Comic Strips: From Medieval Times to Movie Theaters

A high-resolution photo of superhero comic books featuring DC and Marvel Comics | Courtesy of Pxhere

Some people might believe that comic books originated in the United States or that they are a modern invention. In reality, this genre dates back to medieval times. Comic strips developed long before the invention of printing. In medieval paintings, sequential scenes appeared simultaneously as a single image. One medieval European example was a textile, known as the Bayeux Tapestry. It represented the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of the Hastings. From the conquering Normans’ side, the tapestry gives an introspective view to the people about the quest. Later the invention of the printing press led to the development of the separation between the images and the words. Printing also enabled the development of speech bubbles as a method to feature dialogue.1

In many ways, storytelling with a sequence of pictures started as a form of humorous expression for moral themes. In this early period, there were two principal themes for the comic strips: political and private morality. Political-inspired conflicts emerged with German woodcuts dealing with subjects of saints, miracles, and government. In the 17th century, the narrative strip focused on political and military terror, and the best known of these is “Thirty Years’ War” by Jacques Callot. “Thirty Years’ War” represents the miseries and misfortunes of war, and these images abound with scenes of barbarity and carnage in a way that the people could understand it through lived experience. While political morality surveyed community issues, topics of private morality focused on individual conflicts in people’s daily lives. The original strips concerning private morality expressed brutal methods of murder and public punishment. The narratives served as a reflection of people’s own actions and the possible consequences of their wrongdoings.2

Woodcut illustration of the death of Harmonia of Syracuse and her body double | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The moral themes inspired the English artist William Hogarth. His innovative writing portrayed the punishments of his characters with a degree of compassion instead of just brutality. The major components of the comic strips during the 1800s combined elements of Hogarth’s satire and the grotesque imaginary of English literature at that time.3

During this period, Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer was also a crucial figure. Töpffer’s sequentially illustrated stories were reprinted throughout Europe and the United States. In 1842, Les Amours de Mr. Vieux Bois by Rodolphe Töpffer was published under the title The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in the United States. This version was an unlicensed copy of the original work done without Töpffer’s authorization. Töpffer’s writing was so unique in portraying the lifestyle of 19th-century society. The stories ranged from the adventures of a middle-class dandy who attempts to enter the contemporary upper class to the story of a father who employs a series of tutors for his children and falls prey to their eccentricities. The stories proved to be so popular at the time that other cultures translated and brought those stories to their own societies.4


The lack of copyright laws during this period led to plagiarized editions multiplying and translated versions created a market across continents for similar works. Plagiarism helped launch inexpensive magazines on both edges of the ocean. In 1896 an era of massive plagiarism hit the United States and Europe (especially in Sweden and Germany). 5 Töpffer comics were reprinted until the late 1870s, and this gave American artists the idea to produce analogous stories. Other unlicensed editions of his comics followed this plagiarized publication of Töpffer’s work. Technological progress allowed the easy reproduction of images that launched the American comic industry.6

Plagiarism in superhero comics is still quite common between today’s biggest franchises DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Graphic novel producers are often complicit in some form of drawing on and copying other people’s works. Comics have been charged with stealing intellectual property since the beginning of printing. Some of the worst cases of stolen comic materials have emerged quite recently. An example of this is with Namor and Aquaman. Marvel Comics created Namor in 1939 as the son of a man from the surface and an Atlantean woman. He keeps his underwater kingdom secret from the inhabitants of the surface, and he also has one main weakness – he’s not able to survive on land. Aquaman was created in 1941 by DC Comics with the same background and the same fundamental weakness. Even as the stories of their characters have changed over time, the initial Aquaman was a prime example of superhero comic plagiarism.7


Cover of Superman Issue 1 | Summer 1939 | Art by Joe Shuster | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1894, a new genre emerged: the action-adventure strip. The demand for adventure stories established the staple-bound comic book, a new form for this media entertainment. This launched “The Golden Age of Comic Books,” which lasted from the late 1930s to approximately 1950 in the United States. This era of modern comic books spawned the creation of superhero archetypes. Many well-known characters were introduced, including Superman, Captain America, Batman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman.8

The debut of Superman published by Detective Comics (the predecessor of DC Comics) marked the start of the Golden Age in 1938. Superman’s popularity enabled comic books to become a major arm for publishing companies. To this day, Superman is a cultural icon of the U.S., after having popularized the superhero genre. The Superman comic has become one of the most lucrative superhero franchises, selling more comic books than any other American superhero character.9

In 1960, the data for comic sales showed that Superman was the number one comic book character of the previous decade. Superman’s sales were so significant that Superman No. 75, issued in November 1992, sold over 23 million copies, making it the best-selling issue in comic books of all time, thanks to the media coverage over the supposed death of the character in this volume.10 A major shift in sales occurred when DC Comics decided in the 1970s to sell its comic books in stores instead of just at traditional magazine retailers, such as supermarkets and newsstands. As comic books became less accessible to children during the 1970s by the 1990s the average reader was now an adult.11

Superman opened the gate for other competing franchises to create their superheroes. For Marvel Comics, formerly known as Timely Comics, Captain America was their most publicized superhero comic. Its first issue in December 1940 depicted him as a patriotic figure battling Adolf Hitler on its cover. Pro-American characters were the favorites of the period. Like most of them, Captain America’s initial creation grew from helping the country’s war effort.12

Captain America immediately became the most prominent of that wave of American comic superheroes introduced around World War II. Captain America faced Nazis, Japanese, and other threats to the wartime America and the Allies. Stan Lee, its creator, added to the character’s storyline in issue No. 3 “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” introducing the use of his shield as a returning throwing weapon. Captain America soon became Timely’s most popular character, and it even had a fan-club called the “Sentinels of Liberty.”13


A young boy reading a Superman comic book | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The sales of comic books increased during World War II. They had inspirational and patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil. The depictions of the character’s action always allowed morality to win over crime. Patriotic heroes wearing red, white, and blue were particularly popular during the time of WWII. Superheroes became popular for one main reason. The comic books gave relatable insight. Like many Americans, they identified with superheroes that were immigrants. This characters coming from alien worlds advocated the virtues of hard work, truth, and justice in a new foreign place.14

Mainly Jewish men produced the superheroes that attacked Nazis in these comic books. The creators felt it was their duty to influence the American public of the hazards taking place overseas. This showed American readers how they felt about World War II. In American propaganda, superheroes in comics fought Hitler long before actual soldiers entered the war. At first, meant to be an inspiration for those at home, the characters in these comics helped ultimately to inspire those abroad actually doing the fighting for our country. Around 44% of soldiers in basic training were comic book readers. Soldiers often received care packages with superhero comics during the war.15

The American public used propaganda to ensure citizens at home never forget the concept of total war. Most adults saw it plastered on posters in shops or on short films at the movie theaters. For children in the 1930s, comic books embodied this virtue of what it was to fight evil during World War II. The characters always showed war aims and how children could help win the war. The comic books helped instill personal and individual concepts of patriotism in children.16

However, some people were opposed to these wartime comic characters, even if now we see superheroes had a more positive outlook for society in several ways. Some educators and psychiatrists attacked the comic book industry. Teachers from different educational levels discovered that students who were performing poorly in the class were the same students who had an interest in comic books. They were often caught these students sketching comics instead of paying attention. However, these children relied upon the comfort these stories brought to them. It helped distract kids from the threatening times they were experiencing in life. Superheroes were created to help prevent disasters and to comfort those who were frightened by real-world events.17

Even as a form of escape, the comic book permitted readers to fantasize about punishing real-life offenders. Readers appreciated seeing superheroes fight against those who demoralized the devastating times for their economic profit. When the war began, 15 million comic books were being published each month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. The comic book superheroes during the war were involved in doing things to help the war effort even if they were not fighting the war.18

Captain America symbolized an American Soldier in World War II in comic books that children read. | Courtesy of Sketchport

After the war, the superhero genre lost significance, which marked the end of the Golden Age. However, the era left an indelible impression on comic books as many of the characters remain popular today, almost 70 years later. Comics introduced super teams to popularize some superheroes. For example, The All-Winners Squad consisted of Captain America, his sidekick Bucky, the Human Torch, Toro, and Miss America during wartime. Decades later, in modern New York City, The Avengers unfroze an outdated Captain America from wartime. The original Captain America was discovered trapped in ice in issue No. 4 and joined the group after they revived him. From the beginnings to nowadays, the team has featured humans, mutants, androids, aliens, supernatural beings, and even former villains.19

“The Silver Age of Comic Books” started in the mid-1950s, and it was a period of artistic advancement and commercial success in the American comic book genre. It began as an attempt to revive the superhero comics that faded relevancy following World War II. Unlike previous story backgrounds for superhero characters, this era focused on science as the conventional explanation for the origin of these entities. In the previous eras, characters had fantastic backstories as a modern form of mythology, such as Superman coming from outer space with a supernatural strength, ability to fly and x-rays. Now in Silver Age, superheroes were often created by a combination of laboratory accidents and natural disasters. In the wake of these changes, publishers introduced superhero stories again, starting with a new version of DC Comics’ The Flash in Showcase No. 4 in October 1956. The Flash, whose real identity was Barry Allen, was a forensic scientist who gained his superpower by a lightning struck at his lab. In response to The Flash’s strong demand, DC published new superhero titles including the superhero team Justice League of America, which prompted Marvel Comics to follow with the Fantastic Four No. 1. The Fantastic Four got their super-abilities after exposure to cosmic rays during a scientific mission to outer space.20

Comics increasingly inspired pop culture throughout the mid-20th century. The Silver Age also coincided with the rise of pop art, an artistic movement used in advertising as a source of fine art. Roy Lichtenstein, a well-known pop art painter, chose individual panels from comic books and repainted the images including speech balloons and enlarged color dots imitating the coloring process used in newsprint comic books. In January 1966, a live-action Batman television show debuted taking comic book details and re-envisioned them in the context of the audiovisual medium. Narration in each episode articulated the words of comic book captions and fight scenes had sound effects like “Bam” and “Pow” appear in as visual effects on the screen. Due to high ratings for the show, the circulation of comic books in general and Batman merchandise in particular skyrocketed. This growth caused the rise of other super-powered protagonists on the television screen. By 1967, both live-action and animated cartoon comic book heroes in living color were on TV in the U.S.21

Finally, in the early 1970s, two main stories defined the end for the silver age, the 1972 fade of Green Lantern’s optimism and the 1973 Spiderman issue “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” Both volumes are stories that finished the innocent and colorful view of the comic book world. Green Lantern had a change of personality in that last issue, and Spiderman’s fans were taken by surprise when Gwen Stacy died so suddenly. 22

As the Silver Age ended, the Bronze Age began. This era that spanned the 1970s and ended in the 1980s had a darker tone than previous eras. This tone was due to the genre’s focus on social issues, showing a shift away from featuring good stories to maximize sales. For example, Spider-Man dealt with drug issues, placing the comic at the forefront of the trend of social relevance in comic books handling real-life issues. The Green Arrow series dealt with racism, income inequality, political corruption, and environmental pollution. The X-Men titles, on the other hand, used the premise of mutants as a metaphor for real-world minorities. It is no secret that popular fiction exerts a strong influence on how kids, teenagers, and adults think about controversial topics. That is the reason why some comic books developed racial allegories. The X-Men franchise deliberated the parallel vision between the oppression of mutants with real-life marginalized groups. The comic provided the opportunity to talk about tolerance and inclusivity. The more time that passed, the more relevant superhero comics became. America’s love for superhero stories is evident in the long-term success of comic books. Starting during this period, a superhero movie has been released nearly every year since 1977, and more are scheduled to be released in the coming years.23


Stan Lee the creator of the Marvel Comics Universe | Courtesy of Wikipedia

During approximately the first fifteen years, in “Modern Age Comic Books,” many heroic characters were redesigned and publishing houses became more commercialized. In the mid-1970s, Marvel antiheroes such as the X-Men’s Wolverine and Batman’s newest version challenged the previous model of the superhero as a cheerful humanitarian. These characters, along with the supervillains, had psychological depth with a troubled past. For example, the Joker, Batman’s nemesis, was portrayed less as an evil criminal and more as a mentally ill psychopath who could not control his actions, and the X-Men’s nemesis Magneto became more sympathetic as a man who fights for oppressed people. By the early 1990s, Marvel had expanded its universe and X-Men had become the biggest franchise in the comic industry. Over a dozen X-Men-related comic books, both continuing and limited series, were published each month. The franchises featured less-known morally ambiguous characters with graphic violence and adult content that differentiated them from other mainstream titles. 24

The sales of X-Men franchise resulted in a significant amount of merchandise, including action figures, video games, and trading cards. Many series tried to imitate the idea of a franchise. Marvel and DC Comics extended favorite characters, such as the Punisher, Spider-Man, and Batman into networks of spin-offs in the mid-to-late 1980s. Today commercialization has expanded more into the audiovisual entertainment. Netflix began producing Marvel shows in the 2010s, including Jessica Jones (2015) and The Punisher (2017). However before Marvel moved to television streaming, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started remotely in 2008 with the first Iron Man movie. With remarkable success, Disney decided to buy the franchise for $4 billion in 2009. MCU and Disney created theme park rides with prominent characters. Recently Disney+, an upcoming streaming subscription service, announced it will feature exclusive Marvel content.25

On the other hand, DC has had more success with the television series that had been released by CW, a cable channel known for transforming comic stories to television entertainment. The most in-demand tv shows from the DC Universe are The Flash and Arrow, which have had cross-overs that have kept viewers’ interest. DC started its recent cinematic universe with Suicide Squad in 2016. Although DC cinematic entertainment hasn’t had a remarkable success as its competing company, it had major success with The Dark Night Rises in 2012 with a box office of $1,084.94 million. The visual effects of TV and film have helped fans engage with their favorite characters and stories. Notable events have gone from movie premiers to comic conventions placed around the United States and internationally. The biggest convention dedicated to this fantastic universe is the San Diego Comic Con.26


San Diego Comic-Con 2011 – Batman, Robin, and Joker. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Adaption to radio shows, newspaper strips, television shows, movies, and video games have maintained the continued relevance of superhero comics in today’s pop culture. Their prominence has grown in the last five years so much so that we can find all sources of merchandise and even conventions dedicated to comic books and their characters. The San Diego Comic-Con brings together cosplayers, movie studios, and more. The studios generate interest in the event by showing exclusive first looks and new footage of projects like Black Panther, DC Legends of Tomorrow, and The Avengers to make fans engaged with the inside world. Cosplay is the most common way of engagement for fanbases to dress up as their favorite characters. Cosplaying allows people to have their own personalized versions of the comic book world without feeling judged by outsiders. Cosplay has help popularize escapist and fan-fiction. Events that feature cosplay serve as an outlet to amplify the way of exploring this universe in drawing parallels with fictitious realities.27

Comic book movies have stimulated many innovations to the ways the film business has allowed consumers to develop personal futuristic views. The genre’s visual style shows how advances in digital effects have allowed filmmakers to incorporate supernatural elements. The most recent comic stories are based on scientific and technological background, which shows it’s not necessary to have a superpower to be a superhero, but rather it only requires effort and commitment. Motion picture franchises with audiovisual storytelling ensure that comics will continue their relevance in popular culture for years to come. The film industry has allowed the comic book strengths and values to be incorporated into modern day issues. Heroism and morality are redefined with our society’s newest problems, therefore, making most of the recent blockbuster films superhumanly themed. 28 Comic books have shaped popular culture for decades and have helped people of all ages and genders to cope with their difficulties. They started as a way to ingest moral views and developed into a source of a getaway for all generations. These stories gave Americans new hope as they discovered a new world with their imagination, finding inspiration to achieve great things.

  1. George Perry and Alan Aldridge, The Penguin Book of Comics: A Slight History (United Kingdom: Penguin, 1989), 11.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017, s.v. “Comic Strip”, by David M. Kunzle.
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017, s.v. “Comic Strip”, by David M. Kunzle.
  4. David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 2007), 67.
  5. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017, s.v. “Comic Strip”, by David M. Kunzle.
  6. Florian Rubis, Comics from the Crypt to the Top: Panorama Des Comics en Français (France: dBD, 2012), 39.
  7. Cynthia Griffith, “Comics That Plagiarized Their Material”, Ranker. https://www.ranker.com/list/comics-that-plagiarized-their-material/cynthia-griffith.
  8. PBS, “The Golden Age of Comics,” History Detectives: Special Investigations, February 18, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/the-golden-age-of-comics/.
  9. Amanda Hening, “The 10 Highest-grossing Superhero Franchises in the U.S.,” Business Insider, July 7, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/highest-grossing-superhero-franchises-in-the-us-2017-7?r=UK&IR=T.
  10. Larry Tye, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (New York: Random House, 2012), 17.
  11. Bruce Scivally, Superman on Film, Television, Radio, and Broadway (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007), 164.
  12. PBS, “The Golden Age of Comics,” History Detectives: Special Investigations, February 18, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/the-golden-age-of-comics/.
  13. Roy Thomas, Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2006), 11.
  14.  Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017, s.v. “Comic Strip”, by David M. Kunzle.
  15. Veronica Webb, “The Powerful Popularity of Superhero Comics During World War II,” Bleeding Cool, June 22, 2017, https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/06/22/popularity-superhero-comics-world-war-ii/.
  16. R. T. Johnson, “Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War, History Rat, May 25, 2015, https://historyrat.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/comic-books-and-world-war-ii-buying-into-the-war/.
  17.  Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 676.
  18. R. T. Johnson, “Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War, History Rat, May 25, 2015, https://historyrat.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/comic-books-and-world-war-ii-buying-into-the-war/.
  19. Grand Comics Database Encyclopedia, 2012, s.v. “The Avengers.”
  20.  Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 1994), 50-55, 63-65
  21. Ronin Ro, Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 110-111.
  22.  Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 1994), 98-102.
  23. Alex S. Romagnoli and Gian S. Pagnucci, Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 190-210.
  24. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, The Power of Comic History Form & Culture (England: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2009), 86-89.
  25. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, The Power of Comic History Form & Culture (England: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2009), 123-130.
  26. Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, The Power of Comic History Form & Culture (England: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2009), 140-145.
  27. Blair Davis, Comic Book Movies (New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2018), 82.
  28. Blair Davis, Comic Book Movies (New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2018), 96.
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23 Comments

  • I had no clue how far comics went back in history. Just reading about how they were used in those times to how we use them now is just so interesting. The contrast of how we use them for different purposes like from uses of daily actual events to fiction is just really fascinating. I think creators of these superhero comics are some of the foundations of today’s society in how and where we put our money for entertainment.

  • Its interesting to find out that comic books actually originated in medieval times. They are know introduced in a different way. Starting off by the story it self. Comic books before were used to show problems happening. We still do have those type of comics. Politic comics are a great example of that but know when we think about comics we think about superheroes. At east I do I automatically think about marvel and DC. Awesome way in going into detail and showing readers how comics came to be and the update of what they are know a days.

  • While comic book movies are extremely popular today and everyone in the past few years have been watching every superhero movie that comes out. I have little knowledge on the past that brought comic books into popularity. It is not surprising that superman is one of the first and most popular comics that paved the way for other comic books.

  • Wow, I would have never guessed that comic books technically originate from medieval times. The way that cartoons started off as humorous ways to talk about real problems in people’s lives and in the political world is not a total surprise. Although today we use them for all sorts of adventurous stories, we still use them for those same reasons – political cartoons are a good example of that.

  • I found this article extremely well written and interesting. I myself am a big fan of superheroes but I have never taken the time to get around to reading the comics. This post was a great primer on how the different eras of comic books are separated and what were the cultural factors that lead to those defining characteristics. I also was surprised to hear that there were near equivalents to comic books dating all the way to medieval times.

  • This was a well researched article that was well structured. I can clearly see the author’s passion and love of comic books in the article. I do wish that the author could have named the Jewish writers responsible for many of today’s comic book hero’s. I remember reading a article about the creators behind superman and how they were Jewish. In interviews from the creators, they explained they created superman as a person pure of heart,capable of upholding/representing honor, justice, and integrity. They made him to be incredibly powerful in order to create a fictional hero capable of stopping any evil that people could imagine. We all need some hope from time to time.

  • I think that this is one of the more interesting articles. I really found myself getting into this article because of how informative that it actually was. I did not think that comics had been around for that long so learning about that was really informative. It was cool to learn about the evolution of comics over the years and how some comics were made during different periods of time to kind of talk about certain issues.

  • It is truly interesting to read about the history of comic strips because of the evolution they have had. I have never been a true fan of comic strips but I do pay my respects for those who carry out the imagination to create characters, scenes and the art. The merge between films and comic strips really changed both of the industries positively because film creators have the ability to create movies such as Batman and Spiderman because of comic strips and in addition they have the the freedom to add any other scenes to the movies. Great Article!

  • I was never into the whole comic book scene, however, I do enjoy the occasional movie, but, the history of comic books was interesting. I had no idea that they originated from medieval tapestries depicting battles, such as the Battle of Hastings. It was very interesting to read about the Golden age of comics and about how plagiarism was involved in the industry.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article, the creation of Marvel and DC comics fascinate me. I love the stories, the unique personalities of their characters and how they even intertwined many times. Learning that comic books are not a newly modern way to tell stories doesn’t completely blow my mind, but it did shock me a little and interests me deeply. It kind of gives me a feeling of going back in time of the arts of storytelling. It also amazes me that one of DC’s most famous characters and background story of “Aquaman” was plagiarized by Marvel’s character “Norman”, which I never heard of in the Marvel Universe. Something copied is so popular while the original basically has no spotlight at all.

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