were scarce, cheap entertainment like comics were more important than ever as entertainment and what better form of comics than one that can imitate a movie.  Further, it was Tezuka who popularized the use of large eyes in his characters which has also become a recognizable symbol of manga in the west.  It’s common for manga fans to look at their own history and claim that it was because Japan had Tezuka that manga would be able to develop as it did.  Tezuka did not believe that manga were solely for kids, but for every age group.  His works are filled with complex issues and ideas that were not seen as much in United States at the same time, and the sheer number of works that he wrote would be enough to motivate Japan to master its renewed cultural identity in the form of manga.

            In conclusion, like the rise and fall of nations, the actions that affect comics do not arise from thin air.  Comics and their industry are affected by their historical legacy and the institutions that created them.  Sometimes these can be altered by the changes of great individuals.  Eisner sought to obtain a literary respect for comics and to help the industry realize that comics could be more than just for kids.  Great as Eisner was, he was no Tezuka who completely revolutionized manga in Japan and is often cited as the reason why Japan became so successful in their manga market over the years.  Comics are more times than not a fragile market and can be affected by situations beyond their ability to control.  American comics developed as a kid’s medium and has constantly struggled to reach beyond the marketplace common logic.  Japan on the otherhand was devastated after WWII and all things were recreated including comics.  Comics were given a fresh chance to begin again, become more mature and grow like never before.  Today, Japan’s manga market encompasses 40% of all printed material in Japan with a domestic market representing over USD 5 billion dollars in the printed manga alone.  Marvel and DC can only dream of such numbers today despite having a population twice as large as that of Japan.  But Comics in the United States were hit by an un-reckonable force known as the red scare, throwing comics into social obscurity.  Sometimes it is not the stories that make or break an industry, but incredible strokes of luck, but perhaps there is an American Super comic artist ready to save the day.

[i] McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.Northampton,
MA: Kitchen Sink Press, Inc. 20.

[ii] McCloud 13

[iii] McCloud 63

[iv] Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Poorhouse Press. 1996. Web.

[v] McCloud, Scott. Personal Interview. April 2007.

[vi] McCloud, Scott. Personal Interview. April 2007.

[vii] Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of
American Comic Books. Jakson: University Press, 2010. Print. xvii

[viii] Gabilliet xvi

[ix] Gabilliet 3

[x] Gabilliet 5

[xi] Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague; The Great Comic-Book Scare and How
it Changed America. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

[xii] Gablliet 9

[xiii] Gablliet 9

[xiv] Gablliet 16

[xv] Lopes, David. Demanding Respect:The Evolution of the American Comic
Book. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Print. 5

[xvi] Gabilliet 18

[xvii] Lopes 21

[xviii] Lopes 6

[xix] Schodt, Frederik. Dreamland Japan: Witings on Modern Manga. Berkeley:
Stone Bridge Press, 1996. Print. 21

[xx] Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. 2. New York: Thames & Hudson World of Art,
2000. Print. 81

[xxi] Aoki, Deb. “Early History of Japanese Comics.” n.pag. Web.
26 Jan 2012.

[xxii] Baker 122

[xxiii] Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York:
Collins Design, 2004. Print. 8

[xxiv] Gravett 18

[xxv] Gravett 20

[xxvi] Gravett 21

[xxvii]  Gravett 21

[xxviii] Schodt 236

[xxix] Schodt 235

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