The early known comic has recently become an exciting, brand new field of research in the comic industry. Up until as recent as a years ago it was generally believed that the first comic book was a reprint collection of the first comic strip, best known as the Yellow Kid.
There have been recent discoveries proving that comic books were around long before the Yellow Kid. This new age of comics is being called the "Victorian Age" for now.
With this webpage I'm trying to stick to comic books rather than single panel drawings or comic strips in newspapers. Those things I may expand to after I'm somewhat satisfied I have the comic book history nailed down.
Today the earliest known comic book is called The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. Originally published in several languages in Europe in 1837, among them an English version designed for Britain in 1941. A year later it was that version reprinted in New York on Sept. 14, 1842 for Americans, making it the first comic book printed in America. Odadiah Oldbuck is 40 pages long and measured 8 ½" x 11". The book was side stitched, and inside there were 6 to 12 panels per page. No word balloons, but there is text under the panels to describe the story. A copy of it was discovered in Oakland, California in 1998.
The comic was done by Switzerland's Rudolphe Töpffer, who has been considered in Europe (and starting to become here in America) as the creator of the picture story. He created the comic strip in 1827 and the comic book/graphic novel. Rudolphe Töpffer created several (7 is known) graphic novels that were extremely successful and reprinted in many different languages, several of them had English versions in America in 1846. The books remained in print in America until 1877. There are an unknown amount of Victorian Age Comic Books, this era of comic book history is still being discovered, researched and recorded. When more information is available I'll be writing about this as well.
An influential illustrated book to come out in this period was called The Brownies: Their Book. The Brownies feature wasn't really a comic book per say. They were created by Palmer Cox and originally part of a children's magazine called St. Nicholas. The Brownies first appeared in the magazine in 1883 in a story called The Brownies' Ride. The Brownies were heavily merchandised and one of the products they put out was book featuring their illustrations with a text story beside the pictures. The Brownies: Their Book was first published in 1887 and several other books involving the same characters followed afterwards. It is likely to be the first North American Comic to be internationally successful.
Besides St. Nicholas, there were other magazines using picture stories of sorts and they were getting popular. Among the magazines were Harper's, Puck, Judge, Life and Truth. Newspapers began to recognize their growing popularity and added a Sunday Comics feature to cash in. The newspapers couldn't get the popular artists and their characters because the Magazines already had them signed up. But a Puck staff member, Roy L. McCardell told Morrill Goddard, the Sunday editor of The New York World (then largest newspaper) that he knew someone who could provide something.
That someone was Richard F. Outcault. He did a picture of street children in the June 2nd, 1894 edition of Truth. You can see the Yellow Kid (without yellow) is in the picture at the bottom right and plays a minor role. The caption underneath it would read:
Feudal Pride in Hogan's Alley
Little Rosilla McGraw -- No; we won't come and play with you, Delia Costigan. Our rejuced means may temporary necessitate our residin' in a rear tenement, but we're jist as exclusive as when we lived on the first floor front and papa had charge of the pound in the Department of Canine Captivity!
Afterwards, Outcault would do four more for the Truth magazine the last one was is a homage to Palmer Cox's The Brownies. Originally published on the 9th of February 1895, titled Fourth Ward Brownies. It was reprinted in the newspapers shortly afterwards.
Outcault would come to the newspaper and create Hogan's Alley, best known for it's unnamed staring character, whom New Yorkers dubbed, the Yellow Kid. It is believed that Outcault got his inspiration from a number of different sources. Among them were the cartoons of Michael Angelo Woolf and Charles W. Saalburg cartoons that used street kids. The title Hogan's Alley could have come from the song "O'Reilly and the Four Hundred" which stats off singing "Down in Hogan's Alley."
Early 1897 a book called The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats came out. The comic was 196 pages long, square bound, black and white, 50 cents and 5 ½" x 7 ½". It was published by G. W. Dillingham Company with permission from Hearst, the newspaper that had Hogan's Alley at the time. It was a part of a series that Dillingham did on American Authors, only he took special liberties with this one and created what is today known as a comic book. In fact this comic that coined the phrase "Comic Book" as it's written on the back cover. Inside we get an origin of sorts as it reprints the earliest Yellow Kid's appearances. There is some text within by E. W. Townsend explaining Outcault and the Kid. This comic book starts what is now called the Platinum Age of Comics.
In 1899 a Funny Folks comic book came out, taking a close first stab at a format for many Platinum Age comic books. The book was hardcover, 16 ½" wide by 12" tall. Funny Folks was created by F. M. Howarth, but published by E. P. Dutton. It was a black and white collection of reprints from the Puck magazine.
In 1901 The Blackberries came out and is the first known full color comic book. It used a format of 9" x 12" and was a hardcover book.
Then the most often used format of 17" wide x 11 tall" began being used by a number of comic books. Among them The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo and Happy Hooligan. After the Yellow Kid, Outcault would create many other strips and characters. One of them also ended up in comic book form. That was Buster Brown, published in 1902 by Cupples & Leon. Thanks to the merchandising success of Buster Brown, many companies made Buster Brown comics as premiums to sell their stuff. Most of these comics were full color, but with only reprinted Sunday comics on one side of the page. They were large volumes and were priced at 50 cents. This format lasted over a decade.
In 1910 Mutt & Jeff created a new format, reprinting daily strips in black and white. The book was still a hardcover, but was 15" wide x 5" tall. It was published by Ball and they did 5 volumes of Mutt & Jeff books.
Then in 1919, Publisher Cupples & Leon used a different format. They were 10" by 10" with 4 panels per page, each page. They were black and white, 52 pages for 25 cents. Titles and characters used for these books was Mutt & Jeff and Bringing up Father.
In 1922 the first monthly comic book came out. It was cover dated January and had a price of 10 cents. They were done in 8 ½ by 9 format. The title was Comics Monthly and lasted 12 issues. Each issue was devoted to a popular comic strip character that was syndicated by King Features. Issue #1 and #12 was Polly and her Pals. #2 was Mike & Ike by Rube Goldberg. #3 - S'Matter Pop? #4 - Barney Google. #5 - Tillie the Toiler. #6 - Indoor Sports. #7 - Little Jimmy. #8 Toots and Casper. #9 & 10- Foolish Questions. #11 Barney Google and Spark Plug. These were all reprints of 1921 daily black and white strips.
In 1926 Little Orphan Annie and Smitty comics came out in a 7 by 9 format, published by Cupples and Leon. They were printed in both softcover and Hardcover with dust jackets. They were very popular with a 60 cents price.
In 1929 Dell Publishing took a crack at a regular Comic Book. The comic was called The Funnies and was done in a big tabloid-sized format. They were 16 pages and sold for 10 cents. It was distributed by the newsstands along with newspapers. Unlike Comic Monthly, this book was done 4 colours and had original comic strips instead of reprints. A new issue came out every Saturday, but it lost money. Issues #3 to #21 were 30 cents each. The price changed to 5 cents with issue #22 and lasted the final issue with #36.
Walt Disney got into comic books too. The earliest of these was Mickey Mouse Book. Done in 1930 - 31, published by Bibo & Lang. These were 9"x12", 20 pages long and stapled together. Despite the title of "book" this was in fact a magazine, inside it had a variety of songs, games and stories. There were later printings of this book but some lyrics were edited, advertising was inserted and christmas card was a part of the front cover.
The Adventures of Mickey Mouse is considered to be the first "true" Mickey Mouse comic book. It came out in 1931, is 32 pages long and 5 -1/2" x 8 1/2". It was published by David McKay Co. with a print run of 50,000 copies. There were both hardcover and softcover versions of this book. A second book came out after the Mickey Mouse cartoons and the characters within were made similar to the cartoons.
Mickey Mouse Comic #1 also came out in 1931. It reprints the Mickey Mouse comic strips done by Floyd Gottfredson from 1930 to 1931. It measures 10"x 9 3/4" is 52 pages long with a cardboard cover. The series lasted 4 issues with later reprintings. It was also published by David McKay Co.
There were two different Mickey Mouse Magazines done in 1933. The first in January published by Kamen-Blair. It was distributed by daries and local theaters. It lasted until issue #9, the first few issues had a 5 cent cover price, the later ones did not. The second was also give aways done through different Dairie companies. It had two volumes, the both going 12 issues. Both magazines were done by Walt Disney Productions and they ended in 1935. In the summer of the same year A new Mickey Mouse Magazine was done by publisher K. K. Publishing AKA Western Publishing Co.. Like the previous incarnation, this magazine would run 12 issues, then restart back at #1 with another volume. This continued for 5 years, with #12 volume 4 converted to a more traditional comic book format. It turned 68 pages and shrank to normal comic book size. It then went under a title change to Walt Disney Comics & Stories. I'll discuss that when we get to that point and time.
Not all comics were squeaky clean and sold on newsstands. From about the 1930's to the 1950's small dirty comics were sold through underground means. These were called Tijuana Bibles, despite the name they were made in America. While much of their origins or artists are not known it's believed they were made by members of organized crime. This is partialy because the bibles were illegally using trademarked characters. Well known comic strips, movies stars, sport celeberties and more had their likeness used to tell dirty stories with. The book shown here is a collection of Tijuana Bibles. If you are over 18 and you want to see examples of some Tijuana bibles, click here and here.
In 1933, Detective Dan, Secret Op. 48 was the first comic, sold on the newsstands, with original material in it. Done by Norman Marsh this comic had a 3 color, cardboard cover. Inside was black and white. Sold for 10cents, dimensions were 10x13". It had 36 pages and was only a one shot published by Humor Publishers Corp., The Detective Dan character was a Dick Tracy clone, and didn't last very long. There was some other appearances by him though. One in The Adventures of Detective Ace King. Also done in 1933. There are some minor differences between the two books, among them a paper cover and pages 9 1/2 x12".
Free Comics became popular in the early 1930's. This was mainly because of the depression and deflation. It also kept the publishing presses running during very hard times. Shutting down and starting up the printing presses cost time and money and the presses did everything they could to keep them going. Thousands of different comics were given away as companies used popular comic strips for advertising purposes. The pioneers of this trend is given to Sam Gold and Kay Kamen. Among the most well known giveaways are Kelloggs Buck Rogers and Ovaltine's Little Orphan Annie.
Eastern Color Printing Company was one company that became very important in formation of comic industry. They had a 45 year old sales manager named Harry I. Wildenberg, among his duties were to come up with ideas to keep the color presses going. In 1932 he noticed the color comic strips sections of newspapers were popular and thought they would be good for advertising.
He suggested the idea of a comic book used for advertising to Gulf Oil Company, one of his clients. They liked the idea and hired a few artists to create Gulf Comic Weekly among them were Stan Schendel who did The Uncovered Wagon, Victor (last name unknown) did Curly and the Kids and Svess (last name unknown) doing Smileage. These were one full page, full color comic pictures. The entire comic was 4 pages long and had a format of 10 ½ by 15. The comic was given away at Gulf Gas Stations making them probably the first comic book published and distributed outside of the newspaper market. The comic was advertised on radio (telling people to go to Gulf Gas stations to get them) on April 30th 1933.
Much to everybodys surprise, the comics proved an very effective draw to the gas stations. People were quickly coming in and snatching them all up. Gulf decided to print out 3 million copies a week had the name changed to Comics Funnies Weekly. The series remained in tabloid sized and lasted 422 issues, ending on May 23, 1941.
A few weeks after coming up with the tabloid sized comic book, Wildenberg came up with the idea of doing a comic book. He said he got it when reading a tabloid sized comic strip page, folded it in half, then in half again. He noticed it was a convenient size for reading comics. He also thought publishing it with 32 or 64 pages would be a good size.
Wildenberg wasn't the first to use this format though. From 1880's to 1910's the size was popular for reprinted comic pages. Pulp Dime Novels were already using that size and the Ledger Syndicate was also using 7 by 9 format for their Sunday newspaper comic strip inserts.
Convinced his idea would be popular Wildenberg secured the rights from many major Syndicates for to reprint their various comic strips. Among them, Associated, Bell, Fisher, McNaught and Public Ledger Syndicate. He had an artist make up a few hand make comics for demonstration purposes and then has his sales staff go around to all of Eastern Color's biggest advertisers. The first to respond (by telegram) was Procter and Gamble, asking for a million 32 page color comic book.
The comic published in the spring of 1933, was called Funnies on Parade. Most remarkable about was it set a format standard, using the same 8" x 11" format that comic books are printed in today. All 1 million copies were given away in a few weeks. The comic came with coupons for Proctor & Gamble products.
Doing the grunt work of publishing the comic went to Wildenbergs sales staff. Most of them were infected by the comic publishing bug after this issue and went on to continue with comics afterwards. The sales staff included Max Gaines (partnered with DC to create All American Comics imprint and started EC), Lev Gleason (became a publisher himself best known for starting the crime comics genre with Crime Does Not Pay) and Harold Moore. Also working on the project was Sol Harrison was the colour seperator (became DC Comics President - retired in 1980), George Dougherty Sr. was the printer (created a lived George Dougherty Co. comics company). Morris Margolis was from Charlton Publications, and was asked to help them figure out how to print the pages in order.
Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Comics was the second comic book done by the Eastern Color group. Printed in 1933, it was 64 pages with a 10 cent price. It was the first retail comic that was distributed to the public as it was given away only through chain department stores. Eastern Color Printing worked together on creating it and got George Delacorte of Dell Publishing to publish the book. After the first issue, Dell Publishing (not seeing any profit) decided to stop publishing the comic.
M.C. Gaines sought to convince his boss Wildenberg that they could make money selling these comics on the newsstand. Wildenberg had a hard time believing that anyone would pay for a comic book. To prove his point , Gaines took a few of issues around, put 10 cent stickers on them and went to local newsstands over the weekend. He told the newsstands what he was testing to see if these could sell and that he'd be back Monday to see how they were doing. Monday came around and to his surprise, they had all sold out and the newsstands were asking for more.
Other freebie comics done were the 100 page Century of Comics and Skippy's Own Book of Comics. Skippy was a very popular comic character and was the first to receive his own "new" comic dedicated comic series. Each of these had a print run of a half a million. From there Wildenberg was really interested in publishing a "higher level" of a comic book with reprints of famous comic strips, sold for 10 cents. He tried to get many companies to hop on but none would. Among those to turn him down were Oscar Fitz-Alan Douglas known as the brains of Woolsworth department store. After much deliberation he decided a 10 cents wasn't worth a comic book. Many other stores to turn them down, as did Parents Magazine. The just couldn't see anyone paying 10 cents for old comics they already read from the newspapers. They Syndicates didn't see it selling either, they remembered both Comics Monthly and The Funnies trying and failing at selling comic books.
Finally Eastern Color owner George Janosik stepped in and asked George Delacourt of Dell Publishing to form a 50/50 partnership in a 10 cent comic magazine for the newsstand. He agreed but the two were stopped cold by the distributor American News Distribution refused as they remembered Dell's The Funnies failure from a few years before. The two then decided to go to the retail chains stores again and got some of them to sell the comics at 10 cents each. Famous Funnies (know called Series One because of duplicate names) used material previously reprinted from the first Famous Funnies and Century of Comics. It was 64 pages, had a print run of 400,000 and they all sold out within 30 days. Not one single returned. Eastern wanted to go back for a second print run but Dell wouldn't agree. Apparently advertisers felt using comic books was beneath them. Still the sold out print run made the two companies $2,000.
Harold Moore an employee under Wildenberg was on a train reading an article about a successful New York newspaper that said their Comics Section was responsible for much of their success. Moore then went back to American News president Harry Gold with the newspaper article. He finally agreed to distribute a monthly comic magazine with a print run of 250,000.
In May 1934 (the comic was dated July), another first issue
of Famous Funnies appeared on the newsstands. It featured
four pages each of several newspaper comic characters. It
was 64 pages long but kept the 10 cent price tag. It had a
90% sell though but still lost $4,150.60. A second issue came
out in July (cover dated September) and was monthly after
that. With the second issue the magazine hired people at 5
dollars a page to create original material for them.
Meanwhile it costed the magazine 10 dollars a page for
Syndicated reprints. The comic was edited by Steven O.
Douglass but Moore got the credit in the first issue. From
issue #3 and on Buck Rogers took the center stage and
became the comics feature character. By 7th issue, finally a
profit emerged as the group made $2,664.25, but it must have
been too little, too late as Dell Publishing got cold feat and
sold their 50% to Eastern Color. Still, every issue had higher
sales, and by a years time sales were up to almost a million
per month. How the 10 cents per issue got divided among the parties bounced around as the
series progressed. At first Eastern would see 6 of the 10 cents, later it was 6 ½. The rest was split
between Newsstand and Distributor with the newsstand taking 2 then 2 ½ cents and American
News took 1 then 1 ½ cents. Eastern proudly made public the amount of money they were
making off the comics, as a way of saying "I told you so" to the many people rejected the idea at
first. They were making $30,000 per issue. They also did this to drum up more business, either as
a publisher or printer. By the time a year had gone by Funnies had gained some respect and was
placed on newsstands beside slick magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. They also had
5 competitors putting out monthly magazines. This comic series would last 218 issues ending in 1955.
In 1934, with a cover date of February 1935, New Fun Comics came out. The creator, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson decided that he didn't want to pay the fees that the newspapers were charging for their old comic strip reprints. So he got new comic material that wasn't being published in the newspapers. National Allied Publications Inc. published New Fun Comics in a much bigger 10" x 15" tabloid size. Which was closer to what the news paper comic section was. The cover was full color and was made out of stiff cardboard. Inside about half the book had color in it, but each strip was usually allowed one color only. It is also said that this title is the first to have advertisements inside, while selling on the newsstands. The strips inside were done by a mix of cartoonist veterans struggling during the depression or young cartoonists trying to break in. In fact, some of the new comic material was made by Wheeler-Nicholson himself. Some artists already had completed strips that the syndicates wouldn't take, and they were able to get some money for them by printing them here. Many were knock offs of popular newspaper strips. Out of all the strips only two had any lasting effect, those were Wing Brady and Barry O'Neill. The series would last 6 issues before the name would change to More Fun Comics, with issue #9 the format would change to a normal comic book size. Of those contributing strips to the issue would be Walt Kelly and Al Capp who later go on to have great success in the comic strip field. With the help of superheroes, this title would last 127 issues getting cancelled in November 1947. There was a brief time after issue #12 the book would start at #1 again with a volume 2. This last for 5 issues and then switched back to volume 1 returning with the original numbering with issue 18.
After New Fun Comics, another Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson published another title. This was New Comics (December, 1935) and again it featured all new material. Among the artists who's work featured in here was Walt Kelly, Sheldon Mayer and Vincent Sullivan, all three would be important to the development of comics. The title would go through many name changes, turning into New Adventure Comics with issue #12, then to simply Adventure Comics with issue #32. Like New Fun, the title went through a period of volume 2 with new numbering starting with New Adventure Comics #1, then New Adventure Vol 3 #1 and stopping with Vol. 3 #2, before returning to #22 continuing it's original numbering run. This title with the help of many superhero features would last until 1983, ending with issue #503.
Lev Gleason would also get a comic strip Syndicate behind him and become the editor of Tip Top Comics #1 with all United Features syndicated comic strips. Under their umbrella was Tarzan, Li'l Abner, Broncho Bill, Captain and the Kids and other popular strips. Eventually Peanuts appeared in this series as well. This title also gave us the first published work of Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, both would go on to make EC Comics very popular and successful. The series would also end up becoming one of the first comic book Trade Paper Back, with bound reprints of a number of issue being up for sale at the 1939 Worlds Fair. First set had issues 1-12, second 13-24, the third 25-36. This title would be published by both St. John Publishing and later Dell Publishing, stretching out and last 225 issues ending in 1961.
In February 1936 Chicago Tribune Syndicate teamed up with Max Gaines, his assistant Sheldon Mayer and George Delacorte (his third try at comic books) and created Popular Comics featuring a huge amount of well known characters. Among them, Dick Tracy, Terry & the Pirates, Gasoline Alley, Skippy, Mutt and Jeff, Tailspin Tommy, Little Orphan Annie and many more. The third and final try at comics would be what Delacourte needed to become a successful publisher, in fact Dell Publishing Co. would be one of the most successful comic publishers of all time. This title would last 145 issues and end in 1948.
In April of 1936, another major comic strip syndicate would jump in the comic book business. King Features created King Comics. David McKay was a publisher who had done some comic books through King Features, and he had the job of doing this one with the editor Ruth Plumly Thompson. In it Flash Gordon, Popeye, Mandrake the Magician would be among the popular strips to make their appearance in the first issue. Later on The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Prince Valiant, Blondie and Little Lulu would be among the other popular strips to appear in the title. The comic would last 159 issues and end in 1952. Out of it would spring Standard Publishing a comic book company with many different titles.
A month later two men named William Cook and John Mahon published The Comics Magazine #1. Cook and Mahon were former disgruntled employees of National Allied Publications, owned by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson - the company that gets later renamed to DC Comics. Cook and Mahon would go on to form a publishing company called Comics Magazine Co. but the title changed and so did the ownership. Eventually it would be called Centaur Comics. The Comics Magazine #1 would feature a character and two creators that go on to become famous. Mr. Mystic was created and done by Siegel and Shuster, the two would go on to create Superman. Mr.Mystic was not in a costume in this issue, but the weird thing was the character would later appear in DC Comics More Fun #14, with the story (called "The Koth and the Seven") continuing on from one publishers book to the next. Another Siegel and Shuster character to appear in this title was Federal Agent, later renamed Federal Men when they also appeared in DC Comics. The Comics Magazine would change it's name to Funny Pages with issue #6. The series would feature a character named The Clock, who was the first masked hero in comics. The title would last until 1940 ending with issue #42.
By the end of the year, Centuar Publications would be the first to publish titles devoted to a single theme. They were Detective Picture Stories, Western Picture Stories, and Funny Picture Stories. Despite the title, Funny was about Adventure type stories. Detective Picture Stories would last 5 issues and they would include some work by creators who later become famous like Wil Eisner and Bob Kane. The title may have continued on with another name but the specifics are not known. Funny Picture Stories lasted almost as long, but they did 3 volumes, resetting the numbers back to #1 each time. The 1st went 9 issues, the 2nd went 11 issues (#6 being the first with the Centuar Comics name on it) and the 3rd lasted 3 issues before the title gets renamed to Comic Pages from #4 and up. This series also had work from people who later become famous, among them Charles Biro and Bob Wood best known for Crime Does Not Pay comic, and Fred Guardineer who did a lot of work for DC Comics. Lastly, Western Picture Stories lasted 4 issues. All with Wil Eisner work in them.
In March 1937, Detective Comics #1 came out. This comic was the first true DC comic book. This issue was the first production of two companies that formed the DC company. Comic producer Major Malcolm Wheeler wasn't making much money with his comic books (New Fun being one of them) and owed money to his printer and just about everybody else. Wheeler was forced to collaborated with his printer/distributor Harry Donenfeld to produce this book. Most of the stories in this issue are racist towards Chineese people and they are the villains in the majority of the tales. One such story titled "Claws of the Red Dragon" writen by Major Malcolm Wheeler. Another story of note in here is called Slam Bradley done by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The character looks very similar to another they created. That being Superman. From the opening splash page to the different layouts to the tough guy hero saves the girls it's easy to see how there style paved the way for the typical comic hero story.
By 1938, Donenfeld, bought out Wheeler's other books to become the sole owner. He then took on a friend/accountant in his distribution business, Jack Liebowitz as a partner. The company was renamed National Periodical Publications. Liebowitz stayed at the offices and headed the accounting and creative part of DC, while Donnenfeld handled and expanded the distribution though his company Independent News Co.. Donnenfeld remained president of DC until his death in 1965. Liebowitz remained in DC until 1970 and later moved to the Board of Directors of the Warner Brothers company. He died in 2000. Detective Comics is the DC's longest running comic book title, this is due to another character who took over the about 2 years later.
Comics On Parade #1 by United Feature Syndicate. April 1938, goes to #104 1955. First issue featured Tarzan by Hal Foster, Captain and the Kids, Little Mary Mixup, Abbie & Slats, Ella Cinders, Broncho Bill, and Li'l Abner.
A few months later a new comic would come out that change the comic industry forever. Up until now, most comics were made for adult readers. This new comic showed that you can make a lot more money by marketing comics to kids.
Read the next section