Comic books have come a long way over the last several decades—not just in terms of the range of styles and storytelling, but in their place in American culture. Back in the day, comics were actually considered a leading cause of juvenile delinquency. Now the New York Times runs an annual “Graphic Books Best Sellers” list.
It all begin with the humble comic strip in 1895, when the first newspaper cartoon character appeared. Created by Richard Felton Outcault for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, The Yellow Kid character in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley became one of the paper’s star attractions, and was soon the subject of a battle with publishing rival William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, who had begun a series of raids on Pulitzer’s staff the previous year for his New York Journal, made a successful grab for Outcault. Pulitzer then bought Outcault back, but Hearst upped the ante once again. Pulitzer then hired George Luks to do a version of The Yellow Kid, resulting in rival identical characters appearing in both papers simultaneously. In fact, it’s likely that this battle brought us the term “yellow journalism.”
In 1912 Hearst introduced the nation’s first full daily comic page in The Journal. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammers Kids, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo were among the earliest to be syndicated nationwide, joined soon by Jiggs and Maggie by George McManus. Cartoonists became the superstars of their times, many enjoying lucrative contracts and presenting chalk talks on national tours.
In 1934 pulp writer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson entered publishing by recycling Sunday newspaper comic strips into a pulp magazine, a format pioneered in Famous Funnies the previous year. Discovering that the existing strips had all been licensed, he commissioned new ones, which resulted in New Fun #1.
Two teenage boys from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold their early work to Wheeler-Nicholson, the adventure strip Henri Duval. Soon afterward Wheeler-Nicholson was pushed out by his two partners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who founded National Magazines (DC comics). Siegel and Shuster sold them a comic strip they had intended for newspapers. In 1938, Superman premiered in Action Comics #1, and the superhero was introduced into popular culture.
Then, in 1954, a Senate Judiciary sub-commission on juvenile delinquency was formed to explore the connection between comic books and wayward youth. The proceedings were televised live. As a result, the industry readily agreed to self-regulate and the Comics Code Authority was born.
In the AIGA Design Archives, comics and sequential art make one of its earliest appearances in 1953 with Low & Inside: A Book of Cartoons by Robert Osborn. In 1958, the Push Pin Graphic published Seymour Chwast’s linocut comic strip. By the 1960s R.O. Blechman and Charles B. Slackman created the Make Lots of Money with Simple Cartoons brochure for SVA, and King Features Syndicate published The Blondie Features. Then in 1972, Blechman poignantly used the form to comment on the Vietnam War in the New York Times, and in 1976 Jock Truman and Arnold Glimcher designed Art Comics and Satires by Ad Reinhardt, followed by R. Crumb’s Carload O’ Comics. By the 1980s comics were a mainstay in the AIGA Design Archives, featuring work by Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Charles Burns.
But perhaps no one has championed comics more than AIGA Medalist Chip Kidd, both by writing books on the subject and helping produce and publish heaps more as art director and editor at Random House, where he’s worked on such seminal and far ranging works as Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and Chris Wares’ Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth.