Comic books are a staple of modern society and pop culture thanks to massive blockbuster films and merchandise that fill the shelves. The medium has come a long way over the years, with the first American comic being “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck” in the mid-19th century. However, comics would be incredibly niche in the subsequent century, and it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that they became more mainstream.
These days, comic books are a multi-billion dollar industry, with almost everyone knowing at least a handful of comic series. How did comic books swell in popularity so much, and what kind of impact have they had on pop culture and society as a whole? Let’s take a look at the history, present, and future of the comic book industry.
We already touched on “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck”, and there were many comics that came in the decades that followed. However, most of these comics were short panels and were part of newspapers. It wasn’t until 1938 that comics started selling as their own books with the introduction of Superman. This ushered in the Golden Age of comic books, introducing characters like Batman, Flash, and Hawkman in the following two years.
The rise in comic book popularity coincided with the start of World War II. It wasn’t by accident, either. In a time when the world was in turmoil, many youngsters who had watched their fathers go overseas needed an escape. Comic books proved to be that escape, and the stories of good over evil and a massive array of patriotism from heroes like Superman and Captain America were perfect for their time.
The Relatable Characters
The early superheroes were ones that we could look up to when we were kids with the likes of Superman and Batman. However, these characters were ones that we couldn’t really relate to. None of us are from other planets and have godly superpowers of billions of dollars that would allow us to access tools, gadgets, and super suits that would give us similar powers.
That all changed in the 1960s with the introduction of several superheroes that more people saw themselves in. 1962, specifically, saw the introduction of Spider-Man, perhaps the most relatable character in the Marvel universe. Spider-Man may have had incredible powers, but he was still just an anonymous kid from Queens that had struggles with relationships, money, and the loss of his father figure (Uncle Ben).
More relatable characters would be introduced in the following years, as comic books started to get a bit more grounded in realistic characters rather than characters who could do no wrong and didn’t have many thoughts in their heads. This helped bring more people into comic books, with characters like Spider-Man, Black Panther, Rocket Raccoon, and more, who fans connected with on a personal level.
Shaping the Film Industry
By the time 2008 came around, there had already been a slew of superhero films making their way to the big screen. In 1978, “Superman” set the new standard for superhero films, with Christopher Reeve starring as the titular character. Superhero movies hadn’t been big blockbusters, but the Superman series would really be the only one of its kind until the late 1980s when the Batman series began.
DC sort of held a monopoly on superhero films as any entry for Marvel had been a flop by the time 1998 came along. While many credit the Spider-Man franchise as being the one that truly kicked things off for Marvel hero films, it was 1998’s “Blade” and 2000’s “X-Men” that finally got things started. Still, these, along with the Spider-Man films, would prove to be standalone movies in the grand scheme of things.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe would debut in 2008 with the release of “Iron Man”, starting up a decade-long storyline that would dominate the box office and eventually streaming services. Because of this, storytelling changed forever and many realized that anything with multiple characters would need a long list of sequels and television series as part of an overarching story. Now, almost every studio feels they have to find the next great superhero film or follow the formula of the films.
Statements on Society
Comic books aren’t only about tales of heroes overcoming supervillains through feats of strength, but they also offer a deep dive into the human psyche while touching on major statements in society. Publishers haven’t been afraid to get political with some of our favorite heroes while also commentating on current events.
“X-Men” in particular is one of the most statement-filled series in comic book history. The heroes of the series are mutants and are often contending with the government that thinks that they shouldn’t exist. The series debuted in the late 1960s and was an allegory for racism and segregation at the time.
A lot of it makes sense as the rise in popularity of comic books came at a time of political turmoil during World War II. To this day, there are still themes that deal with important topics in society, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.