Dissertation Overview

Comic books are a paradoxical medium. They exist at once as both collectibles and consumables. They are perhaps the medium most open to independent producers; anyone with a pencil and access to a Xerox machine can produce mini-comics. At the same time, four companies who publish largely similar comics control over eighty-percent of the market. In the early eighties the number of comic book titles and genres on the market exploded, but at the same time the dominant genre of superheroes increased its market share. In my dissertation, I attempt to unfold these paradoxes. I trace the development of the industry, examining how it came to be dominated by superheroes, and the economic structures that work to keep it that way. I also examine the role of fans and readers in this process.

The first chapter begins with a discussion of the early history of the comic book industry, from the 1930s to the early 1950s. The end of World War II saw a slump in the sales of superhero comics; the genres of crime and horror quickly become popular. Moral outrage over these comics lead to the establishment of the comics code in 1954. In the middle of this chapter, I discuss how the code functioned as a policing mechanism. I focus on EC crime comics to show what kinds of stories were suppressed by the code. This chapter closes with a discussion of the effects of the code, and how it sets the stage for the renewed popularity of superheroes in the 1960s.

The second chapter describes the transformation of the comic book industry from a true mass medium to a niche medium, which serves a small audience segment very efficiently. I trace the origins of this shift to the 1956 superhero revival known as the Silver Age. In the next section, I follow the history of the medium from the Silver Age until the mid 1980s, describing the rise of direct sales in the early 1980s, the influence of underground comix on both content and distribution of mainstream comics, and the development and influence of a fan culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

The third chapter is devoted to the economic structure of the contemporary comic book industry. It begins with an overview of the production process for both mainstream and small press comics. I then move to a description of the institutional history of the four largest publishers(DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse), including a discussion of the value of licensing to the industry. The last section focuses on the workings of the direct sales market and how the industry's gross sales peaked in 1993 before collapsing.

The fourth chapter returns to the issue of how superhero comics have dominated the industry since its creation. It focuses on the narrative structure of superhero comics. Using the methods of Vladimir Propp and Will Wright to analyze origin stories, I delineate three varieties of origin. These structures have largely remained the same over the sixty year history of the genre. Changes have occurred in the way the stories are told and the kinds of elements that are present in the narrative functions, but the plots structures are generally similar. A close reading of the many re-tellings of one origin, that of Green Arrow, shows how the genre is able to incorporate changes in the industry and the larger culture without fundamentally altering the nature of the story. This chapter closes with an overview of some of the shifts in the superhero genre since the advent of direct sales.

A final chapter is devoted to an examination of the fan culture in which comics are collected and consumed. It begins with a review of the literature about comic's fans. A second section examines the sites where the culture of comics fans is constructed. These sites include on-line forums, comic book stores, and conventions.

©1995-1997 M.C. Rogers

Questions, comments, and sundry observations to me at: cmarx@umich.edu

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