Before the modern comic book appeared for the first time in 1929, when newspaper comic strips were packaged into a tabloid-sized magazine form, there existed … comics. But they didn’t often use the techniques of sequential art we know and love, like multiple panels, thought balloons and art in four colours.
Comic art existed long before the 20th Century and original published works are highly collectable.
There are at least two ages before the Golden Age but the years they encompass get a little hazy. They’re known as the Victorian Age and the Platinum Age. The two ages either overlap considerably or the names of the eras are used interchangeably.
Some comics scholars say the publishing of The Brownies in 1883 as the point between the Victorian and the Platinum ages. Others don’t, suggesting the Victorian Age covered the period between 1646, when the earliest known woodcut print of a scene was printed in the Americas, and 1900. It can be confusing as no line signifies when one era ends and another begins, as Showcase 4 is the start of the Silver Age.
Some works, which were single panels, are more akin to editorial cartoons or art in a storybook, but comic scholars are citing the works as part of the evolution of simple structures to the more complex storytelling of modern comics.
However, the work is defined, it’s clear if something printed in the 19th Century or earlier is found in a storage locker, it’s a score, both historically and possibly financially.
The modern comic book developed during the waning years of the Platinum Age with Comics Monthly in 1922, and with a 16-page newspaper-style insert called The Funnies by Dell Publishing in 1929. Eastern Color Printing, which loathed keeping printing presses idle, packaged newspaper strips into a promotional tabloid mag called Funnies on Parade in 1933.
The first comic book with original material and the first with a single theme, Detective Dan, Secret Op. 48, was also published by Humor Publishing Co. in 1933.
Original artwork and storytelling picked up after that, including Detective Comics 1 in 1937, all printed at what is now considered the tail-end of the Platinum Age, and arguably ends with Comics on Parade 1, published in April 1938. Comics on Parade 1 was once considered the launch point of the Golden Age, but it now seems to be pinned onto the June 1938 edition of Action 1, the first appearance of Superman.
The Victorian Age works didn’t typically have word balloons and were drawn with little or no sequential storytelling. In other words, usually, it was a stand-alone piece of art to emphasize text or an editorial cartoon in books. But sequential storytelling became more common as the years passed.
The first so-called comic book as we know it is the 30-page hardcover Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, published as The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in English, by Swiss artist and teacher Rodolphe Töpffer in 1837. He had been developing several works before Oldbuck, which were printed in newspapers. Oldbuck was completed in 1827 with Töpffer having no intentions of publishing it. He would be convinced to publish the book by German poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
An unlicensed version of Oldbuck was then published in England in 1841 by publishers Tilt and Bogue. It appeared a year later in the weekly Brother Jonathan newspaper in New York before being published in book form by Wilson and Co. in 1849. There were numerous editions of the English language versions, including an 84-page edition by Brother Jonathan.
Brownies appeared in 1883, followed by The Yellow Kid hit the big times as America’s first comic character when the 196-page book The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flat was published in 1897. Richard Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid, struck again with Buster Brown in 1902.
The first full-colour book was The Blackberries in 1901 and by 1910, Mutt and Jeff compilations were being printed in hardcover books.
Book sizes varied dramatically throughout the Platinum Age. Funny Folks was 16 ½ inches wideby 12 inches tall, while newspaper reprints in book form were the then-tabloid sized 17 inches by 11. Many Mutt and Jeff books were 15 inches wide by five inches tall.
The New York American and the New York Herald carried the gorgeous works of Little Nemo by Winsor McCay. Full-page strips of Little Nemo in Slumberland first ran weekly in the Herald as Slumberland and then as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams in the American. McCay flipped his works between the two newspapers until the strip ended in 1927.
Little Nemo has been reprinted numerous times, most recently two volumes published in 2005 and 2008 by Sunday Press Books, reprinted in their original size. The character has been in films including Slumberland, a 2022 movie on Netflix, cartoons and stage plays.
Along with Little Nemo, many of the titles in the Platinum Age remain familiar, and some of the characters are still being published. They include Popeye, Tillie the Toiler, Bringing up Father, Buster Brown, Dick Tracy, The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Orphan Annie, Mickey Mouse and Skeezix.
A comprehensive list of titles for pre-Golden Age books is listed in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, an indispensable book for comic collectors.