Comic Books

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Over time, many societies have chronicled the lives of their most heroic individuals. According to Mike Cook, most of the world’s greatest tales follow the lives of legends and saviors. These stories offer the reader a sense of the strength and nationalism found within the culture of a given society. As societies have changed, so have the heroes they develop and portray.

Since they were created, superheroes have served as representations of the times in which they were molded (Cook and Frey). Superman appeared in 1933 at a time when Americans could use a heroic and patriotic figure. Captain America appeared in 1941 amidst the United States’ involvement in World War II. Batman made his initial appearance in 1939 on the heels of the Great Depression and the uncertainty over another global conflict (Cook and Frey). This era from 1930 to about 1950 is commonly referred to as the “golden age” of comic books. This was called the golden age because comic books were extremely popular, with 95% of all boys and 91% of girls between six and eleven reading them. However, it was not just children reading them. In fact, 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women aged eighteen to thirty also read comic books. (Kelley) The fact that the Golden Age of comic books occurred alongside the Great Depression and World War Two is no coincidence. Comic books from the 1930s and 40s fulfilled an ever-changing cultural need: the desire for cheap entertainment.

Many comic books reflected the Depression Era in which they were born, a time when America desperately needed cheap diversions. Even President Roosevelt was aware of the power of popular culture in times of great suffering. He remarked in 1936, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and forget his troubles” (Kelley). In a time before mass recorded media, the comic book was the one form of entertainment that you could enjoy at any time and as many times as you wanted.

A ten cent comic book could easily be traded among friends, thereby increasing its actual value. The first popular comic book series, “Famous Funnies,” attempted to give its consumers the most content for their money, an important selling point in a Depression culture (Lowrey). The 1936 cover of the first issue boasted “100 Comics, Games, Puzzles, Magic” (Russell). The comic largely delivered on its promise, and included light hearted tales of both America and faraway lands. Nowhere to be found were tales of the soup kitchens, closed factories, and “Hoovervilles” that dominated the American landscape. The lighthearted nature of these initial publications led to the coining of the name “comic books” to describe this style.

While they certainly served as entertainment, the early superhero comics actively attempted to modify cultural conventions. The birth of the superhero reflected the desire to fix the wrongs of the Depression in a spirit embodied by the New Deal (Kelley). Although living in fantasy helped America forget its troubles, if America was ever to be saved from the Depression, it needed a hero. Superman was just one member of a long line of American folk heroes, but his story reflected the new American culture of the thirties; his adventures were based in the city rather than the frontier (Russell).

Superman was created as a hero for the common man, a man who was disenfranchised and wondering if there was anyone looking out for his best interest. The Superman of this age was less idealistic than we would be led to believe. A little rougher around the edges and a little less powerful, this original Superman seemed to thoroughly enjoy beating up the bad guys. He was also less powerful. While certainly endowed with super powers, the original Superman pales in comparison to the modern version; abilities such as flight, x-ray vision, and control over wind have been added through the years (Carney).

Fitting this more earthly persona, Superman’s stories reflect his desire to right the wrongs of society. In his early years, Superman does not fight supervillians we have grown used to but rather takes down the villains of the New Deal era. Some early Superman villains include bosses who do not provide safe working conditions, stock brokers who sell faulty stocks, and even a senator who conspires with an armaments manufacturer. Rather than merely escape from their problems, Americans wanted to see someone triumph, even if it was just in the pages of a fictional comic book.

Superman became the common man’s cultural hero. At a time when most comic book titles sold about 300,000 copies per issue, each issue of the Superman title sold an average of 1,300,000 copies (Kinsella et al). The commercial success of Superman led to an explosion of the superhero genre. Modern favorites such as Green Lantern and Batman were created as a result of Superman’s overwhelming commercial success. The popularity of superheroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman continued into the 1940s. However, much had changed in the last years of the Depression; America seemed to be lifting itself out of debt and into a global conflict. The economics of the impending war also had an effect on comic book popularity (Lowrey). Due to increased production, which resulted in more jobs, families had more disposable income. Already established as a popular medium, comic books only grew in popularity during the war years, especially among adults. By December 1943, monthly comic books sales had climbed to 25 million copies (Lowrey).

During the war, comic books reflected a new desire to display America as a sympathetic character much in the same way Superman’s New Deal comic reflects the fight of the common man (Carney). If Superman represented the ideals of an American culture, Captain America represented the nationalistic aims of a culture about to become involved a World War. Wearing a red, white, and blue costume, Captain America did not hide from what he represented and who he was fighting against. His nationalism is clearly depicted in the first issue of Captain America. On the cover is an image of Captain America infiltrating a Nazi bunker and punching Hitler in the face. In the background, a monitor shows the destruction of an American munitions factory (Vollum). Surprisingly, this issue was released a full year before America declared war. The creators of Captain America were Jewish Americans who wanted the world to know the evils of the Third Reich (Vollum). They understood the power of comic books, and decided it was their duty to spread their message. While their position is understandable and noble given our modern considerations, their viewpoint was not shared by the whole of American culture. What Captain America stood for was American intervention in the war in Europe at a time when many people in America favored an isolationist approach (Kinsella et al).

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, Captain America’s message of American nationalism would become fully incorporated into American culture. Mirroring his first issue, issue twenty-three of Captain America saw the title character on the Pacific Front, punching a Japanese general on the face.23 This comic represented many Americans view on the Japanese and the war: Captain America told the Japanese general on the cover, “You started it! Now we’ll finish it!” (Cook and Frey).

Racist caricatures of the Japanese could be found throughout popular comics and reflected the growing distrust of all Japanese people, including Japanese Americans. This distrust became most evident in the Japanese internment camps of 1944. While they were not commissioned by the government, the comic books during this period could certainly be considered propaganda (Kelley). The subject matter of the comic books reflected the needs of a wartime culture.The August 1943 issue of “Batman” is an example of the voluntary propaganda on behalf of the comic books and the use of classic characters for the cause, in this case the purchase of War Bonds and Stamps (Vollum).

This comic combines the cartoonish approach to the Axis while including a very serious plea; Insure the Fourth of July! Buy War Bonds and Stamps! Even Superman got into the act, urging his readers to give money to the American Red Cross (Russell). Eventually, the government asked comic book makers to think of the war effort when creating comics, urging them to ask of their products, “Will this help win the war?” Comic books could help by presenting the war in a more appealing light and reaffirming the cultural logic that America was destined to win.

Comic books not only served to collect support at home, but also to inspire soldiers fighting abroad. Comic books reminded soldiers they were fighting for American values and were being supported by their families back home. Comic books were careful not to portray superheroes as doing the job intended for America’s servicemen. Rather than fight the Nazi’s herself, Wonder Woman briefly served as a nurse. Superman protected America’s home front from spies, declaring that “the United States Army, Navy, and Marines are capable of smashing their foes without the aid of Superman” (Russell). America’s soldiers were the supermen, and, just like Superman, they would conquer their inferior foes. At least 35,000 copies of Superman were sent to servicemen each month (Cook and Frey).

In addition to these shipments, comic books were created specifically for servicemen, called GI comics. These comics all dealt with the life of a serviceman, but were varied in tone. Some were funny tales regarding routine, such as the popular Sad Sack and the Sarge series, while others depicted the realities of the war, an issue rarely addressed in comics made for general consumption (Carney). The reality of the servicemen’s position demanded this more complete and honest approach. While those at home could romanticize the war as a war for ideals, the servicemen had to face the realities of war. That did not mean, however, that they had to be disconnected from the general American culture. This connection was maintained largely by popular comic books.

The end of World War II and the subsequent post-war culture, marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of comic books. True, there was a boost in comic book sales in 1946, a year after the war, but this was merely a residual effect (Carney). Servicemen returning home still wanted to read their favorite comics, which allowed them to transition into their post-war lives while still maintaining previous habits. They joy of winning the war resulted in the creation of many congratulatory comics, announcing the defeat of the Axis and the glorious future of the American vision. Americans maintained post war economic production maintained briefly, but that production of comic books eventually leveled (Vollum). Also, the market was glutted with titles based solely on the war effort; these titles no longer had an audience and eventually faded away into obscurity. Once America fully adjusted to a post war culture, it became evident that the comic book and America had done its job to win the war; the post war culture left comics searching for a new identity.

The new identity of comic books, and the declining cultural significance that followed, is most evident in the treatment of superhero comics after the war. During the war, the superheroes allowed America to envision itself fighting the evils of the Axis. The culture of postwar jubilance made superheroes seem less important. This was especially true of the heroes created during the war. Captain America, whose purpose was to defeat the Nazis, seemed unnecessary and was ultimately canceled in 1956 (Cook and Frey).

Superman retained some of his popularity, but became based on fantastical plots that had no cultural significance. Unlike his social justice stories of the late thirties, Superman’s postwar plots consisted of fighting far out supervillians. In a postwar American culture, there were no more traditional villains for Superman to fight. Even when new cultural villains arose, namely in the Russian Big Red Machine, the new forms of popular media, television and popular cinema, would ultimately take up the fight. The villains of the Cold War would not be fought by Superman in the pages of comics, but by the A-Team and Rocky Balboa.

Without villains to be fought, comics shifted focus. The most popular comics of the end of the Golden Age were the “teen humor” comics, most notably the Archie comics (Kelley). The presence of teen comics says some interesting things about the budding teenager culture after World War Two. Considered in many ways both child and adult, these young adults were no longer expected to get married and join the workforce, but were expected to cultivate the knowledge and virtues that would serve them as adults. A large commercial culture, which included comic books, arose to meet the needs of this new demographic (Kinsella).

The comics that resulted were as far from the superhero genre as possible. If Superman’s goal was to defeat the Nazis, then Archie’s goal was to ask Betty to the big dance. Based on the lives of “typical teenagers,” these comics were based on everyday aspects of life and adhered to predictable formulas (Lowrey). These comics seemed to blunt the social message of the comic book genre. The cultural force of comics had been recognized, but this realization resulted in attempts for social control rather than social change.

The developing cultural logics that defined the beginnings of the Cold War only served to further blunt the cultural significance of comic books. Ironically, comic books, a medium that had just a decade earlier served as nationalist propaganda, would become a prime target of those who believed that popular culture was leading America’s youth toward communism (Vollum). The backlash resulted from a newfound paranoia based on the role of popular culture in the shaping of the hearts and minds, young men and women who may be expected to fight the communists (Kinsella). The resulting storm would not be limited to comic books, but also affected movies and radio. During the 1950’s it became clear that comic books could not flourish in a Cold War culture.

In conclusion, comic books reached a peak in America, both in terms of audience and real-world impact during the Golden Age of comic books, which lasted from the beginning of the Great Depression through the end of World War II. The comic book was the perfect medium for the golden age, as it was easily produced, inexpensive, and it was entertaining. Rising from its Depression era beginnings, the comic book reached its peak in the face of a global war. The superhero came to stand for both the American way of life and the victory of America over its enemies. Standing behind these heroes, their creators used their influence to project their own viewpoints.

Cite this paper

Comic Books. (2021, Aug 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/comic-books/



What are the top 10 comic books?
This is a difficult question as there are many comic books that could be considered the "top 10." Some of the more popular ones include "Batman," "Superman," "Spider-Man," and "X-Men."
What comic books are worth money?
This is a difficult question to answer as the value of comic books can vary greatly. Generally, older and more rare comic books are worth more money.
What is the best comic book to read?
The best comic book to read is "The Walking Dead." It is a story about a group of people who are trying to survive in a world that has been taken over by zombies.
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