The World of Comic Books

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In Pictures  and in Words

In the English speaking world, the very mention of comic books brings to mind superheroes created in the prolific American market. Many people are not even aware that comic books thrive in other parts of the world too.

This short overview aims to take a look at some of the more vigorous comic book markets in the world.

Before we begin, a word or two about our subject matter. There is no unanimously accepted definition of a comic book, but it’s probably safe to say that it is a hybrid art form or medium that tells a story through a combination of illustrations and text.

Everyone even remotely familiar with comic books may be surprised to learn that in the early days they were always humorous. Hence the somewhat incongruous appellation.


Yes, there is the famous DC gang, with Superman, Batman, Flash, etc. There is also the (even more?) famous Marvel gang, with Spiderman, the X-Men, Hulk, etc.

But the enormous American comic books production also includes titles like Dick Tracy, Maus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bone, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Mad, Peanuts, Flash Gordon, B.C., Prince Valiant, The Walking Dead, and many, many more.

The American comic book market is undoubtedly the biggest in the world and it has exerted enormous influence on this medium.

It is interesting to note that, in America, the outlandish superhero characters are considered “mainstream” in comic book parlance, while all the other genres are “non-mainstream".



Although they can be very similar to the American prototype, Japanese comic books (manga) have several distinguishing characteristics. They are usually in black and white, they have more pictures and fewer words, their characters have enormous eyes.

Oh, and they are long. Japanese readers do not seem to mind. On the contrary. The longer the manga, the better, they seem to think. After all, it has been said that Japan is the only country where comic books are just as popular as movies.

Among the titles  translated into English (almost always in a condensed form) are Akira, Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Magic Knight Rayearth, Dragon Ball, Naruto, Bleach, Ranma, Negima, and many others.



British comics have been practically pushed into oblivion by the American comic books and Japanese mangas. However, some of the longest-running comics in the world, such as The Dandy and The Beano, are British. Another long running and very popular comic book Briton is Andy Capp.

Other well known made-in-Britain comic book titles include Judge Dredd, featuring a futuristic quasi-fascist law enforcer; the science-fiction 2000 AD; and V for Vendetta, depicting U.K. after a nuclear war, in which a masked anarchist fights a totalitarian government.


France and Belgium

The rich Franco-Belgian comic books tradition includes such familiar humorous titles as Lucky Luke, The Smurfs, Asterix, Spirou, Iznogoud, Tintin, Titeuf, and Gaston (which, for some unfathomable reason, has not been translated into English yet).

Of entirely different, but just as irresistible flavour are titles such as Jeremiah, a post-apolitical story; Arzach, a series of stories (some of them without any text) about a warrior who rides an enormous bird; Blueberry, featuring one of the first Western anti-heroes to appear in comics; The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, a historical fantasy; and The Zombies That Ate The World, a futuristic story about a group of people who have to make a living as zombie catchers – not an easy job!



Italian artists have made a notable contribution to the world of comic books. Popular Italian-made titles in the adventure genre (western, horror, mystery or science fiction) include Tex Willer, Zagor, Mister No, and Martin Mystere. Then there are the comic books that feature anti-heroes as main characters: Diabolik, Kriminal and Satanik.

In a league of its own is Alan Ford, a humorous espionage series that was very popular, albeit in a geographically very restricted area (its native Italy and several south-east European countries). Pity, for this tale of anti-James Bond type of secret agents who tumble from adventure to adventure is hilarious.

Though not widely read, several more recent Italian comics have met with critical acclaim, for example Corto Maltese, an adult form of the classic adventure comics, and Valentina, a highly influential erotic comic book.

Latin America

The imported American DC and Marvel comic books dominate Latin American market, but several home-grown creations deserve a mention. The internationally known Mafalda is about a young girl living in Buenos Aires; her comments are reminiscent of Peanuts.

Boogie el aceitoso (Boogie the Greaser) depicts an unwholesome Argentine character living in New York. Among the political comic books that were banned and destroyed during military dictatorships were the Argentinean Che and Chilean La Firme (Steadfast). 


South Africa


According to some researchers, the history of comic books in South Africa starts in 1959, with reprints of DC Comics and other American titles.

One of the first local heroes was Mighty Man, a black super-hero who valiantly fought to uphold law and order in the townships, unaware of the Apartheid around him.

Since then, there have been many comic books and (more often) comic strips. However, only the appearance of Madam & Eve really made the South African comic books widely popular.

This satirical strip explores the theme of a middle-class white Madam and her black maid Eve in post-Apartheid South Africa.

* * *

Since they appeared in the 1930s, comic books have oscillated in popularity, but have always managed to reinvent themselves and change with the times. Today, this medium caters for all tastes and all ages. Some are fascinated with comic books as children, and later forget about the. Others continue to buy them and read them, or to collect them.

Far from being a transient phenomenon, they are subjects of well-attended conventions worldwide and of scholarly studies.

And did you know... reading comic books is one of the one of the best ways to learn a foreign language. After an album or two, you'll be surprised at how easily you grasp practically everything in the language you are trying to learn.


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