Almost every serious comic book collector I have ever met has at one time or another become very interested, even obsessed, with learning about the history of comics. Knowing the history of comic books seems to be a rite of passage from casual to serious collector. There have been literally hundreds of books and articles written on the subject that have delved every aspect of the growth and development of comic books. Two books in particular, The Steranko History Of Comics and Men Of Tomorrow (Gerard Jones) are must reads for the collector wishing to know about the early days of Comic Book history. Another “must read” is the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. Although a work of fiction this Pulitzer winning novel provides a vivid account of the Golden Age of Comics. With that in mind consider this chapter a primer, a brief outline into the history of Comic Books.
Although it may be hard to believe, comic books are less than 100 years old! In fact the first true comic book did not appear until 1933. It was a 36 page compilation of comic strips that had previously appeared in national newspapers. It was called Famous Funnies A Carnival Of Comics. It was created by Dell and used in Woolworth Stores but it is unclear whether it was a give-away or if it was sold for a dime. Later that year Eastman began producing famous Funnies and by issue #12 it was turning a fat profit on print runs in excess of 200,000. A new medium was beginning to form. The earliest comic books were almost entirely reprints of newspaper comic strips but as they gained in popularity this material began to dry up and original material began to creep in. Publisher Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications, which would later become DC Comics and released New Fun #1 (Feb. 1935). An anthology, it mixed humor drama and action features . In Issue #6 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who would go on to create Superman made their comic book debut with swashbuckler Henri Duval and the mystery crime fighter Dr. Occult. New Fun (later known as MORE Fun) would be a staple title for the fledgling company and run 127 issues. It would also be the comic title that featured the debut of Superboy in issue # 101. New Fun Comics was the first title to feature all original material.
This period prior to 1938 is known as The Platinum Age Of Comics.
By 1938 Nicholson had been pushed aside by his partner Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld had been a publisher of Pulp Magazines, many of which featured the word “Spicy” as in Spicy Detective Stories. These pulps (named for the low grade paper they were printed on) featured scantily clad women on the covers who rarely had anything to do with the stories within. Harry had seen the growing popularity of the fledgling comic book industry and took over National Allied in short order. Looking for material for a new comic to be called Action, Allied editor Vin Sullivan decided to take a chance on a character that had been rejected by…well everyone. The character was Superman. He made his debut as a secondary feature in Action #1, but was featured on the cover. And the rest is history.
The Golden Age Of Comics actually has a very specific date. It began in June 1938 with the release of Action #1, the first appearance of Superman, and the birth of the Superhero. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was influenced by science fiction and the Jewish legend of The Golem. The Man of Steel was certainly not the first super powered character. Hercules, Atlas, Paul Bunyon…the list goes on and on. But no one had ever created a character quite like Superman, with his circus costume and cape and Warner Brothers influenced stories. Superman was an immediate hit and every comic publisher scrambled to produce their own Superheroes. Overnight a new genre was born and comics would never be the same.
Almost immediately there was a flood of Superhero characters. DC produced Batman in 1939. Timely followed with The Torch, Captain America and Sub Mariner, among others. Captain Marvel came forth from Fawcett and actually OUTSOLD Superman! And the first female superhero, Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics #8 in 1941.
While other genres like Humor and Funny Animals also enjoyed success, it was the costumed hero that drove comics through the Golden Age. The superhero found an audience with young kids and the GIS stationed around the world during WWII.
After WWII the popularity of Superheroes went into rapid decline. By 1952 virtually all superhero comics except for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were gone or marginalized. This period at the end of the Golden age saw the rise of teen Humor like Archie, Funny Animals (Disney), Horror, War, and Science Fiction (EC), Westerns and even Literary (Classics Comics). In fact anything OTHER than superheroes sold pretty well.
EC in particular, with it’s adult themes and superior art and writing was doing very well. EC, founded by William Gaines attracted an older more discriminating audience, as well as the man who would almost single handedly end The Golden Age Of Comics.
Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), took the position that comics were sadistic and encouraged homosexual behavior in horror and in superhero comics. Wertham’s thesis was that comic books were a key component in the rise of juvenile delinquency. In short order a grass roots movement grew across the country and some comics were even banned in some areas. In order to save the industry, the major comic publishers came up with a self censorship group known as the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code was a stringent set of rules governing what could or could not appear in a comic book. Most news stands and stores would not carry a comic book unless it had the Comics Code Authority Seal on it’s cover. In short order all of the more adult comics, horror titles in particular disappeared.
Comics fell into a bland, lifeless coma. Every title resembled every other title and the stories were formulaic. Older readership disappeared and comics had finally become what detractors had always called them…”funny books” . Not much would change until 1956, when the dying industry would once again be saved by…a Superhero.
Like The Golden age, the start of The Silver Age of Comics can be traced to a single event. Showcase #4 (DC – 1956) written by Gardner Fox introduced a re-imagined version of The Flash, a popular 1940’s superhero. Encouraged by the popularity of TV’s Adventure’s Of Superman, DC decided to take a chance on the superhero genre again and it was The Flash they chose to give a face lift to. Instead of magic and fantasy elements, it was Science Fiction that dominated the story line. Barry Allen, a Police Scientist is doused in chemicals that are struck by a freak lightening strike. The accident endows him with super speed. (Ok so it was not GREAT Sci-Fi but it worked). Brightly costumed and sleek, the modern day Flash was a huge success. In short order DC gave a similar make over to many of it’s Golden Age Superheroes. The Atom, Green Lantern and Hawkman all got a make over and eventually their own solo titles. But it was the birth of the Justice League Of America that gave the Silver Age of Comics it’s jump start.
Over at Atlas comics, formerly Timely and soon to be Marvel, Stan lee and Jack Kirby were redefining the Superhero genre by introducing heroes who were as likely to worry about the rent or school, or girls than the villains they fought. Oh and by the way, they were just as likely to fight EACH OTHER as the bad guys! It was Smilin’ Stan, Jolly Jack Kirby, Rascally Roy Thomas, Jazzy John Romita and the fantastical realm known as the “Bullpen”. Particularly astute readers could aspire to the greatest recognition that the Marvel crew could confer…the coveted No-Prize!
Comics were back and while they have never reached the unit sales of the 1940’s, the Silver Age Of Comics was a very healthy time in our hobby.
By the early-70’s Comic Code Censorship was starting to ease up. Horror titles like Tomb Of Dracula and Ghost Rider were beginning to hit the stands and draw a new and more adult audience back to comic books. While not as graphic as the 1950’s EC comics the 70’s Horror titles represented the beginning of a shift from the rigidly narrow standards of the 1960’s. By 1972 a QUANTUM shift was happening that would effectively bring both the comics Code and the Silver Age Of Comics to an end. Stan Lee took on the Comics Code with issues #96-98 of The Amazing Spider-Man. These books featured a story arc that was concerned with drug abuse by a major supporting character (Harry Osborne). The C.C. rejected the stories and Stan made the decision to go to print without the Comics Code Seal on the cover. The books sold very well and the dominance of the C.C. was at an end, allowing writers and artists to start tackling more complex and adult story lines. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were tackling issues such as drug abuse, over population, government abuse and racism in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Issues #85 and #86 showed a superhero, Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy, to be a Heroin addict and scenes showing both a fatal overdose to one character and cold turkey withdrawal by Speedy were graphically depicted.
In 1973 Issue #121 of the Amazing Spider-Man the final blow was dealt to the Comic Codes Authority and the Silver Age came to an end. This issue featured the death of Gwen Stacy during a battle with Spidey’s arch nemesis, The green Goblin. It was not a hoax. It was not a dream. It was not an “Imaginary” story. Gwen, Peter Parker’s true love was dead, and she was not coming back. It was the end of innocence in comics and it was the end of the Silver Age.
The next decade known as The Bronze Age Of Comics would see the gradual but steady trend towards complex adult stories continue. The lines between hero and vigilante would be blurred by characters like Wolverine and The Punisher. The X-Men, a marginal Marvel title, would undergo a face lift and become the most popular title on the shelves once a young artist named John Byrne took over the penciling chores.
Also during this period the specialty comic shop began to pop up across the country. For most of their existence, comics were distributed through newspaper companies to candy stores and news stands. Unsold books were stripped across the top of the cover and returned to the distributor for credit. This is why you see older books on Ebay from time to time missing the top third of the cover. Then came direct distribution and the comic shop was born. For the first time there was a place where comic collectors came together on a very regular basis to buy, read and discuss comic books. The Comic Specialty Shop remains the primary venue for selling comics and related merchandise to this day.
In 1986 two events happened almost at the same time that catapulted us into the Modern Age Of Comics. During that year DC comics produced two mini-series that would completely change the way we look at comic books. They were Alan Moore’s Watchman and Frank Miller’s Batman The Dark Knight returns. It was these two titles along with the complete collection of MAUS (which had been a work in progress for several years) that elevated comic books to the status of literature. All three series take place in dystopian worlds with central figures who must survive a bleak existence. Watchmen and Dark Knight in particular examine how heroes more often than not have feet of clay. Death is very real and central to all three series. They were not written for children.
Which brings us to the present. The Modern Age Of Comics…or perhaps the Second Golden Age Of Comics. It is the age of the $2.99 comic printed on high gloss stock with literally millions of colors. Comics are making their way into digital form and blockbuster movies from Iron Man to Spider-Man are perhaps the most profitable genre in film. Welcome to the future of comics!