Comic books have grown from a kid's medium of comedy figures and superheroes into an almost bewildering mix of styles and subjects. Their history is a bit like rock-and-roll's - expanding from a clearly defined style for the young to hugely varied manifestations.

It all started when a publication called "Funnies on Parade" was issued in 1933. As the name implies, it offered reruns of Sunday funnies and was originally a sales device for newspapers. But, in no time, copies were appearing on newsstands for 10 cents - a price that still rings in the memories of many people beyond a certain age.

By 1935 comic books were offering original material, and in 1937, Detective Comics became the first of its kind to focus on a single character. Once Superman made his bow in the 1938 debut of Action Comics, superheroes became the leading men of comic books.

In World War II they spent much of their time doing a job on the German and Japanese forces. Comic books were used as ballast on boats going over to Europe, then distributed to soldiers in the trenches.

Excess violence and other content led to calls for censorship in the 1950s, and publishers began regulating their own industry. "Some horror comics were at the top of the hit list at that time," says Fiona Russell, curator of the Words & Pictures Museum. "Things like 'Tales From the Crypt' that we now look back on as being campy" - and which has since become the theme of a TV series. TV programming is one of the myriad ways comic books have impacted popular culture.

Underground ideological comics developed in San Francisco in the 1960s. "They addressed political and other subjects as part of the hippy movement," Ms. Russell notes. Socially conscious comics delivered messages about tolerance and diversity. Archie Comics issued editions on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1967.

"In the 1970s, a number of comic books, primarily from DC Comics, one of the biggest publishers, started to break out," says Russell, "and no longer wanted to self-regulate." "Adult comics"are now a growing phenomenon.

Comic books are read around the world. Their scope continues to expand and now includes subjects as diverse as feudal codes in ancient Japan and jazz musicians in Paris. Public interest shows no sign of waning.

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