Comic books are now a $8 billion industry, an industry which has boomed in less than 100 years. Let’s delve into the history of comic strips and find out more about them.
What was the first comic strip?
Storytelling through a sequence of pictures has existed for many centuries, such as the Bayeux Tapestry from Medieval Times and The Rake’s Progress by English painter William Hogarth. But these were very different from the traditional cartoon comic strip we love.
The very first cartoon comic strips was The Glasgow Looking Glass, the very first mass produced comic book, a satirical comic about life in Scotland in the 1820’s, by William Heath. You can see some examples in the header image above.
The father of comic strips is considered to be swiss caricaturist, Rodolphe Töpffer. He created The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842. He went on to inspire many generations of German and American comic artists.
How did comic strips become popular?
Comic strips really gained popularity from the newspaper war in the late 1890’s, when 2 New York newspapers, The New York World and The New York Journal tried to outdo each other by sensationalizing news stories in an effort to sell more papers. This became known as "yellow journalism", the term was coined from a comic strip called The Yellow Kid. And that’s how the first comic strip shot to fame.
The Yellow Kid created by Richard F. Outcault, a comic strip created to educate the wealthy readers of what life was like living in poverty. He gained huge popularity for a short time, appearing on billboards and cigarette packets, toys, and whiskey. The comic strip actually came to represent the same commercial capitalist world it had originally criticized.
Prior to comic book superhero there were Pulp heroes. Pulps were 10c comic sold on newsstands. One of the most famous characters was The Shadow, which also had a very popular radio show. The character came about from a radio contest where they asked listeners to describe him. The Shadow went on to become hugely popular with it’s own magazine, then comic book and even a Hollywood movie.
Popeye was one of the very first well known characters, he first appeared in a comic strip called The Thimble Theater in 1929. He didn’t go out and fight crime, he ate his spinach and had superhuman strength. The image of Popeye is from the very first comic strip.
From the late 1930’s onwards we had an influx of superheroes, the fist was the Phantom, Superman and then Batman. There’s a lot to delve into with superheroes so we will write another blog post about that.