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Wham! Bam! Shazam!: Comics as a Genre

Comics are not just small books with a bunch of superheroes wearing spandex on the cover. They are a genre of their own. Comics mix two art forms to create amazing stories in a limited space.

It probably comes as no shock to find out that I love comics. They’re fun, witty, and have been a staple in my life for many years. As much as I love to read them, I haven’t had a chance to look into the art and science behind creating a good one.

Today is, in part, a bit of indulgence on my end. But I hope that this post inspires you to write or read a comic.

With that said, we have a lot to cover today. Comics have a long history and cover a variety of genres. I also want to briefly explore some of the key elements of a comic and how it can help us with our writing.

But before we get into all of that, we need to know what a comic is first and foremost.

What are Comics?

The word comic has many different meanings. For most of us, the word conjures the funnies in the newspapers or visions of superheroes battling it out on glossy pages or the big screen at a movie theater.

To keep things simple, I wanted to come up with one definition that applies to the genre as a whole. This is that definition:

Comics: a medium that expresses narratives or other ideas through images, usually combined with text. It typically takes the form of a sequence of panels of images.

This definition applies to comic strips, comic books (superhero and non-superhero-based), and graphic novels. There can be a little bit of leeway to include one-panel comics, like this one:

The Different Types of Comics

As you might have guessed, there are a lot of different comic forms out there. They can be long works of art, short one-panel commentaries, and anything else in between.

On top of this, comics span a variety of genres. Comics are present in nearly any genre that a non-comic book is, including horror, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, history or romance.

The other thing you should note is that comics are a bit like Netflix. They have three types of running formats: mini-series, one-shot, and ongoing.

A mini-series is a story broken up into four to six issues. A one-shot comic book is a complete story in twenty-two pages. An ongoing comic is one that has no planned ending and progresses until it’s discontinued. 

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at how comics came to be.

The History of Comics

The history behind the comic genre is long and a bit convoluted because comics were developing around the world at roughly the same time. To help keep things straight, I’m breaking it up into sections. The first section will briefly go over everything that happened before superheroes stepped into the limelight.

B.C. (Before “Comics”)

Before the printing press, writers told their tales through sequential pictures, a defining comic feature. With that in mind, the “first” comic dates back to 110 AD and Trajan’s Column, the earliest surviving example of a narrative that uses sequential pictures. Other “comics” can include Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes, medieval tapestries, and illustrated manuscripts.

Trajan’s Column in Italy

Technically, these examples are not “comics” in the traditional sense of the word, but they do give us a precursor of what’s to come. Comics didn’t come to fruition until the arrival of the printing press in 1440, and even then, it took time for comics to make their way into the public eye.

18th Century to Pre-World War II (Japan)

Europe wasn’t the only one falling in love with comics. Japan was very much interested in combining text and images to make meaning, as well. However, manga doesn’t gain popularity or shape until the 18th century.

The first issue of manga came about in the 11th century. Toba Sojo, an 11th-century painter-priest, released animal scroll paintings or choju giga that satirized life in the Buddhist priesthood. With his work, he established the tradition of reading manga from right to left, and his style inspired the works of many 18th century comic writers.

Toba Sojo’s artwork
The Rise of Manga

According to MR Comics:

The word “manga” was first coined in 1798 by Santō Kyōden’s Shiki no Yukikai (Seasonal Passers-by).

But in 1814, the artist Katsushika Hokusai (famous for ukiyo-e and butt buddies with Santō Kyōden) was the first to use the word “manga” as the name for his sketchbooks titled Hokusai Manga.

The first manga magazineEshinbun Nipponchi, was published in 1874 by Kanagaki Robun and Kawanabe Kyosai. It was influenced by the Japanese magazine The Japan Punch, which was published between 1862 and 1887 by Charles Wirgman. However, the magazine was discontinued after three issues due to its lack of popularity.

The pre-War manga works are a mixture of elements, especially words and images. The words reflect the social and economic needs of pre-War Japan and Japanese nationalists, while the artwork largely mimics Chinese graphic art. After WWII, manga is shaped by US television, film, cartoons, and comic books.

The 17th and 18th Centuries (Europe)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, art submissions began tackling aspects of social and political life, which lead to the development of satirical works of art and caricature. It is also during this time that the speech bubble is added to images.

One of the most famous “comic strips” from this time came from English artist William Hogarth for his eight panels titled “A Rake’s Progress” (1732 – 1733). They were printed together in 1735.

The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a wealthy merchant, who wastes his money on luxurious living, prostitution, and gambling. Consequently, he is sent to Fleet Prison and, ultimately, Bedlam. (It’s a fantastic series and you should take a look at it.)

The third panel from William Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress”

The 19th Century and Victorian Era

It isn’t until the 19th century that comics take on the modern form that we all recognize today. Rodolphe Töpffer, a schoolmaster in Geneva active in the 1830s and 1840s, ushered in the next phase of comic history: the rise of cartoons.

According to Britannica:

Töpffer created absurd anti-heroes who struggled desperately, fruitlessly, and farcically against fate, nature, and an irrational, mechanistic society. The stories are purposefully purposeless, flow with calculated non-sequiturs, and make digression a narrative principle.

Töpffer’s satire mocked social climbing, educational systems, parliamentary chaos, political scaremongering, scientific and medical pretensions, and revolutionary zeal, but his sense of fun and taste for the silly are always uppermost.

However, comics find their place in the hearts of the public in the late 19th century. German comic strip artist, Wilhelm Busch, started publishing his work in periodicals in 1859. He later moved to separately published albums in 1865.

His work is still popular today as it appeals to almost everyone. His style is more controlled, earthier, and rational than Töpffer. Busch was plagiarized in various European countries, and his significant works can be found in many languages.

The Turn of the 19th Century (The US)

It wasn’t until the appearance of Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid in Hogan’s Alley (1895) that the newspaper comic strip made its entrance. The Yellow Kid was the first continuous comic character in the US. The comic strip also standardized the speech balloon, which had largely fallen into disuse since the 17th century.

Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid

In 1897, Rudolph Dirks introduced a strip based on Max and Moritz, called the Katzenjammer Kids. It was an instant success and survived in syndication into the 21st century. Katzenjammer Kids was the first modern newspaper strip. It used word balloons, had a continuous cast of characters, and was divided into small regular panels.

Dirks’s work gave rise to numerous other comics strips across the US, including Bud Fisher’s Mr. A. Mutt (later Mutt and Jeff), George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (it received international acclaim), and Frank King’s Gasoline Alley.

The Dirty Thirties and Comics (The US)

The most significant comic strip from the 1930s is Chic Young’s domestic comedy strip Blondie (1930). It has achieved unparalleled international renown. It’s read by over 250 million people in 2,300 newspapers, 55 countries, and more than 33 languages.

Chic Young’s Blondie characters

The continuous-action adventure strip also emerged during this period. It took on many forms, including domestic and detective drama, science and space fiction, and, by 1938, war and superhero strips.

The earliest adventure strip is Tarzan (1929) by Canadian-born creator Harold Foster. He broke completely with the caricatures, adopted cinematic techniques, and sought picturesque, documentary realism.

The Rise of Superheroes

Let’s keep this short.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that comics made it big in the US. The comic book, Famous Funnies (1933), was the forerunner to the comic movement. It featured a collection of comics in a newspaper named after the book.

Famous Funnies was quickly followed by DC Comics’s Superman in 1938. Superman was a beacon of hope as tensions in Europe escalated, leading up to World War II.

The Golden Age of Comics (1938-1950) 

The release of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Captain America during World War II is the start of the “Golden Age” in comics. These characters were popular because they provided the public hope in a hopeless situation.

The Decline (1950-1955)

After World War II, comic book popularity declined. People were returning home from war and were trying to find a new equilibrium. There was also a lot of controversy surrounding comics at this time. They were “too violent.”

The Silver Age (1956-1970)

In the 1950s, DC Comics revamped some of their comics, so they focused on science fiction. Marvel followed suit in the 1960s and introduced new characters that were more complex and had a penchant for drama.

The Bronze Age (1970-1985)

Marvel and DC Comics start tackling social and political issues in their books. It is also during this time that book titles became more sophisticated, and characters began to drive the plot forward. We also see the rise of the anti-hero as a character.

The Modern Age of Comics (1985-Present)

With the release of The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, our superheroes get darker. The comic mini-series Kingdom Come kills the use of the anti-hero. Comics also become more literary and artistically appealing.

Comic Strips After World War II (The US)

Even though superheroes took center stage for a while, comic strips didn’t go away. The continued to evolve and bring new faces into our lives.

In reaction to complaints about the too violent comics during the declining era, many comic strips turned to sentimental soap-opera-like domestic dramas and simple-looking but subtly conceived gag strips in the decade after the war. This gave rise to comics such as Rex Morgan, MD (1948), Mary Worth (1938), The Heart of Juliet Jones (1953), and Dennis the Menace (1951).

The late 1950s brought in the literate strip with philosophical, psychological, and sociological overtones. Of course, the most famous is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (1950–2000), which features a small band of young children, a beagle, and a little yellow bird.

Charles Schulz holding a drawing of Snoopy, 1995. Ben Margot/AP Images

1965 to Present

The most significant comic genre innovations revolve around parodistic, satirical, erotic, and bizarre comics – and the graphic novel. The new subject matter, like sex, moved comics from the juvenile’s realm into the realm of the adult.

The shift from the traditional comic structure allows comic book artists to introduce new character types and darker storylines. Many comics and graphic novels carry the critical and intellectual clout associated with the better stories and films of the era.

Comic strips have faced issues in recent years with the decline of newspaper readership, but the popularity of graphic novels and comic books have skyrocketed. More and more publishers are starting to see the value in publishing graphic novels, and the recent success of superhero movies at the box office has sparked a renewed interest in comic books.

Things to Consider When Writing Comics

I’m not going to go into how to write a comic or graphic novel in this post. We’ll do that another day, but I did want to leave today’s post with some points to ponder.

We should include some of these points in our stories despite the medium or genre, like pace and consistent narratives. Others are qualities that good comics have, like paneling and text and image interaction.

Let’s look into these things in a bit more depth, shall we?

Consistent Narrative

Narrative is the backbone of great literature. For the story to be clear in a comic (or book), the reader must understand what is going on in the story at all times.

Consistent narrative helps the reader feel comfortable with how the story unfolds by including instantly recognizable characters, repetitive speech patterns, etc. It’s all stuff we know, but comics add consistent panel styles.

And here’s an example for you:

(All images belong to Bill Watterson. This is from the first comic from The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book.)

The strip goes back and forth between Calvin’s imaginary game (represented in the large and medium-sized panels) and his reality (represented in the small panels). Watterson uses this to let us know that Calvin is playing as much as the text, images, etc.

Pace

The pace is all about how fast or slowly you move through the events in your story. For novels and short stories, the pace is predominately controlled by sentence structure and punctuation. However, in comics, visual layout, emotional resonance, density, and nature of lettering, are the things that affect how quickly a reader scans through the tale.

For both, it’s important not only to set a rhythm but also to change it throughout your book. This way, you keep your readers engaged and add more emotion to the scenes taking place.

Text and Image Interaction

Believe it or not, but the way text and images interact with one another affects how we perceive a comic. According to Indira Neville at the National Library of Singapore, this is what you want to happen:

You [must] have text and image to make meaning, and if you take either of these away, things should not make sense. This is in contrast to comics where a picture illustrates the text or the text describes the image […] or there are characters doing stuff and chatting […]. In these scenarios, you could conceivably take either the picture or the words away and still have something vaguely sensible.

You want the text and the image to complement each other and make sense. That doesn’t mean that you need to have text in every panel or even a lot of it, but what you do have needs to convey your point.

Additionally, Neville points out that you need to have each panel (which consists of text and image) move towards a punchline of some sort. The punchline could be a joke, a romantic moment, a harsh truth, etc. In other words, the punchline is the message or theme of your story.

Panels

Panels are essential to your comic. They provide the framework for your narrative. They contain all those crucial bits of information, like the text and images, and they can come in many different shapes and sizes.

In most comics, the panels look like frames, a rectangle, or square made of lines. Sometimes, the frames are invisible and show up as white space around the content. Or they can look like something else entirely.

The great thing about the panels is that they are there to segment and organize the comic’s assorted pieces. They also provide a framework for pacing, character development, and action. (And while this sounds simple and easy, it’s going to be much harder, in reality, to pull off.)


Comics have been around for a long time and have a rich, vibrant culture with years to mature and evolve. I know I left out significant bits of that history today, but I want to look at those missing pieces in more depth at another time.

As with every other genre, we can only build on what has come before us, and I hope those lessons came across in today’s post. I also hope that it inspires you to try using a different medium to tell your stories.

What’s your favorite comic? Is there anyone else who wants to try their hand at writing a comic or graphic novel? Do you think graphic novels and comics will continue to grow in popularity?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

Comments

15 Responses

  1. This is an interesting bit of history in this entertainment genre.
    I read Marvel comics in the late 80s – early 90s.
    I’ve been a fan of different mangas for the past 12 years.
    I read somewhere that the term “manga” meant “whimsical pictures”.

    1. There is definitely a lot of it. Lol.

      I fell in love with Calvin and Hobbes in my early teens. Then Iron Man came out and I really got into Marvel, but I haven’t dipped my toe into manga yet. I don’t even know where to start. XD

      I read that too!

  2. On the one hand, manga is more character oriented. You have an individual creator making his or her own work, and it’s more of a personal creation. The most common theme is personal growth. However, I know this is just a cultural thing regarding casual attitudes, but there is a lot of sexualization of underage characters. They show a lot of kids being strong, intelligent and able. But also presented semi-nude or near-nude.

  3. I spend more time watching anime than looking at manga, though. That’s been my entertainment trend for the last few years, with DVD’s.
    But I *never* watch english dubbed works. English voice actors never get the tone, mood and inflections right. I only watch Japanese dialogue with English subtitles.
    I recommend Ah! My Goddess! — manga and anime, and Tenchi Muyo GXP.

  4. Uh-oh. My enthusiasm button got pushed. I wish I could post pics of DVD boxes here. But other animes I’d recommend are “Bubblegum Crisis Megatokyo 2032”, “Iria: Zehram the Animation”(although there’s a lot of gore), and disc 1 of “You’re Under Arrest!”.
    These all have the hand-drawn animation of the 80s, with more character than the CG of today.

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