Texas Tech librarian Rob Weiner discusses his fascination with comics and their importance in American pop culture history.
A day dedicated to good triumphing over evil and saving the damsel (or dude) in distress, Comic Book Day, observed this year on Sept. 25, is all about enjoying a good comic.
Comic books, which were first popularized in the United States in the 1930s, are publications of comic art made up of sequential panels representing scenes. The first comic book appeared in the U.S. in 1933, a publication of “Famous Funnies” that was a reprinting of earlier newspaper humor comic strips, a term which led to the coining of the name “comic book.”
Rob Weiner, pop culture expert and humanities librarian at Texas Tech University, said comic books are prominent in society because of their unique form.
“Comic book day is a celebration of a unique artistic and literary form,” Weiner said. “It uses both art and text to tell a story. It's actually an extremely sophisticated medium, and you really have to exercise both sides of your brain to interpret both images and language.”
Though the modern comic book didn't appear in the U.S. until the 1930s, it had predecessors dating back many generations.
“Keep in mind the comic strip goes all the way back to the 1890s,” Weiner said. “They were publishing those in book form at least in the 1900s, and those were the first graphic novels. What we think of as the comic book today, certainly historians date that to the 1930s, but there were prototypes way before that.”
Weiner said though comics often have a reputation of being only for children or “rotten for your brain,” enjoying comic books is actually an active and engaging pastime.
“It's sequential art,” Weiner said. “You have to make connections between panels and it's more active than many other storytelling mediums. It's very different than watching a film or even reading a novel.”
American comics gained popularity after the 1938 publication of “Action Comics,” which included the debut of the prominent character Superman. This publication was followed by a period of high sales and a superhero boom that lasted until the end of World War II and became known as “the Golden Age of Comic Books.” This era introduced a number of popular characters including Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.
“Although not all comics are about superheroes, that's certainly one of the pivotal points and often what's associated with comics,” Weiner said. “Superheroes lost a great deal of popularity after the war, but they never completely died out.”
Comic books thrived during WWII, serving both as entertainment and morale-boosters for the war effort.
“With Hitler and the Nazis and the Fascists, that gave us a real enemy to fight,” Weiner said. “I think that was a very potent thing to tap into during that time because everybody was for the war.”
Weiner said his personal fascination with the Golden Age of comics is due to an interest in its cover art.
“I'm fascinated with the Golden Age,” Weiner said. “I think the covers of all the comics are very interesting color-wise. Whether the comic is fighting Nazis or exploring outer space, they're all exciting to look at.”
Over time, the comic book industry evolved into the Silver Age from the mid-1950s to 1970, the Bronze Age from 1970 to 1985 and the Modern Age from the mid-1980s to present. Comics have since expanded to include a wide variety of genres such as animals, westerns, romance, humor and more.
“What I love about the comic industry is you can find things to give a 3-year-old or an 80-year-old, because there's material that spans all age groups,” Weiner said. “We're in a good period right now because you can find anything for any taste or in any kind of narrative.”
Weiner said comics are important to American pop culture history because they help us understand things like the interests, lifestyle and morals of past generations.
“Comics help us understand who we were at a given point, just like anything in pop culture does,” Weiner said. “Comics are a form of social history that help us understand who we were and what some of our morals were at any given time. We can glimpse into certain styles of art and storytelling from our past.”
Weiner thinks people should read comics because they combine literature with art and serve as an important part of both American and world culture.
“Comic books are a unique part of history,” Weiner said, “and I'm glad we have a day celebrating that.”