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a brief history of comic books the pioneer (1500-1828), victorian (1828-1883) and platinum (1883-1938) ages (please note: in this article, all dates given for various ...

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF COMIC BOOKS The Pioneer (1500-1828), Victorian (1828-1883) and Platinum (1883-1938) Ages (Please note: In this article, all dates given for various “Ages” are approximate. With the exception of the beginning of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age, little consensus exists on starting/ending dates. In fact, if you really want to start an argument between comic book geeks, just ask any two of them when the Silver Age ends and the Bronze Age begins. Just make sure that you’re standing well back and wearing protective clothing when you do, though…) Although many comics historians will point to European broadsheets of the six- teenth century as the ancient precursors of comic books (these broadsheets used text and illustration to get their point across, so there is some merit to this argument), or satirical magazines of the 1780s (in which the first recorded examples of “dialogue balloons” are seen), most would agree that true comics began on May 5, 1895 in the pages of the New York World with the first appearance of R.F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley (which itself may have been inspired by the turn-of-the-century photography of Jacob Riis or the cartoons of Michael Angelo Woolf ). This single-panel humor cartoon, which focused on the shenanigans of a group of young hooligans, introduced The Yellow Kid, one of the most popular fictional characters of the first few decades of the 20th Century (by the way, Outcault is perhaps better known as the creator of Buster Brown, who later lent his name and image to a line of shoes). Soon, comics became a popular mainstay of newspapers na- tionwide, and such legendary characters as Happy Hooligan, Maggie & Jiggs (in the popular strip Bringing Up Father), Mutt & Jeff, the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat & Ignatz Mouse, and Barney Google were born. Although the earliest strips were all humorous, it didn’t take imaginative creators long to realize that the form could be expanded to accommodate other genres. Some, like visionary artist Winsor McCay, flourished in the fantasy field, and brought the odd and surreal to the printed page in strips like Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, Little Sammy Sneeze, and, most successfully, Little Nemo in Slumberland. Others explored a more adventurous route, and soon the likes of Little Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician were starring in serialized stories on the comic page.
The Golden Age (1938-1949) It’s generally accepted among collectors that the first comic book was FUNNIES ON PARADE, published in 1933. This was mainly a collection of newspaper strip reprints, featuring such favorites as Mutt & Jeff, Joe Palooka, Hairbreadth Harry, Reg’lar Fellers, and more. But for all intents and purposes, the comic book industry really started with the publication of ACTION COMICS #1 in June 1938. This landmark issue, the first comic to pres- ent all-new material, saw the first appearance of The Man of Steel, Superman. The product of two teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was an overnight sensation and forever transformed the fledgling comic book industry. It is the publication of ACTION #1 that marks the beginning of the “Golden Age” of comics. The reason for Superman’s instant popularity in the late 1930s is obvious: during this time, America was a nation of immi- grants. People were coming from all over the world in search of “The American Dream.” Superman, as the last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, is the ultimate immigrant. It wasn’t uncommon for children to be separated from their parents during this time, either in their home country or once they got to Ellis Island. This is the feeling, of both adventure and un- certainty, that Siegel and Shuster, both the sons of European immigrants, tapped into with their strange visitor from another planet. With the success of Superman, a plethora of super-characters was quickly released to a breathlessly waiting world. Batman, Wonder Woman, the Human Torch, Captain Marvel, the Sub-Mariner, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, Captain America… they all donned colorful costumes and waged war against crime and criminals on the homefront, and, in those patriotic days of World War II, the Nazi menace as well. They fought separate- ly, of course, and also banded together as the Justice Society of America, the All-Winners Squad, and the Seven Soldiers of Victory. At their height, superhero comics were selling up to a million copies per monthly issue. It was a good time to be a hero. And then the war ended, and the heroes who had kept the world safe for democracy found themselves without worthy enemies to fight. Truly, after triumphing over Hitler and his Axis hordes, using those same superpowers to catch bank robbers was sort of like using a tank to swat a fly. The heroes limped on, doing the best they could, until about 1949, but their days were clearly numbered.
The Atomic Age (1949-1956) Comics publishers saw the writing on the walls. Suddenly, everyone was scrambling to find the hot new trend. Lev Glea- son had been publishing CRIME DOES NOT PAY since 1942, and, a few years later had a blockbuster on his hands. Crime and gangsters were hot! Radio gave us “Dragnet,” “The Shadow,” “The Black Museum,” “Crime Classics,” and “Night Beat,” and comics were quick to jump on the band- wagon. CRIME EXPOSED (1948), TRUE CRIME COM- ICS (1947), CRIMES BY WOMEN (1948), THE KILLERS (1947), and many, many more crime titles littered the news- stands, fueling the public’s insatiable appetite for “true crime” stories (an appetite that continues unabated to this day. Witness the O.J. Simpson cottage industry and the ever-ongoing Jon Benet Ramsey investigation, not to mention the current phenom- enon of court TV shows, such as “The People’s Court,” “Judge Judy,” and all their various imitators and competitors). The infusion of this new genre would prove to be the savior that the comics industry had been looking for. It would also prove to be its downfall. Another trend in popular culture in the late 40s and early 50s was the horror film, which, in turn, gave birth to the science fiction movie. Horror films had lain dormant since the start of World War II. Who cares about vampires and werewolves when there’s a real monster to fight in Germany? Avon Publications tried to enter the horror comics niche in 1946, but EERIE, their sole offering, lasted only one issue. But by 1949, the war was over, and monsters were making a comeback in both films and comics. 1951 gave us “The Thing.” “It Came From Outer Space,” “War Of The Worlds,” “Robot Monster” and “Invaders From Mars” terrified us in 1953, “Godzilla” first stomped Tokyo in 1954, and Cold War paranoia reached its height in 1956 with “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.” Comics weren’t slow to notice this trend. William Gaines, the heir to M.C. Gaines, publishing magnate, and head of Educational (soon to be Entertaining) Comics, found him- self presiding over a dying line. PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE and FAT & SLAT just weren’t setting the pub- lic on fire. So Bill turned to the then-hot genre of crime and published CRIME PATROL and WAR AGAINST CRIME. Never one to miss an opportunity, he also helmed SADDLE JUSTICE, GUNFIGHTER, MODERN LOVE, and SADDLE ROMANCES, and a little gem of a parody comic called MAD. Then, in the back pages of CRIME PATROL #15, Gaines introduced The Crypt Keeper, and the Horror Genre in comic books was officially born.
Gaines had some of the most talented artists in the business working for him. Jack Davis, Wally Wood, “Ghastly” Graham Ingles, Jack Kamen, Harvey Kurtzman, and Al Williamson, to name just a few, could all be counted on to turn in top-notch stories month after month. And they really took off when the all the stops were pulled out for the horror books. THE VAULT OF HORROR, THE CRYPT OF TERROR, THE HAUNT OF FEAR… if it slithered, slimed, crawled, killed, maimed, or devoured, it found a home in the pages of these books. No idea was too twisted, no image too terrifying for Gaines’ Ghouls to illustrate for a white-knuckled public. “O. Henry”-style twist endings abounded: a baseball player who killed a rival was himself killed and his body parts used to play a midnight ball game. In another, a dutiful wife found that her husband, the butcher, had sold tainted meat that had accidentally killed their son. Come the next morning, his remains are proudly displayed in the meat case, while she stands glassy-eyed behind the counter. And science-fiction wasn’t neglected, either. There were books like WEIRD SCIENCE, WEIRD FANTASY, and INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION. Rockets, spacemen, and a plethora of weird aliens populated these magazines, with all the promise of the newly-born Atomic Age. But then the unthinkable happened. The publication of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT in 1954 by Dr. Frederic Wertham rocked the comic-publishing world. Wertham claimed to be a crusader, obsessed with protecting America’s youth. He claimed to have done a study of juvenile delinquents that “proved” comic books had turned them into criminals. Never mind that the majority of his subjects came from broken homes or from parents who had had unfortunate run-ins with the law; comic books, and comic books alone, were the scourge of the country and had to be wiped out. Today, a crackpot like Wertham would be laughed out of the media, but, much like the infamous “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy and his “Red Scare”, people heard Wertham’s message and took it to heart. The Supreme Court actually held hearings on comic books, and, as the publisher of the most flagrantly horrific comics, William Gaines took the stand. It was not a pretty sight. In response to this incredible threat, and to avoid any kind of government interfer- ence, comics publishers banded together and created their own Comics Code, which specifically banned, for example, the words “Horror” and “Terror” from the title of a comic book. It also banned vampires, werewolves, ghouls, zombies, and other
supernatural creatures from the pages of comics literature. This seemed to satisfy Wertham and his allies. There are those who say, however conspiratorially, that the Code was designed to put EC, the most successful publisher of the day, out of business. It all but succeeded. In 1955, grasping at straws, Gaines inaugurated his “New Trend” line of comics that included titles such as VALOR, ACES HIGH, EXTRA, MD, and PSYCHOANALYSIS, all designed to obtain Code-approval. None of them lasted the year, and, except for a little book called MAD, which had been converted to magazine format to avoid the Code, EC went quietly into that good night. Comics weren’t dead, however. Over at National Comics, BATMAN, SUPERMAN, and WONDER WOMAN had been plugging along at a time when superheroes were out of favor. However, now that the Code was in place, and horror and crime comics were a thing of the past, it seemed like a good time for a resurrection of the heroes of yore. The Silver Age (1956- ca. 1970) Julius Schwartz was a man of many talents. For years he had been an agent for some of the nation’s top science-fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and H.P. Lovecraft. By 1956, he was Editor-In-Chief of National Periodical Publications (soon to become DC Comics), who owned Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Looking over the bleak comic book landscape of the day, Schwartz decided that the time was right to bring back the superheroes of yesteryear. Not just bring them back as they were, however, but bring them back updated for a modern age. In the pages of SHOWCASE #4 (cover dated October 1956), Schwartz reintroduced the Sultan of Speed, the Vizier of Velocity… The Flash! After three more try-outs in SHOWCASE, the Flash graduated to his own starring book, and the Silver Age of Comics was born. Hot on the heels of the revitalized Flash came other heroes of the Golden Age, reinterpreted for a savvier audience. Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Atom… all were reborn. And then, inevitably, subscribing to the theory that if one is good, more is better, they all met in the pages of THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, the greatest gathering of heroes the world had ever known.
Across town, Martin Goodman, publisher of the struggling Atlas/Marvel line of comics, wasn’t slow to pick up on this new trend. Atlas had been plugging along since the establishment of the Comics Code, turning out lightweight monster yarns about such Code-approved creatures as Tim-Boo-Bah, Fin Fang Foom, Grootah, Googam, and Metallo. Tight scripts by Stan Lee, and imaginative artwork by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber, and others, made these books fun and exciting to read, but they certainly weren’t setting the world on fire. And then Martin Goodman made a momentous decision: since National had a successful superhero team book, Marvel needed one also. Stan Lee was tasked with creating it. In collaboration with Jack Kirby, Lee produced the first issue of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, which went on sale with a cover date of November 1961. Made up of a quartet of characters who had been exposed to cosmic radiation during an unauthorized space flight. The group consisted of Reed Richards, the highly elastic Mister Fantastic, Sue Storm, the now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm, Sue’s brother, a reinterpreted Human Torch, and Ben Grimm, the tragic, monstrous, super-strong Thing. But this wasn’t just any super-group. The FF was a family. They fought amongst each other, they had no secret identities, they had money and dating problems, and, for the first couple of issues, they had no colorful costumes. Clearly, these were not your father’s superheroes. The Fantastic Four were a smash, and it didn’t take Stan and crew long to capitalize on their success. Before long, Marvel introduced such icons as Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. Comics became hip with the college crowd, and, by about 1964, comic collecting became an increasingly organized hobby. The Silver Age was in full swing. Fueled in part by the bur- geoning “Pop Art” movement championed by such influential artists as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, both of which drew inspiration from the four-color page, and stoked by the growing number of fans on college campuses and in the “adult” world, comics were “cool.” Batmania, a brief but intense national obsession ignited in 1966 with the premiere of the “Batman” TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, helped to kick the Silver Age into high gear, as even the day’s most popular and powerful entertainment stars vied for a chance to cross paths as colorful villains with the Gotham Guardian and his youthful ward. “POW!,” ZAP!,” and “WHAM!” were the watchwords of the day, given life in glar- ing, day-glo colors. Superman starred in his own Broadway musical, and superhero
cartoons rocked the airwaves on Saturday mornings. It was a good time to be a comic character, as publishers, licensors and merchandisers were finding out. It’s not as easy to precisely define the end of the Silver Age as it is to place the end of other ages. Different people have different ideas about when this halcyon time came to an end. Some say it happened as early as 1970 when Jack Kirby left Marvel to go to DC and the first OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE was published. Some say the release of CONAN #1 (October, 1970), and the birth of the “sword- and-sorcery” genre in early 1971 is as good an ending date as any other. For many, however, the Silver Age ended in 1973, when Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend and long-time love interest, was killed. Really killed. Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story. For the first time, death was real in comics. For the first time, no one was safe. “Happily ever after” was no longer a guarantee. It was the end of innocence. It was the end of the Silver Age. The Bronze Age (ca. 1970-1980) But just because the Silver Age ended didn’t mean that comics came to a crashing halt. Far from it. The form was alive and well, and entering a new age with new artists and new ideas. “Relevant” comics were big in the Bronze Age, with characters like Green Lantern and Green Arrow (in stories masterfully told by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams) confronting such topical issues as drug abuse, pollution, racism, and poverty. Stan Lee actually challenged the Comics Code when he wrote a story spanning AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98 (1971) that dealt with drug abuse. The Code refused to approve the book, so Lee ran those three issues without the Code Seal. It had taken 15 years, but the Comics Code armor was beginning to crack. Other new, young creators began to enter the field as well, bringing with them new sensibilities and new ideas. Bernie Wrightson, Mike Ploog, Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin… these were just a few of the “young turks” that invaded the com- ics industry during the Bronze Age. They were The Beatles of comics. It was a time of experimentation and expansion, about seeing how far the envelope could be pushed. It was a time of transformation. For the first time, heroes began questioning their motivations, just as their creators had been questioning their government on topics ranging from Vietnam to drug en- forcement laws for several years. Captain America, once the unflagging symbol of the US of A, began to question his role as a symbol of America in light of the atrocities in Southeast Asia that were then coming to light. Green Lantern explored a range of topical issues, from racism to environmentalism to Native American concerns, all the while
questioning his current role as part of an intergalactic police force. Even Lois Lane got into the act, going so far as to submit to an experimental procedure that changed her from Cauca- sian to African-American so she could better understand the plight of blacks during the height of the Civil Rights era. It was, indeed, a brave new world between the slick covers of America’s comic books. But, as with all things, it too would come to an end. Many people see the end of the Bronze Age as some unde- fined time in the late 1970s. Certainly, the “DC Implosion” of 1978, when DC Comics ceased publication of roughly a third of their titles, is a plau- sible end. Also, it would not be remiss to note that 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House, saw a societal shift that was definitely felt in the comics world. However you look at it, by 1980 the Bronze Age was well and truly over. The Modern Age (ca. 1980-present) Which brings us to the current age, the Modern Age of com- ics. This has definitely been a period of booms and busts for comics. Black and white comics were on fire in the early 1980s, led by the unlikely success of such garage-projects as TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. Now you’d be hard pressed to give them away. Speculators found comics in the early 1990s. Like the prospectors who discovered “gold in them thar hills,” they strip-mined the field for all it was worth, buying and hoarding massive quantities of current comics, certain that they’d be able to retire and live a life of ease on the resale proceeds to be gained in just a few short years. A few short years later, they all but lost their shirts and cratered the industry. The end of the century saw the rise of trade paperbacks, which caused creators to rethink the ways in which comics were traditionally packaged and marketed. Currently, a small but passionate group are exploring the frontiers of web comics. A few, like Dallas-area cartoonist Scott Kurtz, creator of PVP (www.pvponline.com), have found enormous success in this field, but it’s still too early to know what the future of this branch of the industry will be. The1980s also saw the influx of British creators to American comics, in a move that has been termed “The Second British Invasion.” Writers such as Alan Moore and artists including Dave Gibbons, John Bolton, Brian Bolland, and Alan Davis brought a new, fresh sensibility to comics. Moore and Gib- bons created one of the most revolutionary works of the de- cade with WATCHMEN, a book that was both popularly and critically acclaimed, and is today considered one of the cornerstones of comics literature. It artfully deconstructed the
superhero genre, and brought cape-and-cowl characters, some kicking and scream- ing, into the new era. Part of the second wave of British creators to make their marks on the comics landscape, Neil Gaiman made his debut quietly in the pages of a new horror comic, SANDMAN, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Within a dozen issues, the original concept of SANDMAN as a horror comic was largely forgotten, and the book became Gaiman’s canvas on which he and a variety of artists could tell virtually any type of tale they wished, from the mundane to the fantastic. An author who has won numerous awards for both his comics and prose fiction, Gaiman infamously won a World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 1991 for his story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” published in SANDMAN #19 as part of “The Dream Country” storyline. “Infamously” as, since that time, the World Fantasy Awards rules have been changed to prohibit a comic book from ever again receiving this coveted honor. Fortunately, DC Comics has chosen to keep the entirety of Gaiman’s SANDMAN work in print in a variety of graphic novel formats. Perhaps one of the most significant events in graphic novel history was the publi- cation of Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE in the pages of RAW MAGAZINE in 1977. Collected into graphic novel form and issued as a trade paper- back in two parts in 1991, Spiegelman deftly tells the story of his father’s experiences as a Jew in Poland during the Holocaust. In order to tell the tale effectively, and to allow himself some distance from the oftimes painful retelling, Spiegelman cast the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. Spiegelman’s treatment was so effective that MAUS won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award for Letters in 1992, and has been in print in one form or another ever since. It is a groundbreaking work, and one that should be read by anyone who has even the slightest interest in events in Europe during the Nazi regime. Today, the comics industry is as diverse as it’s ever been. Read- ers and collectors can find comics to fit any taste, including crime, horror, western, romance…. even superheroes! Major bookstores carry comic books now, and their offshoots, the “graphic novel.” Even more importantly, comics and comic characters are entering people’s everyday lives through the medium of big-budget movies, which are increasingly draw- ing inspiration and subject matter from the four-color page. In just the last few years, we’ve seen multi-million dollar films focusing on the exploits of such spandex-clad superstars as Spider-Man, The X-Men, Batman, the Hulk, Daredevil and Elektra, with Superman and Wonder Woman soon to follow. In addition, films such as THE ROAD TO PERDITION,
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