It all starts with a pencil and paper. You do some doodling, maybe draw your own superhero, make up a whole story with villains, throw in some captions, speech bubbles, onomatopoeia… and before you know it, you made your own comic book art. This winsome artistic form found a way to combine words and pictures into a perfect balance that at some point of the 20th century has taken the world by storm. It wasn’t before the invention of modern printing techniques that comic books brought this art form to a wide audience and became a mass medium, but while comic strips of the 19th century were mainly satirical publications, the superhero mania that is still popular today as the main topic of comic books started a bit later, in the 1920s and 1930s. The boom moment happened when in 1938, Action Comics#1 was launched with Superman on the cover, making everyone’s head spin in excitement. It was then and there that the American comic books became all about courageous and colourful men and women who like to save the world and fight the bad guys in their spare time.
Historically speaking, the roots of comic book art can be traced centuries, even millennia back, all the way to the drawings and paintings of the Lascaux cave in Southern France, estimated to be circa 17,300 years old. Progressively, they started appearing through marking of different civilizations: in Egypt and the hieroglyphs, Rome and the Trajan’s Column, the 11th-century Norman Bayeux Tapestry, the 1370 bois Protat woodcut, the 15th-century Ars moriendi and block books, even Michelangelo's The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. By the 20th century, the comic book culture began developing on three major soils on a global scale, the United States, Western Europe (France and Belgium) and Japan, first as a lowbrow form and then as a proper art form at the advent of the new millennium.
The tradition of comics in the Old Continent began as early as 1837, when the Swiss Rodolphe Töpffer published his Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, a book of caricatures. Before that, there was the short-lived Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, an illustrated humor periodical still considered to be the earliest example of a comics magazine. Towards the end of the 19th century, publishers and artists began experimenting with the structure of the strips, making them shorter and featuring them in daily newspaper. By the end of the 1920s, their continuing stories in genres like adventure and drama became immensely popular, particularly following the success of Zig et Puce in 1925. In 1929, the world saw the first edition of The Adventures of Tintin, which became an icon of comics in both France and Belgium, where it continued to flourish. A few years later, Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey introduced the art form as an affirmed one, giving way to full-color album printing. Interestingly, the critics saw its rise as a threat to the culture, calling it ”the sabotage of all art and all literature”.
The history of comics as we know them today wouldn’t be complete without the Japanese manga. Their own story goes back to the 12th century and the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, a famous set of four picture scrolls found in the Kōzan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. Their popularity rose with the ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period, but it was perhaps Hokusai himself who introduced the manga form as we know it with his 1811 Hokusai Manga. In the early 19th century, Japan embraced the Western-style satirical cartoons, when American-style comics supplements started appearing in the newspaper, most notably the Jiji Shinpō in 1900, while Rakuten Kitazawa began the first modern Japanese comic strip. After World War II, serialized cartoon became regular, starting with Sazae-san by Osamu Tezuka and continuing with magazines over a hundred pages thick, creating a giant international market for the art form.
Although the comic art phenomenon found its large audience in Europe and Japan, it is the American comics that have had the biggest influence on popular culture. Because they were so beloved, their history in the New Continent had to be divided into entire Eras. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the world in America and beyond lived in The Golden Age of Comic Books, occupied by the still famous superheroes like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, which was introduced in 1938, alongside Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America or the Green Lantern. Many of the greatest comic book artists had their peek during this time, and the two leading comic publishing houses, Marvel and DC Comics, couldn’t catch a breath from work. Least shaken by World War II, the US were able to enjoy comic books and their war-inspired scenarios, available for a cheap price too.
The Golden Age was subsequently followed by the Silver Age, lasting through the 1960s and 1970s and witnessing dropping sales and naturalistic superheroes such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four or Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. During this time, an independent underground comics industry saw its opportunity to rise, introducing the term “comix” and “alternative” to detach from the falling mainstream comics flow, but only for a couple of decades. What followed was the least popular Bronze Age, running from the early 1970s through the mid 1980s, finally introducing The Modern Age, which we still live in today. Although comic sales declined sharply in the mid 1990s, large superhero-oriented publishers like Marvel and DC are still often referred to as “mainstream” and are now licensing many characters to movies and video games industries.
Since its earliest examples, comics were conceived as sequences of panels containing imagery, text and other visual information. Each of these images subsequently features a segment of action, a part of a bigger picture, often surrounded by a border to distinguish it from other images. The reader puts the pieces of the story together by using background knowledge and an understanding of panel relations to combine panels mentally into events. The narrative is conducted by the size, shape and arrangement of panels and, like in other art forms, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow the chronological order of events. The characters are accompanied by the legendary speech balloons, showing a dialogue or thought stream, in case of thought balloons, explanatory captions, and sound effects that describe actions using onomatopoeia (particularly emphasized in manga).
Traditionally, the cartoons are created using India ink with dip pens or ink brushes, although today we witness those executed in mixed media and digital technologies. These techniques can be applied by a single creator, although the making of superhero drawings is frequently divided between a number of specialists. In Japan, for instance, it is common to have separate writer and artist, where the latter is involved in parts of the artwork such as backgrounds or characters. In the American superhero comic books, the creative process includes a penciller, who creates initial sketches, an inker, who finishes the artwork in ink, a colorist and finally a letterer, who adds the captions and speech balloons.
In an age where superheroes are mostly seen in movies, tv shows, cartoons and video games, it is hard to talk about the presence of comic books as we know them. Their evolution, like that of almost all other art forms as well, was imminent, and with the arrival of computers and the Internet, they adjusted to fit the demand of the new times. With the first generation of computers came the first digitally created and printed comics and graphic novels, which became more and more sophisticated in graphic quality as years advanced. Comic creators started using 3-D rendering and the first Photoshop effects, for example, and had distributed their artworks through CD-ROMs before placing them on the World Wide Web. Those published on the internet got the name of webcomics, and their virtual presence as such led to the creation of entire dedicated businesses, award ceremonies and webcomics collectives.
When it comes to contemporary art, the beloved characters from the comics found a home in a young, rising movement that perhaps reflects its nature the most. The concept of superheroes in urban art was conceived almost as soon as artists started painting the streets, providing these cartoons with a brand new way of reaching wide audience. In a way, this is a match made in heaven: both street art and comic book superheroes have that rebellious side and the urge for a free existence in the world, among the people and on the street. Today, we have numerous urban artists depicting their and our favorite heroes and villains both outdoors and indoors, drawing from the history of the art form as well as Pop art. Among them, there is SEEN, with his predominantly comic heroes-based works, as well as ERRÓ, the Icelandic-born known for his depiction of Mao Tse Tung in Venice. Let’s not forget the individuals working the fine line between comics and Pop art, such as Ben Frost, Speedy Graphito, Broken Fingaz or Anthony Lister, and many other creatives who are keeping their childhood fascinations alive and well.
Whether collected for fun or profit, comic books became a hot item for many people around the world, especially during the Golden and Silver Age. As their popularity grew, comic book art collecting came to be discussed at numerous community and fan conventions organised around the world. To help collectors find what they’re looking for, there are many comic books price guides which help established the value of a comic over a period of time. After the boom of the comic art market in the late 1980s and its subsequent crash in the mid-1990s, the prices started having a steady rise again in the last few years - collectors today can find pieces going from a few hundreds to a few thousand dollars, or even more. Among the places offering original comic art today, apart from eBay, there is Comic Art Fans, a website where hundreds of collectors share their art in a virtual gallery, and for those in search of high-end comic market, there are auction houses like Heritage and ComicLink.
One thing is for sure - comic book art may be out of fashion these days, but its loyal admirers are still here, keeping its entertaining spirit very much alive and well.
Editors’ Tip: Marvel Encyclopedia
Bring the Marvel Universe home with this all-inclusive encyclopedia detailing little-known facts and information about the iconic characters. This essential tome has been fully updated with 32 additional pages. Created in full collaboration with Comics, the revised pages of Marvel Encyclopedia now feature new entries on the latest characters and teams, updated facts on existing ones including their latest looks and story lines, and expanded entries on major superheroes such as Spider-Man, Thor, and The Avengers. Special double-page features have also been added highlighting recent major crossover events, such as Fear Itself. This book wouldn't be complete without the newly commissioned cover art by well-known artist Mike Deodato Jr..
All images used for illustrative purposes only.