J.C. Maçek III

English 485

Dr. T. Du Bose

5/1/98 9:04:51 PM


Graphic World Literature

Comic Books and Comic Art throughout the Globe




Since the inception of the genre, comic books and comic strips  have pleased, delighted and entertained millions of readers falling into differing age groups.  Often believed to be a strictly American originated idea, it is fascinating to observe the different international parents as well as descendants of the modern graphic novel.  From the translations from English to virtually every other language, to the translations from other languages to English; through imports and exports; from Europe to the Far East; from modern Tokyo to ancient China the influences on and from comics have become evident in multiple genres.  In the United States and abroad comic books have amalgamated other genres and have spawned still others spinning a web of culture that has made comic books a respectable genre in their own right.

The prime mover of the evolution into American comics as they are known today was also the prime mover of “Yellow Journalism,” the mass marketing of characters and (less directly) the Spanish-American War.  Hogan’s Alley featuring the Yellow Kid by Richard Felton Outcault was a comic strip published in between the years of 1895 and 1898 (Pierce).  This strip, named for the main character, a yellow night-shirted, bald youth named Mickey Dugan, was caught in a bidding war between William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph Pulitzer who each wanted fans of the strip to follow their publications, not their competitor’s (Winchester).  Hearst and Pulitzer were indeed so bloodthirsty for reader ratings that it has been suggested that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was predicated by the rivalry just for a story.  While poor Mickey Dugan is surely not to blame for the war, it is clear how the rivalry of one publisher having to constantly top the other could lead to such things.  This sort of thirst for sensational stories at any cost is still referred to as “Yellow Journalism”  (Winchester). 

Another practice spawned by Hogan’s Alley that is still recognized today is that of the mass marketing of a comic character.  With the hype that surrounded the bidding war, The Yellow Kid soon “graced” the fronts of buttons, straw hats, campaign posters, and whatever else could house the trend including  a sort of proto-comic-book with reprints of his underwear escapades.  Though many believed that this character mass marketing trend began with George Lucas and Star Wars, its true parent was Outcault’s Kid. 

The Yellow Kid gave to comics the idea of the dialogue being right on the strip rather than in a caption (though the Kid’s words were emblazoned upon his yellow night shirt rather than in “word balloons”), and set the tone for the coming century’s comics of a sort of vulgar, seedy apathy (Daniels Comix, 2).  He carried his satire farther than even Swift in that he seemed to revel in the negativity of his surroundings and the depreciation of the king’s English into a slum-based vernacular (Daniels Comix, 2).  This great-grandfather to Bart Simpson was the first of the sassy, disdainful comic heroes that seem to have found their rut in the comics of the twentieth century, as well as the lead film roles of the nineties.

In truth, one of the only things that The Yellow Kid could have influenced, but did not was any substantial memory of himself or his strip.  Today even staunch comic book fans might respond to the mention of the Yellow Kid with a “Who?”.  Expressions such as “Up, up, and away,” “Holy obscure references, Batman,”  and even Welles’ Hearst-inspired “Rosebud” are more recognizable than The Yellow Kid’s “Hully Gee!” It seems that the war created a new yellow greenback for the rivaling monarchs of print to haggle over, and while the surrounding emanations of the Outcault strip are still used in speech today, the originator, and namesake of the style has long walked the plank into trivia.

One of the largest names in the comic book business today is also the originator of not only the first ever superhero, but also the first real comic book.  That company is today known as DC Comics.  By the early nineteen-thirties the comic strip was in full swing, though The Yellow Kid was forgotten.  Newspapers printed and reprinted comic strips of varying style and quality so much that it was hard to imagine a paper without “the funnies.”  Meanwhile, the pulp magazine spawned many writers who could be described as “hacks,” but many of these writers went on to become innovators of a new medium that merged the funny papers and the pulps. 

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was that exact sort of man.  Following the motions of such printing gurus as M.C. Gaines, Harry I. Wildenberg, and the innovative Lev Gleason, Wheeler-Nicholson “determined the destiny of the American comic book when he launched a publication called New Fun, subtitled ‘The Big Comic Magazine.’” (Daniels DC Comics, 14).  This was a black and white ten by fifteen inch magazine that had one brilliant thing going for it:  unlike its contemporaries it had “all new, all original” comics, rather than reprints (Daniels DC Comics, 14). 

Wheeler-Nicholson had pragmatic reasons for his innovations.  He never intended to create a phenomenon, but to sidestep the expensive process of licensing characters for newspaper publication by publishing new strips on his own.  The problem was that he did not have sufficient capitol to sustain his fledgling company, National Allied Publishing, either (Daniels DC Comics, 14).  While Wheeler-Nicholson created many of the titles that would shape the early company’s image, his poor business skills caused him to abandon the project in the late thirties ironically just before Detective Comics, and Action Comics  would give the world Batman and Superman, two characters that would have saved his wallet.  The company was soon overtaken by more experienced publishers and the business name was changed to DC in honor of its flagship title Detective Comics.  Wheeler-Nicholson caused the comic book genre to come to fruition through his mix of new graphic stories with the pulp fiction writing style of “fast-paced action and larger-than-life heroes”  (Daniels DC Comics, 14), though, like Outcault, he is rarely given his due.  But there are more forefathers to the comic style that have been as slighted, if not completely ignored. 

For instance, one very large sized comic book “fandom” is in Japan.  “Though an outsider might think Japan ‘stole’ comics from the West, this is not true.”  (Izawa).  In fact Japanese “Manga” (as they call their version of comic books) has its roots in Asian art from hundreds of years ago when some Japanese artists shifted to a style of painting that today would be classified as “cartoonish.”  It has been suggested that the stylized features and simple lining (explaining why all “Japanamation” characters have similar eyes, and faces) was actually influenced by ancient Chinese artists much more than western comic books. 

The present form of Manga however, being in magazine and book format, has a direct lineage to Wheeler-Nicholson’s inventive format.  The Manga of today is a well respected art form that does not suffer the relative disdain that its American counterparts receive when compared to other forms of literature.  Similarly the stigma of comic books based on the idea of their supposed aim toward children does not exist in Japan.  In 1970 Japanese Manga were divided into target market segments.  The first was aimed at the juvenile market, from children up to mid teens.  The second aimed toward the adult market, mainly in the salaried worker demographic (the Japanese answer to Yuppies)  (Goodwin, 63).  What was missed by this division was the demographic of high-school to college aged individuals, “a readership sensitive to new trends developing in film, music, fashion;  all forms of the arts and entertainment.”  (Goodwin, 63), essentially the main market for American comic books.  For a time there were no comics aimed at this group, and there was a decided dichotomy between Manga and comic books.  Soon, however a large company called Kondansha Ltd.  Recognized the discrepancy and filled the hole with their effort known as Young Magazine (Goodwin, 63).  The hole remained, as there was not graphic literary precedent in Japan for this group.  After only two years Young Magazine was on the verge of folding, then the popular writer/ artist Katsuhiro Otomo became interested in the ideas presented by Young and decided to begin gracing the three hundred page biweekly with his own original tale Domu  (Goodwin, 63).  Soon the famed series Akira was born.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is the highly rated thirty-eight chapter tale of a post World War Three Neo-Tokyo that is run by arrogant power bosses, and a military that controls the streets.  The dissidents are religious fanatics and motorcycle riding teenagers who battle rival gangs in a manner that would blush Tybalt and Mercutio.  Otomo published this work through Young Magazine in a style that differed considerably from traditional Manga.  Otomo created a Manga in American comic book format (Goodwin, 64), alleviating the need for a literary precedent for the target demographic.  It was at this time, 1984, that Manga and American comics became very much alike and most successfully interchangeable.  No longer would Americans think only of the likes of Speed Racer when Japanese comics were spoken of. 

In 1988 Akira was translated into English and published in the United States by, Marvel Comics imprint, Epic in thirty-eight issues, and for the first time ever in full color.  Otomo was involved in the translation above and beyond the call of duty, as this was his first exposure to overseas audiences.  The response in the United States was fantastic.  With Manga-styled work already taking hold in America, Akira was met by hungry audiences, who were ready for the real thing. 

In 1990 an animated film version of Akira, directed by Otomo, was released both in Japan and the United States.  The film was well met by fans of both film and strip.  The truly fascinating thing about the film is its critical acclaim.  The film is called spectacular by critics, and was given four stars out of five, making it the most highly acclaimed filmic adaptation of a comic book ever (tied with the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel).  While not as commercially successful as Heavy Metal or The Lion King in the United States, Akira is considered one of the best animated films of all time, and it truly breaks the bonds of simple Japanamation (Martin and Porter, 16). 

The Asian permeation of American comics did not originate with Akira, though Akira certainly helped.  In the early eighties, writer/ artist Frank Miller was creating his own microverse beginning in the pages of Marvel’s Daredevil, and branching into DC’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Ronin (Rovin, 2).  In all of these cases, Miller used manga-like special effects and Japanese imagery to tell his stories (Sanderson, 9).  So recognizable became Miller’s style and characters (many of which still appear in movies like Robocop 3) that he was spoofed in 1984 by two aspiring artists named Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird (Wiater, 2). 

These two young artists put together a forty page, magazine sized, black and white comic that not only parodied the bizarre, over-the-top heroes of the day’s comics (Larsen, 22), but also spoofed the rise of the Japanese influence, a classic sign that the influence was not an exception anymore, but was close to being the rule.  It was impossible for the pair to know what they were doing, but within only three years their creation was the biggest character marketing extravaganza since Star Wars (Larsen, 22).  The team of four that Eastman and Laird had created captured fans of comics, films, martial arts, cartoon shows and more with their wise cracking antics and action packed exploits.  The team was known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Larsen, 22) 

While an absolute phenomenon outside the genre, what occurred within the comic book field was even more fascinating.  Fifty years earlier, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson considered it a mistake to have printed New Fun in black and white, but Eastman and Laird’s creations spawned an absolute love for black-and-whites among fans of comics.  Soon new black-and-whites emerged both as parodies (Adolescent Radioactive Blackbelt Hamsters, for example), and as new comics in their own rights.

Japanese-American Stan Sakai rode on the coattails of the movement, and was actually taken under the wing of the Eastman and Laird team.  Sakai’s creation Usagi Yojimbo is an ongoing retelling of the legends of famed ronin, and Book of Five Rings[1] author, Miyamoto Musashi in the same ancient “cartoonish” Japanese style that Manga is said to have sprung from. 

Usagi Yojimbo, whose name translates to “rabbit bodyguard,” follows the events in Musashi’s life as best as they can be pieced together by Sakai’s research (Sakai, 25).  The events in Miyamoto Usagi’s life differ in the respect that all the characters of Musashi’s story have been replaced by forest creatures.  “The wisdom in the comic book field in 1983 was that a black and white comic book featuring ‘funny’ animals in serious situations would never sell.” (Yeh, 1), but after fifteen years and four publishers Usagi Yojimbo is more popular than ever.

  While the idea of a history being told by a samurai bunny may provoke a snicker from many historians, it must be established that issue by issue Sakai documents his research in his letter columns every step of the way (Sakai, 25).  Also Sakai is following Japanese tradition by telling this story in this way.  “The Japanese have had a tradition of using funny, actually serious, animals, in their literature and I {Sakai} have tried to carry on that tradition. That same tradition is in western folklore like Aesop's Fables.” (Yeh, 2).  Devoted to his heritage and serious about textual authenticity, Sakai not only tells an accurate story, but displays the story in accurate Japanese historical art format.  In this manner it is clear how Japan’s many influences, both direct and indirect have spawned one of America’s most popular pieces of graphic literature. 

In Great Britain comic books emerged as the descendants of the English version of comic strips.  Periodical “programs” appear in various magazines and newspapers that are a far cry from the likes of Bloom County, or Peanuts.  One such program that translated into the full fledged comic book is IPC Magazine’s 2000 AD: Featuring Judge Dredd (Wagner, Grant, and Smith, 1).  Beginning as a parody of American police systems and violence in the late seventies, Judge Dredd became a serious character who lost his tongue-in-cheek humor in favor of a gruff, stern law enforcement (Williams, 30).  Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,  Judge Dredd began as parody and ended up as a serious phenomenon, but unlike his reptilian cousins, Dredd’s movie debut was a failure.

Regardless of what the character has meant to readers (and a handful of viewers), what Judge Dredd and 2000 AD did do was open the door for a British invasion of the American comic book field.  Dredd creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra both are popular in the United States on such titles as Bob the Galactic Bum, Detective Comics, and Lobo.  Alan Grant, Wagner’s collaborator on Judge Dredd, has also become among the most popular writers of any Batman series.  Similarly, British Writer Alan Moore, and 2000 AD artist Brian Bolland became two of the most popular comic book creators in history. 

The British invasion came to fruition with Neil Gaiman’s World Fantasy Award winning Sandman.  (Daniels DC Comics, 206).  Gaiman’s Sandman was intended to be an intelligent and literary comic, and it exceeded expectations of both (Daniels DC Comics, 206).  Sandman, along with Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Killing Joke (With Brian Bolland) ushered in the new age of surreal and adult oriented comics that have all but become the norm in American Comics of today (“Superhero Revolution”, 31).

Perhaps the most stunning example of the British invasion is seen in the 1986 miniseries Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  Taking its title from the Roman poet Juvenal, Watchmen is the chilling, literary tale of superheroes in a decadent world of human wreckage (Daniels DC Comics, 196).  Rather than a glamorous retelling of the Super-Horatio-Alger Myth, Watchmen details vigilantes who have been ostracized by a paranoid population (“Superhero Revolution”, 28), Throughout the story, the cost of being a superhero was shown to be a high one, with insanity and ultimately death being the price for serving a society that did not even appreciate your sacrifices.”  (“Superhero Revolution”, 28).  The threat of an apocalypse looms over a very different world than the one 1986 brought outside of the pages.  Interlaced with this desperate dreamscape are the panels of a pirate comic book (in a world where superheroes really exist, there is no need for comics about them) which shows a metaphor of the end of the world in the form of a giant pirate ship from Hell closing in on the frightened soul of a shipwreck survivor convinced of his own purity (Daniels DC Comics, 196).  As Watchmen’s world comes closer to its threatened end, and its people begin ostracizing or killing off its heroes, the comic book within the comic book shows the formerly heroic survivor murdering and stealing to escape the fate of the Hell Ship, only to become worthy of damnation in the process.  Considered to be one of the most important comics of all time, Watchmen came from the mind of not an American, but a Briton, and, while many have imitated it, it has no equal. 

While new comics and new formats arise all over the world, the most prominent comics are still those made in America.  DC comics are translated into “twenty-five languages – from Arabic to Zulu”  (Daniels DC Comics, 242) and are some of the best selling periodicals in many of the countries they appear in.  Often the comics will remain intact, like those that are reprinted in Canada.  Many American collectors choose to purchase Canadian reprints to complete their collections  (Inge, A-95).  Generally the only differences between the American and Canadian versions is an inscription of “Published in Canada” on the cover (Inge, A-97). 

In many countries, however, the comics are changed for the new market, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically.  In Japan for example, simplicity in design (unless that designer is Otomo) leads to the presence of the “Bat-Symbol” on the cover of a Batman comic book, with little else (Daniels DC Comics, 243).  In Israel, the same comic book may be aimed toward a younger crowd, and therefore a more cartoonish cover will adorn the book (Daniels DC Comics, 243).  A Thai cover will feature a romantic, stylish cover to lure in teenagers, while in Germany a Batman issue’s cover might eliminate the title character all together in favor of Catwoman, and a nude woman  (Daniels DC Comics, 243). 

From time to time the changes can make a familiar character either unrecognizable, or laughable.  A Hong Kong cover for a Lobo comic book will contain as many words, in Chinese as well as English, as there are pictures  (Daniels DC Comics, 242).  A Lebanese Superman cover can have characters made up by an unrelated artist surrounding the Man of Steel and making him seem like an afterthought (Daniels DC Comics, 242).  An Argentine cover for the Flash  has all the artwork intact, but the hero’s name was changed to “Flush Man”  (Daniels DC Comics, 242).  Similarly in Denmark, the title of Sergeant Rock is changed to Yankee and the hero is renamed “Sgt. Flint”  (Daniels DC Comics, 242).  Not only does each country create comics differently, but they also interpret those are imported differently, for differing tastes and mores.

The modern comic book is a consolidation of differing influences that have culminated into a graphic and literary genre in its own right.  With influences ranging from ancient Chinese paintings, to British brainstorms, the comic book is truly a museum of art, literature, and history all rolled into one.  In many countries the comic book has been translated and adapted to fit the needs of diverse cultures, and in this age of information the influences have come full circle to effect each parent anew.  From the permeation of Manga in America to the publication of Batman in Tokyo, comics have become a world wide influential phenomenon which can no more be dismissed than can the movies, sayings, art forms, storytelling styles, and even wars they have helped to spawn. 


Manga & Anime: http://www.mit.edu:8001/afs/athena.mit.edu/user/r/e/rei/WWW/Expl.html eri izawa

Comics, Bandes Dessinées http://antares.enst-bretagne.fr/~goubier/BD.html

European Comics http://stp.ling.uu.se/~erikt/comics/welcome.html

Yellow kid http://www.kenpiercebooks.com/yelo-kid.htm ken pierce

Yellow journalism http://www.pipeline.com/~yellowkid/yj.html Mark D. Winchester

Usagi Samurai Rabbit A WittyWorld interview with Stan Sakai by Phil Yeh Transcribed from WittyWorld #1, 1987 by UYD Hatamoto Val "Da Wolfie Gal" Gilliam July 1997

[1]  Miyamoto Musashi’s The book of Five Rings was translated in the nineteen-eighties into English as a handbook for Wall Street business executives, showing how on multiple levels Japanese literature has helped shape American works of different kinds. (Yeh)


Click here for more reviews, player!

Return Home, Home, Home!


Got something to say? Write it!