Once upon a time, there were comic books. These were quick, easy reads in magazine format, with stories told in a manner popularized in comic strips: action altered from panel to panel as people who spoke in word balloons went about their business. They suffered the fate of all quick paperback reads: they were regarded as disposable culture, the sort of thing enjoyed by semi-literates whose lips moved when they read. (One of our volunteers was not allowed comic books as a child because her mother read that Yogi Berra liked them.) Of course, nothing so simple could be allowed to remain simple.
And so this year, they will now have their own category at the Newberry Book Fair: Graphic Novels and Comic Books. (We’re putting them together so we will not be put to the trouble of deciding which is which. I just checked a source which states very flatly that a graphic novel is squarebound and a comic book is stapled along the side. Now they tell me.)
This is where you will find graphic novels, sequential art, comic books, comix, and alternative comics. (I asked what the difference was between ‘comix’ and ‘alternative comics’. About twenty years, as it turns out.) Book-length collections of comic strips will still be found in humor, unless it’s a collection of Secret Agent X-9, which will go in Mystery, or Flash Gordon, which will be in Science Fiction, or…remind me why I started this discussion, would you?
This still leaves us with a problem concerning Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel, and other artists of the 1930s who tried to create novels told entirely in pictures, without words to slow things down. I am going to try to keep these in Literature if I can: word balloons make the graphic novel, in my opinion. (Which brings us to Prince Valiant and those like him, who have done their comic strips without word balloons for decades. I knew there was a reason I wanted to write this blog about the little plastic Bibles you peeked through to read Bible verses. But we’ll shoulder on.)
Comic books as we know them are divided into definite eras by collectors who like to define what they’re looking for. The exact length of these eras may vary from expert to expert, but they comprise:
The Platinum Age: comic books published between 1900 and 1938, a period when they were mainly made up of reprints from the comic strips. (The Victorian, or Prehistoric, Age comes before that, but you’ll need to check the Newberry’s collection, not its Book Fair, for those.) These are collected, but not as fiercely as those from the
The Golden Age: 1938 to 1945, the years when Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Stan Lee, to mention just a few heroes, came to the fore. Some collectors end this age at 1945, because there is a definite premium on comic books which survived the Wold War II scrap drives. These people separate 1946-56 as the EC Age, as this is when Entertaining Comics and its famous horror titles dominated public attention.
The Silver Age: 1956-69: Superheroes began to return, the Comics Authority tried to insure no American comic book contained anything to corrupt small children, and comic book collectors began to gather and make their opinions count.
The Bronze Age: 1970-85: Comic books were cool, comic books were becoming edgy, and, above all, comic books had become Collectible. The prices really start to slide on comic books published after this, because so many people know the comics should be properly stored and saved for profit. Supply exceeds demand.
The Copper Age: 1985-1993: By 1993, comic books had become SO collectible that suddenly thousands of people stopped collecting them. When forty or fifty different “Collector’s Edition!!!!”s are on the store shelves at once, the decision is often to walk to another aisle and buy a pack of baseball cards. It MAY be a coincidence that the spike in prices for sports cards starts during this era.
Next time: How to talk like a comic book collector (kind of)