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Kaboom! How Comics Changed America

Kaboom! How Comics Changed America (w.t.) is a new three-part television series that explores the history of American comics, showing how this once lowbrow art form associated with youth rose to the heights of legitimacy and prestige. Comics today are used in every corner of academia and have inspired blockbuster movies seen by millions. They are also bellwethers of the times: Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, but thirty years later has been banned from schools in Tennessee.   

Comics have always caused trouble, and comics creators have always found ways around restrictive rules and codes. Our series offers a broad look at the many genres that have defined American comics, with an emphasis on the underground and alternative traditions, and on creator-owned comics that continue to be at the heart of comics innovation today. Each film features the stories of larger than life characters, many of them immigrants and outsiders who use this medium to tell their own versions of the American story.

Episode 1 introduces the very earliest American cartoons, including Ben Franklin’s “Join, or Die” panel that became our first meme, and a scathing strip by schoolboys at Kings College (NY) that lampooned their professor. It tells the story of Thomas Nast, who created our images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus and destroyed the career of “Boss” Tweed with his political comics.  We see how William Randolph Hearst outspent Joseph Pulitzer for Hogan’s Alley, which featured “the yellow kid” and gave us the phrase “yellow journalism.” Comic strips helped sell newspapers, and as they became increasingly popular, they were published on their own. In the 1930s Maxwell Gaines (né Ginsberg) helped establish the comic book industry and launched Educational Comics (EC) with the aim of publishing uplifting stories. The world of comic strips exploded. 

Episode 2 begins at a moment when comics had become so culturally powerful, they scared people. The U.S. Senate met in 1954 to discuss the dangers that comics posed to young minds. Under pressure to regulate itself, the industry created a “Comics Code” to enforce conservative values through both words and images. After the death of his father, who had created EC Comics, William Gains transformed the company into a popular label for horror, suspense, sci-fi, and political humor. EC’s Mad, the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman, became a must-read for adolescents who shared Kurtzman’s subversive brand of humor. These innovations stood in clear violation of the Code, and Mad had to re-label itself as a “magazine” just to stay in print. But the Code inspired new innovations: a network of underground comics, where artists broke taboos, experimented, and rethought the way comics could be distributed. A leader of this movement, Robert Crumb, created the salacious Zap, which came with a warning label: “For adult intellectuals only!” Trina Robbins produced the first all-women comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix.  Howard Cruse edited Gay Comix, while Justin Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Harvey Pekar pioneered the autobiographical tell-all.

By Episode 3, comics are everywhere, with new books and journals appearing each month. Sales of comics and graphic novels top $1.2 billion in 2019, and the medium becomes known for social critique and first person narrative, especially on topics of ethnicity and sexuality. Artists from Jewish, Black, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ communities draw from the edgy yet accessible quality of the comics platform to make their voices heard.  Superhero stories make a comeback and inspire a wave of new Hollywood films. Comics Studies explodes in popularity at academic institutions across the country. Most publishing houses now have graphic novel imprints for children and young adults, and Kickstarter has become the largest ever “publisher” of graphic novels and comics. In a moment of American history when so many people are rethinking our identity and place in the world, it is no wonder that comics has become a go-to platform for passionate new creators and fans.  

COMICS USA has been awarded development funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The producer is Kathryn Dietz, an award-winning PBS filmmaker who grew up on Archie comics and still has a stack of her favorite Mad magazines. The director is Asaf Galay, whose The Hebrew Superhero told the story of Israeli comics, and whose other award-winning films highlight the contributions of Jewish artists to American culture. He writes, “This is a story of outcasts and outsiders whose tenacity and artistic commitment enabled them to transform America’s cultural landscape and surprise the world.” 

 

 

 

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Kathryn Dietz, Independent Filmmaker

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