In this installment of The Beginner’s Guide to Comicbooking, we’ll go back in time to explore how our beloved comic books came to be what they are today. Don’t worry! You won’t be quizzed at the end, so put those pencils down.
You also won’t need that textbook…or that notebook…or that scientific calculator? Where did you get that? Put it away.
The comic book industry has a vast and varied history, starting from the late 1800s, and working its way to the present day. The comic books that we know and love today had their origins in pulp books, or pulp magazines. According to thecomicbooks.com, “‘Pulps’ were 10 cent books sold on the newsstand, usually filled with action heroes going to exotic places and having adventures.” Perhaps the most notable pulp book figure is Popeye the Sailor.
Pulp books also introduced the world to its first costumed hero, known as The Phantom (thecomicbooks.com). This character was a trailblazer in the way of future costumed superheroes. One such similar hero marked the beginning of what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Comics: that character is Superman.
Created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman debuted in 1938 in the first Action Comics (pbs.org). Superman, the alien from the planet Krypton, became a big hit.
Later on in the decade, Detective Comics–which later became known as DC Comics–introduced Batman (thecomicbooks.com). Other characters created during this time include The Flash, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America.
When the Second World War rolled around, comic book sales boomed. This lightweight reading material proved to be “cheap, portable and had inspirational, patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil” (pbs.org). Not only were the superheroes popular, but Disney-produced publications, suspense, and science fiction were big sellers (pbs.org). Times were good, but the bubble had to burst at some point.
Once World War II ended, sales waned. This, in turn, brought about the Silver Age of Comics. The ethics of comic books came into serious question, which forced publishers to create guidelines or codes to stand by (randomhistory.com).
The plots now focused on the self-conscious worries of readers, and reflected the troubles of the 1960s. Characters like Spiderman and The Hulk became manifestations of these internal and social concerns of the time (randomhistory.com).
This era also gave way to the creative talents of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created some of the most iconic superhero stories. These two were the masterminds behind the X-Men and The Avengers.
At the start of the Bronze Age (1971-1980), there was a turning point. After being criticized for their artwork, comic book artists stepped up their game to produce quality pieces to accompany he stories (randomhistory.com). Not only did the art change, but the plots became virtually limitless during this era. Edgy anti-heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher were debuted, and readers were exposed to the horrors of drug usage and death (thecomicbooks.com).
This gloom and doom atmosphere carried over into the Iron Age of Comics. This era came to prominence during the 1980s. Frank Miller, noted comic book writer and artist, began to work on Daredevil. The blind lawyer turned vigilante was the first superhero to question his purpose. Frank Miller is notable for his edgy flare and grim depictions of beloved heroes, like Batman. If you’re a big fan of The Dark Knight movies, you can thank Mr. Miller for those. This era also saw the rise of the graphic novel.
Another prominent comic from the Iron Age is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This comic became iconic due to its dark story and proclivity for creating critical anti-heroes. Comics finally became a literary art form, in my opinion.
At the end of the 80s, and into the early 90s, comic book figures started sporting–ahem–interesting proportions. During this time, there were boobs. Lots of them. On both men and women.
Comics from this time are widely known for the odd appearance of beloved heroes and villains.
But, it wasn’t all bad. As we make our way to the present day, we see the rise of Image Comics, brilliant works like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and critically acclaimed revivals of classic stories. But without the history behind Marvel’s The Avengers, Batman v. Superman, and the Iron Man series, we would not have our favorite movies. So, the next time you pick up the new issue of your favorite comic, remember how far that comic has come for it to be in your hands today.
Was that ending cliched enough?
For more information on the history of comic books, you can visit the sites I have used in this post.
TheComicBooks.com by Jamie Coville (1996).
“A History of the Comic Book” on Randomhistory.com (2008).
“The Golden Age of Comics” on Pbs.org.
As always, make sure you visit your local comic book shop to discover your new favorite story. Don’t forget to stay tuned for the next installment of The Beginner’s Guide to Comicbooking.
Life was meant to be lived nerdily, so what are you waiting for?