Recently, I’ve been thinking about all the kinds of storytelling that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life. There are so many mediums through which great meaning can be communicated. Culturally, American film has taken the center stage as the nation’s favorite form of entertainment and storytelling. Yet, there are many predecessors to film, mediums to which film owes a great deal.
One of my favorite mediums of storytelling is the comic book. With the rise of superhero movies and T.V. Shows, it’s practically impossible to avoid some sort of run-in with material that ultimately came from the neon pages of the comic book. The history of this medium is as close to the American conscience as film is heralded to be. And it’s become a sort of mythology in a country that does not necessarily claim one.
Comics began gaining incredible popularity starting in 1938, kicking off what would become know as the golden age of comics (1938-1956). Superheroes such as Batman, Superman and Captain America were first seen defeating Hitler or other American enemies in Europe and the Pacific. This acted as a morale boost to troops participating in WW2 and the citizens supporting their endeavors. In addition, trademark genres such as Western and Sci-Fi writing were explored and blossomed in this era.
In the silver age of comics (1956-1970), the medium became ubiquitous. In the beginning of this era, horror and crime comics were incredibly popular. Fearing that these subjects would create higher rates of juvenile delinquency, consumers practically revolted against comic book companies and their subject matter. Thus, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was created, an organization that had strict rules for what was allowed within the confines of comic pages. Unless the CCA’s literal stamp of approval was found on the cover of any comic, it was unlikely to sell.
The squeaky clean nature of comic content at the time created the stereotype of comics being for kids. Near the end of the silver age however, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Marvel to write a comic dealing with the issue of drug use in their now-famous Spiderman series. Marvel was unable to gain the CCA’s stamp for their drug use issue and so published without it.
Surprisingly, the comic sold successfully and triggered the CCA to make several changes to the regulations publishers had previously had to abide by to survive. Gradually, society began to accept comics as less of a threat to their children leading to further changes to the code as the years passed by. Eventually, the CCA disappeared into the pages of history.
The bronze age (1970-1985) ushered in the return of darker plots and, again, took on real societal issues such as drug use, poverty, and pollution. Some argue this age overlaps with the modern age of comics (1985-Present Day) as the prevalence of more complex characters (otherwise known as the “anti-hero”) began to rise. “Anti-Heroes” such as Wolverine, Deadpool, and The Punisher become mainstays that eventually reached the big screen.
Ultimately, each of the tales told throughout each era have been told to address the trials and triumphs of each era’s people. And the power of these stories can be seen more broadly by observing the evolution that has taken place over the years about what stories people want to hear and how they want to hear them. With the breakthrough success of comic book stories on the big screen, we’ve been participating in a new age of American mythology.
With the final installment of Avengers: Infinity War right around the corner, it will be interesting to see how our nation changes, what problems we grapple with, and what we choose to celebrate. If an alien really wanted to know those things about us, it need not look any further than the pages of a comic book.