Who could have predicted that two Depression-era teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio, with an unbridled passion for creating comic strips would change the world! The birth of Superman, America's first superhero, was not easy. There was plenty of failure along the way. Because of the undying commitment to their vision, history was made.
On the road to becoming a global icon, Walt Disney became a four-time business failure. In the midst of a stinging betrayal, the determined animator gave birth to a legend—Mickey Mouse.
A midwestern dreamer tried to carve out a career as a gag cartoonist but didn't have the artistic chops to pull it off. Hugh Marston Hefner soon found himself trapped in a bad marriage and a career he didn't like.
Then, in the winter of '52, the distraught 26-year-old stood on a bridge staring out over the Chicago River and, with tears in his eyes, said to himself, "I've gotta do something."
Weeks later he conceived of a men's lifestyle magazine called Playboy — and utilized it as a forum to champion cartoons.
The story of cartoons — the multibillion-dollar industry that has affected all corners of our culture, from high to low — is ultimately the story of the artists who pioneered the form, and the story of the enduring characters they created: Mickey Mouse, Superman, and The Cat in the Hat, to name a few.
I began the work of my book, Masterful Marks, by piecing together a list of cartoon genres — comic books, syndicated comic strips, animated cartoons, anime, manga, graphic novels, caricature, gag cartoons, and children's picture books — and identified the creators who most influenced or revolutionized each category. That's how the story of this book began to unfold.
Under "comic book," for instance, Siegel and Shuster — the creators of Superman — held court. In the subgenre of underground comix, Robert Crumb is the acknowledged father. No one could have known that when the struggling young illustrator self-published Zap Comix #1 in 1968 and began hawking copies in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, history would be made. Crumb's Zap gave rise to an entire generation of comix artists who challenged the tyrannical editorial grip of mainstream comic book publishers.
In the October 1, 1972, edition of The New York Times Magazine, Thomas Maremaa wrote that "Crumb brought 'trash' art into the cultural mainstream and made it respectable."
"Crumb is like Johnny Appleseed," commented Gary Arlington, the owner and operator of the San Francisco Comic Book Company. "He's spreading the seeds of the new consciousness. You'd have to say that he's in the same category as Bob Dylan."
The influence of comix on comics gave way to a hybrid, alternative comics, from which arose a vibrant new genre: the graphic novel.
Or did it?
During the grim years of the Great Depression, struggling New York City illustrator Lynd Kendall Ward passionately authored and wood-engraved six wordless books -— now cited as prototypes of today's graphic novel. . . . . . . .
When all was said and done, sixteen trailblazers comprised the list. And then it dawned on me: Why not tell their stories in their own medium—the cartoon?
And thus began my quest in search of sixteen sublime talents — each of whom had been deeply affected by their subject — to contribute.
In "R. Crumb and Me," the brilliant American caricaturist Drew Friedman reflects: "In 1968, I was a nine-year-old kid innocently sifting through comic book bins in New York's East Village, when I picked up a copy of Zap Comix #1. My life would be forever altered . . ."
"Schulz certainly did have a big impact on me," recalls children's picture book author and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier. "He was my idol when I was nine or ten. I don't normally use the word idol, but I actually built a shrine under my desk with images of his characters. My love for Peanuts was one of the main reasons I began to think I wanted to draw and tell stories. I spent hours looking closely at his lines, which made me understand how to use pen and ink."
When graphic novelist Peter Kuper discovered Mad magazine as a child, little did he realize that one day he would grow up to be a Mad artist. Reflecting on the magazine's creator, Kuper recalls, "What Kurtzman did through Mad has had an impact that can't even be calculated, but it really was his war stories that meant the most to me directly. When I saw his story 'Corpse on the Imjin,' I don't think I looked at comics the same way ever again. Kurtzman opened the door to a world of possibilities for the comics medium. He's a furshlugginer genius!"
Re-creating the story of Siegel and Shuster was both exhausting and exhilarating for pop surrealist artist Ryan Heshka: "Riding the huge ups and downs of their lives and careers on paper, unable to control their fate, I could not help but want to write a different ending for the boys. I almost felt guilty for once again grinding them up and spitting them out."
Heshka added: "Their legacy needs to include not only Superman but also the countless bizarre characters and subgenres of pop culture they inadvertently fathered. The world is literally a more colorful place due to the contribution of these two lads from Cleveland. Their hand in the creation of the comics industry is, to me, their greatest achievement."
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Toward the close of the forties, an estimated 60 million comic books were consumed each month. The ever-popular children's genre, however, did have its share of detractors.
In his 1947 survey of syndicated comic strips The Comics, historian Coulton Waugh included a chapter on comic books in which he described them as having "a soulless emptiness, an outrageous vulgarity to them." Theater critic and author John Mason Brown declared comic books as "not only trash, but the lowest, most despicable, and most harmful form of trash."
German-born psychiatrist Fredric Wertham M.D., director and founder of Harlem's Lafargue Clinic, began lambasting comic books as the corrupters of youth. "Comic book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied," he decried in Judith Crist's lengthy article, "Horror in the Nursery," published in the March 27, 1948 issue of Collier's magazine.
Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham's 397-page scathing indictment of the comics industry, hit bookstore shelves in April 1954. That same month, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency conducted televised hearings on comic books, fanning the flames of anti-comics sentiment further. Amid plummeting sales—and vicious attacks on the comics industry by parents, teachers, politicians, and the police—frenzied publishers banded together and formed the Comics Magazine Association of America. By October, they implemented a stringent comic book code. Any title the committee deemed to be in violation of good taste and decency was prohibited from being published.
By 1956, nearly 400 titles were slashed and scores of comic book professionals found themselves out of work. Popular page-turners such as The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, and The Vault of Horror, whose combined monthly sales totaled two million copies, were nowhere to be found. The social stigma of comic book readers as hooligans, cretins, and "not the brightest bulbs in the box" would take decades to shake.
Here in the twenty-first century, comic books are now celebrated culturally worldwide.
Dismissed for decades by contemporary art critics, historians, and curators alike, cartoonists are now lauded by art museums around the globe. The name R. Crumb has become a part of the art world vernacular. Luminaries such as Charles M. Schulz, Edward Gorey, and Hergé have museums unto themselves!
Whereas teachers once doled out detentions to students who brought comic books to class, today they are handing out grades.
Thanks to the advent of the graphic novel, comics are heralded by academia. Any number of colleges across the country offer courses. Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, to name a few.
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Disney, McCay, Kurtzman, and Crumb . . . Tezuka, Schulz, and Siegel and Shuster . . . Hergé, Hefner, Kirby, and Hirschfeld . . . Töpffer, Ward, Chas Addams, and Seuss. Imagine a world without Edward Gorey.
These giants made masterful marks, forging legacies both groundbreaking and enduring, shaping the zeitgeist of cartoon art for the past one hundred years.