Category: History

my comics history

For people of my generation, the common comics history they tell is that they started with superheroes and then sometime in late high school or college grew tired of the tights and serendipitously discovered Love and Rockets or Eightball. And that was it. My story has always been different. Yes, I read some superheroes, but not much and not for long. And I didn’t discover the Hernandez brothers and Clowes until much later. And my comics reading history follows a weird time in American comic books when Maus hit the main stream and people were starting to see the possibilities of the medium. Yet at first, most of those new publishers wanted to publish really crazy sci-fi or fantasy stuff, and so just swapped the superhero genre for other genres, but did not essentially reimagine the medium and how it could tell different kinds of stories in different ways. Still, a lot of wild things came out of the 80s.

But my story starts humbly. The first comic book I remember encountering was Hulk #115. A favorite babysitter of mine gave it to me when I was about five or six. In my mind, I can still see the weird jello-like cage the Hulk gets trapped in. But this issue didn’t lead to others. It would be a few years until I began reading comics regularly.

In the meantime, there were comics in my life, if not traditional comic books. My parents had collections of cartoons by B. Kliban and Edward Gorey. I often read these and they had a big impact on me. I mentioned Gorey before.

When it comes to comics books though, basically it all began at my twelfth birthday party (1985) and it all began with David Mazzucchelli. I had gotten the idea in my head that I should have favors for the guests at my party and I was convinced that they should be comic books. So I asked my mom to take me to the local comic book store, Comics & Comix in Sacramento. I remember seeing the cover of Frank Miller’s Ronin and really being drawn to it, but thinking it looked too violent for me. So instead I turned to Daredevil. At that time David Mazzucchelli was doing the art and I was instantly hooked. While I gave each person at my party a comic, I made sure I had enough extra, and specifically the ones by Mazzucchelli, for me to keep. And so it began. Daredevil got me to go back to the comic book store.

While I did eventually start reading Daredevil regularly and also started X-Men, the comic series I jumped into when I returned to Comics & Comix after my birthday was Alien Legion. At the time, Marvel Comics had its Epic Comics line. These books were outside the Marvel universe and tended to be sci-fi and fantasy. I was much more interested in these genres than superheroes. In fact, I stopped reading both Daredevil and X-Men a few years later, but I continued with Alien Legion. Alien Legion was originally written by Carl Potts with art by Frank Cirocco. The stories were kind of American Vietnam War stories in outer space. But there were also a lot of politics and character development. But it suffered the fate of many comics. Actually, one of its characters, Jugger Grimrod, followed the same trajectory as Wolverine. Both characters started out as killers with personality disorders, but who, over the course of years, transformed from the disturbing outcasts in their respective groups to wise-cracking fan favorites whom the other characters turned to for leadership. When that happened, I jumped off the Alien Legion train.

This was also the era that later became known as “The Black-and-White Boom.” There were a lot of odd little publishers popping up, putting out crazy little books. This is where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came from, for instance. But the publisher that I was attracted to was Aircel, a Canadian publisher who did sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Their early work was black-and-white, but they soon did full color books. And this is where I jumped in and the book that I feel into deep was Guang Yap’s Dragon Ring. How can I describe this book? It was a martial arts sci-fi book with lots of occult elements and punks. The series was more build-up than pay-off, though. In the story, there were several rings that gave their wearers powers and the main hero, Kohl Drake who wore the dragon ring, was headed to a conflict with all the living ring bearers. That conflict never actually happened before Guang Yap left the book. It was taken over by other artists, and Kohl Drake changed from a kind of blonde Corto Maltese/Bruce Lee to an annoying Arnold Schwarzenegger wanna-be. And I was out.

Two things occurred soon after this time. One, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle money was used by Kevin Eastman to start Tundra, a comic book publisher who put out high-end books (at least in terms of printing). Two, manga were starting to be translated and introduced into the American comics market. And so, at almost the exact same time, I discovered Dave McKean’s Cages and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind. Even more coincidentally, both series ended at almost the same time. I wonder if I’m the only person who noticed that. Anyway, Cages blew me away as a young teen. One issue was almost entirely page after page of panels depicting the subtle changes in an old woman’s face as she told stories about her life. It hit me like a revelation. Nausicaä was a revelation, too, but of a different kind. The visual storytelling was so captivating, the story so vast, and the emotions so moving that Nausicaä was the first comic book to make me cry. I had been excited by comics before, been captivated, even aroused, but I had never felt any real deep emotion. And I certainly had never cried. I realized that in the hands of a master, comics really could be as powerful a story-telling tool as any other medium.

And then another thing happened. At least one publisher, Catalan Communications, tried to bring European graphic novels into the U.S. I still remember their ads in the issues of Heavy Metal I was starting to buy from the corner grocery store. But I guess it didn’t go too well for them, because they quickly went out of business. Somehow, I was sent a Bud Plant Comic Art Catalogue and in its pages I saw that all the books published by the now out-of-business Catalan Communications could be had for five bucks a pop. As a young heterosexual male, I was titillated by some of the covers, especially those by Milo Manara, so I bought a bunch of them. But Catalan published more than European comic porn. And so I discovered Christin and Bilal’s The Hunting Party, Charyn and Boucq’s The Magician’s Wife, and Lorenzo Mattotti’s Fires. The Hunting Party, while being a bit too short for what it was trying to do, showed me that comics could tackle serious fiction. Bilal’s use of visual metaphors also impressed me. The Magician’s Wife was a dream-like story filled with Boucq’s incredibly detailed art and fleshy people. Fires showed me a fine art approach to comics and the idea that color could be used to express conflict resolution. Really, these graphic novels completely changed my vision of what comics could do.

And on and on. I went to college, kept buying European graphic novels, but also discovered Sandman and later Eightball. Also, I was in Oregon, so came across a little comics anthology titled Top Shelf. And I was off and running, with so many different types of comics to explore. And I’ve never stopped.

An alternative history of graphic novels

The common history of graphic novels, and the one I learned, follows comics aimed mainly at children and the publishers who made them. We hear about the rise and fall of EC, the birth of Mad, the undergrounds, Will Eisner, and then we miraculously get to Maus. This history isn’t wrong so much as the work it presents is very conscribed. Gil Kane’s Blackmark may have broken new ground, but it was basically an extension of the kind of adventure stories already being told in comics. Even the comics of the underground movement were just a step away from the work in Mad Magazine.

This is why I’ve always been excited to find works that fall completely outside this established narrative. Often, these works come out of the art world, not the publishing world. They are usually aberrations, almost never inspiring other works. Because of this, they don’t fit neatly into a causal narrative of the graphic novel. Yet for those of us who are creating today, these earlier works provide both inspiration and proof that comics can go in completely unexpected directions.

I just want to quickly mention that this is not meant to be a complete list. These are simply works I have discovered over the years and have found inspiring. Still, if you know of some other work that would fit here, please feel free to mention it in the comments.


Simplicissimus was a German magazine started in 1896 that was often critical of the politics of its day and ran work by writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. It also featured artwork by people like Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz. It also had comics. Yes, of course, it had cartoons, many satirical. But it also had multiple panel comics by artists such as Bruno Paul and Olaf Gulbransson. It’s not so much the subject matter of these comics that I find so inspiring, but their style. It’s German Expressionism brought to bear on comics. The only similar approach is Lyonel Feininger’s on The Kin-der-Kids.

You can view all the old issues here. 

Olaf Gulbransson

Bruno Paul

W. Schulz

W. Schulz


L’Assiette Au Beurre
L’Assiette Au Beurre was France’s answer to Simplicissimus and looked very similar. Again, the magazine was mostly full-page satirical illustrations. Yet every now and again there would be multiple panel strips, most notably by Caran d’Ache.

You can view individual issues by date here.

Caran D’Ache



Frans Masereel
Masereel was a Flemish woodcut artist who worked mostly in magazines. Yet at some point he decided to make a series of woodcuts and publish them as wordless novels. The first of these, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, was published in 1918. Yet he is best known for his 1919 work, Passionate Journey. The story spans 165 woodcuts and captures politics, culture, and the unyielding spirit of the individual. It uses images both representationally and metaphorically. It’s an incredible tour-de-force and a must-read for anyone who wants to make graphic novels.

Lynd Ward
Ward followed in Masereel’s footsteps, and while he also had similar political interests, his stories became more layered and subtle than Masereel’s. This culminated in Ward’s 1937 book, Vertigo. The book portrays a narrative from the view of three different characters, each with their own time frame: years, months, and days. It’s an ambitious work and unlike anything else before or since. Ward remained an artist for decades afterwards, mostly doing book illustration. To my knowledge, he did at least one other wordless novel, The Silver Pony in 1973.

Miné Okubo
As I mentioned before, in middle school I was told that Farewell to Manzanar was the only novel written about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Yet No-No Boy was published almost twenty years earlier in 1957. And even before that, in 1946, there was Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660. The book captures the steps that lead up to the internment and the realities people faced once they were interned. I don’t know if Spiegelman read this or not, but Citizen 13660 is a spiritual mother to all the autobiographical graphic novels that would come decades later.


Edward Gorey
My parents had a few of the Gorey collections, Amphigorey, and so personally his work is some of the first comics I ever read. It took me a long time to realize that they were comics, though. The Gashlycrumb Tinies seemed to have no relation to Daredevil, which is the first comic book I began reading. Again, Gorey is not part of the standard comics narrative. But of course his work is comics. He first began publishing his macabre little books in 1953. In 1965 he published The Remembered Visit. While this story has the Edwardian characters that populate all his works, it isn’t morbid or humorous. Instead, it’s a quiet little tale of youthful promises and adult regret. It’s surprisingly emotional.


Martin Vaughn-James
Some people argue whether or not the works of Vaughn-James are comics. While not narrative, they contain pictures and words deliberately put into sequence. They have too many images to be poetry and too much sequence to be simply a collection of drawings. Vaughn-James’s work reminds me a bit of the psychedelic comics of Victor Moscoso in Zap Comix, but taken even further. 1975’s The Cage is the longest and best known work by Vaughn-James and it’s difficult to describe. I tried to write a review of it once and fell short. So I’d say it’s just a work that you have to experience. If you’re an artist it will open you up to completely new possibilities for the medium.


There are other names that could be here, like Dino Buzzati, Guy Peellaert, and Milt Gross, but I wanted to stick to artists I was personally inspired by. Still, if you can think of names that fit here feel free to comment.