Ask Chris #282: Getting Into The Golden Age
Q: Aside from laying groundwork, most Golden Age stuff I've read is not very good. Are there any must-reads from the era? -- @TheKize
A: Listen, if you're having trouble getting into Golden Age books, I do not blame you. I've read my fair share of them over the years, and while I definitely think it's worth tracking down some of those early superhero comics if you're looking to broaden your horizons a little bit, I'll be the first to tell you that they can be hard to get into for a variety of reasons --- and as you said, chief among them is the fact that a lot of those old comics are just not very good.
Of course, you could say that about pretty much any era of comics and you wouldn't be far off from the truth. More than that, though, I think there's a big barrier that keeps the average reader from getting into those comics, and it has a lot to do with when, how, and why those comics were being made.
When you're looking back on the past as a Modern Age reader, even stuff like Silver Age comics, with their endless exclamation points and breathless "I must, Robin! I must wear a different-colored Batman costume every night!" dialogue, is easy to fall into, because it's still speaking the same language that we can all recognize as comics. When you go back far enough into the Golden Age, though, you get to a point where the people making those books aren't even really sure what that language is.
I've said it before, but for me, the key appeal of diving into Golden Age books is probably also its greatest detriment, in that they're being produced by people who aren't quite sure what they're doing. The success of Superman in Action Comics #1 was massive, and as is always the case with that kind of massive pop cultural success, it opened up the floodgates for a wave of imitators, writers and artists rushing to fill up newsstands with their own superheroes to take advantage of this new craze that was racking up stacks of dimes all over the country.
It might sound bad to refer to them as "imitators," but in all honesty, that's exactly what they were, and the desire to ride Superman's popularity to success gave us some of the best characters in comics history. Captain Marvel, for instance --- you know, the dude who says "SHAZAM" --- was particularly shameless when it came to ripping off the Man of Steel, and those original Batman stories were just straight up Bill Finger and Bob Kane doing their best imitation of the Shadow in this new medium. Seriously, go back and read those stories sometime, it's like the 1939 equivalent of creating a teen wizard named Perry Hotter who had actually survived two death curses and was also in a love triangle with a vampire and a unicorn.
I think I might be getting off track here.
Anyway, the thing is, you had all these creators rushing in and trying to strike while the iron was hot, and the end result is that it all becomes this amazing mess of creators trying to figure out what they're doing as they're doing it. Superheroes were a brand-new idea, and comics --- at least, comics in this form, full of new material that took up multiple pages with a single story --- were a pretty new medium. Looking back on those comics, no one really knew what they should (or could) be, so you see them sort of flailing around for the better part of a decade to form this language.
To be fair, they didn't build it from scratch. Most of those creators took the pretty sensible tactic of looking at the closest equivalent to what they were trying to do: Newspaper comic strips. Even Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seem to be doing that in their early Superman stories --- check out this page from 1942's Action Comics #50:
It's not just a page that's laid out with a nine-panel grid, it's three distinct three-panel strips stacked on top of each other --- there's a big action beat in every third panel and a new location on the next line, regular as clockwork. I suspect that it might've been done with the ulterior motive of creating a story that could be used twice, once in Action and then again chopped up to run in newspapers, but the fact that it's being presented here, in this format, says a lot about where the early creators were taking their cues.
And it make sense that they would be, too. If you go back and read comic strips from the '30s --- and I'll admit that I probably haven't done that as much as I should --- they are shockingly sophisticated compared to superhero comics that would come out even ten years later. The storytelling that's going on in Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse, for instance, puts pretty much any Golden Age adventure story to shame, and he took over that strip in 1930, eight years before Superman made his debut.
The simple reason for that, of course, is that newspapers were where the money was. It was an established medium, and it carried a level of prestige that would outstrip comic books for, you know, most of the 20th century. It's one of the reasons that Will Eisner's The Spirit stands out as being one of the crown jewels of the '40s. It ran in newspapers, and followed from that tradition far more than it followed from superheroes.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of problematic material in there across the board. Even if you can get past the stylistic difficulties, Golden Age comics pretty frequently relied on racism, to an overwhelming degree. It's not quite as thorough as you might think, but it's there, and it's hard to avoid. (A friend of mine has spent the last few years doing a whole lot of research on the subject for an upcoming book, and one of his more interesting discoveries was that there were a whole lot of characters of color who weren't portrayed as caricatures, yet the caricatures are often excused by claiming "well everything was like that.") Even Gottfredson's work is marred by it more than a few times, and if you don't feel like dealing with that when you're looking for entertainment, no one's going to blame you for skipping out on the Golden Age and consigning it to the status of a historical artifact.
That said, despite the fact that he gets the lion's share of the press, Eisner wasn't the only creator from that era whose work reads like it's years ahead of its time, and he's not the only one who was putting out some truly fantastic work back then, either. There's Joe Simon and Jack Kirby of course, and while you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue that Kirby wasn't doing his best work in the '60s and '70s, their collaborations in the Golden Age had that magical combination of raw talent and completely bananas ideas that make them well worth reading.
Otto Binder and CC Beck's work on Captain Marvel Adventures, too, largely holds up as some of the best comics of the era, and serve as the blueprint for what would become the dominant superhero style in the Silver Age. They have the same kind of weird energy that Binder would later bring to Superman, but with a kind of unrestrained imagination that Superman --- an elder statesman of the genre even by the '50s --- never really got to. And by that, I mean that at one point, Dr. Sivana tries to blow Captain Marvel up with a billion tons of dynamite.
Those are the obvious ones, though. Of course Jack Kirby and the greatest Superman writer of all time are going to be doing interesting stuff in the '40s. But far more underrated - -- and every bit as worth reading --- is Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man.
You can tell that Plastic Man stories are something different even by the covers, but the interiors live up to even that amazing standard. Cole is one of the first superhero creators to play with the page in the kind of innovative ways that we take for granted today --- when he recaps Plastic Man's origin, Eel O'Brien stretches his hands so far that they pop out of the panel, and in later stories, Plas occasionally wallops someone so hard that it knocks the panel loose from the grid, sending items flying into the gutters at the edge of the page.
And those splash pages!
And then there's Fletcher Hanks.
As a person, Hanks was troubled at best and genuinely terrible at worst, something that editor Paul Karasik, who collected his work in the two volumes with the greatest titles in comics history --- I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets and You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation --- doesn't shy away from. As a creator, though, he is endlessly fascinating. If you can separate the art from the artist, his comics are astonishing --- there are no rules to them at all, they're full of strange displays of power that don't follow any sort of logic, and usually involve something like this:
That's not the weirdest thing I've ever seen in a Fletcher Hanks story. Heck, that's not even atypical.
While I tend to enjoy even the stuff that's not what you'd call "good" on its own strange merits, there are a lot of comics from the Golden Age that are definitely worth your time. And lucky for you, if you're willing to dive in, that's easier now than ever. A ton of those Golden Age books have fallen into the public domain over the years, and the Digital Comic Museum has a comprehensive archive that includes stuff like Cole's Plastic Man, a good chunk of Captain Marvel Adventures, and both bizarre eras of Dick Briefer's Frankenstein, which you should absolutely read. If nothing else, you'll be able to see how good Batman and Superman actually were by comparison.