In 1978, veteran comic book artist Will Eisner published the 178-page comic book, A Contract with God, in which Eisner used his real life experiences, including the death of his daughter, to make an emotional literary statement. Terming his creation a 'graphic novel' to distance it from the cheap entertainment material usually associated with the term 'comic book,' Eisner backed up this choice of wording with highly expressive artwork and complex characters and story structure, and in the process single-handedly caused a revolution within the medium of comic books. Comic books, long regarded by parents and educators as enemies to "true" literature, now seemed capable of joining its ranks (McCloud Reinventing 28).
It was Eisner himself who, in 1960, confided to Rube Goldberg, another veteran comic book artist, that he believed the comic book had potential as a legitimate literary art form. Goldberg's response to Eisner was curt and fierce: people like he and Eisner were vaudevillians, not artists, and Eisner had better never forget it (McCloud Reinventing 26-27). To Goldberg's credit, he seemed to have good reason for saying this. Comic books of 1960, with few exceptions, had not progressed very far beyond the simplistic children's fare with which many people even today still associate it. Indeed, the early history of comic books was to become one of the greatest hindrances to innovators like Eisner as they attempted o explore the medium's potential for increasingly sophisticated language and content.
When Goldberg began work in the comic industry, comics as a commercial product were in their infancy. Those were the early decades of the 20th century, and comics were nothing more than humorous cartoon strips syndicated in newspapers around the country. In the early 1930s, publishing companies had the idea of reprinting large collections of comics in magazine form. For all practical purposes, this was the birth of the comic book. When these books proved to be financially successful, companies took another step, and a number of comic books began to feature the original creations of specially commissioned artists (Wright 2-3).
Comic books' first move away from the realm of humor took place deep in the midst of the Great Depression. A small comic book company called Detective Comics (or simply DC) began printing stories that used crime fighting as its main premise. Far from being "comic," these new comic books featured action-packed tales and artwork with a darker, more expressionistic style. Artistic expression, however, was not DC's main concern. When, in 1938, DC premiered a new super-powered crime fighter named Superman, the company had no literary aspirations. They wanted to sell comics, and the easiest way to do that was to make their comics exciting and entertaining. Their decision would set a powerful precedent for comic books that followed (Wright 5).
When Superman first appeared in the June 1938 edition of Action Comics, he was an instant, massive hit. Soon after, in addition to his appearances in Action Comics Superman starred in his own comic book, which bore his name. It was the first time a company had printed a comic book devoted to a single character. From its first issue, Superman averaged sales of 2.6 million copies a month. Predictably, a torrent of comics featuring superhuman crime fighters followed. With Superman leading the way, the comic book industry became a major presence in American popular culture overnight (Wright 13).
Not coincidentally, the comic book boom took place at a time in American history when more youths were attending school than ever before. Reforms in education as well as increased unemployment due to the Depression were the primary reasons for this shift. With fewer job opportunities for young adults and greater government pressure on parents to keep their children in school, the population of students in free public schools swelled, especially in the upper grades. The result was teenagers spent more time away from their parents and among their peers. Thus congregated, American teens were free to develop within the country's first true "youth culture" (Wright 26-27).
Recognizing that this new youth culture was the reason for Superman's great success, comic books began catering exclusively to their tastes. New characters, among them Batman and the Flash, were unveiled. As World War II raged, superhero comics enjoyed peak levels of popularity. Depression-era favorites like Superman as well as new pro-war heroes like Captain America sold incredibly well, and by December 1943, the comic book industry was selling an average of 25 million comic books every month (Wright 31). In the post-war years, the popularity of superhero comic books diminished, but horror and crime genres, featuring graphic violence and cruelty, came into their own.
Rarely had any of these early comic book companies pretended to offer anything more than simple entertainment. If people like Eisner harbored any hope for the artistic potential of their medium, it was rarely spoken of and even more rarely acted on. The language of comic books consisted of cliches and low-level vocabulary, while characters and ideas were intractably simplistic. Superhero comics, crime comics, and horror comics followed basic and predictable schematics. Ironically, it was precisely within the genre of superheros that comic book creators began to turn this situation around.
In 1961, public backlash and censorship threatened the survival of violent crime and horror comic genres, which had become the comic book industry's biggest sellers. That year, Stan Lee, the editor of the comic book company Marvel, developed a breakthrough comic that also began, at last, to awaken comic books' potential as a legitimate art form. Lee's breakthrough idea involved comic books' oldest money makers: superheroes. But rather than featuring invincible characters with unshakable, Eisenhowerian morals and perfect lives, Lee developed a new variety of superhero who, while gifted with super powers, were also flawed and emotionally human. The first comic that featured these kinds of characters was Lee's Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four were a group of four scientists who had developed superhuman abilities after being exposed to cosmic radiation. The most memorable hero of the group was Ben Grimm, whom the radiation transformed into a super-strong giant with a body of stone. His great strength made him a powerful agent in the fight for good, but his own appearance appalled him, resulting in a moodiness that often made it difficult for the group to work as a team. As far as comic books were concerned, the complexity of Grimm's situation was a major advance in the depth of content, and the smart, ironic language Grimm used was the beginning of the increasing quality of language within comic books (Houston).
Despite Stan Lee's commercial success and the growing literary aspirations of comic books that resulted from it, the medium continued to lack a strong reputation, so that when Eisner's A Contract with God appeared, it was largely ignored by the general public. In 1986, eight years after A Contract with God, Art Spiegelman published Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel account of Spiegelman's father's experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Maus made it into the New York Times Bestseller List and many hold it as the greatest achievement of comic books as literature to date. Once again, however, Spiegelman's great success was followed bu nothing but the smallest trickle of similarly ambitious work (McCloud Reinventing 29-30). This was due in a large part to the fact that, regardless of the potential comic books like Maus showed, the major comic book companies of the 1980s and '90s had no interest in wavering from the dominant genre of superhero comics that continued to be so profitable.
In his book Reinventing Comics (2000), comics artist Scott McCloud discusses an obstacle that that is possibly greater than comic book companies' lack of support: the general public's lack of faith. To this day, McCloud argues, most people possess a low opinion of comic books simply because tradition has instilled in them a set of basic assumptions about the nature of comic books. Key among them is that comic books are appropriate only for children (88). However, this essay has suggested that, rather than being a truth of the medium, the reason comic books are still associated with children is simply because of the long tradition comic book companies have in catering to this age group.
A second major assumption McCloud identifies is the assumption that Rube Goldberg asserted so forcefully to Will Eisner: comics are incapable of operating outside the realm of simple entertainment. Not only does McCloud discuss works such as A Contract with God and Maus to show how comics is a medium conducive to sophisticated works of literature, but his argument in itself reveals how comics can be effective while completely free from the realm of entertainment. This is because McCloud's book, as well as his 1993 book Understanding Comics are not only extensively reasoned, sophisticated evaluations of the medium of comics—they are both comics themselves.
Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics are both comic books over 200 pages long without the slightest semblance of dramatic plot lines. No narrative tension is required to bring the readers through to their endings. Instead, a drawn representation of Scott McCloud guides the reader through each chapter of the author's aesthetic theories on comics. Not just a gimmick, the combination of language and images is essential to the development of McCloud's ideas. For instance, in Understanding Comics, there is a point early on when McCloud undertakes the task of establishing a definition for the term 'comics.' In doing so, he uses a version of deductive reasoning that is only possible in a comic book's brand of nonfiction. McCloud depicts his cartoon alter-ego standing on a stage, inciting the audience in front of him to debate the definition. Of course, what follows is not a real debate; it takes place within the head of a single human being, the book's author. It may look like drama, but it is without a doubt a work of pure nonfiction. And from this "scene," the book moves on to other settings to illustrate additional premises. A dialogue like this might appear on a television program, but it would be technically impractical to try to televise the book's entire argument, of which the debate "scene" forms only a small part.
McCloud's nonfiction comic books turned out to be very popular, and today many commentators consider them to be just as groundbreaking as the graphic novels whose merit McCloud had written his books to justify. His inventive writing in the comics medium demonstrated one more possibility for comic books as form of true literature. The graphic novels of Eisner and Spiegelman demonstrate another, where language is not only utilized but advanced into new areas through poetic language and its combination with expressive artwork. A strong stigma of comic books still remains, however. In an age where the internet, television, and traditional publishing vie for people's attention, it remains to be seen if comics will ever have the opportunity to prove themselves and enter a position of true eminence within America's literary culture.
Houston, Frank. "Stan Lee."
<http://www.salon.com/people/bc/1999/08/17/lee/print.html> (3 April 2002).
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
______. Reinventing Comics. New York: Perennial, 2000.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.