Pin-Up Comics History

Com-ics (kom'iks) n. plural in form, used with a singular verb. 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. (From the excellent Understanding Comics - The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud)

Comic art has a long and illustrious history, far beyond our memory of the Sunday funnies or superheros. The concept of using pictures to tell stories dates back to pre-history. Cave paintings tell us about the world before written language. Pre-Columbian artifacts, the Bayeax Tapestry, Egyptian painting and Japanese scrolls all reach out visually to commorate events and give insight into the past.

The development of the printing press changed everything. Broadsides and advertisements could be widely distributed. Assuming a low rate of literacy, the use of woodcuts and other graphic elements to tell a story is easy to understand. Sequential art was popularized in the 18th Century and the production of political satire and caricature continued to rise thereafter.

Burlesque diversions and 'spicy' stories of the late 19th Century led to incredible popularity for tabloid periodicals like the Police Gazette. The birth of photography further fueled appitite for depictions of salicious nature.

Most comic historians agree that the birth of the modern comic art form began with an unassuming character called The Yellow Kid in 1895 (Although the British lay claim to an earlier figure, All Sloper, dating from 1884). This street urchin created a frenzy and started Hearst and Pulitzer on a bidding war for the talents of illustrators to fill their funny pages with an increasing cast of characters, many based on ethnic (The Katzenjammer Kids) and class stereotypes (Mutt and Jeff). One high point in the early comic universe was the inimitable Krazy Kat, by George Herriman, who gained her/his own strip in 1913. Although Herriman fretted about the presumed lack of popularity Krazy enjoyed, Hearst instrinctively recognized the poetry and art of Coconino.

Still, comics were filled with reprints of existing newspaper strips, starting with The Chicago American in 1911. It wasn't until 1929 that original creations made it to the pages of The Funnies. Much of the inspiration for comic characters could be found easily in the pulps, which were in their glory years between the wars. Crime and science fiction, pioneered by pulps, were quickly adopted by comics following the war.

Mickey Mouse's first 'talkie', Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, marked the beginning of Disney's hold on animated films. Although most of Disney's later female characters were purposefully asexual, a mention should be made of Tinkerbell from the Peter Pan movie. She looks like she could've flown out of the pages of Esquire and probably kept many a dad awake for a matinee showing.

It didn't take long for cross promotion to begin with Hollywood as many celluloid comic acts were soon appearing in comicbook form. At the same time, adventerous heros like Lawmen (Dick Tracy, 1931) and Spacemen (Buck Rogers 1929) and more demanding readership follow their unfolding exploits. While they may seem quaint and Victorian, adventurous heros like Harold R. Foster's Tarzan (1929) and Prince Valiant (1937) have stood the test of time, but these characters were still largely confined to newpaper circulation.

The Roaring Twenties pushed the boundaries of taste. How else can you explain the enduring popularity of the megacephalic Betty Boop who made her debut in 1930. Pulps like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales were able to attract the considerable talents of Virgil Finley and other fine artists. L'il Abner, 1934, introduced us to Daisy Mae and her well-known short shorts. The same year saw the introduction of Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon (drawn brilliantly by Alex Raymond) and Terry and the Pirates. The ever shaply Blondie Boopadoop married Dagwood Bumstead in 1933.

Walt Kelly debuted Pogo in 1941, who had such high political aspirations that the character ran for president in 1952. The use of comics as a sociopolitical tool has continued unabated, through Jules Pfeiffer, Gary Trudeau and others. Will Eisner introduced The Spirit and his Femme Fatale nemisis, P'Gell. Will was instrumental in gaining acceptance for the adult graphic novel and his torch has been passed to such storytellers as Art Speigelman.

In addition to their G.I. Military Kits of pin-ups, soldiers eagerly followed the adventures of Milton Caniff's 'Male Call' (Caniff was also responsible for such popular features as Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon) and the British morale booster, Jane. Archie, in 1941, introduced us to the architypical babes, Betty and Veronica.

Comics took a new direction with the introduction of Superman in 1938 and Batman shortly after. Although these were based on characters in the pulps, as were Tarzan and Buck Rogers for that matter, the superhero was born and is still going strong today. The pulps disappeared after World War II and their readership was split between the comics and paperback books. Comics, appealing to the younger set, quickly incorporated juvenile wish fulfillment and fantasy. The 'Golden Age' of comics was defined by a pantheon of new mythological figures: Visitors from other planets, inhabitants of Atlantis and an island of Amazon women. Thankfully, following a jingoistic period fighting Nazis and 'Japs', Captain America and his crowd settled into more humorous relief.

To boost news stand sales during this period, publishers often resorted to the pulp tactic of scantily clad women on the covers. There seem to be only two classes of female in post-war comic illustrations: The Jungle Girl, beginning with Sheena in 1938, and countless 'Good Girls' in dire situations, most often needing a heroic man to save her from the clutches of some foul menace. Some cover art were shameless rip-offs of superior pulp art, but some examples of this work include the brief but memorable character 'Phantom Lady' of 1941, arguably the first woman action hero although Wonder Woman and Supergirl quickly followed and are still popular today.

EC Comics, after the war, started an assault on traditional forms and genres. Bill Gaines inherited his father's Educational Comics and put his impressive roster of artists (Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Frazetta and others) to work on graphic horror, war and science fiction titles, many of the latter adapted from stories by Ray Bradbury. Then came the publication of an 'expert opinion': Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham in 1954. Comic publishers realized their livlihood was being threatened with regulation, so they imposed their own 'Comic Code Authority'. Obstensively they acted to protect the youth of America, but succeeded in little more than forcing EC out of business. Bill Gaines and company continued to produce their irreverant MAD, but in magazine form.

Innovation in mainstream comics ground to a halt. Slowly, during the 1960s, sex crept back into the comic universe. Playboy had long done cartoons, but later introduced Little Annie Fanny, by Kurtzman. Vampirella wore briefer and briefer outfits. Barbarella, based on a comic book, was made into a sexy film vehicle starring Jane Fonda in 1968. And who can forget catwoman from Batman?

Subversion crept back into vogue following the sucess of underground comics, also during the 1960s. The underground scene produced some of the great modern comic artists and social commentators: Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith, Fritz the Cat by R. Crumb, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and many, many more. One of the most influential, especially among the grafitti crowd was the mysterious Vaughn Bode. Comix also introduced blatently sexual characters like Cherry and Doll. Since they, like much Japanese anime, are considerably more graphic than my definition of pin-up related features, they deserve a seperate history exploring the relationship between pornography and the comic industry.

Social consciousness was soon explored by protagonists at both DC and Marvel. Well known illustrators like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and Joe Kubert revived stagnant franchises. Kubert, in fact, returned to pulp roots in Enemy Ace and Tarzan comics. Later, Tim Burton helped revive interest in Batman following Frank Miller's hardboiled work on The Dark Knight. Alex Ross has brought a painter's touch to the genre. Bruce Timm has revolutionized animation and brought sex appeal to cartoon art. In the mid 1970s a new magazine came out in France called Métal Hurlant. It featured adult graphic stories by some of the best fantasy artists, including Serpieri. It arrived in the States a couple years later as Heavy Metal.

Today, many anatomically enhanced female superhero battles the forces of evil in spandex so tight as to be painted on. The industry has capitalized on the resurgence in the 'Lad Mag' popularity by producing their own line of swimsuit and lingerie issues. Still, in addition to Dave Stevens fine work, there are promising signs that well drawn and strong heroines might maintain their sexual attraction without pandering to the lowest hormonal denominator. Lisner's Dawn is one example that comes to mind, as are William Tucci's Shi, Dean Yeagle's Mandy, Adam Hughes' Ghost, J. Scott Campbell's Danger Girl and work by Frank Cho.