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Golden Age of Superheroes (1938–1954)


Action Girl Cover Image

America’s Best Comics #19 © 1946 Standard Comics. COVER ART BY ALEX SCHOMBURG.

In the view of many, the superhero and the comic book are interchangeable, but historically, the comic book came first.

Collections of newspaper comic strips and cartoons had been published as early as the late nineteenth century, printed on low-grade pulp paper in a variety of sizes and generally distributed as promotional items. The characters featured in these editions—The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids were among the more popular early features—were almost entirely comical, earning the nicknames the funnies or funny papers (which ultimately morphed into funny books, a moniker vehemently loathed by many superhero readers and collectors). An anthology of Sunday newspaper strips, Famous Funnies #1, debuted as a monthly periodical in May 1934, and is acknowledged as the precursor to the conventional comic book (although this series was preceded a year earlier by two similarly formatted one-shots, Funnies on Parade and A Carnival of Comics).

Pulp magazines catered to readers craving adventure and thrills. The pulps, collections of prose short stories published on pulp paper with an illustrated (usually painted) cover image, emerged in the early twentieth century and grew to tremendous popularity, particularly in the 1920s through the 1940s. From anthologies like Weird Tales to solo titles featuring mysterious heroes like The Shadow (whose pulp series lasted an astounding 326 issues from 1931 to 1949), the pulps offered breathtaking action and chilling suspense.

It was only a matter of time before these two modes of popular culture converged. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a retired soldier and author of pulp stories in the late 1920s and early 1930s, started his own publishing house in 1935—National Allied Publications—and in February of that year released New Fun #1, the first comic-book series exclusively consisting of new material; in this case, comic strips. Adventure-oriented comics with new material followed, most notably Detective Comics #1, released in March 1937 by Nicholson and his new partners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who had previously run Detective Comics, Inc. and then soon bought out Nicholson's interest in his own company, renaming it National Comics—even though it was (and still is) commonly called DC.

DC Comics introduced the first costumed superhero, Superman, in Action Comics #1 (June 1938). The creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman had unsuccessfully been marketed to newspaper syndicates as a daily strip. Although Superman was chosen by television network VH1 as the second most recognizable figure in its 2003 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons poll, DC took an enormous risk in 1938 by publishing the untried character, given the depressed economic climate of the day. DC's Donenfeld suspected that the concept would quickly perish: He felt nobody would believe it, that it was ridiculous—crazy, Sheldon Mayer, a former DC editor and artist, once revealed. Siegel and Shuster's unwavering faith in their superpowered champion never faltered, and readers of the day reciprocated the creators' enthusiasm: Action #1 sold phenomenally well; with subsequent issues its circulation figures were boosted to meet reader demand. Superman, the first superhero, was a hit.

At the time, however, Superman was not labeled or marketed as a superhero, even though he perfectly personified the term as it is defined by many comic-book scholars today: a heroic character with an altruistic mission, who possesses superpowers, wears a defining costume, and functions in the real world in his or her alter ego. According to author Mike Benton, in his book Superhero Comics of the Golden Age: The Illustrated History (1992), Although the term 'superhero' was used as early as 1917 to describe a public figure of great talents or accomplishments, the early comic book heroes of the 1940s were usually referred to by their creators as 'costumed characters' or as 'long-underwear' or 'union-suit heroes.' Nonetheless, the superhero had been established, and was about to be cultivated.

Encouraged by Superman's success, DC introduced the Crimson Avenger in Detective #20 (October 1938), the Sandman in New York World's Fair Comics #1 (April 1939), and Batman in Detective #27 (May 1939), and published Superman #1, spinning off the Man of Steel into his own solo series, in the summer of 1939.

Victor Fox was an accountant for DC Comics who knew a good thing when he saw it. After witnessing the profits generated by Superman in Action, Fox quit his day job and started his own publishing company, Fox Features Syndicate. The overly ambitious Fox was sued by his former employer upon the May 1939 release of Wonder Comics #1, which featured the daring, superhuman exploits of Wonderman, a superpowered character too close to Superman for DC's comfort. Wonderman did not return for a second appearance, but Fox continued to publish comics, introducing the Flame, the Green Mask, and the Blue Beetle.

Entrepreneurs other than Fox also took notice of the success of Superman, and comic-book publishers—from talented visionaries to fly-by-night shysters—sprouted up instantly, with a flood of new long-underwear heroes spilling forth, including Lev Gleason Publications' Silver Streak; Quality Comics Group's Doll Man; Brookwood Publications' Shock Gibson; Centaur Publications' Amazing-Man, the Archer, the Iron Skull, and the Fantom of the Fair; and MLJ Publications' the Wizard.

A publisher that would later become DC's chief competitor entered the field in November 1939: Timely Comics. Its first superheroes—the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and the Angel—premiered that month in an anthology that bore the eventual name of the company: Marvel Comics #1.

Comic books were the perfect entertainment form for the Depression: Their heroic, larger-than-life characters stirred the demoralized masses, and the very format of the magazines themselves—usually sixty-four pages of original material for a mere dime—was a bargain during those times of economic hardship.

The years 1940 and 1941 heralded an eruption of new comic-book superheroes. Included among their legion: DC's the Flash, Hawkman, the Spectre, Hourman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern, the Atom, Starman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman; radio stars the Green Hornet, the Shadow, and Captain Midnight; Fawcett Publications' Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible, and the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel; plus Cat-Man, Blue Bolt, Sub-Zero Man, the Black Terror, Hydroman, the Black Owl, the Ray, Plastic Man, Midnight, the Human Bomb, Magno (the Magnetic Man), Daredevil, the Black Hood, the Comet, and the Spirit (who starred in a comic supplement appearing in newspapers).

Superhero sub-genres quickly arose. There were the sidekicks, pre-teen or teenage junior superheroes who worked alongside their adult mentors. Starting this trend was Robin the Boy Wonder, the sensational character find of 1940, first seen in Detective #38. Robin was introduced by Batman creator Bob Kane as a gateway for young readers to live vicariously inside the hero's adventures, and as a means to soften the rather gruesome tone of Batman's first year of publication, in which the character, originally more anti-hero than superhero, hurled mobsters off of rooftops. The concept of the superhero sidekick was yet another first for DC Comics, and another success. More kid heroes followed, like Toro, Captain Marvel Jr., Speedy, Davey, and Roy the Superboy. Superheroines began to appear in the man's world of superheroics: Wonder Woman, the Woman in Red, Phantom Lady, Lady Luck, and Black Cat were among the first. These two sub-genres dovetailed with the introduction of female sidekicks to superheroes, such as Flame Girl, Bulletgirl, Hawkgirl, Mary Marvel, and Cat-Man's partner Kitten. And in the winter of 1940, the superteam was born, as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and other DC superheroes joined forces as the Justice Society of America.

These early superheroes (except for Timely's anti-hero, the erratic Sub-Mariner, and its flaming android, the Torch) had secret identities; they obtained superpowers through bizarre, often scientifically based occurrences, or through acquisition of power-inducing devices; they hid their actual identities behind a mask, a costume, and, often, a cape; they adopted a flamboyant appellation; they engaged in bizarre or outlandish escapades; and they dedicated their lives and their abilities to fighting crime. Or to fighting Nazis.

As World War II spread across Europe in the late 1930s, comic books began to take notice, commented author Ron Goulart in Comic Book Culture (2000). Superman, a symbol of American patriotism in his blue-and-red uniform, fought tyrants and dictators, and apprehended both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in a special comic prepared in 1940 for Look magazine—not surprising since the Man of Steel was called the champion of the oppressed in his Action #1 debut. Captain Marvel and other superheroes also clobbered Nazi and Japanese soldiers on the covers of their comics, even before the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the conflict.

It was MLJ Publications—the company that would later be known as Archie Comics—that created the first specifically patriotic superhero: the Shield, in Pep Comics #1 (January 1940), a red-white-and-blue-garbed crime fighter who used his superpowers, obtained from a secret formula, to protect American soil from enemy saboteurs and spies. The best-known patriotic superhero premiered in March 1941: Timely (Marvel)'s Captain America. Cap, originally a weakling intensely loyal to his country, took a government-invented super soldier serum to permanently transform into the superhero who remains in print as a terrorist-buster in the post–September 11 world of the 2000s. The Shield and Captain America were merely two of a contingent of starred-and-striped heroes who appeared prior to and after America's entering the war: Miss Victory, U.S. Jones, the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy (a kid hero with an adult sidekick), Pat Patriot, Captain Victory, the Fighting Yank, Captain Flag, and Minute-Man (the One Man Army) were just some of the superpatriots of the World War II era. Even Uncle Sam, the symbol of U.S. Army recruitment, was a superhero during the 1940s.

A superhero was not required to wear stars and stripes to fight the Axis. The grimly clad Hangman punched out Nazis, Batman and Robin sold war bonds, the Black Terror—who bore a skull and crossbones as his costume insignia—rallied to the cause by carrying U.S. flags on his covers, and even the fussy Sub-Mariner—dressed in nothing but green swim trunks—redirected his aggression from attacking New York landmarks toward sinking Japanese subs. Comics became pro-war propaganda, and were even mailed abroad to American servicemen.

The comic-book industry flourished from a mere six comics companies in the pre-Superman days of 1936 to two dozen by the early 1940s, some of them manufacturing comics pages in unsavory, assembly-line conditions that resembled sweatshops. A 1943 Newsweek article cited 25 million copies of comic books being sold each month; They were selling 102 percent; that is, beyond their spoilage rate, former comic-book writer William Woolfolk once revealed. By the mid-1940s, eager would-be publishers were blockaded from entering this expanding field by the paper shortages of World War II. Kids were encouraged to donate their used comics to paper drives, resulting in their rarity in the 2000s, where high-grade copies of 1940s comics command prices, in some cases, of tens of thousands of dollars. Despite paper rationing, the existing publishers continued to produce, produce, produce.

Every civilization and its arts has a period in history of great accomplishments and flourishing activity, observed comics historian Benton. From the golden age of Ancient Greece to the golden age of silent movies, there is a time (often enhanced by nostalgia) which is judged to be the best of an era or the seminal period for an art form. Although no one at the time referred to it as such, this era of comics, particularly superhero comics, is considered the medium's Golden Age (1938–1954).

In retrospect, the era is better remembered for its novelty and profusion, not for the quality of its material. Most superhero stories of the Golden Age were primitively scripted and crudely drawn, yet at the time the audience was less discerning, seeking escapism rather than artistic or intellectual engagement.

Some Golden Age superhero comics, however, brilliantly exemplify superlative storytelling and artistic excellence. One such series is Quality Comics' Kid Eternity. First seen in Hit Comics #25 (December 1942), Kid Eternity is rumored to have been inspired by the film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was later remade into Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Down to Earth (2001). The kid—he is never given an actual name—dies, along with his grandfather, when the merchant marine ships they are on are torpedoed by Nazis. The boy's death is deemed a heavenly mistake, and he is returned to Earth, accompanied by a ghostly guardian, Mr. Keeper. As Kid Eternity, he commands a magic word (Eternity!) to become invisible, and to summon famous historical figures into the present to fight crime for him. Several lauded Golden Age artists rendered the character's adventures in Hit and in the Kid Eternity solo series, including Al Bryant and Alex Kotsky.

Other standouts, highly regarded by collectors and historians: the charming Captain Marvel tales whimsically drawn by C.C. Beck, Kurt Schaffenberger, and other illustrators; Captain Marvel Jr., a character who, under the guidance of artist Mac Raboy, was rendered in a manner much more realistic than Captain Marvel's; Matt Baker's voluptuously rendered Good Girl art pinups on Phantom Lady and other covers, plus covers drawn by artists extraordinaire Alex Schomburg and L. B. Cole; Jerry Robinson's creepy interpretation of the villainous Joker in his first appearance in Batman #1 (1940); Bill Everett's breathtaking underseascapes in Sub-Mariner; Jack Cole's ingeniously lively layouts on Plastic Man; Alex Schomburg's bombastically bold covers on Captain America and other patriotic series; Will Eisner's groundbreaking splash-page designs in The Spirit; and virtually anything drawn by virtuosos Jack Kirby, Reed Crandall, and Lou Fine.

The end of World War II nearly marked the end of the superhero. With the Axis forces eliminated as the menace du jour, comic-book heroes and heroines had nothing to do, noted Fawcett Comics artist Beck. One by one, superhero titles were canceled. Publishers went out of business, and those that survived did so from the success of new genres like funny animals, Westerns, horror, crime, romance, and science fiction, although those titles sold, at best, roughly half of circulation figures from the World War II boom.

Postwar America, despite its illusion of prosperity, was gripped by the fear of nuclear war and the spread of communism. Comics publishers scrambled to take advantage of the audience's awareness of both. The cover of Captain Marvel Adventures #66 (1946) depicts the hero standing amid a decimated city, with warheads sailing his way, its blurb proclaiming, Captain Marvel Battles the Dread Atomic War! Similarly, Superman, Fighting Yank, and other superheroes lamented nuclear warfare, while neo-heroes Atomic Man, Atoma, Atoman, and the Atomic Thunderbolt capitalized on it. Radiation-spawned monsters became a recurring theme in superhero comics by the 1950s; Plastic Man fought giant ants, and Batman and Robin were plagued by giant bees. Marvel Comics, which had canceled its superhero comics in the late 1940s, resurrected Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch as commie busters in the early 1950s, and superstar artist Jack Kirby and his partner Joe Simon launched a short-lived superhero parody, The Fighting American, taking on the red scare with tongue placed firmly in cheek. But readers did not seem to care. Comic-book consumers had a new pastime: the Golden Age of superheroes had given way to the Golden Age of television.

By the mid-1950s, only DC's Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman continued to star in their own titles, and they were about to meet a real-life supervillain who would endanger them further: Dr. Frederic Wertham. A psychologist, Wertham published a 1954 book titled Seduction of the Innocent, indicting comic books for causing juvenile delinquency and moral decay among youth. A U.S. Senate hearing followed that targeted graphic content in horror and crime comics. Sales shrunk even more, as many parents forbade their children from reading comics. It was comics' darkest hour. A censorship board was implemented, more publishers closed shop, and DC's remaining superheroes limped along under stringent new guidelines. The Golden Age of superheroes was over. —ME

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