(See here for an introduction to the Five Ages of Comics)
Without the Golden Age of Comics there wouldn’t have been any super hero comics.
For that reason alone, the Golden Age is the most important of all of the ages I’ll look at. (At least in terms of super hero comics. It’s probably had zero effect on Belgian economic policy and a million other things.)
The Golden Age began in 1938 with Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. (Action Comics is still going – it’s currently on issue #899.)
There had been comics before, but no super heroes. Action Comics proved to be incredibly popular and there was soon a rash of imitators and variations on the theme.
Included in these new comics were some of the iconic super heroes, such as Batman (and Robin) and Wonder Woman. But there were also an awful lot of heroes who were doomed to only one or two appearances before seemingly being condemned to the dustbin of comic history. (Many of them were then revived thirty or forty years later by comic writers with really long memories. Marvel’s 1970’s series The Invaders lasted for over 30 issues featuring such characters.)
The Golden Age also saw comics at levels of popularity that they would never have again – millions of comics were sold, read and discarded by kids who didn’t have TV, never mind DVDs, or the internet.
With the end of World War II, the super hero comic went into a decline, with westerns, horror and funny animal comics becoming more popular.
Comics were dealt another blow in the early 50’s, with claims that comics were corrupting America’s youth with depictions of horror and violence. (And, yes, they also made the obvious point about Batman and Robin.)
As with the later, similar cases of TV, videos, junk food, computer games etc, rules were imposed to prevent the corruption of youth. The crime and horror comics were stopped. The remaining comics had to obey the Comics Code, meaning that crime had to be shown not to pay and no vampires and werewolves were allowed.
The super hero comic had survived, but it was not in good health. But the Silver Age was about to begin and change the comic book forever.
So that’s the Golden Age. Very important, but were the comics any good?
Unsurprisingly, I don’t have own any comics from the 1940’s. The oldest comic I own is Marvel Super-Heroes #16 from 1968, which by happy coincidence reprints several stories from the 40’s and early 50’s. (Ignore the Phantom Eagle on the cover – he’s definitely Silver Age, despite the biplanes.)
I used to think that the art and plots in the Golden Age were crude but effective.
And in some of the stories that’s definitely the case. In fact the adventures of “The Patriot” aren’t even that effective as he breaks up a shipyard strike instigated by the most obvious Nazi agent ever. (Also, who decided very short shorts and a red skullcap made for a good costume?)
The Human Torch story is a little better (but only a little), with an impressive looking villain. (You can tell it was written in the 50’s, because the rampaging Martian space monster is a *Communist* rampaging Martian space monster…)
(I have to confess that the Human Torch annoys me because he’s not actually human – he’s a robot who looks like a human. He should really be called the “Robot Torch or the “Looks Like a Human But is Really a Robot Torch”…)
In comparison the Black Knight story looks beautiful (even though he’s wearing a bucket on his head). The images are lush and very detailed, considering the four colour printing that was used in the day.
Finally, the Submariner story is really rather good. As well as featuring sea monsters, mad scientists *and* robots, it’s also got a bit of pathos and really good pacing. (As he swims a lot, his shorts are even justified.)
When reading Golden Age comics, you have to remember that the stories were written for kids and were meant to be disposable. But despite that, they do have a lot of energy and some of them are surprisingly well done.
(All images are copyright of Marvel, used for the purposes of informed discussion, and is not intended to interfere with Marvel’s right to use said material for their own commercial goals.)