Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part One by Jerry Whitworth
History for the American comic book has traditionally been broken into eras, known in the industry as ages, that generally denote some change in the approach, representation, and writing of the medium. This isn’t necessarily uncommon in any medium but it’s more discussed for comics because where many works go through progressive, gradual alterations, comic books have often had fairly significant leaps. So, lets take a look at this form of media as it progressed.
The history of juxtaposed, deliberate sequential art (from author Scott McCloud) and super-heroes have existed since early man. Cavemen paintings, hieroglyphics, and picture storybooks are just a few examples of the evolution of the comic book. Further, super-hero comic books have often been compared to modern mythology, which heralds back to cultures like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Hindu, China, Japan, Greek, Norse, and Israel who told stories and legends about miraculous people, often deriving from deities that fought monsters and protected the weak. It’s also been said that science is largely growing to become a replacement for religion (not to say I agree with this), where what we called Science Fiction is now more accepted to be called Speculative Fiction, simply because we went from perceiving Sci-Fi as a fantasy to, in reality, often foretelling areas our science would move towards (consider, space ships, the internet, and portable phones were the stuff of fantasy only some hundred years ago). Some early visionaries in this genre include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Olaf Stapledon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, and Isaac Asimov (though, depending on who you ask, someone like Nikola Tesla could be counted in this company). A confluence of several of these ideas, be it mythology, Speculative Fiction, or heroes in the vein of Mowgli, Robin Hood, or the Scarlet Pimpernel, gave rise to literary characters like Allan Quatermain, Nyctalope, Tarzan, and John Carter. These advents would give rise to the heroes of pulp magazines, comic strips, and radio serials.
Pulp magazines were cheap paper literature that featured prose stories with accompanying illustrations. Some of the heroes that came from these stories include Zorro, Doc Savage, Shadow (inspired by Carl Jung’s Shadow archetype), Avenger, Spider, Buck Rogers, Whisperer, Ka-Zar, and Black Bat. While stories differed between writers, characters, and publishers, pulps were generally known for violent, bloody conflict intermingled with horror, crime drama, and sex. It was something quite attractive to young men and the publication often catered to this audience. Comic strips ran the gamut from funny animals to cartoon comedy to science fiction to crime drama to super heroes. In fact, the earliest American comic books were often collections of comic strips in a single book (the Spirit, Mr. Mystic, and Lady Luck were created as part of a tabloid-sized comic book packaged with newspapers). The medium was generally a row of sequential panels printed in a newspaper. Some of the heroes that came out of comic strips were Flash Gordon, Phantom, Dick Tracy, Mandrake the Magician, Jungle Jim, Popeye, and Red Ryder. Before such things as film serials and television series, people often relied on radio serials they could listen to in the comfort of their home. As with television series that came after, serialized radio programs was comprised of various genres including hero stories. Some of the characters to come from radio were the Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, and Sky King (with pulp and comic strip characters making the transition to the audio medium). The progression from these mediums to comic books was a fairly smooth transition, with an early example being Little Nemo in Slumberland which was collected from a series of strips to a book. Everything, however, changed with the introduction of Superman.
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their original concept of Superman was a bald superhuman out to conquer the world modeled after Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch (the philosopher’s idea adopted by the Nazi regime). The pair re-branded the concept as a hero with elements of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator but no one was interested. Eventually, they moved on to work on other projects including hard boiled detective Slam Bradley (whose appearance largely mirrored the one used for Superman) introduced in Detective Comics #1 (March 1937). Years of altering the idea, their Superman would see print in National Allied Publications’ Action Comics #1 (June 1938) and created a phenomenon. While comics about funny animals, westerns, war, horror, romance, crime drama, and more would see print during this period, Superman exploded the superhero genre (coming to dominate the industry where nearly every comic book after the Silver Age and on was a superhero comic in America). The alliance between National Allied Publications and All-American Publications gave us the Atom, Sandman, Spectre, Flash, Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Hourman, Starman, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Doctor Occult, Red Tornado, Mister Terrific, and Ultra-Man. Inspired by the success of Superman and seeking to create the next such hit, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the Batman, based on ideas like Zorro, Shadow, Green Hornet, and Roland West’s The Bat Whispers (1930). The character would be a likewise success. Completing what is today called the trinity, when noted psychologist William Moulton Marston (who invented the polygraph) questioned the role of women in comic books, he was invited to consult at the home of Superman and Batman where he created the character Wonder Woman as a female analogy of Superman with artist H.G. Peter. However, the National Allied Publications/All-American Publications alliance wasn’t the only game in town.
The success of Superman gave rise to publishers such as ACG, Archie, Centaur, Charlton, Columbia, Creston, Crestwood, Dell, Fox, Harvey, Hillman, Holyoke, Lev Gleason, Nedor, Novelty, and Western. While few challenged the success of Superman, some companies managed to produce some successful franchises. Timely Comics, which produced a great breadth of characters, would give us Namor the Sub-Mariner, Human Torch, and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s shield-swinging super-soldier US patriot Captain America. Quality Comics, another fairly popular publisher, gave the world Jack Cole’s surreal stretching slapstick superhero Plastic Man and brought Will Eisner’s revolutionary Spirit to comic books. There did emerge, however, a franchise that actually outsold the Man of Steel. Fawcett Comics in 1940 published a character named Captain Marvel, created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker, which featured young orphan Billy Batson who, upon saying the name Shazam, would be struck by a bolt of lightning and granted the powers of six gods. The Marvel Family grew, adding Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr, Lieutenant Marvels, Uncle Marvel, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny becoming a sales juggernaut and the most popular comic on newsstands. Selling an average of 1.3 million copies an issue with an issue released every two weeks during its greatest height and a popular film serial series premiering seven years before Superman made the transition, it was a lawsuit that ended up finishing the Captain Marvel media force. Superman’s publisher claimed Fawcett’s cash cow was in fact a copyright infringement on their property, taking them to court in 1941. After a lengthy back-and-forth legal battle and sales declining significantly for the Captain, Fawcett lost their court battle and agreed to never print their property ever again as part of a reduced settlement paid to National Comics Publications for almost half a million dollars in 1952 (Fawcett would end up going out of business the following year).
By the time Captain Marvel was taken out of publication, superhero comics were on the way out in general. Green Lantern, who took on a sidekick in Streak the Wonder Dog, would be pushed out of his own title in favor of the canine. Daredevil, leading superhero of Lev Gleason Publications’ comic book line, was pushed out of his book by his supporting cast in the Little Wise Guys. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, known today as the duo that created Captain America, would see their star-spangled champion shuffled out and found new success in producing the romance comic book Young Romance. Though Archie Comics published superheroes like the Shield, Comet, Web, and Black Hood, they found great success in the stories of an average teenager: Archie Andrews and his friends in Riverdale (and beyond in the case of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats). With the end of World War II, there was virtually no interest in superhero comics, Superman about the only character that can largely still support an audience (with Batman’s titles remaining in print by only a thin line). War comics like Our Army at War, Western comics like Wild Western, Horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, and Crime comics like Crime Does Not Pay were the new guard. EC Comics, founded by Maxwell Gaines (who was the co-publisher for All-American Publications for its first six years and whose departure led to its official merger with National Allied Publications to become DC Comics) as Education Comics published funny animal and Bible stories until his death in 1947. When his son William, better known as Bill Gaines, took over the company, he drastically changed the publisher towards raunchy, graphically gory titles like Tales from the Crypt, Mad Magazine, Weird Science, Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Two-Fisted Tales, and Frontline Combat which proved to be extremely popular with young children. American Comics Group, or ACG, followed suit with titles like Adventures into the Unknown, Forbidden Worlds, and Unknown Worlds. However, this rocket rise of success would largely lead to the death of the American comic book.
Fredric Wertham, a psychologist examining deviancy in children, came to the conclusion comic books created a proclivity towards complexes in young minds in favor of crime and anti-social behavior. EC Comics was a clear target, showing near-nude women in suggestive positions, depictions of extreme violence, torture, and murder, and unethical behavior. Superheroes weren’t safe, either. Batman and Robin were seen as a homosexual couple promoting pedophilia, Wonder Woman often depicted bondage (her creator believing in domination/submission, sadomasochism, and concubines) which turned girls into lesbians, and Superman a fascist that reinforced anti-American behavior were some of what Wertham purported. His findings were published in 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent which led to senate hearings decrying comics and parents destroying the material in public book burnings. The industry crafted a self-regulating system for content called the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to try and save itself but the damage was done. About the only publisher that remained relatively unscathed was kid-friendly Harvey Comics with properties like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, Richie Rich, Little Dot, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. Otherwise, the comic book was virtually dead, sales plummeted to almost nothing and almost no publishers survived. Only a handful of superhero comics like Superman and Batman managed to eke out a living but they lacked almost any entertainment value for fear of again drawing the ire of parents and the U.S. government. And with this, so it seemed, the American comic book as it was no longer existed.
Julius Schwartz, a Science Fiction agent for the likes of Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, would end up coming to work as an editor for All-American Comics in 1944. All-American, of course, would end up merging with National to become DC Comics and published Superman and Batman comics during the attack led by Wertham which almost put the company out of business. In 1956, it was Schwartz’s idea to try and revitalize the superhero comic book. However, he felt this effort would best be supported by reinventing the stories with a Science Fiction twist and new, sleeker designs heavily contributed towards by the now legendary Carmine Infantino. Progress was slow at first (new Sci-Fi characters began popping up in the early 1950s like Captain Comet and Martian Manhunter) but the new approach exploded with Showcase #4 (October 1956) when Carmine Infantino’s redesigned Flash premiered erupting from the cover threatening to barrel into the reader’s face. The new direction was an official hit. Green Lantern, originally based on Aladdin and the Ring of Nibelung (1813), was blended with elements of the popular E.E. Smith Lensman series. The Atom was reinvented, named Ray Palmer in homage for Raymond A. Palmer of Amazing Stories, could shrink into microscopic worlds. Adam Strange was an amalgamation of John Carter, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. Hawkman became an alien peacekeeper from a barbaric, but scientifically advanced, planet. Superman was overseen by Schwartz’s friend (and fellow Sci-Fi agent) Mort Weisinger helping introduce elements like Bizarro, the Bottle City of Kandor, Brainiac, Krypto the Super Dog, Legion of Super-Heroes, Metallo, Parasite, the Phantom Zone, and Supergirl. Schwartz had taken over Batman in 1964, placing his mainstays John Broome and Carmine Infantino on the character returning him to his darker roots (dropping elements like Batwoman, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound). The Justice Society of America was reinvented as the Justice League of America, featuring the new cast of heroes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter which proved to be a huge hit. So much so, it’s said to have inspired another company to re-enter the superhero genre.
In 1961, failed comic publisher Timely reinvented itself as Marvel Comics. Publishing titles like Journey into Mystery (a horror/fantasy anthology) and Patsy Walker (humor comic), Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman placed his wife’s cousin on trying to write a superhero team book capitalizing on the Justice League of America’s success. This man, then editor-in-chief Stanley Lieber, better known today as Stan Lee, agreed and collaborated with Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby to make the Fantastic Four, which drew inspiration from Kirby’s earlier work for DC Comics Challengers of the Unknown and the four elements (earth, fire, wind, and water). The work proved to be a huge hit, placing Lee in a position to co-create characters like the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, Dr. Strange, Dr. Doom, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Magneto, Nick Fury, Ant-Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Black Panther, Captain Mar-Vell, and Adam Warlock. Likely his greatest co-creation, however, would be the amazing Spider-Man. Crafted along with Steve Ditko, the tale of Spider-Man was one of a bullied youth gaining miraculous abilities but in becoming prideful, he lost what was most important to him. His tale spoke to the young people who read his story and his struggles were the same struggles as his readers, dealing with school and work and family and love, though of course Spider-Man also fought all kinds of supervillains. Of course, while DC and Marvel dominated the Silver Age, other publishers emerged during the period.
In direct opposition of the Comics Code Authority, an underground movement emerged of generally self-published comics that flagrantly disregarded its rules, graphically depicting sex, drugs, and violence (though, their precursor in Tijuana bibles were produced underground since the 1920s, often depicting copyrighted characters decades before the internet meme Rule 34). A leading producer of this material was Robert Crumb, more commonly known as R. Crumb, with popular properties including Zap Comix, Angelfood McSpade, Fritz the Cat, and Mr. Natural. This movement, which included future Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman, would gain some public attention thanks to Harvey Kurtzman, famous for Mad Magazine, and his magazine Help! Archie, ACG, and Dell continued publishing, with Archie producing new stories about Archie Andrews and his friends, ACG continued to limp along printing horror titles despite the CCA and created the popular character Herbie (though, it would close its doors in 1967), and Dell ended ties with Western Publishing yet continued to primarily publish adaptations of television and motion picture properties. Western Publishing became Gold Key and licensed properties from King Features, Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros, Disney, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek to produce comic adaptations as well as original characters such as Doctor Solar, Dagar the Invincible, Doctor Spektor, Mighty Samson, Tragg and the Sky Gods, Turok, Son of Stone, and Magnus, Robot Fighter (whose characters competed with those of DC and Marvel in popularity). EC Comics, wildly successful with their horror and crime books was all but dead during the Silver Age, but one book they produced thrived: Mad Magazine continued to sell well, better than comic books in fact (with production at well over a million annually). Warren Publishing managed to circumvent the CCA by printing their comics in a magazine format, producing horror titles like Creepy and Eerie. Today they maybe best remembered for the creation of the character Vampirella. Publisher Charlton Comics produced original content and superhero titles for characters like Captain Atom, Nightshade, Question, Peacemaker, Judomaster, and Thunderbolt, as well as updating the Blue Beetle (who was published at Fox Feature Syndicate and Holyoke Publishing previously). Even more popular were their war, racing, romance, western, horror, and sci-fi books. In time, Charlton would also snatch up several of Western’s licenses. Despite this new age of publishing, sales would never consistently reach their former heights where books were printed in the millions dipped to the hundreds of thousands annually during this period.