The Golden Age of comics may seem like old history, but it’s an interesting era historically and artistically. From World War 2 to the iconic American high life afterwards, the Golden Age of comics was the first real foray into comics as an art form.
We’ll walk through the Golden Age of comics chronologically. And, discuss the relevant characters, publications, and historical events that tied everything together. Get ready for a trip back to the time when Superman was innovative, and DC was known as Detective Comics.
The Dawn Of Comics
In early 1938, Detective Comics published their very first comic: Action Comics. Sold on a monthly basis for between $1 and $3, Action comics quickly became a crowd favorite. Action featured the exploits of its enigmatic hero: Superman. With Superman as a star character, Action Comics spanned dozens of issues from mid-1938 through 1941. It introduced other favorite characters as well.
Batman’s notable appearance in Action Comics #24—an entire two years after Superman’s 1938 debut—started the trend of spinning off successful characters into their series. Detective Comics’ offerings sold like hot cakes.
By mid-1941, Detective Comics had competition in the field, though. Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel, pioneered a series of their own which they called Whiz Comics. Through Whiz Comics, Timely Comics introduced characters like Captain America, who were soon spun off into their series just as Superman and Batman had spun off of Action Comics.
Patriotic characters, like Captain America, were increasingly popular as America entered World War 2, and publishes routinely ensured that their heroes and heroines were fighting Nazi powers. At this point, comics were frequently distributed to the troops, and a culture of trading comic books to get the latest desired periodical was born.
The Comics Of The Greatest Generation
Throughout wartime, characters like Batman, Superman, Human Torch, and Captain America were extremely popular. Publishers increased the pace of their publications, to maximize profit. There weren’t too many types of comics other than superhero comics, though.
This changed with the advent of Walt Disney’s animated characters stealing the silver screen of the era. After their successful debut in film, comedic comics featuring Disney characters like Mickey Mouse proliferated domestically, though consumption abroad was still mostly in the superhero genre.
By 1941, upstarts like Archie were trying to edge into the domestic comedic comic market, and people began to realize that comics could be more than male fantasy or slapstick humor. These new publications would carry the media through the difficulty of the postwar scene.
The comics of the era were similar in quite a few ways, namely their simple coloration, fantastical yet threadbare plots, and tendency to be awkward in exposition. The superhero comic books of this era established the trend of inserting conversations between hero and villain during battle, leading to clumsy storyboarding throughout.
Thumbing through the comic books of the Golden Age is thus much like you might expect. The media itself was young, naïve, technically simplistic, and frank in the presentation. Consumers knew exactly what they were getting when they received their Action Comics in the mail, and the consistency of characters, plots, and even dialogue was part of the fun.
Postmodernism hadn’t been invented yet. This left nearly all of the dialogue in the Golden Age of comics somewhere between laughably bad and adorably innocent. Nuance was not the strength of the comics of the Golden Age.
Rather, the comics of the Golden Age are notable for the sheer creativity of character designs and conception. Remember, before the Golden Age of comics, there weren’t any popular media in which superhuman characters duked it out using exotic energy rays or powers. Every character required a tremendous amount of creativity to conceptualize and then put into action, and doing so was the largest accomplishment of the era.
Think about it: to make an issue of Action Comics in the Golden age of comics, writers and artists would have to figure out how a fight between two super humans would play out visually without having any outside reference to draw inspiration from. Give credit to these innovators for creating an entire genre from nothingness.
After the end of the war, many popular superhero characters switched publications. The humor genre, which was viewed as more profitable in peacetime, made publishers steer away from the traditional characters. This switch had disastrous effects on certain characters’ presence in publication. Both the Flash and Green Lantern fell out of publication entirely, along with Wonder Woman later on.
The decreasing emphasis on the superhero genre and the increasing emphasis on the comedic genre isn’t the whole story, though. New genres like mystery/detective, war retrospective, and others were growing in prominence. These new entries were different from the prior genres in a few separate ways.
In general, the new comic genres of the early 50s were:
- Intentionally more serious in content
- More realistically drawn
- More willing to acknowledge moral ambiguity
- Published in smaller runs, leaving few long series
Few memorable surviving publications or characters remained with forays into new genres. The “hard boiled” genre of Detective Comics is the exemplar of this trend. Publications were sticking to relatively short story arcs and disposable but familiar characters.
Unlike the earlier part of the Golden Age, the new genres shied away from building up individual characters. Indeed, even establishing anything resembling a canon was a bit beyond their scope.
The publications of the late Golden Age reflected the growing understanding of the limits of the superhero genre. Publishers sought to find new ways of targeting the same demographics who were growing exhausted with routine plots. The publishers would shy away from superhero publications until the mid-50s. The publishing of the Flash ushered in the he Silver Age of comic books.