The History of Comic Books and their Superheroes is part of a four-part series.
- How The Pulps and comic strips laid the groundwork for the introduction of modern-day comic books.
- The Golden Age of Comics and the legendary comic book characters that kicked off the industry
- The Silver Age of Comics and groundbreaking innovations introduced to the comic book industry
- The Bronze Age of Comics takes comic books into the mainstream.
Prior to comic books as we know them, off-the-wall fiction appeared in a format called The Pulps. Around 1892, stories were printed in cheap wood pulp paper magazines (hence the name, Pulps). They contained fantastical storylines and a few illustrations. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines were best known for their lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter. They are universally considered to be the precursor to the comic books that appeared during the Golden Age of Comics.
Argosy – the first pulp fiction magazine (1882)
Argosy, founded by Frank Munsey in New York City on December 2, 1882 (cover-dated December 9, 1882), is widely recognized as the first pulp fiction magazine. Munsey, who invested everything he had into purchasing children’s stories for the magazine, eventually sold it to a New York publisher. However, after the publisher went bankrupt, Munsey regained control of the publication.
Initially published weekly, Argosy transitioned to a monthly publication about two years later. Munsey also began publishing more adult fiction stories at this time. Despite its relatively short length of 8 pages per issue and a cost of only 5 cents, Argosy featured several prominent writers which helped cement its popularity among readers. Legends such as Upton Sinclair, Zane Grey, Albert Payson Terhune, and Gertrude Barrows Bennett all wrote for Argosy at one time or another.
With its all-fiction format, Argosy became a pioneer in the pulp magazine genre. In fact, during the period of 1906-1907, The Argosy was selling 500,000 copies per issue, a remarkable feat for any publication. As the magazine continued to grow in popularity, Munsey became even more successful, eventually accumulating a fortune worth approximately $40 million dollars by the time of his passing on December 22, 1925.
Pulp fiction consolidates into the Big Four
The late 19th century saw a significant rise in the popularity of pulp magazines, with Argosy leading the way. With its success, other publishers soon followed suit, such as Short Stories, Blue Book, and Adventure magazine. Together with Argosy, these publishers formed the collective “Big Four” within the industry.
As the Great Depression rose, the country was in dire need of entertainment and distraction from everyday struggles. The Big Four were there to provide just that, with their gripping and action-packed stories. Despite the financial difficulties faced by many Americans during this time, pulp magazines remained affordable thanks to their cheap manufacturing process. This ensured that people could still find solace in the pages of these magazines during their time of need.
Short Stories (1890)
Short Stories magazine was first published in 1890, not long after the introduction of Argosy magazine to bookstores. Its initial focus was primarily on crime fiction, which quickly gained popularity among readers. However, as the years went on, the magazine shifted its focus to western fiction. Despite this change, Short Stories continued to be widely read, and at its peak, it sold nearly 100,000 copies each month.
Blue Book (1905)
Blue Book was a science fiction magazine first published by Story Press Corporation in May 1905. It contained science fiction stories from some of the top authors of the day. Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs (he contributed many Tarzan stories), and Agatha Christie all wrote stories for the magazine. Blue Book was published for more than 45 years before closing its doors in January 1952.
Adventure magazine was a long-running pulp fiction magazine that was published by Ridgeway for over six decades, from November 1910 until 1971, spanning a whopping 881 issues. Its first editor was Arthur Sullivant Hoffman who led the publication with the help of a young assistant and soon-to-be novelist, Sinclair Lewis, who played an instrumental role in the magazine’s success.
Two years after the magazine’s inception, Hoffman and Lewis came up with a feature that quickly became a hit with readers. They created identity cards for each reader, complete with a unique serial number. In the event that the bearer of the identity card met their demise, anyone who found the card would notify the magazine, which would then get in touch with the next of kin of the unfortunate adventurer.
This identity card feature was a huge hit among travelers and adventurers alike, leading to the formation of Adventurers’ Club organizations across the country.
Pulp fiction popularity grows
During the 1920s, a plethora of new pulp fiction magazines joined the Big Four. Among the best-known titles of this period were Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Love Story Magazine, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown, Weird Tales and Western Story Magazine.
Western Story Magazine (1919)
Western Story Magazine was a highly successful publication that was founded by Street & Smith in 1919 and ran for an impressive four decades until 1949. It was initially created from one of the company’s nickel weeklies, New Buffalo Bill Weekly, and it quickly became the first of many magazines that were devoted to Western fiction.
The magazine’s popularity soared in the early 1920s, with over 500,000 copies being sold every month by 1921. One of the main reasons for its success was the quality of the writing that it featured. The stories were often written by well-known and respected authors who were masters at capturing the spirit of the American West. These authors included legendary names such as Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Max Brand.
In addition to the high caliber of writing, the magazine was also known for its vivid illustrations that brought the stories to life. The artwork was often created by some of the most talented artists of the time, including Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington, and NC Wyeth. Many of these illustrations have become iconic and highly sought after by collectors.
Black Mask pulp magazine (April 1920)
Black Mask was first published in April of 1920 by journalist H.L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. This magazine was dedicated to publishing crime stories and would go on to become one of the most important pulp magazines of the early 20th century. During its peak in the early 1930s, Black Mask was known for publishing some of the most famous crime writers of the time, including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These writers helped to establish the hardboiled crime fiction genre, which would go on to have a significant impact on popular culture.
Love Story Magazine (May 1921)
Street & Smith’s Love Story Magazine was a romantic fiction pulp magazine that first published in May 1921 as a quarterly. Its circulation grew quickly from 100,000 in 1922 to more than 600,000 by 1932. The magazine regularly featured stories of love and romance, often with a dramatic and emotional flair. The stories were written by a mix of well-known and up-and-coming authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first published story, “Babes in the Woods”, appeared in the magazine in 1922.
Weird Tales (March 1923)
Weird Tales, founded by J.C. Henneberger and J.M. Lansinger, made its debut on newsstands on February 18, 1923 (issue dated March 1923). The magazine began publishing a wide range of unusual pulp fiction that included horror, science fiction, weird fantasy, sword and sorcery, and even stories of the occult. The magazine quickly gained popularity among readers who were looking for something different in their reading material.
Despite experiencing financial trouble within a year of its inception, Weird Tales managed to survive and was sold to Rural Publishing Corporation. The magazine continued to prosper for more than 30 years before eventually closing its doors in 1954. During its run, Weird Tales became known as one of the most influential pulp fiction magazines in history, introducing readers to writers who would become legends in the field such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, and many others. Weird Tales is widely considered to be the first magazine to feature fantasy, horror, and science fiction tales.
Amazing Stories pulp magazine (April 1926)
Amazing Stories is a science fiction magazine that was first published in April 1926. It was founded by Hugo Gernsback, a Luxembourgian-American inventor and writer who is often referred to as the “father of science fiction.”
Gernsback wanted to create a magazine that would focus exclusively on science fiction, a genre that was not yet well-established at the time. He believed that science fiction could be a valuable tool for teaching scientific concepts and inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and engineering.
The first issue of Amazing Stories was an instant success, featuring stories by well-known science fiction authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. It also introduced readers to a new crop of writers who would become staples of the genre, including Ray Cummings, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Murray Leinster.
Over the years, Amazing Stories underwent many changes in ownership and format. It was briefly shut down in the 1990s, but was revived in 2012 by publisher Steve Davidson. It ran until 2018, spanning 92 years, much longer than any of the pulps.
Flying Aces pulp magazine (October 1928)
Flying Aces was a popular “flying pulp” magazine that was published monthly from October 1928 until April 1945. The magazine featured action-packed stories about heroic pilots, many of which were set against the backdrop of World War I. The stories were filled with thrilling dogfights, daring escapes, and other exciting adventures. The magazine was known for its high-quality writing and illustrations, which helped to bring the stories to life.
In April 1945, Flying Aces was revamped as Flying Models, a non-fiction magazine that catered to model airplane hobbyists. The magazine continued to be published on a monthly basis and remained a popular magazine for many years.
Wonder Stories (June 1930)
In 1929, Hugo Gernsback lost control of science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and quickly launched three new magazines in its place: Air Wonder Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly. The first issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories appeared in June 1930 as a merger between two of Gernsback’s existing pulp magazines – Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories.
During its publication, Wonder Stories featured works from prominent science fiction writers such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The magazine also provided a platform for new writers to showcase their work.
In 1936, Gernsback sold Wonder Stories to Thrilling Publications, and the magazine was merged with Thrilling Wonder Stories. The publication continued until 1955 when it was finally discontinued.
Oriental Stories pulp magazine (October 1930)
Oriental Stories (later renamed The Magic Carpet Magazine) hit newsstands in October 1930, vaulting off the success of Popular Fiction Publishing’s Weird Tales. The magazine features stories surrounding adventure and fantasy in Oriental slum settings. After struggling financially throughout its existence, it was shuttered after less than four years.
Dime Detective pulp magazine (January 1932)
Dime Detective was a pulp magazine that was published from 1931 to 1953. It was one of the most popular mystery and detective magazines of its time, and it featured some of the most iconic characters in the genre.
The magazine was first published by Popular Publications, which was one of the leading pulp publishers of the time. The first issue of Dime Detective was published in November 1931, and it featured stories by some of the most popular writers of the day, including Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler.
Over the years, Dime Detective became known for its hard-boiled detective stories and its gritty, realistic style. The magazine featured a number of popular characters, including the private detectives Nick Carter and Race Williams, as well as the crime reporter Steve Midnight. The stories were often set in dark, urban environments, and the detectives were portrayed as tough, no-nonsense characters who would stop at nothing to solve the case.
Despite its popularity, Dime Detective struggled to stay afloat during the 1940s and 1950s. The rise of television and the decline of the pulp magazine industry led to a decline in readership, and the magazine was eventually forced to shut down in 1953.
Spicy Detective pulp magazine (April 1934)
Spicy Detective magazine was published by Culture Publications. The first issue hit newsstands in April 1934. One of its most popular features was Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective. A number of other top authors wrote for Spicy Detective including E. Hoffman Price, Hugh B. Cave, Norvell Page and Arthur Wallace.
Horror Stories pulp magazine (January 1935)
Horror Stories, published by Popular Publications, hit newsstands in January 1935 and featured tales of the supernatural, horror, and macabre. The covers often featured gaudy drawings of damsels in distress. It ceased publication in 1941 because of the paper shortage produced by World War II. Its limited run makes it one of the most sought-after collectible pulp fiction titles.
Startling Stories pulp magazine (January 1939)
Startling Stories published from January 1939 to 1955 by Standard Magazines. It ran alongside Standard’s other popular pulp, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and was one of the last of the pulps to shut down.
Unknown pulp magazine (March 1939)
The first issue of Unknown appeared in March 1939. Sales floundered from the start and stopped publication in October 1943 after only 4 years. However, it is generally considered to be one of the finest fantasy fiction magazines ever published, primarily due to editor John W. Campbell’s insistence that all stores be based on logic (. e.g. provide a scientific explanation for how the werewolf character came to be). This resulted in higher quality fiction than the other pulp magazines. Many popular writers penned stories for Unknown pulp magazine including Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, and L. Ron Hubbard.
Planet Stories pulp magazine (December 1939)
Planet Stories was introduced by Fiction House in Winter 1939. It featured interplanetary adventures in space settings. Several legendary science fiction writers wrote for the magazine including Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, and Philip K. Dick.
Early newspaper comic strips
Pulp fiction magazines are considered by some to be the precursor to comic books, but the standard for superheroes was established by newspaper comic strips. Comics that used sequences of pictures have been around for a long time, but it was the newspaper comic strips and the Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper war of 1887 that gave us the first characters with superhero qualities.
Some popular early comic strips included Hearst’s Little Nemo (1905), Pulitzer’s highly controversial The Yellow Kid (1895), and Hearst’s The Little Bears comic (1893), which was one of the first comic strips with recurring characters. The “funnies” created reader loyalty for the newspaper and often generated a lot of buzz the day after they were published.
The Little Bears (June 2, 1895)
The Little Bears comic strip, written by Jimmy Swinnerton, was one of the first strips to feature recurring characters in a “series” of cartoons. The characters made their debut in spot illustrations for a local fair in Hearst’s The San Francisco Examiner on October 14, 1893. When the fair ended, so did the characters’ appearance in the paper. However, the characters were revived a few months later to accompany the newspaper’s daily weather report. The strip became a regular feature about a year later.
The Yellow Kid (October 18, 1896)
Created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault, The Yellow Kid (Mickey Dugan) character first appeared in a minor role in Truth magazine in 1894. Although only appearing in four panels, the character, a snaggle-toothed barefoot oriental boy who wore an oversized yellow nightshirt, became very popular with readers. The Yellow Kid appeared again in Hogan’s Alley Sunday cartoons on May 5, 1995, where he became a regular, recurring character. Before long, the Yellow Kid was the lead character of the series.
In 1896, Outcault took the character to Hearst publications where it appeared in the New York Journal American on October 18, 1896. However, Outcault failed to copyright the strip and Pulitzer publications was able to hire George Luks to continue drawing the strip for Pulitzer’s World. Thus, two different versions of The Yellow Kid appeared in two different competing papers for about a year.
The Yellow Kid cartoon is famous for its part in coining the term “yellow journalism”. Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal American, quickly became known as the yellow kid papers. This was contracted to the yellow papers and the term yellow kid journalism was at last shortened to yellow journalism, describing the two newspapers’ editorial practices of taking sensationalism and profit as priorities in journalism.
Little Nemo (October 15, 1904)
Little Nemo, written by cartoonist Winsor McCay, appeared in the New York Herald on October 15, 1905. The series focused on Nemo’s fantastical dreams. Each strip ended with Nemo awakening in the final panel. McCay’s strip was known for its experimental aspects, unusual use of color and perspective, and the size and shape of its panels. McCay took the strip to Hearst publications in 1911 where it appeared in the New York American on September 3, 1911. It ran 22 years.
The Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper war and the early comic strip syndications
The Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper war was a term coined to describe the fierce competition between two of the most prominent newspaper publishers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. At the time, the newspaper industry was dominated by Pulitzer and Hearst, who fought viciously against each other not just in the newspaper marketplace but in the comic strip arena as well. Pulitzer and Hearst routinely stole popular Cartoonists from each other. In this day, the cartoonist typically took their cartoon work with them to the competitor. For instance, the popular Yellow Kid comic strip was snatched by Heart from Pulitzer in 1886, only a year after it was created. This resulted in lawsuits and legal battles over newspaper rights to the strip. The prominence of The Yellow Kid’s role in the battle led to the phrase “yellow journalism”.
Comics were much more complicated to create than a regular newspaper article. They required the expertise of both a writer and an artist. Hearst became the first to run a daily comic strip and quickly recognized the importance of syndicating his comic strips to other newspapers that could not afford the expense of creating comic strips on their own. In fact, until his death, Hearst focused much of his attention on the comic strips and the steady revenue stream they generated for his papers. He organized his syndication branch into a separate company called King Features.
Even though Hearst had been syndicating material to other newspapers since 1895, King Features was officially founded in 1914 and incorporated on November 16, 1915. Its cadre of comic strips are well-known to this day. Hearst produced hit comic strips one after another – Blondie, Thimble Theater, Flash Gordon, Tillie the Oiler, The Phantom, and many more legends came from Hearst’s King Features syndication. Syndicated all over the country, comic strips became an integral part of people’s daily lives.
The age of superheroes arrives – the world is introduced to Popeye
As the pulps neared their peak of popularity, King Features introduced a character unlike any the world had seen before. This character fought for good and used an unusual tool to do so – superhuman strength.
King Features’ comic strip, Thimble Theatre, was created by Elzie Crisler Segar. Thimble Theatre featured characters acting out stories as if they were actors in a theater. One of the earliest Thimble Theatre characters was Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.
On January 17, 1929, Olive Oyl’s brother, Castor Oyl, hired a sailor for a ship voyage to Dice Island where Castor intended to rake in tons of dough gambling using a hen, Bernice the Whiffle Hen, that created good luck when rubbed on the head. A few weeks later, the sailor, named Popeye, was shot but survived and punched out the shooter after rubbing the head of Bernice the Whilffle Hen to gain superhuman strength.
Popeye was only a guest appearance and he disappeared from the strip in subsequent issues. Readers, however, loved the character and wrote King Features, asking about him. Popeye was brought back and given a larger role. It soon became clear he was falling in love with Olive Oyl and eventually, she left Hamgravy to become Popeye’s girlfriend. Hamgravy was then written out of the script.
Popeye continued to use the Whiffle Hen for several years, but by 1932, he began getting his strength from eating spinach.
The Popeye character was different. The stories were complex, which kept the attention of more advanced readers. Less than 10 years after his first appearance, Popeye was running in more than 500 newspapers across the country and was voted the second most popular comic strip in America (behind Little Orphan Annie). The age of superheroes had arrived.
The Shadow – the first superhero with magical powers
By the time Popeye became a household name, the pulps had become a staple in American pop culture. People liked the familiarity of a character they grew to know each week and the character-based stories provided a continuation of storylines that kept readers coming back for more. As Popeye’s popularity exploded, competitors began looking for their own way into the fast-growing market for superheroes.
The Shadow was initially a narrator of the Detective Story Hour. Voiced by Orson Welles, he had originally been called The Inspector and The Sleuth but scriptwriter Harry Engman Charlotte suggested the name Shadow and it stuck. The radio character became popular, and newsstands noted that customers often asked if the Shadow had its own publication.
Street & Smith heard about customer interest in The Shadow. As Popeye reached his zenith of popularity, Street & Smith hired author, spiritualist, magician, and friend of Houdini himself, Walter B. Gibson to create a character that fit the narrator’s voice. Gibson created storylines for The Shadow under the penname Maxwell Grant.
Gibson based the character on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The House and the Brain. He used stylized imagery, sidekicks, supervillains, and a secret identity – all of which had a strong influence on comic book superheroes that would arrive later. He also possessed somewhat of a superpower – the ability to cloud people’s minds. He did this so people could not see him, but he never truly became invisible.
The first issue of The Shadow hit the newsstands on April 1, 1931. Gibson continued pounding out storylines, often writing up to 10,000 words a day to keep up with reader demand. He penned more than 300 novel-length stories about the character.
The Shadow continued publication until 1949, by which time the Golden Age of Comics had arrived and used many of the Shadow’s best characterizations making him irrelevant in the new market.
Mandrake the Magician – the true precursor to modern superheroes?
Some argue that modern superheroes derive from a character named Mandrake the Magician, not The Shadow. Mandrake the Magician was a popular King Features syndicated comic strip. Created by Lee Falk, the strip became a publication on June 11, 1934.
Mandrake was a magician who lived in a high-tech New York mansion called Xanadu. He possessed a very fast hypnotic technique which he used to cause others to see illusions. He used this to stop villains including mad scientists, space aliens, and characters from other dimensions. Notably, villains had unusual names like The Cobra and The Clay Camel.
Villains typically had unique skills of their own which they pitted against Mandrake. Their skills combined with Mandrake’s ability to alter people’s thoughts, cause many to consider Mandrake the first true comic book superhero.
The Phantom – the first costumed superhero
If Falk’s Mandrake was not truly the world’s first superhero, his second creation certainly was a first. After the runaway success of Mandrake the Magician, King Features asked Falk to create another superhero. He brought back a comic strip about King Arthur and his knights. King Features rejected the strip and Falk went back to the drawing board.
Falk returned, this time with a mysterious costumed crime fighter he called The Phantom. Falk envisioned the character as a wealthy aristocrat who withheld a secret crime-fighting persona that he only used at night. His piercing, pupil-less eyes were inspired by Greek statues who Falk thought had been created with no pupils (they did, but faded over time). The Phantom wore a tight-fitting costume that Falk says was inspired by Robin Hood’s attire. The Phantom’s costume was a patently different characteristic for a cartoon character.
The Phantom strip debuted on February 17, 1936. Falk continued working on the comic strip for more than 60 years – until March 13, 1999, when he pulled off his oxygen mask to dictate the final storyline to his wife moments before he took his last breath.
Doc Savage – The first superhero with true superpowers
Doc Savage magazine vaulted off the success of The Phantom and first appeared in March 1933. Clark Savage possessed no superpowers but was trained by his father and scientists to become the perfect human being. Savage had unimaginable strength and endurance. He possessed a photographic memory. He was a master of martial arts and an expert scientist.
Like Batman, Savage possessed many technologically superior weapons and gadgets such as a flying wing, night vision goggles, electromagnetic rail guns, and a machine gun pistol. Unfamiliar to readers at the time, Doc Savage also owned an answering machine and a television.
Savage was also a master of disguises and could alter his voice. His abilities reached near superhuman levels, and he quickly became known in the series as a “superman”.
Like Mandrake the Magician, Savage was rich and lived at the top of a high-rise in New York City. Like Superman, he had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic that he would sometimes retreat to. Indeed, it’s clear why Stan Lee once said he considered Doc Savage to be the world’s first superhero.
The creation of The Clock
Another key pulp magazine, The Clock, appeared just as the Golden Age of comics was beginning to dawn. Created by cartoonist George Brenner, The Clock first appeared in the Comics Magazine Company publication, Funny Picture Stories #1 in November 1936. He is considered to be the first masked hero and the first to fight villains who possessed superpowers.
The Clock lived in a “sub-cellar located below the heart of the city” and used gadgets such as a cane that shoots projectiles and a diamond stud that emits tear gas. Ultimately, The Clock was revealed to be Brian O’Brien, a wealthy, elite who was well-known in high society. He would become the inspiration for Batman’s Bruce Wayne.
The Clock had no superpowers, but he sometimes fought villains that were superhuman. One such villain was Stuporman, a baddie who was ultra-strong and bulletproof (but not very intelligent).
Many consider The Clock to be one of the first comic books to appear during the Golden Age of Comics.