I'm writing an outline history of US comics intended for a relative of mine. I thought I'd post it here as I write it. I hate inaccuracies, even small ones, so please correct any.


A Brief History of American Comic Books

a.the beginnings of the American comic book industry

The development of the comics industry followed different courses in Britain and America. In both countries the form’s root was in cartoons.

In the 19th century there were many humour magazines in Europe and America that mixed humorous text and cartoons. The comics form evolved from cartoons that used sequences of pictures.

In Britain in the 1870s tabloid weeklies started that featured a mix of cartoons and text. These developed into British comic books.

In America in the 1890s cartoons in newspapers developed into newspaper strips. These became very popular, and it became normal for newspapers to publish colour comics sections on Sundays.

The first attempts to launch comics periodicals in America were unsuccessful:

-Comic Monthly (Embee Distributing Co., 1922) reprinted newspaper strips.

-The Funnies (Dell, 1929-30) was a tabloid with new contents. It was modelled after Sunday comics sections. At different points the title appeared weekly, monthly, and every three weeks.

-In 1933 Humor Publishing Co. published three tabloid one-shots, each of which featured a different detective hero.

The same year a printer called Eastern Color started producing comics with reprints of miscellaneous newspaper strips for use by stores in promotions. These were the idea of a salesman called Max Gaines. For one of these, Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Comics, Eastern Color adopted a half-tabloid size.

In 1934 Eastern Color produced with Dell a reprint strip one-shot called Famous Funnies: Series 1, which sold for 10c. Later in the year it commenced publishing, by itself, an ongoing strip reprint title called Famous Funnies. This was a success.

The publication established the standard price and format of early American comic books: 10c price; half-tabloid size; glossy covers; colour interiors; mixed contents; 68 pages. (This page count includes the covers, and counts each side of a leaf separately.)

b.the origins of DC

In the second half of 1934 a writer turned entrepreneur named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications to publish original comics. In the course of his comic publishing efforts he used a series of companies.

He started with a tabloid called New Fun, which was modelled after Sunday comics sections like The Funnies. The first issue appeared at the start of 1935. Like The Funnies it was modelled after Sunday comics sections. In the first issue the features were one-pagers or part-pagers, and it had text items and activity pages. A colour strip appeared on the front cover, but the interiors were B&W. From #3 the interiors were partly coloured.

Following financial problems Wheeler-Nicholson entered into a relationship with a publisher/printer/distributor called Independent News. In late 1935 he started a second, half-tabloid title called New Comics. For a couple of issues the tabloid continued as More Fun. Then it became a half-tabloid called More Fun Comics. Late in 1936 the other title was renamed New Adventure Comics.

His next title, Detective Comics started in early 1937. It was published through a distinct company also called Detective Comics, which he co-owned with one of the Independent News guys. By this time more publishers had entered the industry, for which see next section. Detective Comics was apparently modelled after Comics Magazine Company’s Detective Picture Stories.

At this point the titles didn’t carry an imprint name on their covers to show they all came from the same stable. So shortly after the new title’s launch Detective Comics and New Adventure Comics were given new trade dresses like the one being used on More Fun Comics.

At some point Wheeler-Nicholson had to sell his share in Detective Comics. In 1938 the Independent News guys forced his last company into bankruptcy and acquired his other titles.

In May 1938 they launched, through Detective Comics, a new title called Action Comics. The lead feature was “Superman”, and it was an immediate smash hit.

In 1940 the stable started badging its titles as DC publications. Shortly after the badge also commenced appearing on the comics of a connected company called All-American Comics. The initials are usually taken to have come from “Detective Comics”.

After a long period as National Comics Publications/National Periodical Publications the company officially became DC Comics in 1977.

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I don't want to imply what I've written so far shows original research. I've used DC Indexes, the Grand Comics Database, Wikipedia, Comic Book Plus, Toonopedia, Dennis Gifford's Victorian Comics, and this page on Richard Outcault. I owe the comparison between how comics emerged in Britain and the US in part a to Gifford.

I do have something of my own to say about the significance of the short-lived Comics Magazine Company, though. This should come up in part c, but I'll mention the points here (and try to be briefer there):

-It seems to be the publisher that introduced longer comic book stories (leaving aside the stories in Humor Publishing Co.'s one-shots). This longer length allowed adventure features to switch from being serials to telling complete stories in an instalment. 

The GCD tells me a seven-page story appeared in the second issue of its debut title, The Comics Magazine/Funny Pages. The longest length I've found in Wheeler-Nicholson's titles before this (for a comics story; he'd published five-page text stories) is four pages, and he hadn't used it much. This also seems to be the longest grouping of pages of the same feature Famous Funnies had used.

The longer length also made possible the use of larger panels and large splash panels. To be fair, you can use these in a short feature if it's a serial. (Not in a one-pager in a monthly, though.)

-It was the first publisher to publish comics with a line-up of eight or so stories of this kind of length, as opposed to a lot of short ones. Its first title like this was Funny Picture Stories. Despite its name, this was also the first title with a line-up of adventure stories, as opposed to humorous ones or a humour/adventure mix.

-It was also the first publisher to publish comics devoted to single genre: first Detective Picture Stories, then Western Picture Stories.

-Detective Picture Stories was apparently the model for Detective Comics, which stands apart from Wheeler-Nicholson's earlier comics by its use of the longer-stories approach as well as its genre focus.

One might quibble in relation to my paragraph on Humor Publishing Co. that a one-shot is not a periodical. There was supposed to be a follow-up to at least one of the issues, Detective Dan: Secret Operative No. 48. Comic Book Plus has the issue. It has an ad on the inside back-cover for a second adventure.

The creator, Norman Marsh, continued the feature as the newspaper strip called Dan Dunn. Strips from a sequence using the promised villain, Wu Fang, can be read at Comic Book Plus in early issues of Famous Funnies.

I wrote the DC initials are usually taken to come from "Detective Comics". I think they must have, from the name of the publishing company. But Wikipedia's page on Irwin Donenfeld says he claimed in an interview they came from "Donenfeld Comics". (His father, Harry Donenfeld, was one of the heads of Independent News.)

I didn't call the publisher Detective Comics, Inc. because then I'd have to put the Inc.s in for everything else.

British comic books really do predate American ones. The older ones were shorter than American comics and had more text pages (but some early American comics had more text than you'd guess). Examples can be found at Comic Book Plus. The country also had a long tradition of story papers for children. I don't know if there were American equivalents.

There were British newspaper strips in the 1930s, but I don't know if there were any earlier, and whether the first ones were modelled after American strips or developed independently.

When you talk about the titles New Fun, New Comics and New Adventure Comics you might want to mention that these were comics containing new material. Previously they had just reprinted newspaper strips. I understand that their success and the diminishing of un-reprinted material led to the production of new content. Apparently they all dropped the "New" from their titles when everyone got used to the idea that these weren't reprints.

Thanks, Richard. I'll rewrite that part in a bit to make that clearer.

One of the things I noticed researching this was how few earlier comics there were. If DC Indexes isn't missing anything (it could be, but I assumed for this early period it isn't), Wheeler-Nicholson got going when the only title was Famous Funnies.

(There had been book collections of newspaper strips, but I don't have a clear idea of how common they were. I should probably add a bit about Big Little Books.) 

I've seen it stated Wheeler-Nicholson published original material because he found the rights to all the popular strips were already tied up. That might be true even though the only publisher was Eastern Color. On the other hand, I was surprised to learn he didn't initially use the Famous Funnies format. That might mean Famous Funnies wasn't even his inspiration.

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