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Wishlist: The Future Evolution of Comic Books—Part I: A Little History

Updated on June 15, 2015

Disclaimer

I am not a scholar of comic books. I am a fan of the material; I read a lot of Daredevil and Adam Warlock as a kid and well into my first foray into college. I loved the X-Men and several other titles. This is the first in a series of articles.

  • Part I gives some history of the evolution of the modern comic industry.
  • Part II will discuss what I think should be the next stage of that evolution.

What follows is not an authoritative work. It is the result of a little research, a little experience with the media, and a lot of passion for the characters and stories of the various ages of comic book history.

Humble Origins—The Golden Age

In 1933, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The character would appear in Action Comics for a while. DC Comics (originally Detective Comics) was created in 1934 and purchased the rights to the Superman character in 1938. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for DC Comics in 1939.

Marvel Comics (originally Timely Publications) was created in 1939. The first super-hero characters created at the comic publisher—in 1939—were Namor the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett; and The Human Torch (Jim Hammond), created by Carl Burgos.

Source

The fact that comics in the Golden Age were created as static-time, isolated, meta-episodic vacuums means that some things that happened were, well, just plain wrong. For a great look at the oddities of the Golden Age, go to Superdickery!

That is, perhaps, the simplest and most direct answer to the question: How did super hero comic books get started? This early period (1933 to 1952) is often called the Golden Age of comics.

The term was coined by Richard A. Lupoff in an article he wrote for a magazine called Comic Art. From 1939 to 1941, the predecessors of DC Comics and Marvel Comics (and a few smaller companies that would be acquired over the years) would introduce iconic characters such as Aquaman, Captain America, Green Lantern, Flash, Plastic Man, Spirit, and Wonder Woman in addition to those listed above.

In each of these titles, at this time, these heroes lived in a static-time, isolated, meta-episodic vacuum. By this I mean:

  • Static Time—time did not move; characters remained perpetually the same age. This is especially odd considering that real-world events such as World War II meant that the comic-book-world had to be altered so as to include those elements.
  • Isolated—each comic book hero lived in a comic-book-world where they were the only superhero in existence. The physical relationship of things like Metropolis and Gotham City had not yet been established; Superman was not living in a world where Batman lived; Captain America was not living in a world where Namor lived; and so on.
  • Meta-Episodic—the events of any given issue of a comic book title (or in rare instances, short series of issues) had no impact on the comic-book-world's reality within the issues that followed. These stories were often rehashed after a few issues, or just plain ignored. They were not serials; they were meta-episodic.
  • Vacuum—as a result of being isolated and meta-episodic, these stories existed in a vacuum. In other words, since Captain America was not in the world where Namor lived, and one issue of Captain America would have no impact on a future issue of Captain America, it is obvious that the events in any issue of Captain America were not going to have any impact on any issue of Namor.

Source

The Interregnum

Super hero comics peaked in 1952; the decline was steady and rapid. The genre all but died. Circulation for superhero comics dropped 30–40% between 1952 and 1953. The theories for why this decline began and was maintained are varied (e.g., television, the Comics Code Authority, etc.) but none are really sure as to why this happened. From 1952 to 1956, the dominant genres of comic books were detective stories, fantasy, humor, various licensed properties from both television and literature, romance, war comics, and westerns. Throughout this period, adventure stories, superheroes, and traditional comic strips continued to decline.

There were a few genres, popular at this time, that may have lead to much of the problem. Horror, and true-crime comics were selling well, and this would lead to an organization of internal censorship that ensured that stories were two-dimensional and lack-luster. You see, my theory is that that it was the Comics Code Authority, founded in 1954, that put the final nail into the coffin of the Golden Age. This group was founded because of the work of a psychiatrist by the name of Fredrick Wertham and a book he wrote called Seduction of the Innocent. In this book, Dr. Wertham claimed that the comic book industry was selling sadism and homosexuality to America's youth. Because of the notoriety of this book, a Senate Subcommittee was formed (on Juvenile Delinquency) and various moral and religious groups began to blame comic books for everything from drug use to poor grades; schools held comic book burnings; entire cities banned comic books altogether.

Due to all of this, the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority to create what they called "the most stringent code in existence for any communications media." In order to be sold at news stands and other outlets, comic books were almost required to have the Comics Code Authority seal of approval. One once-successful comic publisher, EC Comics, dropped its entire comic book line and switched to satire in the form of Mad Magazine; by shifting the magazine format, they were able to circumvent the Comics Code Authority.

Sadly, this organization would remain active—to a diminished degree—until 2011.

Explosive Rebirth—The Silver Age

From 1956 to about 1970—depending upon the title, the end date could be anywhere from 1968 to 1974—superhero comics had a revival. Characters from the 30s and 40s were making a comeback. This was the Silver Age of comics. New characters were being created by some of the most famous people in comic book history (e.g., Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). The Silver Age is not just defined in terms of a period when the genre saw more sales, it was a time when the characters also gained depth. The heroes were flawed; they had non-super problems that often got in the way of their super-lives. They doubted themselves. They were far more human. Perhaps no comic title of this era was more important than The Fantastic Four.

Source

During this time, many of the elements of the Golden Age—specifically: isolated, meta-episodic, and vacuum—began to blur. Where cross-overs would sometimes happen in the Golden Age, these breaches of isolationism were like echos that would fade away, drowned out by the power of the episodic vacuum these characters existed in. In the Silver Age, it was not uncommon to see at least lip service given to the existence of other heroes. Villains would jump from one title to another, which at the very least suggested a greater universe where the heroes existed together.

Where the Silver Age has a solid, well understood start as fresh faces brought old characters new life, and gave rise to new faces we see as classics today... the Silver Age ended with far less solid, far less understood period of pessimism. The Golden Age and the Silver Age characters were optimistic; sometime in the late 60s and early 70s, they lost this wide eyes quality and began to express a frustration with the world. They were weary.

Many stories of the time suggested that this transition was either taking place or had just taken place. Perhaps the most important—and iconic—was the death of Gwen Stacy in June 1973.

Source

The story arc was titled The Night Gwen Stacy Died. It was ran over two-issues (The Amazing Spider-Man #121–122). The Wikipedia article on this story arc lists the following elements of significance:

  • The death of Gwen Stacy shocked the American comic book community. Previously, it had been unthinkable to kill off such an important character—the girlfriend of a title character with a large fanbase. Generally, a superhero did not fail this disastrously unless it was part of his or her origin story.
  • By the early years of the 21st century, this form of story arc (i.e., the now frequent tendency for the wives and girlfriends of male superheroes to meet grim fates) was referred to as Gwen Stacy Syndrome.
  • In a fan poll, The Amazing Spider-Man #121–122 were voted as two of the greatest comic issues of all time.

More importantly, however, is this item:

  • This story arc has been proposed as a marker of the end of the Silver Age of Comic Books, and the beginning of the darker, grittier Bronze Age.

This may be the moment Spider-Man entered the Bronze Age, but this is not true for all comic book characters. As stated above, the end of the Silver Age can be said to be somewhere between 1968 and 1974. One phrase which is often seen in the various works that look at this period is: not every single comic book may be said to have exited the Silver Age at exactly the same date.

Social Awareness—The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age of comics is defined by many things: art style, minority superheroes, and so on. But for purposes of this article I want to focus on four things:

I was born in 1968. The Bronze Age of comics is when I was becoming interested. As such, I often sought out older (Silver Age) comics to read. The difference in tone between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age of comics is striking.

  • Static Time—time remained something that was, for the most part, unmoving. As with the Golden Age, real-world events meant that the comic-book-world had to be altered so as to include those elements.
  • Integrated (as opposed to Isolated)—it is in this age that the existence of a wider world of superheroes and villains becomes known and standard. The physical relationship of things like Metropolis and Gotham City are firmly established (although, some of this was happening in the Silver Age as well); Superman was not only living in a world where Batman lived, he lived in a world that sometimes acknowledged the existence of Spider-Man (a character from a whole other universe of superheroes—DC + Marvel!).
  • Episodic (as opposed to Meta-Episodic)—the events of any given issue of a comic book title (or in rare instances, short series of issues) may or may not have lasting impacts on future issues. Spider-Man's loss of Gwen Stacy would haunt him for years. Stories were not rehashed after a few issues or ignored. Although not entirely serial (something that would have to take into account the passage of time), they were no longer meta-episodic.
  • Breathing (as opposed to Vacuum)—with the barriers of isolated and meta-episodic starting to fall, a living breathing world where these characters existed would start to form.

Source

And so the Bronze Age of comics would be where the boundaries of the format were challenged. However, as writers came and went, new authors entered into the picture, the need to occasionally re-imagine (what we, today, would call a reboot) the character in order to show them in a new light would become quite common. Granted this had happened before; but these earlier reboots had not had to exist in a comic book world where some degree of continuity was expected—demanded, even. For example:

  • Golden Age Flash (1940) was the story of college student Jay Garrick and how he gained the power of the Flash by inhaling hard water vapors.
  • Silver Age Flash (1956) was the story of police scientist Barry Allen and how he gained the power of the Flash by being bathed in chemicals that had been struck by lightning.
  • In 1959, another Silver Age Flash character named Wally West (a.k.a., Kid Flash) was created. He is Barry Allen's nephew and gained his powers in mush the same way Barry Allen did (i.e., catching lightning in a chemical-bottle, as it were).
  • In 1960, the Jay Garrick (Golden Age Flash) story was revived, only this time he became the Flash by exposure to heavy water.
  • In 1961, in a story titled Flash of Two Worlds, it was revealed that Golden Age Flash and Silver Age Flash existed simultaneously on two parallel worlds, where each was a fictional character in the other's reality. Eventually these two would meet and become friends.
  • The teams the two Flash characters belonged to (The Justice League and The Justice Society) would even have adventures together, with various Golden Age and Silver Age characters working together.

From 1959 on, the various titles and semi-official backstory of the Flash would shift back and forth. The continuity from from A to B to C back to B over to D back to A then to C and so on... This would eventually lead to the watershed event of the Bronze Age: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis

For a good look at the Crisis on Infinite Earths story and its impact, go to this excellent article by Andrew J. Friedenthal; or this excellent article by Matt Rossi. There are others—many, many others—if this is a topic that interests you.

Infinite Crisis—Birth of the Modern Age

One could write books on the impact that Crisis on Infinite Earths had on the comic book industry. As such, I will simply say that a comprehensive look at this story line and its impact on DC Comics and the comic book industry as a whole is better left to others to write.

Some will point to other events as the catalyst for the Modern Age of comics; others will claim that the Modern Age entered with as messy and uneven a birth as the Bronze Age. I, obviously, disagree.

For purposes of this article, I will just say this: with the exception of Static Time, all of the original rules for Comic Books had been shattered.

  • Static Time—time in the modern era still does not move in any real way. Real-world events such as 9/11 mean that the comic-book-world has to be altered.
  • Integrated—each publishing house is a whole universe unto itself (with some cross publisher titles occasionally published). But the integration is slipshod.
  • Semi-Serial—the events of all issues of all titles will impact the next issue, and those that follow. That is, unless a reboot of one or more characters is attempted and this has to somehow reintegrate into the whole.
  • Breathing—with a central universe as a staging point, the universe breathes and grows. Unfortunately, each comic publisher also has multiple universes that seem to compete with one another and often contradict each other.

Favorite Age?

Which age of comics was your favorite?

See results

This is an admittedly simplistic view. There are many, many other qualities which define the Modern Age (as well as the others). One of the more interesting elements is the rise of unified origin stories. Many characters were no longer written with chemical bath or spider-bite or radiation-based origin stories; instead, they were born with their powers (e.g., the Mutants, the Inhumans).

Event-based comics (e.g., Secret Wars, One Year Later, Civil War, Countdown to Final Crisis, Avengers vs. X-Men) can cause complete reboots of one part of one of the publisher's universes, while trying to ignore the logical impacts that would have in other areas of that same universe. These events and continuous shifts of a portion of the world create a universe that many believe is not sustainable.

  • If you read comics in the Bronze Age or earlier, and you come into the Modern Age and start reading, you have no idea who these characters are often times.
  • Years can be spent developing and allowing a character to grow (e.g., such as the growth of Spider-Man into a family man in the time leading up to, during, and just after Civil War) only to have the next person in charge undo everything (e.g., Spider-Man is reverted to a teenager). This leads to a queries like "tell me the story of {character}" having no answer that really makes any sense.

One Possible Future—The Post-Modern Age

I have an idea for where I think the next age of comics books should be heading. For that, you will have to wait for Part II...

Thanks for reading.

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    • rjbatty profile image

      rjbatty 20 months ago from Irvine

      The only thing I wished to point out was the odd difference between DC/Marvel during this timeperiod. I preferred DC because I could obtain a beginning and an end story within one comic -- and this was a significant difference for the era. I started buying Marvel as a kid because I was a huge Kirby fan who seemed to draw everything for this publishing outlet. The continuing story arcs were more of a nusance than a turn-on (for me). Without realizing it, I got hooked on Spider-Man (one of the few non-Kirby illustrations), and the foibles of Peter Parker -- a complete nerd who inherited superpowers but still had a terrible private life. What nerdy kid couldn't identify in some way with Peter Parker? But for me DC reigned supreme for a very long time because they avoided the soap opera-like open-endedness that Marvel would perfect. Marvel basically killed off the Silver Age with its alternate style of story telling, and its clever design to build cliffhangers that spanned many issues. It was an evolution in comics -- and I think it had as many good points as bad.

    • KDLadage profile image
      Author

      K David Ladage 20 months ago from Cedar Rapids, IA

      You are correct. As I indicate, not everything moved forward at the same time. But, in general, I think my analysis of this time frame is fairly good.

      Bear in mind, comics are a hobby -- it is not like I am an expert on this stuff. I did some research, I found the history fascinating, and I wrote it up best I could. If I have made any factual errors or misleading statements, please let me know and I will try to correct things as quickly as I can.

    • rjbatty profile image

      rjbatty 20 months ago from Irvine

      Re. Your comments on the Silver Age of comics -- this seems restricted to the uncanny rise of Marvel in a DC-dominated domaine. During the Silver Age, DC didn't really change much. It deflected the soap opera treatment that Marvel injected into all their comics and each issue was a stand-alone adventure. The characters displayed no angst, and continued in a fairly long tradition of just having colorful characters fight weird bad guys/villains. In retrospect this was a strangee period for comic book readers. You could read DC and deal with Bizzaro Superman, the bottled city of Kandora, Krypto, Bat Mite, Mr. Mxyztplk, Jimmy Olsen, and many other bone-headed oddities in the publisher's world. Or you could somehow try to connect to the endless soap opera issues presented in Marvel. For me, the best was presented in Flash and Green Lantern (thanks to Carmine Infantino). These were pretty much straight stories with fantastic art. I liked Marvel's character, but groaned at the ongoing angst problems. I settled on Thor -- as he was the most DC-like hero, relatively free of all the soap opera. Thor didn't have a real identity crisis, no sick Aunt May back home. He was just this very funny, awkward visitor from another dimension who had all sorts of befuddlement adjusting to life on Earth. That was fun stuff. But, the point is that the Silver Age represented more than the birth of Marvel Comics. DC kept outselling Marvel for years, and not without good reason. Children such as myself really didn't give a hoot about Marvel's character identity crisis. It seemed like a gimmick -- even to my child's mind, and although I got hooked, I never liked reading a comic that wasn't a stand-alone feature. In those days you couldn't be sure you'd find the next issue of anything, so you wanted your ten or twelve cents to be a self-fulfilling story. Marvel abandoned this concept and introduced the "continuing saga" element, which was irritating. And to this day I feel sorry that comics shifted from the readership of twelve-year-old kids to forty-something fat asses that have the cash to buy a lot of comics per month but who really killed off the Silver Age with their penchant for cliff-hangers.