by Aaron Lightfoot, Comic Columnist
Many people don’t realize comics have actually been around for a long time. The first American comic dates back to the 1842 translation release of Rodolphe Topffer’s “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck.” The idea of comics didn’t really stick until its presence in daily newspapers, and even then the comics weren’t like the ones that have been made into the spectacular films that are popular today. The relevance of these comics has changed over time and there is no doubt comics have shot up in popularity in recent years.
Join Central MO News in a countdown of the 10 most impactful moments in the history of comic books.
There is no better way to start this list than where it all began. There is absolutely no doubt that comics would not be where they are today without the two competing companies. Both taking inspiration from one another, it is easy to see how competition has made both of these companies bring forth their best effort.
DC Comics was founded first in 1934 by the entrepreneur Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Originally founded under the name National Allied Publications, the company released its first comic, “New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1,” in February 1935. The second comic series was released in December 1935. Under the name “New Comics #1,” the series would eventually evolve into “Adventure Comics.” The final title released under Wheeler-Nicholson was “Detective Comics,” which helped lead the company to the name that is used today. Since then, DC Comics has enjoyed a multitude of creative artists and writers the likes of which include Alan Moore, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.
Marvel Comics was founded five years after DC comics in 1939 by a man named Martin Goodman. Under the name Timely Publications, the publisher commonly produced Western pulp magazines. The very first publication, “Marvel Comics #1,” released in October 1939 and included the first appearances of the Human Torch, although it was an android and not a human, and Namor the Sub-Mariner. The issue was so popular that a second printing the following month sold around 900,000 copies. Joe Simon became the first editor of the company and worked with Jack Kirby in order to create the series “Captain America Comics #1” in March 1941, which sold nearly 1 million copies, helping solidify the company as a serious player in the comic industry. Marvel has also had its share of creative artists and writers that includes Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, the father and son legacy of John Romita Sr. and John Romita Jr., and local creators Greg Smallwood and Jason Aaron.
9. The Founding of Image Comics
When talking about comics today, the two giants of the industry are DC and Marvel. Other companies like Dark Horse Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Boom! Studios, and Valiant have released popular comic series like “Hellboy,” “Red Sonja,” “Lumberjanes,” and “Rai” respectively, but have had problems standing up to the biggest companies. Over the course of the past five to 10 years though, a third name has started to reach for the top. Image Comics has created several successful series such as “Spawn,” “The Walking Dead,” “Saga,” “The Wicked and The Divine,” and “Chew.” Not only does this show an independent comic publisher can compete with the top two companies, but the story of how it was founded has helped change the image of the comic book industry as a whole.
Whenever a creative team works on a project they feel passionate about, it’s no wonder they rightfully believe they deserve credit for their work. In the early 1990s, a meeting took place between three of the eventual founders of Image Comics, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld and Jim Valentino, and an independent company named Malibu Comics. Malibu was trying to portray its interest in giving the creators the credit for their work and offered to publish comics that were created by the three creators. Eventually Larsen, Liefeld and Valentino began talks with other creators at Marvel who were growing increasingly frustrated with the fact their work was being heavily used with the creators only earning their basic pay rates and minimal royalties from comics that sold.
Larsen, Liefeld, Valentino, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio and Chris Claremont were the eight creators who founded Image Comics. Thanks to the meeting with Malibu, the creators believed the comics should belong to those who put in the effort and established themselves as a comic publisher that was nonprofit. The creation of Image Comics showed both DC and Marvel Comics that the creative team behind the beloved stories deserves more for their hard work.
Central MO News sat in on an Image Comics panel at Kansas City Comicon 2015 that goes into depth about how the company is run.
8. Amalgam Comics
With the popularization of comics, many people get confused as to which superheroes belong to either DC Comics or Marvel Comics. In the mid-1990s, this problem could have been confusing due to the joint effort of both companies. Amalgam comics was created in order to bring these two different universes together in a series that was pitched to be above all others.
The first printing of this mashup was a series called “DC vs Marvel.” In it questions like “Who would win between Batman and Captain America?” and “Who would win between Superman and the Hulk?” were finally answered. Both comic companies were able to have about the same amount of victories as the other so that neither one was to look superior to its competitor.
Another key point of interest was the series in which the superheroes themselves were mixed together. Heroes like Dark Claw, a mix of Batman and Wolverine, and Doctor Strangefate, a combination of Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate, added an interesting look into these familiar, yet unique takes on the beloved heroes. Dark Claw even had an interesting villain. Combined from both of his inspiration’s main foes, Joker and Sabertooth, Amalgam released the combination that they dubbed Hyena.
Even with the success and the fact that bits and pieces resurface on social media in a positive manner, it is unlikely there will be another attempt to work on a new story. Marvel has established that the Amalgam series is Earth-9602 in its multiverse, however DC has yet to identify it in its universe, showing there may be some hard feelings either between the two companies or just an unwillingness to recognize the event.
7. “The Adventures of Superman” Radio and Batman TV Shows
The invention of both the radio and the television greatly impacted society as a whole. This was no different for comics. Although not a comic in itself, both “The Adventures of Superman” radio and Batman TV shows helped push superheroes to the forefront of entertainment, helping drive comics altogether.
“The Adventures of Superman” was a radio show that aired 15- to 30-minute episodes running anywhere between three to five times a week. The show was aired from 1940 to 1951, encompassing a total of 2,088 episodes. This show brought families together in front of the radio to see what Superman could do to save the world. It also helped create the iconic saying of “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” This series helped make Superman the most popular superhero of the time and he even had his own balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade because of the radio show.
This was not all that “The Adventures of Superman” did. A human rights activist named Stetson Kennedy decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in order to gather information on the group. He would then contact the creators of “The Adventures of Superman” to inform them about the Klan’s code word of the day, details of the ritual, and other vital information about what the KKK was doing. It made the KKK furious, who in turn denounced the series. The event for the show was deemed “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
“The Adventures of Superman” helped popularize Superman, but the Batman TV show contributed a first in a line of successful superhero shows. One hundred and twenty episodes, spanning from Jan. 12, 1966, to March 14, 1968, brought the Caped Crusader from the comic page to the television screen, accessible in the living room of many Americans. It helped create a safe image for comics by being one of the first to promote the importance of drinking milk, wearing seat belts, and eating vegetables. This, along with the fact that it has been described as “the only situational comedy on the air without a laugh track” by executive producer William Dozier, helped push the series to be ranked the 82nd greatest television show of all time by television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.
6. “Civil War”
With a tagline like “Whose Side Are You On?” it’s easy to see why this series was popular. A change from the usual good versus bad, this series by Marvel Comics tackles the differences between the heroes and how agreeing on the tough issues isn’t always a viable option. The original series ran from July 2006 to January 2007, with issues 4 and 5 being delayed one month and two months respectively. This delay did little to impede the story that was put forth that no doubt changed how people looked at their favorite superheroes.
The reason for the conflict was due to the U.S. government passing the Superhero Registration Act, which required those who had super powers, or have capabilities to become superhuman, like Iron Man, to become registered as “living weapons of mass destruction.” This helped create a dividing line between all of Marvel’s superheroes with one side, those that choose to support the law being led by Iron Man, and the opposite side, those that choose to oppose the act being led by Captain America. Unlike the movie adaptation, Spider-Man was caught in the middle, rather than choosing one side, and the X-Men as a whole chose to be neutral.
The resulting aftermath of the battle between these two competing sides concludes with Captain America being assassinated, Mister Fantastic and Invisible Woman leaving the Fantastic Four, Iron Man becoming the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also founding his own Avengers team named The Mighty Avengers. The series helped bring to the public the idea of freedom versus public security, making Americans think about this tough issue with no right answer.
5. The Death of Gwen Stacy
It’s well known that superheroes always try to do good. Even when faced with tough challenges, it seems like the heroes do what is right. It is unheard of for a superhero to do something bad, but for a superhero to try to do good and fail to the extent that occurred in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #121” and “#122” was entirely unfathomable. There have been many deaths in comic book history, but this one stands out for being one of the most unlikely and shocking.
Gwen Stacy was one of the many love interests for Peter Parker, and girlfriends for Spider-Man, and any superhero for that matter, usually end up with the love interest being kidnapped at some time in their relationship. The end results of the abductions aren’t always the same and Norman Osborn as Green Goblin looked to change things up.
Abducting Gwen Stacy, Green Goblin lures Spider-Man to a bridge; the actual bridge differs due to the art showing the Brooklyn Bridge and the text stating it being the George Washington Bridge. In the midst of the conflict, Green Goblin hurls Gwen Stacy off of the bridge. Spider-Man quickly shoots a web to save her from falling. After snagging her, Spider-Man pulls her up, confident that he sure that he saved her life. Parker soon realizes that his love is actually lifeless. Green Goblin Escapes while Parker cries over Stacy’s body. In “Amazing Spider-Man #125” a note was written stating that “It saddens us to say that the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her.” This shocking event showed that no character is safe from being killed and that even with the best of intentions, superheroes can fail.
4. The Death of Superman
There’s no doubt about Superman’s popularity when he was first created. With popularity lasting through the majority of the 1990s, Superman was an iconic figurehead of justice and freedom. Even with the success he had, outside influences on the comic world, which will be referenced later on in this list, began to diminish Superman’s popularity. He became so unpopular that even heroes like Flash and Shazam were outselling him. In order to show the world how they needed Superman, DC Comics would have to show them what it would be like to lose their Man of Steel.
The idea would culminate into a series where Superman was to take on Doomsday, an unstoppable monster hellbent on killing. The two fought it out on the streets of Metropolis with the comic series having five panels per page, decreasing the panel count per page by one until the final issue, which had single panel pages to increase the dramatic effect of the fight. The series concluded with the Man of Steel and Doomsday succumbing to a final blow from each other at the same time.
The series received a lot of praise and grabbed the attention of those that didn’t read comics regularly looking to grab a collector’s item. The Man of Steel stayed dead for a year and then was revitalized, which infuriated some who believed that it was wrong for DC to falsely kill a character and claimed that it was nothing but a publicity stunt. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, there’s no denying that the series set a precedent for comic books and how the creators can intertwine their stories within their respective universes to create a work of art.
To some, Alan Moore is considered crazy, but to many he is considered a genius. He is the mind that conceived “V for Vendetta,” which tackles several social and moral issues that people face, and a new take on Swamp Thing, in which Swamp Thing thinks he is actually human, showing the inner struggle of one’s mind. It’s no wonder that his series “Watchmen” has been critically praised, even being praised as one of the best novels of all time, let alone graphic novels. The BBC even praised “Watchmen” as “the moment comic books grew up.”
Moore, along with artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins, set out to show what superheroes would be like in the real world. Released from 1986 to 1987, Moore helped portray the common superheroes as a flawed and, at times, unlikable crew of individuals. The complications of how the superheroes are portrayed make the reader like them, and at the same time despise them.
The everlasting impact of the series is one that shows comics don’t have to have happy endings and that one can take a darker look at the medium. It has led many creators to take a gritty and grim look on the stories they tell, even though Moore has said a series shouldn’t be gritty and grim without purpose. Gibbons claimed the series, even though readers felt like they were left with grim and grittiness, was in fact “a wonderful celebration of superheroes as much as anything else.”
2. “Seduction of the Innocent”
Many psychologists have been arguing about nature versus nurture for a long time. It seems like those who believe the surrounding environment impacts are quick to blame anything portraying violence to be a factor for a child to develop a violent behavior. In today’s media, people question whether video games contribute to an increase of violence in children, but before video games the apparent cause was due to, believe it or not, comic books. The impact of a single book was enough at the time to bring the popular comic industry down to its knees.
In 1954, a book written by German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham was published. Titled “Seduction of the Innocent,” it proclaimed comic books were a negative form of literature that caused juvenile delinquency. Wertham actually misled the populace by giving misinformation and skewing evidence to support his claim, but the public didn’t mind. His claims included that Batman and Robin displayed homosexual tendencies, the females were impossibly proportioned, and it desensitized youth to drugs, violence and sex. Massive comic book burnings occurred, similar to the burnings of Beatles memorabilia after the proclamation by John Lennon that they were more popular than Jesus.
The end result was the forcing of comics to create the Comics Code Authority, stifling the creative process of comics by not allowing specific details to be in them such as drug use or sex. This made creators scared to release any comics that would tackle any social issues. They used these stories to teach lessons as to what is right and wrong, and without being able to depict drugs it became difficult to portray their ideals. This led many superheroes to fall from grace, like Superman, and it wasn’t until the creators finally took a stand and fought back almost 20 years later that things would be changed to allow creative freedom.
Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil helped break through this barrier by depicting Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, doing heroin on the front cover of the comic. There is no doubt the article negatively impacted the comic book industry and set the creation process back by several decades.
1. Financial Difficulties of Marvel and Acquisition by Disney
It’s difficult to pick the most impactful moment in comic book history, but with the increase of film adaptations in recent years it was a combination of Marvel going bankrupt and then being bought by Disney. The 1990s were not the best time to be involved in creating comics. DC merged with Time Warner in order to stay afloat, leading to the Tim Burton “Batman” films. Marvel, on the other hand, felt the bulk of this and filed for bankruptcy in December 1996. In order to not be lost completely, Marvel sold the film rights of some of its characters. Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and all affiliated villains and characters were sold to Sony and X-Men, while Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four, along with affiliated villains and characters, were sold to Fox. All other characters and the comic portrayal rights of those mentioned are still owned by Marvel.
Marvel was eventually bought by Disney, and offered to buy the rights of those they had sold back. Fox and Sony both denied the proposals, which led to many disputes over how films can be created in the Marvel cinematic universe. Marvel has subsequently halted production of Fantastic Four comics in order to force Fox to sell the rights back. This dispute has been at the forefront while Marvel tries to tie its cinematic universe together, a struggle when the company doesn’t own the film rights of some of the key players in important stories. The bankruptcy dealings and subsequent acquisition by Disney have been the most impactful and relevant when it comes to how comics are portrayed in today’s age.
The following moments in comic history didn’t quite make the top 10, but still earn an Honorable Mention: Kingdom Come, Death of Phoenix, “Dark Knight Returns,” Green Arrow/Green Lantern saga, “The Killing Joke;” the formation of the X-Men, and Maus.
What did you think of CMN’s top 10? Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the comments below.