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Comics History

Printing Wild Stars
by Michael Tierney

The History of Comic Books is a subject that could fill countless volumes. There are so many great writers and artists that have moved the creative art form to where it is now. Some of this history I'll go into detail about in the following pages.

First I'm going to outline the physical history of making comics. It's a history that has connections going all the way back to the very first printed book: the Gutenberg Bible.

Up until the Gutenberg Bible, all book reproductions were done laboriously by hand. Then, in the 1400s, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg had the brilliant idea to transfer the techniques he'd used to stamp coins, and created metal type and engravings that he then inked and stamped against paper. It was the invention of moveable type and Letterpress Printing, and was the technique by which most comics were printed until as recently as the 1990s.

Gutenberg's first project was his famous bible, which was much more than just pages of printed words, but a lavish work of art. Unfortunately the skyrocketing expenses of the high production values gave Gutenberg's financier the opportunity to legally wrangle control of Johanne's nearly completed work, and then release the book as his own creation.

So the first printed book was also the first case of creative theft by a publisher. Ben Franklin

The concepts of moveable type and the pressing of the reversed type against paper (hence the name Letterpress) that Gutenberg had pioneered and continued to perfect in his later years, was the same process by which Benjamin Franklin printed his newspapers and almanacs during the 1700s.

Up until the early 1970s, most larger newspapers still used letterpress technology.

Then came the technological revolution of offset printing, where an image is shot onto film and a full-sized negative is used to burn that image onto a thin metal sheet. The metal plate is then attached to a rotating cylinder on the printing press and inked by roller (that part has never changed). The cylinder continues to roll and the inked surface of the plate is then transferred onto a rubber mat on another cylinder, which then continues to rotate and offsets the image onto paper. Instead of sheets, this paper comes from one continuous roll.

Like the newspaper industry, comics also used the same type of cheap, pulp paper from the very beginning. This is why the condition of the interior pages is such an important factor in grading comics.

Since letterpress printing was such a cheap process when done in large volumes, the comics industry continued to use a letterpress equipped company called World Color Press, located in Sparta, Illinois, long after most other print publications had switched to offset printers.

One aspect that publishers never explored was how letterpress also offered other production techniques, like foil embossing and die cutting. I used both of these techniques back in 1988 on the cover of my own Wild Stars, Volume 2 #1.

In the Eighties, both Marvel and DC made forays into offset printing. But they tried using the same screen coloring process on the interiors, and many of the books almost looked like they should glow in the dark. During this same time Marvel and DC also did a number of quality reprint mini-series of classic stories (see the Bonus Page for how I used some of these to make sets of prototype graphic novels).

Then, in the Nineties, a couple of new independent publishers touted that they'd developed a new technology for computer coloring, and the quality of their color comics suddenly had the top two publishers, Marvel and DC, looking primitive.

Marvel Comics President Terry Stewart moved quickly to catch up, and bought one of those independent companies; Malibu Comics. It didn't take long before Marvel let nearly all of the staff go and the properties lay dormant. Only the coloring department was left intact, and assigned to coloring the X-Men.Turns out that instead of buying a whole company, Marvel could have instead bought a copy of Photoshop off the shelf of a computer store, and then hired someone who knew how to use it.

Using Photoshop was the new technique.

Soon both Marvel and DC had switched their entire lines over to offset printing with computer coloring. The upside was that the quality of comics took a light year leap ahead. One downside was that many colorists never learned that coloring on a computer was basically coloring on a light box, and unless they made proper adjustments, the printed images would come out muddy.

Photoshop colored comics definitely look superior to the limited screen colors of letterpress, but it also requires printing on much more expensive paper.

As a result of the dual technological switch to offset printing and computer coloring, in the Nineties comic book prices began to escalate faster than ever before. Offset printing has cheaper pre-press costs, but the actual press setup is much more expensive than letterpress was (when I was estimating printing costs back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, press time for a high-end four color press was $400 an hour). One advantage offset can offer is the speed of printing on the web of one continuous paper roll, which can be cheaper and faster than sheet fed printing presses (whether offset or letterpress), if the print runs were high enough. Unfortunately for comics, they aren't. 2010 has already had one month where not a single new comic exceeded a print run of 100,000. In the Nineties, it was reputed that Marvel canceled any title that fell below 90,000. In the glory days of Golden Age comics, print runs regularly ran in the Millions.

And there's no going back, because World Color Press has closed their doors and there are no longer any cheap options for printing comics.

So, if you've ever wondered why comics today are so expensive, now you know why.

It's the same thing that happened to Johannes Gutenberg. The higher the quality of your creation -- the more the costs increase.
Michael Tierney -- August 24,2010
Tarzan Large Feature #5 Tarzan Single Series #20

The tour of of key characters in comics history starts here:

Tarzan of the Apes is the first subject. Tarzan is a character who has been an integral part of the comics industry since the very beginning of the artform.

Click here for the full history of Tarzan of the Comics!

Tarzan sharkfighter

New Page -- Added May 12, 2015

Tarzan's birthright isn't the only thing British about him. Tarzan comics have a very long publishing history in the foreign language known as the King's English. Explore here:

Funnnies #36 Marvel Conan #1

Two more pages of Comics History!

Tarzan wasn't the first creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Before the apeman, he created the greatest swordsman on two worlds:
John Carter of Mars!

This character ushered in the era of Sword & Sorcery.
He was the first, and mightiest of all the barbarians:

Conan the Barbarian!

Gullivar of Mars

New page added May 15, 2016

Written in the Nineteenth Century, Phra the Phoenician was the first immortal in modern literature. While he was never adapted into comics, another creation by Phra's creator Edwin Lester Arnold was. Gullivar Jones was modern literature's first interplanetary explorer.

But that doesn't mean that Phra didn't have a history of illustration all his own. To view the original art plates from when Phra was first published in an 1890 London newspaper, visit Phra the Phoenician.

Walt Disney's Comics & Stories #1 Uncle Scrooge #1

Walt Disney and The Good Duck Artist

The next Comics History page is devoted to the legendary Carl Barks.

Carl Barks was always one of my favorite storytellers, being both an exceptional artist and extraordinary storyteller. It was a rare combination.

If you'd like a quick tour of the career of the man who, because he worked in an age before printed credits, was known as The Good Duck Artist, all you have to do is click this link: Disney Ducks!

Click here for news on what's new!