Is The Spirit a comic book?

Previously we indicated that “we are proposing to study a randomly generated sample of American comic books produced between 1934 and 2014”. Already you can probably see that this has a number of problems. The first, of course, is the sheer scope of production. We have talked about trying to sample two per cent of these comics; that would be a dataset of more than 5,000 comics. That would allow us to do a lot of interesting analyses, but the sheer scope may be too vast to take on.

This afternoon I began the process of experimenting with the numbers, trying to gauge the scope of comics production over those eight decades. The preliminary numbers are fascinating in themselves, and I look forward to having something concrete to share once we’ve made certain that our data is reliable. 

As I ran some trials today, one thing that kept coming up was our need to define the term “comic books”. I ran a number of trials today on 1948 because it is a year that I’ve previously researched for a different project and I have a reasonably good sense of what was being published that year. The preliminary number that I came up with was 1,858 comic books published that year (a large leap from 1947, but only about two-thirds of the early peak year of 1952). If we sample two per cent of 1948’s production we would have to study thirty-seven issues. When I ran a first attempt at randomizing that year something immediately leapt out at me: I got three issues of The Spirit.

The Spirit, of course, was a weekly publication in an era where everything else was monthly (or less frequent than that). There were fifty-two issues of The Spirit in 1948, so it should show up more than, say, Action Comics. Indeed, The Spirit represents three per cent of all the comic books published in 1948. But only if The Spirit is a comic book.

That’s the core question: is a sixteen-page insert into twenty Sunday newspapers a comic book? If it isn’t sold in the same channels as the other comic books, is it still a comic book? If it is released weekly at a time that no other comic books are produced that frequently is it still a comic book? Or is it something else? A comic book/comic strip hybrid? This is a question to be resolved before we begin. 

If we include The Spirit it will show up frequently because there are so many of them, and they will slightly skew our numbers (sixteen pages rather than the more typical page lengths of the era). If we exclude The Spirit we need to do so before we start, and recalculate our sample size by subtracting all those issues from the initial data pool.

You can also see how this goes: Do we exclude magazine-sized comics (Mad, Creepy, Eerie) or are those also comic books?

Decisions will have to be made. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts especially on whether The Spirit belongs in a study of comic books.