When most comic collectors think about the “first” American comic books, they think about the “Golden Age” which began in June of 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. In fact the development of the American comic book goes back much further than that. All the way back to 1833!
As the late, great Casey Stengel would have said…”You could look it up.”
Various publishers had been releasing collections of comic strips for some time, the earliest known being The Adventures Of Obadiah Oldbuck which appeared in New York in 1842.
The first modern and truly popular character in American comics seems to have been The Yellow Kid who never actually spoke but communicated via messages that appeared on his night shirt. “The Yellow Kid In McFadden’s Flats is likely the first proto-comic . It first saw publication in 1897. This was a collection of reprinted comic strips that had appeared as early as 1896. The practice of reprinting popular comic strips in hard and soft bound collections (many of which were comic book like in structure) would be the defacto method of creating comic books until the advent of all new material that, along with Superman would signal the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics.
The first known example of a full color comic book was a Hearst produced publication called “The Blackberries”. It appeared in 1901. However, comic book publishing was intermittent and a regular monthly title, “Comics Monthly”, would not appear until 1922. As with earlier books, “Comics Monthly” was a collection of reprinted newspaper or magazine strips.
In 1929, Dell Publishing, released “The Funnies”. This was formatted more like a Sunday Newspaper insert than a comic book, but was sold as a stand alone product. It is also the earliest known example of a comic book that included original material. “The Funnies” ran WEEKLY for 36 issues and was released on Saturday through October 1930.
By 1933, Maxwell Gaines, sales manager of Eastern Color Printing began publishing “Funnies On parade” Like “The Funnies”, “Funnies On parade” more closely resembled a Sunday Newspaper insert. Unlike “The Funnies”, Gaines’ book published reprinted material such as Mutt and Jeff, Joe Paloooka and Skippy Eastern Color did not actually sell this periodical. It was sent it out free as a promotional item to consumers who mailed in coupons clipped from Procter & Gamble soap and toiletries products. The company printed ten-thousand copies for this promotion. This was so successful that Eastman produces several other promotional comics and this was, for a short time, the dominant form of comic book distribution.
Also in 1933, Eastern began publishing “Funnies On Parade: A carnival Of Comics”. This is considered to be the first “true” American comic book. It was 36 pages long. There is some dispute on whether this comic was sold or given away. However it is likely that both methods of distribution were used as copies have shown up with stickers on the cover hawking it for a dime, while other copies appear with no price tags.
“Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics”, eventually gave way to Famous Funnies #1 (cover-dated July 1934), a 68-page comic that sold for a dime. It was distributed to newsstands by the American News Company. News syndicates would become the major distribution arm for comics right up until the advent of the specialty comic shop and direct sales in the 1980’s. “Famous Funnies” was a hit with readers and ran for 218 issues.
When the supply of available existing comic strips began to run dry, small amounts of new, original material in comic-strip format began to appear. A comic book of all-original material, with no comic-strip reprints, debuted. National Allied Publications (later known as DC) released “New Fun” #1 in February of 1935. “New Fun” mixed humor and dramatic stories between the covers of the book. It would also feature early work but such creators as Seigel and Shuster, who would later create Superman. One of their creations was a proto-superhero known as Dr. Occult.
But this was created under their pseudonyms, Leger and Reuths.
By 1938, publishers were finding it absolutely necessary to gather original material as the supply of reprints had pretty much dried up. This opened the door for a whole group of very young creators with names like Kane, Robinson, Kirby, Simon, Seigel and Shuster etc. This influx of talent and invention of the Superhero would bring the “Platinum Age” to a close and usher in “The Golden Age Of Comics”