A Brief History of American Comics
Breaking down the history of American Comics
Comics is commonly associated with American superheroes like Superman or Batman, or studios like Marvel and DC.
American comics, in particular with Marvel and DC, has blown up since the beginning of the 21st century when Spiderman, starring Tobey Maguire, was released in 2002. Everybody and their mother has heard of Superman or Iron Man.
But when did the story of comics begin? How did it get to where it is today? Are comics popular outside America?
We’ll be answering these questions in a two-part series:
- American Comics
- Franco-Belgian (Bandes dessinées) Comics
What exactly is comics?
Comics, in its purest form, is a storytelling medium made up of dialogue and visuals.
Compared to other storytelling mediums such as essays and novels, comics (arguably), it is much easier to read.
Platinum Age (1897–1938)
Comics were relatively popular in early 1800s America and England. However, the very first comic book is widely considered to be The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats which was published in 1897.
In 1933, Funnies on Parade became the first colored comic book printed in the now-standard comic book format we know today. (6 5/8 x 10 1/4 inches for you curious ones).
Golden Age (1938–1956)
Superman debuted in 1938, kicking off the Golden Age of comics. Just a year later in 1939, Batman was born. Other notable superheroes of the Golden Age include Captain Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Flash.
Considered the most popular age for comics — with as many as 1.5 million copies sold per month, people today might be scratching their head wondering why this happened.
To put things in perspective, the Golden Age happened during the peak of WW2. Good vs. Evil was the theme of the war. And the prime villain? Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. American patriotism at its finest.
But towards the tail end of the Golden Age, interest in superheroes began to fade.
Silver Age (1956–1970)
Following the Golden Age, readers grew tired of Good vs. Evil superhero stories. They wanted something fresh.
This led to a wide variety of, at the time, borderline offensive genres and themes like Wonder Woman in bondage, Batman and Robin in a homosexual relationship, and Superman representing fascist ideals during the Cold War.
At the time, it was far too radical, and critics cried out that it increased misbehavior among children. This led to the cancellations of many horror, romance, and mystery titles.
Fortunately, with the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, the Silver Age quickly sprung superhero comics back to life with humor, silliness, and fresh themes.
Bronze Age (1970–1985)
During the Bronze Age, and with looser regulations, dark themes and stories were reintroduced to comics touching up real-life social issues.
From drug use and vampires to hints of the Civil Rights Movement and racism, the Bronze Age began reflecting the American culture.
It also marked an end for many great writers and ushered a new line of young writers with new ideas and daring stories.
Dark Age (1985–1996)
The Dark Ages is exactly what it sounds like. It’s dark. The anti-hero genre (Alan Moore’s Watchmen) tore apart the Good vs. Evil stories. It instead put in complex and radical storylines like where Superman dies and superheroes killing each other.
Unfortunately, this age did not bode well with the popularity of comics and even led to Marvel declaring bankruptcy in 1996.
Modern Age (1985 — Present Day)
The Modern Age is how we know comics today. Psychologically-complex characters and plot-twists are some contributors to its success.
Adapted to film and other forms, comics became widely successful again. Thanks to the well planned and executed Marvel Universe films (let’s not talk about the DC Universe), it made comics even more popular, making heroes like Iron Man and Tony Stark a staple topic.
All in all, American comics evolved over many ages focusing on pure good vs. evil to modern culture themes and real-life social issues.
Comic books today is a reflection of who we are in society. It reflects us. And that’s a good thing.