At the turn of the second millennium it was Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press that was identified as having the greatest influence on humankind in the last thousand years. The printing press revolutionized the way information was disseminated and created a greater opportunity for education and the spread of social culture throughout the world. There surely would have been no comic books without the printing press and what a tragedy that would have been! We have to give credit to printers for their role and influence in the medium.
Though Richard F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid, heavily influenced by the use of colored inks in the printing process and published in 1895 is widely considered as the first comic strip because of its use of word balloons, it was a printer, Benjamin Franklin, who created and published in 1754 the first editorial cartoon in America, composed of an illustration of a snake with a severed head and the printed words “Join, or Die.”
Franklin who had been apprenticed as a printer to his older brother James left Boston and opened his own print shop in Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. Franklin often used his political cartoons in his publications to advise readers about politics and the social unrest of the colonies that would lead to the American Revolution.
Like Franklin’s publications, early comics were printed on letterpresses where engraved or photo-etched images and moveable type were covered with ink and pressed onto the surface of the paper which would then be folded, trimmed and bound into a pamphlet. The size of the paper sheet dictated the final size of the original comic books which was about 7 1/4″ x 10 1/4.” The sheet of paper printed on both sides is considered a signature. Each signature has has eight pages on each side resulting in comic books having page counts in increments of sixteen.
The early comics generally consisted of four signatures giving them a sixty-four page count plus an additional cover. Today’s comics usually have two signatures equalling thirty-two pages plus a cover. More recently, as discussed in Stop The Presses Part 1 comics are using a self cover format meaning that the entire comic, including the cover, is generated by the two bound signatures.
Front and back of Signature #1
Joe Williams, co-creator of CO2 Comics’ feature Monkey and Bird and all around great guy has a wonderful blog post showing how to set up the page layout for a print signature that is 12″ x 18.” These dimensions are quite different than that of a traditional comic but it is a great illustration of how pagination works and clearly shows how the print size of the paper will dictate the size of the final comic.
Gerard Jones in his incredibly fascinating book, Men of Tomorrow, describes how Jewish immigrant printers played a specific role in the development of the comic book. He contends that these immigrants were dependent on having their own letterpresses so they could print with their distinctive Hebrew type faces. In a search for ways to keep their presses running, along with mob associations in this Depression /Prohibition Era, these printers relied on popular and inexpensive products like pulp magazines and comic books that could be distributed along with booze and other contraband to a large network of city news stands.
Jones tracks the corrupt exploits of Harry Donenfeld and the evolution of his family run printing company through the $130 acquisition of Superman from two other young Jewish men, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. The ensuing unexpected and overwhelming success of comic books featuring The Man of Steel sealed the comic book’s place in history as an icon of popular culture and created an industry that no longer was dependent on mob money to support it.
Publishing comics became more glamorous than just printing them and soon the job of printing the comics was farmed out to larger printers who could handle the massive duty of printing millions of comic books each month and distributing them to a national audience. Eventually only one printer would dominate the production of comic books for decades.
To be continued…
Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!