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Silver Age of Superheroes (1956–1969)


Action Girl Cover Image

Amazing Spider-Man #68 © 1969 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JOHN ROMITA.

It was 1955, and the comic-book industry was imperiled. Postwar circulation figures had plunged, psychologist Frederic Wertham had impeached comics' content in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), and the U.S. Senate had imposed upon the industry a censorship board called the Comics Code Authority. Superheroes were passé, save the Man of Steel, a media star thanks to The Adventures of Superman (1953–1957), a syndicated program appearing on the medium that had robbed comics of much of its audience: television.

To survive, comics diversified away from superheroes into the Western, romance, mystery, teen humor, funny animal, and TV tie-in genres. Science fiction also proved a popular theme. Technological advancements spawned during the atomic age piqued Americans' imaginations, while the red scare fomented rampant paranoia. Science and cold war mistrust melded in November 1955 when DC Comics introduced—with absolutely no fanfare—the first new superhero in roughly ten years: the Manhunter from Mars. First seen as the backup feature to Batman and Robin in Detective Comics #115, J'onn J'onzz (pronounced John Jones), a green-skinned superman, is teleported to Earth by an American scientist. Unable to return home, J'onzz employs his shape-shifting ability to conceal his true looks from an unwelcoming population and masquerades as a Caucasian human detective named ... John Jones. The Manhunter from Mars would eventually be better known as the Martian Manhunter.

In 1956 DC Comics, struggling to find new concepts that might attract readers, introduced a tryout title, Showcase. The first three Showcases flopped, editor Julius Julie Schwartz recalled in his autobiography, Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics (2000), and we were at an editorial meeting trying to decide what to do in number four when I suggested that we try to revive the Flash. This renewal was given the green light despite the trepidation of other editors still battle-weary from the demise of superheroes several years earlier.

Schwartz steered the project into a fresh direction. Jay Garrick, the Flash of comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), was ignored—for a time, at least—and a new character, police scientist Barry Allen, obtained superspeed in his initial excursion in Showcase #4 (September–October 1956). Given a sporty costume by artist Carmine Infantino, the Flash mixed action, style, and imagination, an attractive alternative to DC's other series and to then-current television fare, where special-effects limitations made such superactivity impossible (or laughable when attempted). Brisk sales warranted three more Showcase appearances before the Fastest Man Alive sped into his own magazine.

At the time, DC, Schwartz, Infantino, and original Flash writer Robert Kanigher merely had in mind the creation of a new product that would generate readers and profit. Their efforts, and the Flash's runaway success, marked a vital moment in comic-book history: the beginning of its eminent Silver Age (1956–1969). Without the success of the Flash, publishers might have given up on superheroes, leading the genre into extinction.

In 1958, Schwartz's colleague Mort Weisinger, editor of DC's Superman franchise, guest-starred the Legion of Super-Heroes—one of the first times the term superheroes was used on a comics cover—in the Superboy strip in Adventure Comics #247. Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Boy (later renamed Lightning Lad) were superpowered teenagers from a thousand years in the future who traveled to the past to recruit the Boy of Steel into their club of heroes. Weisinger added a new superpowered member to Superman's family in May 1959, when Action Comics #252 introduced the Man of Steel's cousin Supergirl, a survivor of the planet Krypton.

Schwartz's next volley was the reintroduction of Green Lantern, another DC Golden Age great. As he did with the Flash, Schwartz took the superhero's name and power—in this case, his power ring, the source of Green Lantern's almost limitless abilities—and premiered a new version of the character in Showcase #22 (September–October 1959). Robust reader response to the hero led to the release of Green Lantern #1 in 1960.

With the acclaim for the Flash and Green Lantern, Schwartz took an ambitious step in The Brave and the Bold #28 (1960) by combining them, along with DC's other major superheroes—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter—into a team called the Justice League of America, another revamp, this time of the Golden Age's Justice Society of America. Continuing Schwartz's winning streak, the JLA was a smash, and the editor next overhauled both Hawkman and the Atom in 1961. Also that year, he published the momentous Flash of Two Worlds in The Flash #123, introducing the concept of a parallel world—Earth-Two, where the Golden Age Flash still operated, while the current version of the Flash existed on Earth-One. . Over the next few years, Schwartz offered exposure to more Earth-Two heroes, alongside their Earth-One counterparts: meetings between the Silver Age and Golden Age Flashes, Green Lanterns, and Atoms became common, and the Justice Society began annual crossovers in the pages of Justice League of America. Beyond those appearances, Starman and Black Canary teamed up in The Brave and the Bold #61 and #62 (1965), Dr. Fate and Hourman joined forces in Showcase #55 and #56 (1965), and the Spectre was revived in his own solo series beginning with Showcase #60 (1966).

Batman and Detective Comics teetered on the brink of cancellation in 1964, stagnant from years of mediocre stories and art. DC's editorial director Irwin Donenfeld assigned the books to Schwartz with the mandate of saving them. Schwartz realized that Batman had, in his own words, strayed away from the original roots of the character. The editor returned the element of mystery to Batman's tales, incorporating clues into the stories that invited the reader to solve the whodunit along with the superhero. Schwartz's most commercial alteration was in Batman's appearance: The Caped Crusader's costume was streamlined, and a yellow oval was added around his chest insignia, simulating the look of the sky-illuminating Bat-signal. The Batmobile was souped up into a stylish hot rod, and Robin the Boy Wonder became hipper in the process. This facelift, called The New Look Batman by fans and historians, sold solidly and rescued the Dynamic Duo from the chopping block.

Although these new Silver Age superheroes generated stronger sales than DC had been earning on many of its titles, circulations were still considerably lower than during the medium's heyday. By 1962 less than a dozen publishers accounted for a total annual industry output of 350 million comic books, a drop of over 50 percent from the previous decade, reported author Bradford W. Wright in his book, Comic Book Nation (2001).

Julius Schwartz indirectly contributed to a yet another substantial event: the advent of the Marvel Age of comics. Justice League was commanding such strong sales in 1961 that it afforded bragging rights to DC publisher Jack Liebowitz during a golf game with his contemporary, Martin Goodman. Goodman, the publisher of Marvel Comics—then limping along in the marketplace with a handful of monster and thriller series—ordered his staff editor/writer Stan Lee to create a group of superheroes. Lee had considered resigning from Marvel at the time of Goodman's directive, but was encouraged by his wife to challenge himself to try something new with this assignment. For once I wanted to write stories that wouldn't insult the intelligence of an older reader, stories with interesting characterization, more realistic dialogue, and plots that hadn't been recycled a thousand times before, explained Lee in his biography, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (2002). Lee, along with artist Jack Kirby, created Marvel's premier superteam, and its flagship title, in Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961).

The Fantastic Four's complex characters—smug scientist Reed Richards, a.k.a. the malleable Mr. Fantastic; his sheepish fiancée Sue Storm, the disappearing Invisible Girl; her fiery-tempered teen brother, Johnny, better known as the Human Torch; and Richards' brusque friend, ace pilot Ben Grimm, the grotesque man-monster called the Thing—each had personality quirks that frequently thrust the FF into verbal and physical conflict, yet they set their differences aside in times of crisis. They were a family, and the most realistically portrayed comic-book superheroes readers had ever seen. Fantastic Four instantly became Marvel's best-seller.

The Fantastic Four may have been inspired by the Justice League of America (JLA), but they shared no other traits. The FF was the JLA through a refractive lens: The Justice Leaguers exemplified camaraderie and teamwork, its members (except for Aquaman) concealed their true identities behind their colorful superguises, and its heroes lived in fictional cities (Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, and others); on the other hand, the FF bickered incessantly, they saw no reason to conceal their superpowers behind alter egos, and they resided in the real world city of New York.

Over the next few years, Lee—with Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists—unleashed a plethora of problem-plagued powerhouses, including the gamma-irradiated Incredible Hulk; the mighty Thor, god of thunder; the occult-based Doctor Strange; the sightless superhero Daredevil; and the outcast society of mutants known as the X-Men. Golden Age stalwarts Sub-Mariner and Captain America were rejuvenated and fought against and/or alongside the newer Marvel characters. The breakaway superhero in the burgeoning Marvel universe was the Amazing Spider-Man, who, behind his webbed mask, was actually a self-centered teenage nebbish named Peter Parker. Marvel's offbeat, flawed superheroes were embraced by the 1960s counterculture, particularly on college campuses.

With each new series, the differences between Marvel's and DC's titles became progressively apparent. DC's comic books were the image of affluent America, noted Wright, while Marvel's plopped its heroes onto the dirty streets of Manhattan—and sometimes its boroughs—where average Joes were often frightened by or angered at these strange beings. DC's villains were usually stereotyped scofflaws with gimmicky weapons, where Marvel's bad guys were cold war spies, grandiloquent warlords, and rotten rabble-rousers with superpowers of their own. There was little, if any, damage on the streets of DC's faux cities during its superhero-versus-supervillain battles, while Marvel's New York withstood the brunt of smashed autos and imploded pavement. DC's heroes usually met as allies when battling a common enemy, but Marvel's heroes generally clashed within moments of an encounter. DC's stories were more traditionally based good-versus-evil yarns, where Marvel sometimes dealt with issues like campus unrest and corrupt politicians. Even the editorial tone between the two publishers varied: DC's letters columns featured articulate, sometimes chiding, and usually faceless responses to readers, while Marvel's—generally in Lee's voice—were amiable and teeming with hyperbole. DC's stories were largely uncredited, but Marvel's creative staff, from the writer down the chain to the colorist, got their due in print, with endearing nicknames attached (Stan The Man Lee, Jack King Kirby, and Jazzy Johnny Romita, to name a few).

Comic-book history repeated itself during the Silver Age. The success of a new DC superhero—in this case, the Flash—motivated other companies to publish their own costumed crusaders, just as Superman's 1938 introduction had produced super-successors. Similarly, World War II was a catalyst for an immeasurable amount of new superheroes, and the Vietnam War also inspired an outbreak of superheroes—not as patriotic icons, as in the 1940s, but as engines of escapism. Protests against the Vietnam War made it a delicate and rarely seen topic in comics stories.

Superheroes originating, or returning to action, during the Silver Age include Charlton Comics' Captain Atom; Dell Comics' atomic ace Nukla, and its trio of superhero titles based on movie monsters: Frankenstein (Boris Karloff-meets-the Man of Steel), Dracula (who looked more like Batman than Bela Lugosi), and Werewolf; Gold Key Comics' Magnus Robot Fighter and Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom (revived in the 1990s by Valiant Comics); ACG (American Comics Group)'s Magicman and Nemesis, starring in the anthologies Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown; fly-by-night M.F. Publications' Captain Marvel, an appropriation of a classic appellation, featuring a superhero who split his body into separate parts by yelling, of all things, Split! (similarly, M.F. ripped off other Golden Age heroes' names for its villains: Plastic Man and Dr. Fate); Harvey Comics' Spyman (who fought bad guys with his electro-robot hand), Jigsaw (a splitting hero, like M.F.'s Captain Marvel), icy Jack Q. Frost, and aquatic Pirana, plus reprints of legendary superhero series The Spirit and The Fighting American; Archie Comics' Mighty Crusaders, the Fly (later Fly-Man), and Jaguar, as well as superhero versions of its teenage characters, Archie as Pureheart the Powerful and Jughead as Captain Hero (Archie's girlfriend Betty even donned a guise to become Superteen!); and MAD magazine's superhero parody, Don Martin's Captain Klutz.

Two small comic-book publishers distinguished themselves with thought-provoking takes on the superhero genre. Tower Comics' lauded T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, which featured artwork by renowned comics artist Wally Wood and starred superheroes like Dynamo, No-Man, Menthor, Raven, and Lightning; and Charlton Comics' Action Heroes line, which included Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Sarge Steel, Nightshade, the Question, Judomaster, and Peter Cannon-Thunderbolt. Dick Giordano, the editor of most of Charlton's Action Heroes series, revealed in his 2003 biography, Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time, That name was not an accident. I chose that term. Superman never did anything for me. Batman did. I always preferred heroes who could do things that we supposedly would be able to do. The nuclear-powered Captain Atom aside—a hero already in print when Giordano came on board but whose powers were weakened by the new editor's dictate—Charlton's heroes used acquired skills, mental disciplines, or weapons in their war against injustice.

1966 was the year of the superhero. Batman (1966–1968), the kitschy sendup starring Adam West in the title role, premiered on ABC in January of that year to instant acclaim. The show satisfied a wide demographic spread—children, mesmerized by its action; teens, especially girls, for the fashions and heartthrob Burt Ward as Robin the Boy Wonder; and adults, in tune with the camp humor and double-entendres that eluded kids' understanding. Universal exploitation of Batman made Batmania an inexorable phenomenon.

Superheroes dominated the television airwaves during the mid-1960s: Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The New Adventures of Superman, and Aquaman were among the live-action and animated entries. Many of Marvel's characters starred in cartoon programs: Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Sub-Mariner rotated days on the syndicated Marvel Super Heroes, and both Fantastic Four and Spider-Man appeared on Saturday-morning TV, and in a wealth of toy and product licensing.

The superhero craze fizzled by 1968, driving some smaller publishers out of business. Even the oldest comics company got a rude awakening, as DC was overtaken by Marvel as the industry leader. Popular artist Carmine Infantino was instated as DC's art director, with the mission of making the line's covers more appealing to the potential consumer. Infantino was soon appointed to editorial director, and elected to take on Marvel to regain his company's former stature. He shook up the status quo in some of the superhero books—Wonder Woman was stripped of her superpowers; Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko defected to DC to launch the offbeat superhero comics Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove; and superstar artist Neal Adams began to transmute Batman from a masked detective to a creature of the night. At the same time, the company blindsided Marvel with its groundbreaking, commercially popular horror comics like House of Mystery.

But Marvel's superheroes continued to outsell DC's by the end of 1969. DC ended the Silver Age with the same dilemma it faced at the beginning of the era: how to make its superhero comics popular again. —ME

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