The Story begins with the Golden Age, as in pre-1950s. The Great Depression and WWII helped define the super-hero archetype, as well as escapist media for such troubled times. Golden Age heroes were squeaky clean and shiny; the good guys always won and the world was saved from the brink of peril at the last minute time and time again. Hope in four colours of ink. Despite that generality, comics were still controversial. Comics were for kids and as evil as rock & roll, corrupting the youth and rotting their brains. This context is important as it would ultimately lead to the downfall of this era of comics in the 50s.
Most comics of the Golden Age weren’t in ‘comic books’ as we know them, but in serial strips, most commonly newspaper inserts or 7-8 page leaflets. The disposable nature of comics as material to be handed out to troops or in the ‘funny pages’ is important, as these were not collector’s items—they were snippets of stories told in a few panels. The Spirit, for example, is one of the most notable first generation comics, created by Will Eisner (as in the Eisner Award for comics—he’s that good). The Spirit was an eclectic mix of humour, action, drama and heroism centred around a non-powered mystery hero. His secret identity, Denny Colt, was unimportant and eventually got left out of the story entirely. The Spirit was a hero above all else, so nothing else mattered.
Frank Miller was reluctant to do the 2008 movie adaptation, fearing he’d muck it up, and I’m pretty sure he ultimately took on the project so nobody else could tank it. The Spirit film (2008), in the vein of Sin City, and 300 (other Frank Miller works) really tried to reflect that eccentricity of the newspaper comic strip, but fails as a ‘movie’ because of it.
Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (Shazam) and Green Lantern were all created in the Golden Age, but in forms very different from what we know now. They were simple and idealistic, embodying what those at the time would define as Heroes. This new mythology needed little narrative or continuity to weave it together; these were Gods of Olympus on Earth defined by collections of ideals and not complex characterization. The audience was made up of kids who were being sold flashy heroes in tights and capes, messiahs at a moment’s notice. Captain America fought against the Red Skull and Adolf Hitler, while Superman saved the world from a meteor in one panel and deflected gunfire from a gangster in the next. The overall plot was irrelevant, and stories rarely carried forward from one chapter to the next; all that mattered was that it all took place in a new unexplored frontier. Each impressionable child was Billy Batson, speaking that magic word “Shazam!” and turning into the all-powerful Captain Marvel to save Fawcett City.
(Note that this description of the Golden Age typically refers to the American comics, as I’m sure Beano‘s been running since medieval times in the UK. Japanese manga, literally translated as ‘whimsical pictures’, has been stylistically as we know it now since the 50s, but its origins date back to as early as 18th century.)
The Golden Age established comics as mainstream media, trailblazing a new art form with new ways of telling stories. These weren’t just super-heroes in funny books. These were westerns, pirate stories, romances… pulp fiction with pictures. In Alan Moore‘s retrospective of past eras, The Watchmen (1986), one of my favourite ideas that Moore introduces is that when superheroes become real and invade our everyday life, people instinctively turn to other genres, such as pirate comics like The Black Freighter, which is weaved throughout the book. The end of the Golden Age came when people stopped believing—when they split the atom and didn’t find the Old Gods in there.
Things changed in the 50s with the atomic age, and lead to The Silver Age, arguably the greatest era in comic book history. Science became the new frontier, and people looked to the skies for everything, including heroes. Each era of comics is a rebellion against the previous age and the Golden Age Gods were sacrificed for more accountable icons. The heroes had changed from deities of magic and mystery to self-doubting and flawed creatures of science. Instead of a special child saying “Shazam!”, any random teenager could be bitten by a radioactive spider, accepting great power and great responsibility.
The Silver Age began (circa 1956) with new companies delivering new space-age characters to a new combined audience of kids and adults. Amidst the clamour of moral righteousness, the government decreed the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a governing body to make sure that the youth were not exposed to lewd or obscene material. Though it may have been a question of censorship and the absurdity of political ethics, at the time, it may have saved the industry. Publishers began voluntarily controlling content to display the CCA logo in the top corner of the book, and thus being completely acceptable for upstanding nuclear families and their 2.4 children. Think the opposite process of the MPAA. One major casualty of the new code was EC comics and the works of William Gaines, master of suspense and horror.
- Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
- Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
- Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
- Gaines: I don’t believe so.
- Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
- Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
- Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
- Gaines: Yes.
- Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
- Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
- Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
- Gaines: A little.
- Kefauver: Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that.
Once comics were no longer considered a scourge of society corrupting the youth, a resurgent industry fueled DC and Marvel with more money, which meant a better publishing process, better/higher-paid talent, better industry/distribution, and better quality books. It also meant more complexity and more convoluted dynamics. Stories could now span multiple issues and, in some cases, multiple titles for the same hero. The Dark Knight could be seen in an ongoing battle with the Joker in Detective Comics, while Batman and Robin faced off against Catwoman in Batman, and Brave & the Bold featured a team-up of Bats and HawkMan.
- DC established the ‘Multiverse‘, various ‘earths’ or parallel realities co-existing. While it allowed writers incredible freedom to work with the characters, it also lead to inconsistency and retroactive continuity, or ‘retcons’… fixing your mistake by creating new realities. Any ‘crisis’ you may have heard of tends to deal with events affecting the multiverse. Crisis On Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis, and most recently Final Crisis.
- Lee & Kirby & Ditko refined the ‘Marvel Method‘, a new way for the writers and artists to collaborate together on the book—a co-operative effort of idea exchange to create the comic, rather than full script first, then complete art, then lettering.
- Underground comics, directly opposed to and ridiculing the CCA, began with Robert Crumb, Dan O’Neill and others as San Francisco became the epicentre of anti-establishment comics becoming their own expressionistic art form.
The gods of the Silver Age were Stan Lee and Denny O’Neil. Idea Men were kings and they produced a seemingly endless font of wonder. Artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Neal Adams defined how the books would look for decades to come. Theirs was a blank canvas, and a fortuitous combination of the right people, the right place, and the right time often meant that random ideas became something fantastic and amazing. The most iconic versions of heroes/characters that we know and love today were almost all established in the Silver Age. Comics were no longer ‘disposable’—they were to be kept and valued and treasured as much as the creators that produced them. Of course, we would later find out that the most valuable men in the industry were not sharing in the financial success that the companies were. Cracks began to form. A series of events started leading to the next era, The Bronze Age, as the 1970s infected comics with harsh reality, and eventually to the Dark Ages of the late 80s.