The history of comics is long, colorful, and at times convoluted. Comics have lasted decades and have the stories to show for it whether it be a flammable, crime fighting android or a lady with green skin and a law degree. For National Comic Book Day, we at the Union University library have complied a condensed, and sometimes quirky, history of the superhero comic book.
1933, Superman appeared in Action Comics #1
Detective Comics #27 Batman hit the shelves.
Namor the Sub-Mariner, The (original) Human Torch*, and Ka-Zar appeared during this era.
The Flash and Green Lantern were released in Flash Comics.
In April of 1940, Robin made his debut as the first superhero “sidekick” in the industry.
During the winter of 1940 the Justice Society of America was released, making it the very first superhero team. The third issue of All Star Comics had heroes including The Flash, Green Lantern, The Spectre, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, The Hour-Man, The Sandman, Atom, and Johnny Thunder.
Captain America, released in 1941, was the first comic to introduce a comic where the main hero had not been tested in a previous story. The Nazi-punching American Hero flew off the shelves even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the Second World War, comics were frequently shipped to troops on the front lines as a recreational escape and a reminder of home.
The book “Seduction of the Innocent” was published describing the “Corrupt” nature of many comics eventually leading to the creation of the Comics Code Authority (or CCA). This led to the censorship or extreme edits to comics that the CCA did not deem morally upright or wholesome, and this system stayed in place for decades.
For a distinct amount of time, superhero comics went into a decline where readership was heavily reduced to the point of superhero comics not being profitable.
Showcase comics revived the flash with a snazzy reboot (sans metal helmet) with popularity that allowed The Flash to receive his own title comic soon after. This paved the way for the resurrection of many Golden Age comic heroes.
This was the era where many comics all stars (such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and John Buscema) came to power.
DC brought in “alternate universes” into their story line; something they, and other comic companies would continue to do till this day. This allowed them to explain the difference of their Golden Age heroes as members of Earth-2 and Silver Age characters and onward as belonging to Earth-1.
Marvel, taking advantage of the surge of interest in superhero comics, created The Fantastic Four. Prior to this day, the superheroes depicted in comics were very simple and righteous. Marvel started the trend where heroes had very real problems and came to doubt themselves and have personal failures that took great precedent in the comics. The world of superheroes was no longer completely black and white.
Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Hulk were all children of the Silver age that we know and love today. They were centered on sociopolitical upheaval and current social issues that took major precedent in their comics.
While the Silver Age began the process of blurring the lines between the righteous and the evil, the Bronze Age really began to deepen the waters. One notable example is the darkening of the Green Lantern comics. In one issue he saved a man from being beaten by a younger boy only to find out from Green Arrow that the man was a landlord cruelly evicting the residents of his complex. Also, during this era the problem of drug use was brought up as Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, was found to have a drug addiction of his own. This was an important milestone as even the mention of drugs was forbidden by the CCA.
Marvel also challenged the norms by publishing a Spider-Man comic, which was about the dangers of drug abuse, and the CCA would not approve of it. Fortunately, the public sided with Marvel in the end.
As the CCA relaxed their rules, more horror related heroes such as Ghost Rider, Swamp Thing, and Son of Satan (also known as Hellstorm) were published.
In 1973’s Spider-man #121 Marvel shocked the public by killing off Gwen Stacy. Never before had such an innocent and important character been killed in such a main title comic. This began to show the gravity of the world that the heroes and villains grappled in, as well as displaying the collateral damage that was a result of it.
Marvel also began producing anti-hero characters such as Wolverine and The Punisher that were far more violent that their hero counterparts, and blurred the line between good and evil even more.
In 1976, DC and Marvel created one of their first crossover comics that incorporated a battle between Spider-Man and Superman. This allowed for other successful crossover comics to be released in the future.
Iron Age or the Grim and Gritty Age
During what we call the Iron Age of comics (or the Grim and Gritty age for reasons you will soon see) the stories in comic books became darker and more realistic.
The beginning of this trend began in 1979 when Frank Miller began penciling and writing Daredevil. Because of his writings, the dark and realistic style of storytelling became increasingly popular through the 80s.
In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird decided to try and create the silliest, dorkiest superhero team imaginable. What was born out of this was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Originally released in black and while, it became wildly popular and was put on everything you could imagine. It even received its own cartoon series and several cinematic adaptations in future years.
In 1985, DC was struggling with the timeline and continuity of their comic universe due to the fact that alternate universe story lines were getting increasingly common, complicated, and convoluted. Because of this they released the Crisis on Infinite Earths series. In the series they focus on six different universes. They were Earth 1 (the Normal DC Universe that we all know), Earth 2 (Golden Aged DC), Earth 3 (Villains and heroes were reversed, sort of like DC’s own mirror verse), Earth 4 (Charlton Comics, 1960’s- as introduced in the series), Earth S (Fawcet Comics – Captain Marvel/Shazam and the like), and Earth X (Quality Comics 1940-1955).
Another notable DC comic is The Watchmen. In the series, a group of super-powered vigilantes are forced to quit hero work after a police strike and subsequent government intervention. This comic and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns were both very influential comics of the grim and gritty style. Some argue that Watchmen defines the distinct beginning of the next comic age.
Modern Age or the Dark Age
The Modern age of comics is one of the most diverse comic eras with the increased consumption of indie comics as well as interest in international comics.
Antiheros held much more of the spotlight and were widely popular characters such as Cable, Spawn, and Venom.
During the early portion of this age, the use of gimmicks was highly exploited. What this means is that many times, comic publishers would create several different versions of the same comic cover, having common and gratuitous team ups (thus forcing readers to buy more copies to keep up with the story line), offering collectible cards or having the covers form a poster, or even holographic (i.e. shiny) printing on some comics marketed as “special” or “limited edition.” Many readers grew tired of these gimmicks but they were still a hallmark of the business model of comics in the 90’s.
During 1988, DC made headlines by killing off Jason Todd, the current Boy Wonder, Robin. The death was released in the comic A Death in the Family and was the result of a fan vote with Robin’s death being assured by a mere 72 votes. This attracted much media attention, some of it critical, but to this day it remains a very important part of the Batman lore and still has consequences in Gotham and the Bat-family.
In 1989, the cinematic world of comics began it’s success with the release of Batman. It began a marketing movement of appealing to older audiences, thus raising the age of readership. Also, This movie is one of the reason superhero movies retain such popularity today with such titles as Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman, and Spider-man Homecoming.
A very influential comic series was released in 1989 called Sandman and it ran for only 75 issues, and not for lack of sales but rather at the writer’s request. It was the flagship comic for DC’s very successful Vertigo line that was darker and for more mature audiences.
Todd McFarlane, a very popular artist, received permission to run his own spider-man series that quickly became a massive hit. The first edition alone sold over two million copies. This was in part due to the use of gimmicks with the fact that 9 different versions were released including a platinum version.
A year later, Marvel pulled similar success by letting the artist Rob Liefeld control the art and story of the X-Force comic. This also used the method of gimmick to increase sales bu having seven versions and some including one of 5 collectible cards. Later that year, Marvel would have similar success with the release of X-Men #1.
In 1992, Superman was killed by the villain Doomsday. It caused a lot of media attention and several characters to “replace” superman such as Superboy were brought in, but he was revived a mere seven issues later.
In 1992, several famous artists went off to form Image Comics due to the complaint that they were not given enough creative freedom with the characters. Image Comics is responsible for several popular comics such as Youngblood and Spawn.
After Image Comics was created other groups started forming such as Malibu and the illustrious Dark Horse Comics.
In 1994, DC attempted top resolve an excess of continuity errors caused by Crisis on Infinite Earths with the series Zero Hour. Straight continuity was established but sometimes there is still confusion with what did and didn’t happen in the comic-verse.
During the back end of the nineties, the gimmick bubble burst and caused many comics to reduce in readership and profitability. Marvel even had to file for bankruptcy protections. This was the result of readers not responding to the hype that gimmicks once drew as well as the fact that most comics were doing things just for shock value than actual progression of story lines.
The 2000’s and beyond were a series of missteps and successes for the cinematic superheros. There were large failures such as Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Green Lantern *shudders*. However, we all know of the bright and shining successes such as the various Captain America Movies, the Massively successful Wonder Woman, and the sweet, sweet redemption of my favorite friendly neighborhood arachnid in Spider-man: Homecoming. In my personal opinion, Marvel has succeeded so far this decade more than any other comic company with their insanely lucrative cinematic universe as well as what they have done with their comics. She-Hulk in a kick-butt superhero AND lawyer, the A-force (a group of all-female avengers) was released, and Miles Morales is doing a great job being the first African American Spider-Man. Marvel has done well getting in tune with current social issues and change and has responded with with the reduction of female hyper-sexualization in comics, increased number and development of minority characters, as well as many other things. There are missteps however, such as accusations of white-washing the cast in Doctor Strange (which is largely based in Asian culture, lore, and setting) in addition to concerns about female cinematic characters receiving less roles and screen time or only being used as love interests.
DC currently still has a large fan base and its line of batman related comics are still well loved even if the movies are criticized. One of the current fan favorites is the interactions of the various members of the Bat-family such as Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne (my favorite Bat-son), Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, Alfred Pennyworth, Pennyworth (not a butler, just a cat), Bat-dog, Bat-cow, and many others. Relatively recently, Damian Wayne (Bruce’s son with Talia al Ghul) drew media attention with his death but has been since revived.
Comic books and superheroes have found a new market in areas such as cinematic movies, original TV series (such as Netflix’s Defenders), and traditional comics and they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. I can’t wait to see what comics will look like for the next generation, and I hope that they still keep advancing. Now, go out and read a comic. It is National Comic Book Day after all.
*not the combustible member of the Fantastic Four (which wasn’t created until years later) but a flaming android with the alias Jim Hammond.
Post by Ruth Duncan