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