The death of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the discovery of x-rays, the establishment of the Nobel Prize, Utah granting women the right to vote, the first professional football game, and the first shipment of canned pineapple from Hawaii. What do these events all have in common?
They all occurred during the year in which the first American comic strip was published.
The year was 1895, and The New York World, a newspaper published by Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) printed a comic strip called The Yellow Kid. It was the first comic strip ever printer in the United States.
You have to rewind a generation back to 1865 for the first comic strip printed anywhere, a comic called Max und Moritz which debuted in Germany.
Over 150 years later, thousands of distinct comic strips have been published, some of which have had significant cultural impact. Calvin & Hobbes, The Peanuts, Dilbert, Garfield – these classics successfully jumped out of the page and onto our shirts, up on the big screen, and into the world’s hearts.
We’ve also seen a shift towards fewer words and more impactful artistry. According to one study of comic strip word use, a set of comic books from the 1970s had over 240 words on 10% of all pages. The same analysis on comic books from today had no pages with more than 240 words!
But those transitions didn’t happen overnight. As with any new form of industry or expression, the first comic strips were just seeds that grew into trees of branching styles.
Diversification of Layouts
The Yellow Kid was very linear, telling a story from left to right. That’s far from the only style today. Nowadays, comic strips are developed in any of several panel styles.
In newspapers, where the first comic strips debuted, the available space lent itself to short but wide strips, generally with three blocks but sometimes four or five. Think about the Sunday cartoons you used to read as a kid (or hopefully still today). This grid layout is simple and elegant.
In full-page comic strips, such as those found in graphic novels or comic books, designers have more liberty to get creative with pane styles. Sometimes a comic will have six or nine panes on a single page, and they may even stagger their width so as to vary the layout and make it more interesting for the viewer. Manga-style comics will even use non-standard paneling with slanted edges to create a more active and visually-stimulating experience for the reader.
The Modern Age of Comic Books
In the mid-1980s comics entered what is now known as the Modern Age of Comics, a period marked by more complex, darker characters. This transition also coincided with the rise of independent comic publishers and the popularity of fantasy and horror strips, most notably DC’s Swamp Thing. Anti-heroes, like Batman: The Dark Knight, Wolverine, and, Punisher, grabbed ahold of the world’s attention. The Yellow Boy and his band of misfits were comfortably in the rear view mirror. The Joker’s psychosis was now at the forefront.