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Golden Age of Comic Books

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Superman, catalyst of the Golden Age: Superman #14 (Feb. 1942). Cover art by Fred Ray

The Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in the history of American comic books, generally thought of as lasting from the late 1930s until the late 1940s. During this time, modern comic books were first published and enjoyed a surge of popularity; the archetype of the superhero was created and defined; and many of the most famous superheroes debuted, among them Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman.

The period saw the arrival of the comic book as a mainstream art form, and the defining of the medium's artistic vocabulary and creative conventions by its first generation of writers, artists, and editors.



One event cited for the beginning of the Golden Age was the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by DC Comics. Superman was the first superhero, his creation made comic books into a major industry. Some date the start to earlier events in the 1930s: The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's regular publication The Golden Age Quarterly lists comic books from 1933 onwards (1933 saw the publication of the first comic book in the size that would subsequently define the format); some historians, including Roger Sabin (in Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: a History of Comic Art), date it to the publication of the first comic books featuring entirely original stories rather than re-prints of comic strips from newspapers (1935), by the company that would become DC Comics. However, Superman, the first comic book superhero, was so popular that superheroes soon dominated the pages of comic books, which characterized the Golden Age. Between early 1939 and late 1941, DC and sister company All-American Comics introduced such popular superheroes as Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and Aquaman, while Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.

Whiz Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), the first appearance of Captain Marvel. Cover art by C. C. Beck.

Although DC and Timely characters are more famous today, circulation figures suggest that the best-selling superhero title of the era may have been Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose approximately 1.4 million copies per issue made it "the most widely circulated comic book in America. Captain Marvel's sales soundly trounced Superman's self-titled series and Action Comics alike".

Other popular and long-running characters included Quality Comics' Plastic Man, and cartoonist Will Eisner's non-superpowered masked detective the Spirit, originally published in a Sunday-newspaper insert.

World War II had a significant impact. Comic books, particularly superhero comics, gained immense popularity during the war as cheap, portable, easily read tales of good triumphing over evil. American comic book companies showcased their heroes battling the Axis Powers: covers featuring superheroes punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or fighting buck-toothed caricatures of Japanese soldiers have become relics of the age.

Although the creation of the superhero was the Golden Age's most significant contribution to pop culture, many other genres of comic book appeared on the newsstands side-by-side with Superman and Captain America. The Golden Age included many funny animal, western, romance, and jungle comics. The Steranko History of Comics 2 notes that it was the non-superhero characters of Dell Comics — most notably the licensed Walt Disney animated character comics — that outsold all the supermen of the day. Dell comics, featuring such licensed movie and literary properties Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, and Tarzan, boasted circulations of over a million copies a month, and Donald Duck writer/artist Carl Barks is considered one of the era's major talents. Another notable and enduring non-superhero property created during the Golden Age was the Archie Comics cast of teen-humor characters.

Post War and the Atomic Era

As with WWII, the ushering in of the Atomic Era in 1945 colored the content and subject matter of comic books in the mid to late 1940s. The best example being 1949s education book Dagwood Splits the Atom. A statement forwarded the book from former Manhattan Project military leader Leslie Groves that introduced the dangers of atomic power. He warned that “we must choose the path of the benevolent future, we must have light in order to see the way, we must have the light of knowledge.” He goes on to say that “this book will reassure the fearful that the future can be made bright.” The book then likens the discovery of atomic energy to that of fire, listing its practical uses as a tool more so than a weapon. A tool whose untold destructive power can also move ships, cure cancer and produce electricity. This would however only be possible if the younger generation can benevolently harnesses this power. The book ends with a reminder that “Atomic energy cannot be put back into the realm of the unknown. It is here and we must vigilantly watch its development and help influence its use for the rest of mankind.”

The prevailing message of comic books in the early nuclear age was that of inspiration for the younger generation. However, this concept of educational comics failed to catch on, as more parents bought Dagwood Splits the Atom than the youths who remained interested in the adventures of their favourite super-heroes. Benevolent atomic super heroes did exist in this period, and normally received their power from exposure to radiation, or an atomic blast. Heroes such at the Atomic Thunderbolt in his first and only issue vowed to use his power for the good of mankind, while Atoman taught readers that “atomic power ... belongs to the whole world.” The more popular Superman fought against a villain named Atom-Man in the televised series, while his weakness to kryptonite reminded audiences and readers of the dangers of radiation. Even the above mentioned Captain Marvel journeyed through some atomic themed story lines. Contrasting these serious characters were more light-hearted series’ about atomic animals like Atomic Mouse and, later, Atomic Rabbit. These cute creations helped readers ease fears over the prospect of nuclear war and neutralise anxieties over the big questions posed by atomic power.

Dagwood and his panelled companions introduced Americans to the notion of the ‘peaceful atom,’ which had been popularised in the late 1940s. This notion had been growing in popularity since the decline in public interest in an atomic threat. This was however no accident, but in fact a product of conscious media manipulation geared towards soothing public opinion about an arms industry that was here to stay. It is thus no surprise that the Atomic Energy Council had consulted the creators of Dagwood Splits the Atom. Their participation ensured that it would be as therapeutic as it was educational. This therapy was necessary to improve the atoms public image, as, on the other side of the atomic coin, was the growth of the arms industry and the strategic reliance on atomic supremacy at the dawn of the cold war.

End of the era

1940s comics were called Golden Age by 1963, as on the cover of Strange Tales #114 (Nov. 1963).

Fans differ in marking the end of the Golden Age. Some events considered demarcation points include:

  • The rise of gritty crime and horror comics, such as those of EC Comics, in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the beginning of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings.
  • 1950. For Timely Comics, the Golden Age ended with the cancellation of Captain America Comics at issue #75 (Feb. 1950) — by which time the series had already been Captain America's Weird Tales for two issues, with no superhero stories. The company's flagship title, Marvel Mystery Comics, starring the Human Torch, had already ended its run (with #92, June 1949), as had Sub-Mariner Comics (with #32, the same month).
  • 1951. Stories featuring the all-star superhero team the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics ended with issue #57. (The series changed its name with #58 to All-Star Western.) This event climaxed a long decline in the popularity of superheroes. At Timely Comics, Goodman began using the Atlas Comics logo on comics cover-dated Nov. 1951.
  • The subsequent Silver Age of Comic Books is generally recognized as beginning with the debut of the first successful new superhero since the Golden Age, DC Comics' new Flash, in Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956). The interim period, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, is sometimes described as the Atomic Age of Comics Books.

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