The Stone Age Of Comics
 A Look At Early Comic Book History, Part 1

It's been generally recognized that the first "modern" comic book in history was Famous Funnies #1, which made its debut on the newsstands in July 1934. But what led up the long road to the publication of Famous Funnies? Going back centuries, we can look at one early ancestor on the family tree, the "broadside." First published in Europe in the thirteenth century, broadsides were not only used by local authorities to spread news and official announcements but as a form of entertainment. Resembling crude versions of early comic strips, broadsides retold popular folk legends through the use of text and decorative illustrations. Later innovations in printing, such as copper engraving and lithography, resulted in cleaner text reproduction, but the new processes were unable to match one advantage of the crudely printed broadsides in that they were unable to easily combine text and pictures on one page.

By the 17th century wood block engraving came into use and was able to do just that. By the middle of the century a booklet called Scraps was issued by a D.C. Johnson in London. Scraps specialized in running political cartoons that commented on the issues of the day. Since the booklet combined humorous art and text, it's fair to say that Johnson had taken the first step on a journey which would eventually led to the present day advanced era of Spawn, X-Men and Boiled Angel.

A few more decades passed, seeing improved printing techniques that permitted an increased use of art in such titles like T.S. Arthur's The Children's Hour (A Magazine For The Little Ones). Charles Dicken's The Pickwick Papers came into being after a publisher hired Dickens to write a booklet to accompany the cartoons by Robert Seymore.

In 1871 a translation of Germany's Max Und Moritz saw print in the United States. The recounting of the pranks of William Busch's two juvenile delinquents was obviously swipe material for Rudolph Dirk's The Katzenjammer Kids (German slang for "the hangover kids") which began in Hearst's New York journal in 1897. Unlike the cruelly mischievous Hans and Fritz, Busch's two brats paid the ultimate price for their hijinx, meeting a gruesome end in a meat grinder.

In 1884 Life magazine, one of America's longest-running publications, decided to reprint a variety of their cartoons in a collection entitled "The Good Things In Life," which ran as a series of hard covers that were sold in book stores. Two of the series editors then created a spin-off of that title, The Spice Of Life, which increased the use of sequential panel art. The two series proved to be a popular hit with the public, who had developed a taste for cartoons and text. Other cartoon reprint books were published to cash in on that popularity. The time was ripe for the development of the modern four-color comic strip.

This next step in panel art evolution came about through Joseph Pulitizer's experiments in the newly available color technology. Highly competitive and always seeking an advantage over rival papers, the publisher resolved to perfect color lithography. In 1893 his printers had succeeded in delivering illustrations that used red and blue, but the color yellow was proving to a problem; the dye simply took too long to dry on newsprint.

There were further experiments, using Richard Outcault's strip Hogan's Alley as the guinea pig. The eventual success of those experiments resulted in the birth of that famous ghetto youth, The Yellow Kid.

By 1895 The Yellow Kid had his own strip and a huge following. The kid's notoriety launched a Yellow kid magazine in 1896 and a host of merchandise like sheet music, post cards, and even a Yellow Kid doll (surely the most valuable of all the action figure collectibles).

Outcault was either ungrateful, or was working under a work-for-hire system because before too long he had turned his newly formed reputation into an economic advantage by jumping the Pulitzer ship for his bitterest rival, William Randall Hearst. This move, in addition to a more lucrative arrangement, resulted in the creation of Buster Brown, the first really Big Name comic strip character.

Outcault's success did not go unnoticed and soon there was an explosion of talent and energy that resulted in a huge increase in the number of newspaper comic strips. Happy Hooligan, Hairbreath Harry, Kin-der-Kids, and Little Nemo were just a few of the new strips appearing in papers across the country, all used as devices to increase circulation.

Just as had happened with the 18th century's The Spice Of Life, it was inevitable that someone would think of reissuing these strips in a booklet format. The first collection was the extremely rare Funny Folks by E.M. Howarth, published in1899 by E.P. Dutton. Others quickly followed through with strip collections like Harris Brown's The Adventures Of Willy Green, The Cruise of the Katzenjammer Kids by R. Dirks, E.C. Segar's Charlie Chaplin At the Movies, and Foxy Grandpa's Frolics by "Bunny." Some sixty-five "comic books" of this type were issued in a ten-year period, from 1899-1919.

One of these books was H.C. "Bud" Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. Henry Conway Fisher, originally a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had come up with a weekly sequential strip about a racing tout named A. Mutt. Fisher and Mutt (soon to be joined by his fall-guy sidekick, Jeff) were quickly snapped up by Hearst's empire. The first Mutt And Jeff book appeared in 1910 in an unwieldy format of 5" x 30". This format was to change by the sixth Mutt And Jeff book to 10" x 10" and was widely used in strip collections, reprinting four panels to a page. The Mutt And Jeff books were published by a company named Cupples and Leon , also handling reprints of Bringing Up Father by George McManus, Moon Mullins by Frank Willard, and Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie.

The next step on the evolutionary road to modern comics was the birth of the monthly comic book in 1922. Selling for ten cents and printed on a cheaper grade of paper, The Comics, published by Cupples and Leon, ran the strips S'Matter Pop?, Tillie The Toiler, Little Jimmy, and Barney Google. Perhaps owing to poor distribution, the series only ran for seven issues, but it did lay the foundation for other monthlies to follow, and the established ten-cent price tag would last until done in by rising paper costs in the 1960s.

Cupples and Leon would continue to be the major comic books publisher for the next 14 years. By 1933 that supremacy would be challenged by new format, and new ideas. We'll be covering these developments in the second installment.
 

--Steve Stiles