Comics, the Origin

Posted by on March 17th, 2010 at 7:03 AM

Comics don’t necessarily look like comics at all. They can be found, usually, in a nimbus of light at the far end of a darkened room, where they stand, entirely alone, when gripping a microphone in one sweaty hand, delivering themselves of bad puns, all manner of verbal incongruities, and assorted manifestations of syntactic surprise, which they accompany, sometimes, with distorted facial expressions. For this, they are rewarded with the laughter of a multitude that has assembled before them for the purpose of laughing.

But as every schoolboy knows, comics do not stand alone at microphones in the dark. Indeed, we cannot even read them in the dark. We need light, the more, the better. And we enjoy comics best in solitary, by ourselves, not in crowds; although large numbers of people read comics, they generally do it by themselves, in silence.

Our seeming bewilderment about comics has its roots, as do most bewilderments, in ancient history. Today’s comic strip is the lineal descendant of the nineteenth century humorous drawing that appeared in weekly humor magazines like Puck, Judge, and Life in the 1880’s. Toward the end of the century, great metropolitan newspapers battled for readers, and, in the attempt to attract readers and build circulation, they began publishing extravagant Sunday supplements. The most famous of these circulation wars took place in New York, and comic drawings were on the frontlines of the battlefield.

The potential of the Sunday newspaper as a profitable venture was first in demonstrated in New York by Joseph Pulitzer who invaded the city in 1883, purchasing the New York World with the profits from his St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pulitzer fleshed out the Sunday supplement idea by concentrating entertainment features in the Sunday World —material for women and young readers and for sports enthusiasts, the offerings of literary syndicates, and humorous drawings and other illustrations.

Pulitzer had run comics in the supplement as early as 1889, but when he acquired a four-color rotary press in 1893, new vistas opened. Morrill Goddard, who headed the Sunday staff, saw in the new technology a spur to circulation: he proposed to capitalize upon the popularity of the weekly humor magazines by imitating them but to improve upon the original by adding more color. Goddard did just that and inadvertently perverted his native language forever.

Offering comical drawings and amusing short essays and droll verse, the humor magazines Life, Judge, and Puck were dubbed “comic weeklies” in common parlance—or, even, “comics.” So when the World launched its imitation “comic weekly” in November 1894, it was lumped together in the popular mind as another of the “comics.”

And then, once the World had shown the way, papers in other cities began publishing humorous Sunday supplements full of funny drawings in color and risible essays and verse. In a relatively short time, obeying the dictates of demand, newspapers eliminated the essays and verse and concentrated on comical artwork, which was increasingly presented in the form of “strips” of pictures portraying hilarities in narrative sequence.

It was but a short step to the use of comics to designate the artform (comic strips) as distinct from the vehicle in which they appeared (the Sunday magazine supplement itself).

Once that bridge was crossed, meaning deteriorated pretty rapidly. Storytelling (or “continuity”) strips arrived soon after, and even when the stories they told were serious, they were called “comics” because they looked like the artform called comics and they appeared in newspapers with all the others of the breed.

Thus, did the medium acquire its name from the conveyance that brought it to its audience.

Just one of the misapprehensions that cluster around comics. Next time, how we mistakenly began to think that comics were intended solely for kids.

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