History of American comics

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The history of American comics began in the 19th century in mass print media, in the era of sensationalist journalism, where newspaper comics served as further entertainment for mass readership.[1] In the 20th century, comics became an autonomous art medium[1] and an integral part of American culture.[2]


The Golden Age of Comic Books introduced the archetype of the superhero. Speed Comics #32 (May 1944). Cover art by Alex Schomburg.

The history of American comics started in 1842 with the U.S. publication of Rodolphe Töpffer's work The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,[3][4] but the medium was initially developed through comic strips in daily newspapers. The seminal years of comic strips established its canonical features (e.g., speech balloons) and initial genres (family strips, adventure tales). Comic-strip characters became national celebrities, and were subject to cross-media adaptation, while newspapers competed for the most popular artists.

The true comic book, published independently of a newspaper, appeared in 1934. Although the first comic books were themselves newspaper-strip reprints, comics soon featured original material, and the first appearance of Superman launched the Golden Age of Comic Books. During World War II, superheroes and talking animals were the most popular genres, but new genres were also developed (i.e., western, romance, and science fiction) and increased readership. Comic book sales began to decline in the early 1950s, and comics were socially condemned for their alleged harmful effects on children; to protect the reputation of comic books, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed, but this eliminated the publication of crime and horror genres.

The Silver Age of Comic Books began in 1956 with a resurgence of interest in superheroes. Non-superhero sales declined and many publishers closed. Marvel Comics introduced new and popular superheroes and thereby became the leading comics publisher in the Bronze Age of Comic Books (from the early 1970s to 1985). Unlike the Golden and Silver ages, the start of the Bronze Age is not marked by a single event. Although the Bronze Age was dominated by the superhero genres, underground comics appeared for the first time, which addressed new aesthetic themes and followed a new distribution model.

Following the Bronze Age, the Modern Age initially seemed to be a new golden age. Writers and artists redefined classic characters and launched new series that brought readership to levels not seen in decades, and landmark publications such as Maus redefined the medium's potential. The industry, however, soon experienced a series of financial shocks and crises that threatened its viability, and from which it took years to recover.

Periodization schemes[edit]

American comics historians generally divide 20th-century American comics history chronologically into ages. The first period, called Golden Age, extends from 1938 (first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 by National Allied Publications, a corporate predecessor of DC Comics) to 1954 (introduction of the Comics Code). The following period, the Silver Age, goes from 1956 to early 1970s. The Bronze Age follows immediately and spans until c. 1986. Finally the last period, from 1986 until today, is the Modern Age.[5] This division is standard but not all the critics apply it, since some of them propose their own periods.[5][6] Furthermore, the dates selected may vary depending on the authors; there are at least four dates to mark the end of the Bronze Age.[citation needed]

Originally only the Golden Age and the Silver Age had a right of citizenship since the terms "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" had appeared in a letter from a reader published in Justice League of America #42 (February 1966) that stated: "If you guys keep bringing back the heroes from the Golden Age, people 20 years from now will be calling this decade the Silver Sixties!"[7]

An alternative name for the period after the mid-1980s is the Dark Age of Comic Books.[8] Pop culture writer Matthew J. Theriault proposed the Dark Age (c. 1985 to 2004), the Modern Age (c. 2004 to 2011), and the Postmodern Age (2011 to present).[9]

Comics creator Tom Pinchuk proposed the name Diamond Age (2000–present) for the period starting with the appearance of Marvel's Ultimate line.[10]

Graphical timeline[edit]

Modern Age of Comic BooksModern Age of Comic BooksBronze Age of Comic BooksSilver Age of Comic BooksGolden Age of Comic Books

Victorian Age (c. 1842–1897)[edit]

A tale of Arthur Burdett Frost dated 1881.

Comics in the United States originated in the early European works. In fact, in 1842, the work Les amours de Mr. Vieux Bois by Rodolphe Töpffer was published under the title The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck in the U.S.[3][4] This edition (a newspaper supplement titled Brother Jonathan Extra No. IX, September 14, 1842)[11][12] is an unlicensed copy of the original work as it was done without Töpffer's authorization. This first publication was followed by other works of this author, always under types of unlicensed editions.[13] Töpffer comics were reprinted regularly until the late 1870s,[14] which gave American artists the idea to produce similar works. In 1849, Journey to the Gold Diggins by Jeremiah Saddlebags by James A. and Donald F. Read was the first American comic.[15][16]

Domestic production remained limited until the emergence of satirical magazines that, on the model of British Punch, published drawings and humorous short stories, but also stories in pictures[14] and silent comics. The three main titles were Puck, Judge and Life.[17] Authors such as Arthur Burdett Frost created stories as innovative as those produced in the same period by Europeans. However, these magazines only reach an audience educated and rich enough to afford them. Just the arrival of technological progress allowed easy and cheap reproduction of images for the American comic to take off. Some media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in a fierce competition to attract readers and decided to publish cartoons in their newspapers.[18]

Platinum Age (c. 1897–1938)[edit]

Cover of the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, Christmas 1899.
The Yellow Kid published in the New York Journal from 8 November 1896.

The period of the late 19th century (the so-called "Platinum Age") was characterized by a gradual introduction of the key elements of the American mass comics. Then, the funnies were found in the humor pages of newspapers: they were published in the Sunday edition to retain readership. Indeed, it was not the information given that distinguished the newspapers but the editorials and the pages which were not informative, whose illustrations were an important component.[19] These pages were then called comic supplement. In 1892, William Randolph Hearst published cartoons in his first newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner. James Swinnerton created on this occasion the first drawings of humanized animals in the series Little Bears and Tykes.[20] Nevertheless, drawings published in the press were rather a series of humorous independent cartoons occupying a full page. The purpose of the cartoon itself, as expressed through narrative sequence expressed through images which follow one another, was only imposed slowly.

In 1894, Joseph Pulitzer published in the New York World the first color strip, designed by Walt McDougall, showing that the technique already enabled this kind of publications.[21] Authors began to create recurring characters. Thus, in 1894 and still in the New York World, Richard F. Outcault presented Hogan's Alley, created shortly before in the magazine Truth Magazine. In this series of full-page large drawings teeming with humorous details, he staged street urchins, one of whom was wearing a blue nightgown (which turned yellow in 1895). Soon, the little character became the darling of readers who called him Yellow Kid.[22] On October 25, 1896, the Yellow Kid pronounced his first words in a speech balloon (they were previously written on his shirt). Outcault had already used this method but this date is often considered as the birth of comics in the United States.[23]

Yellow Kid success boosted sales of the New York World, fueling the greed of Hearst. Fierce competition between Hearst and Pulitzer in 1896 led to enticing away of Outcault by Hearst to work in the New York Journal. A bitter legal battle allowed Pulitzer to keep publishing Hogan's Alley (which he entrusted to Georges B. Luks) and Hearst to publish the series under another name. Richard Outcault chose the title The Yellow Kid. Published in 1897, the Yellow Kid magazine consisting of sheets previously appeared in newspapers and it was the first magazine of its kind.[24][25]

From 1903 to 1905 Gustave Verbeek, wrote his comic series "The UpsideDowns of Old Man Muffaroo and Little Lady Lovekins" between 1903 and 1905. These comics were made in such a way that one could read the 6 panel comic, flip the book and keep reading. He made 64 such comics in total.

Golden Age (c. 1938–1956)[edit]

The Golden Age of Comic Books describes an era of American comic books from 1938 to 1956. During this time, modern comic books were first published and rapidly increased in popularity. The superhero archetype was created and many well-known characters were introduced, including Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Wonder Woman.

Silver Age (c. 1956–1970)[edit]

The Silver Age began with the publication of DC Comics' Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956), which introduced the modern version of the Flash.[26][27][28] At the time, only three superheroes—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—were still published under their own titles.[29] The Comics Code was a dominating force during the Silver Age. The Code restricted many topics from being covered in stories: this prevented certain genres, such as crime and horror comics, from being sold at most comic book shops, and also helped superheroes stay popular and culturally relevant. The underground comix movement began at the end of the Silver Age in response to the restrictions of the Code, and was part of the broader counterculture of the 1960s.

Bronze Age (c. 1970–1985)[edit]

The Bronze Age of Comic Books is an informal name for a period in the history of American superhero comic books usually said to run from 1970 to 1984. It follows the Silver Age of Comic Books and is followed by the Modern Age of Comic Books.

Modern Age (c. 1985–present)[edit]

The Modern Age of Comic Books is a period in the history of American superhero comic books which is generally considered to have begun in the 1992 and continues through the present day. During approximately the first 10 years of this period, many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained prominence in the industry, independent comics flourished, and larger publishing houses became more commercialized.

Dark Age (c. 1985–2004)[edit]

An alternative name for the period after the mid-1980s is Dark Age of Comic Books, due to the popularity and artistic influence of titles with serious content, such as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.[8]

Pop culture writer Matthew J. Theriault proposed the Dark Age lasted from 1985 to 2004.[9]

Modern Age (c. 2004–2011)[edit]

Theriault's Modern Age of Comic Books began in 2004 with the publication of Marvel's "Avengers Disassembled" and DC Comics' "Infinite Crisis" in 2005.[9]

Postmodern Age (c. 2011–present)[edit]

Theriault's Postmodern Age of Comic Books began in 2011 with the publication of Ultimate Fallout #4, the first appearance of Miles Morales.[9]

Other names[edit]

Copper Age (c. 1984–1991)[edit]

The Copper Age of Comic Books is a proposed period of American superhero comic books that began in 1984 with Marvel's Secret Wars limited series and ended in 1991 with Jim Lee's X-Men series. In 1992, a group of Marvel artists (including Jim Lee) defected to form the creator-owned Image Comics, which marked the beginning of the "Modern Age of Comics" continues to the present.[30]

Diamond Age (2000–present)[edit]

Comics creator Tom Pinchuk proposed the Diamond Age of Comic Books for the period starting with the appearance of Marvel's Ultimate line in 2000.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Williams, Paul and James Lyons (eds.), The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, p. 106.
  2. ^ Waugh, Coulton, The Comics, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, p. xiii.
  3. ^ a b (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 25)
  4. ^ a b Jamie Coville, "History of Comics: Platinum Age" – TheComicBooks.com.
  5. ^ a b (Rhoades 2008, p. 4)
  6. ^ (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 22)
  7. ^ (Rhoades 2008, p. 71)
  8. ^ a b Voger, Mark (2006). The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics. TwoMorrows Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 1-893905-53-5.
  9. ^ a b c d Matthew J. Theriault, "We're Living in the Postmodern Age of Comics", The Hub City Review, March 10, 2016: "Starting with Miles, a character of mixed Black and Hispanic descent, the new and redesigned characters of the Postmodern Age are almost universally representatives of previously marginalized demographics."
  10. ^ a b Tom Pinchuk, "Is this the "Diamond Age" of Comics?", Comic Vine, May 25, 2010.
  11. ^ The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck at Don Markstein's Toonopedia. Archived from the original on March 13, 2012. "On September 14, 1842, a New York paper, Brother Jonathan, ran an English-language version of Oldbuck (published in Britain a year earlier) as a supplement."
  12. ^ "Brother Jonathan Extra #v2#9". Grand Comics Database.
  13. ^ (Rubis 2012, p. 39)
  14. ^ a b Coville, Jamie (2001). "See you in the Funny Pages..." The Comic Books. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  15. ^ (Rhoades 2008, p. 3)
  16. ^ (Gabilliet 2010, p. 4)
  17. ^ (Harvey 1994, p. 4)
  18. ^ (Rubis 2012, p. 45)
  19. ^ (Harvey 2009, p. 38)
  20. ^ (Baron-Carvais 1994, p. 12)
  21. ^ (Dupuis 2005, p. 16)
  22. ^ (Baron-Carvais 1994, p. 13)
  23. ^ Lord, Denis (March 2004). "Bandes dessinées: le phylactère francophone célèbre ses 100 ans". Le Devoir (in French). Retrieved 14 January 2013.
  24. ^ (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 26)
  25. ^ The Yellow kid. Library of Congress.
  26. ^ Shutt, Craig (2003). Baby Boomer Comics: The Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Comic Books of the 1960s!. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications. p. 20. ISBN 0-87349-668-X. The Silver Age started with Showcase #4, the Flash's first appearance.
  27. ^ Sassiene, Paul (August 1994). The Comic Book: The One Essential Guide for Comic Book Fans Everywhere. Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, a division of Book Sales. p. 69. ISBN 978-1555219994. DC's Showcase No. 4 was the comic that started the Silver Age
  28. ^ "DC Flashback: The Flash". Comic Book Resources. July 2, 2007. Archived from the original on January 12, 2009. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
  29. ^ Jacobs, Will; Gerard Jones (1985). The Comic Book Heroes: From the Silver Age to the Present. New York, New York: Crown Publishing Group. p. 34. ISBN 0-517-55440-2.
  30. ^ "Wait...when?". Copper Age Comics. Retrieved 7 July 2021.


Further reading[edit]

  • Coogan, Peter (2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin, Texas: MonkeyBrain Books.