A history of comic books and super-heroes on stamps


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26 September 2018
The comic book may be almost 100 years old but the unique combination of literature and art is as popular as ever, and the characters have been celebrated on a growing number of stamps, as this 'longer-read' thematics guide reveals

Like many matters in an industry populated by opinionated devotees, the origin of the comic book generates passionate debate, but comics, as we know them today, developed from the ‘humorous pencilings’ of political satirists of the 1700s, giving the illustrations their ‘comical’ name.

By the early 20th century cartoon strips seen in newspapers were becoming increasingly popular and the content expanded and varied, taking on more adventurous and engaging topics than just topical comment. 'Soon publishers began creating original material for comic books,' says Lawrence Klein, Chairman of New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA). 'Thus were born Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, Captain America, and countless others.'

Known in the USA as the Golden Age of Comics, a period most notable for the rise of Superman, the explosion of these commercial periodicals during the 1920s and 1930s was actually seen in a variety of countries.

In Japan, ‘manga’ was flourishing following the relaxation of propaganda laws, and in North America traditional heroes such as detective Dick Tracy and sailor Popeye (both seen on America's 1995 Comic Strip Classics set, while Popeye has also shuffled onto stamps from a long list of lesser postal authorities including Ghana, Maldives and Albania) were bringing newspaper pages to life.

Tintin issues
The adventurous but understated Tintin, created by Belgian Georges Remi, aka Herge, made his debut in January 1929, and was first seen on a stamp in October 1979, when his home country issued a single stamp with a value of 8 Belgian Francs.

It would be twenty years before Tintin appeared on a stamp again, but the increasing number of issues from major stamp-issuing countries, means there are now at least eight more issues to collect, from the Netherlands (issued in September 1999), France (in March 2000, January 2004 and May 2007) and Belgium again (October 1999, December 2001, February 2004 and May 2007).

The precise drawings on Tintin's stamps show the so-called 'clean line' style which made the series so popular and influenced many Flemish and French artists, including  Belgian Willy Vandersteen and Herge's one-time assistant Edgar P Jacobs.

Vandersteen's Suske en Wiske, also known as Bob et Bobette or Spike and Suzy, appeared on a stamp from Belgium in 1987 and a Dutch issue in 1998, while Jacobs himself shared a stamp issue with his gentleman adventurers Blake and Mortimer on May 17, 2004, as France and Belgium celebrated the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth with a joint issue.

Indeed, bande dessinée (literally 'drawn strip') are still hugely popular in France and Belgium today with a host of characters, new and old, to choose from, and many have made their way onto stamps. Well known penciled protagonists include Asterix the Gaul, the diminutive soldier from Roman times first published in 1959 (seen on stamps from Guernsey in 1992, France in 1999 and Belgium in 2005) and sharp-shooting cowboy Lucky Luke, who was celebrated on a French stamp series from March 2003.

The Franco-Belgian influence stretched as far as Italy and Spain, with Italian heroes Tex Miller and Corto Maltese being the subjects of two stamps issued by Italy, and Víctor Mora's creations Capitán Trueno and El Jabato featuring on Spanish stamps from 1995 and 1996 respectively.

Superman stamps
Just as stamps retain an element of national identity, so each nation’s contribution to the comic world added a distinct niche to the emerging format. While the humble Tintin was quietly solving crimes in Europe, the superheroes of DC Comics were causing a stir on the other side of the Atlantic.

Originally known as National Allied Publications, DC took their abbreviated moniker from their popular Detective Comics, the title in which Batman made his debut. Founded in the late 1930s, DC has seen many of its attention-grabbing characters on stamps, most notably the most famous super-hero of all Superman.

Created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman quickly became a household name and comics were followed by films, a television series and a host of merchandise. While the 2006 issue from the USPS stole more recent headlines (though Superman had already appeared on an American stamp as part of 1998's Celebrate the Century series), it was appropriate that Canada Post honoured the hero a decade earlier, since artist Schuster was originally from Toronto. The Canadian stamp, issued on April 1, 1996, stays faithful to the original drawings, with the familiar typeface and the stamp value in a circle reminiscent of a comic-book's cover price. Canada's issue of that year also featured less renowned characters, including Nelvana of the Northern Lights, who first appeared in Canada's Triumph Comics in August 1941 and pre-dated DC's similarly mighty Wonderwoman (seen on the USA's 2006 stamps) by four months.

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Mischief and mayhem
By the start of World War Two, Britain's The Beano was spearheading a new form of entertainment for young and old readers alike. 'Comic sales in the early fifties touched two million copies per week for both Beano and Dandy,' says Euan Kerr, former editor of the long-running classic. 'The early years offered a mixture of comic strips, illustrated adventures and text stories, and featured many magical and adult characters.'

As the format continued to capture the imagination of younger readers, the comic’s content became less serious and more rebellious. 'Gradually text stories and then adventure serials were phased out,' says Kerr, 'A whole gang of urban rebels started to populate the comic. They were just like the readers and written from a child's point of view with parents and authority regarded as the enemy.'

The impudent exploits of Dennis the Menace finally made it to a stamp in February 1990 when the 'Smiles' stamp booklet included the familiar grin of the cheeky hero. Three years later the crew-cutted Wilfred, just one of the unruly bunch known to Beano fans as the Bash Street Kids, made a philatelic appearance with his bedraggled teacher, as part of the 'Greetings' issue.

It is interesting to note that The Dandy, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this month and is the longest-running comic in the UK, has yet to have any stamp honours, presumably leaving Desperate Dan to soothe his damaged ego with another helping of Cow Pie in his fictional home of Cactusville.

The mischief seen in The Beano and Dandy of the 1950s were nothing compared to the sombre offerings of a new batch of American writers. Forget firing catapults and playing practical jokes, the horror and crime genres across the Atlantic depicted grisly gun fights and brutal murders, but they also presented an excuse for the authorities to investigate the new media.

Following the publication of Dr Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which franticly suggested Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman promoted homosexuality, an investigation was launched, and the self-regulating Comics Code Authority was created in 1954, and a stamp-like seal of approval quickly began appearing on comic book covers.

The move prompted more adult-orientated and considered content, in direct contrast to the squeaky-clean heroics of pioneering characters such as Buck Rogers or Dan Dare (who appeared on a number of themed children's stamp albums during the 1950s). This second phase of the industry saw Marvel stars such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, both created by Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieberman) during the 1960s, showing superhuman skills and human failings, fears and responsibilities. The problems for Spider-Man's alter-ego Peter Parker were not only how to use his newly-found spider-senses but how to pay the bills and look after his elderly aunt.

These more complex heroes have been celebrated on stamps from St Vincent and the Grenadines, who issued a three series of stamps featuring Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, and by Mongolia, who marvelled at the X-Men on a bright 1995 issue, while the most recent comic-book postal issue, from the USA, saw a host of Marvel heroes celebrated on 20 stamps, ten of which show the classic comic-book covers.

For collectors of the comic books themselves, the word 'stamp' is enough to send shivers down the spine, thanks to a short-lived promotion in Marvel's comics published between 1974 and 1976. Each featuring a Marvel Value Stamp, many comics of the period were almost destroyed as keen readers cut out the tokens and pasted them into a separately sold Stamp Book. With approximately 200 unique stamps to collect, the non-postal stamps make a fantastic addition to a comic-themed collection, and illustrate the array of characters involved in the drama of the visual stories.

As long as comic books inspire young and old fans, and film adaptations remain lucrative for movie moguls, postal authorities around the world will continue to celebrate the unique genre on their stamps. The intermittent issues make the comic-book theme a perfect way to add colour and a little 'biff-bang and pow' to your stamp collection.