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9 Major Tech Moments in Comics History

Grace Dobush

With Comic-Con International coming up this week in San Diego, we’re examining major tech turning points in the industry. Since the advent of the modern comic book in the 1930s to the digital age of comics today, the medium has been an early adopter of technological advances. Page through this history before you head to SoCal:
1. The First Modern Comic
The earliest forefather of the modern comic book, “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” by Swiss artist Rodolphe Toepffer, was republished in America in 1842. Text under the images served as narration; the first speech bubbles were used in the New York World’s “The Yellow Kid,” which is considered the first comic strip. Compilations of “The Yellow Kid” cartoons were first published in book form in 1897, a 196-page, 5.5x7.5-inch black-and-white tome. Comic books were mostly collections of newspaper strips until the 1930s, when the form began to take its modern shape. The first four-color, 8x11-inch newsprint comic was Funnies on Parade, setting the standard for the rest of the century.
2. The Advent of Superman
Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, inspiring a slew of other superhero characters and heralding the Golden Age of comics. (Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.) Aside from being the first superhero, the Man of Steel also was one of the first comic book characters to cross over into other media. Toy merchandising was in full swing by 1940, the same year the “The Adventures of Superman” radio show first aired. Animated cartoons for theatrical release were created from 1941 to 1943, and Columbia Pictures produced a 15-part film serial based on Superman in 1948. Television was soon to come.
3. The Rise of Television
TV proved to be a great competitor to comics: Comics circulation peaked at just about the same time American households began buying television sets in mass. In 1950, 10 percent of American households had a TV; by 1955 it was 67 percent, and by 1960 it was 87 percent. Of course, some comics translated well to the new medium: The Adventures of Superman” debuted on TV in 1952 and ran for six seasons. The ’60s were a great time for comics on TV: The legendary live-action “Batman” series and “The Marvel Super Heroes” animated series debuted on TV in 1966; the next year, the animated “Spider-Man” series first aired, all of them bringing characters to audience who might have never picked up a comic book.
4. Video Games Make Comics Playable
The advent of home video game systems made comics really interactive, though video games inspired by comic book characters for the most part didn’t achieve the success of Space Invaders or Super Mario Brothers. A Superman game for the Atari 2600 came out in 1979, the first DC Comics video game. Three years later, Spider-man was released by Parker Brothers for the same system, the first Marvel video game. In 1986, the first Batman video game was released by Ocean Software for early personal computers. Some original video game characters did later find success in comics: Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog crossed over in 1993 and is still in production.
5. Computer-Aided Comics
Comic book production has always been a hands-on undertaking, involving numerous artists to do penciling (sketching everything out), inking (adding black to the lines) and coloring. Until the end of the 20th century, printing and production required photography of the art and manual color separation, but computers revolutionized the process. “Shatter” was the first digitally created comic in 1985, but after the art was drawn using a first-generation Mac and a mouse, it was printed out on a dot-matrix printer and then photographed for color separations as normal. Some of the first digitally created comics by major houses were Marvel’s “Iron Man: Crash” in 1988 and DC’s “Batman: Digital Justice, “ a one-off graphic novel published in 1990. Digital coloring of comics changed forever with the release of Photoshop 1.0 in 1990.
6. The First Web Comics
You might take for granted the wealth of web comics available today; it’s sad to imagine a world where xkcd doesn’t exist. The first web comic, “Doctor Fun,” created by David Farley, went live on University of Chicago servers in September 1993 and ran until 2006. A few comics were distributed over the Internet earlier: Eric Millikin published an early digital comic, “Witches and Stitches,” on Compuserve as early as 1985, and Hans Bjordahl published “Where the Buffalo Roam” on Usenet starting in 1991.
7. Marvel Goes Online
Marvel led the way in terms of adopting digital technology for its comics. A year before Marvel created its first website in 1997, it produced “CyberComics” in partnership with AOL, starting Spider-man and Wolverine. Using Macromedia Shockwave technology, readers could click through the panels that were tricked out with animation and sound effects. The project evolved into DotComics in the early 2000s and then Marvel Digital Comics, using a Flash interface to let fans read new comics every week and explore the substantial archive.
8. The First Comics Reader
Reading comics on a computer was a slow and awkward process until 2000, when a developer released CDisplay for Windows. It was the first software to specialize in simply displaying images sequentially, and it remains a top pick for digital comic lovers today, despite the fact that the freeware has not been updated since 2004. Reading comics on your personal computer got even more exciting thanks to the proliferation of peer-to-peer file sharing in the early 2000s.
9. Comics Go Mobile
The next step for comics, of course, was to go mobile. The first comic reader apps started appearing shortly after the first iPhone was released: The iVerse Comics Reader, PanelFly, ComicZeal and ComiXology all launched in 2008. After the iPad came out in 2010, making the longtime dream of tablet computing a reality, comic reading apps expanded their offerings. ComiXology has become the frontrunner in terms of comic apps, powering the official Marvel and DC apps, and earlier this year Amazon acquired it, spurring an uproar among hardcore comics fans.
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