These days a movie about Batman can gross over $1 billion and controversy over the writer of a Superman comic can lead to a boycott threat against its publisher. The foundations of the high-stakes superhero entertainment juggernaut, which produced the 2012 The Dark Knight Rises film and faced outrage over Orson Scott Card writing Adventures of Superman, were forged in early 1930s, an era that has been dubbed comics’ “golden age.” In Taschen Books’ The Golden Age of DC Comics 1935—1956, Paul Levitz tells the story of the influential publishing house’s origins, appropriately, through sparing amounts of text and hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Talk about modest beginnings. The U.S. comic book industry originated as nothing more than a way to keep presses running during unproductive downtime. Famous Funnies No. 1, produced in 1933 and generally recognized as the first American comic, was a sales premium for products such as milk of magnesia.
Levitz’ essay hits the main points in the early history of the company, founded as National Allied Publications (later known as Detective Comics, and now simply DC) by Major Wheeler-Nicholson, “on a card table” in Manhattan in 1934. A long-time fixture at DC, including stints as company president and writer of hundreds of comic issues, Levitz is both a student and experienced insider, uniquely qualified to unfold the company’s history.
Even without Levitz’ essay, the story of DC Comics’ first two decades is told through the book’s bright, beautifully-reproduced graphic art. For all these early illustrations sometimes lack in polish, they bristle with energy and imagination. From the cover art of an ominous Batman looming over a moonlit tableau, to the mace-wielding Hawkman, the menacing Manhunter, and the garish Green Lantern, the enduring visual appeal of these characters bursts off these pages.
DC’s “big three” — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — have come become emblems of American comic books, but a flip through the pages of Golden Age makes it obvious how superheroes were only one facet of a publishing empire that, at its peak in the 1940s, routinely sold over one million copies of its top titles. (By contrast, early 2013 figures show DC selling less than three million units of all its titles, combined.) Spies, gangsters, wilderness adventurers, humor, horror, science fiction, and westerns were all popular genres that DC published, especially after the ‘40s, when the initial enthusiasm for superheroes waned.
The book also covers DC’s leading characters expanding into other media, including radio, TV, and movies, an expansion that vastly broadened the reach of Superman and Batman, but also may have inadvertently led to unwanted attention that nearly destroyed the comics industry. Largely made for, and read by an adult audience at their inception, the increasing consumption of comic books by younger readers made comics an irresistible target when America’s authority figures sought an easy culprit on which to pin the scourge of juvenile delinquency.
An image such as the cover of More Fun Comics No. 54, which depicts a burning battlefield with soldiers being ground into the dirt by the towering figure of The Spectre, a character designed to act as “the physical embodiment of God’s vengeance on Earth,” is illustrative of the dilemma the comics industry faced in the 1950s. The broad range of subject matter, its graphic presentation, and easy accessibility made an easy argument against the propriety of unfettered all-ages readership.
The Golden Age’s cutoff point is a logical one, with the imposition of the self-governing Comics Code Authority to address public and Congressional pressure over the comics’ supposed negative influence on America’s youth. Two images — of a youngster proudly modeling his Superman costume before a 1947 Christmas tree, and of kids dumping piles of comics into an American Legion-sponsored bonfire in 1955 — convey the arc of comics’ fortunes during the course of its golden age. A final illustration from 1953, of a nervous Batman at the altar with Vicki Vale, a bystander observing, “I never thought he’d fall for a girl,” depicts the comics industry’s dilemma and how awkwardly it responded.
The first of five volumes republishing the mammoth, pricey 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking, The Golden Age is a beautiful, fascinating artifact. Seventy years, one million pages, and 40,000 titles later, The Golden Age of DC Comics shows the humble genesis of so many indelible images.