Golden Age of Comic Books

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Golden Age of Comic Books
Superman, catalyst of the Golden Age: Superman #14 (February 1942). Cover art by Fred Ray.
Time span c.1938 – c.1950
Related periods
Followed by Silver Age of Comic Books (1956 – c. 1970)

The Golden Age of Comic Books describes a certain period of time in the history of American comic books, namely from the late 1930s to the 1940s or early 1950's. During this time, modern comic books were first published and rapidly increased in popularity. The archetype[clarification needed] and the superhero were created, and many famous superheroes debuted, including Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel.

When comic book publishing became a major industry, the art form was broadcast by mainstream media. Moreover, the first generation of comic book writers, artists, and editors further defined the medium's artistic vocabulary and creative conventions.[citation needed]

Origin of the term[edit]

The first recorded use of the term "Golden Age" was by Richard A. Lupoff in an article called "Re-Birth" of Fanzine's Comic Art (issue #1: April 1960).[citation needed]


The major event many cite as marking the beginning of the Golden Age was the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by the predecessor of modern-day DC Comics. The creation of Superman made comic books into a major industry.[1] Some date the start to earlier events in the 1930s: The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's regular publication The Golden Age Quarterly lists comic books from 1933 onwards (1933 saw the publication of the first comic book in the size that would subsequently define the format); some historians, such Roger Sabin, date it to the publication of the first comic books featuring entirely original stories rather than re-prints of comic strips from newspapers (1935) by the company that would become DC Comics.[citation needed]

Superman, the first comic book superhero, was so popular that superheroes soon dominated the pages of comic books, which characterized the Golden Age.[citation needed]

Between 1939 and 1941, DC and its sister company All-American Publications introduced such popular superheroes as Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and Aquaman. Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics, had million-selling titles that featured the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.

Whiz Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), the first appearance of Captain Marvel. Cover art by C. C. Beck.

While DC and Timely characters are widely known today, circulation figures suggest that the best-selling superhero title of the era may have been Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose approximately 1.4 million copies per issue made it "the most widely circulated comic book in America." Captain Marvel's sales soundly trounced Superman's self-titled series and Action Comics alike, and the comic was issued biweekly at one point to capitalize upon that popular interest.[2]

Other popular and long-running characters included Quality Comics' Plastic Man and cartoonist Will Eisner's non-superpowered masked detective the Spirit, originally published as a syndicated Sunday-newspaper insert in a quasi-comic book format.[citation needed]

World War II had a significant impact on comics, as reflected in the war-themed subject matter of the time.[citation needed] Comic books, particularly superhero titles, gained immense popularity during the war as cheap, portable, and easily read tales of good triumphing over evil. American comic book companies showcased their heroes battling the Axis Powers: covers featuring superheroes punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, such as Captain America #1 by Timely comics in 1941, or fighting buck-toothed caricatures of Japanese soldiers have become relics of the age.[citation needed]

Although the creation of the superhero was the Golden Age's most significant contribution to pop culture, many genres appeared on the newsstands, including humor, Western, romance, and jungle stories. The Steranko History of Comics 2 notes that it was the non-superhero characters of Dell Comics — most notably the licensed Walt Disney animated character comics — that outsold all the supermen of the day. Dell Comics, featuring such licensed movie and literary properties as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Roy Rogers, and Tarzan, boasted circulations of over two million copies a month,[citation needed] and Donald Duck writer-artist Carl Barks is considered one of the era's major talents.[3]

Post-war and the Atomic era[edit]

As with World War II, the era following the drop of the atomic bomb in 1945 colored the content and subject matter of comic books in the mid-to-late 1940s.[citation needed] One blunt example is the educational comic book Dagwood Splits the Atom, using characters from the comic strip Blondie.[4] Superheroes with nuclear-derived powers began to emerge, such as the Atomic Thunderbolt and Atoman.[citation needed] In the movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman, the titular hero fought a villain named Atom Man, while Superman's weakness to kryptonite recalled the dangers of atomic radiation.[citation needed] Contrasting these serious characters were atomic funny animal characters such as Atomic Mouse and Atomic Rabbit.[citation needed] One historian argues that these cute creations helped ease young readers' fears over the prospect of nuclear war and neutralize anxieties over the questions posed by atomic power.[5] The heroes began to fight communists, and some got involved in the Korean War.[citation needed]

End of the era[edit]

1940s comics were called Golden Age by 1963, as on the cover of Strange Tales #114 (Nov. 1963).

As World War II ended the popularity of the superhero comics diminished, and in an effort to retain readers comic publishers began diversifying more than ever into war, Western, science fiction, romance, crime and horror comics.[6] As a result, many superhero titles were canceled:

  • Timely Comics' Marvel Mystery Comics with the Human Torch (#92, June 1949), Sub-Mariner Comics (#32, June 1949), and Captain America Comics (then Captain America's Weird Tales) at issue #75 (Feb. 1950); and a transformation to the Atlas Comics logo on comics cover-dated November 1951.

The subsequent Silver Age of Comic Books is generally recognized as beginning with the debut of the first successful new superhero since the Golden Age, DC Comics' new Flash, in Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Goulart, Ron (2000). Comic book Culture: An Illustrated History (1st American ed.). Portland, Oregon: Collectors Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-888054-38-5. 
  2. ^ Morse, Ben. "Thunderstruck". Wizard #179 (September 2006)
  3. ^ Wivel, Matthias (January 24, 2012). "Reviews: Donald Duck Lost in the Andes". The Comics Journal. [H]is [Barks'] work of c. 1948–54 ranks amongst the most consistently inspired, inventive, touching, and plain fun in the history of comics. 
  4. ^ Dagwood Splits the Atom scan
  5. ^ Zeman, Scott C.; Amundson, Michael A. (2004). Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ([Nachdr.] ed.). Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 9780870817632. 
  6. ^ Kovacs, George; Marshall, C. W. (2011). Classics and Comics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0199734191. 

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