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The History of Comic Books and their Superheroes Part 1 – How The Pulps and comic strips laid the groundwork for the introduction of modern-day comic books.

The Argosy magazine, April 1906

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.

The Pulps

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)

The Argosy magazine, April 1906

Argosy is generally considered to be the first pulp fiction magazine, the precursor to all modern-day comic books. The publication was started on December 2, 1882 (cover dated December 9, 1882) by Frank Munsey in New York City. Munsey put all of his money into purchasing children’s stories for the venture, then sold out to a new York publisher, then regained control of the publication when the publisher went bankrupt.

Argosy began as a weekly publication, then shifted to a monthly publication about 2 years later. At the same time, Munsey began publishing more adult fiction stories. Each issue ran 8 pages long and cost 5 cents.

Several prominent writers appeared in Argosy which cemented 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.

The all-fiction Argosy launched a new genre of magazines, and is considered the pioneer among pulp magazines. During the period 1906-1907, The Argosy was selling 500,000 copies per issue. When Munsey died on December 22, 1925, he was worth around $40 million dollars.

Pulp fiction consolidates into the Big Four

The popularity of Argosy prompted other publishers to join the fray. Short Stories, Blue Book, and Adventure magazine appeared in the late 1800’s. Along with Argosy, these giants in the industry were commonly known as the “Big Four”.

During the Great Depression, the Big Four provided much needed entertainment for a country that had little to cheer for. And during a time when money was tight, the pulp magazine’s cheap manufacturing process ensured the magazines remained affordable for Americans during their time of need.

Short Stories (1890)

Short Stories began publication in 1890, shortly after Argosy appeared in stores. It initially focused on crime fiction but later turned its attention to western fiction. At its height, it sold nearly 100,000 copies each month.

Blue Book (1905)

Blue Book was 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 published for more than 45 years before closing its doors in January 1952.

Adventure (1910)

Adventure magazine was a pulp fiction magazine published by Ridgeway from November 1910 until 1971, spanning 881 issues. Its first editor was Arthur Sullivant Hoffman who guided the publication with help from a young assistant and soon-to-be novelist, Sinclair Lewis.

Two years after its first issue, Hoffman and Lewis created a feature that was wildly popular with readers. Each reader was assigned an identity card with a unique serial number. If the bearer of the identity card were killed, someone finding the card would notify the magazine who would in turn notify the next of kin of the hapless adventurer. The popularity of the card amongst travelers led to the formation of the Adventurers’ Club organizations across the country.

Pulp fiction popularity grows

During the 1920’s, 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 published by Street & Smith and ran for four decades from 1919 until 1949. Converted from one of the company’s nickel weeklies (New Buffalo Bill Weekly), it was the first of numerous magazines devoted to Western fiction. By 1921, it was selling over 500,000 copies each month.

Black Mask pulp magazine (April 1920)

Black Mask first published in April 1920 by journalist H.L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. The magazine focused on crime stories. It reached its peak in the early 1930’s.

Love Story Magazine (May 1921)

Street & Smith’s Love Story Magazine (not to be confused with Love Story Magazine published by Popular Publications from 1952 to 1954) was a romantic fiction pulp magazine that first published in May 1921 as a quarterly. It’s circulation grew quickly from 100,000 in 1922 to more than 600,000 by 1932.

Weird Tales (March 1923)

Founded by J.C. Henneberger and J.M. Lansinger, Weird Tales appeared on newsstands on February 18, 1923 (issue dated March 1923). Within a year it experienced financial trouble and was sold to Rural Publishing Corporation.

Weird Tales published a wide range of unusual pulp fiction and prospered for more than 30 years before closing its doors in 1954. The magazine is regarded by historians as one of the most influential pulp fiction magazines in history. It was the first magazine to feature fantasy, horror, and science fiction tales.

Amazing Stories pulp magazine (April 1926)

Amazing Stories launched in April 1926 by Experimenter Publishing. It was the first magazine devoted entirely to science fiction stories. It ran until 2018, spanning 92 years, much longer than any of the pulps.

Flying Aces pulp magazine (October 1928)

Flying Aces was a “flying pulp” magazine featuring pilot stories, many set against the background of World War I. It ran from October 1928 until April 1945 when it was revamped as Flying Models, a non-fiction magazine that catered to model airplane hobbyists.

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. It was later renamed Thrilling Wonder Stories. It ran until January 1955.

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 the epidemy of the pulps. It featured lurid pulp fiction crime stories that entertained readers throughout the Great Depression. It was easily the most popular of Popular Publication’s line of pulp magazines. It ran from January 1932 until August 1953, spanning 274 issues.

Spicy Detective pulp magazine (April 1934)

Spicy Detective magazine was 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 it 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

Marvel Tales (1939-1940 Western Fiction) Pulp comic book

Pulp fiction magazines may legitimately claim to be the precursor to comic books but the standard for superheroes was set by newspaper comic strips. Comics using sequence of pictures have existed throughout history, 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.

Popular early comic strips included Hearst’s Little Nemo (1905), Pulitzer’s highly inappropriate 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, is one of the first strips to feature recurring characters in a cartoon “series”. The characters first appeared 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 character. However, it was revived a few months later to accompany the newspaper’s daily weather report. The strip was launched as 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

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”.

Pulitzer's The Yellow Kid character

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. It’s 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.

Hamgravy, Olive Oyl, and Castor Oyl

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 2nd 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.

Cover of The Shadow - Maxwell Grant

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 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?

Mandrake the Magician #1 (King Features, 1966) REPRINT

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 scientist, 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

The Phantom - Lee Falk (1939)

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 the martial arts and an expert scientist.

Doc Savage #1 - March 1933

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

Funny Picture Stories #1 cover - Alias the Clock story (November 1936)

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 comics to appear during the Golden Age of Comics.

The Pulps Pictorial Gallery

Next in this series: The history of comic books and their superheroes – The Golden Age of Comics and the legendary comic book characters that emerged from the era.