The origin story of comic books isn’t flashy. No radioactive spider bite, atomic explosion, or shadowy experiment granted the medium the sort of ability that would have allowed it to arrive on early-20th-century drugstore racks as glossy, fully formed vehicles for sophisticated entertainment. Rather, it took a steady progression over the course of more than 75 years for the form to fully understand, and then harness, its powers. When the first comics arrived on newsstands in the early 1930s, they were a cynical attempt to put old wine in new bottles by reprinting popular newspaper comic strips. Cheaply printed and barely edited, those pamphlets were not what a critic at the time would have called high art.
Yet today, the medium is flourishing in ways its ancestors could never have imagined. From floppy single issues of superhero sagas to hefty graphic novels, harrowing comic-book memoirs to YA fare about queer adventurers, readers can tap into a dizzying array of what the great cartoonist Will Eisner famously termed “sequential art.” And, as evidenced by the sheer number of adaptations in film, television, and even on the Broadway stage, the rest of the entertainment industry has grown wise to what fans have long known: There’s a special alchemy that comes when you tell a story with pictures.
Printed images — and the comic book medium’s unique presentation of them — are at the heart of this feature. We have set out to trace the evolution of American comics by looking at 100 pages that altered the course of the field’s history. We chose to focus on individual pages rather than complete works, single panels, or specific narrative moments because the page is the fundamental unit of a comic book. It is where multiple images can allow your eye to play around in time and space simultaneously, or where a single, full-page image can instantly sear itself into your brain. If there are words, they become elements of the image itself, thanks to the carefully chosen economy of the writer and the thoughtful graphic design of the letterer. In the best pages, one is torn between staring endlessly at what’s in front of you or excitedly turning to the next one to see where the story is going. When comics have moved in new directions, the pivot points come in a page.