The Comic Book History

Man holding a black and white comic book

Last updated on November 22nd, 2023 at 01:18 pm

Comic books have been a staple of American literature for more than a hundred years. Diving into comic book history reveals fascinating insights into their origins and evolution over the decades. But when was the first comic book made, or better yet, when were comic books invented?

Comic book history goes back much further than most would expect. The earliest known comic book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, was published in Europe in 1837 in several different languages – none of which were English.

Four years later, an English version was published in the U.K. The following year, that version was reprinted in New York, giving America its first comic book. The book was side-stitched and contained 40 pages with six to 12 panels per page. Instead of using word balloons, text was placed under the panels to describe the story. At the time, nobody had an inkling of what was to come.

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The Golden Age of comic books

Shelves of classic comic books in a book store

The Golden Age of comic books began in June 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1. The introduction of Superman was a huge hit, and soon thereafter, comic books began featuring all manner of heroes with amazing powers. The popularity of these comic books surged for a decade but began fading in the years after World War II. Marvel Comics sparked a brief resurgence of the genre during the ‘60s with a different type of superhero, but the industry then retreated into a prolonged slump. 

Comic books recaptured the attention of America starting in the 1980s by branching out into uncharted territories. Comic books grew up, so to speak, and began offering darker characters, stories, and plot lines. Antiheroes, introduced by Marvel during the ‘60s, became increasingly popular. This led to what many call the “Dark Age” of comic books. Today, comic books are more popular than ever and have become part of a billion-dollar industry that includes movies, television series, toys, and conventions.

How comic books were originally printed

The origins of comic book history begins with books printed on a 4- or 5-color newspaper press, using cheap newsprint paper. Most were printed in spot color, a process whereby the graphic elements are printed in “spots,” one color layer at a time. This took much longer than today’s full-color printing methods, where all colors are printed at the same time.

When printing early comics, pages were folded to size and then trimmed on three sides with a 3-knife cutter. The cover was printed on a coated or slick paper and then trimmed to size. The binding usually consisted of stitches or staples, similar to saddle stitch booklet printing, as most comics did not have enough pages to need a sturdier type of binding.

A new kind of “spot”

Ben dot printing of a shocked woman

As comic books grew more sophisticated and artists sought better use of color, publishers began replacing the spot method with the Ben-Day dot printing process (named after illustrator Benjamin Day). Ben-Day dot also applies the colored ink using small dots. However, the dots can be closely-spaced, widely-spaced, or overlapping. This made it easier to create secondary colors and shading to give images more depth.

For example, widely-spaced Magenta Ben-Day dots were used to create pink. Pulp comic books used Ben-Day dots in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create secondary colors such as green, purple, orange, and flesh tones. It also costs less to produce different color tones with Ben-Day dots.

To apply the Ben-Day dots to comic book drawings, illustrators used transparent overlay sheets with different dot sizes and distributions. They cut the overlay material into shapes that fit the areas needing color or background and rubbed the shapes onto the drawing with a burnisher. The area overlaid with Ben-Day dots provided tonal shading for the printing plate. Ben-Day dots served as the preferred comic book printing method for decades – until something better came along.

How comic books are created today

Producing comic books requires a multi-step process involving a variety of materials and creative abilities. Today’s comic book illustrators can choose from many different sizes, weights, and finishes of paper, as well as a wide array of drawing mediums ranging from pencils and inks to markers and paints.

The writer is usually a different person than the artist. The two work together to decide on the situations, characters, and other details of the story. Then, they decide how to break up the story to fit each page. Once the story has been refined, the writer creates a script that guides the drawings.

The artist first makes a rough sketch of each page, called a thumbnail, and then begins drawing each page in pencil. (It’s not uncommon for multiple artists to work on the same story.) When the pencil drawings are complete, they are enlarged and sent to the inker, who uses a variety of pens and brushes to produce a finished black-and-white page. The last step consists of adding the lettering for the dialogue, sound effects, and narratives.

For years, the comic industry used a simple, hand-separated 4-color system that provided 64 colors to choose from. The colors were easy to reproduce on the newsprint paper typically used for comics, and the comics cost less to print.

Now, most coloring is done digitally. The master pages are scanned into the computer, and the colorist digitally selects and applies each color to the drawing. The computer then assigns a code that identifies the four color components that make up a particular color. When all the pages have been digitally colored, a proof copy of the entire comic book is printed for final approval before being mass-printed.

Printing Today’s Comic Books

When printing begins, the individual pages are arranged so that they will appear in the proper order when the comic book is assembled. The sheets of paper are fed between rotating plates, and both sides are printed at the same time. This process is repeated for each of the four colors and is called “four-color printing”.

On some printing presses, as many as eight pages can be printed on each side of a large sheet. On other types of presses, a long roll of paper is fed between four sets of rollers, and all four colors are printed in a single pass. The printed sheets or the roll of paper are then cut to the proper size, stacked, folded, and stapled or glued to form the finished comic book.

Four-color printing has become the printing method of choice for most comic book publishers because it offers many advantages over earlier printing methods. It allows for the most color tones. Artists can create detailed shades that weren’t possible with hand separation techniques. Four-color printing works well with offset printing and better quality paper. It’s faster than hand-separating colors, and costs less. Did you know Printivity prints comic books? Check out our comic book page  to see all we can do.

What Paper to Use for Comic Book Printing

Selecting the right paper for comic book printing is a critical decision that can significantly impact the final product. The choice of paper not only enhances the pleasure of flipping each page but also influences the display of the artwork, with comic book dots being pivotal to its distinct art style. 

Comic book history spans over a century, reflecting an evolution in storytelling techniques and the materials used for their creation. Currently, creators and publishers are spoilt for choice with various paper types, each bringing its distinct advantages.

  1. Newsprint

Traditionally, comic books were printed on newsprint, an economical, slightly rough paper that is a bit off-white. Newsprint is loved for its vintage feel and is especially effective for a retro aesthetic. However, it’s less commonly used now due to its tendency to yellow and deteriorate over time.

  1. Uncoated Paper

An alternative to newsprint, uncoated paper is more robust and doesn’t yellow as easily. It provides an excellent surface for vibrant colors and crisp lines, essential for comic book art. Its texture is more pleasing to the touch and offers the comic book a high-end, artistic feel.

  1. Gloss-Coated Paper

This is a popular choice for modern comic books. Gloss-coated papers make colors pop off the page, providing a sheen that makes an image look dynamic. It’s particularly effective for comic books with many action scenes or vibrant, energetic art, especially those featuring superheroes.

  1. Matte-Coated Paper

For those seeking a subtler, more sophisticated finish, matte-coated paper is an excellent choice. It minimizes glare for easy readability and provides a different aesthetic that’s particularly appealing for graphic novels or more literary comic works.

  1. Recycled Paper

Eco-conscious creators might opt for recycled paper. While this option might be slightly more limited in brightness and texture, it’s a responsible choice for the environment. Advanced recycling processes now allow for much better quality recycled paper, suitable for detailed, colorful illustrations.

The paper’s GSM (grams per square meter) is vital in determining its thickness and feel. A higher GSM denotes a sturdier, premium touch, whereas a lower GSM offers cost savings and suits bulk distributions. Balancing financial considerations with the intended reader experience is key.

Your choice of paper is pivotal in determining the quality of the final comic book product. It’s not just about the visuals; the tactile experience of the reader, the ease of reading, the comic’s lifespan, and even environmental considerations play significant roles. Be mindful of these factors, and choose a reputable printer who understands the nuances of comic book printing. This attention to detail will ensure a product that resonates with readers and stands the test of time, allowing your artwork to be appreciated as you intended.

Additional Tips

As we continue to delve into how comic books are made, it’s clear that achieving a premium printed comic involves more than just proper paper selection. Here’s how to ensure your comic book is of the highest caliber:

1. Black and White vs. Full Color Printing

Even as comic book innovation surges forward, one might overlook the allure of black-and-white storytelling. Yet, iconic works like The Walking Dead and Sin City affirm that this classic approach remains timeless and compelling.

2. Crafting a Compelling Cover

The cover of your comic book is a cornerstone of its appeal, playing a pivotal role in attracting readers. It’s not just about the materials used but the message and allure it conveys at a glance. While choices like 80# gloss or matte cardstock are prevalent, the imagery, colors, and typography employed are what truly forge a connection with potential readers. 

For a cover that catches the eye and withstands handling, options like 100# glossy covers or U.V. coated stocks are worth considering. Just remember, the essence of a compelling cover lies in its ability to visually narrate the story within, inviting readers to dive into the world you’ve created.

3. Comic Books vs. Graphic Novels

Deciding between comic books and graphic novels hinges on your preferred storytelling scope, with comic books suiting serialized, shorter narratives and graphic novels offering a broader canvas for in-depth tales. 

Production-wise, comic books require an ongoing effort but offer quicker, regular releases, while graphic novels demand more upfront work and resources but result in a comprehensive product. Financially, comic books might entail lower immediate costs with the potential for consistent revenue. In contrast, graphic novels need a significant initial investment, often sourced through methods like crowdfunding.

4. Choosing the Right Font

A fitting font greatly influences readability and overall aesthetic. Opt for legibility over extravagance. For an in-depth exploration of choosing the ideal font, check out our blog on comic book fonts.

5. Seeking Professional Guidance

If you’re unfamiliar with how comic books are printed, consult with professionals. Their expertise can be invaluable.

In the culture of comic books, printing is an intricate process with various nuanced decisions, from paper choice to binding method. Search for these details, and you can dramatically elevate the final product, delighting readers and leaving a lasting impression.Whether you’re an indie artist or a large publisher, these insights can steer you through the printing process, ensuring your comic book is a great, well-crafted art piece that garners the admiration it deserves. After all, in the realm of comics, both the story and the quality of print contribute to the reception of any work.


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