Q: What’s the interest in publishing comics with characters not seen in 60-70 years these days?
A: As you know, you can’t make your own comic books featuring Superman or Spider-Man and sell them, because those characters are the property of DC Comics and Marvel Comics respectively. But there were many comic book companies that published comics in the 1940s and 1950s –Better, Centaur, Fawcett, Fox, Hillman, Lev Gleason, and Quality are just some of the better-known ones – that went out of business. For the most part, no one ever bought the properties of those companies so, over time, they became public domain characters. Anyone can take a public domain character, like Amazing-Man or Black Terror, and write and sell new stories for those characters. The only catch is that you have to base your character off the original stories – you can’t borrow from anything another publisher using Black Terror is doing nowadays. The benefit of using a public domain character is that you aren’t trying to introduce a brand new character into a crowded marketplace. These characters have history to them – often just a few issues’ worth published decades ago -- but at least some history. There aren’t any public domain characters featured in our Free Comic Book Day giveaways, unfortunately, but the big company cashing in on public domain characters right now is Dynamite Comics, but DC, Marvel, and Image have been using more public domain characters too.
Q: Why do you only hear about superheroes when it comes to American comic books?
A: Because the superhero genre is a creation unique to comic books. There were some precedents for it – some clues that this was coming, but no one noticed them at the time until Superman seemed to come out of nowhere back in 1938. Before that, most comic book stories were adventure stories with ordinary detectives, explorers, or pilots, or they were funny animal stories.
Interest in superhero comic books dried up after WWII and then the only comic books that were selling well, except for Superman and Batman, were cowboys and funny animal comics. Now, cowboy comics, or westerns, disappeared back in the 1970s, but funny animal comics have never gone away. Disney comics have been around almost since the very beginning and are still published today – though not always by the same company.
After superheroes, the comic book industry tried other genres and some – gangster, horror, supernatural, comedy, romance – did sell very well for a time, but none of them have had the staying power of superheroes. Remember, Superman has never had poor sales in his 72 years of existence. And, ever since the genre as a whole made its comeback in the late 1950s/early 1960s, superhero comics have stayed the best-selling comic books.
The benchmark for a best-selling comic book always used to be 1 million copies sold in a month. Back in the 1940’s, lots of comic books sold over a million copies a month. Most comic books don’t get even close to that anymore. The last comic book to pass that amount was an X-Men comic book and that was almost 20 years ago – but it was a superhero comic book that last passed that amount and the industry is betting that it’ll be a superhero comic book that passes that mark next time, if it ever even happens again.
Q: What is the significance of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman?
A: DC Comics sometimes refers to them as their “trinity”. These are the only three superhero comic book characters ever that have always been in continuous publication from the very earliest years of the history of comic books. Think about how many comic books that is. These characters have been published in thousands of comic books, since 1938, 1939, and 1941 respectively. Now, in Superman’s case, that’s because he’s always been a popular character. Believe it or not, there was a time in the mid-1960s when Batman was not a popular character. His titles were almost canceled. Then the live action TV show with Adam West came out and gave the Batman comic books the shot in the arm for sales that they needed. Wonder Woman is a much more unusual case. Wonder Woman has never been as popular as other superheroes, but DC Comics started publishing Wonder Woman under a special contract with the man who created the character. If DC ever stopped publishing Wonder Woman comics, ownership of the character would revert back to the creator or his family. So, in order to keep the character for its licensing value, DC has never stopped publishing Wonder Woman.
Now, that feat is remarkable for superheroes, but there is one other character that has stayed in print just as long without stopping – Archie Andrews, who first appeared as a teenager in a humor comic book back in 1941 and has stayed a teenager ever since.
Q: What is the meaning of “The Golden Age of Comics” and the “Silver Age of Comics”?
A: The 1940s is known as the Golden Age of Comic Books because comic books have never sold better than they did in the 1940s. But it wasn’t known as the Golden Age of Comics at the time. When the kids who grew up in the 1940s came of age in the late 1950s, the nerdiest guys who still loved their comic books from the 1940s would write to comic book editors saying that they needed more comic books like they had back in the “golden age” of comic books. You remember what I said about the golden age being whenever you’re 12 – well, that was the golden age for them. Only, when they said it back then, the name stuck and we’ve been calling it the “Golden Age” ever since. And they were successful too – comic book editors brought out new versions of old favorite characters – the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and so on – and those characters ushered in what was then called the Silver Age of Comics.
The Silver Age of Comics was a new boom, or surge, in comic book popularity that lasted until the end of the 1960s. During the Golden Age and the Silver Age, most of the comic book characters still around today were introduced.
Now, comic book collectors like being able to categorize things and it long bothered people that the Golden Age ended in the late 1940s and the Silver Age began in the late 1950s – what to call the years in between? So they made up the name “the atomic age”, that few people other than old comic book collectors use. Likewise, the decade before the Golden Age became known as the platinum age, and the decade after the Silver Age, the 1970s, that was called the bronze age. Things get a little trickier after that because all these newer names started coming about in the 1980s and, then, they called the 1980s the modern age. But, of course, the 1980s isn’t modern anymore and it seems silly to call the last 30 years the modern age when every other age was only 10 years long. Some people have suggested names for these decades – my favorite was calling the 1990s the zirconium age – but for the most part not enough people have been able to agree on any new names for ages. Nothing has really stuck. Maybe someone in this room will come up with the name that will wind up getting used for the comic books made after 2000.