A comic book is a magazine comprising narrative stories in the form of separate illustrative panels that represent scenes, often accompanied by dialog (usually in speech balloons). Although in earlier years the medium was dominated by the superhero genre and aimed at a young audience, comics are now recognised as an art form and cover a wide range of subjects.
Most comics are published on a weekly or monthly basis, and can contain either a number of different stories and strips or a single, longer story. Often these stories are brought together and re-printed in a hardback compilation.
Comics became a popular medium in the United States in the early 20th century with the newspaper comic strip, first in Sunday strips and later in daily strips.History and development
The term "comic book" arose as the first books reprinted humorous cartoon strips first printed in the newspapers. The 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics published in 1933 is considered the first true American comic book. It featured re-printed newspaper comic strips, which established many of the story-telling devices used in comics. Publishers soon started gathering their strips into cheap booklets and reprint comic books, and original comic books soon followed.
Cultural historians divide the development of the comic book in the U.S. into several ages or historical eras:
Proto-comic books and the Platinum Age
The Platinum age of comic books starts with the printing of The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842 in hardcover, making it the first known American comic book and graphic novel as well. The Platinum Age also saw the first use of the term "comic book" (The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats (1897)), the first known full-colour comic (The Blackberries (1901)), and the first monthly comic book (Comics Monthly (1922).
The Golden Age of comic books began in 1938 with Action Comics 1 featuring Jerry Seigel and Joel Shuster’s Superman. Superheroes came to dominate this period and other notable characters included Detective Comics’ Batman and Robin (created by Bob Kane), Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and Aquaman, while Timely Comics (the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics), had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
The Silver Age of comic books began with the publication of DC Comics' Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956), which introduced the modern version of the Flash. The period lasted until around 1970, and included the introduction of characters such as Spider-man, Hulk, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man and Daredevil. It also saw the work of such luminaries as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
The Bronze Age of comic books ran from around 1970 to 1985, and saw a gradual shift in the tone of many comics to darker material and more mature storylines featuring real-world issues such as drug use. Notable characters that appeared during this period include Conan the Barbarian, Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider, as well as the rise of comics based on films, toys, television series and even rock bands.
The Modern Age of comic books, which runs from the mid-eighties to the present day, saw the development of darker, more psychologically complex stories such as Frank Miller’s seminal ‘Dark Knight Returns’ and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It also saw the development of the graphic novel as a recognised art form in itself, with Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale winning a Pulitzer Prize Special award in 1992.
Underground & Alternative comics
As the popularity of comics grew, an alternative underground scene of ‘comix’ was born: subversive adult-orientated comics published independently that existed free from censorship. Artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton became famous for their titles such as Fritz the Cat and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which often included sex and drug-use and were popular amongst the counter-culture of the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Graphic novels are longer versions of the traditional comic format, bound as books, often dealing with more mature subject matters. The term is often used to describe work which is more serious or literary in tone than mainstream comic books.
Famous and significant comics
Throughout their development there have been certain comic book issues that have proven significant to the medium. Most significant and valuable are those in which a famous character first appears, such as Action Comics 1 (Superman), Detective Comics (Batman) or Amazing Fantasy 15 (Spider-man). Others are notable for their development of the medium as an art-form, such as the first appearance of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Dr Strange in Strange Tales #110 or Alan Moore’s ground-breaking series of Watchmen books.
Notable comic book publishers
The best known comic book publishers are Marvel Comics, the largest comic book publisher in the world, closely followed by the second largest, DC Comics. Marvel’s leading titles include Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. DC is renowned for Superman, whose debut was in Action Comics, and Batman, in Detective Comics.
Other American comic book publishers include Dark Horse Comics, the third largest comic book publisher in the US, and Apex Novelties, who publish Robert Crumb.
Over in the UK, DC Thomson have published the Beano and the Dandy for almost a century. Hulton Press published the moralistic Eagle from 1950 until 1969, and the comic Girl through the 1950s and 60s. Rebellion publishing began life as a video game developer in 1991, and branched into comics, producing the well known science fiction comic 2000 AD, and sister publication Judge Dredd.
In Europe, popular comic hero Tintin was presented to the world in Le Petit Vingtieme, by publishers Casterman in Belgium. The Gaulish warrior Asterix was introduced by French publishers Dargaud, who emerged as the leading European comic book publisher by 1984. Les Humanoides Associes in France are considered leading exponents of science fiction comic books.
Notable comic book collectors and collections
Actor Nicolas Cage is a well known comic book collector, boasting the most impressive celebrity-owned collection of comic books. Another renowned comic book collector is comic book artist Jerry Robinson. His collection consists of numerous works from the Golden Age of comic books, including his own work.
Some notable collections are the Library of Congress comic book collection, which aims to create a comprehensive record of the Platinum, Golden and Silver Ages of U.S. comic book publishing. In contrast to this extensive collection is the Allen and John Saunders comic collection, focusing solely on the work of John Saunders.
Comic books are an extremely popular collectible. During the early eras of widespread comic popularity, few people realised the value that these disposable flimsy pages would one day incur. Kids thumbed their copies down to nothing, and parents threw them out with the garbage. This innocent disposal of ephemera has rendered surviving copies of certain comics extremely rare. Some comic books were even used as insulation in buildings, and every so often you hear stories of rare comics being found preserved within the walls of a house and sold at auction for thousands, or even millions.
It is a good idea for a collector to focus their collection in one way or another, for example to collect comics from one particular age, one specific publisher such as DC or Marvel, one favourite writer or artist, a particular character, by genre such as superhero comics, by one series, even just one special comic. Some collectors focus on graphic novels, or underground or alternative comics.
Specialising in such a way allows you to become an expert on your chosen area, and often gives rise to an exciting treasure hunt for the items missing from your collection.
The most valuable comics are often those produced during the Golden Age (1923-1950) and Silver Age (1956-1970). Modern age comics and graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular, and could be the collectibles of the future, so it could be a good idea for a new collector and those on a budget to focus on more recent releases.
The factors which define the value of a comic book are rarity coupled with desirability, and condition. Collectors often keep rare comics in their original wrappings, as they are generally more valuable in this state.
Comic books can be found in comic book stores, at comic fairs, through dealers, at auction and on eBay. Some dealers specialise in particular genres or eras, and deal with standard comic issues as well as rare collectible editions. See our list of comic book dealers to find one in your area.
If buying through a dealer, always try to obtain a lifetime guarantee on the comic book to be sure that it is genuine. Forgeries are difficult to produce, especially within such a well documented and exacting hobby, but are not completely unknown.
The world of comic book collecting does have some specific and unusual jargon to learn. Our list of comic book collecting terms may be helpful to a new collector.
Another popular and competitive area of collecting is original comic book art. These items are incredibly exclusive and can fetch extremely high prices at auction – sometimes more than even the rarest comics.
Comic book conventions
Numerous comic book conventions and fairs are held annually around the world. These are good places to meet other enthusiasts, learn about comics and hunt down titles for your collection.
One of the biggest comic book conventions in the world and the acclaimed largest in the United States is Comic-Con International, held annually in San Diego. The convention last four days and is filled with stalls selling and showing comic books as well as works of science fiction and fantasy, film and television memorabilia, trading cards, video games and novels.
Comic-Con also hosts two conventions in San Francisco, WonderCon, and the Alternative Press Expo.
Another large comic convention in American is the MCBA SpringCon Comic Book Celebration, held in the Midwest where a large number of comic book and graphic literature professionals originate. It brings together communities interested in the world of comic books. It is followed in Autumn by the MCBA FallCon Comic Book Party.
In the UK, the London Super Comic Convention has been held since 2012. It aims to establish itself on an equal scale to rival the Comic-Con International event in the US. There is also the MCM Comic Convention which holds regular sales in cities around the UK, including London, Birmingham and Manchester.
There is an East European ComicCon held in Bucharest, Romania annually, as well as the Angouleme International Comic Festival and Lille Comics Festival in France. An International Festival of Comics and Games is held in Poland, and a Comics Salon in Slovakia.
Indian ComicCons held annually in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, a Comic Fiesta in Malaysia, and Comiket in Tokyo, Japan.
The world’s most valuable comic
Until December 2011 the most valuable comic book ever sold was a copy of Action Comics #1 (1938), featuring the introduction of Superman. Graded 8.5 (very fine+), it was the highest quality copy to ever appear on the market and was sold by comic dealers ComicConnect in March 2010 for a record price of $1.5m.
However, this record was broken by another copy of Action Comics #1, graded 9.0, which sold at another ComicConnect auction for a World Record price of $2.16 million. The copy, which is believed to be the same copy formerly owned by Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, was missing for over a decade after it was stolen in 2000. It was discovered hidden in a Californian storage depot earlier in 2011, and became the first comic book to break the $2 million mark when it sold on December 1.