Webcomic Apps

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Comics and graphic novels are examining refugee border-crossing experiences

‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar’ recounts how the Somali Olympic runner drowned while trying to reach Italy in 2012.
(From Reinhard Kleist’s ‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar/SelfMadeHero)

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, University of British Columbia

Comics about refugee experiences are not new. After all, even the superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman, is a refugee who landed on Earth after his flight from Krypton.

However, recently there has been renewed interest in comics representing migrant experience — namely, that of refugees and asylum-seekers. Since 2011, in particular, and the start of the civil war in Syria, comics and graphic novels have become an important forum for examining global forced migration.

These so-called “refugee comics” range from newspaper comic strips to webcomics and graphic novels that combine eyewitness reportage or journalistic collaboration with comic-book storytelling. These stories are written with the aim of incorporating the points of views of refugees, artists, volunteers or journalists working on-the-ground in displaced communities, war zones and along the migrant journey. They sometimes emerge in collaboration with human rights organizations.

In light of their subject matter, these comic artists contend with complex and distressing themes that are otherwise difficult to represent.

They draw on the traditional comics format, including the medium’s sequential nature, the use of panel walls and a combination of text and image to foster empathy and compassion for the migration journey. In so doing, they aim to give voice to asylum-seekers and refugees, part of 80 million individuals and families forcibly displaced worldwide, whose anonymous images often appear in western media.

Complex issues, narrator’s perspective

These comics are typically drawn by western cartoonists, based on direct testimonies by migrants and refugees or those who have worked with them or encountered them. They are typically not by refugees but about refugees. Scholar Candida Rifkind, who studies alternative comics and graphic narratives, explores how comics about migrant experience often emerge when witnesses to migrant stories grapple with feelings of “shame, guilt and responsibility” to make western society at large more aware of and responsive to refugee realities.

These narratives prompt ethical questions about what it means to tell a story and who has the right or responsibility to do so. While questions about the power relations embedded in how these texts are produced remain, comics on global forced migration are still an important avenue for interrogating the representation of migrants and the socio-political circumstances surrounding their journeys.

These comics also challenge what may otherwise be relayed in mainstream media as the story of a global migrant crisis that has no human face, with perilous effects for migrants who face xenophobia and hate. In Rifkind’s words, they are a kind of intervention into “the photographic regime of the migrant as Other that has emerged as the dominant visual record” of contemporary globalization.

In comics about forced migrant experiences, people experiencing life as refugees become centred as the subjects of their own stories. But cartooning can allow storytellers to represent individuals anonymously, making it easier for people “to give testimony fully and candidly,” while affording them the specificity of their humanity.

There can be consequences for refugees who testify about their circumstances and the oppression and violence they encounter. Photographic evidence of unlawful or undocumented residence in migrant encampments or someone’s journey to seek asylum could in fact jeopardize a person’s safety and end goal.

Cartoon panel showing smoke floating outside the panel and a bullet cutting through the edge.
The violence encountered by the refugees depicted in ‘The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees,’ by Don Brown is the only graphic element that breaks through the panel frame.
(HMH Books)

New visual strategies

Notably, comics on forced migration are also inventing new visual strategies to recount refugee experiences. Artists use panel borders to add a layer of storytelling that typically vacillates between the creators’ ability to represent a specific experience, emotion or event and the very inability to portray some forms of trauma and lived experience.

In The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018), American author and illustrator Don Brown depicts moments of hardships and hope in the lives of the refugees that Brown met in three Greek refugee camps in Ritsona, in Thessaloniki and on Leros.

The violence encountered by the refugees of Brown’s graphic novel is the only graphic element that breaks through panels. Bullets fracture the panel edges, bombs explode out of the picture planes and toxic smoke rises through the frames.

Brown draws on the convention of exceeding and playing with borders in comics to demonstrate a relationship between violence and transgressing borders. Not only did violence in Syria force many of its citizens to journey in search of safety and freedom; fleeing Syrians also also faced violence and hostility beyond the borders of their homeland on their journeys and where they landed.

Cartoon panels that are bordered with white lace
Detail of a page shows how lace is used as a panel border in ‘Threads,’ by Kate Evans.

The panel borders in Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (2016) by British cartoonist, non-fiction author and graphic novelist Kate Evans are comprised of clippings of delicate lace. Threads is a socio-political and cultural critique rooted in the author’s experience volunteering in the largest though unofficial refugee encampment in Calais, France, which operated from January 2015 to October 2016.

My research has examined how this lace integrated into the comic is more than simply an analogy for the intertwining factors and complex relationships that emerged in Calais. The lacework is a fundamental structuring principle in Evans’ text that engages with the region’s history of lacemaking, Calais’ most essential industry and refugee experience simultaneously.

Frames within stories

The aesthetics of the smartphone have also begun to play a role in the representation of refugee experiences in comics. Smartphone screens and social media platforms function as frames within some stories.

German graphic designer and cartoonist Reinhard Kleist embeds social media into the comics grid in An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar (2016). The story recounts how Omar, the Somali Olympic runner, died by drowning en route to Italy in 2012.

Some of the story is narrated through Facebook posts based on interviews conducted on that platform with Omar’s sister and a journalist who had interviewed and known Omar.

Illustrated borderless panel, in which Omar is packing for journey to Italy. A t-shirt, towel, scarf, pair of pants, toothbrush and a cell phone are spread across the floor. A Facebook post in the top left corner reads: I'm packing for my trip. Miriam told me what to bring. Only God knows how long it will take.
Panel from ‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar,’ by Richard Kleist.

Somalian athletes lifted up Omar’s story to draw attention to the Olympics as a venue to promote awareness about global conflict and peace. In Kleist’s introduction, he writes that too often, “abstract numbers represent human lives.”

This comic and others joins several examples of new media, such as viral videos, mobile games and documentary film that are highlighting the role mobile devices can play during the migration journey.

Through their personal stories, comics on forced migration humanize refugee experience. This category of graphic narrative also offers opportunities for articulating the complexity of refugee experience through the narrative techniques and visual strategies of comic art.The Conversation

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, Assistant Professor (without review) of German, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kapow! Zap! Splat! How comics make sound on the page

Unsplash/Joe Ciciarelli, CC BY

Victor Araneda Jure, Monash University

Typically, comics are considered a silent medium. But while they don’t come with an aural soundtrack, comics have a unique grammar for sound.

From Wolverine’s SNIKT! when unsheathing his claws, to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in The Death of Stalin (later made into a film) the use of “textual audio” invites comics readers to hear with their eyes.

Fundamental elements such as symbols, font styles and onomatopoeia (where words imitate sounds) mean reading comics is a cross-sensory experience. New and old examples show the endless potential of the artform.

comic book pages
Kaboom! and splosh! on every page.
Unsplash/Miika Laaksonen, CC BY

Holy onomatopoeia Batman!

Onomatopoeia — isn’t unique to comics but comic artists have certainly perfected this figurative form of language. POW! BAM! BANG! appear on the page when Batman and Robin land a punch. BLAM! is the sound made by the Penguin’s umbrella when it shoots from a distance.

The list of sounds represented by onomatopoeia is limitless in terms of creative potential. There are words that mimic sounds directly, such as SPLOSH! (the sound made by an object falling into water) and made-up sounds like that of Wolverine’s adamantium claws (as we will see further below).

The language of comics offers creative freedom to expand the aural lexicon. One online database lists over 2500 comic book sounds with links to comics images in which they’ve been used.

cowboy comic
Stan Lee’s Gunsmoke Western (1955) #68, with lettering and pencilling by Dick Ayers.
The Comic Book Sound Effect Database

This can also present special challenges for translators. Sounds represented in comics can range from speech sounds (subject to language rules including those governing how syllables can be formed) to human-made non-verbal sounds like sneezes, to sounds made by objects and environments.

Visual context is important too. We only recognise the warning of Wolverine’s violent retribution in SNIKT! when the word is drawn and displayed next to the hairy mutant.

comics image of man with claws
Wolverine extends his claws.
Author provided

Likewise, the word THWIP! by itself may not mean much. But when positioned in context it can imbue a comic page with excitement and adventure.

Imagine a young man dressed in a tight red-and-blue bodysuit diving at high speed from the top of the Empire State building. Suddenly, just before hitting the ground, THWIP! he shoots spider webs from his wrists, using them to swing from building to building. Both readers and the crowd of enthusiastic fans on the page react: “Here comes Spidey!”

The way they say it

Comic creators also use font style and size and different speech bubble shapes and effects to shout, whisper or scream language.

Bold, italics, punctuation, faded or irregular letters are used to emphasise different features of the written words: fear, courage, loudness or quietness.

In My Friend Dahmer, created by a school friend of the infamous serial killer, the protagonist is seen carrying a dead cat on his way home by a group of kids. Comics creator John “Derf” Backderf applies bigger-bold words in one of the kids’ speech balloon to emphasise the shouting and surprise of onlookers.

comic book page
My Friend Dahmer (2012) by Derf Backderf.
Author provided

Read more:
Heroes, villains … biology: 3 reasons comic books are great science teachers

Music to my eyes

The 1973 manga Barefoot Gen, written by Keiji Nakazawa, explores his firsthand experience of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath.

Gen, the main character, sings through several pages of the story. The author uses a musical note symbol () to indicate where speech bubbles are sung. By the final pages of the fourth volume, Gen sings to celebrate that his hair is beginning to grow again after being affected by radiation poisoning.

When preceded by the easily recognisable musical symbol, it’s virtually impossible to read the dialogue without “hearing” a melody:

“Red roof on a green hilltop …

A bell tower shaped like a pixie hat…

The bell rings, ding-dong-ding …

The baby goats sing along, baa-baa-baa …”

Expanding on this concept, How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman contains musical panels where the combination of drawings, words and signs present a soundtrack.

comic page
The How to Talk to Girls at Parties party scene (created by Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) gives us a sense of how the scene sounds to the characters in it.
Author provided

In film terminology, this is diegetic sound — noises or tunes from within the storyworld — as opposed to a narrative voiceover or a musical soundtrack the characters can’t hear within the story.

In Gaiman’s comic a combination of illustrations, musical notes and words (including the onomatopoeic TUM for a base drum beat) convey the sense that music fills every room of the house where a party is taking place.

In the political satire comic that inspired a movie, The Death of Stalin creator Fabien Nury and illustrator Thierry Robin show lines from Mozart’s orchestral score for his Piano Concerto No. 23 at the bottom of two pages. This adds drama to a climactic scene where Russian leader suffers a stroke.

comics frames of stalin dying
The musical score can add pace and drama to an already dramatic scene.

Next time you read a comic book, make sure you listen carefully. KABOOM!The Conversation

Victor Araneda Jure, Teaching Associate / Filmmaker, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heroes, villains … biology: 3 reasons comic books are great science teachers


Caitlyn Forster, University of Sydney

People may think of comics and science as worlds apart, but they have been cross-pollinating each other in more than ways than one.

Many classic comic book characters are inspired by biology such as Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Poison Ivy. And they can act as educational tools to gain some fun facts about the natural world.

Some superheroes have scientific careers alongside their alter egos. For example, Marvel’s The Unstoppable Wasp is a teenage scientist. And DC Comics’ super-villain Poison Ivy is a botanist who saved honey bees from colony collapse.

Superheroes have also crept into the world of taxonomy, with animals being named after famous comic book characters. These include a robber fly named after the Marvel character Deadpool (whose mask looks like the markings on the fly’s back) and a fish after Marvel hero Black Panther.

Read more:
From superheroes to the clitoris: 5 scientists tell the stories behind these species names

I am a PhD student researching bee behaviour and I have spent most of my university life working at a comic book store. Here’s how superheroes could be used to make biology, and other types of science, more intriguing to school students.

1. They’re engaging

Reading has a range of benefits, from improved vocabulary, comprehension and mathematics skills, to increased empathy and creativity.

While it’s hard to directly prove the advantages of comics over other forms of reading, they can be engaging, easy to understand learning tools.

Comics have similar benefits to classic textbooks in terms of understanding course content. But they can be more captivating.

A study of 114 business students showed they preferred graphic novels over classic textbooks for learning course content.

In another study in the United States, college biology students were given either a textbook or a graphic novel — Optical Allusions by scientist Jay Hosler, that follows a character discovering the science of vision — as supplementary reading for their biology course.

Both groups of students showed similar increases in course knowledge, but students who were given the graphic novel showed an increased interest in the course.

Front cover of the Unstoppable Wasp.
The Unstoppable Wasp is a teenage scientist.

So, comics can be used to engage students, especially those who aren’t very interested in science.

Educational comics such as the Science Comics series, Jay Hosler’s The Way of the Hive and Abby Howard’s Earth Before Us series frequently have a narrative structure with a story consisting of a beginning, middle and resolution.

Students often find information inside storytelling easier to comprehend than when it’s provided matter-of-factly, such as in textbooks. As readers follow a story, they can use key information they have learnt along the way to understand and interpret the resolution.

2. They teach important concepts

In science-related comic books, as the story unfolds, scientific concepts are often sprinkled in along the way. For example, Science Comics: Bats, follows a bat going through a rehabilitation clinic while suffering from a broken wing. The reader learns about different bat species and their ecology on this journey.

Comics also have the advantage of permanance, meaning students can read, revisit and understand panels at their own pace.

Many science comics, including Optical Allusions, are written by scientists, allowing for reliable facts.

Using storytelling can also humanise scientists by creating relatable characters throughout comics. Some graphic novels showcase scientific careers and can be a great tool for removing stereotypes of the lab coat wearing scientist. For example, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wick’s graphic novels Primates and Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier showcase female scientists in labs, the field and even space.

The Marvel series’ Unstoppable Wasp also includes interviews with female scientists at the end of each issue.

3. They can give a visual insight into strange worlds

Imagery combined with an easy to follow narrative structure can also give a look into worlds that may otherwise be hard to visualise. For example, Science Comics: Plagues, and the Manga series, Cells at Work!, are told from the point of view of microbes and cells in the body.

Imagery can also show life cycles of animals that are potentially dangerous, or difficult to encounter, such as a honeybee colony, which was visualised through Clan Apis.

The author would like to acknowledge neuroscientist and cartoonist Matteo Farinella, whose advice helped shape this article.The Conversation

Caitlyn Forster, PhD Candidate, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Comics vs. coronavirus: Comics industry shut down for the first time in almost a century

An extended pause by the biggest publishers could spur comic creators to pursue new projects and accelerate a shift away from comic book stores. Here, the cover of Batman Giant #4, which was expected in stores this April 1, 2020.
(DC Comics)

Bart Beaty, University of Calgary

Last week, the producers behind a number of comic book-derived movies and TV shows announced delays for their franchises: release dates for Wonder Woman and Black Widow were pushed ahead, while The Walking Dead announced that COVID-19 had made it impossible for the show to complete work on the current season and that the finale was being delayed.

But what of the comic books that spawned these blockbuster franchises?

On March 23, Steve Geppi, CEO of Diamond Comic Distributors, announced the closing of the distribution system that holds a near-monopoly on the circulation of comic books in North America. He cited a number of problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic: comic retailers can’t service customers, publishing partners are having supply chain issues and shipping is delayed. He wrote his “only logical conclusion is to cease the distribution of new weekly product until there is greater clarity on the progress made toward stemming the spread of this disease.”

New Comics Day has occurred every Wednesday since the creation of the direct market in the 1970s, as die-hard fans rush to buy new books before spoilers pop up online.

But no longer: This week, for the first time in more than 80 years, no new comic books will ship to shops, and production is on hold into the foreseeable future. No previous global event — not the Second World War, not 9/11 — has previously shuttered the comic book industry.

To understand how this single decision could transform the operations of comic book publishers owned by Disney (Marvel Comics) and AT&T (DC Comics), among dozens of others, as well as comic production, consumption and culture, one needs to understand how the status of the comic book has shifted over the past century.

Bygone newsstand days

As Jean-Paul Gabilliet, professor of North American studies at Université Bordeaux demonstrates, the comic book form emerged in the 1930s as a promotional giveaway for department stores and gas stations before it migrated to the newsstand as a part of the larger magazine industry.

Despite some fits and starts, the format took off based the success of Superman, created in spring 1938, and the many imitation superheroes his popularity spawned as comic books became a staple of the newsstand. Circulation grew during the war, and exploded shortly after as new publishers initiated new genres like crime, romance and horror comic books.

By 1952, the peak year for comic book sales in the United States, comic books were a formidable cultural presence. But the rise of television, changes to the magazine distribution system and criticisms of the industry by public figures led to an industry-wide collapse of sales. Comic books limped through the 1960s as a cheap disposable form of entertainment for children, found on magazine racks that catered to parents.

By the 1970s, the American comic book had lost its status as a mass medium. At the same time, a rapidly growing network of used comic-book dealers began to spring up at flea markets, conventions, bookstores and eventually specialty stores that catered to a devoted set of comic collectors. The growing fan network presented a life raft to the industry.

1970s turning point

The turning point, as American writer and reporter Dan Gearino points out in his history of comic book stores, came in 1972 when a convention organizer named Phil Seuling convinced the major publishers to wholesale new issues to him on a non-returnable basis.

Stan Lee, standing, publisher of Marvel Comics, discusses a ‘Spiderman’ comic book cover with artist John Romita at Marvel headquarters in New York in January 1976.
AP Photo

This appealed to the publishers, who were accustomed to routinely over-printing comic books by the hundreds of thousands to supply the inefficient system of mom-and-pop corner stores that retailed their work. Seuling’s model shifted risk from the publisher to the retailer, who ordered product on a non-returnable basis, but it facilitated the growth of a network of thousands of comic book shops across North America.

For more than two decades, comic book shops were supplied by a network of regional wholesale distributors that served specific geographic regions based on the location of their warehouses. This changed at the end of 1994 when Marvel Comics bought Heroes World, the third largest distributor.

Marvel meets Diamond

American writer Sean Howe’s history of Marvel Comics details how, in July 1995, the company made their new subsidiary the exclusive supplier of their market-leading product, reducing income at the other distributors by a third. A scramble ensued, with Geppi’s Diamond securing the rights to DC Comics and Image Comics, the next two largest publishers after Marvel. Other publishers quickly fell in line, signing exclusive deals with Diamond and bankrupting the regional distributors.

When Heroes World proved incapable of supporting Marvel’s needs, the company folded in 1996 and Marvel joined forces with Diamond, the only other distributor still standing. That same year, the Bill Clinton government began investigating Diamond as a monopoly. But the government dismissed the case in 2000, finding that the new company was not monopolistic because comic books were only a small part of the overall publishing industry.

Marvel comics impresario Stan Lee, centre, poses with Lou Ferrigno, right, and Eric Kramer, left, who portray The Incredible Hulk and Thor, respectively, in ‘The Incredible Hulk Returns.’ They’re pictured here in Los Angeles, Calif., in May 1998.
AP Photo/Nick Ut

The situation remained largely unchanged for more than 20 years. Diamond is the exclusive dealer of comic books to the a network of thousands of comic book stores who have continued to order on a non-returnable basis. Until now.

‘Pencils down’

The consequences of Diamond’s decision are immediate and wide-reaching. In closing their warehouses to new product, publishers have alerted printers to stop. Comic book freelancers recently began tweeting they’d received “pencils down” messages from publishers curtailing production.

Communication to comic book retailers, creative personnel and fans has been haphazard as the large publishers scramble to plan for an uncertain future. Many are concerned about the growing digital footprint of comic book publishers.

Since 2011, most comic books have been released to comic book stores and in electronic format to consumers through platforms like Comixology (a subsidiary of Amazon) on the same day.

Archie Comics has announced the company will release some April titles digitally. Here, the front cover of an edition of ‘Archie vs. Predator II.’
(Archie Comics)

With a protracted closure of the distribution system, publishers like Marvel and DC could continue to move forward with electronic sales, which would inevitably bolster that end of their business at the expense of their retail partners. Archie Comics has announced that they will release some April titles digitally.

If several months passed with electronic sales but no physical comic book sales, it’s uncertain that those printed books would ever find an audience. An extended pause by the biggest publishers, on the other hand, would undoubtedly spur comics creators to pursue new projects either online or through the book trade.

This could accelerate a shift away from comic collectors’ habitual buying that take place comic shops as establishments that foster unique social relations, as described by Benjamin Woo, associate professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University.

While comic books sales proved remarkably resilient during the 2008 financial crisis, if the current situation breaks readers’ buying habits for a few months, they might never return in the same way.

This is a corrected version of a story originally published on March 30, 2020. The earlier story said Diamond Comic Distributors made an announcement March 24 instead of March 23.The Conversation

Bart Beaty, Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America’s postwar fling with romance comics

With over 100 issues, ‘Young Love’ was one of the longest running romance comics series.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Michael C. Weisenburg, University of South Carolina

Last year, comic book enthusiast Gary Watson donated his massive personal collection to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

As the reference and instruction librarian, I’m tasked with getting to know the collection so I can exhibit parts of it and use the materials for teaching. One of the great pleasures of assessing and cataloging Watson’s collection has been learning about how comic books have changed over time. Sifting through Watson’s vast collection of 140,000-plus comics, I’m able to see the genre’s entire trajectory.

Before World War II, superheroes were all the rage. Reflecting anxieties over the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the march to war, readers yearned for mythical figures who would defend the disenfranchised and uphold liberal democratic ideals.

Once the war ended, the content of comic books started to change. Superheroes gradually fell out of fashion and a proliferation of genres emerged. Some, such as Westerns, offered readers a nostalgic fantasy of a pre-industrial America. Others, like true crime and horror, hooked readers with their lurid tales, while science fiction comics appealed to the wonders of technological advancement and trepidation about where it might lead us.

But there was also a brief period when the medium was dominated by the romance genre.

Grounded in artistic and narrative realism, romance comics were remarkably different from their superhero and sci-fi peers. While the post-war popularity of romance comics only lasted a few years, these love stories ended up actually having a strong influence on other genres.

Romance comics’ origin story

Though today they are most famous for creating “Captain America,” the creative duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby launched the romance comic book genre in 1947 with the publication of a series called “Young Romance.”

Teen comedy series like “Archie” had been around for a few years and occasionally had romantic story lines and subplots. Romance pulps and true confession magazines had been around for decades.

But a comic dedicated to telling romantic stories hadn’t been done before. With the phrase “Designed for the More Adult Readers of Comics” printed on the cover, Simon and Kirby signaled a deliberate shift in expectations of what a comic could be.

While most scholars have argued that romance comics tend to reinforce conservative values – making marriage the ultimate goal for women and placing family and middle-class stability on a pedestal – the real pleasure of reading these books came from the mildly scandalous behavior of their characters and the untoward plots that the narratives were ostensibly warning against. With titles like “I Was a Pick-Up!,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “The Plight of the Suspicious Bridegroom,” “Young Romance” and its sister titles quickly sold out of their original print runs and began outselling other comics genres.

Issue #1 of ‘Teen-Age Romances’ (St. John, 1949).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

Other publishers noticed the popularity of the genre and followed suit with their own romance titles, most of which closely followed Simon and Kirby’s style and structure. By 1950, about 1 in 5 of all comic books were romance comics, with almost 150 romance titles being sold by over 20 publishers.

The rage for all things romance was so sudden that publishers eager to take advantage of the new market altered titles and even content in order to save on second-class postage permits. Second-class or periodical postage is a reduced rate that publishers can use to save on the cost of mailing to recipients. Rather than apply for new permits every time they tested a new title, comics publishers would simply alter a failing title while retaining the issue numbering in order to keep using the preexisting permit. To comics historians, this is a telltale sign that the industry is undergoing a sudden change.

One striking example of this is when comics publisher Fawcett ended its failing superhero comic “Captain Midnight” in 1948 with issue #67 and launched its new title, “Sweethearts,” in issue #68. In this case, the death of a superhero comic became the birth of a romance comic.

Issue #3 of ‘Bride’s Romances’ (Quality Comics, 1953).
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

With so many new titles flooding newsstands and department stores, the bubble was bound to burst. In what comic book historian Michelle Nolan has dubbed “the love glut,” 1950 and 1951 witnessed a rapid boom and bust of the romance genre. Many romance titles were canceled by the mid-1950s, even as stalwarts of the genre, such as “Young Romance,” remained in print into the mid-1970s.

There was the brief popularity of the sub-genre of gothic romance comics in the 1970s – series with names like “The Sinister House of Secret Love” and “The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.” But romance comics would never approach their brief, postwar peak.

Gothic romances – like this issue of ‘The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love’ – had a brief run in the 1970s.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

A brief boom, an enduring influence

Among collectors, issues of romance comics are less sought after than those of other genres. For this reason, they tend to go under the radar.

Romance comics, however, featured work by pioneering artists like Lily Renée and Matt Baker, both of whom worked on first issue of “Teen-Age Romances” in 1949.

Baker is the first-known black artist to work in the comic book industry and Renée was one of comics’ first female artists. Prior to working on “Teen-Age Romances,” they both drew “good girl art” – a set of artistic tropes borrowed from pinups and pulp magazines – for several titles. Their work in both genres exemplifies how earlier pulp magazine themes of desire and seduction could readily be applied to newer genres.

‘But He’s the Boy I Love’ was one of the few romance comic to feature black characters.
Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, Author provided

After the “love glut,” sub-genre mashups nonetheless emerged. For example, cowboy romances were briefly popular. Later, in response to the civil rights movement, Marvel published the 1970 story “But He’s the Boy I Love,” which was the first story in a romance comic to feature African-American characters since Fawcett’s three-issue run of “Negro Romance” in 1950.

Even after romance comics largely fell out of fashion, the genre’s visual tropes and narrative themes became more prevalent during what’s known as the “Silver Age,” a superhero revival that lasted from 1956 to 1970. Titles such as “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane” often borrowed heavily from romance for their plots to generate intrigue and tension in the hopes of driving up sales.

Issue 89, in which Lois marries Bruce Wayne, is a prime example of such marketing techniques. Issues such as these were often situated as “what if” narratives that offered readers speculative story lines, such as “What if Lois Lane married Bruce Wayne?” Though they’re generally thought of as separate from the superhero canon, these love stories show that comic book writers had internalized the main narrative techniques of romance comics even if the genre itself was in decline.

But other comics didn’t merely use romantic themes for the occasional gimmick issue. Instead, they made the love lives of their characters a central plot point and a fundamental aspect of their characters’ identities. Comics such as the “Fantastic Four” and the “X-Men” rely heavily on the heated emotions and jealousies found in group dynamics and love triangles.

Take Wolverine. Presumably tough and stoic, he’s so enamored of Jean Grey – and so envious of her love interest, Scott Summers – that you could argue that unrequited love is one of his primary motivations throughout the series.

Thanks to romance comics, even stoic superheroes got bitten by the love bug.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]The Conversation

Michael C. Weisenburg, Reference & Instruction Librarian at Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Beano and Dandy artist Dudley D. Watkins made generations of comic fans roar with laughter

David Anderson, Swansea University

You may not be familiar with the name Dudley Dexter Watkins, but chances are you will recognise his art. Half a century after his death, the work of the talented British comic strip artist and illustrator is as well known, and as much loved, as it has ever been. Characters such as Desperate Dan, who Watkins illustrated for The Dandy comic, and Lord Snooty for The Beano, have remained favourites for many years, their silly antics and predicaments now kept alive by other artists.

This summer, a trail of outdoor statues has been placed across Scotland featuring one of Watkins’ most popular creations, Oor Wullie, who appeared alongside The Broons in The Sunday Post newspaper from 1936 until Watkins’ death in 1969.

Born the son of a lithograph artist in Greater Manchester in 1907, Watkins was just a few months old when his family moved to Nottingham. It was there that his artistic talents were first recognised. Encouraged by his father, Watkins took up a place at Nottingham School of Art. His first opportunity to see his drawings in print came soon after. The chemist Boots, where Watkins worked in the window display department, published his cartoons and illustrations in staff magazine The Beacon.

By 1925, Watkins had moved to Scotland where his work caught the eye of publishing house D.C. Thomson. Aged just 18, he joined the Dundee-based company, an employment that would last more than 40 years. During this time, Watkins created some of Britain’s most iconic comic characters.

In his first decade with Thomson, Watkins worked on a group of boys’ weekly action papers known as “The Big Five” – Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur. These publications experimented with the comic strip format and focused on sport, school and war adventure stories. Watkins produced many of the front covers for The Big Five, and contributed comic strips to small format supplements that accompanied The Rover and The Skipper.

In 1936, when Thomson produced a supplement to The Sunday Post named The Fun Section, the spikey-haired, dungaree-clad Oor Wullie and the close-knit working-class Broons family were born. Written in Scots dialect, the capers of these characters, drawn weekly by Watkins for more than three decades, still feature in the newspaper today.

The look of these characters has changed little since their first appearance. It is this sense of regularity and reassurance that still arouses nostalgia in generations of readers, fuelled by an inexhaustible range of associated books, clothing and other merchandise.

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Spurred on by the success of The Fun Section, Thomson released two new comics for boys and girls: The Dandy in December 1937 and The Beano in July 1938. These launches brought into being some of Watkins’ most recognisable characters including Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty and Biffo the Bear.

Based on an idea by editor Albert Barnes, cow-pie-eating Desperate Dan, one of Watkins’ most enduring creations, debuted in the first issue of The Dandy. In the black-and-white half-page strip, Dan is seen purchasing a horse that promptly collapses under the cowboy’s considerable weight. Watkins apparently based Dan’s super-sized square-jaw on Barnes’s own chin, and Dan’s exaggerated toughness – he shaves with a blowtorch and shoots a bullet through his hair to part it – personified the robust humour of The Dandy.

Watkins’ peers acknowledged his rare talent. He was said to draw at lightning speed, effortlessly encapsulating the wit and wonder of his distinctive comic characters. Such was the importance of Watkins’ work, he was exempted from active military service during World War II and instead served as a war reserve constable in Fife. In 1946, Watkins began signing and initialling his published work, a privilege afforded to only a few comic strip artists in those days (it also ensured his loyalty to Thomson following attempts by a rival publisher to lure him away from Dundee).

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Wartime paper shortages forced The Dandy and The Beano into a fortnightly publishing schedule, but by the 1950s not only had Thomson returned to weekly editions of these comics, it had launched two other, tabloid-style, publications – The Topper and The Beezer. Watkins was tasked with illustrating the front cover characters, introducing Mickey the Monkey and Ginger to a new generation of humour comic fans.

A prolific artist, Watkins’ output extended beyond his Thomson portfolio. Inspired by his Christian faith, he often led Bible discussions and delivered illustrated talks on religious themes to children at the Church of Christ in Dundee. In his spare time, he also drew strip cartoons for Young Warrior, a children’s paper published by the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade.

Watkins died at his drawing desk in 1969, aged 62. His artwork, particularly his early strips in comics and annuals, have become increasingly collectable, connecting with current trends for childhood nostalgia. While many fans still display the same affection for Watkins’ characters that they felt as children, the way in which we experience comic strip art alters as we grow up. While as children we simply loved how the drawings captured tongue-in-cheek humour, as adults we are able to view with a more mature appreciation the creative endeavour gone into producing them.

Watkins’ work, and his dedication to it, is still highly impressive. Considered a quiet, pious man during his lifetime, Watkins’ lasting fame rests on the high-quality comic artwork and illustrations to which he devoted so much of his life.The Conversation

David Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.