Comics and Childhood: An Overview

Posted by on September 24th, 2010 at 12:01 AM



In 1995 I left Spain to study in the United States, and what began as a temporary visit turned into a stay that has exceed 15 years now. In the mid-’90s, the Internet was not as widespread and important as it is now, and thus, my passion for letter-writing led me time and again to the Post Office where unexpectedly I reestablished contact with comics. It is true that the United States generally claims the invention of comics as a mass-media genre within the context of newspaper publication. R.F. Outcault’s character Yellow Kid, who appeared between 1895 and 1898, represents the beginning of the humoristic tradition of comic strips in the press. The U.S. Postal Service began to print stamps commemorating 100 years of comic-strip history, and so in 1995, the year I arrived in the U.S., many characters from the classic strips were made over into 32¢ stamps. My passion for comics, forged since my early childhood, of course prompted me to use those stamps for all of my correspondence. I was fascinated by the fact that they represented the icons of the world of vignettes; they obviously held a special connection to my own reading experiences. Twenty characters that are considered key figures in the U.S. imagination were selected for the occasion. Some of the titles the U.S. Postal Service selected celebrate the child protagonists of comics, such as the screwball Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirk. This strip, focusing on Hans and Fritz, two very mischievous boys, first appeared in 1897. It stands out as the first of its type to utilize a sequential pattern with permanent characters whose dialogs are enclosed in small bubbles above the characters’ heads. I recall the adventures of those hoodlums, bound together in a single volume along with the Charlie Brown comic strips; the chronicles of these boys transcended their time and formed part of my childhood reading experience. Characters originally conceived as part of the funnies section of U.S. newspapers reach well beyond that medium and in fact continue to be reprinted to live on in bound volumes directed at international youth audiences.

The comic strips of the newspapers were restructured as reading material for children without anyone questioning the multiple ideological layers that often characterized the context of their adventures. This is why the phenomenon of the re-editions and redirection of the reading audience is a fascinating aspect of comics to me.

Within that initial series of stamps, we also find Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, the boy dreamer, and Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray. The latter, created in 1924, became an icon during the Great Depression. I first encountered Little Orphan Annie through the Broadway musical, not through reading, and discovering her as an adult compelled me to reflect back on the ideological impact that comics have on different cultures. All through the Little Orphan Annie stories this innocent little girl represented the ultraconservative values of a society in turmoil. Those narrations were not meant for children; nevertheless they took refuge in the fragile appearance of childhood, under the guise of the simplicity of illustrated vignettes.



Nancy, created by Ernie Bushmiller in 1938, is another girl protagonist that appears in the commemorative stamp collection. And as far as adolescent audiences are concerned, the universe of Flash Gordon, created by Alex Raymond in 1934 would become forever associated with science fiction, and would also be adapted to the big screen.

Popeye, by E. C. Segar, a strip initiated in 1919 also becomes a comic of multiple textures that still maintains its vibrant iconic position today thanks to its adaptation to film and cartoons. This sailor-idol fascinated me when I was a child; as I witnessed him squeeze open cans of spinach with just one hand, stories unfolded with adult undertones impregnated by the prejudices of the time. This occurred as well with the adventures of Tintin. In no way does this mean we need to censor, but we do need to educate our young readers so they will become critically aware of the problems implied in the narrations imply and understand the contexts in which they were created. Like many other artists of canonical status, Hergé and Segar are maestros of illustration, and they offer multiple aesthetic dimensions that are key to the visual education of children.

Comics have an incredible capacity to remain in the collective memory. They are stories we read as children and re-read as adults with echoes of the earlier emotional reactions. The serial aspect of many of these works has become part of childhood and adolescent memories, leaving a strong impact on the formation of young readers. Superheroes have burned their way into the mythic imagery of many Western youth, and in 2005 a commemorative series of 39¢ stamps honoring the heroes of DC Comics came out. In 2006 another series of 41¢ stamps was dedicated to the most symbolic heroes of Marvel Comics. These stamps are preserving a collective iconic memory of American popular culture.


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3 Responses to “Comics and Childhood: An Overview”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    Thank you ,for this, Ana. I share all of these comics memories with you.

    Alas, I fear that small kids just don’t read comics as a matter of course any more…

  2. WLLilly says:

    …Daily and Sunday newspaper strips in the Hearst NEW YORK JOURNAL-AMERICAN , which my father brought home when his jornalism job had him on more or less a standard 9-5 , were among my earliest…

  3. WLLilly says:

    …( cont. ) , if not my earliest , comics exposures .
    I saw the ” nicer ” NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE at least , some , too .
    I recall LITTLE IODINE , and I guess THEY’LL DO IT EVERY TIME , being in the J-A . The H-T had PEANUTS and PENNY .
    My father had worked for a Hears paper , in his earlier years , when he still worked on business towards newspapers proper , as had my mother…
    I seem to recall Little Iodine as a daily , but references say that it was a Sunday-only . Whatever .
    The two papers I mentioned merger with another into the WORLD JOURNAL TRIBUNE , which didn’t last very long , and maybe some of my comics memories come from that paper…I recall HI AND LOIS causing me to switch to calling my parents ” Mom ” and ” Dad ” , like Chip !!!!!!!!!
    We also had home-delivered the Westchester County daily , which diod not publish a Sunday .
    DENNIS THE MENACE ? MUTT & JEFF ? I recall POPEYE being in it , but dropped when I was about 6 and I never saw it again except when thumbing past the Sunday of the Spanish EL DAIRIO .
    I saw comic books too , including those d*mm*d super-hero ones , as much as the Journal demographic might perfer to have me ( and themselves ) not do so !!!!!!!!!!!
    But more on that later…Maybe .
    After the WJT went under – My father bought o copy of their last Suinday and put it away in a trunk but we were never able to find it agin . – my family’s Sunday-paper-with-comics custom ( Yes , we bought the Times on Sunday as well . ) switched to the NEW YORK NEWS , which I suppose must’ve picked up BLONDIE and LIL’ ABNER about then .