A Very Brief History of Comic Books

Over a hundred years ago, when the first comic book was published, nobody thought this form of art would become so popular. By now, Marvel and DC have shot over fifty movies about superheroes, which demonstrates just how famous comic books have become. 

But, what makes this form of art so relatable? What did comic books look like at first? The best way to answer these and many other questions are to go back to when it all started.

Platinum Age (1897-1937) 

The first of the comic book ages is Platinum Age. 

Before the first comic book came out, newspapers in the US and England were publishing satirical and political cartoons. Cartoons were very popular at the time and they played a massive role in society – Thomas Nast even managed to help bring down “Boss” Tweed’s corrupt political machine in 1870s New York. 

Naturally, cartoons became longer in time, and in 1897, the first comic book called The Yellow Kid was published. The Yellow Kid was actually a black-and-white reprint of the Yellow Kid newspaper strip. This is the first time ever the term comic book was used. 

After that, many publishers tried replicating The Yellow Kid’s success by doing the same thing – reprinting multiple newspaper strips. It wasn’t until 1935 that DC Comics’ precursor, National Allied Publications, published their first comic book, New Fun #1. This is also the first comic book that contains completely original material. 

Golden Age (1938-1955) 

The Golden Age began in 1938, with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1. Soon after that, Timely Publications, Marvel’s precursor, released Marvel Comics #1, which included the Human Torch, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Angel. 

In the next couple of years, DC and Marvel created several superhero comic books, including Captain Marvel, Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. 

As World War II erupted, these superheroes were also fighting real-world enemies. On one of the comic book’s covers, you could even see Captain America punching Hitler. At this time, comic books were not only a source of entertainment but also a morale boost among overseas troops. 

In the late 1940s, comic book creators started publishing additional genres such as romance, western, science fiction, and crime stories. Superhero comic books’ popularity slowly started declining in the early 1950s, which marked the end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age. 

Silver Age (1956-1969) 

The Silver Age began soon after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent. According to him, comic books were harmful to the young ones. He even claimed Wonder Woman and Batman promoted homosexual ideas, more specifically, that Wonder Woman was a lesbian with a bondage fixation.  

As a result, the popularity of comic books declined so much that many publishers discontinued some of their most popular titles. Storylines became very simple and even silly. For instance, the Batman comic books introduced new ridiculous characters like Batbaby, Bat-Ape, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound. 

The publisher even created the Comics Code Authority to self-regulate their industry. Here are some general rules: 

  • “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.” (General standards—Part A, line 1) 
  • “The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.” (General standards—Part A, line 11) 

Things started changing when Stan Lee became the head of Marvel’s creative team. He created what we know as The Marvel Method. This was when complex and more relatable heroes like Spiderman and Hulk became popular once again. 

Bronze Age (1970-1984) 

The creators of Spiderman killed Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy in 1973, which was revolutionary at the time. The anticipated savior failed to protect an innocent person, and this is exactly what Bronze Age was marked by. 

As years went by, the restrictions on violence, political issues, and themes became more relaxed once again. For instance, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves could be used in the classic tradition. So, the horror comic genre was no longer forbidden. 

The Bronze Age is also known for socially conscious storylines, especially those related to racism and social injustice. This was when many superheroes of color like Black Panther and Storm took center stage.  

Ultimately, storylines and characters like these led to the Dark Age. 

Dark Age (1985-1996) 

As the name says, the Dark Ages was defined by darker tones of color and darker topics. Anti-heroes with a range of psychological and sexual issues were very popular. Batman’s The Dark Knight Returns is a great example of that – a 55-year-old Batman has retired and leaves Gotham at the mercy of criminals. 

The portrayal of women was pretty debatable at times – women often existed just to be abused or killed in a violent manner. In other cases, their role was to motivate male characters or add drama.  

At the same time, a sub-genre Bad Girls appeared. The main characters here were women, usually witches, demons, or vampires. Their outfits were highly stripper fic and the storylines had a sexually suggestive tone, but these heroines were also dangerous and didn’t need to rely on men to get things done. 

The Dark Age ended with a sales slump because too many comic books were produced in an inflated market. This ultimately led to Marvel filing for bankruptcy in 1996.  

Modern Age (1997 – today) 

The publishers in the Modern Age tried rectifying their mistakes by publishing fewer comic books with a better-defined business plan.  

As of 2000, superhero movies once again became popular. Today we have a new superhero movie that comes out every year. TV shows featuring superheroes are also popular – The Flash, The Sandman, WandaVision, The Arrow, and so on.

Final Thoughts 

If we carefully look at comic books’ history, we’ll notice that comic books are not just a good source of entertainment. They also offer a great insight into our culture and society. Because of that, they are a growing area of academic study and we just can’t wait to see what comes next and how Modern age comic books will be seen in the future. 

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