For many years comic books skulked in the shadows of culture, considered juvenile at best, or outright dangerous at worst. Only in the last few decades has there been a serious effort to treat them as the art form they are, and to study their history in a serious way.
I’ve gathered some of the best non-fiction looks at comics history below, from overviews of the medium as a whole, to detailed biographies of key comics creators. Go forth, learn some history, and let us know if we left any of your favorite comics histories out!
The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay, by Thierry Smolderen, Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen
This English translation of a French classic takes us back well before the advent of Superman to look at the intricate visual culture that grew up around picture stories, caricatures, and satirical illustrations before 1900. Smolderen explores the growth of the revolution in visual language itself that occurred in the wake of the printing press, and further in the explosion of photography, audio recording, and cinema. He maps the iconic work of William Hogarth, Rodolphe Töpffer, Gustave Doré, as well as lesser-known contemporaries, to see how they laid the groundwork for the comics revolution of the early 20th Century.
The Great Comic Book Heroes, by Jules Feiffer
In 1965, Jules Feiffer wrote what is arguably the first critical history of the comic book superheroes of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Plastic Man, Batman, Superman, The Spirit and others. By staking out this space, and writing about the heroes in a serious and critical way, Feiffer questions the old assumptions about high versus low art, and insists that comics are important to American culture. Feiffer discusses the rise of the patriotic superhero, escapism as an art form, and how comics shaped his own development as a child and later as an artist. The book was out of print for over 30 years until Fantagraphics brought it back in this edition.
The Comic Book History of Comics, by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, the team behind the hilarious series Action Philosophers, decided that the proper way to tell the history of comics was, of course, through comic books! In six issues, the duo leads readers through the inspiring, infuriating, and utterly insane story of comics, graphic novels, and manga—focusing on the lives of Jack Kirby, R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Fredric Wertham (booooo!), Roy Lichtenstein (also booooo, for the most part), Art Spiegelman, Herge, Osamu Tezuka, and other luminaries to tell the story of The Greatest Medium of All Time.
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones
Men of Tomorrow tracks the evolution of the modern comic from two sides: we hear the tale of Harry Donenfeld, kid from the streets of the Lower East Side who hustles his way up to become a soft-core king, and two more suburban teens from Cleveland, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who create a character name of Superman. You may have heard of him. After the success of Action Comics, Donenfeld sees comics as the culmination of all his hustling life, but for Siegel and Shuster this is art, not business. Jones digs into the clash between the artists and the money guys that informed the birth of the comics industry.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman debuted in 1941, and has remained one of the most popular superheroes of all time. She has starred in an iconic television show, was the first cover woman of Ms. Magazine, and will (Finally) get her own solo feature film next year. But the story behind her creation may be even more interesting than any of the comics adventures she’s had. Lepore researches WW’s creator, William Moulton Marston (whose non-comics work included inventing the lie detector test) who lived in an open, BDSM-celebrating marriage while also writing a column for Family Circle magazine about the joys of conventional family life. But Lepore doesn’t just dig into Marston’s life – she also explores Wonder Woman’s relationship to feminism, and to the evolution of gender roles from the 1920s to the current day.
Super Boys, by Brad Ricca
Brad Ricca’s Super Boys is the first full biography about Superman’s creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Ricca drew on a decade of research in Cleveland’s libraries, the pair’s old school, and private collections to see how two teenagers changed the world. The book gives us the first stories and pictures they drew as kids, their love of science fiction, and their first attempts at comics work. The fulcrum of the book, however, lies in Siegel and Shuster’s tragic decision to sell the rights to Superman to Detective Comics for $130. Why did they do it? How did it impact their lives as artists, and the life of their heroic character? Ricca follows the two through their post-comics careers, as the comics industry blossomed, and the two men who helped kickstart it struggled against poverty and fought for their rights as the creators of Superman.
Comics were hugely popular from their inception, and, unlike most culture, kid-friendly. A child could share the paper with his parents, reading the funnies while the grownups read the boring stuff about politics. Once those funnies evolved into comic books, they were cheap and flexible enough that a kid could walk to a store, buy her favorite hero’s book, and roll it up into her pocket to carry it with her and share with her friends. After World War II, conservative groups kicked off a severe backlash against what they saw as the immoral elements of comics – MAD, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Terror, and all the dozens of violent, noir-tinged crime comics. David Hajdu’s study looks at an era in comics history whose censorship, (literal) book burnings, and even Congressional hearings nearly destroyed the comics industry.
Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon
Stan Lee’s storied career has had enough triumphs, disasters, and last-minute reversals for its own comics arc. He’s been a writer, an editor, a co-creator, a self-promoter, a huckster, a carnival barker, and the most reliable cameo-provider this side of Alfred Hitchcock. This book is something of an oral history of that career, drawing on dozens of interviews with Lee himself, plus colleagues, fellow writers, and comics artists who all have an opinion on Stan the Man. Raphael and Spurgeon trace Lee’s life from the poor kid from Washington Heights who wanted to be the Great American Novelist, to the force behind the revitalization of comics in the 1960s, to the patriarch of what may be the greatest and most complex Cinematic Universe Hollywood has ever seen.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe
And, for a different take on Stan Lee’s career: Sean Howe, a former comics reviewer at Entertainment Weekly, dives straight into the much-mythologized merry Marvel bullpen for this history, revealing that the “merry” part might be a slight overstatement. The vision people have of fun-loving, creative offices, formed by the Bullpen Bulletin, Stan’s Soapbox, The Merry Marvel Marching Society, and the truly ridiculous novelty record, “The Voices Of Marvel” was largely a Merry Marvel Marketing Myth. Howe looks at the corporate culture that denied creators’ rights, demanded gimmicky issues, and helped lead to the 90s bubble whose inevitable burst left a serious dent in the comics industry.
We’re living in a golden age of superhero awareness, as Marvel and DC try to cram every possible character into big screen adventures. But, have you ever heard of Spider Queen? How about Doctor Hormone? Bee Man? Thunder Bunny? The Eye, who is literally just a floating eye? It’s doubtful these guys are coming to the cineplex any time soon. Luckily for us, Jon Morris has surveyed the history of comics, and plucked one hundred misbegotten, inadvisable, and long-forgotten heroes from obscurity! The League of Regrettable Superheroes celebrates characters that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, from Atoman to Zippo, and looks at their origin stories, heydays (if they had one), their creators’ intentions, and, sadly, their eventual failures.
Comics: A Global History 1968 to the Present, by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner
As its title promises, the history travels around the world to bring you the history of comics, manga, bandes dessinées, fumetti, tebeo, and historietas – celebrating the medium in all of its varied forms. Spanning the period from the late 1960s to the early 21st Century, Mazur and Danner, who both teach comics, give a comprehensive look at comics’ development in American, European, and Japanese societies. The authors hop from RAW and the work of R. Crumb to different trends in manga, from French sci-fi comics including Métal Hurlant to the shifting British scene, stopping off at many more global subgenres along the way. Plus, they’ve included 260 illustrations, many in full-page format, to give you a taste of the worlds’ comics history.
Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, but Hillary L. Chute
For nearly a decade Hillary L. Chute has been sitting down for interviews with comics writers and artists, and the result is this Paris Review Interview-style book, featuring in-depth discussions with twelve of the best creators today. Interviews include Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Scott McCloud, Joe Sacco, Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, and even the first-ever published conversation between Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. The artists talk about changes in the industry, mentorship, the acceptance of the comic as art form, and the new challenges facing artists working in a digital age.
The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, by Alvin Buenaventura
Daniel Clowes 25-year career is the stuff of alternative comic legend. His 1980s series Eightball became a benchmark of indie comics, and Clowes followed it up with Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and David Boring. He also wrote screenplays for Ghost World and Art School Confidential. The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist is the first monograph on the artist, and compiles classic illustrations, previously unpublished work, and essays from Clowes’ contributors, including Chip Kidd and Chris Ware.
Author and Brown University professor Brian Evenson dives into the pages of Chester Brown’s seminal comic-book Yummy Fur. He traces the book from its origin as a mini comic, through its expansion into a series of graphic novels. Along the way, Evenson looks at the discarded fragments of Brown’s masterpiece Ed The Happy Clown, the never re-printed adaptions of the Gospels, and ruminates on the wildly different reading experiences afforded by comic books and graphic novels. The book also includes a new interview with Chester Brown himself.
Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, by Tim Leong
Tim Leong is an art director for Wired, a comics enthusiast, and a creator of the best collection of infographics you will ever see. Here he gives us pie charts, bar graphs, and timelines to outline DC reader demographics, superhero tropes, a Chris Ware sadness scale, the byzantine relationship status of various X-Men, maps of comic worlds, and a whole lot more.
Speak to us, Angry Batman! In Supergods, Grant Morrison looks at the ways comics have used superheroes to tell us the story of ourselves. If this sounds, heavy, well, it is. Morrison explores his own life writing for comics, and draws on art and archetypes to think about what this pantheon of heroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and Iron Man really mean to humanity. Why do we need these heroes? What can they teach us? What can they tell us about where our species is headed?