By Christa Wagner
Sure, it may seem silly, but, comic books mean something. Soldiers used dog-eared copies of Captain America to keep their spirits up in WWII. The Green Lantern and Green Arrow made kids actually think about issues like racism and heroin. And millions gasped when they heard the news that Superman died. In fact, the vibrant medium is so often pegged as children’s pulp, or fun for the feeble-minded, that people tend to forget that comics have actually grown with and continued to reflect the spirit of our times.
HOW THEY GOT GOLDEN
Action Comics #1 (June, 1938)
Before the release of Action Comics #1, the detective/reporter/adventurer-with-alter-ego formula had been used to create countless characters like Flash Gordon and The Shadow—leading men who were heroes, but not superheroes. That all changed with two 23-year-old graphic illustrators from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Together, they created Superman, a hero that came onto the scene hoisting automobiles over his head, speed-walking past moving trains, and effortlessly hopping from building to building. Kids around the world dropped their jaws and allowances, begging for more. Little did they know, Superman had almost been swept off the drawing room floor. Siegel and Shuster drew the original strip in 1934, and for four years tried to sell it to newspaper syndicates with no luck. Finally, in 1938, DC Comics editor Vin Sullivan fished it out of a pile of rejected strips and ran it, changing the history of comic books forever.
Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)
Issue #27 marked the debut of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic creation, Batman. Batman didn’t have any super-powers like Superman, but he was tricked out on gadgets. Working under the cover of darkness, Batman appeared more sinister than other comic heroes (or villains, for that matter), and yet simultaneously served as an identifiable flesh-and-blood human. Ultimately, Batman introduced a completely new characteristic to superherodom: fallibility.
Marvel Comics #1 (November 1939)
In the Golden Age, superheroes were all the rage. So to scratch America’s newest itch, Marvel Comics introduced three incredible, death-defying heroes: the Human Torch, the Submariner and the Angel. If anything, the rapid introduction of new characters and publishers to the line-up revealed that comic books were fantastically appealing to people, especially kids, who could afford to buy them with their allowances. This meant that, for the first time in American history, companies could mass-market directly to children.
Superman #1 (Summer, 1939)
After the success of Action Comics #1, it became apparent that Superman needed his own comic book, which is how Superman #1 became the first title devoted to a single comic character. Kids’ pajamas and bed sheets would never be the same again, but neither would America. Superman was the first incarnation of a new type of hero: an omnipotent do-gooder doubling (admirably) as a working class man. With Superman at the helm, comic books entered their Golden Age.
The Yellow Kid (Feb. 1896)
No discussion of comics can begin without mentioning Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid,” which ran as a series of strips and panels in The New York World and later in The New York Herald. Its star was hardly a superhero, though; the Yellow Kid was a short boy with huge ears, a bald head, and a signature yellow nightshirt. Regardless, the comic became so popular that competing papers started relying on it to boost sales. The strip even spawned the term “yellow journalism,” which refers to a brand of sensationalist newspapers. Then, in March 1897, a Yellow Kid compilation was released, and it became the first comic strip printed as a pulp magazine. (The one pictured is magazine #2). But what’s the true measure of commercial success? Products galore. The Yellow Kid was the first comic book character to be merchandized on things like t-shirts, gum and even kitchen appliances.
THE 1940s: KEEPING IT GOLDEN
Captain America #1 (March 1941)
With the world at war, Americans desperately needed a superhero who would convince them that good could triumph over evil. Captain America jumped into the ring fist-first, delivering a swift punch to Hitler’s jaw on the cover of his first comic (no veiled political overtones here!). The Captain was on a die-hard crusade against Nazism, fighting his nemesis Red Skull, who, according to the comic, was personally appointed to the post by Hitler himself. And although Captain America wasn’t the first overtly patriotic superhero (The Shield had donned a similar star-spangled getup a year prior), he was the most popular. Be sure to note the title on this one: Captain America was the first character to be given his own book without being tested in another comic first.
Batman #1 (Spring 1940)
Although this marked the second time a superhero had gotten his own title, Batman #1 is most important for making celebrities out of Batman’s nemeses, the Joker and Catwoman, whom he meets here for the first time. Batman had also recently teamed up with Robin the Boy Wonder to create the world’s most dynamic duo (and first superhero sidekick!). But since Batman was injured more often than his comic book brethren (he was only human after all), he sometimes had to hand over his cases to his good buddy Robin.
All-American Comics #16 (July 1940)
This issue launched the enormously popular Green Lantern, the first “everyday guy” to luck into superhero powers. Engineer Alan Scott inherited his new identity after a) finding a lantern made of alien metal, b) making a ring from the metal, then c) logically pressing said ring against said lantern to amazing effect … thus, gaining powers over everything except (strangely enough) wood.
Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942)
Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics #8 as a kind of proto-feminist figure, fighting for wronged women in a man-made world. Until that point, the women of comics were mainly girlfriends or secretaries looking to be rescued. Though dually praised and criticized for her role, just a few months after Wonder Woman’s debut, a poll crowned her the readers’ “favorite superhero,” beating her closest male rival by a margin of 40-1.
Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940)
The star of Whiz Comics #2 was Billy Batson, a congenial kid who could transform himself into a super-powered hero called Captain Marvel by uttering “SHAZAM!” (an acronym invoking the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury). Young boys everywhere became fascinated with Captain Marvel, and the fantasy of transforming themselves into a superhero and back again.
THE 1960s: THE SILVER AGE
The Silver Age ushered comics out of the 1950s Comics Code doldrums with a brand-spanking-new approach to storytelling.
The Fantastic Four #1 (1961) and The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962)
In 1961, Marvel writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided that flawless superheroes weren’t very, well, realistic. So Lee, Kirby and artist Steve Ditko created The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man. These characters had super-instincts, but they also had some personal problems. In the old days, readers knew exactly who the good guys were and rooting for them was easy. But by the Silver Age, readers got a chance to consider more mundane stuff, like what would happen if Clark Kent and Lois Lane wanted to have a baby.
Amazing Fantasy #15 (March 1963)
When Peter Parker, a nerdy, orphaned teenager, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, it turns out to be a good thing. As Spider-Man, Parker has “the proportionate strength and agility” of a spider. And while his smarts and strict ethics should have made him a hero even before he had super-powers, his triumph as an underdog helped make “Spidey” one of the most beloved superheroes of all time.
Captain America #117 (September 1969)
Here, Marvel introduces one of the first African-American superheroes, the Falcon. By day, the Falcon is Harlem social worker Sam Wilson, who has a cautious civil rights platform that discourages black separatism and militancy. The appeal of Captain America, which had a political allegiance that leaned a little to the right, was considerably bolstered by his introduction.
The X-Men #1 (September 1963)
Stan Lee’s X-Men comics made their debut in the Silver Age, but their popularity grew as the years went on. The X-Men are unique in the comic universe in that they are inexplainably born with mutant powers and are severely persecuted as a result. While the team has survived various incarnations over the years, the storyline was slyly created in part to address social issues of prejudice and persecution in way that would get past the Comics Code censors.
The Seduction of the Innocent (1954)
After World War II, superhero comics wavered in popularity, disappearing into the underground in part due to the publication of Frederick Wortham’s The Seduction of the Innocent. Wortham’s book warned parents that comic books corrupted kids and made them violent. Comic publishers were sent reeling but recovered quickly with a self-imposed censorship law called the Comics Code Authority. More than a cautionary label, the code ensured that any comic bearing its insignia would be completely free of questionable content.
THE 1970s: THE BRONZE AGE
The chronological boundaries of the next era in comics are ambiguous, but 1970s are considered to be the Bronze Age of comics, with the 1980s generally accepted as the Modern Age — a time characterized by new genres, Marvel/DC cross-over issues, and new titles with the same old heroes.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (April 1970)
Amid the civil rights and Vietnam protests of the time, DC Comics found the perfect way to tap into the social climate of the country and boost their sagging sales: by pairing up their conservative vigilante, the Green Lantern, with the left-leaning hero, the Green Arrow. Introduced just a year before, the Green Arrow expanded the scope of storytelling to include relevant social and political issues and capture the idealism of the youth movements of the decade. In the 13 titles that followed, the duo tackled difficult topics including racism, environmental damage and even heroin addiction. Although the Comics Code Authority frowned upon drug-related themes (like when Speedy, Green Arrow’s aptly named sidekick, faced his addiction), the New York Times lauded the title for ushering in a new sense of “relevance” for comics.
The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (1971)
Look closely and you’ll notice this cover is missing the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval. Until this point, ignoring the CCA smacked of commercial suicide, but Marvel saw no ethical problem in dealing openly with the dangers of drugs and stuck to its guns. As with the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics, publishers began to stand up to the CCA and publish issues without their approval. This, however, was the first mainstream one to do so.
The Incredible Hulk #181 (November 1974)
The character Wolverine (later famously attached to the X-Men) made his debut in this Incredible Hulk title. Wolverine, along with The Punisher, signaled the arrival of a new type of hero: the anti-hero. Emotionally imbalanced, the vengeful Wolverine didn’t mind killing villains in the name of good or regularly spilling blood in the name of justice.
Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970)
While pulp “sword and sorcery” stories had been around for decades, it wasn’t until Marvel’s recreation of adventure-book hero Conan the Barbarian that comic publishers began to embrace these older fantasy themes. In fact, Conan inspired a whole slew of sorcery titles, including Marvel’s Kull the Conqueror and DC’s The Warlord, creating an alternative genre for comic book fans who’d grown weary of traditional superheroes in tights.
Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man (1976)
In 1976, it finally happened: Marvel and DC, the two giants (and rivals) of the industry, united forces to produce this oversized issue. Wide-eyed fans the world over were found salivating, knowing their prayers had been answered. While the title wasn’t the first collaboration between the comic companies (they’d teamed up once before to work on a Wizard of Oz book), it was the first major comic book crossover, a gimmick that guaranteed robust sales.
OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM
While there are tons of artists and titles we’d love to highlight (everyone from Daniel Clowes to publishing houses like Dark Horse and Malibu) we just couldn’t finish without dropping these names.
Zap Comix #0 (1967)
Crude, scathing and obscene, Zap Comix epitomized the underground comic. Its creators intentionally spelled comix with an ‘x’ to accentuate the X-rated nature of the book, separating itself from the mainstream. But lewd content wasn’t Zap’s only distinguishing feature. The writers experimented with dream sequences and stream-of-consciousness and embraced storytelling in its most experimental forms. Zap is also famous (and infamous) for introducing the artist Robert Crumb (creator of Fritz the Cat and the subject of the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary, “Crumb”) to the masses.
Maus #1 (1986)
Art Spiegelman’s Maus became the first comic book to receive the Pulitzer Prize, bestowing a new level of legitimacy on the medium. This graphic novel illustrates the plight and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, as told to Spiegelman by his father (a survivor). Maus crossed the line between comic books and mainstream books, inventing the genre of graphic novels. Today, Spiegelman (pictured above, right) is generally confined to that category, but it’s impossible to deny the impact he’s had on the world of comics.
Akira #1 (September 1988)
Referred to as Manga, Japanese comics account for over a third of the nation’s published books. And though Akira wasn’t the first Japanese comic export, it’s probably been the most influential, telling the striking and poignant tale of a child psychic in post-World War III (yes, three) Tokyo. Creator Katsuhiro Otomo’s influence on comics helped open the gates for the Western popularity of “Pokemon” and “Sailor Moon,” but Akira remains his claim to fame.
Spider-Man #1 (1990)
In 1990, Marvel granted “favored son” status to its artist Todd McFarlane, giving him his own Spider-Man title to write. McFarlane proved worthy. Using nine different covers, Spider-Man #1 became the best-selling comic to date. Not willing to part with his own creations, McFarlane ended up leaving Marvel with a number of well-known artists (and a few ideas up his sleeve) to form Image Comics, which allowed artists to retain the licensing rights to their ideas. The company thrived from the get-go with McFarlane’s other famous superhero comic, Spawn.
Superman #75 (January 1993)
Superman dies?! Yup. The unthinkable happens in 1993 with the release of Superman #75. Millions snatched up the comic to read about the death of America’s first superhero. Conveniently, some copies even came packaged with black armbands to mourn the loss. Of course, long-time comic fans were already anticipating his soap-operatic reprise, but the general public thought it was surely the real thing. When the story finally resumed, four new characters emerged, each claiming to be the true incarnation of the dead superhero.
Just like any list, we were forced to leave plenty of favorites off. Watchmen? Persepolis? If you’ve got comics we need to write up for part 2, be sure to include them in the comments below.