Comics magazines have always been innovative, nurturing and developing the biggest talents in drawing and storytelling. Thanks to cutting-edge publishers and skilled comic-book artists, in the 1950s a host of different magazines were launched all over the world, usually published monthly or quarterly. They didn’t just contain comics, but also carried articles, essays and columns on all manner of subjects.
With them came new aesthetic and cultural forms, styles and genres. Comics magazines were also vehicles for protest, often carrying stories that were political, especially during the 1970s, or experimental and “underground”, with comics that would likely not have been published in other more traditional formats.
But by the beginning of the 2000s, the phenomenon was already in steep decline, with many titles having already folded and very few new offerings in newsagents. It was the end of a glorious era, when new titles seemed to pop up every year.
Here’s our selection of some of the best comics magazines from the 1950s to today.
The brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman, the first issue of MAD was published in 1952 by EC Comics in a comic-book format. Its covers were iconic, with parodies of figures from politics and popular culture, from Richard Nixon to Barak Obama and Michael Jackson. Equally iconic was the magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, a character who often appears on its covers with his boyish face, freckles and red hair.
MAD is a satirical magazine that has always published comics, illustrations and screwball articles, alongside more sophisticated pieces. In 1955, MAD switched from comic book to magazine format, becoming to all intents and purposes a magazine.
This experiment launched the careers of some comics greats, each with their own very personal style. From Robert Crumb, a comics artist with a signature caricatural style, to Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Harvey Kurtzman edited 28 issues of MAD Magazine until 1956. Reaching a peak circulation of two million the 1970s, MAD published 550 regular magazine issues.
It had an enormous impact, not just on the underground comics scene, but on the wider culture in general, influencing everything and everyone from the surreal humour of John Belushi, to stand-up comedy and Saturday Night Live.
The year 1959 saw the launch of Pilote, a weekly French magazine that gave many great comic-book artists from across the channel their break. The man behind the magazine was René Goscinny, creator of Asterix and Lucky Luke, whose stories would appear in its pages. Over the years, Pilote published many other artists who would go on to make a name for themselves in France and beyond.
It featured many legendary pieces of work, from Blueberry by Charlier and Giraud to Lone Sloane by Druillet, not to mention the work of Tardi and Bilal. In the 1960s, Pilote was bought by the publisher Dargaud. After the departure of a number of writers and authors, the title switched to monthly publication.
Pilote officially closed in 1989, but it inspired new magazines in the same vein.
From Japan came Garo, a monthly magazine that came out for the first time in 1964. Founded by Katsuichi Nagai, it was dedicated to avant-garde manga. In a departure from the traditional meaning of the word manga, “whimsical pictures”, Nagai decided to create a publication inspired by gekiga or “dramatic pictures”, the term coined by the author Yoshihiro Tatsumi, with comics that were much more cinematic in style and realistic in content.
The first story published in Garo was the ninja drama Kamui, created by Sampei Shirato, the author who helped Nagai to launch the magazine. Set during the Edo period, it tackles themes such as class struggle and anti-authoritarianism, as well as the discrimination suffered by the Hinin, the people considered the lowest social class in Japan.
Through this magazine, Nagai wanted to shake up the grammar of mainstream manga. In 1965, in an editorial on the recruitment of new authors, he wrote: “A new generation must take the place of the old. We must tell important stories and not be afraid to forge a unique and personal style that stimulates authors and readers”.
Nagai’s own story is fascinating too: Garo magazine was born out of a philanthropic urge. When he founded the magazine, Nagai was seriously ill with tuberculosis, and wanted to leave behind a legacy, even if it meant losing money. Fortunately, Nagai kept it going and would live until 1996. The magazine closed in 2002.
The year 1965 was pivotal for Italian comics: it saw the first issue of Linus, founded by Milanese intellectual Giovanni Gandini and initially published by Figure. The title is a clear reference to the eponymous character from the Peanuts series by Charles M. Schulz, whose Italian translations the magazine published. The first issue featured an interview by Umberto Eco with Elio Vittorini (a writer and literary critic) and Oreste Del Buono (a translator, journalist and screenwriter).
Over the years, Linus also published stories such as Li’l Abner by Al Capp, Popeye by Elzie Crisler Segar, Krazy Kat by Herriman and Dick Tracy by Chester Gould. The sole Italian author published in the early years of Linus was Guido Crepax and his character Valentina.
Linus was published by Rizzoli from 1971 with Oreste del Buono appointed as editor, who increased sales to over 100,000 copies a month. Linus published many of the great Italian and international comics artists and characters: Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb, Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau, The Eternaut by Alberto Breccia and Héctor Germán Oesterheld, Corto Maltese by Hugo Pratt, not to mention authors like Filippo Scozzari and comic strips by Vincino and Vauro.
Del Buono turned Linus into a magazine that talked about the here and now, and also created the supplement Alterlinus, which published the work of Andrea Pazienza, Moebius, Toppi and many others. Linus ushered in a golden era of comics in Europe. Still going today, it is edited by Igort, the renowned comic-book artist and founder of Coconino Press.
By the start of the 1970s, an oppressive atmosphere had developed at Pilote magazine, with René Goscinny and Jean-Michel exercising strict control over authors. Some of them decided to escape from this creative straightjacket and thus 1974 saw the launch of Métal Hurlant, a quarterly magazine created by Jean Giraud (Moebius), Dionnet and Druillet.
It was a seminal title for science fiction in particular. Moebius published some of his best work in Métal Hurlant, from Arzach to Le Garage Hermétique (The Airtight Garage). Authors published in the magazine included Milo Manara, Richard Corben, Alejandro Jodorowsky and many more.
In Italy, many of these comics were published in Alterlinus, Oreste del Buono’s pet project, which specialised in adventure stories. Métal Hurlant was also release in the United States under the name Heavy Metal.
Perhaps the best looking and most revolutionary comics magazine the world has ever seen. Frigidaire was a magazine launched in 1980 by Primo Carnera Editore and created by authors who were veterans of other publishing experiments, such as Lotta Continua, Il Male and Cannibale, another iconoclastic title. Vincenzo Sparagna, who was part of the management team at Il Male, together with Filippo Tamburini, Filippo Scòzzari, Andrea Pazienza, Massimo Mattioli and Tanino Liberatore, founded Frigidaire. Beautifully designed, the magazine featured comics, columnists, journalistic investigations and record reviews.
As well as its founders, Frigidaire published many authors over the years, from Andrea Pazienza to Igort, from Silvio Cadelo to Marcello Jori, Giorgio Carpinteri, Mario Schifano and Oreste Del Buono.
Irreverent and over the top, it was the first, for example, to talk about HIV in 1983, countering the disinformation that was rampant at the time. It also released issues sending up famous Italian newspapers like La Repubblica and L’Unità.
Frigidaire had a convoluted publishing history, including several hiatuses, and finally closed in 2008.
The year 1980 also saw the first issue of RAW Magazine. Created by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, it was a seminal title for alternative comics and heralded the graphic novel as we know it today.
Aimed at a more sophisticated audience, it published work by Italian, French and Japanese authors, as well as Americans. From Spiegelman’s monumental Maus to Argentines José Antonio Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, as well as many of the Japanese artists featured in Garo.
The first issue was published in black and white in an oversized format, while subsequent editions were shrunk to make them easier to sell in bookshops. The stories in RAW inspired artists of the calibre of Chris Ware, considered one of the greatest living comics artists.
Today’s comics magazines
There are undoubtedly fewer comics magazines around now than in their 70s heyday. That said, there are still some interesting titles out there: some are famous names from the past, while others are brand new ideas with brand new titles.
Heavy Metal is still published and features stories by established names and up-and-coming authors alike.
Meanwhile, in the world of francophone comics, La Revue Dessinée is a full-colour quarterly graphic journalism magazine packed with investigations, reports and comics.
We’ve reached the end of this journey into the universe of comics. The titles we’ve looked at are by no means the only ones to be published, but are certainly among the most iconic.