History of the Comic Book Superhero

NOTE: This has been edited from an essay that I wrote earlier this year (January 2016).  It has been updated to include the releases of films this past summer. 


cefaqbzwiaakuehSuperheroes are amongst some of the most prevalent characters in pop culture. Almost every superhero, and certainly the most popular and well-known, got their start in comic books. For many, superheroes are more than just fictional characters, but inspirations and sources of hope. Many superheroes were created during World War II, serving as a symbol of hope and empowerment for the American people. Comic superheroes as we know have come a long way since their introduction to the world only within the past century.

yellowkidThe comic strip can be traced in its earliest form to the Yellow Kid. The Yellow Kid made his debut in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper New York World in the comic Hogan’s Alley in 1895. He was created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault. The character took his name from the yellow nightshirt that he wore. Although prior to him there were other newspaper comics, the Yellow Kid was notable for his features and regular appearances in the newspaper. In 1896, William Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer, and the Yellow Kid continued to be printed in Hearst’s paper the New York Journal. Pulitzer subsequently hired another artist to draw a similar comic strip. The battle between Pulitzer and Hearst later led to yellow journalism, which took its name from the Yellow Kid. Both papers stopped printing their respective comics in early 1898.

By the early twentieth century, other newspapers had started printing comic strips. “Comic supplements helped build circulation for newspapers, and by 1908 some 75 percent of newspapers with Sunday editions had a comics supplement” (Gordon). In 1907, daily comics emerged, the first being Mutt & Jeff by cartoonist Brett Fisher. By 1912, over ninety newspapers were running daily comic strips. By the 1920s, the majority of children were reading comic strips and by the 1930s, the majority of adults were also enjoying the illustrated stories. Part of what made these daily comics so popular was the continuing storylines from day to day.

“Comics historian Robert Harvey argues that Joseph Patterson, the proprietor of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, was instrumental in establishing continuing story lines in comic strips through his development and promotion of The Gumps, a comic strip equivalent of a soap opera with more than a hint of satire” (Gordon).

loa1From here more comic strips began to emerge using this formula. This gave us comic strips like Little Orphan Annie. This comic strip led to a film adaptation and Broadway musical, the latter of which has gone on to be adapted into musical films three times. Annie is one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters, and one doesn’t have to see the musical or movies to know the song “Tomorrow”. These iconic movies and songs would not exist without the comic strip that created Annie. Many comic strip characters like Annie and the Yellow Kid were used beyond the newspapers in commercial advertising.

Some of these comic characters became so popular that artists began publishing them in books. Publishing companies began reprinting popular comic strips in book compilations. These books were given away as advertising premiums. These books became more and more popular and comic book companies began popping up. It was with the launch of the superhero, as we know today, that comic books found their place within popular culture.

Superheroes are some of the most popular characters in modern day fiction, and have been since the early 20th century. The term superhero can be found dating to at least 1917, with characters such as Zorro and The Shadow being cited as early examples. Mandrake the Magician and Phantom Magician are regarded by histories as the two first comic superheroes. Mandrake the Magician debuted in 1934 in his own comic strip. The Phantom Magician debuted about a year later in The Adventures of Patsy. However, it was the Detective Comics company who revolutionized the idea of comic book superhero.

00_action1_coverDetective Comics was a joint partnership between National Allied Publications and Harry Donenfeld launched in May 1937. They published a number of books series including Action Comics and Detective Comics. Action Comics #1 introduced to the world Superman, probably the most iconic and well-known superhero to this day. He differed from some of the earliest examples of comic superheroes because he had the superhuman abilities that are typically associated with superheroes today. Almost every idea of superheroes we have today traces back to Superman. “The massive commercial success of that character was responsible for creating the costumed superhero genre, which has been a mainstay for the comic book industry ever since.” (DeFrost, DC Comics). The launch of Superman also launched what many comic book fans know as the Golden Age of comics.

detective_comics_27A year later, in Detective Comics #27, Batman was introduced. He is another one of the most iconic and popular superheroes, and my personal favorite. He was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and was inspired by Zorro, the fictional masked hero of Mexican-California, and The Bat Whispers. Batman and Gotham City’s story became more and more developed over the years, with iconic villains being introduced. His story swung back and forth from lighthearted tale to the dark and grim. An important point for the Batman story was the introduction of his sidekick, Robin, also known as “The Boy Wonder”. With Robin, sales doubled, and “[his] popularity soon led to the trend of many Golden Age superheroes acquiring their own teen companions” (Coletta).

Detective Comics, the company, would eventually go through many name changes over the years before becoming the company we know today: DC Comics. DC Comics is one of the “big two” in comic book publishing, and is responsible for many other famous heroes besides Superman and Batman. Two years after Batman, Wonder Woman was first published in All Star Comics #8, and has since become the world’s most famous and popular female superhero, or superheroine. DC Comics also developed heroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and countless more.

2677627-captainamericacomics01The other company of the “big two” is Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics started in 1939 as Timely Comics with their first comic book published being Marvel Comics. This series introduced superheroes like the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. Captain America is likely the most famous character introduced by Marvel during the Golden Age.   A young 16-year-old named Stanley Lieber, began working for Timely Comics as an assistant in its first year. That boy would later go on to become one of the most famous comic writers, creating characters like Spider-man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and many more. He also came to be known as Stan Lee. Like DC Comics, Timely Comics went on to make company names changes before becoming Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.

Both DC and Marvel began introducing comic book heroes right around the outbreak of World War II. Some of these characters had their original stories directly revolve around the war. “[Marvel] characters were often portrayed as fighting against the Nazis and the Japanese even before the United States entered World War II” (DeFrost, Marvel Comics). DC’s Wonder Woman was introduced in December 1941, the same month that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to join the fight with the Allies. Captain America also had story that revolved around World War II. Characters like these became widely popular because of the American patriotism surrounding the war. Despite Wonder Woman’s Greek origins, characters like her and Captain America became American war symbols in the fight against the enemy.

bandb28_coverComic books experienced the Silver Age in the 1950s. After the comic book industry having suffering slighting from the introduction of new laws regulating comic censorship, DC Comics “…relaunched its character the Flash, which began a resurrection of superhero comic books” (Gordon). In 1960, DC also created the Justice League of America, which was a team made up of DC’s more popular heroes. This first team consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. The success of the Justice League led to the creation and publication of the Fantastic Four by Marvel. Marvel would also go to later create the Avengers, a team of preexisting superheroes, much like the Justice League. The Silver Age also saw Marvel create the X-Men and Spider-Man.

By the 1970s and ‘80s, the comic book publishers were beginning to realize that comic books were developing an older audience. Comic book specialty shops were set up.

“These changes led to more adult-oriented comics at the smaller companies as well as at the larger, more established DC Comics and Marvel Comics. DC and Marvel also responded to changes in the industry by giving their artists more leeway on certain projects and a share in profits from characters they created” (Gordon).

DC and Marvel began promoting their comic books as collectibles. People began buying comic books as an investment, hoping that someday certain issues would be worth a lot of money. In 2014, a copy of Action Comics #1, the comic book that introduced Superman to the world, sold on eBay for over $3 million, making it one of the most expensive comic books ever sold.

watchmen-coverThe 1990s and 21st century brought rise to graphic novels and web comics.  DC and Marvel began publishing graphic novels as early as the 1970s. However, many consider the first graphic novel to be Maus, released in 1986. Maus is about the author, Art Spiegelman, interviewing his father about his experience of the Holocaust in Poland as a Jew. The Jews are depicted as mice, while the Nazis are depicted as cats. Another early graphic novel is DC’s Watchmen from 1987, which is about a superhero team. This is one of the first superhero graphic novels. These two novels created a bridge between comic books and literature. Graphic novels began to be viewed as a legitimate form of literature. Other successful graphic novels include Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, an autobiography about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, also an autobiography about the lesbian author’s life growing up. The Internet paved the path for unknown artists who may have had a harder time gaining exposure to publish their work publicly online. Web comics gained such a following that DC and Marvel began publishing web comics.

the_dark_knight_posterMajor media corporations took notice of the surge in comic popularity in the 1960s and began buying rights to some of the prevalent heroes to bring them to life on big and small screens. Superman had a television series as early as the 1950s. He has subsequently been in many films, including the Christopher Reeve series and 2013’s Man of Steel. The Dark Knight trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan re-envisions the Batman story and is one of the most popular film franchises of all time.  During the 1990s to 2000s, DC had some of the most popular animated shows on television, the DC Animated Universe, starting with Batman: The Animated Series and ending with Justice League Unlimited, along with four Batman films.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently the highest grossing film franchise all of time with thirteen films having been produced thus far and another eight planned for release in the next three years. DC Comics is in the process of building their own cinematic universe, the DC Extended Universe, with three films out and many more planned starring their most popular characters.

The comic book superhero has become one of the most recognizable characters in today’s popular culture. Although, comics may have been at one time regarded as a sub culture, we would not have some of the most popular films and television shows today with them.  They have evolved from the weekly Sunday comics in the newspaper of the early 1900s into the multinational, media companies and franchises we have today. These characters are so embedded in modern culture that it is hard to imagine a world without superheroes.  And I don’t see these characters fading from our lives anytime soon.




Works Cited

Coletta, Charles. “Detective Comics.” 2010. Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Accessed 12 Jan. 2016.

DeFrost, Tim. “DC Comics”. 2016. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 12 January, 2016, fromhttp://www.britannica.com/topic/DC-Comics

DeFrost, Tim. “Marvel Comics”. 2016. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 12 January, 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/topic/Marvel-Comics

Gordon, Ian. “Comics.” 2013. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Accessed 12 Jan. 2016.

“Marvel Cinematic Universe”. 2016.  Box Office Mojo. Accessed 12 January 2016 from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=avengers.htm

Whitney, Lance. “Superman’s Action Comics No. 1 sells for record $3.2 million on eBay”. 2014. CNET. Retrieved 12 January, 2016, from http://www.cnet.com/news/supermans-action-comics-no-1-sells-for-record-3-2-million-on-ebay/


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