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Friday, March 22, 2002

A brief history of the comic strip

Staff writer

Herge was not the first to create comic art. There were many artists who came before him. They all played a part in the evolution of the comic strip as we know it today. But, where did it all really begin?

Ancient history

You could say that the idea of using pictures to tell a story originated in the cave paintings of prehistoric tribes and Egyptian hieroglyphics inside the Great Pyramids.

The 19th century

The modern comic book is at least as old as the movies. Richard Fenton Outcault's "The Yellow Kid," which debuted in The New York World in 1896, is generally credited as the first comic strip. It was a serial, single-panel comic featuring a sort of aged baby on whose sacklike yellow garment were printed words that he presumably spoke or thought. This was the first use of the text balloon, and "The Yellow Kid" became the blueprint on which succeeding comic art was based.

At first, comic strips were always funny -- which is why they were labelled "comic." But comic books take many other forms around the world, such as manga in Japanese and fumetti (meaning "puff of smoke," in reference to the shape of the balloon used) in Italian.

The "heroic" '20s, '30s and '40s

The Great Depression of the 1930s took comics in a new direction. Three new types were born: science-fiction comics like Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon," detective stories like Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy" and jungle adventures such as Hal Foster's adaptation of E.R. Borroughs' "Tarzan." The first costumed character was also introduced at this time, by Lee Falk. Any guesses as to who he was?*

In the early '30s, the American superhero was born. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman (both his creators died in the '90s without a fraction of the fortune generated by the character they'd visualized; they'd sold the rights of Superman in the '40s to DC Comics). From 1940 to 1945, about 400 superheroes were created! It was also in the '40s that comic books started coming out in magazine format.

In 1941, a rather un-herolike figure was also born -- Archie, the all-American redheaded teenager from Riverdale. First featured on the back pages of Pep Comics, he became a rage, keeping the company successful to this day.

Hard times

With the '50s came a witch hunt against comics; they were accused of corrupting young people. Some of that prejudice remains even today -- how often have you been told to put down your comic and read a real book?

But in spite of those hard times, comic art continued to develop. One notable comic series full of wit and sparkle was born in 1950: Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" ushered in the "intellectual" age of comics, works that were more than just humorous -- they encouraged readers to think. The French answer to the intellectual comic strip was Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's much-loved "Asterix," a combination of history and humor that debuted in Pilote magazine in 1959.

Human superheroes of the '60s

In the '60s, traditional superheroes were humanized and given some defect to balance their powers. One of the most successful was Marvel Comics' Spiderman, the secret web-spinning identity of the quiet Peter Parker.

You know the rest . . .

The late '70s, '80s and '90s produced some unforgettable comic characters, among them Jim Davis' lazy, lasagna-loving cat Garfield and Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes.

But comic books also moved in a significant new direction with Will Eisner's "A Contract With God," published in 1978. It was a graphic novel, using pictures to tell stories, but dealing with more controversial issues.

After Eisner's graphic novel, others followed, and today they're often considered good reading. Indeed, in 1992, Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for "MAUS: A Survivor's Tale," a graphic novel about the Holocaust. This was a big step -- no longer does comic art offer entertaining, but flimsy reading; it can be serious and intelligent. How do graphic novels compare with traditional comic books? Decide for yourself, there are plenty of graphic novels written especially for children.

From comic strip to graphic novel, comic art has come a long way. When Herge died in 1983, Belgian newspapers said: "Herge is dead, Tintin is on his own." But they were wrong -- he's got hundreds of comic characters and avid readers for company.

*Lee Falk's first costumed character was The Phantom.

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