Major Victory in a Minor Industry: The Genesis of the American Superhero
By Rachael Kane, ’22
The Golden Age of comic books in the United States spanned from 1938 to 1956, reframing the visual history of American pop culture. During this period, the comic industry expanded rapidly, capitalizing on both technological innovations in printing and the sociopolitical landscape surrounding World War II. Golden Age comics used established frameworks from the pulp novel and newspaper industries to develop new material and stylistic traits that would become iconographic within twentieth-century print culture.
Golden age comic books were available at newsstands, often surrounded by other ephemeral paper products like newspapers, magazines, and pulp novels. The first comic books were collections of reprinted newspaper comic strips. Internally, the comics were printed on the same wood pulp newsprint because it was inexpensive and easily accessible. However, comic book covers were made of the glossy, coated paper used for magazine covers, highlighting their bright, enticing colors. Often the same companies produced pulp novels and comics, specializing in single-use printed materials that were intended to be discarded after use, rather than preserved for the future.
Comic book images were produced by highly specialized teams of pencillers, inkers, letterers, colorists, and printers. Pencillers sketched each page before the inker added black lines and shading. Colorists laid down tones used as guides in the printing process. Any text on the page was done separately by professional letterers with a task specific tool, like an Ames Lettering Guide, which was originally used in architectural drawing. The idiosyncratic style produced by these lettering guides helped create the distinctive typography of comic books and would later influence the infamous font, Comic Sans.
There were three types of color printing used to produce early comic books. Most common was the Ben-Day process, a photomechanical technique that used four colors of dots layered on top of each other. The Ben-Day process used prepared pattern sheets, referred to as printing films, that were burnished onto page surface in pre-specified areas. Used in repetition, these dot-arrangement matrices created additional colors and added depth to the image.
This process required skilled laborers who were able to cut, ink and apply printing films, which allowed for the rapid replication of detailed images. Often, each page required multiple screens to add layers of shade and shadow, relying on efficient workmanship for speed and accuracy. While it was phased out with the popularization of off-set lithography, Ben-Day dots became an quintessential part of American pop culture and the imagery of the twentieth-century.
Spot color printing and Craftint were other common color printing methods. Time intensive and limited in scope, spot color printing was an older technique that used letterpress to lay down one color at a time. As spot color printing did not allow for the layering of colors, these images appeared flat, with little depth and no texture. Available by the 1940s, Craftint was a paper type with a latent inlaid linear pattern. When treated with a developer, the lines became visible, making it easy to achieve cross hatching. This first layer of shading took the place of one of the Ben-Day printing films, reducing the number of printing films needed for each page and making the process more efficient. However, this was more expensive than simply using an additional Ben-Day screen, limiting its use in comics.
While the early collections did not sell particularly well, Golden Age superhero comics first appeared in response to World War II, and proved massively popular. Detective Comics, now abbreviated to DC Comics, began publication in 1937, producing anthologies of monster and mystery stories. In 1938, DC released Action Comics #1, including Superman, America’s first superhero. This sparked the development of the genre, and Superman became a classic American symbol. Other famous characters, such as Batman and Captain America, were also developed during World War II and were often depicted as part of the war effort. They were meant to valorize military service while promoting nationalism and spreading information about the war effort.
However, there was a strong social reaction against the often violent storylines in comics. Most scholars place the end of the Golden Age around 1954, corresponding with the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). In April of that year, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency heard statements about the negative psychological effects of comic books on children. This resulted in the establishment of the CCA, a voluntary censorship body that began to issue seals of approval that were printed on comic book covers. These labels alerted shops and parents that the comic’s content had been evaluated for morality. This type of restriction deeply impacted the production field for comics and strongly diminished their popularity for several decades.
The advent of digital drawing and printing technology vastly changed the comic industry, yet it continues to be a popular and profitable publication type. Although very few of the original production techniques are still in use, many of the heroes from the Golden Age remain cultural juggernauts, especially given the fame of twenty-first century film adaptations. As for the Golden Age comics themselves, they have become increasingly valuable to both collectors and hobbyists. Comics are auctioned through stores, dealers, and online platforms. The most common evaluative mechanism is the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) system, in which trained consultants grade comics. Similar to other grading systems used for collectables like stamps, the CGC employs a 10-point scale with corresponding quality measures. In 2014, a 9.0 graded copy of Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) sold on eBay for $3.2 million, making it the highest value comic ever sold.
Certified Guaranty Company. “CGC Grading Scale.” Accessed October 3, 2020. https://www.cgccomics.com/grading/grading-scale/.
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