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In June of 1938, National Allied Publications began a new comic-book series, featuring several different heroes. A new character created by two young men from Cleveland was featured on the cover. The comic was Action Comics #1, and the character was Superman.
Thus began The Golden Age Of Comic Books. Throughout the Golden Age, comics as a medium were not yet synonymous with superheroes as a genre — horror stories, funny animals, mystery-solving detectives, Westerns, romances, and more all remained popular throughout this period, in some cases more popular than superheroes. However, the gradual rise of the Superhero defined the Golden Age in many ways. The Superhero had antecedents that went back beyond Superman — indeed, Superman was in large part a product of these — but they had never come together in this way before. The two-fisted pulp action hero merged with science fiction and fantasy, which merged with the crimefighting vigilante, which merged with ancient heroic sagas, to produce an explosion of new characters, individual men with strange abilities and the responsibility to use them against evil.
The first Super Heroes were generally Superman ripoffs. Characters like Wonder Man, Flash Lightning, and Dynamic Man, with the full set of beat-bad-guys-up powers, proliferated quickly. In fact, DC sued Wonder Man's publishers, Fox Productions, for copyright infringement, and won (Will Eisner, who "created" Wonder Man, actually testified against Fox). Probably the most popular character of the Golden Age was not Superman, but Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel; at its height, Captain Marvel Adventures was published weekly and sold 1.3 million copies per month, and the Marvel Family included Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., the three Lieutenant Marvels, Uncle Marvel, Freckles Marvel, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Eventually, more specialized heroes started showing up. The Flash, with the ability to run faster than anyone else (incidentally the first hero with only one power); Doll Man, with the ability to shrink down to six inches high; the Human Torch, with the ability to become living flame. These, in turn, received their own imitators, and a wide range of characters and titles were thus born. (Almost universally in Golden Age comics, each issue contained several short stories, each featuring a different hero. Only the biggest characters got their own books, and even they usually had back-up stories featuring other characters.) Also popular were the pulp heroes themselves, translated to four colors. Based on precedents like Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel, these were usually Badass Normals, occasionally with a gimmicky weapon but often with just their fists, who took out racketeers, white slavers, and saboteurs with aplomb. They often wore cap-sleeved leotards, finned cowl masks and buccaneer boots. Batman sprang from this breed, crossed with a dash of the crime-chasing detective.
This was also the era of the Sidekick. After Robin was introduced in 1940, nearly every hero picked up a young lad or lass to assist them in crimefighting. The Human Torch had Toro; Sandman had Sandy, the Golden Boy; Bulletman had Bulletgirl. Comic Relief adult sidekicks were also popular; they were usually fat and clumsy, like Green Lantern's Doiby Dickles or Plastic Man's Woozy Winks. This being prior to the concept of political correctness, a few regrettable characters showed up here as well, especially the Whizzer's "Slow Motion" Jones, a chubby black man with huge lips and a heavy drawl.
Even before America entered World War II, the Super Heroes would often fight minions of the Axis powers — Patriotic Fervor was almost universal. Dozens of America-themed characters were created: Miss America, The Shield, Captain America, and others. Some heroes joined the Army or the Navy in their secret identities (as did many writers; Bert Christman is known to have written tales of a band of fighter pilots while himself serving as an airman for the Navy). The public was thirsty for tales of good triumphing over evil. Of course, war propaganda was in full effect; Japanese soldiers especially would often be drawn as barely human, Nazis and Fascists also portrayed as green-skinned sneering half-men. (Naturally, juvenile pulps and comics produced in Axis territory did the same thing, but even worse.)
However, those who are familiar with The Silver Age of Comic Books are sometimes surprised to learn that Golden Age comics are often significantly less goofy, less moralistic and less blatantly childish by comparison. The 1930's and 1940's were in many ways a less conservative era in the U.S. than The Fifties, and the Comics Code didn't exist yet. Creators were much less concerned about making their stories age-appropriate and portraying heroes as moral exemplars. Superman was a rougher, more aggressive, somewhat mischievous character, described by his creators as "a thorn in the side of the establishment" — hardly the paragon of Lawful Good we have today. Batman was a dark and violent vigilante who didn't hesitate to use guns long before the 1960's turned him into a camp icon. Possibly as a reflection of real-life women moving into traditionally masculine roles as men left for the war, Golden Age female characters tended to be bold, assertive, fast-talking career gals, often tougher and more independent than their Silver Age counterparts. (This may also reflect the fact that a larger percentage of the comic-reading audience was female during the Golden Age than at any time after.)
The precise end of the Golden Age is vague. After World War II ended, Superhero comics became less popular, with other genres such as funny-animal comedy (which had already been outselling it), crime fiction, and westerns replacing it. As the 1940s moved on, more and more titles either changed genre or were canceled altogether. In 1950, the last Timely (later to become Marvel Comics) superhero title was canceled, and the last Golden Age adventure of the Justice Society of America went by. In 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham published the book Seduction of the Innocent. It argued that comic books were responsible for corrupting the youth of America, leading them to juvenile delinquency and sexual perversion. (If comparison to later criticisms of rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, and video games comes to mind, that's not surprising.) This led to the creation of the restrictive Comics Code Authority, which forbade comic book stories that included moral ambiguity, more than minimal violence, or practically any portrayal of sexuality, resulting in comics that were much more strictly and consciously kid-oriented than before. If the Golden Age wasn't already dead by that point, the Code was the last nail in the coffin.
The Silver Age of Comic Books was, however, just around the corner...
Notable publishers and series of the The Golden Age of Comic Books:
- Archie Comics
- Charlton Comics (Blue Beetle)
- DC Comics (aka National Allied Publications, National Comics, National Periodical Publications)
- Action Comics (Superman)
- All-American Comics (Green Lantern)
- All-Star Comics (Justice Society of America)
- Detective Comics (Batman). It was also the oldest continuously running American comic book series, until the post-Flashpoint reboot.)
- Flash Comics (Flash, Hawkman, Black Canary)
- More Fun Comics (Aquaman, Doctor Fate, Doctor Occult, Green Arrow, The Spectre, Superboy; origin of The DCU)
- Sensation Comics (Wonder Woman)
- Dell Comics (The Owl)
- EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt, the early comic book issues of Mad)
- Fawcett Comics
- Whiz Comics (Captain Marvel)
- Fox Features Syndicate
- Mystery Men Comics (Blue Beetle, Green Mask)
- Phantom Lady
- Harvey Comics (Golden Age Black Cat, Captain Freedom, licensed Green Hornet comics)
- Quality Comics
- Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics)
Usually accepted as lasting from the publishing of Action Comics # 1 to the foundation of the approximately the end of WWII. 1938-~1945