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The History of Comic Books and their Superheroes Part 3 – The Silver Age of Comics and groundbreaking innovations it introduced to the comic book industry.

Golden Age of Comics - War Battles Shocking Tales of Combat #6 (Pre-code era)

The History of Comic Books and their Superheroes is part of a four-part series.

  1. How The Pulps and comic strips laid the groundwork for the introduction of modern-day comic books.
  2. The Golden Age of Comics and the legendary comic book characters that kicked off the industry
  3. The Silver Age of Comics and groundbreaking innovations it introduced to the comic book industry
  4. The Bronze Age of Comics takes comic books into the mainstream.

Comics in the Golden Age of Comics were liberal and progressive. For instance, race was never a barrier in the comic book world during the Golden Age. In fact, in 1947, a publication, All-Negro Comics, was written and drawn by all black artists. Gender was freely depicted in comic books and women like Wonder Woman were portrayed with just as must strength as their male counterparts. They even delved into occult topics with stories like Lady Satan (who fought Nazis) and the EC Comics classic Tales from the Crypt. But the 1950’s were the heyday of McCarthyism and like many other forms of liberal entertainment, comic books came to be viewed as a threat. The industry’s reaction to the threat would kick off an entirely new era.

The Wertham campaign to censor comic books

Golden Age of Comics (Pre-Code) Black Cat Mystery #50 - June 1954 (Pre-Code era)
Black Cat Mystery #50 – June 1954

The comic book witch-hunt began in earnest with German-American psychologist Fredric Wertham. Wertham worked with juvenile delinquents in Harlem, New York. He noticed that many of the teenage boys he counseled read comic books. In a classic case of confirmation bias, Wertham contributed comic books to their delinquency, ignoring the fact that almost all boys read comic books at the time.

Warfront #25 - 1955 (Pre-code era)
Warfront #25 – 1955

Wertham began a crusade to attribute society’s ills to the reading of comic books. He used high-visibility publications to publish articles such as “Horror in the Nursery” and “The Psychopathy of Comic Books”. According to Wertham, comic books were sexually suggestive and led to children committing grave crimes. He was willing to stretch the truth to make his point. For instance, he proclaimed Wonder Woman was a lesbian and Batman and Robin were gay.

Wertham’s crusade led to a Senate hearing in April 1954 to discuss how comic books could be censored so they did not harm children. Ultimately, Wertham was selected as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in the 1956 presidential election and thus, lost interest in his crusade against comic books.

Despite the Senate hearing ending with no resolution, the comic book industry was devastated. Fifteen publishers went out of business during the Summer after the Senate hearings. The remaining publishers joined forces to save the comic book industry from collapse.

The creation of the Comics Code Authority lays the groundwork for the Silver Age of Comics

Approved by the Comics Code Authority logo (Silver Age of Comics)
Approved by the Comics Code Authority logo

Comic book publishers reacted to Wertham’s witch-hunt by working to create a new “code” for all publishers to follow. In “the code”, sexy images were forbidden, criminals would always be depicted as bad and would never triumph over the hero, authority figures were treated with respect, torture could not be portrayed, and vulgar language was taboo. The sanctity of family would be respected which prohibited mentions of divorce or homosexuality, and anything even remotely suggestive of the occult was forbidden including werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, and zombies. Even topics such as religious portrayal or examination of racial issues were forbidden (which created an unfortunate representation of black people within comic book pages).

If the comic book passed all these “moral tests”, it was given a seal of approval – “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” – that it could proudly display on the cover of the comic. Soon distributors would only carry a comic book if it bore the official seal of the Comics Code Authority.

DC Comics kicks off the Silver Age of Comics

But the code made it difficult for some genres including Westerns, Romances, and of course, horror comic books. Publishers found it was much easier to write comic book storylines around superheroes – with a few changes. For instance, Batman was forced to stop carrying guns and he was given girlfriends to outwardly portray him as heterosexual.

More importantly, the new code forced publishers to rethink old characters and their stories. This began a new age in comic books – The Silver Age of Comics. And the first out of the gate was the legendary comic book publisher, DC Comics.

The Flash is reintroduced in the Silver Age of Comics

Showcase Vol 1 #4 - October 1956 (Silver Age of Comics Begins)
Showcase Vol 1 #4 – October 1956

The new code gave publishers the opportunity to rework existing Golden Age characters. The first Golden Age comic book to be reintroduced in the Silver Age of Comics was DC’s The Flash. In fact, many attribute the precise start of the Silver Age to DC Comics Showcase #4 (October 1956) which introduced a new, modern version of The Flash. At the time, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were published under their own titles. The Showcase cover showed Flash running so fast, he disappeared out of the frame. It was an innovative take on the character’s speed and began an artistic advancement that characterized the Silver Age of Comics.

The new Flash (Barry Allen) was created by writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino. This Flash was a police scientist who gained super-speed after being doused with chemicals during a lightning storm. He became a huge hit with readers and appeared in several issues of Showcase before being given his own title. He first reappeared in Flash #105, resuming his storyline where the Golden Age Flash Comics left off.

The Flash Vol 1 #123 - September 1961 - Barry Allen meets Jay Garrick
The Flash Vol 1 #123 – September 1961

It was during this era that Flash was given an ability that repeatedly changed the DC Universe – the ability to run so fast, he could transverse time and space. In Flash Vol 1 #123, Flash crossed a dimensional boundary and discovered parallel worlds existed. In this alternate universe, he met another Flash, Jay Garrick, the original Flash. The two became good friends and crossed to each other’s realm on occasion to meet each other.

Martian Manhunter

Detective Comics #225 - November 1955
Detective Comics #225 – November 1955

Brand new DC characters appeared during the Silver Age of Comics too. DC introduced J’onn J’onzz in Detective Comics #225 (November 1955) nearly a year before the new Flash was introduced (some consider the introduction of J’onn J’onzz as the dawn of the Silver Age). The character was a green-skinned Martian who was teleported to Earth by a doctor. The doctor died from shock leaving J’onn J’onzz stranded on Earth with no way home. He decides to fight crime on earth while waiting for Mars technology to catch up. DC called the new character, Martian Manhunter.

Readers loved Martian Manhunter and soon, he was added to the Justice League of America, often acting in place of Superman (DC fear readers would tire of Superman if they read about him too much). However, the series introduced a problem that plagued many Silver Age of Comics – continuity mistakes.

Correcting errant storylines and backstories in the Silver Age of Comics

Continuity mistakes occur when story arcs are inconsistent and conflict with past storylines. Silver Age publishers built off of characters introduced in the Golden Age of Comics. Continuity mistakes were inevitable.

Writers quickly discovered the easiest way to fix continuity mistakes was through “resets” – and the Silver Age of Comics produced a plethora of resets, often defining entirely new ages in the history of the character.

DC Comics on a roll

In the early years of the Silver Age, writers for DC began explaining the reimagining of older comic book characters as occurring in entirely different universes. Earth-Two was rationalized to be a parallel earth that the Golden Age characters operated within while Earth-One was the home of all comic book characters from the 1960’s onward. A vibrational field kept the two earths separated. Only Flash could cross over to parallel universes to tie stories together.

Green Lantern is refashioned and reintroduced in the Silver Age of Comics

 Showcase #22 - October 1959
Showcase #22 – October 1959

Green Lantern was revamped and reintroduced in Showcase #22 in October 1959. Artist Gil Kane fashioned the new Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) after actor Paul Newman, a neighbor of Gil’s. Hal has the same powers as the prior Green Lantern (Alan Scott) but wore a new costume – and had a new origin story.

Hal Jordan received his ring from a dying alien, Abin Sur, whose spaceship crashed on Earth. Knowing Sur was about to die, the ring sought a human who was “utterly honest and without fear”. Jordan was chosen and recruited into the Green Lantern Corps, an interstellar law enforcement agency.

In a later era, Jordan would be killed and return to life as Spectre.

Aquaman is reworked, improved, and expanded on

Aquaman was one of the few superheroes who continued his run through the 1950’s Still, during the Silver Age of Comics, he was reworked, improved, and expanded upon by DC writers. Supporting characters (such as his sidekick octopus) were eliminated and attributed to the Aquaman of Earth One. It was revealed that Aquaman was Arthur Curry, son of Atlanna, an outcast from the Lost City of Atlantis. Aquaman’s telepathic communication was evolved and a new vulnerability was introduced – Aquaman had to occasionally come into contact with water or he would die.

Hawkman

Hawkman had last appeared in DC’s All Star Comics #57 in 1951. When The Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman proved to be hits, Hawkman was revived and re-introduced in The Brave and the Bold #34 in February 1961. Fans loved him and shortly after, he became a member of the newly reworked superhero team – the Justice League of America.

Justice League of America debuts

The Brave and the Bold #28 - March 1960
The Brave and the Bold #28 – March 1960

With the popularity of comics on the rise. DC writer Gardner Fox was asked to re-introduce the superhero team, Justice Society of America. The team was revised and rechristened Justice League of America, substituting “league” for “society” to take advantage of America’s newfound love for baseball leagues. The new JLA was revealed in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960).

The original Silver Age JLA consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. The cast was occasionally rotated to freshen up storylines. By November 1960, the team was given its own series in a comic book titled Justice League of America. Gardner Fox wrote the popular series for nearly a decade.

The birth of Marvel comics ignites competition in the Silver Age of Comics

Atlas Comics Spy Thrillers #2 - January 1955
Atlas Comics Spy Thrillers #2 – January 1955

While DC was kicking off the Silver Age of Comics, Atlas Comics was struggling to survive. Atlas Comics had ceased publication of almost all comic books including Captain America which was killed in issue #75 in 1950. Marvel Mystery Comics, which starred the Human Torch, had ended its storied run the year before. By the time DC was rolling out The Flash, Atlas Comics had already begun laying off staff.

Atlas Comics noticed DC was experiencing success with Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow. A 20-something year-old Stan Lee began introducing comic book characters that appealed to more sophisticated readers. The characters were more realistic. Like regular people, they had flaws and fears, worried about their girlfriends, and bickered with each other. More complex writing was employed using a more professional “show, don’t tell” writing style. Old characters were reworked producing versions of the characters that we still read about today. The new format was so ingenious, some refer to this period of time as the Marvel Age of Comics. As a result, Atlas Comics sales reversed and began to climb.

The Fantastic Four #5 - Atlas Comics with MC logo
The Fantastic Four #5 – Atlas Comics with MC logo

Meanwhile, Atlas Comics was slowly becoming known as Marvel. The precise point that Atlas Comics renamed itself Marvel Comics is not entirely clear. The move was subtle, and gradual. Around 1959, the letters “MC” appeared in a small box on the science fiction anthology Journey into Mystery, then later appeared on teen humor magazine, Patsy Walker. By 1961, a circular logo labelled “Marvel Comics” appeared on a few of their comics.

Seeing DC’s success with the Justice League of America, publisher Martin Goodman assigned a young Stan Lee to come up with a superhero team of their own. Together with Jack Kirby, they created a superhero team they called The Fantastic Four.

Marvel introduces a superhero team targeted to older readers.

The Fantastic Four appeared in 1961. Their story was different with a more natural characters who had fears and problems just like everyone else. This new style became popular with college-aged kids further expanding the comic book market to an older age group.

The Fantastic Four’s immediate popularity led Lee to produce a cavalcade of new titles. Again working with Kirby, Lee co-created the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men; with Bill Everett, Daredevil; and with Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange and Marvel’s most successful character, Spider-Man. The characters Stan Lee created during the Silver Age of Comics would soon become household names.

Marvel introduces a disfigured superhero with problems.

The Incredible Hulk #1 - May 1962
The Incredible Hulk #1 – May 1962

One character from The Fantastic Four was a surprise hit – Thing. During this era, a fear of nuclear war pervaded the country. Disfigurement and cancerous mutations from a Russian nuclear attack were forefront in the minds of readers. So Stan Lee leveraged the popularity of Thing to create a new character that borrowed heavily from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The new character was created during an experimental detonation of a gamma bomb. He was gigantic, strong, and chock full of personal problems. Lee named him The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk made his appearance in The Incredible Hulk #1 in May 1962.

Lee originally envisioned the Hulk as gray but colorists had problems with the coloring so the skin was changed to green – after the first issues were already published and distributed to newsstands. Today, in some flashbacks, the Hulk’s skin is rendered as gray to maintain accuracy with those earliest versions of the creature.

Lee gave The Hulk an alternate identity – Bruce Banner. When in later stories he mistakenly referred to him as Bob Banner, fans quickly pointed out the mistake. Lee corrected the mistake by making Hulk’s official full name Robert Bruce Banner.

Marvel introduces a character to top them all.

Only three months after The Hulk hit newsstands, Thor debuted in Journey into Mystery #83 in August 1962. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it was Lee’s attempt to create the universe’s alpha superhero. He concluded that the only way to make a comic book character stronger than everyone else was to make him a god.

The task to write Thor was passed off to Lee’s brother, Larry Lee, who fleshed out the remaining details. Larry introduced Loki, Odin, Balder, and their home Asgard. One year later, Thor was added to the superhero team The Avengers.

Stan Lee does it again. Another Silver Age of Comics comic book legend is born.

Tales of Suspense #39 - March 1963 (Introduction of Iron Man)
Tales of Suspense #39 – March 1963

In what has to be the most spectacular creativity roll in comic book history, Lee created another legend less than a year after The Hulk appeared and only months after Thor hit newsstands. Lee had been toying with the idea of a rich businessman who maintained a superhero alternate identity. Working with writer Larry Lieber, artist Don Heck, and character designer Jack Kirby, they set out to create the “quintessential capitalist”.

It was 1963, during the height of the Cold War. America’s youth despised war so Lee made his new superhero the antithesis of their view of the world – a businessman who became rich as a high-tech weapons manufacturer. He modelled Tony Stark after the playboy millionaire Howard Hughes.

Iron Man made his first appearance in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963. Like Hulk’s original skin, his armor was a bland gray. One issue later, it was recolored gold. A few issues later, Steve Ditko changed the armor color once again to a sleeker looking gold and red.

Iron Man was an instant hit with readers. He was added to The Avengers #1 (September 1963) as a key member of Marvel’s superhero team. In short order, he would become one the most popular superheroes of all time.

A superhero based on a bug? How could you!

Amazing Fantasy #15 - August 1962 (Introduction of Spider-Man)
Amazing Fantasy #15 – August 1962

Stan Lee noticed an increase in early teen readers and sought to create a superhero they could related to. The character would be a teenager with typical teenage problems but with the ability to “go superhero” at will when the situation demanded. He named the superhero with a “man” ending so the character had room to grow. Plus he didn’t want this hero to seem inferior to other superheroes. A hyphen was added to distinguish the name from DC’s Superman. They named him Spider-Man.

Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was aghast. A character based on a creature that was universally despised by everyone? Goodman felt the idea was a direct path to failure, but he relented on one condition – the character could appear in a single issue of Amazing Fantasy #15. Goodman knew #15 was slated to be the magazine’s last issue.

Steve Ditko drew the character with a mask, unusual at the time, and web shooters attached to the wrists. The character would be a teenage boy who got his powers from a ring. Lee rejected the storyline. “Make him a teenager that gets bitten by a spider and develops superpowers.”

The following month, Goodman was reviewing sales figures and was stunned to find the Spider-Man issue of the now defunct Amazing Fantasy, had been its top seller. A new series was quickly developed and The Amazing Spider-Man #1 appeared in newsstands in March 1963. It would become Marvel’s top-selling series.

Marvel needs a new superhero team – on the double.

X-Men #1 - September 1964 (Introduction of X-Men)
X-Men #1 – September 1964

Marvel was slow out of the gate but by 1963, like DC Comics, sales were roaring. Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four were huge successes for the publisher. Lee sought to expand via a new superhero team but did not have time to devise back stories explaining how the new characters obtained their superpowers. So, he made them born that way. The new series would be called The Mutants.

Marvel publisher martin Goodman rejected the title believing young readers would not know what a mutant was. The comic was renamed after the character who mentored the mutants – Professor X. Ironically, the success of X-Men would make “mutant” a household name.

The X-Men #1 appeared in newsstands in September 1963. The first X-Men included Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Iceman. The primary villain was Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants featuring Mastermind, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Toad.

X-Men’s initial sales were meager and Lee was not satisfied. After only a year, he decided to create another superhero team, one he was certain would match the popularity of DC Comics’ Justice League of America.

Marvel brings a character back from the grave to form their third superhero team.

Stan Lee knew DC Comics’ Justice League of America was selling well – and it ate him up. X-Men failed to match the popularity of the Fantastic Four, so he created another group that was more like DC’s JLA team. Like the Justice League, the team would be comprised of superheroes who already had their own series. No new characters were needed, no new backstories, just a new title that let existing characters team up to fight villains. In a surprise twist, he brought back a long-retired character. The new team included Captain America, who was found frozen in a block of ice in the North Atlantic.

The Avengers #1 debuted in September 1963.

The new Comics Code impacts publishers – and opens a door for Harvey Comics.

The Comics Code, introduced in 1954, implemented tight regulations on the comic book industry. Extreme violence, vulgar language, and other adult topics were restricted. As a result, Harvey comics was forced to discontinue its horror line of comics. But Harvey foresaw the Comics Code regulations and acted about a year before the new rules were implemented. They shifted their publications to target young children. Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and Little Lotta were introduced and became wildly popular with young readers.

Harvey Comics purchases rights for a scary character kids will love.

Frame from Paramount's The Friendly Ghost - 1945
Frame from Paramount’s The Friendly Ghost – 1945

Casper was created in 1939 by writer Seymour Reit and artist Joe Oriolo as the basis for a children’s storybook they wished to sell. There was little interest from publishers. When Reit was called into service for World War II, he sold the rights to Paramount Pictures for a one-time payment of $175. This would be all the money Reit would receive for his creation.

Harvey Comics Hits #61 - October 1952 (Introduction of Casper the Friendly Ghost)
Harvey Comics Hits #61 – October 1952

In 1945, Paramount released The Friendly Ghost as a cartoon adaptation of Reit’s concept. Several more releases followed. The storyline was repeated for each subsequent release – Unlike the other ghosts, Casper does not want to scare people. He tries to make friends, but they all run from him in fear anyway. He rescues someone, then is accepted by the group as a “good guy”. And the plotline worked – the cartoons were very popular after the war.

Recognizing comic books were about to be regulated, Alfred Harvey purchased rights and began publishing Casper stories in Harvey Comics. He first appeared in Harvey Comics Hits #61 in October 1952. Shortly after, he received his own solo series, Casper the Friendly Ghost.

In 1959, Harvey purchased all the rights to the character. Ultimately, Harvey created nearly 40 books based on Casper.

Harvey introduces a chubby kids as a superhero of their own

Harvey recognized the success of DC and Marvel were centered around characters with superhuman strength. Shortly after Casper hit the newsstands, Harvey released a superhero character of their own – Little Lotta, an overweight girl who gain superhuman strength after eating a lot of food. From the outset, Lotta’s huge appetite was a running gag in every story.

Lotta Plump first appeared as a back-page feature in Little Dot #1 in 1953. She was cast as an underdog who overcame the stigma of being overweight and with a positive attitude, always stopped to cheerfully help others. By 1955, her popularity prompted the creation of the Little Lotta comic book series. Little Lotta ran successfully for several years.

Harvey introduces a little rich kid to little fanfare

Richie Rich debuted in Little Dot #1 (September 1953), the same issue Lotta Plump made her inaugural debut. However, Richie was slow to catch on with readers. It took Richie nearly seven years before he was given his own title. He soon became Harvey’s most popular comic book character with a run lasting from 1960 through 1994. During that time he made additional appearances in over 50 separate titles. In a later era, he would even appear in movies.

Comics take a misguided turn to counter-culture themes

Archive as Captain Pureheart #6 - November 1967
Archive as Captain Pureheart #6 – November 1967

The popularity of the Batman TV show in 1966 steered comic books towards campy forms of characters. Harvey Comics, Gold Key, and American Comics Group gave their characters ridiculous superpowers. Even the iconic Archie comic book characters acquired powers in runs such as Archie as Captain Pureheart and Jughead as Captain Hero. Archie Comics went a step further and introduced new adventures lines such as Fly, the Jaguar, Shield, The Mighty Crusaders, Comet, and Flygirl. The change was misguided. By the end of the 1960’s, comic book popularity was once again on the decline.

The end of the Silver Age of Comics

There is no clear-cut cutover from Silver to the Bronze Age of Comics since the Bronze Age retained many of the conventions introduced in the Silver Age. Some say the Bronze Age began when in April 1970 when DC Comics switched Green Lantern writers after sales began to decline. Others say the Bronze Age, with its darker, brooding themes, began in June 1973 when Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker’s girlfriend, was killed off in The Night Gwen Stacy Died.

Spider-Man The Night Gwen Stacy Died - May 1973
Spider-Man The Night Gwen Stacy Died – May 1973

More likely, the Bronze Age began when the Comics Code was relaxed to allow the use of supernatural creatures in comic books. Whatever the reason, the innocence of the Silver Age of Comics ended, and the darker, more foreboding Bronze Age of Comics began.

The Silver Age of Comics Pictorial Gallery