What is the history of comic books as a genre?

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Answered by: Tyler Reid, An Expert in the Reviews and Profiles Category
We all know the feeling. The scent of fresh paper, the colorful patterns, the weird kids playing Magic cards, and stressed-out owners struggling to keep everyone away from the tables, because the new issue is out today, and The Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum and is murdering the citizens of Gotham City, and every nerd, geek, and, quite frankly, weird kid who is probably a sociopath is in line to get the latest issue.

At this point, I’m eight years old. My dad is shocked at the violence, gore and illicit activity of this cover art. As for me, I am naively excited (being eight, as previously stated). After watching the Batman/Superman Adventures every afternoon for three years, I never even knew what a comic book was until my dad decided to take me. However, these are not like the cartoons on kids WB. They’re much darker. Not for eight-year-olds, at least according to my dad, who told me I would have to wait.

So, like any eight-year-old boy with dashed hopes, my emotions quickly change from innocent glee to extreme sadness. My father, observing my grief, told me that he might have something for me at home. My tears begin to subside and my heart skips a beat. What could he have? He’s probably simply looking for something to shut me up. To my surprise, upon arriving home my he came down from the attic with a box labeled comics. As he set the box down, my eyes grew huge.

Pages and pages of Heroes defeating Villains, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Wonder Woman. The possibilities were endless, and each issue added more and more depth. As I grew up I did more research into the origin of the heroes and the history of comic books as a relevant medium. How did they come to have such powers and why do so many people follow them? The differences between golden, silver, bronze and modern age of comic book heroes. What is the difference between my dad’s comics and the ones they sell now? There are many parallels to comics and the societal standards of the era in which they were published.

Before there were superheroes, people had pulp detective stories and cheesy science fiction. In 1938, just before World War Two and right at the end of the Great Depression, action comics number 1 was published, featuring our familiar man of steel: Superman. All these other heroes were great for their time: flash gordon, the shadow, and other non-super powered heroes were all great, but people wanted an escape, a way to get away from real life. Superman fought giant robots and evil geniuses by being indestructible and shooting lasers out of his eyes.

Seeing this trend, Detective comics answered with a hero of their own in May of 1939, Batman. Unlike Superman’s squeaky clean demeanor and black and white view on crime, Batman comics were much darker. In his first appearance, he causes the death of a criminal, and he only addresses it by saying, “A fitting end for his kind”. Today, Batman and Superman are probably the two most well-known superheroes of today. Seeing the success of Action and Detective Comics, other companies began their own superhero series, most popular of which being Marvel Comics, under Stan Lee. However, most did not last. Wonder Comics number one was issued in 1939.

Their title character, Wonderman, was nearly identical to Superman. They were sued by DC comics and that was the end of Wonderman. There was a Wonder Comics issue two but it did not feature Wonder Man and the series ended after that. The growing popularity of Superhero comics, DC began print of a comic specifically about Superman. Until Superman, comics always had a variety of different stories in them, it was unheard of to have an entire comic about one hero.

The trend of comics having one hero continued for about a year, until April of 1940. The Comic companies began to realize that there were not enough kids reading the comics. The obvious answer is, “make a kid superhero” And that is when comics’ first sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, appeared with Batman in Detective Comics issue 38. Every kid wanted to be Robin. I mean, What kid doesn’t want to put on a green Speedo and a cape to go beat up people who want to kill you? Oddly enough, it worked. Batman and Robin became on of the most popular “dynamic duos” in history. A few months later, They took it a step further, creating the first Team of Superheroes, The Justice Society of America. Readers loved the idea of their heroes being in comics together, and sales went through the roof.

The Golden age also gave birth to Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” a dark (for its time) and very artistic series, focusing more on style than on whether people would buy it, and Captain America, put out by Marvel entirely as propaganda and purely to profit from the high level of patriotism that came along with world war 2. After World War 2, sale of Superhero comics across the board plummeted. While kids still loved it, everyone else simply did not care. The War was over, the U.S. was out of the depression, and nobody needed a distraction like comics.

The comic as a medium was dying. They needed a way to revamp the industry. Two writers at DC, Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino, decided to redo the look of a few of the Superheroes. When the first issue featuring the new look of the Flash was published, sales began to rise. More and more people took interest. The writers brought back other heros as well: The Green Lantern, Wonder Woman. People were buying comics again. DC dominated the industry until 1958, when Marvel Comics published Strange Worlds number one, written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. These two men began writing superhero stories for Marvel, and started what is known as the “Marvel Age”.

In 1961, Marvel Comics introduced the Fantastic Four. This group was much different from the squeaky-clean justice loving Golden Era superhero teams. Instead, they faced issues of jealousy, anger, and a public who thought of them as a menace. Ben Grimm, or The Thing, had a very horror movie feel to him. He was constantly tormented by his appearance, and was angry and depressed. He did not get along with his teammates and would fight them on occasion. It was unheard of to have heroes fighting heroes. Every other series was very clear on who was good and who was evil.

There was also The Incredible Hulk, who was hardly even a hero at all, as all the stories would focus on the military trying to hunt him down. The Fantastic Four series continued to draw from the real-life normal people scenario, as two of the members, Susan Storm and Reed Richards (or The Invisible woman and Mr. Fantastic, respectively) would eventually get married. And even later, they have a child. Dealing with raising a child while being adventuresome becomes a huge part of the series.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created almost the entire Marvel Universe, which has become extremely popular to the point of nearly two dozen movies and countless television shows featuring the characters. They invented Iron Man, The Avengers, X-Men, and even Spider-Man. Spider-Man resonated extremely well with kids and teenagers because his secret Identity. Peter Parker was not a millionaire, and he was not from another planet. In fact, he was basically a nerd. He was a klutz, he couldn’t talk to girls, and he was constantly picked on. Apparently, the writers finally realized who was buying their comics. Spider-Man has become just as popular, if not more so, than Superman and Batman, spawning a variety of comic series’ television shows, movies, and multiple parodies.

The silver age ended around 1970. There is a lot of debate as to when the silver age actually ended, but it can be traced to about the time of June 1973, when Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was murdered in a story arc named, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”. After this, plots changed to be more shocking, confusing, and serious, driving farther away from the black-and-white and more toward dark stories and antiheroes. DC began having trouble selling anything, as nobody wanted to read about squeaky clean heroes who win all the time. This ushered in the Bronze Age.

As the comics of the bronze age with darker tones and less glamour started to become more popular, DC needed to go that route or go bankrupt. They had the DC Explosion where they published a lot of different titles, and the DC Implosion where they cancelled a lot of those. They eventually gave in to the more gritty and realistic side of comics, and In the 1970’s, Green Lantern and Green Arrow comics began dealing with social issues, and less with intergalactic bad guys. There was even one issue where they were forced to deal with Green Arrow’s sidekick, “Speedy” because of his Heroin addiction.

Marvel began publishing stories about Antiheroes such as Wolverine and The Punisher who went as far as to kill people, even if it can be avoided. Writer Frank Miller began writing the Daredevil series for Marvel, and the public took immediate notice. Instead of the cheerful, idealistic Daredevil from earlier series’, Miller wrote a far more dark and sinister story. This trend continued to 1985 and ’86, when Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s Watchmen were published. Miller’s story featured a fifty year old Batman who must come out of retirement in order to deal with a broken Gotham City overrun by “The Mutant Gang”.

The gang is essentially Cannibals. Murdering people and ritualistically eating them. While Batman comics had never been as bright and happy as others, the industry had never seen this. Moore’s Watchmen, while not being about any main character from the DC Universe, is about a group of people with superpowers and how they respond to the fact that being a superhero is now illegal. It is essentially the beginning of “The Incredibles, if Pixar wanted all of their movies to be rated “R”. Even with the shock value, the comic has become one of the most critically acclaimed. Comics ever.

Today, modern comics range from being cheerful and nostalgic, to very grim and depressing. Writers draw from aspects of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Age in order to create a gripping and exciting story for readers to lose themselves in, and while some people may walk in a comic store and see dark, grim, depressing stories, there are many different styles of comics, and everyone can find that proverbial Box in the attic that reels them into loving the genre, and the history of comic books, as I do.

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