A sailor reads a comic book aboard the USS Doran in 1942Thomas McAvoy—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A mother reads her children the comics while traveling on the "El Capitan" train between Chicago and Los Angeles, 1945.
A Turkish soldier looks at an American comic book with a Korean girl during the Korean War, 1951.
Religious comic books, 1943.
Private Ernest Dandou reads a comic book at paratrooper camp, Georgia, 1944.
A young girl reads a comic book at an Anchorage, Alaska, supermarket in 1958.
Actress Buff Cobb (one-time wife of journalist Mike Wallace) reads comic books at home in 1946.
Two Dutch children read comic books in 1953, Netherlands.
Comic book artist Bob Kane, who created Batman, poses with his iconic illustrations, 1966.
Cartoonist Chester Gould sitting on wall beside cemetery where he "buried" vanquished villains from his "Dick Tracy" comic strip, 1949.
Small boys read comic books during a speech by Dwight Eisenhower in Montana, 1952.
A Turkish boy (center) rents out comic books to local children to support his family in the Philippines in 1945.
American troops read comic books during the Korean War, 1951.
A sailor reads a comic book aboard the USS Doran in 1942
Thomas McAvoy—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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LIFE With Classic Comics: In Praise of an American Art Form

Mar 26, 2014

Comic books, cartoons, the Sunday funnies — the seemingly inexhaustible variety of ways in which comics have been created, presented and enjoyed through the years says as much about the readers who devour them as it does about the medium itself. Comic fans, after all, usually gravitate toward the form — i.e., the melding of the written word and graphically inventive still pictures — rather than embracing a specific format to the exclusion of all others.

There are purists, of course — often humorless, male and, for the most part, single — who tend to draw hard, distinct lines between the myriad media in which comics have been produced. For instance, they might state, categorically, that comic books have nothing, nothing, to do with comic strips like, say, Hagar the Horrible, Boondocks or Doonesbury.

Others clasp their Alan Moore and Frank Miller graphic novels to their chests and refuse to concede that Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff or any Calvin and Hobbes collection one wants to name might be as great (if not greater) an imaginative feat than Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns.

But for most of us, comics are comics are comics, and we'll just as happily sit down with a Fantastic Four adventure written, lettered and colored in 1981 (Firefrost, anyone?); a dog-eared Maus II; or the companionable fare in pretty much any Sunday newspaper.

In that spirit, LIFE.com offers photos from the early 1940s through the late '50s celebrating the ever-expanding universe of the comic: pictures of men, women and children caught up, if only for a while, in captivating, imaginary worlds that somehow manage to feel at-once utterly familiar and wholly, vividly new.

— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

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