Comic Books: A Generational View (part 1, The Golden Age)

Comic Books: A Generational View (part 1, The Golden Age)

September 16, 2016 2:13 pm 0 comments

Any idea how long comic books have been around?  Those new to the medium probably don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on it.  To many they’re characters on the big and small small screen who come from colorful books that look more like sales brochures than a means for serialized storytelling.  For the collector, most think back to the days when Superman and Captain America made their debut.  The history of comics goes back further than that, though.  Depending on the source and interpretation of what constitutes a comic book, some trace the origins back to 18th century Japan.  Many attribute the first US-based comic to The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck published in 1842.  This series of posts will trace the American comic from its early days in the 1930s through today’s resurgence in the medium.

The format of what is today identified as a comic book started in the 1930s and lasted into the mid-1950s.  The period is referred to as the Golden Age.  Comics published during this time featured diverse subject matters; westerns, cartoon characters such as early Disney, war stories, romance, and horror.  However, and more importantly, the Golden Age saw the dawn of the superhero and many of today’s iconic characters trace their origin stories back to that period.  While these days rival publishers DC and Marvel  maintain the lion share of mainstream superheroes, in the early days DC had a near strangle hold on the genre.

  • Superman debuts in Action Comics #1 in June 1938.
  • Batman debuts in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939.
  • The Human Torch debuts in Marvel Comics #1 in October 1939 (published by Timely Comics).
  • Namor the Sub-Mariner debuts in Marvel Comics #1 in October 1939 (published by Timely Comics).
  • The Flash debuts in Flash Comics #1 in January 1940.
  • Captain Marvel (also known as Shazam) debuts in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940.
  • Robin debuts in Detective Comics #38 in April 1940.
  • Green Lantern debuts in All-American Comics #16 in July 1940.
  • Captain America debuts in Captain America Comics #1 in December 1940.
  • Aquaman debuts in More Fun Comics #73 in November 1941.
  • Wonder Woman debuts in All Star Comics #8 in December 1941.

Comics books from this era are highly collectible (insert obligatory “duh” here) for a variety of reasons, but not all of them might be as obvious.  Comics that feature the first appearance of popular characters are constantly sought after by collectors and there is an entire speculator’s market focused on the subject these days.  The list above contains a lot of the top-tier of the superhero pantheon.  What is often lost on modern day readers is the rarity of those comics.  Yes, they’re old and made of newsprint (again, “duh”), which is of far lesser quality than modern paper.  But remember, superheroes didn’t exist until Superman.  Also, comics weren’t collectible like they are today.  There was also the war to end all wars, WWII.  Comics were always designed as a short bit of escapism.  Soldiers would carry comics with them specifically because they were light-weight and a short read.  It gave the soldier a few minutes of respite from their surroundings.  And with comics, you didn’t have to be able to read well; the pictures often tell the story as well as or better than the words.  When they finished the comic, they either traded it with a fellow soldier or just threw it away.  All of these factors add to the rarity of the books.  As an example, Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, had an initial print run of 200,000 copies.  As of 2012, Comics Buyer Guide estimated there are less than 100 copies of the book left in existence.  Higher quality copies of the book have set multiple sales records.  Most recently a 9.0 copy sold in August of 2014 for $3.2 million.

Remember Back to the Future II?  Biff goes back in time with the sports almanac…  Me, I’d find a way to have my descendants buy and stockpile a few of these key books for future me to use.  Need some pocket change?  Sell of one of the Action 1’s you have laying around.

In the next installment…Censorship comes to comics.

By: Just-A-Bill, resident comic nerd justabill

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