How Comic Books Work

Dusting off the (History of) Comic Books

Ask three experts to name the very first comic book, and you'll probably get three different answers, depending on the exact semantics they use to define the medium.

However, it was in 1842 that a book complete with paneled drawings and captions made its first appearance in America. It was "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck," by Rodolphe Topffer, a Swiss teacher and artist. Many historians consider "Obadiah" to be the first comic book. After Topffer's breakthrough, comics spread slowly but surely in printed media.

Modern comic books grew out of comic strips, which were almost always humorous (thus, the word "comic" stuck). Those short narratives with just a few panels, such as "The Yellow Kid," graced the pages of newspapers beginning in 1895. "The Yellow Kid" used speech balloons, a convention still used in modern comics.

Comic strips were just one of the phases in the evolution of comic books. From the turn of the century to the 1930s, publishers cranked out hundreds of different strips featuring still-famous characters, such as Dick Tracy, Popeye and Little Orphan Annie. And these strips didn't just appear in the Sunday funnies -- other forms of comics appeared on newsstands and in gas stations in the form of cartoon books, and comics used as advertising gimmicks.

In 1933, the modern comic began to take shape in the form of "Funnies on Parade." Eastern Color Printing reprinted this short collection of comic strips on tabloid-sized pages, which simply meant the publication was a smaller size than newspapers of the time. "Funnies" wasn't for sale; rather, Proctor and Gamble gave it away as a part of what turned out to be a very successful corporate promotion.

Eastern Color decided to capitalize on its momentum by actually selling a book of comics. These were still reprints of funny Sunday comic strips, and they sold quite well on newsstands, opening the door for the next big jump in the comic book metamorphosis.

The epic adventure of comic books had just begun. On the next page, you'll discover how newfangled comic books and their lead characters not only revolutionized comic art, but perhaps (with only a smidgen of hyperbole) changed the course of humanity.