In June of 1938, National Allied Publications began a new comic-book series, featuring several different heroes. A new character created by two young men from Cleveland was featured on the cover. The comic was Action Comics #1, and the character was Superman.
Thus began The Golden Age of Comic Books. Throughout the Golden Age, comics as a medium were not yet synonymous with superheroes as a genre — horror stories, funny animals, mystery-solving detectives, Westerns, romances, and more all remained popular throughout this period, in some cases more popular than superheroes. However, the gradual rise of the Super Hero defined the Golden Age in many ways. The Super Hero had Proto-Superhero antecedents that went back beyond Superman — indeed, Superman was in large part a product of these — but they had never come together in this way before. The two-fisted pulp action hero merged with science fiction and fantasy, which merged with the crimefighting vigilante, which merged with ancient heroic sagas, to produce an explosion of new characters, individual men and women with strange abilities and the responsibility to use them against evil.
The first Super Heroes were generally Superman ripoffs. Characters like Wonder Man, Flash Lightning, and Dynamic Man, with the full set of beat-bad-guys-up powers, proliferated quickly. In fact, DC sued Wonder Man's publishers, Fox Productions, for copyright infringement, and won. Probably the most popular character of the Golden Age was not Superman, but Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel; at its height, Captain Marvel Adventures was published weekly and sold 1.3 million copies per month, and the Marvel Family included Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., the three Lieutenant Marvels, Uncle Marvel, Freckles Marvel, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Eventually, more specialized heroes started showing up. The Flash, with the ability to run faster than anyone else (incidentally the first hero with only one power); Doll Man, with the ability to shrink down to six inches high; the Human Torch, with the ability to become living flame. These, in turn, received their own imitators, and a wide range of characters and titles were thus born. (Almost universally in Golden Age comics, each issue contained several short stories, each featuring a different hero. Only the biggest characters got their own books, and even they usually had back-up stories featuring other characters.) Also popular were the pulp heroes themselves, translated to four colors. Based on precedents like Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel, these were usually Badass Normals, occasionally with a gimmicky weapon but often with just their fists, who took out racketeers, white slavers, and saboteurs with aplomb. They often wore cap-sleeved leotards, finned cowl masks and buccaneer boots. Batman sprang from this breed, crossed with a dash of the crime-chasing detective.
This was also the era of the Sidekick. After Robin was introduced in 1940, nearly every hero picked up a young lad or lass to assist them in crimefighting. The Human Torch had Toro; Sandman had Sandy, the Golden Boy; Bulletman had Bulletgirl. Plucky Comic Relief adult sidekicks were also popular; they were usually fat and clumsy, like Green Lantern's Doiby Dickles or Plastic Man's Woozy Winks. This being prior to the concept of political correctness, a few regrettable characters showed up here as well, especially the Whizzer's "Slow Motion" Jones, a chubby black man with huge lips and a heavy drawl.
Even before America entered World War II, the Super Heroes would often fight minions of the Axis powers — many of the creators were Jewish, and more concerned about Hitler and the Nazis than the country at large. Once America officially entered the war, Patriotic Fervor was almost universal. Dozens of America-themed characters were created: Miss America, The Shield, Captain America, and others. Some heroes joined the Army or the Navy in their secret identities (as did many writers; Bert Christman is known to have written tales of a band of fighter pilots while himself serving as an airman for the Navy). The public was thirsty for tales of good triumphing over evil. Of course, war propaganda was in full effect; Japanese soldiers especially would often be drawn as barely human, Nazis and Fascists also portrayed as green-skinned sneering half-men. (Naturally, juvenile pulps and comics produced in Axis territory did the same thing, but even worse.)
Incidentally, this age during World War II was also a Golden Age for Canadian comic books since foreign comic books were banned from importation during the war under the War Exchange Conservation Act. As a result, a handful of domestic comic book publishers produced original material that would be called the Canadian Whites, since these publishers largely could only afford to publish black and white comics. Titles included Wow Comics, Nelvana of the North, and Johnny Canuck, while one company worked out a deal to produce Canadian Captain Marvel with Canadian artists redrawing American stories with the original scripts. Unfortunately, when the war ended, the import restrictions were lifted and the resulting flood of American comics quickly put the Canadian ones out of business.
However, those who are familiar with The Silver Age of Comic Books are sometimes surprised to learn that Golden Age comics are often significantly less goofy, less moralistic and less blatantly childish by comparison. The 1930s and 1940s were in many ways a less conservative era in the U.S. than The '50s, and The Comics Code didn't exist yet. Creators were much less concerned about making their stories age-appropriate and portraying heroes as moral exemplars. Superman was a rougher, more aggressive, somewhat mischievous character, described by his creators as "a thorn in the side of the establishment" — hardly the paragon of Lawful Good we have today. Batman was a dark and violent vigilante long before the Comics Code Authority turned him into a camp iconnote . Possibly as a reflection of real-life women moving into traditionally masculine roles as men left for the war, Golden Age female characters tended to be bold, assertive, fast-talking career gals, often tougher and more independent than their Silver Age counterparts. (This may also reflect the fact that a larger percentage of the comic-reading audience was female during the Golden Age than at any time after.)
The precise end of the Golden Age is vague. After World War II ended, Super Hero comics became less popular, with other genres such as funny-animal comedy (which had already been outselling it), crime fiction, teenage romance and westerns replacing it. As the 1940s moved on, more and more titles either changed genre or were canceled altogethernote . In 1950, the last Timely (later to become Marvel Comics) superhero title was canceled, and in 1951 the last Golden Age adventure of the Justice Society of America went by. In 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham published the book Seduction of the Innocent. It argued that comic books were responsible for corrupting the youth of America, leading them to juvenile delinquency and sexual perversion (if comparison to later criticisms of rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, and video games comes to mind, that's not surprising). This led to the creation of the restrictive Comics Code Authority, which forbade comic book stories that included moral ambiguity, more than minimal violence, or practically any portrayal of sexuality, resulting in comics that were much more strictly and consciously kid-oriented than before. If the Golden Age wasn't already dead by that point, the Code was the last nail in the coffin.
The Silver Age of Comic Books was, however, just around the corner...
Notable publishers and series of The Golden Age of Comic Books:
- Ace Publications:
- Archie Comics (Archie Comics)
- Aviation Press:
- Centaur Comics
- Charlton Comics
- DC Comics (aka National Allied Publications, National Comics, National Periodical Publications)
- Action Comics (Superman)
- All-American Comics (Green Lantern, The Atom)
- All-Star Comics (Justice Society of America)
- Detective Comics (Batman). The oldest continuously running American comic book series, though between 2011 and 2016 it was renumbered after a linewide reboot before resuming the original numbering at #934.
- Flash Comics
- Leading Comics (The Seven Soldiers of Victory)
- More Fun Comics
- Sensation Comics (Wonder Woman)
- Dell Comics
- The Owl
- Felix the Cat
- EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt)
- The early comic book issues of MAD.
- Elliot Publications
- Fawcett Comics
- Whiz Comics (Captain Marvel)
- Bulletman and Bulletgirl
- Spy Smasher
- Ibis the Invincible
- Fox Features Syndicate
- Fiction House
- Domino Lady, the first female masked vigilante - published in 1936.
- Fantomah, the first powered female superhero in comics. She was a blonde woman who protected the jungles of Africa, able to turn into a terrifying skull faced monster/goddess.
- Starlight, one of the earliest Native American heroines
- The Spirit, another spin off of the Will Eisner newspaper comic
- Gem Comics
- Vampire, one of the few Australian super heroines. Despite the name, she had more in common with someone like Batman than Dracula. A revival is in the works.
- Harvey Comics
- Harry A. Chesler
- Hyper Publications
- Lev-Gleason Publications
- Pelican Publications
- Quality Comics
- Regor Publications
- Rural Home Publishing
- Standard Comics
- Better Publications
- Nedor Publishing
- Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics)
- Youthful Publications:
- Nelvana of the Northern Lights
- He Done Her Wrong
Usually accepted as lasting from the publication of Action Comics #1 to the early 50's. 1938–~1950.
For other applications of the term "Golden Age", see:
End of an Age, The Time of Legends, Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be.