Comic books had humble beginnings, soon they grew into a major threat during Cold War era American society and then became an outlet to hippie counterculture in the 1960’s. The earliest ancestors to comics can be found in caves, little stick men spearing blob-shaped beasts. Rodolphe Töpffer is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Comics.” Töpffer was the first to comment on the interwoven nature that words and pictures held, “The pictures without the text, would have only an obscure meaning; the text, without the pictures, would mean nothing”. In 1895, Richard F. Outcault character, the Yellow Kid, was the first successful reappearing comic character. In 1935, Max Gaines found funding to begin reprinting comic serials into paper bound books, or comic books. Through the 1940’s and 50’s comic books were a main focus of attack for Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham claimed that comics were corrupting the morals of kids; this included accusations of Batman and Robin having homosexual tendencies, that Superman’s power of flight distorted a child’s understanding of physics, and that Wonder Woman gave young girls the wrong impression of the role of women in society.
In 1954, the industry responded by instituting the Comic Code Authority (CCA), which handed out seals of approval to comics it deemed passed its strict criteria. This included censoring all gore, any story without a happy ending, and nearly any form of sexuality (relationships had to uphold the “sanctity of marriage”). Although the CCA had no legal authority, shops wouldn’t sell comics without the seal which led to a decline in the comic book industry in profit and creativity. Enter the 1960’s and the emergence of the hippie counterculture. A product of this era was the development of underground comics, or comix, which was a direct reaction to the rules of the CCA and the idea of the institution as a whole.
Artists within the underground comix scene focused on adult-themed topics, such as hallucinogen use, pushing sexual taboos and rejecting established views of morality, religion and social class.
Two huge influences in the scene include Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, whose work could be found in record stores and head shops. In the early 1970’s mainstream comic brands started to pick up on these more serious topics, which led to the weakening of the CCA.
As made evident by the past 40 odd years of comics, the reflection of real life social issues has been a popular trend. Hot topics that are still relevant to this day include the views of women, LGBT persons and ethnic minorities within society. Women have had a role in comics since their creation. Early depictions of women usually put them in the role of damsel in distress/ plot device or purely as a sex symbol.
Ethnic minorities have been in comic books for the past 100 years, but they were usually given stereotypical, often outright racist, roles with no depth of character. Nowadays there are countless comic book characters of color that are portrayed in the same light as white characters.
In closing, the effort being made to turn comics into tools for personal reflection on one’s values seems to be growing significantly. Established views are being challenged in a creative format, with people having control in how much they want to expose themselves.
Lastly, the cultural impact of comic books on the world is noteworthy; film and television adaptations of comic books throughout the world and their acceptance as literature, the extension of the fictional superhero identity into real-life groups and individuals donning costumes, and the use of comic books to push ideological views has had a resounding effect on society.
Another notable trend is the view of comic books as legitimate literature, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus receiving a special Pulitzer in 1992 and Alan Moore’s Watchmen being entered into Time magazine’s 2005 list of “100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to the present”.
By now it should be clear that comic books are here to stay. Even after grievous attacks the medium of comic books has triumphed and made its place in a society known. They have grown with us; as children, we see the world as black and white, and comics reflected this by depicting battles clearly as good versus evil. As we grow older the shades of gray start to take shape and to mirror this, comics have taken on ambiguous topics and played with our sense of morality. While there are many who have no interest in comic books, it’s near impossible to find someone who has never heard of Superman, Batman or Spider Man. Yes, comic books truly are a significant man-made facet of civilization.