The Brief History of the Comic Book Superheroes

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For many Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials, superheroes are commonplace in American culture. They are everywhere we look; from themed food and drink to electronics, posters, games, movies, and television series like the multiple episodes of Dragon Ball Super. But the superhero hasn’t always been around; while it might be hard to imagine, there was a time in American history where these avengers didn’t grace the pages of comic books nationwide.

Here’s the history of the superhero, and how superheroes have gone from simple characters to media superstars.

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The Pulps

Before the superheroes you know today emerged, there was something known as pulp fiction novels. These sold for around 10 cents at newsstands and their main characters were just average Joes who earned superhuman powers when something happened to them. Two of the biggest pulp characters were Popeye, who debuted in 1929, and The Phantom, in 1933. The Phantom went on to pave the way for the Batman and Spider-Man as he was the first pulp fiction character who was seemingly “normal” yet transformed into a superhero.

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The Golden Age

Beginning in 1938, the Golden Age of Superheroes in comic books started when Superman burst onto the scene. Before this, the pulps were known for having more than one main character in each of their stories yet Superman changed the times as his book was about himself and only himself. In addition to Superman, Captain America came to be in 1940s and his storyline revolved around fighting the Nazis. He was published by the comic book company that would go on to become Marvel, Timely Comics.

During the Golden Age, comic books became increasingly popular as an easy to transport entertainment for soldiers fighting in World War II. To boost morale and popularize some lesser-known heroes, “super teams” were coined in the 1940s and included characters such as Green Lantern, Flash, Johnny Thunder, and Hour-Man. You may recognize this team as also being called the Justice Society of America.

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The Bronze Age

In the 1970s, superhero topics became more and more dark and unrealistic; themes such as the underworld, supernatural, and horror came to light during the Bronze Age. Not only this, but comic book creators started to turn the traditional idea of a superhero on its head by introducing African Americans and women as main characters. For example, DC Comics wanted to highlight the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and in doing so they created Wonder Woman. They went a new route when it came to Wonder Woman; by not giving her superpowers at the start of the story, rather having her powers emerge once her heroic efforts showed she was capable for the responsibility.

Since these superheroes were becoming more likable and more like the traditional American, Hollywood soon caught on and started to create television series and movies. Bringing superheroes to the public eye not only created a world where there was legitimate fandom of an imaginary character, this transition allowed for consumers to view superheroes in a method other than comic books.

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Modern Age

Consumers can tell the difference between Modern Age superheroes and Gold and Bronze superheroes simply by the fact that Modern superheroes deal with more realistic problems. Overarching themes such as morality and patriotism in one’s country are ever-apparent in these stories.

The Modern Age also brought the acquisition of traditional comic book creators into larger, more well-known brands such as Disney and Warner Bros. It was with this transition that the superheroes the world mostly knew from comic books gained international fame and reached peak media success.

The modern day superhero is filled to the brim with history. So keep this in mind next time you tune into a movie or sit down with a comic book!