Made in America

Today’s post is mostly a collection of my observations and opinions, it is not meant to be a dissertation nor something to be read as fact. These are just my views. This post was inspired by an email I received from a friend who lives south of the border, he got me thinking of how great the USA is and can be. The piece probably deserves a bit more thought and elaboration but this is all I could muster up for now.

There is no country in world like the United States of America, the place where the medium of comic books was born.

Comic books are an American art form and they owe their success to a series of developments that preceded them, developments that led to a popular culture infrastructure and delivery system that could not happen in any other place except America.

The earlier success of comic strips in newspapers was an important catalyst, strips were often the most popular section of the paper and media empires fought for possession of the best writers and artists. The unsung hero though was the syndicate, syndicates were companies that represented artists and intellectual property owners and these companies would act as agents and get the strips into papers across the country. We could have a kid in Seattle loving the same weekly comic strips as a kid in Tampa and a kid in New York all reading it on the same Saturday.

These syndicates formed the early foundation of America’s popular culture infrastructure. Next, we can look to radio, by the 1930s hit radio programs featuring popular culture figures like The Shadow and Buck Rogers expanded the fanbase to a truly national level. Movie theatres were also adding to the popular culture infrastructure. In the 1930s, distribution companies assured that Walt Disney movies and shorts were being seen nationally in every nook and cranny of the country, adding another important level of infrastructure.

Comic books as we know them came around in 1933 with Famous Funnies but they really exploded and fulfilled their destiny with the creation of Superman in June 1938.

By 1938 America had the pop culture infrastructure in place needed to make sure a creation like Superman reached every crevasse of society, comic books, radio programs, movie serials, newspaper strips, licensed toys and more. After that, any popular creation had the necessary infrastructure to assure success, all that was needed now was the creation of something good and that’s where America again comes to the rescue.

The USA has been the greatest incubator of ideas in the history of humanity. You just do not get that randomly though, there had to have existed the right environment to foster so much creativity.  

Citizens of the United States have been awarded 383 Nobel prizes, which is more than the next 5 nations, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden and the U.S.S.R./Russia combined. Obviously the country of the United States has the right environment.

Many of these American Nobel winners were once citizens of those other countries mentioned. The USA is a country of immigrants, aside from the Native American population everybody came from somewhere else and belonged to some established tribe. Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin all immigrants. Just getting immigrants is not enough though, there was an atmosphere that allows these immigrants to assimilate, create and flourish.

Separation of church and state, rule of law that focused on the protection of property, a culture built on enterprise and innovation, a culture where failure was not seen as a stigma but just a temporary setback. These factors and others helped build this can-do atmosphere.

Millennia ago they say that oases where caravans crossed paths were places to gain new ideas and take them back home, to often though the meeting of caravans ended badly with violence, robbery and killing so there was both opportunity and danger.

The United States has been like the world’s biggest oasis for over a century and like in the old days one of two things usually happened, people shot at each other or they came up with ideas that changed the world, ideas that could only come to light with this volatile mixing of differing ideas and cultures.

Homogeneity tends to lead to safer societies and stagnation of ideas, maybe not stagnation of ideas but more a boundary for ideas. Homogeneous cultures are often bound by traditions that limit outside views needed to fuel innovations and ideas; my food is best, my god is best, my music is best, these are not views that foster new ideas.

Like I said above the mixing of old cultures can be dangerous in a new shared home, but this mixing can also fuel thoughts and innovations unimagined in the old world. America has gone through assimilation growing pains and continues to do so but she also continues to produce new ideas unlike anywhere else.

Lets now combine the internal pop culture infrastructure developed in the United States with the country’s ability to create pop culture ideas, concepts and properties a level unmanageable anywhere else and you get what the United States has been for over a century now, a place where comic book characters can be created and exported to every corner of the world where they are eagerly consumed and where they attain popularity levels surpassing local folklore and fables.

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Walter Durajlija
Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.
Articles: 1584

22 Comments

  1. I’m not as enamored with the US as much as you are Walt, so I respectfully disagree with most of the stuff on your list. However, to have a deeper conversation, you’d have to set up some parameters… like, were the German scientists that helped form NASA German or American? All countries have strengths and weaknesses but mainly, the US represents wealth, which is something that individuals and countries desire. You can argue that Americans are smart for knowing how to make money or argue on in favor of capitalism, but the truth of these simple, blanket statements can’t be quantified either way. The conversation requires nuance for it to be meaningful, and even then it’s all just a matter of perspective… a North American perspective, which is why I can’t say that you’re wrong… but I do disagree ^_^

  2. Well, I think Owen can certainly put some perspective on all this. When I read your column I immediately thought of the my interests in comic strips, comic books, pulps, radio shows and films and their inter- connections. This was a reflection of American interests at the time which naturally was used by the rest of the world. Was it somewhat slanted toward what the USA was thinking at the time… depends on how deep you delve into it. Certainly there was a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ approach… as in Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand, and Little Orphan Annie, but there was an opposing point in FDR’s New Deal, films like Vidor’s Our Daily Bread which tended to be about people helping one another (a form if socialism). Was some of it sanitized… you bet! Racism was not dealt with, imperialism was still prevalent no matter how masked, and poverty was not just in an individuals hands! But together those cultural artifacts created an escapism that solaced a country during a difficult time. We have the luxury if looking back now to see our deficiencies… we can only hope that we are getting smarter and that our current cultural artifacts will not only entertain but enlighten us to be better!

  3. Klaus is like that guy in the bar that you hit with your hardest punch ever and he just flinches a bit and then smiles at you.

    My point is correct I believe, innovation, fresh ideas, new ways of thinking flourish where different points of view mix. The USA has had that constant mixing and it has an economic infrastructure based on capitalism and consumption that allowed those ideas to develop into economic success.

    The creative output has been vast and varied Gerald, aimed at vast and varied masses domestic and foreign.

  4. Although the Americans were creative when it came to comics, look how fast our Canadian comics publishers put together a great product, when faced with the sudden imposition of WECA.

    At least, the U.S. had some lead time from the early 30s up until the beginning of WWII. Our guys were already overseas, up to their necks in the thick of it, and yet, the folks back home put out a fine comics product practically overnight.

    Anyone who has a chance to read any ‘Whites’ would agree, I believe.

  5. I don’t think Walt is trying to detract from the creativity that has gone on in other countries but points out the incubus of the medium. The Canadian publishers took to the field and filled the need of its readers. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck inspired Tintin and Asterix and those features became notable beyond their initial influence! European creators took the art form in directions we hadn’t thought of and in time influenced American creators as well.

  6. So now that comics are in decline… what does this say about the US today? Profitable chains like Toys R Us goes under as wealthy investors attempt to flip these businesses, aided by bankers because it’s a safer bet than to offer loans to folks with actual new ideas. Meanwhile, outside of the big cities, many small towns resemble third world countries as they rally behind their bible and their inner city problems have yet to be resolved… as they try and prop up dying old economies like oil and coal with tax payer money. Granted, the US have been successful at marketing and commercialism. Having spent the better part better part of my life in advertising and design, I can attest to this, although snobs like to reference the sophistication of Europe, but things changed for American once they decided that profit was more important for shareholders than nurturing their businesses. The recent issues with Wells Fargo is prime example of this. What we are seeing is the dimming of the light during late stage capitalism, and voters are unable to recognize this. Perhaps “new ways of thinking flourished” once… but look at them now.

  7. I would recommend the book “Men of Tomorrow” by Gerard Jones (2004), especially the first chapters to help understand the immigrant situation and the birth of comics, superheroes, etc. The book’s line at the bottom of the front cover: “Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book” pretty much sums it up.

  8. Charlie, while you have made a blanket statement about the US…I unfortunately can’t disagree! We are currently ‘led’ by a political group that has put short term profits and political ambitions ahead of a long term sustainable goals that not only has global ramifications to the environment, but is also leading us down a path of isolationism with a few other countries riding on the coattails! Its why my wife and I are planning on retiring abroad where healthcare and planet health are not considered an obstacle in the way the previous stated ambitions!

    Hopefully we can get back to talking about comics again!

  9. Thought-provoking column, Walt… are you stepping outside of your wheelhouse?
    I tend to agree Charlie and Gerald’s view of our neighbour to the south. I can’t see it as the golden font of pop culture for the whole world. Take the analogy of the other to main forms of pop culture music and film. Sure the States dominated when these forms were created and still flourishes as a major source for output but in music we have had the British Invasion, Prog Rock from Europe, and the recent rise of Korean music. World music has always been a strong force as well. In cinema we’ve had films of the first order from all over the world. You see it at TIFF and Cannes each year and a Korean movie actually won the Best Picture Award this year. In comics, the rise of the graphic novel seems to have had its start in Europe, Manga is a huge force, and independent comics are coming from everywhere. Sure America has produced brands, but quality in pop culture has come from everywhere.
    Great throwdown of a column, Walt.

  10. Ivan, the post is needed to anchor my years worth of comic book talk, it should probably been my first post of the year and judging by the reaction should probably focused more on comic books while passingly referencing my views and observations. But I’m all in now so its best I dry to defend it.

    My post is about America in the first 75 years of the 20th century. America was the undisputed global pop culture engine at that time, nobody can seriously dispute that with one off examples here and there. I shared my thoughts on why America was so successful at producing new and innovative things, unique infrastructure (earliest example at a national scale) and a population of mixed cultures (which I see as a key to creativity), my opinion was that this formula was revolutionary in scale and output.

    The World watched and was influenced by American movies
    The World ate up American music, the fact that kids from England and promoters from Korea mimicked and had success just proves my point
    The World devoured American comic book creations
    I’m not even talking about the industrial innovations, the scientific ones, the service sector ones etc.

    Looking at America today and calling the post out is easy, things do change but there is no denying what transpired for the better part of last century.

  11. If you’re talking about a specific period in time, then you can attribute success to all sorts of cultures based on what was happening at that particular moment in history. Depending on how far you wanna go back, we’re talking about game changing innovations like standardized currency in the form of bits of clay and the ability to keep track of accounting that eventually led to pictograms that evolved into the alphabet, the beginnings of organized government in Greece, followed by the Roman Empire, disrupted by the Bible, the church as the real governing body during the Italian renaissance of the 1400’s which led to moveable type and mass dissemination of information in the form books that even the poor could afford and become educated. Meanwhile, Middle East and Asia were developing independently, and western history now recognizes the Chinese for having invented paper and movable type first, in the form of ceramic tiles. Spain, France and of course England were all leaders at one point, long before the US was even formed. The world stalled during the “dark ages”… Then the steam engine gave people mobility, the industrial revolution lead to the assembly line and YES… the US eventually became the leader in a cultural resurgence that took fashion away from Paris. Abstract expressionism took over where impressionism and realism left off in Europe. Thomas Edison was American. Henry Ford, American. Frank Loyd right, American. We know American culture well because it’s a new country with a short history. We also have recording devices and mass forms of communication that has been documenting their successes, pretty much since the their beginnings.

    But, believe you me when I say that there is something in the water over there. Half the people are progressive and ready to move forward. The other half are gun toting, delusional folks who can’t tell fact from fiction (have you seen Tiger King yet?). Has the US contributed to the human experience? No doubt. Human history? Yes, but compared to other past cultures… thus far, it’s just a blip in our timeline, and that blip appears to be dimming. With all that wealth…, they rather give to failing corporations than boost their educational system or invest in new ideas… all the while, blaming brown people for their troubles. They said there was no money for healthcare, but suddenly… they have trillions to throw at big business. We can talk about guns, we can talk about legalize bribery in the form of super-pacs, we can talk about their rigged stock market, we can talk about womens rights. However you slice it… the golden years appears to be in the past. The only thing we can’t talk about is Venezuela! Because I’m sick of arguing about it with all those dumb Trump supporters.

    So to Walts point, was the comic boom of the 1960’s the golden years for America? Talk about a blanket statement! Sure, for comics, yes… and maybe go-go dancing, but not if you were a minority, or a woman, or gay, or poor. Like I said, it’s a nuanced conversation. Einstein was German but did he benefit from the American system? Sure, as he did from his upbringing in Switzerland, etc… and back then Betsy DeVos wasn’t the Secretary of Education. I think the more important question is… can American pull themselves out of their rut? Believe it or not, I’m hopeful. I don’t think China is ready to take the lead just yet. They’ve got their own problems. However, both Biden and digital comics is not the answer… so consider this period the “dark ages” for America.

    Here’s a quick infographic. Scroll all the way to the bottom and America is that small patch of blue at the bottom left:

    https://www.visualcapitalist.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/histomap-big.html

  12. Gerald, you and your wife are welcome here in Toronto. No place is perfect, but we’ve got clean lakes, healthcare and lots of comics.

  13. If I did I would be making regular trips to Big B Comics in Hamilton just to see how well Walt haggles!

  14. Gerald, I know a good German deli, I fill you with Schnitzel until you agree to my price. German food, Serbian negotiating tactics.

    Jeez Charlie you are a tough nut. Please let me state what I think and you can freely dump on my thoughts with your own, please don’t think for me.

  15. I really don’t understand the purpose of this post. I’m guessing it’s in relation to comic books since that is what this site is (was?) all about.

    Modern comics were invented in the United States and sales peaked during their first decade and have been in decline ever since.

    Comics as a sequential graphical narrative have existed far longer and trace back to France and Rodolphe Topffer in a format recognizable to modern readers, but really are as old as human creativity.

  16. Was? Ouch Scott.

    My plan is a year long look at comic book collecting, varying topics, fanboy stuff, investment stuff, technical analysis stuff etc. At the end of the year I’d love to put it all together in a properly sequenced flowing overview that would leave the reader with a bit more knowledge and understanding of all things about collecting comic books.

    One important piece was to write about how the comic book as we know it is an American thing. Ambitiously but not necessarily successfully I tried to get to the root of it all with the post above, to try and figure out why all this creative output that has washed over the world came out of the USA.

    As a piece of the grand puzzle in my view the post has a lot to do with comic books.

  17. Walt. I love your appreciative nod to our Neighbours the USA. I agree that the comic industry owes the most to their cultural evolution. America and Canada were a free’ er and closer nations back then, people moving back ad forth freely,no need for passport,visa,work permit or other such documents. North America was one, and yet America influenced Canada greatly. Walt Disneys Grand parents farmed in Grey BruceTWNSHP Canada and eventually move to America for better Climates and farming fortunes. Just one example how we returned the favor. Im sorry for the anti American sentiment Walt from some..I think its this new age globalist thinking isnt the world view they think it is. Almost all cultures wish to move to America, before any other country. Far less then visa versa. Every country has its history and ghosts….but Ill salute America for the most part any time. Thanks America for the comic Industry. Thanks Walt for defending its origins.

  18. “I think its this new age globalist thinking isnt the world view they think it is”

    No one who is well traveled would say this. In fact, people who do travel regularly… they recommend hiding the fact that you’re American due to the the negative sentiment out there and this was before Trump. I lived in Asia for 7 years where I worked with Brits, Australians… my boss was Italian. No body I met had any remote interest in the US, which was a surprise to me coming from Canada during the dot com era. So from my own experience, I would say the reverse is true of folks who chose to remain sheltered, living in the past. Praising the US for an American product is like praising the Chinese for Chinese food. I enjoy them both but it’s not like comics is brain surgery and or that it doesn’t exist any where else. When I was at the big comic show in Hong Kong 2 years ago, the only Marvel representation was from Hot Toys, because they’re a local company. DC didn’t even rate.

    I have nothing against the US. When snobs point to the sophistication of European design, I push back and defend the commercial aesthetic of key centers like NY, San Fran, LA. Even places like Minneapolis has done some fine things. But when you’re essentially a new country, it makes sense that certain cities will prosper during the build out? Look at what they’re currently doing in Dubai or key cities in China… they don’t even use money over there anymore. So I’m not trying to take credit away from the Americans, but this:

    “The USA has been the greatest incubator of ideas in the history of humanity.”

    I understand that we’re all live in our own bubble, but this is such a narrow western perspective that negates the contribution from places like Greece, France, Italy and so many other places. Congrats Dave, this one is actually true:

    “Almost all cultures wish to move to America, before any other country.”

    But that’s another “blanket statement”, missing a whole lot of context. But I’m pretty certain that they’re not moving over there for comics or healthcare. And if someone starts bombing Toronto, I’ll probably run to the States myself, or who ever has the biggest guns at the time.

  19. Sure Walt. And they invented the banjo too, right? I love it when you write about comics because you have such a vast store of genuine insight into the medium. Give us all a break and leave the flag waving out of it. Comics were invented in Europe, as were both film and radio. I suppose you think the Americans won the War of 1812 too, do you? And, by the way, the Americans publish their funny pages on Sunday.

  20. Charlie, stop grasping at straws.

    “The USA has been the greatest incubator of ideas in the history of humanity.” – Of course it is true, up until that point at least, to use Ancient Greece to debunk this tells me you are not ready what I am writing. Nowhere do I say their ideas are better than the ones that came before. I simply say (I for sure should have narrowed it down and given a date frame) that the USA in the 1900 to 1975 era was a special place for creativity and ideas and they established a delivery mechanism for their creative ideas, no place to that date matched the scope and scale.

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