Robot 6

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.



Old school Superman, MAD Magazine, R Crumb underground comix, Watchmen, Maus, and Ghost World

The background of that last panel is Clowes-esque, but the figure is definately Waresian.

It’s a good start. But even with Maus’ impact the “Chris Ware”/Ghost World stuff in panel 6 should have been 5, and on panel 6 it should have been maybe outside a theater or something, since more people see the movies based on the comics than actually read them.

#2 is supposed to be the 50s when superheros went out of style in comics? The last one is supposed to be Chester Brown?

Valiant effort but missed the mark. Perhaps it’s the space he limited himself too. The man obviously knows his stuff but still, not enough. I don’t even believe he succeded at the messgae he attempted to communicate. I do believe he needed three more panels. Basically, instead of the evolution of comics he displayed the birth and evolution of underground/alternative comics. Simply a genre instead of the whole.

Weird division-’30s, ’50s, ’60s, ’80s, ’80s again, ’00s.

That said, I still like the actual piece itself quite a bit.

Jake Earlewine

August 8, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I think he did a pretty good job within the limitation of six panels. The weakest panel is the first, which really doesn’t communicate anything at all (other than the “American way” text).

But what I find disappointing here is that there is no mention of EC comics and that entire pre-code era (where the comics industry first began aiming their publications at adults — especially servicemen home from the war), including crime comics. Nor does this 6-panel strip mention the sixties and the glory days of Marvel and the rebirth of fandom. And there’s no mention of all the great Dell comics (like Carl Barks’ Disney stuff), or even Archie and Richie Rich, which were some of the biggest sellers in the history of comics.

This six-panel strip also fails to mention the explosion of independent publishers in the 1980’s, or the writer-less fiasco that was the birth of Image comics. There probably also needs to be a panel about the slutty whorishness of today’s Marvel and nuDC, where the Big Two publishers cannibalize their own characters and reboot and renumber everything because they’ll do anything for a quick buck.

But like I said, for only six panels, he covered a lot of ground. Has anybody ever done a series of comics exploring the evolving history of comics? Someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison could probably do a great maxi-series along those lines…

One of my favorite comics of all-time was an issue of Neil the Horse, where he visits different comics GENRES in each panel. Neil drops in on Horror, then he visits Westerns, then Romance, etc. Really mind-boggling comics!

The second panel is EC comics.

Jake Earlewine

August 9, 2012 at 3:32 am

Scratchie, you’re right, if you consider Mad magazine as symbolic of EC. I don’t. I see it as symbolic of all the parody mags like Sick, Cracked, Trump, Humbug, etc. Just like the first panel suggests not merely Superman, but all the heroes of that era, including multiple publishers.

Using Mad magazine to represent EC is about as appropriate as using The Adventures of Jerry Lewis to symbolize DC or using Millie the Model to symbolize Marvel. Both of those titles ran for decades, but like Mad magazine, they are not representative of the majority of titles published by those companies.

Well, I do consider Mad as symbolic of EC, only insofar as it was published by EC, it’s the only EC title that’s still being published regularly in any form, and it’s probably the most well-known product to originate at EC by a huge margin. But other than that, yeah, it’s just like that Jerry Lewis comic.

I mean, this strip is only six panels long, FFS. There are a lot more comic book archetypes that he could have included if he wanted to make it longer.

EC is definitely MAD + [all of the rest]

it is interesting that this carries the story of the comic book but not “COMICS” and particularly, the comic book via the superhero paradigm, making it much less impressive and less expansive as folks are making this out to be.

Superman, Super-dooper-man, Zap Comix, Watchmen, Maus, Jimmy Corrigan (containing a Superman pastiche)

basically, the history of Superman in six panels.

>>Has anybody ever done a series of comics exploring the evolving history of comics? Someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison could probably do a great maxi-series along those lines…<<

A fictional treatment, you mean? Not that I know of.

Otherwise, see Fred Van Lente's COMIC BOOK COMICS.


August 9, 2012 at 10:29 am

The History Channel did a 2-hour special on the history of comics once. It featured a lot of interviews with important pros in the industry. It had some very interesting facts, such as the effect of McCarthyism on the industry. But overall is was such a rushed, glossing-over of the industry that it was pretty disappointing

For example, they might talk about the emergence of Image comics, devote 1 minute to it, and move on

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