Within the realm of my personal opinion, those who can identify the history of comics know a thing or two about greatness. As you’re well aware, a photograph is a universe of dots. The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion. Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event. This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true. From the 1930’s to the 1980’s, comic book art and comic books were the same thing. In the decades since, the art of comics has been carefully separated from the original physical conditions of its reproduction. Elevation of the 20th Century art form has resulted in the erasure of the 20th Century mechanical processes that enabled comic books to exist and thrive for ten, twelve, fifteen or twenty cents, millions of times over. It was an economic bargain that significantly defined the aesthetic terms of comic books: Cheap paper, cheap printing and four-color separations that could not hide their limitations. These accidental aesthetics governed the experience of comics for generations, were appropriated for fine art in the 1960’s and today fall into the “retro” category of graphic design.
Four-color process and mid-20th Century comic art have gone their separate ways – one travelling as a computer-assisted simulation of archaic print culture and the other as computer-assisted art books, featuring crisp black lines, bleed-free white paper and “reconstructions” of the original colorists designs. Hard to believe, there are no stakes in privileging one comic book reproduction format over the other, but there is no denying the difference between the two. One way to think about the astounding art is as an examination of this difference. It tries to minimize what we think of as the content of comic books, while radically magnifying the four-color process itself. At their original size, all the images in the gallery would cover a few square feet of printed comic book space. Blown up to monumental proportions, many of these minute fragments could fill a two-page spread. Gone are the page, the panel, the plot and localized contextual meaning. What remain are the color process and what are generally called the “details” of comic book art. These are the two lowest items on the totem pole of comic book value. Poor reproduction and the least important, most static elements of the art itself. Our proposition is that these elements are important and aesthetically compelling.
In many respects, that’s why I incredibly admire The Golden Age of Comics. The creativity of the writers and artists was endless!!!! You see, comics have been in existence since the end of the 19th Century, but it was after The Great Depression that the popularity of newspaper cartoons expanded into a major industry, at least, as we know it currently. The precise era of the Golden Age is disputed, though most agree that it was born with the launch of Superman in 1938. Created by Cleveland’s own, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman is possibly the most recognizable comic book character and superhero to this day. In fact, within the realm of my personal opinion, without Superman, the comics industry as we know it currently, does not exist. The success of Jerry Siegel
and Joe Shuster’s
Superman spawned a series of spin-offs and created a whole new genre of characters with secret identities, superhuman powers and colorful outfits – the superhero. Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, The Human Torch, Namor The Sub-Mariner, Aquaman, Hawkman, The Spectre, Green Lantern, Flash and Captain America were amongst those who followed. Captain Marvel proved to be one of the most popular superhero comics of the Golden Age, regularly outselling the adventures of Superman during the 1940s. The sales of comic books increased markedly during World War II. They were cheap, portable and had inspirational, patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil. The tales very much reflected the events and values of the time. Pro-American characters were popular, particularly Captain America, a superhero whose entire creation was based on aiding the country’s war effort. Sporting the stars and stripes as his costume, Captain America was pictured battling noted scumbag Adolf Hitler on the cover of the very first issue.
Though the superhero comics were the top sellers, other genres emerged during the Golden Age. Horror and crime were popular, notably Will Eisner’s The Spirit, a masked detective who captured villains and dispensed Justice. Science fiction and Western-themed comics were some of the new styles of story-telling that started to appear. The teen genre was also gaining interest. A comic strip featuring a red-head named Archibald “Archie” Andrews debuted in 1941, becoming so popular the company that created it changed its name to Archie Comics in 1946.
Animal and jungle themed comics were led by Walt Disney, featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. In fact… …let’s not forget, even the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was a huge fan of Superman.
Here is Edgar Rice Burroughs, Major Laurie York Erskine (Renfrew of the Royal Mounted) and Jerry Siegel (Superman) all seem to manage to get along with one another when they were in Waikiki in 1944 during World War II. In fact, from what I was once told, Burroughs and Siegel got along very, VERY well. Can one imagine what the creators of two of the 20th Century’s most profound fictional characters could have accomplished together in the guise of Tarzan and Superman? One can only wonder!!!! After the war, the superhero genre lost steam, marking what many consider to be the end of the Golden Age. The era itself, though, left an indelible mark on comic books with many of the characters remaining popular almost 70 years later.
The first superhero, Superman is still alive and well in popular culture today. Perhaps one of the most important impacts of the Golden Age was the cementation of the comic as a mainstream artform, with its own defined language and creative conventions. Courtesy of movies, that is possible with comics. The tagline from the film is accurate. “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly.”
Nothing you have ever seen or heard, no comic book, television program or motion picture could ever prepare you for this reality. This is a brilliant cast in an unforgettable story. The awesome technology of modern films brings you someone to believe in.
Revolutionary Academy Award-winning visual effects, a genuine romance between Superman and his favorite girl reporter Lois Lane, John Williams stunning score which resonances to this day, Marlon Brando as The Man of Steel’s Kryptonian father Jor-El and Reeve looking like he’s just stepped off the DC comic book page and all of that and so much more is Richard Donner’s Oscar®-winning, epic masterpiece, “Superman: The Movie”.
Joe Shuster drew this back in the 1980’s. It’s one the last pieces he accomplished.
by Matthew Rizzuto, Superman Comic Book Historian.
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Use of images are not intended to infringe on copyright, but merely used for academic purpose.
Photos and Pictures ©Their respective copyright holders, Superman DC Comics, Archie ©Archie Comics, Captain America ©Marvel Comics, Superman Move ©Warner Brothers
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