Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Comics Strips vs Comic Books

Robert Boyd

Recently, the New York Times made available a web tool, Chronicle, that would allow one to take a word or phrase and graph its appearance in the Times over time. So one could take, for example, a proper name like "Nixon" and see how often it appears.


As we can see, the name "Nixon" appears occasionally in the Times for a century but starts picking up in the early 50s, following the rise, fall, second rise and second fall of Richard M. Nixon. It's a fun tool to play with. It allows you to graph the word as a percentage of all articles in the Times or as an absolute number of articles, and also allows you to see a glimpse of the articles that are mentioned. It's not perfect--a lot of the information used is scanned from microfilm which seems to create some challenges for character-reading software.

I'm interested in comics as an art form, and for most of the last century, the most common type of comics were comic strips. Today, comic strips seem almost like a vestigial form, and many comics enthusiasts don't think about them too much. I think this is a shame--for decades, the primary way that millions of Americans (and people around the world) encountered the art of comics was in comic strips. They were a diverse form aimed both at adult readers and children (unlike comic books in America, which until the late 60s were produced almost exclusively for children and adolescents). The subject matter of comic strips was for many decades more diverse than in comic books, as were the visual techniques employed by artists. The format, however, was rigid and minimal--a few panels arranged horizontally. But within that simple format, multitudes existed.

The New York Times, ironically, has never carried comic strips. But it does report on all things, including popular culture. So the phases "comic strip" and "comic book" have appeared in articles over the years. I thought I'd use Chronicle to see how often this happened. I also added the much more recent phrase "graphic novel."


"Comic strip" is mentioned in the Times starting in 1921. "Comic book" appears much earlier, but not with the meaning we now associate with the phrase (the earlier uses are in reference to books that are funny). It isn't until the 1940s that the modern usage of  the phrase "comic book" appears. "Comic book" surpasses "comic strip" briefly in the 50s, primarily because of a moral panic associating reading comic books with juvenile delinquency. But one thing the graph suggests to me is that until 1992, comic strips had more cultural currency than comic books. But after that date, their relative status switched dramatically. Starting in 1994, "graphic novel" has been a continuous presence in the Times, surpassing "comic strip" in 2008 but still far short of "comic book."

Of course, this is just the New York Times. The Times is an important indicator of upper-middle class cultural concerns, but it's not exactly a census or poll of the entire population. Now Google has had a similar tool for several years call an Ngram. It uses 5.2 million books as its source material. So I used the same phrases and created an Ngram to see how it would compare to Chronicle.





Very similar! Comic strips start getting mentioned frequently in books just before 1920. Comic books appear in the mid 30s, really taking off in 1943. We see again in the 50s comic books getting mentioned more frequently than comic strips--it's a little later than in the New York Times, which might be attributable to the fact that it takes longer to write and publish a book than to write and publish articles in a newspaper. In 1992, comic books surpass comic strips in the Ngram, just as they do in Chronicle. "Graphic novel" starts to take off a little earlier in the Ngram (mid-80s) than in the Times, but it never quite achieves the heights in the Ngram chart as it does in Chronicle.

These two graphs seem like a good indicator of cultural currency for comic books and strips, but not of artistic appreciation. Indeed, there is no way we can tell from the graphs alone whether the mentions of these forms are positive, negative or neutral. Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," which may sometimes be true, but some attention truly is harmful. The vast negative press given to comic books in the 1950s was a disaster for the form. Nonetheless, one thing both these graphs show is that comics generally, whether comic strips, comic books or graphic novels--have grown steadily in their cultural currency for almost a century.

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