Comic books have made their mark on popular culture in the near-century since they began publication. But when did comics as we know them begin, and how do comic historians navigate the books’ past?
The history of comics divides into periods dubbed “Ages” by comic fans. These Ages represent different eras where comic books followed trends, had a certain quality, or faced different kinds of censorship.
Golden Age (1938 – 1950s)
Comic book historians agree that the Golden Age of Comic Books began with the publication of Superman in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938.
Following Superman’s success, other comic books introduced superheroes that would match Superman’s popularity.
Heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash were all introduced during the Golden Age. Throughout World War II, comics began to introduce more patriotic heroes like Miss America and The Shield. The most popular patriot hero, Captain America, was introduced in 1941.
The Golden Age was also a time where sidekicks became a popular trope of comics. With the introduction of Batman’s sidekick Robin in 1940, sidekick characters started to pop up in many different series.
The best-selling superhero of this era was actually Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, selling around 1.4 million copies per issue. Thanks to copyright issues between Marvel and DC, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was later renamed “Shazam”, which he still goes by today.
Silver Age (1950s – 1970s)
The next period of comic books started either in 1954 or 1956, depending on who you ask. This Age followed several years where superhero stories became less popular after World War II ended. This is partially because comic writers were left without enemies for heroes to fight after the war.
In 1954, most big-name comic publishers adopted The Comics Code, a set of rules that banned the inclusion of mature topics in comic books. This helped set the Silver Age into motion with plots aimed primarily at kids.
The Silver Age began in earnest in 1956 with an issue of DC Comic’s Showcase, featuring a redesigned version of the Flash. This inspired other redesigns that re-popularized superheroes after their post-war decline.
Silver Age stories usually had elements of sci-fi, thanks to the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during this Age.
Like its beginning, the end of the Silver Age is a result of several events, not a single cause. Some cite the increase in comic prices from 12 to 15 cents, while others point to comic artist Jack Kirby’s move from Marvel to DC in 1970. Comic historians also cite the 1973 Spider-Man story “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, saying it ended the “innocence” of the Silver Age.
Bronze Age (1970s – Mid-1980s)
The Seventies were a time when comics began to shy away from the stricter parts of The Comics Code. Bronze Age comics are darker, and touch on more real-life issues, more so than even stories from the pre-Code Golden Age.
By this point, comics had an active fanbase and didn’t have to rely on mass distribution at newsstands to stay afloat. Comic shops began to open, and comic prices increased as they became collectors’ items. This also gave smaller publishers a better chance to enter the market, filling comic book shelves with more unique stories.
Non-superhero comic books began to expand during this time, most notably with Conan the Barbarian and its spinoffs. This was also a time of massive, publisher-wide crossover stories like Marvel’s Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths series.
The Bronze Age also doesn’t have a definite end point, though many point to the publication of darker, deconstructive stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.
Modern Age (Mid-1980s – Present)
These days, comics are more diverse than they’ve ever been, thanks to relatively little censorship and digital distribution.
Modern comics have explored more genres in recent years, since Comics Code bans on fantasy and horror stories has lifted. Comics that were less grounded in the superhero genre like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman helped to break creative boundaries in the formative years of the Modern Age.
Many Modern Age stories have a more dark and mature tone than their predecessors. Also, many comic writers these days grew up as comic fans themselves, and write stories that pull from and pay homage to older comics.
Comics these days drive some of the biggest blockbuster films of the past decade. Following shifts in the industry within the past two years, it appears that comic books will soon be more available than ever before, thanks to digital publishing.
Comics at Compass
Every month, Compass conducts a Coins, Jewelry, & Collectibles Auction featuring gemstones, foreign and antique currency, jewelry, and more. This month’s auction will contain several hundred lots of comic books from publishers like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and more.