Comic Books

Comic books have conquered the world. As the source material for some of the most profitable entertainment franchises, their characters and lore have become integral to consumer and popular culture. Their economic value in the twenty-first century is undeniable, boosting multiple industries, from consumer goods to theme parks.   

However, scholars often overlook comic books as historical and documentary objects. Despite frequent criticism as "low art" for juveniles, this unique narrative medium combines words and images to create engaging and easily accessible tools for conveying complex ideas. Comic books have been immensely popular for all ages since they emerged in the early twentieth century, with thousands of titles in genres. The brightly colored pages contain important visual and textual clues to contemporary attitudes on race, culture, politics, and events. Promotional comic books are particularly useful for researchers of the history of business, consumer culture, and capitalism. Unlike those created for entertainment only, these comic books were typically given away instead of sold, transforming the popular medium into an inexpensive means of stealth marketing. Comic books were also a valuable tool for traditional marketing, using advertisements to reach targeted audiences. While some of the comic books were created in-house, it was common for businesses to hire established publishers like Archie Comics or Western Publishing. Many of the promotional comics were drawn and colored by well-known cartoonists like Dick Ayers and Chic Stone.  

The Hagley Library collections have many comic books from traditional and non-traditional creators and publishers.  


For over a century, businesses have used comic books to advertise products, manage their public image, and provide consumer education. The very first comic books were created as giveaway products or premiums. Comic books are inexpensive to make and have popular appeal, making them an excellent marketing tool with a high return on investment. Promotional comic books were, though not always, produced by corporations and other business entities.  

Promotional Comic Books Gallery: This digital collection offers a small selection of promotional comic books held by the Hagley Library. 

Trying to replicate the short-lived success of his Yellow Kid comic strip, Richard F. Outcault created the naughty but charming little rascal Buster Brown in 1902. Two years later, Outcault sold the rights to the character to the Brown Shoe Company. Buster Brown comic books, like Buster Makes the Team, were published for free distribution by individual Buster Brown shoe stores from 1945 to 1959.  

Hagley’s collections include promotional comic books from companies such as: 

Mr. Peanut 

Remington Arms Company 


Schwinn Bicycle Company 

B.F. Goodrich Company 

Pocahontas Fuel Company 

Standard Oil Company 

Monsanto Company 

George W. Helme Snuff Company 

General Electric Company 

Rheem Manufacturing Company 

Pennsylvania Power & Light Company 

Joe Lowe Corporation 

Pittsburgh-Erie Saw Corporation 

Whitehall Pharmacal Company  

Edison Electric Institute 

Sinclair Oil Corporation 

Richfield Oil Corporation 

ITT Continental Baking Company 

Chrysler Corporation 

Cushman Motor Works  

Donut Corporation of America 

Minneapolis Brewing Company 

DuPont Automotive Finishes, Inc. 


Governments and advocacy groups have also recognized the power of comic books as a tool for shaping public opinion on political and socioeconomic issues such as organized labor and government regulation of businesses. These comic books typically ask the reader to act to protect or support a cause, idea, event, or person. They are often published by an organization outside of normal publishing channels. For example, Operation Survival (1957) was a Civil Defense release to raise awareness about personal and community emergency preparedness for disaster or nuclear attack. 

The NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) produced several comic books in the late 1940s to the early 1950s. The comics featured themes that the NAM hoped to promote, such as the defense of America’s dollars, the threat of socialism, and the power of American production. Noted cartoonist Dan Barry illustrated several of these issues. 

Comics from other advocacy organizations in Hagley’s collections include: 

National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) 

National Labor Service 

United Transportation Union 

Wage Earners’ Committee of Kansas 

Ohio Labor Committee for Right to Work 

American Gas Association 

American Bankers’ Association 

Association of American Railroads  

Catechetical Guild Educational Society 


Comic books are also a powerful medium for education and information. As a visual learning tool, comic books facilitate learning by making information accessible and appealing. Hagley’s collections contain many of these educational comic books.  

Since the 1950s, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has produced free, educational comic books. The stories feature fictional characters but contain lessons about financial literacy.  

The Association of American Railroads’ School and College Service division created many educational comic books in the 1950s and 1960s. These train-centric “picture stories” promoted railroads as an integral part of American industry and history with comic books on topics like the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Boy Scouts, freight service, and the railroads’ utility to other industries. 

The 1948 comic book, “For kids and big folks too it's fun to stay alive,” was a public service project of the National Automobile Dealers Association about pedestrian safety. Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and other popular characters increase the appeal for younger audiences.  

In the 1960s, Caterpillar Tractor Company created Operator’s Manual, a comic-style booklet containing "information on the operation of bulldozers, scrapers, rippers and cable controls, plus additional material on tires and grade stakes." The company also produced a comic book as a Maintenance Guide for earthmoving machines. 

In the 1940s, Seagram-Distillers Corporation created a series of instructional sales books in a comic book format. Each issue shares Seagram's Selling Secrets through the fictional character of Mr. C. Gram, who just started at Seagram as a salesperson.  

The 1950s comic books “How to Shoot” and “Let’s Go Shooting” from the Remington Arms Company provide instructions on choosing a gun and ammunition, shooting positions, target shooting, contests and games, hunting, indoor shooting and rifle clubs, and gun safety.