People have been using pictures for storytelling since cave dwellers painted on their stone walls. The work that is generally credited as the first comic book was Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, published in 1837 by the Swiss schoolteacher named Rodolphe Töpffer. He had been amusing his students by drawing caricatures, and in this book and several that followed he reproduced them as captioned panels, as many as six to a page. An English translation appeared in the United States in 1842, under the title The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.
The 1890s saw the launch of the first successful newspaper comic strip, Hogan's Alley, created by Richard F. Outcault. Capitalizing on the popularity of this strip and its main character, the Yellow Kid, the G. W. Dillingham Company collected a series of the strips and published them in hardcover as The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats (1897). Its back cover referred to the publication as a "comic book," a relatively new term that stuck even when the medium began to be used for purposes other than humor and satire.
Comic books began to appear as periodicals in the 1920s, but they continued to reproduce newspaper strips such as Mutt and Jeff and Joe Palooka rather than offer original material until well into the 1930s.
The Great Depression was the period when soft-covered comic books began to appear on newsstands, rather than as hardbound books or promotional prizes. The comic books produced by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson included not only humorous stories but also Westerns and other dramatic plots. He ushered in the Golden Age of comic books with Action Comics, featuring in its first issue (1938) the new character Superman, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The Man of Steel became the prototype for the countless superheroes who followed and who still are ubiquitous in popular culture. The May 1939 issue of Wheeler-Nicholson's Detective Comics featured another new character, Batman, the work of writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.
During the Second World War, some superheroes served the war effort, battling Nazis or stereotyped Japanese villains. But in the postwar period, readers shifted interest from superheroes to other subjects. Horror was a popular theme exploited by series such as Tales From the Crypt, and many detective stories borrowed an atmosphere of cynicism and sexuality from the popular film noir movies of the period.
The industry was badly shaken by the denunciations of the psychologist Frederic Wertham, which culminated in his publication of The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and sparked an investigation by a Senate subcommittee. Wertham claimed that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency through their portrayal of crime, their display of gruesome imagery, and their sexual themes and subtexts. In response, several series shut down or changed their format, and the industry formed a trade association with a code that set standards for what could be printed. The industry later modified the code but did not abandon it for almost 50 years, although Wertham's claims were later found to be baseless.
Interest in superheroes began to revive when DC, the publishing group that surrounded Detective Comics, reinvented a 1940s character called The Flash in 1956. Marvel, the group that currently shares domination of the industry, later gained momentum following the premier of The Fantastic Four (1961), the work of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Marvel's characters, including Spider-Man and the Hulk, were more complex and troubled than the comparatively bland DC superheroes.
The counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s produced its own distinctive comic-book style, heralded by Robert Crumb's Zap Comix (1968). These satirical "underground" comics explicitly depicted sexual behavior and drug use, but they were able to defy the restrictions of the industry code because they were marketed mainly to shops that sold drug paraphernalia rather than through the conventional distribution network. However, when new laws shut down these shops and the hippie movement waned, these comics faded away.
In the 1970s, the proliferation of specialized comic-book shops not only meant a change in the distribution network but also encouraged greater dedication among the buying public. Aficionados were willing to follow longer and more complex multi-issue story arcs than were previously sustainable, and they were more accepting of unconventional plots, characters, and visual styles. This trend helped usher in the era of the graphic novel.
The comic-book medium had already made some experiments with novelistic storytelling. The Classics Illustrated series, beginning in 1941, retold public domain novels for the easy consumption of young people and allowed many a student to cheat on book reports. Less successful was the noir-influenced It Rhymes with Lust (1950), which was meant to be the first of a series of "picture novels" but had only a single follow-up, a mystery.
The term "graphic novel" probably dates to 1964 and is not well-defined, but it now usually refers to long-form works that use the graphic style of comic books but that have serious themes or show character development. The term gained currency among dedicated comic-book readers after the publication of Will Eisner's A Contract with God (1978), which actually was a collection of four related stories about poor Jewish tenement-dwellers. The term caught on with the general public after Art Spiegelman's Maus (1991) became the first work in this genre to win a Pulitzer Prize. Maus and its sequel used cat-and-mouse imagery to tell the story of Spiegelman's parents' experience in the Holocaust and the family's attempts to come to grips with their past.
Some other influential graphic novels were Watchmen, by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, and The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. The latter is based on the Batman character. Both began in the late 1980s as comic-book miniseries for DC and later were compiled into graphic novels. Both also deal with serious themes, including the threat of nuclear war.
Manga is a subgenre of comic books that originated in Japan. It first emerged as a distinctive style during the American occupation following the Second World War, combining influences of centuries-old Japanese graphic traditions, American comic books, and American cartoons, especially Disney. It found a market in the United States in the 1990s, aided by the use of popular manga characters such as Sailor Moon in Japanese animations of the anime style.
The industry achieved its peak sales in 1993, when there were nearly four times as many comics shops as now exist. The art form is now migrating to digital platforms, including Web comics created for online publication only, which probably will lead to new kinds of reader interaction and new visual styles. A hallmark of the past couple of decades has been the trend in the industry toward writers and artists working on their own creations and new series rather than those owned by publishers, such as DC and Marvel.