Why a Museum for Comics?

"I DRAW ... THEREFORE I AM"

The origins of comics and sequential art can be traced back through thousands of years of cultural history. Graphic narrative as a means of pictorial communication began in Paleolithic times, probably before distinct human language skills were developed. Cave art, body decoration and design on functional objects represent some of the earliest visual expressions of human thought and emotion.

Our journey at Words and Pictures begins in these ancient times, when simple drawings adorned the walls of caves. These images often depicted subjects such as bison and antelope, whose creations may have been part of a ritual to insure a successful hunt. Hand print images, a sort of individual "signature", were also common and speak to us in a very immediate way.

In later cultures, as those in Mesopotamia and Egypt, we see "words" associated with images which began to evolve into written language systems. These early "picture sequences" recorded early history, the first laws, codes of behavior and movements of the solar system.

As societies became more "civilized", new forms of graphic narrative continued to evolve. With the advent of printing in the 1400s, mass-produced words and images were soon a part of everyone's lives. When we study the history of art, we see countless examples of this form of expression. Within this context we can see contemporary graphic narrative as a natural extension.

As you visit the various Museum directories, it is our hope that you see modern graphics, illustrations and sequential art as part of the great tapestry of fine art throughout the ages. Enjoy your journey and revisit often!

 

A Short History of American Comics

© Steven Weiner
"100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries"
Kitchen Sink Press, 1996
ISBN 0-87816-415-4

American comics began in 1895, with the publication of the first cartoon in a newspaper strip, The Yellow Kid. The comic strip form caught the attention of the public, and as a result, the comic strip became very popular in the early part of the century. Sunday and daily comic strips continue to be featured in almost every newspaper in the United States.

Comic books didn't become popular until the 1930s, and were initially reprints of newspaper strips. However, as pulp fiction faded in popularity, publishers of popular material turned with increasing frequency to stories told in comic book format to replace the pulp genre. For many people who observe the field peripherally, the 1930s remain the defining moment of comic book history: many of the superheros who enjoy popularity today were created during the years just prior to World War II.

As a genre, comic books mirrored popular culture. Comic books of the early 1940s had a distinctly patriotic flavor, while those of the early 1950s had a conservative tone. Coexisting with the conservative element was a radical strain - the EC horror, crime, and science fiction comics. The 1950s were also the period when the comic book field came under attack as deleterious to the morals of American youth. Dr. Fredric Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent, indicted the comic book industry and blamed juvenile delinquency on the effect of comic books. Worried, comic book publishers created and enforced the "Comics Code," guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable content. The most popular comics of the 1950s were love comics, western comic books, and MAD magazine.

Superhero comics made a return in the 1960s. As America had become a more introspective society, the new superheros were imbued with phobias and challenges. The 1960s also witnessed the emergence of underground comics, comics expressing discontent with the accepted core of American society. Superhero comics were sold on drugstore racks; underground comics were sold in head shops. This marketing practice was unique in the comic book field; prior to the sale of underground comics, comic book publishers had attempted to sell to the largest possible audience, but the underground comics proved that one could be successful by appealing to readers with political or aesthetic ideals similar to those of the comic books' creators.

In the early 1970s, the "comic book convention" was initiated, where dealers sold rare and valuable comic books at collectors prices. Out of this atmosphere, the comic book specialty shop was born. The underground and conventional comic book venues found common ground in the specialty shop, perhaps because both strains existed outside the accepted popular culture. As a concept, the comic shop thrived, partly because the forum allowed publishers direct contact with their readers, and as a result, many publishers experimented with different kinds of books, directed at different segments of the comic book store patronage.

Other factors were important as well. Comic book creators in the United States were utilizing cartooning methods developed by Japanese and European artists and writers, bringing new sophistication into American comics. Underground comics moved closed to the mainstream comics culture, but used accepted comic book characters to examine beliefs and attitudes previously left unexplored by more conventional comic book creators.

In the 1980s, superheros became societal outcasts, burdened with complex personalities and problems. Artwork became more expressive and story lines increasingly demanding. Non-superhero comic books also grew more intricate and literate than they had been previously.

The sophistication of the American comic book/graphic novel field may be the most underrated literacy movement in recent United States history. The graphic novel, a sophisticated book length story generally contained in one volume, was created in 1978 by Will Eisner. The form grew so popular that by the end of the next decade, many publishers no longer produced periodicals, but instead concentrated their efforts solely on graphic novels. It is within the graphic novel format that one encounters much of the most experimental and exciting work being done in the comics medium today.

(END of excerpt)

It is at this point that the Words & Pictures Virtual Museum picks up the challenge of introducing you to the next century of comics around the globe. Through this directory we'll provide links to varied looks at the history of comics and their contribution to global popular culture. Our Spotlight Exhibits will focus on where the medium is moving in the 21st century and the innovative talents who'll take us there.

 

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