The Art & Politics of Comic Books & Graphic Novels
Explore the intersection of creativity and social commentary in this unique reading format.
Tucked in between San Diego Comic-Con in July and New York Comic Con in October is National Comic Book Day on September 25th—an excuse (as if one were needed) to indulge in rereading old favorites and discovering new friends. It’s also a great day for those unfamiliar with them to dip a toe and try a title or two. While today’s world tends to see them as part of media companies that also produce movies and television shows, if you look at their history, their place in society mirrors the political and social trends of their time.
Age by Age
The history of comic books, like the history of so many things, has been divided up by ages. The divisions are labeled as:
- The Golden Age: 1938–early 1950s
- The Silver Age: 1956–early 1970s
- The Bronze Age: 1970–1985
- The Dark Age: 1980–2000
- The Present Age: 2000–now
Like any group divided this way, the dates are fuzzy, and the ages always include crossover, but let’s step back and look at the roots.
The Pre-Age: 1897–1938
The comic book began its life in the newspaper, specifically political cartoons. The artists who drew them had a talent for taking the heart of an issue and rendering it into an illustration that got the point across to everyone, regardless of their ability to read. This morphed into that old standard, the funny pages. The standards that ruled them were developed during this time: the number of frames, how to tell a story in them, and how to keep it going. The first “comic book” was, in fact, a collection of panels from the newspapers. That spun into the creation of the first of the comic books with an original story not connected to the papers, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats, in 1897. However, the first age is seen as starting with one of the most iconic of all comic characters.
The Golden Age: Up, Up, and Away
Most historians mark the start of the comic book form with the publication of Atomic Comic #1, which introduced Superman. Batman followed less than a year later in Detective Comics #27. They were both created at a time when heroes were needed. The 1938 that Superman arrived in was still a time when Americans were struggling to pull out of the depression and in need of distractions. The start of World War II, in 1941, turned these heroes into propaganda darlings as most of the heroes' enemies were also the world’s enemies. It was also a golden time for sales, with 1.5 million books sold monthly. The superheroes disappeared after the war, replaced by romance, horror, and Western stories. The end of the war also brought prosperity . . . and paranoia.
The Silver Age: Bright and Cold
Like the Golden Age, this one gets its start from a book, not a kind one. In 1954, Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which railed against comic books’ corrupting influence on young people. It slides right into the paranoia that permeated the Cold War era, leading to the Red and Lavender Scares, loss of careers and rights, and, eventually, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The comic book industry, seeing the threat of government intervention, followed the example of their fellow artists in the motion picture industry and created a self-regulating body: the Comics Code Authority. The result of this led to the return of the superhero but with stark examples of good and evil without much nuance. But while the stories were dull, the Pop Art movement in the fine art world influenced the illustrators of this time, and the panels were filled with color. The end of the 1960s brought about a lot of discontent, and the comics followed suit.
The Bronze Age: Tune In, Drop Out
The Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War caused great schism in society, and the Bronze Age reflected this. Still under the Comic Code, but with some of the restrictions loosened, the comics got grittier and focused on real-world issues. The civil rights and feminist movements led to comics with BIPOC and female lead characters. Like the Golden Age, many trace the beginning of this era to one comic: The Amazing Spiderman #121–122. In it, the hero’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, gets murdered. The hero doesn’t save the day and has to live with the reality of that. With a shift to more realistic stories, the art also shifted to a more photorealistic drawing style and washing out of color from the previous age. The disillusionment continued, leading to the next era.
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The Dark Ages: Turning the Shiny Dark
Consider this comics’ noir period. Most of the heroes are antiheroes, as heroism, patriotism, and duty got dissected and subverted in books like The Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight, and Sandman. Part of the tone came due to publishers, who slowly stopped submitting their books to the Comic Code for approval. The art followed as well with stark yet stylized panels and an even starker use of color. It’s also a time when comics themselves began to fracture. Manga, Japan’s version of the comic book, landed with a huge variety of stories and a very different drawing style. They grew in popularity and sat beside US-produced comics in stores. The introduction of the graphic novel, the comic version of the limited series/miniseries, entered the scene. These shorter stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end expanded the types of stories told, producing books like the Holocaust parable Maus and the autobiographical Persepolis. It also marked a time when comics turned into collectibles, a dark time for many true fans. But you can’t stay dark forever.
The Present Age
Today’s comics as a medium are waning, except as source material for other ones. Whether it’s Marvel at the movies or DC on TV, the long history of comic books provides a huge reserve of ideas to take and translate. As for the comics and graphic novels still being produced, modern artists also seem to like to mix and mash up historical elements to create something new. New voices across the spectrum of race, gender, and sexual identity are using comics in new and unique ways. Like their novel-reading friends, comic book lovers now have their favorite books available online through an e-reader and also read internet-only comics. This variety also shows up in the artwork, which also has not settled on one aesthetic.
Comic books can act as a lens, one through which we can chart our country’s shifting view of itself. They also showcase the trends in the art world, as comic artists and illustrators took the latest trends and incorporated them into the panel of the story. However, they, like many books in school and public libraries, are coming under attack by those who want to ban them. It’s time for us to embrace the values of our favorite superheroes and defend them.
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