The Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in the history of American comic books, generally thought as lasting from the 1930s until the mid-1950s during which comic books enjoyed a surge of popularity, the archetype of the superhero was created and defined, and many of the most famous superheroes debuted.
The period saw the arrival of the comic book as a mainstream artform, the creation and first dominance of the "superhero" archetype, and the defining of the medium's artistic vocabulary and creative conventions by its first generation of writers, artists, and editors.
Comic-book fans and historians widely agree that the Golden Age began no later than 1938 with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by DC Comics. Some date the start to earlier events in the 1930s: The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's regular publication The Golden Age Quarterly lists comic books from 1933 onwards (1933 saw the publication of the first comic book in the size that would subsequently define the format); some historians, including Roger Sabin (in Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: a History of Comic Art), date it to the publication of the first comic books featuring entirely original stories rather than re-prints of comic strips from newspapers (1935), by the company that would become DC Comics. However, Superman, the first comic book superhero, was so popular that superheroes soon dominated the pages of comic books, which characterised the Golden Age.
Between early 1939 and late 1941, DC and her sister company All-American Comics introduced such popular superheroes as Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and Aquaman, while Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
Although DC and Timely characters are more famous today, circulation figures suggest that in the 1940s the best selling superhero may have been Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel. According to the article "Thunderstruck" by Ben Morse in Wizard #179 (September 2006): By the mid 1940s, Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel Adventures, starring the original "Shazam!"-shouting hero, sold roughly 1.4 million copies per issue, making it the most widely circulated comic book in America. Captain Marvel's sales soundly trounced Superman's self-titled series and Action Comics alike.
Quality Comics’ Plastic Man and cartoonist Will Eisner's non-superpowered masked detective The Spirit, originally published in a newspaper insert but reprinted in comic-book form, were also extremely popular. Many historians seem to consider the Spirit to be the most artistically significant character of the Golden Age, during which hundreds of superheroes were created for companies large and small.
World War II had a significant impact. Comic books, particularly superhero comics, gained immense popularity during the war as cheap, portable, easily read tales of good triumphing over evil. Comic book companies showcased their heroes battling the Axis Powers; covers featuring superheroes punching Adolf Hitler or fighting buck-toothed Japanese soldiers have become icons of the age.
Although the creation of the superhero was the Golden Age's most significant contribution to pop culture, many other genres of comic book appeared on the newsstands side-by-side with Superman and Captain America. The Golden Age included many funny animal, western, romance, and jungle comics. The Steranko History of Comics 2 notes that it was the non-superhero characters of Dell Comics — most notably the licensed Walt Disney animated character comics — that outsold all the supermen of the day. Dell comics, featuring such licensed movie and literary properties Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, and Tarzan, boasted circulations of over a million copies a month, and Donald Duck writer/artist Carl Barks is considered one of the era's major talents. Another notable and enduring non-superhero property created during the Golden Age was the Archie Comics cast of teen-humor characters.
End of the era
Fans differ in marking the end of the Golden Age. Some events considered demarcation points include:
- The rise of gritty crime and horror related comics, such as those of EC Comics, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This shift, along with the particular appearance of superheroes created by nuclear explosions and similar events, has led some (such as the National Association of Comics Art Educators) to describe the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s as the Atomic Age of Comic Books.
- 1950. For Timely Comics, the Golden Age ended with the cancellation of Captain America Comics at issue #75 (Feb. 1950) — by which time the series had already been Captain America's Weird Tales for two issues, with no superhero stories. The company's flagship title, Marvel Mystery Comics, starring the Human Torch, had already ended its run (with #92, June 1949), as had Sub-Mariner Comics (with #32, the same month).
- 1951. Stories featuring the all-star superhero team the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics ended. (The series changed its name with #58 to All-Star Western.) This event climaxed a long decline in the popularity of superheroes. At Timely Comics, Goodman began using the Atlas Comics logo on comics cover-dated Nov. 1951.
- 1954. The book Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham argued that superhero, crime, and horror comic books were a factor in corrupting young people and a cause of juvenile delinquency. The book contributed to a public outcry against the medium and the implementation of the industry's Comics Code.
- 1956. Post-Wertham industry changes including the two-year deterioration of EC Comics. The subsequent Silver Age began to emerge in October, 1956, with the debut of a new Flash, Barry Allen.
- 1954 Senate Interim Report: Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency
- The Long, Gory Life of EC Comics Reason magazine (June 2005)
- The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide