Superhero Comic Book History
Comic book fans and collectors divide the last 80 years of the publication of Superhero comic books into four ages: Golden (1938–1950), Silver (1956–1970), Bronze (1970–1985) and Modern (1985–the present). Prior to Superhero comics, there were “pulps” or pulp fiction novels that sold on newsstands for 10 cents with action heroes like The Shadow, based on the popular radio program. In pulps the characters were heroes, but they did not start out as superheroes with superhuman powers. There were characters in pulps like Popeye (1929) and The Phantom (1933). As the first costumed hero, The Phantom paved the way for future caped creations such as Superman and Batman, but it was Doc Savage that was the first real superhero with superhuman powers. As the world’s smartest man, Savage used his brains and brawn to fight crime—without a cape. He appeared in pulp magazines in the 1930’s and 40’s.
The Golden Age of comic books began in 1938 with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1 published by DC Comics. Prior to the release of this issue, comic books normally featured several characters and a variety of stories in one publication. Although this practice continued, it became the norm to have issues featuring just one superhero’s story. The comic publisher that would eventually become Marvel Comics released their first comic book, Marvel Comics. No. 1 under the company name Timely Comics in 1939 featuring the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. Captain America was introduced in December 1940 fighting against the Nazis and punching Adolf Hitler on more than one occasion. Sales of these issues soared. Comic books were a popular and inexpensive form of entertainment during WWII.
Super teams were introduced in 1940 by DC in an attempt to popularize some lesser-known superheroes. They were grouped into the Justice Society of America. These included the Flash, Green Lantern, Hour-Man and Johnny Thunder. Timely Comics, later known as Atlas Comics, had their super team too, called the All-Winners Squad comprised of Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. This team would set the precedent in the Marvel superhero world for the appearance of The Avengers 23 years later.
Once the war ended, interest in superheroes waned and publishers turned to other comic book genres, like detective stories, westerns, horror and crime. Television became the new favorite pastime. Many superheroes were temporarily shelved by publishers. Superman and Batman were a few of the superhero titles that continued to be published.
In 1961, after a 5-year lull in comic book readership, DC editor Julius Schwartz tasked writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino with updating a Golden Age success, the Flash. First seen in 1940 as the Scarlet Speedster, the revamped Flash served to reignite interest again in comic book reading. DC’s the Justice League of America also debuted in 1961, building on the super team idea. (To read more about artist Carmine Infantino’s contribution in reviving The Flash superhero character that ushered in the Silver Age of comic books, see our blog here: https://blog.retroplanet.com/farewell-carmine-infantino/)
Atlas Comics was now known as Marvel Comics. In response to DC’s success with the Flash, Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman assigned the creation of a new super team to writer and editor Stan Lee. Together with artist Jack Kirby, Lee created the superhero team called the Fantastic Four in 1961. The team was so popular that Lee and Kirby took to work creating more new characters, including the Hulk, Thor, Iron-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, Dr. Strange and the hugely successful Spider-Man. The Avengers super team was introduced in 1963 and included Captain America, whom the team discovered frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic. Having been presumed dead since 1945, the Captain was revived and returned back to service.
1970 was the beginning of the Bronze Age for comic books. The subject matter was getting increasingly darker, including horror and supernatural themes. African Americans and women began to feature more prominently. The boom of licensed superhero products began and Hollywood turned to comic books as inspiration for future blockbuster movies. More importantly, comic books begin to be acknowledged as a legitimate art form.
Modern Age comic books are swathed in realism, rather than in earlier themes, such as patriotism and morality. Several new publishers have entered the comic book arena as numerous publishers got out. After a fantastic few years of earnings in the early 1990’s, DC and Marvel saw sales decline steadily through the later 1990’s and 2000’s. In 2009 DC Comics was purchased by Warner Bros. and Marvel was bought by Disney. In 2011 DC devised a reboot to attract a new generation of readers when they revamped and relaunched their entire line with the release of 52 new comic series, all starting at #1.
The love for superhero stories is obvious with the long-term success of comic books as well as movies. There has been a superhero movie released nearly every year since 1977 and more are already scheduled to be released in the coming years. Perhaps we are already in the next comic book age and future generations will name it the Blockbuster Movie Age. As far as resetting storylines to attract new readers, this may not appeal to anyone that prefers older comic book series, but there is plenty out there in the superhero universe to appeal to most everyone. One thing is for sure, the superhero genre is here to stay.