Comic Books: A Continuing Work in Progress

Although comic books depict the exploits of characters who possess “powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals” the medium itself stems from very humble beginnings. 

Comics as a print medium have existed in the United States since the printing of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842. Funnies on Parade was published in 1933 and established the size, and format of the modern comic book. However, it was Dell Publishing’s 36-page Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics that is recognized as the first true newsstand American comic book. 

Gradually, the reprinting of newspaper comic strips gave way to original material presented in the same format. In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was published in Action Comics #1 and not only originated the archetype of the “superhero”, but also made comic books into a major publishing industry and ushered in what became known as the Golden Age of Comics. 

This was followed by the Silver Age of Comics beginning in October of 1956 with the debut of The Flash, and the Bronze Age beginning in the early 1970s.  The current Modern Age of Comics runs from the mid-1980s to the present day.

As with any endeavor that has lasted so long and affected so many, the comic book industry has a fascinating history of triumph, tragedy, and controversy that has ultimately led to the present day when the characters it created and nurtured have become a dominant force in American cinema and culture. 

Cover of Superman #25, which was published on August 24, 1943.
Box 10, Folder 1, Mort Weisinger papers, Collection No. 7958, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Few who were involved in the medium during its beginnings realized the significance of what they were doing, nor would have ever predicted the impact it would have on future generations. For instance, the first inklings of the influence comic books have on society came from their attempted censorship by concerned citizens which led to hearings in front of no less than the Congress of the United States in 1954. The Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body within the comic book industry, was a defensive mechanism created in response to those hearings which hampered the creativity of the industry for decades to come.

The American Heritage Center is fortunate to have amongst its collections the personal and professional papers of two of the most notable figures in comics history: Stan Lee, who created such characters as The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spider-Man, and a host of others, and became the public “face” of Marvel Comics and DC Comic’s Mort Weisinger who not only co-created such characters as Aquaman, Green Arrow, and Johnny Quick, but was the editor of the Superman titles in the 1950s and 1960s, and story editor for the television series The Adventures of Superman which aired from 1952 to 1958. 

Additionally, the AHC holds a number of collections which relate either directly or indirectly to the history of this important aspect of American culture. We invite both the curious and the researcher to come and explore these fascinating collections.

Post contributed by William L. Hopkins, AHC Assistant Director and Collections Manager.

#always archiving

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