top of page

A Brief History of Comics and Why They Aren't Just for Kids

What comes to your mind when you think of “Comics”? Is it the multi-billion dollar franchise that Disney has made to be today or is it something far deeper, something you wouldn't be able to put into words if someone asked you? Is it a feeling for you too?

Comic books are a form of literature, as valid as any other.

An undergrad student writes a paper for his literature class on the ideals and philosophy of “Superman”, the professor mocks him for being childish and needless to say he almost fails the class. The perception of comics as a childish medium, one only reserved for virginal losers, immature adults etc is a bias that perpetuates to this day in our society. This article is written by an avid comic book enjoyer who wishes to educate you on why this perception is wrong and open your mind to what comics could mean to you and everyone.

Since The Dawn of Time…

I will be borrowing ideas from David Hajdu’s book “The Ten-Cent Plague” as it encompasses the accurate history of comics and their cultural, political and societal impact on the world. I would highly recommend reading it for yourself.

Yes, the early perilous years of the industry were newspaper cartoons and the first comics were catered to the youth. The late 1930s to the early 60s were known as the “Golden Age” which is when these comic strips began to develop an identity and form of their own. With the introduction of heroes such as Superman in ‘38 in Action Comics #1. These comics, like newspaper cartoons before them, were inexpensive and considered to appeal exclusively to youngsters and lower-class (often immigrant) grownups who couldn't grasp "genuine" or “true” literature.

But with the rise of comics came the conservatives, whose claims were comic ruins children. Wonder Woman, Archies, Batman, and more, of them, were labelled as fascist. A congressional hearing was held, and there, EC (Educational Comics) comics, famous for their horror, came under fire and their disturbing (but awesome) artwork was shown as definitive proof that comics were not meant for children. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing censorship board that killed many publishers (Fun killers booo! No one likes them.) And thus the dark ages for comic books entailed.

Approved by the comics code authority. Marvel, Dc and all other comics were regulated by the comics code authority after a point.

Comic Wars: A New Hope (The Silver Age)

A funny thing is, this whole ordeal could've been prevented if comics weren’t labelled as childish in the first place. The late 60s saw martyrs and, dare I say, gods such as Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Dennis O'Neil and more wage a cold war on these codes. They reinvented the medium to include mature themes, philosophy, culture, crime and the like. A key figure here who helped shape the comics into what we know it today is Roy Thomas. He took the throne as Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief after the late and great Stan Lee. His contributions provided tremendous maturity and consistency to the content of the books, demonstrating a new degree of regard for the reader's intellect. Artists like Jack Kirby bought forth psychedelic art styles which flushed out the mythos of the books. These two elements combined together pushed forth a message that stated “Not just for kids”.

The letter sections, where the writers published and answered fan mail, also indicate the maturity of the audience at this time. I don't necessarily allude to maturity in terms of age. The readers were pointing out possible narrative flaws, whining about absurd storylines, and itemising aspects they enjoyed. Fans were mature enough to interact with and reflect thoughtfully about the content they were consuming even in the 1960s, one of, if not the goofiest eras of comic books.

The Then, The Here and The Now (Bronze and Modern Age)

Comics become more gritty and "grown-up" during the next few decades (The late 80s). I'm not just talking about superhero comics: the popularity of nonfiction books like Maus by Art Spiegelman assisted in convincing an increasing number of individuals that comic books were no longer exclusively for kids — despite the fact that as I've previously demonstrated, were they ever?

Writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Mike Carrey, with books like Watchmen (1986), Sandman (1988) and Lucifer (2000) are the nail in the coffin for anyone who still thinks comics are for kids (Seriously, go read them). These authors or a more apt term would be modern-day philosophers, tackled themes in their books that no one could’ve imagined. Religion, Politics, Philosophy, and classical literature were woven intricately into these stories.

Watchmen was comic way ahead of it's time. It had themes of Religion, Politics and Philosphy, something not usually seen in graphic novels. Alan Moore challenged preconcvied notions and shifted them to better suit the world we live in today.
Panel from Watchmen (1986) By Alan Moore. Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

There’s a quote in Mike Carreys Lucifer (2000) “I'm tired, Morpheus, So tired.” (Which I have a tattoo of too.) Here, Satan (Lucifer) sits on a rock and ponders about the meaning of it all, he questions his free will, his purpose in the grand scheme of things. The book itself draws inspiration from a classic, John Milton's Paradise Lost. Can you expect a kid to understand this? or, I’ll do you one better, In the previously mentioned Watchmen (1986) Dr Manhattan sits on Mars and says “I’m just a puppet who can see the strings”. (Good luck decoding existential nihilism little Timmy.)

Another writer who, to me at least, redefined my love for comics due to his outrageous but awesome writing style is Grant Morrison. The non-binary genius in his book Supergods: our world in the Age of Superheroes, calls humanity itself a god. But that's not even the best of their writings, their run on Animal Man (2018) which deals with mature topics like depression and self-harm is a work of art the way its presented, Grant re-invents a so-called “childish superhero” into a greater version of himself, hell, the Scottish writer even wrote themselves into the book as a character to showcase the power of the medium, displaying narrative techniques like meta-commentary.

Talking about nihilism, Grant’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth, is a book that explores Batman and his rogues' gallery in a dark, gritty and downright disturbing way. Batman's ideals and philosophy are displayed through awesome dialogue and absurd art.

Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to fight the joker after he takes over the establishment. He questions his morals and this provides a glimpse into the caped crusader's mindscape.
A Panel from Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison, Art by Dave McKean

What Are Comics, If Not Art Persevering

The growth in study regarding comics, as indicated by the works mentioned in this article, indicates the medium's attractiveness not just to grownups in general, but also to individuals who take it seriously as both literary and artistic works. (Myself included.) Even among those who have worked on comics for decades, the notion that they are solely for children persists. (Alan Moore has strong opinions on this topic that I urge you to look up for yourself.)

Comic books may not look like other types of literary works, but they're just as versatile and appeal to a wide range of populations and that's the beauty of it! According to me, the actual issue here is not that people assume comic books are only for kids. Rather, they believe that comic books are childish. How can a mature person take something like this seriously, with all those (no pun intended) comic-y graphics and outrageous clothing and oh not to mention, so few sentences? Evidently, the only acceptable response to this situation would be to attack them and attempt to take away what they like while looking pretentious for loving what society deems to be "correct" or "mature".

To be honest, it ought to have no impact if comic books are — or are thought to be — for youngsters or grownups yearning for their youth. (looking at you Alan Moore.) What matters most is that you appreciate the stuff you like reading. Nobody can or should deprive you of your reading pleasure, whether you prefer Franz Kafka or comics about guys in briefs hitting one another – or maybe both if you’re brave enough. As long as you're enjoying it, does it really matter what others think?

The Latest 

Subscribe to the Imperium Newsletter!

Thanks for subscribing!

  • 3 Month Odyssey

    Valid for 3 months
  • Best Value

    Silver Membership

    Valid for 6 months
bottom of page