Comic-Con 2013: A look at past comic books and a glimpse of the genre's future (+video)
Gerard Jones, author of 'Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book,' explains the origins of comic books, the hardships they went through, and where they are apt to go next.
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Yup, Comic-Con International – the world's biggest comic-book and pop-culture convention – is being held this weekend in my fair city of San Diego.
Visitors and reporters spend much of their time on the convention floor, but there's more to Comic-Con than booths, posters, and celebrities. Walk upstairs and you'll find dozens of serious-minded seminars about topics like the history of comic books and the evolution of superheroes.
Can't make it to America's Finest City to hear about these hot if geeky topics? Never fear. Gerard Jones, the San Francisco-based comic-book historian, artist, and author of 2005's "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book," is in town and took questions about eight decades of comics.
Q: How did comic books first come into being?
A: They came out of the newspaper comic strips, which were mostly humor along with things like Tarzan and Dick Tracy.
The first comic books were just reprints of the newspaper comics, a way for people to read their favorite strips with continuity. But some publishers couldn't sell newspaper reprints and began to commission new material.
The artists were largely guys who were trying to make it as newspaper comic strip artists but hadn't made it. They tended to be young, oddball, and not quite as sophisticated and polished; their work was seen as unfinished and not ready for prime time
For example, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were consistently rejected when they were peddling their Superman idea to the newspaper syndicates. One syndicate said it was an immature piece of art.
Q: Why did this kind of work become popular?
A: There was an audience that wanted this rougher, more peculiar stuff that wasn't refined by art school and years of experience. And a lot of kids wanted that raw connection with the fantasies of the artists who weren't much older than them.
Most of the guys who created the stuff that lasted were in their late teens or early 20s. They could tap into the action and adventure that kids wanted but couldn't get enough of in the newspaper comic strips.
Q: How were comic books groundbreaking in terms of reaching kids specifically?
A: Newspaper comic strips were sort of like broadcast TV: You had to reach a broad audience. If a strip was only being read by 12- year-old boys, it wouldn't survive. They had to appeal to kids, older kids and adults to some extent.
With comic books, publishers discovered there was a big enough audience of just adolescents out there to support the industry. In a way, comic books were the first business built almost entirely by purchases by kids and teenagers.
Q: When did comic books begin to seem disreputable?
A: Early on. For the most part, comics were frowned on by pretty much everyone. No one would even have linked them to movies or even early television as a respectable medium.