The Golden Age of Comics: The Rise of the Superhero

The modern superhero comic has largely been shaped by its own history, and both the rises and falls that followed the comics industry through the 20th Century. The rise of the superhero genre in the late 1930s, and its popularity through to the mid-1950s played the largest role in shaping what would evolve into the modern superhero comic industry.

Action Comics #1, 1938, Cover Art by Joe Shuster
Action Comics #1, 1938, Cover Art by Joe Shuster

The beginning of the Golden Age of comics, as it has been referred to since the term was coined by the science-fiction author Richard A. Lupoff, is generally seen to have been started by a single event, the publication of Detective Comic’s ‘Action Comics #1’, and the first appearance of Superman. Published in 1938, this comic was mainly an anthology of short stories, however Superman’s first strip met with a remarkable success and enthusiasm from the readership, most likely due to the fact that this strip was unlike any other story in print media, as well as appealing to the already prominent popularity of science-fiction, as Superman was an alien being. The popularity of the Superman strip led not only to Detective Comics Inc., the predecessor of modern DC, creating many more of its most notable heroes with their sister company All-American Publications, but also led to several other companies attempting to capitalise on the success of this new form, including Timely Comics, the company that would go on to become Marvel.

Over the next decade, the origins of characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash, along with many others, began to entertain the general public of America, alongside other heroes such as Captain Marvel, the most popular comic of the time with an approximate readership of 1.4 million per issue, as well as heroes such as Plastic Man or the Spirit. Interestingly, despite not being published under the Detective Comics Inc. brand, Captain Marvel went on to become the hero known today as Shazam, the name change largely due to a legal battle with Marvel Comics.

Captain America Comics #1, 1941, Cover art by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

During the 40’s popularity of the superhero genre continued to climb, as companies began to use their super-powered characters to tie in to current events, with many heroes battling the Axis Forces that America battled during World War II. The most famous of these characters was undoubtedly Captain America, who in his first cover appearance was depicted punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw. This success was largely linked to both the cheap and portable nature of the comic book, as well as its simplistic storytelling, and it’s clashing of the forces of good and evil, with the eventual but unstoppable triumphing of the forces of good over the villains. Similarly, the increase of disposable income for families during the 40s, particularly in the post-war years, meant that comic books were a fantastic form of entertainment that most people could afford.

However, by the late 40s and into the early 50s, the popularity of the superhero began to decline in favour of other genres, including westerns, sci-fi tales and more humorous strips. As such, many of the superheroes who had enjoyed a great deal of success in the 40s were shifted from some of the mainstream titles to some of the lesser known comics, and other heroes such as Captain America disappearing entirely. However this decline did not last all that long, as within a decade the Silver Age of Comics dawned, and with it came the return of the superhero genre to the forefront of the comics industry.

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