Stories Beyond Superheroes: The History of Comics

I came to appreciate comics not as an eager child awaiting their weekly Beano, but as a student. When faced with every undergraduate’s nemesis, The Dissertation (the capitals are very much needed!), I somehow settled upon exploring how comics and graphic novels have portrayed the Holocaust. Upon diving into the world of comics I discovered a fascinating medium that is capable of telling stories beyond superheroes in spandex suits with an equally fascinating history.


A comic is essentially a sequence of pictures often, but not always, accompanied by text. The medium is also a type of sequential art; that is an art form that utilises a series of pictures in order to tell a story. However, this marriage of text and visuals is nothing new. Simply consider the Bayeux Tapestry. Completed during the medieval period this stunning tapestry illustrates the events leading up to and after the Norman conquest of England. Also consider Trajan’s column which uses a sequence of pictures to depict an historical event, in this case Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. Of course the book-based comics of today are somewhat different but comics clearly have ancient roots.

From 17th Century Broadsheets to A Harlot’s Progress

By the 17th century sequential art had developed into an art form more similar to modern day comics. During this time broadsheets would often print comic-like strips amongst their inky pages in order to illustrate events such as public executions or comment on topics of political satire. A great example is ‘The Young Man’s Victory Over the Power of the Devil Or Strange and Wonderful News from the City of London’. Amongst the eight frames are four stories of four men tempted by The Devil who, true to 17th century form, is complete with spiked horns, tail and clawed feet.

1652_HarlotsProgress_1000Framed from William Hogarth’s, ‘A Harlots Progress’.


By the time the 18th century was ushered in William Hogarth, painter, printer and overall good egg, also turned to sequential art to criticise and satirise contemporary society. Hogarth is arguably one of the fathers, if not the father, of sequential art and used the form almost like a satirical mirror to society. A Harlot’s Progress, for example, is a sequence of six images depicting the life of fictional Ms. Hackabout, a London prostitute. Hogarth skillfully used the six images to criticise how contradictory contemporary representations of prostitutes were.

However, whilst these 17th and 18th century examples do exude comic book tendencies it was not until the late 19th century that comics really came into their own and could claim to be their own medium. 

From Rodolphe Töpffer to Superman

Some experts argue that Rodolphe Töpffer is to thank for our more book-like comics. Like his precedents Töpffer created sequences of pictures in order to criticise and satirise contemporary society. One of his most amusing comic strips is Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, the story of a lepidopterist (a moth and butterfly expert apparently?!) as he searches for a more suitable lover.

VieuxBois01Illustrations by Töpffer.


However unlike his precedents Töpffer’s creations resemble present day comics more closely because of his use of narrative boxes, panels and other aspects of the comic book’s anatomy. In addition, his comic strips were collated and published as their own book. ‘The Story of Mr. Wooden Head’ marks a turning point in comic book history as comic strips began to be printed as collections of original stories rather than being resigned to a life of reprints in newspapers and magazines.

By the early 20th century more and more comic strips were being printed as magazines and books in their own right, particularly between 1930 and 1950. Known as The Golden Age of Comic Books this period saw the launch of some of our most well-known comics including Superman in 1938 and Batman in 1939. The period also saw an experimentation of styles as the earlier Golden Age creators tried to make comics look more realistic. However, by the 1960s creators did a U-turn and reverted back to the less realistic ‘cartoony’ style of years gone by.

4e4d574c-1768-4fc5-b65c-1f7ecdbab12dA Spiderman comic strip.


As the mid-20th century witnessed the birth of the comic book superhero so it also saw the birth of the underground comics’ movement and an adult ‘revolution’ in comics. During this time creators began to consider how they could use the comic book format to address more thoughtful issues such as ethno-racial relations and civil rights. The Green Lantern, for example, sensitively deals with complex themes such as racial prejudice. By now comics had proved themselves to be more than stories of superheroes in spandex suits!

The history of comics really is an intriguing one and this is but a snapshot. The next time you visit your local book store, why not delve into the shelves of comic books and see what great stories you can find?

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