From a Comic Book Junkie: Comic Books Through the Ages

Riley Sweeney gives a brief history of Comic Books

Riley Sweeney gives a brief history of Comic Books

• Topics: Leisure,

As always, you can get the latest from Riley at his blog, The Political Junkie

In the past month, when I have not been working to shrink the over-sized jail (see Bellingham Herald article) or organizing a forum on the Cherry Point Facility (see Whatcom Democrats article), I’ve been reading comic books.

Yes, I am an unabashed comic book nerd. Comics have changed in the last 75 years. What started out as simple morality tales aimed at 8 year old boys has blossomed out into a variety of genres, tastes, and audiences.  Stick with me as we take a quick trip through the history of comics

When most people think about comic books, they think of the Golden or Silver Age of Comics. The Golden Age of Comics spans from 1938 with the creation of Superman, till 1954 when McCarthyism convinced everyone that comics were corrupting our youth. Here is where you see Captain America slugging it out with Nazis and bright vibrant colors as Batman and Robin race off to stop goofy guys with funny names. Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, all of them deal with moral absolutes.

The bad guys were always wrong, you could tell by their mustache twirling sneers and black clothing, and in the end, the good guys always won to the delight of an adoring public. Politics, as they always do, snuck in, with Superman flying off to blow up horrible caricatures of Japanese soldiers, and the aforementioned slugging of Hitler.

But Red Scare paranoia brought down comics for a while, as it did all creative arts. Comic book writers were investigated for subverting our youth and superhero and sidekick relationships were examined for coded homosexual influences. In response, the comic industry went dark for a while, sanitizing everything they could and publishing nothing controversial.

Creative energies cannot be suppressed for long. In the early 1960s, Stan Lee invented a whole host of fresh characters at Marvel Comics. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron-Man, the Incredible Hulk, all of them shared a critical difference from their predecessors, they were flawed. The Fantastic Four bickered with each other continually, Spider-Man was constantly broke and hounded by the press. The Incredible Hulk . . . well, he kept getting angry and smashing things. None of these comics were truly “dark” in the modern way of thinking about things. The good guys still won, the bad guys still lost, no one died. In fact, some stories were downright goofy, (“Oh no! Jimmy Olson married a giant gorilla . . . AGAIN!”) There was little controversy because most of the plotlines were too ridiculous for anyone to take them at face value, much less look for hidden meanings. The Silver Age is still fondly remembered by many fans and is the source material for most movies.[/caption]

But all good things must come to an end. As a generation of comic book readers aged, so did the subject matter. Enter the Bronze Age of Comics. In 1970, a wave of industry changes (editors retiring, new writers being hired) brought an end to the bizarre and humorous storylines of the past decade. Spider-Man’s best friend dropped acid and had a psychotic breakdown, Captain America hung up his shield in disgust and wandered the earth, the Green Lantern and Green Arrow teamed up to travel the country, highlighting the plights of labor unions, native people, and poverty.

More women appeared in comics as heroes themselves, rather than damsels in distress. The X-Men were reintroduced as a metaphor for racism, and villains began to win occasionally. Batman returned to his roots as a pulp hero, doing more detective work than trading barbs with The Penguin. The industry felt comfortable enough with itself to start tackling real world situations through the medium of comic books. As the country lost its collective innocence with the Watergate scandals, we saw our heroes open their eyes to the human struggles going on beneath their feet. Watchmen by Alan Moore

With a trajectory like this, it was only a matter of time before the industry took it to its natural conclusion: The Dark Age of Comics.  In 1986, two comics were introduced that truly changed how people saw superheroes. The first was Watchmen. A true deconstruction of why people would put on costumes to fight crime, this twelve issue series remains one of the highest selling comics ever. The other comic was The Dark Knight Returns, a Batman story set in the future, where Batman is a near psychotic old man, mowing down criminals with little regard for life. Vigilantism, violence, and brutality were all explored in comics from this period. The term “graphic novel” was introduced as a way to convey that, yes, these comics were more literary and definitely not for kids. Comics moved away from superheroes and started featuring political revolutionaries, Science Fiction, Noir Detective Dramas, and imaginative genre-breaking series’ such as “The Sandman.”  Finally, with all the dark themes, the comic consumer had had enough, and in the late 90s and early 2000s we entered the modern era of comics.

Modern comics are more diverse now than they have ever been. Walk into a comicbook store and you can find romance stories, political dramas, police stories, historical literary pieces, and yes, superheroes. They feature more diverse casts, and a variety of artistic styles. The superhero stories are more reminiscent of the Silver Age than the Dark Age, you see broad splashy stories of heroes and villains with the world hanging in the balance, but they retain the sophistication of the Bronze and Dark Ages.

Today’s comics confront political issues more candidly than ever before. You can find comics about growing up in Iran, or traveling through Bosnia during the 90s. The heroes are often pitted against each other, not because of misunderstandings but as differing moral perspectives.

The genres have grown and I really urge people to give them a second shot. Maybe you flipped through a few Fantastic Four comics when you were younger, give them another try now. The artwork is incredible, truly scenic, and the characters you love still have their charm. Get lost in an interstellar mission to save a dying world, wander through darkened alleyways of Gotham City with Batman and Robin (although they are no longer Bruce Wayne and Dick Greyson.) Pick out some “All-Star Superman” and feel the wind in your hair as he races toward a robot to save Jimmy Olson again. You won’t regret it.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

Comments by Readers

Jack Petree

Mar 03, 2011


You should contact a lady named Michelle Nolan.  She writes some sports for the Herald but she is famous in the comic book world.  She has had columns in the aficiando mags and has written at least two standard reference works on comics…



Riley Sweeney

Mar 03, 2011

Thank you Jack, I will!

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