The Golden Age of Comic Books was a period in the history of American comic books, generally thought as lasting from 1938 until the early 1950s, during which comic books enjoyed a surge of popularity, the genre of the superhero was invented and defined, and many of comic books’ most perennially popular superheroes debuted.
Comic book fans widely agree that the golden age began in 1938 with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by DC Comics. Superman, the first superhero, was so popular that superheroes soon dominated the pages of comic books and, in the months that followed, DC introduced Aquaman, The Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin.
Although DC dominated the superhero market during this period, the most popular character of the day was Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. Other important characters of the Golden Age include Marvel Comics’ Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America; Quality Comics’ Plastic Man and cartoonist Will Eisner’s The Spirit, featured in a newspaper insert, which was one of the most artistically significant comics of the age. This is only a small sampling of the hundreds of superheroes creating by companies large and small during the Golden Age.
World War II had a significant impact on the Golden Age. Comic books, especially superhero stories, gained popularity during the war, perhaps due to the need for simple tales of good triumphing over evil in such turbulent times. Comic book companies responded with a stories in which superheroes battle the Axis Powers and comic book covers featuring a superhero punching Adolf Hitler or Japanese soldiers (the latter typically portrayed as racist caricatures) have become iconic of the Golden Age.
Although the invention of the superhero was the Golden Age’s most significant contribution to pop culture and superheroes were the dominate genre of comic books during the time, it should be noted that superhero stories were not the only type of comic books published during this time. Others included funny animal comics, westerns, science fiction, crime and romance. The most notable and longest-lasting non-superhero property to debut during this era was Archie Comics’ cast of bubbly teenagers.
Fans differ in marking the end of the Golden Age. Some events that have been called the end of the age include:
- The rise of gritty crime and horror related comics, such as those of EC Comics, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
- The end of stories featuring the all-star superhero team the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics in 1951. The series changed its name with #58 to All-Star Western. This event symbolized a long decline in the popularity of superheroes.
- The publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham in 1954, which argued that comic books, of the superhero, crime and horror genres, corrupted young people. The book contributed to a public outcry against the medium and the implementation of the stringent Comics Code.
Although comic books from this period seem campy and simplistic by today’s standards, the golden age is still called such because of its widespread creativity and the invention of several superheroes who are still popular to this day.
See also: Silver Age of Comic Books, Modern Age of Comic Books