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Rare copy of precursor to the first American comic book added to VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection

“Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics” “served as the cornerstone of what was to become one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing,” according to pop culture historian Ron Goulart.

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Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts for Special Collections and Archives, displays VCU Libraries' copy of "Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics."
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives has acquired a rare copy of “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics,” which was printed in 1933 and was the precursor of what is considered to be the first American comic book.

“All modern comic books descend from ‘Famous Funnies’ and VCU is very fortunate to receive such a pristine copy of this historically significant comic,” said Yuki Hibben, assistant head and curator of books and art, Special Collections and Archives in James Branch Cabell Library. “This addition enhances the research value and comprehensiveness of VCU Libraries' Comic Arts Collection.”

All modern comic books descend from ‘Famous Funnies’ and VCU is very fortunate to receive such a pristine copy of this historically significant comic.

VCU’s Comic Arts Collection includes roughly 170,000 items, including more than 125,000 comic books, of which 50,000 are available for research. It also includes papers and drawings of political cartoonists and related manuscript collections; reference books and journals; science fiction, fantasy and comics-related fanzines; and original newspaper comic strip art. The collection also serves as the repository for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards archives.

“Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics” was a one-shot comic published by Eastern Color Printing Co. in Connecticut. It features reprints of newspaper comic strips, and was the first precursor of an ongoing series, “Famous Funnies,” that ran from July 1934 until July 1955.

“While there are earlier examples of comics publications outside of the world of newspaper strips, these items are formatted like books or tabloid-sized newspapers,” Hibben said. “‘Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics’ looks like any contemporary comic book. It's the first four-color printed, stapled comics booklet with a newsprint interior printed on both sides. It was designed to be sold at newspaper stands and is packed with reprints of highly popular and marketable strips such as ‘Joe Palooka’ and ‘Mutt and Jeff.’”

Pop culture historian and author Ron Goulart described the creation of “Famous Funnies” in his 2000 book “Comic Book Culture: An Illustrated History.”

“The first regularly published comic book in the standard format was ‘Famous Funnies,’” Goulart wrote. “Though it got off to a shaky start and didn’t climb out of the red until it had been in business for more than six months, it served as the cornerstone of what was to become one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing. For anyone who had a dime in the Depression year of 1934, ‘Famous Funnies’ offered dozens of characters, all of them from the newspapers.”

Printed in 1933, “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics" was filled with reprints of newspaper comic strips. It was the first precursor to "Famous Funnies," which is considered to be the first regularly published American comic book.
Printed in 1933, “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics" was filled with reprints of newspaper comic strips. It was the first precursor to "Famous Funnies," which is considered to be the first regularly published American comic book.

Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts with Special Collections and Archives, said comics were a new medium in the early 1930s, and were being printed as newspaper inserts or as giveaways with products such as toothpaste or cereal.

“Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics” reportedly had a print run of 35,000.

“They don't come up on the market very often. So it's really cool that we have it. It's in really good shape, especially considering that it's 85 years old. The colors are still really amazing,” Jackson said. “It's such an important piece of American comic history. And it is fantastic that we're able to have this in the collection for researchers to use.”

VCU alumnus Dave Anderson, (D.D.S., 1982), who practices dentistry in Northern Virginia, donated the copy of “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics” to VCU Libraries. 

“I’m hoping it gives perspective on what the very earliest comic books were like given that they were basically reprints of newspaper strips in comic book form,” Anderson said. “Of course, this ultimately led to comic books having original stories.”

Anderson, who has been collecting comics for more than 50 years, previously donated a very rare copy of “All-Negro Comics” No. 1, which was published in 1947 and was the first comic written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists.

Printed in 1933, “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics" was filled with reprints of newspaper comic strips. It was the first precursor to "Famous Funnies," which is considered to be the first regularly published American comic book.
Printed in 1933, “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics" was filled with reprints of newspaper comic strips. It was the first precursor to "Famous Funnies," which is considered to be the first regularly published American comic book.

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