Though I always thought comic books were a bit of trivial fun, I’ve since realized that, like all good art and literature, they delve much deeper into human psychology. Comic books are a reflection and response to the political and social times they developed in. As society changes, their content changes. In order to best define and categorize the transformations in comic books over time, critics divide them into FOUR major “ages” (though some would argue it’s really seven). They are:
1. The Golden Age of Comic Books:
The golden age lasted from 1938, with the first publication of Superman in Action Comics #1, until 1950. During this time writers and artists developed the very first superheroes. DC Comics flourished with publications like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, while Timely Comics, Marvel's predecessor, responded with the Human Torch and Captain America.
With World War II, comic books became extremely popular due to their cheap, entertaining tales depicting good triumphing over evil. But more than that, the war shaped the face of comics; they often reflected war-time themes and occasionally acted as war propaganda, with recognizable heroes battling Adolf Hitler or Japanese soldiers. During this time, the concept of the “superhero” became permanently defined and developed as the center of comic book story lines. Larger than life, they became a symbol of virtue and morality for Americans desperate for something heroic to cling to during turbulent times.
2. The Silver Age of Comic Books:
After the war finished, comic books suffered a decline in popularity. To stay in business, creators shifted focus from superheroes to tales of horror or romance. However, in 1954, renowned psychologist Dr. Fredric Werthham published Seduction of the Innocent, discussing links between teenage delinquencies and comic books. As a response, comic publishers executed the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to regulate subject matter.
With the creation of the CCA, as well as political movements like McCarthyism and the 1950’s focus on morality and ethics, comic book content altered greatly. During the Silver Age, which lasted from 1956 to 1970, subjects shifted away from the graphic horror scenes they covered post-war back to heroism and noble principles. Creators that remain household names today rose to the forefront, including Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Beginning with The Flash in DC’s Showcase #4 (1956), they modernized and revamped older heroes like Green Lantern, The Flash and Captain America, causing the second resurgence in superhero interest.
3. The Bronze Age of Comic Books:
The Bronze Age lasted from 1970 to 1985 (though some debate surrounds the end date). During this time, comic books became much darker, beginning in 1971 when Stan Lee published an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in the direct face of CCA disapproval. Following his lead, other publishers opted to do the same. Plots turned darker and more mature, with heroes facing real-world issues like drug use and alcoholism.
We can see how the darker comic book trends of the 70’s and 80’s reflect social cynicism following the Vietnam War, Cold War and the Nixon scandals. And with 1973 came the dawn a new type of hero – the ‘anti-hero’. Anti-heroes, like their earlier counterparts, perform valiant deeds and protect the public from dangerous criminals; however, their motives are anything but pure, their actions dangerous and questionable, and often motivated by vengeance rather than justice. Wolverine and The Punisher remain two of the most popular and recognizable anti-heroes.
4. The Modern Age of Comic Books:
The Modern Age began in the mid-1980s and lasts all the way through present day. Like the Gold Age, it reflects changes in society both internally and externally. For example, on par with war themes from the 40’s, technological advancement makes its way into today’s comic books with both heroes and villains using the newest computers and electronics. But beyond that, just as WWII created a surge in comic book print media because of their cheap, easy production, now advances in computer graphics and technology allow heroes and villains to step off the page and into other media like movies, television, computer games, and digital or webcomics.
As traditional publishers Marvel and DC commercialized, independent publishers, like Dark Horse, rose up. With their boom in the film industry, comic books attracted new celebrity writers like Frank Miller, Joss Whedon, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Writers realized that comic books and superheroes are an excellent outlet for social commentary. In The Dark Knight, Batman fights corruption in the political systems. In Iron Man, Tony Stark battles corporate greed and experiments with alternative energy sources though his arc reactor. And the X-Men comics and movies show the problems we face with suppression of political rights for minority groups.
Additionally, characters developed even darker and more psychologically complex, with the anti-hero as the standard model. A shift towards emotional realism occurred where, rather than using their extraordinary abilities on a quest for good, heroes fought crime out of a deep psychological need to destroy criminals. Like their Bronze Age counterparts, these anti-heroes reflect a general disillusionment within society.
From the earliest paragons of heroism to modern anti-heroes, comic books reflect and highlight the social and political climates they’re produced in, and remain an excellent lens to view social changes and the American public state of mind. As both a history and English major, I find this a fascinating discovery and resolve to pay more attention to the surfeit of superhero movies releasing in the next two years.