Comic books started with Superman. True, comics were serialised in book form, and there were a great deal of fantasy stories, but the comic book as we know it today, featuring superhumans with an intense passion for Lycra, started with Superman in 1938. This ushered in the Golden Age of comics, where Superman spawned several heroes of mythic perfection.
Since then, comics have been a case-study of art imitating life. When America went off to war to face the Nazi menace, so did heroes like Captain America, who fought Hitler in his first issue. Propaganda? Certainly, but what better way to solidify an enemy than to have Batman spitting in his general direction?
With the war over, America needed a new bogeyman. The 1950s created mass paranoia in the US, and not even comics were safe from the post-war witch hunt. Senator McCarthy and his ilk quickly accused comics of causing corruption and violence among America's youth, just as they accused Rock 'n' Roll, movies, and everything else in the whole of creation. The industry was forced to commit to an extremely strict Comics Code Authority (CCA) label, to safely water down or remove all traces of joy or merriment1.
The 1960s ushered in a new era for comics, just as it did for civil rights, art, music, and fashionably wanton sex. Marvel Comics gave birth to a new breed of heroes, and a hard birth it was. Silver Age heroes, like the dweeby Spider-man and the blind Daredevil, were noted for their flaws that made them more realistic, more human. Unlike Golden Age heroes like the 1938 Superman, this new group doubted itself and feared the consequences of its actions. In fact, the X-men were demonised as mutant freaks for their abilities, forced to hide them not for anonymity, but for survival. Which was all very strange, since these very mutants were the one thing standing between the human race and annihilation, proving so on a monthly basis. A comics underground began to flourish in the sixties, as well. Safely beneath the radar of the CCA, the underground could explore more adult topics, like civil rights, art, music, and fashionably wanton sex.
Comics in the 1970s were basically runoff from the '60s, as was everything else in the seventies. For more interesting tidbits, reread the sixties paragraph.
The 1980s proved that comics' ultimate goal was money making, and several comic-based franchises blossomed at this time. Comic characters jumped from the page to the toy store shelf and video arcades. Comic books themselves, once shoddily printed on tissue-thin pulp, were actually given a budget, and proper paper stock. Superhero teams, like the Justice League and X-Men, were featured more prominently than in the past, mostly because superhero teams were highly marketable. (One can only buy so many Incredible Hulk spoon caddies, but imagine a superhero team of seven to collect! Though, common practice today is to create 300 variations on the same character, such as Batman or Spider-man, and shamelessly hope the consumer will swallow the bait.) Superman had finished a run of highly successful movies, and Batman had begun his own.
Comics in the 1990s were basically backlash from the '80s, as was everything else in the nineties. Superman died, Batman had his back broken, and Marvel comics began a series of earth shattering events, each of which ended as soon as they became unprofitable. A group of disgruntled writers and artists from Marvel and DC started a company called Image, with a flagship character called Spawn. Spawn is a demon created by Malebolgia, the powerful lord of the damned. Although nobody had ever heard of Malebolgia in the Bible, the Koran, or any other religious text, the comic's creator assures that he was, indeed, quite powerful. Since the creator is Canadian, nobody has any reason to assume he was lying.
The advent of Image Comics also heralded in a new level of technology for comics, as magazine level glossy paper was used, and numerous CGI art effects attempted to throw the reader into the story like never before. Any cover that was not Chromium or holographic was a limited edition collectable variant of a Chromium or holographic cover. However, this quality came at a price, and some readers were turned off by skyrocketing costs. Comic companies may have shot themselves in the foot, in retrospect.
How to Spot a Comic Book Fan
Oh, yes, they're out there, living among us. Generally speaking, comic book fans:
Are male (though females have been recently begun to show the signs)
In their late teens or older
Have an intense hatred of the Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks and/or George Lucas
There are two basic types of comic book fans: the Closet Reader and the Fanboy.
The Closet Reader would like you to think he is not comic reader, afraid to lose something in the way of an image or, more precisely, sex. Closet Readers will often profess that they 'haven't bought a comic book in ages', yet have kept every one they've ever read - in shoe boxes, beneath their bed, or in a corner of the closet. Look and see, we'll wait here.
The Fanboy is the anti-thesis of the Closet Reader. Thoroughly comfortable with his geeky persuasion, the Fanboy will proudly wear his favourite superhero's T-shirt in public. Fanboys will not only be familiar with classic American comics, but underground and international imports, such as the Japanese Manga style. They are easiest to spot in comic book conventions, dressed in heavy make-up after their heroes. An interesting sidebar about fanboys - they are extremely critical, pointing out the flaws of comics, government, other fanboys, or the tiny prizes in cereal boxes, depending on their mood. But when they favour something, it is worshipped wholeheartedly.
Another easy way to tell a Closet Reader or Fanboy is at your local comic shop. The Closet Reader will pretend to good-naturedly glance through the shelves, as if he were looking for this month's Car and Driver, but can't seem to find it. The Fanboy, however, will be having an in-depth chat with the owner over which mainstream DC characters are worthy of possessing the Mighty Mjolnir2.
If you find out you have a significant other who is a comic book fan, by no means try to coax him/her out of it. A Closet Reader will suffer withdrawal symptoms - typically bizarre hand motions, as if spider-webbing or claws would spring forth with practice - and a Fanboy may directly assault you where you stand. The best choice is to leave things as they are, and hope you are never asked to wear anything peculiar on their birthday.