A Quick History of Comics
by Richard Pulfer
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Anyone looking at the number of much-hyped superhero films at the box office could stake the claim comics have never been bigger, but a quick view of comic book history, however, reveals while comics have never soared to higher heights in the movie gross, this fantastic foundation has never been more unstable.
Comic books were an easy fit for 1930’s America. They were cheap, easy to produce, and even easier to sell. With large booms in pulp, radio shows and comic strips, comic books were the next logical step. It was the arrival of Superman in 1938 and Batman roughly a year later that heralded not only the rise of superheroes, but the Golden Age of Comics.
The entry of the United States into World War II didn’t halt comic book reading – if anything it accelerated it, with heroes were throwing down with the likes the Nazis and dictators even before the bombs fell upon Pearl Harbor. Once the war began, comics weren’t just morale boosters – they were part of the war effort like any other industry. Patriotic heroes like Captain America urged the purchase of war bonds, and entire runs of comics were bough from the stands and scrapped for recycling to help overseas troops. Though such sacrifices played their part in the “Greatest Generation”, they would have far-reaching ramifications on the comic industry in later generations – nearly forty years later.
But comics retained their youthful streak in the 1960’s. During this time of increased counter-culture, Marvel Comics rose to go head-to-head DC’s traditional line-up, emphasizing heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men, who appealed to young teenage readers as opposed to ideal citizens like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. Many experts believed the Silver Age kicked off with the publication of Fantastic Four in 1961 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The 1950’s dramatically altered the superhero landscape. Noted psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent”, a book which pinned much of society’s ills on comics. He alleged Batman and Robin were homosexuals, and Wonder Woman was not only a lesbian, but also a threat to the woman’s place in the American household. Wertham’s scathing criticism caused comic book sales to plummet. Grisly horror and crime comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror were left crippled. The entire incident culminated in a Comics Code Authority that oversaw comic book content, and as a result, comic books for the next decade were largely sanitized.
Spider-Man creator Stan Lee did run inadvertently into a stand-off with the Code in 1971, when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare wanted the webslinger to tackle drug use. The Code objected to even an anti-drug issue, but Lee, backed by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, ran the issue without the Comic Code, whose authority was more or less broken, and continued to diminish in the decades to follow
DC wouldn’t stay out of this naturalistic approach to superheroes for long. Though Marvel made its everymen a virtual trademark for years to come, DC would also release “Hard-Travelling Heroes”, a socially conscious run on Green Arrow/Green Lantern which found the two fighting racism, corruption and even the drug addiction of Green Arrow’s sidekick, Roy Harper during the early seventies. Leaving Marvel, “Fantastic Four” creator Jack Kirby would also create the compelling space fantasy The Fourth World” for DC, whose titles laid a similar foundation to “Star Wars”. In addition, DC would also pitch many of their once-campy sidekicks into serious superheroes with “Teen Titans”, which competed directly with Marvel’s juggernaut X-Men in the 1980’s.
Just as there is some disagreement about when the Silver Age began, there is also contention over when it ended. Some argue for a Bronze Age of Comics for the 1970’s and 80’s, while others recognize the Silver Age as still in effect during this period. One thing is for sure though – the start date for the Modern Age, whether proceeded by Bronze or Silver, was thoroughly cemented as 1986 – a year that would revolutionize comic books forever.
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