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The comic book is a book containing stories told through a combination of sequential images and text. From the late 1800s to the 1930s Big-Little books[?] were collections of short illustrated stories of a comical nature, printed in a small format with many pages and often a hard cover. Little Nemo came from this pre-'comic book era', as the supreme example of the art reaching its craft. The 'big-little' format eventually gave way to the first modern comic books. Funnies on Parade was published by Max Gaines in 1933. He printed a 8 page comic section that could be folded down from the large broadsheet to a smaller 9 inch by 12 inch format containing reprints of daily newspaper comic strips.
Seeing the popularity of the new format in February 1935 National Periodicals published a title, New Fun Comics, devoid of reprints and containing original characters and stories.
The new medium with no boundaries or rules for the style and storylines saw constant experimentations with genres. In 1938 Maxwell Gaines published a feature created by Jerry Siegel[?] and Joe Shuster for a new title. The character Superman was an immediate smash hit and led to numerous imitative efforts. The superhero enjoyed great popularity outselling news stand magazines such as Time and Newsweek.
This success soon led to a full of similar characters like Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and many others. In addition, new genres like teen humour like Archie Comics also began to gain popularity. This period is often referred to by comic fans as The Golden Age of Comic Books.
As World War II wound down the popularity of the superhero began to wane in favor of numerous other genres. Funny animal comics such as those published featuring Walt Disney's characters, science-fiction, romance and humor comics all found a comfortable niche. New genres including horror and true crime flourished due in no small part to stylized artwork and literate sensibilities developing as the medium developed. The most noteworthy publisher of crime and horror comics was EC Comics, which produced a number of high-quality suspense stories (and a great number of comics containing surprisingly graphic violence and explicit details).
In the 1950s comic books were singled out as a cause of juvenile delinquency. They were said to be the root cause of everything from the drop in grades, crime, drug use, and the general degradation of society. The psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, with its obsession with sadistic and homoerotic undertones in superhero comics was a notable influence in raising anxieties about comics. The resulting hysteria caused many schools and parent groups to hold public book burnings, and banning comics in many cities. The backlash sent comics into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. All publishers sharply curtailed their output and many publishers left the business of comics altogether. A draconianly restrictive set of rules for what would be acceptable in stories was drafted called the Comics Code. With the number of genres available thus restricted the remaining comic publishers began experimenting with the superhero once more. In 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 featuring The Flash a second wave of superhero popularity began. Comic book historians consider the premiere of the new Flash to be the beginning of the Silver Age of comic books.
In 1961 writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics and it was a tremendous popular success. Marvel characters were superheros but with human failings, fears and inner demons. Dynamic artwork by Kirby and Steve Ditko were complemented by Lee's youthful, catchy dialogue. The new style of comic stories found an audience in both the kids who loved the colorful superheros and the older college students who were entertained by the deeper themes they perceived in the stories. During the 60s there was also a splurge of what has been called underground comics, oft times self-published and reflecting the youth counter-culture flavoured with a gleefully uninhibited nature typified by the work of the eccentrically irreverent Robert Crumb.
In the 70s there came the development of a non-returnable direct distribution system and a number of comic speciality stores sprung up around North America. Though these developments allowed for a number of more distinct stories and voices to emerge in the medium it also marginalized comics in the public eye. Comic stories tended towards the labrynthine requiring readers to purchase several issues in order to see a complete story. Though a speculator boom in the early 1990s drove sales, purchasers picking up what they hoped would be collectible books that they could profitably sell later, comic sales have steadily declined over the years. Today, far fewer comics are being sold in North America than at any time in their publishing history.
However, the medium is enjoying a moderate comeback with the broad success of feature films such as Spider-Man and X-Men, a concerted promotional effort by the publishing companies with such events like Free Comic Book Day which was first held on May 5, 2002, to take advantage of Spider-Man's anticipated enormous popularity and a general push at Marvel Comics for a better standard of artistic excellence to reignite reader interest.
Outside of North America comic books enjoy various degrees of success in sales. Comic books remain extremely popular in Asia and Europe. Japanese comic books have been translated and brought over to North America where they comprise another genre collectively called manga.
Some comic books have gained massive recognition and garnered their creators impressive awards, such as Art Spiegelman's "Maus", which won the Pulitzer Prize and Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" an issue of which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.