The Rise of the Comic
The comic book is a multi-modal form of storytelling, which arose uniquely in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Rising from the print and paper technologies developed during the Industrial Revolution and embraced by the forces of capitalism and consumerism (Gordon 1998), the comic evolved from the black and white editorial cartoons of the earliest American newspapers to the fully digitized graphic novel that can be purchased and read on any number of mobile devices. Many historians, social theorists, and researchers have attempted to map this evolutionary process. In doing so, they have introduced teleologies that we can now examine as we reflect upon the technological determinism implied in many of their claims. In the end, we will see that a reductive approach to the American comic book does not tell the whole story. It is only through a combination of technological determinism and social constructionism, as well as the pairing of useful and aesthetic inventions, that we begin to understand the full history of the American comic book.
French historians and literary theorists have been critically examining this medium since the 1960s. In 1967, The Louvre Museum hosted an exhibit titled “A History of the Comic Strip” (Hennessy 1968). Since then, numerous French scholars have chimed in on what many of them consider a uniquely American genre. Jean-Paul Gabilliet explores the evolution of the comic in his book Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. At its most reductive level, he tells us that comics + pulp magazines = comic books (Gabilliet 2010). Of Comics and Men is well organized, thoroughly researched, and enjoyable to read. However, it contains a basic inconsistency which bears discussion. While claiming that the modern American comic book exists because of the newspaper comic and pulp fiction magazines, he also urges scholars not to consider the comic the descendent of older fixed image media such as Egyptian hieroglyphs. In doing so, Gabilliet argues, we presuppose “an aesthetic and historical determinism that is difficult to defend.” He fails to recognize the irony of this remark when he lays out his own teleological argument that depends upon “technological innovation in mass printing” (Gabilliet 2010). Gabilliet essentially replaces one type of determinism with another.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the steam-powered rotary press and advancements in the chemical processing of pulp paper made the material ingredients for large-scale publishing and distribution readily available. In this milieu of increased access and exposure, a new class of writers rose up to fill a niche. These pulp writers were called upon to produce large amounts of compelling adventure and speculative fiction narratives. In order to incentivize mass production while keeping overhead low, these writers were often paid only one or two cents a word, so that many earned as little as $15 a month (Gabilliet 2010 and Pulp Fiction 2010). However, as Gabilliet points out, the pulp fiction magazines and dime novels that were produced during this time widely expanded the field of imagination and made possible many of the fantastical elements we later see in comic books that feature superheroes, advanced scientific technologies, and other aspects of the fantastic.