Why is the Golden Age of Comics Important?

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Answered by: Diana, An Expert in the Comics Culture Category
No one can deny that childhood is a seedbed of cultural linguistics, the origins of one’s understanding of society. It’s more than just "Don’t flail around needlessly endangering the other children" or the ever-hypocritical "Share." A childhood is characterized by the language of television, school lunches, flashy shoes, and superheroes. Yes, superheroes, always superheroes.

The idea of a superhero is embedded in the culture of the American childhood, regardless of any particular child’s literary leanings. The science fiction-influenced escapism mixes so well with the soupy proto-reasoning of any six year-old who is attempting to become something greater than themselves. It seems a question of the human condition; there is some satisfaction held within the consumption of a comic book, a blue-print for a reason to be. But what is this salvation built on?

The Golden Age of comics is a child of the second world war, a famous propaganda tool. Its influences, however, lie in a 1930’s DIY community (a novel concept, to be sure). Indeed, Superman was born of science-fiction ‘zines created by Depression-Era fanboys. WWII-era Jewish immigration and "Entourage"-esque wheeling and dealing also fueled the machine, but the fanboys created a sort of pre-Livejournal by circulating the products of their obsession. It was nerds, not Nietzsche, who crafted the idea of the superman.

The superhero severed his ties from reasonable explanations and bounded into the Golden Age of comics as a heavily spandexed warrior of justice. Rather than allowing the comics industry to permanently attach itself to sci-fi, creators worked the material more originally. As a near exploration of magical-realism, writers and artists established American comics as a place of accessible fantasy. The mundane trappings of everyday life were present--Clark Kent was a journalist, for instance--but those dull details enhanced the ultimate spectacle. There was something realistic in the scenarios; there was the possibility that the average office building could implode at any moment, the possibility that reality was secretly lively and cinematic.

Who wouldn’t want to be a superhero? Who wouldn’t love having secret power that could bring the world to its knees? Also, what about living voraciously through a sidekick as a means of exposing oneself to a father figure? A super-father figure, a man who upholds justice at every turn and often leaves wacky, deadly gadgets lying around. It seems the most fulfilling lifestyle imaginable for the superhero does not need to adhere to law and order. The superhero commands law and order themselves--Superman can eat ice cream sundaes at four in the morning, skip school, and earn respect for condemning bad people. Schoolyard logic isn’t at play in Superman’s world: in the end, citizens side with the good because they are protected from the ruthless by a tangible higher power.

But why is the fantasy that the Golden Age established important? Maybe because it laid the foundation for American comics, or maybe because it supported the ever-important marriage of text and image. But still, can an average person relate?

The Golden Age of comics laid the groundwork for childhood escapism at its finest; more accessible than its sci-fi source material, it strictly catered to boyhood fantasies (a gender-bias that American comics has yet to shed). While the Don Drapers of the 1950’s spent their time drinking like hell and working in office buildings that some supervillain might like to implode, Batman stepped in as that ultimate dad. Comic books acted as the anti-thesis of a school book, promoting adventure, feats of daring, and the ridiculous idea that super-adulthood was extended boyhood (without rules or obligations).

The six year-old who slips into a hero fantasy is finding some absurd comfort in that world, a place that lies beyond sci-fi or magical-realism, a proverbial Batcave of the self. The Golden Age of comics--it's writers, artists, and publishers--is responsible for the salvation that is reiterated and communicated to create legions of fanboys that echo those of the 1930's. Within the comics industry and within the Golden Age, there is that established ravenous obsession. American comics is a field built on the purest of needs: the childish reflex to cover one's eyes to hide. Escapism at its finest, indeed.

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