A Brief History of American Comic Books

The origins of the modern comics were fashioned into narrative strips and picture stories on a European Broadsheet as far back as the 15th century. These comic strips became known as The Pioneer Age of Comics, 1500-1828. However, perhaps the first prototype American comic book was the hardcover The Adventure of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, 1842, in the comic book Victorian Age (1828-1883).

In 1895, The New York World published Hogan’s Alley; followed by the New York Journal’s Katzenjammer Kids in December 1897.  Early in the twentieth century the New York Herald introduced Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905). Subsequent years saw Mutt and Jeff (1907) as the first successful daily comic strip, 1919 Gasoline Alley begins, Little Orphan Annie (1924), followed by Blondie and Dagwood of the early 1930’s. In 1937, Detective Comics, later DC Comics, released its first issue of detective comic stories. Even though comics had been in circulation in 19th century America, perhaps the first modern comic book, famous Funnies on Parade by Dell Publishing was not released in America until 1933 as a reprint of earlier comic strips.  These years comprise the Platinum Age of Comics (1883-1938).

However, it was not until after the depression of the 1930s that the popularity of comic books in America expanded into a major industry. With the publication of Action Comic’s Superman in 1938, The Golden Age of Comics in America (1938-1949) arrived.

The Golden Age of Comics

DC Comics Superman’s overnight success transformed comics in America. World War II also saw a steep increase in comic book sales.  Leading the pack was Marvel’s superhero Captain America whose creation was based solely on supporting America’s war efforts against the axis powers. Other heroes were The Flash, Batman and Robin, Wonder Women, Hawkman, Aquaman, Daredevil, Atom, Green Hornet, Human Torch, Green Arrow, Sub-Mariner, and Captain Marvel. They all were independent crime fighters, but on some occasion fought together; one example was The Justice Society of America. Although superhero comics were the top sellers, other comics emerged during this era. Horror, detective, Romance, Science Fiction, animal humor and Western comics were the new styles of storytelling that started to appear and became popular. The humorous comic Archibald “Archie” Andrews, born in 1941, became so popular the name was changed to Archie Comics in 1946.  Moreover, Walt Disney introduced animal and jungle themed comics featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Tarzan.

A few years after the war, the superhero craze dwindled, marking the end of the Comic Book Golden Age.  However, many of the characters born of the era remain popular today, some 70 years later. To this day, Superman remains the most recognizable comic book character. More importantly, the Golden Age defined comic books as a mainstream art form in America.

The Atomic Age of Comics

Since The Golden Age of Comics, Comic Book authorities divide the American comic book timeline into four additional eras.  Following the Golden Age, the Atomic Age (1949-1956) saw the introduction of Rocket Man, Martian Manhunter, Captain Comet, Atomic Mouse and Mighty Mouse as examples. Mad Comic, later MAD Magazine, made its debut in 1952. MAD held nothing sacred, offering a satirical format lampooning all aspect of American culture, politics, entertainment, and certainly public figures. The 1950s also saw the birth of Peanuts and Dennis the Menace. 

On the other hand, replacing the superheroes comics lasted only for a short time. After a while, Science Fiction and Horror titles caused the public to cry enough with the misguided thought that these comics were tainting America’s youth. With that the Atomic age ended. The Atomic Age was followed by The Silver Age (1956-1970) and a resurgence of the superheroes who had been demoted to second place during this seven year period.

The Silver Age of Comics

The Silver Age of Comics started with the reintroduction of The Flash (Oct 1956) by DC Comics. DC Comics also added Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comics. Not to be outdone, Marvel Comics added more superheroes such as the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The X-Men, The Hulk, Thor and Iron Man, and reintroduced the Green Lantern and Green Arrow. In addition, The Silver Age saw the popularity decline in the areas of Horror, Romance, Teen, animal humor, and Westerns that were so popular in the Golden Age and into the 1950s.  The transition from the Silver Age and the following era, The Bronze Age (1970-1985) is almost seamless and less defined.

Many argue that early in 1970 when executive Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics to go to DC Comics and the first OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE was published marked the transition from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age of Comics.  Others maintain that Marvel’s publications of the first CONAN comic (October, 1970) and the Sword-and-Sorcery (1971) sparked the transition. DC’s contribution in the transition from the Silver Age was Kirby’s Fourth World.

The Bronze Age of Comics

The Bronze Age continued with some of the traditional superheroes remaining in print, but the story lines pointed more toward social issues similar to the Golden Age. Racism, drug use, alcoholism, urban poverty and environmental issues became the themes.

DC Comics cancelled most of its poor selling super-hero titles except for Superman and Batman.  Then introduced horror and supernatural comics like Swamp Thing. During the same time, Marvel also scaled back on super-hero publications, cancelling the less profitable weaker-selling titles such as Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner and The X-Men. In turn, they produced Westerns, horror and monster stories such as Ghost Rider. When these new ventures peaked out in the mid-1970s, both comic book companies were forced to resume selling predominantly super-hero titles. Also during his period, Marvel and DC co-produced a series of crossover titles. The first was Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man; followed by another Superman and Spider-man, Batman vs. Hulk, and the X-Men vs The New Teen Titans (DC’s best-selling title).  Of note, Marvel wanted the crossover to be the X-Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes (Marvel’s best seller at the time).

The Modern Age of Comics

Many influences from the Bronze Age edged their way into the Modern Age of Comic Books (1985-present). For instance, comics like Fantastic Four, Iron Fist, Uncanny X-Men, and Daredevil reached maturity in the Bronze Age, but their impact was not felt until the Modern Age.

The Uncanny X-Men is the most definitive example of this impact as Bronze Age characters such as Wolverine and Sabretooth impacted the Marvel Universe well into the 1980s and beyond. As a result, by the 1990s the X-Men had become the biggest franchise in comics. So successful that a number of spin-off titles (The X-Books) were created: New Mutants, X-Factor, Excalibur, a Wolverine solo series, and later in the 1990s Cable and Bishop. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, dozens of X-Men-related comic books were published each month. In fact, one crossed-over story was published in every X-Book on average every two to three months, leading to an increase in sales. In the early 2000s, a series of blockbuster X-Men movies kept the X-Men franchise healthy, as well as a new animated series and action figures. The comic books have also been reinvigorated as the New X-Men and the Ultimate X-Men. For DC Comics, the Crisis on Infinite Earths is the bridge that joins the two ages. DC cancelled The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  DC then introduced a new Flash, and brand-new Superman: Man of Steel and Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals series. Batman also had a makeover, beginning with the Batman: Year One; this storyline became one of the most popular Batman stories ever.

With their first publishing in the mid-1970s, comic book antiheroes such as Marvel’s X-Men’s Wolverine, the Punisher, and the dark version of  Daredevil were born. DC Comics contributed with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the Watchmen series exploring these troubled heroes’ pasts. However, by the early 1990s antiheroes had become the rule rather than the exception, and among the most popular were Marvel’s’ Cable and Venom and Image Comics’ Spawn. Not to be outdone, by the late 1980s DC had published many antihero titles such as Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, and Lobo (a graphic violence and adult content comic).

The Modern Age has also been referred to as the Dark Age of Comic Books, because the popularity and artistic influence of titles with serious content, such as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, X-Men’s Wolverine, The Punisher, and the Daredevil dark version.  Super villains such as Batman’s nemesis, the psychopathic Joker and X-Men’s Magneto also contributed to the darker side of Modern Age comics.

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