More Than a Century of Comic Books

Posted on 6/21/2022

Comic books have come a long way since they were introduced in the late 19th Century. Take a minute to learn more about the history of comics.

THE PLATINUM AGE (1897-1938)

The practice of sequential art storytelling is thousands of years old and can be found in primitive cave paintings depicting early hunters battling their prey. Printed cartoons and comic strips were then published in newspapers from the 19th century, and in 1897 the first comic book, titled “The Yellow Kid in McFadden Flats,” by Richard Outcault was published, reprinting black and white newspaper comic strips in one book. The book was so successful that it led to other newspaper comic strips, like “The Katzenjammer Kids” (by Rudolph Dirks) and “Mutt & Jeff,” (by Bud Fisher) being collected and published in comic books.

Other long-running stories such as “The Shadow” (by Walter B. Gibson) and “Doc Savage” (by Lester Dent, John Nonovic and Henry Ralston) were also being published in pulps as early as 1933 and are widely considered the first superheroes, but would not be published in comic book form until 1940 by Smith & Street Publishing.

The first original story comic book was published in 1935, titled “New Fun” by National Allied Publications, followed by “New Comics” that same year and “Detective Comics” in 1937. The company adopted the first letters of “Detective Comics” to create a new publishing name — DC Comics.

THE GOLDEN AGE (1938-1956)

In April of 1938, National published Action Comics #1, featuring the debut of Superman and the beginning of what would be known as the Golden Age of Comics. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman (“The Man of Steel”) is believed to have been inspired by the earlier pulp hero, Doc Savage (“The Man of Bronze”).

Over 200,000 copies of Action Comics #1 were printed, but only an estimated 100 copies have survived the ravages of time. An Action Comics #1 graded CGC 6.0 sold for $3.1 million in 2022 by Heritage Auctions.

Action Comics is credited as the birth of the superhero comic book, and National found so much success with its new superhero genre they quickly went to work creating more — beginning with the debut of Batman in 1939 in Detective Comics #27 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. A Detective Comics #27 graded CGC 7.0 sold for $1.5 million in 2020. Batman would debut in his own series in 1940, and a Batman #1 graded CGC 9.4 sold for $2.22 million in 2021.

National also published “All-Star Comics,” beginning in 1940. The series introduced the very first superhero team, the Justice Society of America (with Doctor Fate, Hourman, The Spectre, Sandman, Atom, Green Lantern and Hawkman) in All-Star Comics #3 by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Mayer, and then Woman Woman soon-after in All-Star Comics #8 by William Moulton Marsten and HG Peter.

The Flash debuted in his own title in 1940, and a copy of The Flash Comics #1 graded CGC 9.6 sold for $450,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile in New York City (across town from National offices), a new publisher called Timely Comics opened its doors in 1939 with “Marvel Comics” featuring new characters like The Human Torch (by Carl Burgos) and Namor the Submariner (by Bill Everett). (A CGC Grade 9.4 copy of Marvel Comics #1 sold for $2.4 million in 2022.) Captain America Comics #1 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon followed shortly thereafter in 1941.

It was also in 1939 that a 16-year-old assistant named Stan Lee was first hired at Timely Comics — but we’ll talk more about him later.

Seeing the landmark success of Superman, many publishers wanted one of their own. Most notably, Fawcett Publications introduced its own new superhero named Captain Marvel in 1940 (by Bill Parker and CC Beck) who was little more than a Superman rip-off. The similarities did not go unnoticed by DC Comics, and they successfully sued Fawcett for copyright infringement to cease publication.

By November of 1951, Timely had rebranded itself as Atlas Comics.

THE SILVER AGE (1956-1970)

In the 1950s, comic books came under scrutiny by parent groups, churches, schools and politicians who accused them of promoting harmful content to children. In response, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to self-regulate the type of content published in comics. This effectively ended the publication of popular EC Comics, which was known for its graphic horror and crime comics.

This new CCA-approved era of comics led to the Silver Age. DC rebooted heroes such as Green Lantern and The Flash for the Silver Age, adopting new characters and elements that remain a core piece of the comics still today. This is also when The Flash (Barry Allen) first introduced the concept of a multiverse, when he met the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) of Earth-2 in The Flash #123. In 1961, Timely/Atlas rebranded itself as Marvel Comics with the release of Journey into Mystery #69.

Stan Lee was reportedly unhappy with his work at Marvel and wanted to leave comics, but was convinced by his wife to do one more book before he quit and do it the way he had always wanted to do a comic book — just to get it out of his system. Thus was born Fantastic Four #1, created by Lee and Jack Kirby.

Lee had also been sitting on an idea for a teenage hero with spider powers and his editors reportedly hated it, insisting that teenagers could only be sidekicks and spiders were gross. Lee did it anyway, debuting Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 with Steve Ditko, and the book flew off the newsstands. Immediately, Lee’s editors at Marvel Comics changed their tune about his Spider-Man, and a new monthly series was put into print with The Amazing Spider-Man #1 in 1963.

An Amazing Fantasy #15 graded CGC 9.6 set sales records when it sold for $3.6 million in 2021 by Heritage Auctions.

Stan Lee stayed at Marvel and helped create more iconic heroes such as The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and many, many more. These heroes would assemble to create another legendary Marvel Comics series, “The Avengers,” in 1963. The Timely Comics hero Captain America was revived and joined the team in the 1964 Avengers #4, and the Marvel comic book series “Tales of Suspense” was rebranded “Captain America” with its 100th issue welcoming Captain America to his first solo series of the Silver Age.

Lee also debuted his signature Marvel mutants in the X-Men in 1963 with X-Men #1, and a CGC Grade 9.8 copy sold in 2012 for nearly $500,000.

Where DC was known for its perfect, almost god-like heroes fighting aliens and supernatural threats, Marvel took a more human approach. They were people first, with real problems that readers could identify with. They struggled with things like homework and paying the bills, and they tackled social issues like war and equal rights. DC was about mythology and aliens fighting in made-up cities like Metropolis, and Marvel was about science and reality fighting in real-life New York City.

THE BRONZE AGE (1970-1984)

By the time the Bronze Age began, thanks largely to the gritty realism of Marvel Comics, elements of the Silver Age were beginning to fade and comics started returning to darker, more realistic stories. Just like the 1970s were a time of social awareness throughout America, so too had they become a part of comic books.

In 1971, Marvel was asked by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare to publish a story about the dangers of drug abuse. The story, titled “Green Goblin Reborn” and published in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, was rejected by the Comics Code Authority, but Stan Lee (now editor-in-chief) decided to publish it anyway without the CCA seal. The story was praised for its educational message, and CCA revised its guidelines to allow drug use in comics as long as it was not portrayed in a positive way.

The revised CCA guidelines also allowed more supernatural elements into the comics, opening the door for a return to horror and pulp adventures with titles like “Swamp Thing” at DC Comics, and “The Tomb of Dracula” and “Ghost Rider” at Marvel Comics.

At DC Comics, writer Denny O’Neil attempted to make Wonder Woman a modern, feminist icon by redesigning her costume. He tackled issues of racism in Green Lantern and addressed drug abuse in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86 with artist Neal Adams.

At Marvel, Spider-Man was dealing with the tragic death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121. Many consider this to be the definitive story of the Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age also welcomed a new era of minority heroes — including Luke Cage, Storm and Blade at Marvel Comics, and John Stewart, Black Lightning and Cyborg at DC Comics — and saw the very first Marvel/DC crossover with the publication of “Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man.” DC Comics also revived “Captain Marvel” in 1972 after acquiring the character from Fawcett Publishing in the 1950s. The title, “Captain Marvel,” however, was already being used by Marvel Comics so DC called their new book “Shazam” after the magic word Billy Batson says to transform into the hero Captain Marvel.

THE COPPER AGE (1984-1991)

In 1986, DC Comics began distancing itself from its Silver Age image by publishing darker, more mature stories. Notably, DC published a 12-issue series titled “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and a four-issue miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller.

DC Comics also had a major, 12-issue special event known as “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1986 that effectively ended their universe that had existed since 1938 and rebooted it for a modern audience. DC comics that were published before this event (1938-1985) are called “Pre-Crisis,” and comics published after (1986-Present) are called “Post-Crisis.”

After Crisis, DC relaunched all of its titles, with most starting back at issue #1 — including Man of Steel #1 with the very first variant cover.

THE MODERN AGE (1991-Present)

DC would attempt to relaunch its universe several times after Crisis, including events such as Zero Hour, Final Crisis, Flashpoint, Rebirth and most recently Dark Crisis. Marvel has also had many special crossover events, including Secret Wars, Age of Apocalypse, Heroes Reborn and Civil War. The concept of company-wide crossover events became a nearly annual occurrence for both Marvel and DC by the early 21st Century.

In 1992, creators from Marvel and DC alike left their employers over contract negotiations and formed their own creator-owned publisher called Image Comics, which was an umbrella for individual, creator-owned studios. Todd McFarlane created “Spawn” for his studio Todd McFarlane Productions, Jim Lee created “Stormwatch” for his Wildstorm Universe, Erik Larsen created “The Savage Dragon” for his Highbrow Entertainment, Jim Valentino created “Shadowhawk” for his Shadowline studio, Mark Silvestri created “Witchblade” for his Top Cow Studios and Rob Liefeld created “Youngblood” for his Extreme Studios.

Jim Lee’s Wildstorm was acquired by DC Comics in 1999, and Lee returned to DC as co-publisher with Dan Didio in 2010.

Marvel Comics was the first to stop submitting books through the Comics Code Authority in 2001, followed by Bongo Comics (publishers of “The Simpsons” comic books) in 2010 and then DC Comics and Archie Comics in 2011. With all major publishers withdrawn from the CCA, the organization became defunct.

After slumping sales, Marvel Comics was purchased by Walt Disney Corporation in 2009 for $4 billion and the Mouse quickly put Marvel films into development, picking up where Marvel Studios began with “Iron Man” in 2008. The films were widely successful and birthed an entire universe of films known as the MCU, which revitalized the superhero film genre and sparked new interest in comic books among fans and creators.

“Action Comics” at DC surpassed a milestone of 1,000 issues in April 2018, and “Detective Comics” passed 1,000 issues in March of 2019. Other long-running DC titles (“Flash” and “Wonder Woman”) have passed 750 issues, as both Marvel and DC alike begin relaunching or renumbering series to match their original legacy numbering in anticipation of crossing the 1,000 issue mark.

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