75 years of comics evolution in six panels
Matt Madden created the above six-panel comic for an article by Professor Paul Lopes, author of Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book. Lopes is an associate professor of sociology for Colgate University, which published the article in its online magazine Scene. The New York liberal arts college not only doesn’t offer a major in dentistry (a joke surely never before stated on or near the campus), it also doesn’t appear to offer any significant studies in comics or graphic novels.
That didn’t stop Colgate from inviting Lopes to comment on how comics have grown up over the decades and how our culture has responded to them. A lot of it is introductory but the sociological context gives it a different filter to view this information, even if Lopes sometimes seems annoyed at the superhero genre and the dated stereotypes that surround it. (Although even this stance isn’t completely consistent. He opens sneering that The Avengers movie was an “aesthetic black hole” but ends confessing that he cheered while watching it.) And while he sets up the simplistic, and again, frankly dated paradigm of mainstream superhero fans vs. alternative comix readers, he does admit that “like all art, comic artworks, artists, and readers fall more along a continuum between pure mainstream on one end and pure avant-garde on the other.” This is becoming increasingly true if recent chart toppers The Walking Dead and Smile are any sign of the evolving landscape.
Madden’s comic strip encapsulates better a lot of what Lopes is talking about. It is stunningly succinct in depicting and recreating the evolution of how comics have not only “grown up” as an art form from their children’s pulp entertainment origins, but how they have evolved in what they express and the methods used to express. The only things missing are manga and webcomics (ironically, this comic appearing in an online magazine means it’s a webcomic), although Lopes covers the former.
The article ends with Madden wonderfully expressing how comics are reaching a wider cross-section of our culture than they have in decades and how that can only mean good things for the art form: “Right up to the end of the millennium, most cartoonists of my generation felt like we were stuck in a cultural backwater. Some even embraced the freedom that comes with that insularity. But for my part, I’ve always hoped to reach a wider and more diverse audience, so the crossover of the last 10 to 15 years is really exciting to me. I see more people reading comics and, as importantly, more kinds of people making comics. Influence and energy are flowing in all directions. I think we’ll see a lot of amazing new work in the years to come.”
All of this is well and good but about his six-panel comic: can you name all of the references? Someone might have to do a full annotated breakdown of each panel. It’s your civic duty.