Where to start?

March 25, 2014

Often when I am talking with people and they find out that my passion for comics exceeds the occasional superhero film or odd graphic novel, they tell me something along the lines of “I’ve always been curious about comics but I’m not sure where to start.” And then, giddy with the rush of introducing a new reader to comics (one of us! one of us!), I blabber for an embarrassingly long time and insist that they read <insert title here>.

I have a list of what I call gateway comics.  These are comic books that are so tantalizingly awesome that the reader can’t help but want more.  My usual recommendation for the uninitiated is Watchmen because it is physically impossible not to like Watchmen.  Sometimes though, depending on the person (for instance, if they are young or averse to seeing blue dongs or saw the movie and loved/hated it) I will suggest something else.  The comics I suggest are loosely linked to other things that the person likes.  For instance if they say “I like Star Wars!” I might suggest they try some of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four because of the sci-fi elements and because they are excellent comics that make you want more more more.

I put together this handy dandy flow chart to help people find a good comic book to try, depending on their other tastes.  The categories have two “If You Liked This!” suggestions and are color-coded along with the arrows.  The comics have been color-coded according to what genres they more or less align with.  Happy reading!

Comic Flowchart

I figure before I get all fancy and try to make stupidly generalized statements like, “The comic book is, in its roots, Jewish” or “Spider-Man is by far the best superhero p-e-r-i-o-d”, that I should provide a working background with which to approach the material.  I present to you Part 1 of a 3 part outline of the history of the comic book.

Part 1 deals with the period commonly referred to as “The Golden Age of Comics” or simply “The Golden Age”.  “The Golden Age” covered an extensive period of time, ranging from the spring of 1933, when the first-ever comic book was produced, until early 1955, the time immediately proceeding the passage of the Comic Code Authority (a shonda!).  I want to make it abundantly clear that by no means is this an exhaustive or even extensive look at the history of the comic book.  Whatever information I may present here came almost exclusively from Mike Benton’s wonderful The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History.  If you are interested in finding the book, here’s a link to an Amazon.com sale of the paperback version.  I must also admit that while I love comic books, I am at heart a Marvel guy and, in this way, may tend to stray towards Captain America rather than Superman (Oy!).  Without further ado I present you with

The Golden Age (1933-1955):

1933– The first comic book, Funnies on Parade, was created by the Eastern Color Printing Company of Waterbury, CT.  It reprinted Sunday strips of popular comics such as “Mutt & Jeff” “Joe Palooka” and “Skippy”.  M.C. Gaines, Eastern Color’s best salesman (and the fella that came up with idea to begin with!), sold 10,000 copies to Proctor & Gamble as a mail in prize for customers who clipped and sent in coupons from their Proctor & Gamble soap products.  Within just a few weeks the supply was exhausted, showing the selling potential of the comic book.

Funnies on Parade

Oh my God! That looks so funny!

1936– Comic Magazine Company, Inc.’s Detective Picture Stories was the first comic book dedicated to one specific subject.  Guess what it was.

1937– National Periodicals (later known as D.C.) was formed when Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson partnered with Harry Donenfield.  Wheeler-Nicholson, plagued by constant debt, sold his interest and left in late ’37 leaving Donenfield in charge.

1938– Superman, the first superhero, was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Appearing in Action Comics #1 in the early spring, Superman would prove to establish the superhero as the dominant actor of the comic book world throughout much of the Golden Age and beyond (and for that I am eternally grateful…even if Spider-Man is better…).

Action Comics #1

If you find a copy of this lying around you should totally send it to me…

1939– Batman premiered in Detective Comics #27 giving the comic book world a unique foil to Superman’s “golden boy” persona as well as the world’s first gritty, noir superhero.  Original material, both art and writing, was vastly outselling reprints of Sunday funnies, comic strips, and the like.  Martin Goodman, publisher of the popular Marvel Science Stories pulps, entered the industry.  Goodman hired Funnies, Inc., a popular comic book producing group, to create comic books for him.  Bill Everett and his studio produced Marvel Comics #1 which introduced the Human Torch (the first one) and the Sub-Mariner.

Detective Comics #27

Also this one.

Marvel Comics #1

Also this one…Y’know what? If you find any comics send ’em my way.

1941– The impending war invigorated the industry with fresh material.  By summer, Nazi bashing was all the rage, and who better to bash Nazi’s than Jack Kirby and  (Rochester’s own) Joe Simon’s “Captain America”?  Produced for Marvel (who was at the time called Timely), Captain America would become one of the most popular heroes of the ’40’s.

Captain America #1

Take that Hitler!

1942– Created by Charles Moulton (the pen name of Dr. William Marston, a psychologist) and Harry Peter, Wonder Woman embodied “the values he [Dr. Marston] held as a pioneer theorist of the women’s liberation movement of the 1940’s”.  Archie #1 also premiered this year, introducing America to its favorite teenager for the next sixty-eight (plus) years.

1944– Superhero’s hit their peak, with Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Adventures (you might know him as D.C.’s Shazam) having an all time high circulation of 14,067,535 issues!

1946– The newest trends in the wake of the (small) decline in superhero comic books were funny animals and comic book versions of both classics and true stories.  9/10 kids ages 8-15 read comics regularly.

1947– Romance comic books begin to gain popularity.

1948– Cowboy and crime comic books gain popularity.  In response to criticism about their products, the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP) formed in July.  The idea of the ACMP was to self-regulate the industry.  It was too easily boycotted by companies that relied on violence and sex to sell their comics and fell through later in ’48.

1949– The Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books found that “seventy percent of all comic books contained objectionable material”.  Thirty-two bills and resolutions were passed in sixteen states restricting the sale of comic books to children.

1950– William Gaines (son of the godfather of comic books himself, M.C. Gaines) and Al Feldstein turned M.C. Gaines’ “Educational Comics” into “Entertaining Comics”, more commonly called EC, a company that would pioneer the genres of horror, science-fiction, and (off color) humor in the early ’50s.  The beginning of the Korean War would affect the industry more considerably a few years later but at the time served as inspiration for new war comic books.  While technically inconclusive, a Senate Committee report investigating the effects of crime comic books on juvenile delinquency rates from 1945-1950 ultimately proved demonizing.

1951– Horror and science-fiction comic books gained popularity.

Shock SuspenStories #18

It’s OK you can keep yours, I actually own a copy of this one!

1952– Interest sparked by the Korean War caused increased demand for war comic books.  Horror and romance comic books were also at an all time high.  MAD #1 premiered this year, indelibly changing the face of humor comics (and modern humor) as we know them.

MAD #1

Now that’s what I call funny!

1953– The age of the superhero was officially over; almost all heroes were retired with the exceptions of the greats: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

1954– An infamous year in the history of the comic book, 1954 proved to create the perfect trifecta of comic book crushing power.  First, Dr. Frederick Wertham, an outspoken critic of comic books, published Seduction of the Innocent.  This demonizing text allegedly showed the ill effects of comic books depicting crime, sex, and violence on children.  Next, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency held a series of public hearings on the ill effects of comic books on children.  Finally, in the October of 1954, after succumbing to pressure, comic book publishers established the Comics Code Authority (CCA).  This self-regulating body imposed strict industry standards on all comic books, “[t]he Code’s emphasis was on eliminating all traces of crime, horror, violence, and sex in…comic books”.

CCA

1955– Due to the strict standards of the CCA, there was a more than fifty percent drop in titles and circulation.  Many companies who relied on crime, horror, and science fiction comic books did not make it through the next few years.

The Crypt of Terrot #17

Well that was a cheery place to end this timeline…But have no fear true believer–not to give too much away–but the superheros save the day (natch)!  In my next post we’ll take a look at my favorite period in comic books, “The Silver Age of Comic Books” and its subcategory “The Marvel Age of Comic Books”.  ‘Til then!