Beyond the Funny Pages

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, comics have evolved and diversified as a medium. Long gone are the days when comics were restricted to the funny pages or to the superhero and romance stories sold in drug stores; stylistically and thematically, comic creators have spent the last century experimenting with the comic format and finding new ways to tell stories.

While popular humor and superhero genres continued to grow throughout the mid-twentieth century, new comic traditions began to emerge. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, independent presses and "underground" self-publishing gave rise to many non-fiction, autobiographical, and politically radical comics, many of which are still highly influential today. The new works expanded the field to accommodate a variety of intellectual, social, and creative purposes. Indeed, the field of comics has become so diverse that the very term "comics" is often abandoned for other terms; depending on the format and genre, some readers and creators prefer terms such as "graphic novel," "illustrated novel," or "sequential art."

However their creators choose to describe them, many comics are now widely celebrated for their artistic, literary, and cultural merit. Comics and graphic novels are enormously popular in public libraries and frequently chosen as required reading for college courses; they’re also honored with esteemed, media-specific awards, and are even nominated for major literary awards.

The Newberry's collection features many remarkable innovations in comics. In addition to many popular graphic novel titles, such as Fun Home and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, one can find many rare and unique comics in the stacks, including works of fiction, memoir, literary adaptation, and even education. I will highlight three exemplary comics collections that can be found at the Newberry, focusing on narratives that represent or empower specific communities, especially those that are often misunderstood elsewhere in popular culture.

One fascinating work in the Newberry's collection is The Works: Drugs, Sex & AIDS by Winthrop Prince, Lloyd Dangle, and Rich Hack. Published by the San Francisco AIDS foundation in 1987, The Works includes a series of short stories intended to educate at-risk audiences about AIDS. It provides scenarios in which men and women may be in contact with the disease, and the characters describe and act out ways to avoid exposure. This pamphlet comic, which was either sold for a very small fee or distributed for free, is a unique example of comics produced specifically for public health education. Its stories also offer valuable, non-judgmental portrayals of several stigmatized lifestyles during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

Another notable comic in our collection is Artbabe by Jessica Abel, a large series of which the Newberry has two issues. In 1992, Abel began self-publishing Artbabe in the form of short comic books (which were later published by Fantagraphics). During and after her work on Artbabe, Abel produced and contributed to many other important comic works, including La Perdida, Life Sucks, and Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. The Artbabe series comprises many short fiction stories about the intertwined lives of 20-somethings in Chicago. These slice-of-life stories offer a poignant glimpse of Generation X life in 1990s-era Chicago, and the series as a whole serves as a valuable example of the reflective independent comics that arose from that culture.

Finally, Moonshot: Volume 1, edited by Hope Nicholson, is a remarkable anthology of short comics about Indigenous culture and identity. The Newberry's Ayer Collection contains a number of comics by Indigenous creators related to Indigenous culture, but Moonshot represents a comprehensive survey of the many contemporary achievements of Indigenous comic creators. The 28 artists and writers in this volume identify with many different Indigenous heritages, and their stories are just as diverse: whether retelling traditional tales or inventing original work, they employ a range of genres, including adventure, horror, and science fiction. For example, two futuristic comics reimagine traditional stories, recasting the Indigenous characters as space explorers. On a whole, Moonshot offers fascinating, fresh perspectives on Indigenous heritage.

By Tyne Lowe, Digitization Technician at the Newberry