Whilst almost all comics art is in some sense abbreviated, and also whilst every artist who has produced comics work brings their own individual approach to bear, some broader art styles have been identified.
The basic styles have been identified as realistic and cartoony, with a huge middle ground for which R. Fiore has coined the phrase liberal. Fiore has also expressed distaste with the terms realistic and cartoony, preferring the terms literal and freestyle, repectively.43
Scott McCloud has created The Big Triangle44 as a tool for thinking about comics art. He places the realistic representation in the bottom left corner, with iconic representation, or cartoony art, in the bottom right, and a third identifier, abstraction of image, at the apex of the triangle. This allows the placement and grouping of artists by triangulation.
The cartoony style is one which utilises comic effects and a variation of line widths as a means of expression. Noted exponents of this style are Carl Barks, Will Eisner and Jeff Smith45.
The realistic style, also referred to as the adventure style is the one developed for use within the adventure strips of the 1930s. They required a less cartoony look, and used the illustrations found in pulp magazines as a basis46. This style became the basis of the superhero comic book style, since Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel originally worked Superman up for publication as an adventure strip47.
The comic book in the United States of America:
Since the invention of the comic book format in the 1930s, the United States has been the leading producer, with only the British comic (during the inter-war period through the 1970s) and Japanese manga as close competitors in terms of quantity of titles (although, Japan outweighs America currently in overall sales by a vast margin). The majority of all comic books in the U.S. are marketed at younger teenagers, though the market also produces work for general as well as more mature audiences.
The history of the comic book in the United States is split into several ages or historical eras: The Platinum Age, The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and The Modern Age. The exact boundaries of these eras, the terms for which originated in fandom press, is a debatable point among comic book historians. The Golden Age is generally thought as lasting from 1938's introduction of Superman until the early 1950s, during which comic books enjoyed a surge of popularity, the archetype of the superhero was invented and defined, and many of comic books' most popular superheroes debuted. The Platinum Age refers to any material produced prior to this. While comics as an artform could arguably extend as far back as sequential cave paintings from thousands of years ago, comic books are dependent on printing, and the starting point for them in book form is generally considered to be the tabloid-sized The Funnies begun in 1929, or the more traditional sized Funnies on Parade from 1933. Both of these were simply reprints of newspaper strips.
The Silver Age of Comic Books is generally considered to date from the first successful revival of the dormant superhero form the debut of the Barry Allen Flash in Showcase #4 (Sept.-Oct. 1956) and last through the early 1970s, during which time Marvel Comics revolutionized the medium with such naturalistic superheroes as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The beginings of the Bronze and Modern ages are far more disputable. Indeed, some suggest that we are still in the Bronze Age. Starting points that have been suggested for the Bronze Age of comics are Conan #1 (Oct. 1970), Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (Apr. 1970) or Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971) (the non-Comics Code issue). The start of the Modern Age (occasionally referred to as the Copper Age) has even more potential starting points, but is most likely the publication of Alan Moore's Watchmen in 1986.
Comics published after World War II in 1945 are sometimes referred to being from the Atomic Age (referring to the dropping of the atomic bomb), and books published after Nov. 1961 are sometimes referred to as being from the Marvel Age (referring to the advent of Marvel Comics). However, these eras are referred to far less frequently than the traditional metallic eras.
Notable events in the history of the American comic book include the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's criticisms of the medium in his book Seduction of the Innocent, which saw the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigate comic books. In response to this attention from government and the media, the U.S. comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and drafted the Comics Code, a move which saw the particularly targeted EC change its satirical comic book Mad from comic book to magazine format in order to circumvent the Code.
Main article: Underground comics
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published and distributed independently of the established mainstream, and most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, irreverent style; their frankness in graphic sex, nudity, language and overt politics hadn't been seen in comics outside of their precursors, the pornographic and even more underground "Tijuana bibles". Underground comics were virtually never sold on newsstands but in such youth-oriented outlets as head shops and record stores, and by mail order.
The underground-comics movement is often considered to have started with Zap Comix #1 (1968) by cartoonist Robert Crumb, a former Cleveland greeting-card artist living in San Francisco. Crumb later created the popular characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, and published Gilbert Shelton's The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Independent and alternative comics
Main article: Alternative comics
The rise of comic-book specialty stores in the late 1970s created a dedicated market for "independent" or "alternative comics"; two of the first were the anthology series Star Reach, published by comic-book writer Mike Friedrich from 1974-1979, and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, published from the 1970s through the present day. Some independent comics continued in the tradition of underground comics, though were generally less overtly graphic, and others resembled the output of mainstream publishers in format and genre but were published by smaller artist-owned ventures or by a single artists. A few (notably RAW) were experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the world of fine art.
The "small press" scene continued to grow and diversify. By the 1980s, several such independent publishers as Eclipse Comics, First Comics, and Fantagraphics were releasing a wide range of styles and formats from color superhero, detective and science fiction comic books to black-and-white magazine-format stories of Latin American magical realism.
A number of small publishers in the 1990s changed the format and distribution of their comics to more closely resemble non-comics publishing. The "minicomics" form, an extremely informal version of self-publishing, arose in the 1980s and became increasingly popular among artists in the 1990s, despite reaching an even more limited audience than the small press.
Decline of serial comic-book format
In the early 2000s, sales of standard monthly comic books declined while graphic novels made increasing headway at retail bookstores. Along with the shift toward graphic novels among comics publishers, traditional book publishers such as Pantheon have released several dozen graphic novels, including works originally released by comics publishers with much less publicity.
Last image in William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress
Sabin prefers to cite the invention of the printing press as the moment when the form began to crystalise, arguing that the medium of comics has been intrinsically linked with printing, and thus whilst variations existed before, they are antecedents and can not be viewed as within the same tradition. 12
An early surviving work which is recognisable as being in the form of comics is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot(c.1682)13. The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver by William Hogarth, (1726), is another early work that bears similarities of form, although Eddie Campbell has argued14 that these may be more a collection of cartoons rather than actual comics. Other notable artists producing work in this period are Thomas Rowlandson, Jan Vandergucht, James Gillray and George Cruikshank. Rowlandson and Gillray are credited with having codified the speech balloon in its present form15, from the previous convention of having speech represented by banners.
An example of Rowlandson's work from 1782, satirising the politics of the day, shows it to be an early variation of the strip cartoon. His work popularised the strip form as a pictorial narrative16.
The 19th century
Rodolphe Töpffer, a Francophone Swiss artist, is the key figure of the early part of the 19th century. His work is reprinted throughout Europe and in the U.S., creating a market on both continents for similar works17.
In 1845 Töpffer formalised his thoughts on the picture story in his Essay on Physiognomics: "To construct a picture-story does not mean you must set yourself up as a master craftsman, to draw out every potential from your material often down to the dregs! It does not mean you just devise caricatures with a pencil naturally frivolous. Nor is it simply to dramatize a proverb or illustrate a pun. You must actually invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense."18
Sir Ernst Gombrich certainly felt Töpffer to have evolved a new pictorial language, that of an abbreviated art style, which worked by allowing the audience to fill in gaps with their own imagination19.
Satirical drawings in newspapers were popular through much of the 19th century. In Britain, in 1841, Punch, a magazine containing such drawings launched.20 In 1843 Punch referred to its 'humourous pencilings' as cartoons in satirical reference to Parliament, who were organising an exhibition of cartoons at the time. This usage became common parlance and has lasted into the present day21. Similar magazines containing cartoons in continental Europe included Fliegende Blätter and Charivari, whilst in the U.S. Judge and Puck were popular22.
In Germany in 1865 Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch was published within a newspaper. This strip is thought to be a significant fore-runner of the comic strip.23
It is around this time that Manhua, the Chinese form of comics, started to formalise, a process that lasted up until 1927.24
Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, (1884), is published, and is reputed to be the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character. In 1890 two more comic magazines debuted to the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. These magazines also republished American material, previously published in newspapers in the U.S.. They established the tradition of the British comic as being a periodical containing comic strips.25
Depending on the criteria used, the first successful comics series featuring regular characters was either R.F. Outcault's single-panel cartoon series Hogan's Alley (1895) or Rudolph Dirks' multi-panel strip The Katzenjammer Kids (1897)26. The Yellow Kid, the star of Hogan's Alley, became so popular as to drive newspaper sales, and in doing so prompted the creation of other strips. This boom marks the beginning of comics as an ongoing popular art form27.
The 20th century
The term comics in the U.S. came to define early newspaper strips, which initially featured humorous narratives , hence the adjective comic28. In 1929, strips started to broaden their content, with Buck Rogers and Tarzan launching the action genre. More strips followed, with the term "comic" quickly adopting through popular usage to refer to the form rather than the content29, 30.
1929 also saw the first appearance of Tintin published as a black and white strip in a supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle, a Belgian newspaper. The strip was collected as Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in 1930, being published in the European comic album format.31
Another notable publication of 1929 was The Funnies, a reprint collection of newspaper strips. Reputed to be the first four-color comic newsstand publication in the United States, it was published in tabloid size, a size which left it easily confused with the Sunday supplements of the time and so harmed sales to the extent that publication ceased after 36 issues.
The first publication to use a format recognisable today as a comic book was Funnies on Parade which took the tabloid size used for the Sunday supplements and folded it in half. Published in 1933 by two workers for the Eastern Color Printing Company of New York, Harry L. Wildenberg and Max. C. Gaines as an advertising giveaway, its success led to similar giveaways being published. On a hunch, Gaines distributed extra copies to newstands, with a ten cent cover price, returning to find them all sold. This led to Eastern publishing Famous Funnies in May 1934 for sale through the newsstands.32
By 1935 comic books were commissioning original material, mostly influenced by the pulp magazines of the day, whilst also repackaging foreign material33. Will Eisner was one who supplied foreign material, and in his retooling of the material to fit the comic book format Eisner is credited with inventing the grammar of the comic book. Techniques devised by Eisner whilst adapting the material for this new format include the "jump cut".34
In 1938 Action Comics #1 was published, featuring the first appearance of Superman and ushering in what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Comic Books35. Also in 1938, Spirou first appeared in Belgium, starting the typical custom of weekly magazines featuring mostly Franco-Belgian comics.
After World War II the form in Japan, known as manga started to modernise. The lifting of a ban on non-propaganda publications, allowed Osamu Tezuka to re-energise both the content of manga and the style of its presentation Tezuka's first book work was an updating of Treasure Island, appropriately titled New Treasure Island (1947)36.
During the latter half of the 20th century comics have become a very popular item for collectors and from the 1970s comics publishers have actively encouraged collecting and shifted a large portion of comics publishing and production to appeal directly to the collector's community. The collecting of comics is today known by a separate term known as panelology.
The modern double usage of the term comic, as an adjective describing a genre, and a noun designating an entire medium, has been criticised as confusing and misleading. In the 1960s and 1970s, underground cartoonists used the spelling comix to distinguish their work from mainstream newspaper strips and juvenile comic books; ironically, although their work was written for an adult audience, it was usually comedic in nature as well, so the "comic" label was still appropriate37. The term graphic novel was popularised in the late 1970s, having been coined at least two decades previous, to distance the material from this confusion38.
In the 1980s comics scholarship started to blossom in the U.S.39, and a resurgance in the popularity of comics was seen, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller producing notable superhero works and Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes being syndicated.
In 2005 Robert Crumb's work was exhibited in galleries both sides of the Atlantic, and The Guardian newspaper devoted its tabloid supplement to a week long exploration of his work and idioms40.