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.