When I was little, I hated getting dirty. Dirt was evil in my eyes; so evil in fact that I cried once at a petting zoo when they stamped my hand with a smiley face. I spent a good 15 minutes trying to scrub it off and completely ignored the cute baby goat that was standing right in front of me. The only exception to my Dirt Rule was the inevitable ink residue that would rub off on my hands and fingers after reading the comics in the newspaper. I loved the comics too much to care. Family Circus, Garfield, Peanuts… I loved them all. I even loved the ones I didn’t understand because the pictures were so funny.
To this day, I still read the comics before anything else in the paper. And it is at this point that I began my research for the epic series of posts I plan on doing about comic books and the Marvel and DC empires, because really, modern comic books wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the funnies.
Newspaper comic strips have been published in the US for decades. They weren’t too different from what we have today, panels with illustrations and text. The only difference between then and now is that then, comic strips only appeared in Sunday papers, because that was the day most newspapers had the largest circulation and the largest edition.
Comic strips in the papers were so popular that a handful of publishers began reprinting published strips in books. The first comic book to be published was Famous Funnies in 1934. It was created by Max Gaines and Harry Wildenberg who were two salesmen who worked for a Connecticut printing company. It wasn’t popular at first, but Famous Funnies soon took off. Famous Funnies was soon followed by Popular Comics. These early comic books were printed regularly and popular among readers, but proved to be a financial nightmare in terms of fees for the rights to reprint popular newspapers comic strips.
Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson saw this as an opportunity. A retired army officer, Wheeler-Nicholson wrote military adventure stories for pulp magazines (magazines printed on cheap paper) and owned a company that syndicated newspaper comic strips. He realized it would be cheaper to hire writers and artists to create original comics just for comic books. So, after the publications of Famous Funnies and Popular Comics, Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications. A year later, National Allied’s first comic book was printed. The early issues of New Fun Comics were seven inches wide by ten inches high and 32-pages long. The comics themselves were black and white, but the covers were printed in color.
Wheeler-Nicholson decided to backpedal and look at where he went wrong. He reduced the books’ dimensions, upped the number of pages to 80, and printed all the pages in color. It was a hit, and in 1937, National Allied was renamed Detective Comics.
Sound familiar, gentle readers? Well, it should. Detective Comics was later called DC for short. Even if you don’t read comics, you’ve probably heard of some of their more famous characters in the media, including Superman and Batman. Ringing any bells now? Wheeler-Nicholson is responsible for those early superheroes, and is credited with creating the first original comic book for his early mystery and crime story publications.
And thus, comic books were born.