A Brief History of Comics

Comics historians have split the history of comics into several different ages. The first, the Victorian Age, spans almost the entirety of early American history. The earliest-known American cartoon, published in 1646, belongs in this category, as do the illustrative works of Benjamin Franklin. Victorian Age material is characterized by illustrations without word balloons and, typically, without sequential storytelling.

In the late 19th century, what we think of as the modern comic strip was born with the publication of Richard Outcault's The Yellow Kid (1895), and the Platinum Age began. In the Platinum Age, word balloons and sequential stories become the norm, as do continuing characters. This period is marked by a plethora of comic strip reprint albums, which developed into what we've come to know as the modern comic book.

In 1938, another major step forward occurred, with the publication of Action Comics #1, which not only featured the first collection of all-new material in a comic book, but also boasted the first appearance of Superman. The Golden Age was a magical time for comic books, as superheroes from many different companies fought the Axis during World War II, but, like all good things, it came to an end about 1949, as most of the superhero titles fell victim to changing public tastes and cancellation.

Out of the ashes of the Golden Age, the Atomic Age was born. Less interested in men in tights, now readers eagerly devoured crime and horror comics, particularly the gory favorites published by EC Comics. Indeed, these comics were so over the top that they gained the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver, who examined the so-called link between comics and juvenile delinquency in the famous Senate Hearings of 1954. Unfortunately, public outcry forced the cancellation of the great crime and horror books and, by 1955, the Atom Age had come to an end.

Looking for the “next big thing”, DC Comics Editor-in-Chief Julius Schwartz decided to revive and update the superheroes that had proven so popular a decade earlier, and, with artist Carmine Infantino and writer Gardner Fox, recreated The Flash in the pages of Showcase #4 (1956). A landmark event in the history of comics, this issue paved the way for the re-emergence of the superhero, and thus is considered the beginning of the Silver Age. Ironically, even though DC ushered in the Silver Age, it was rival Marvel Comics that would claim ownership of the period, with the creation of such pop cultural favorites as Spider-Man, The Hulk, The X-Men, Daredevil, The Fantastic Four, and many more. It also marked the rise to prominence of team-supreme Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, considered by many to be the “Lennon and McCartney” of comics. When Kirby left Marvel in 1970 to go to DC, he took the Silver Age with him.

Many consider that Kirby's transition to DC marked the beginning of the Bronze Age of comics, a period marked by the sudden influx of a new generation of creators, with new and innovative ideas. Young guns like Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog would take the comic art form that they had grown up with and totally transform it, seemingly overnight. The social upheaval that the country was experiencing was mirrored in the comics these young creators were producing. It was an exciting time, when both successes and failures could be equally spectacular.

In 1980, the way comics were distributed changed forever. Before 1980, the concept of a store dedicated to selling comic books was unheard of. Now, with the confidence of a robust economy, comic specialty stores began springing up all over. Now the publishers were free to distribute their books directly to these stores, bypassing the newsstand distributors upon whom they had been dependent for so many years. It was with the advent of “Direct Distribution” that the Modern Age of comics began.

We're still in what many consider the Modern Age. Whether another Age will enter the picture remains to be seen. In terms of value, books from the Modern Age are worth little if anything, today, as books from 1980 and later were printed and collected in large quantities. In economic terms, the Supply is much, much greater than the Demand for these books with few exceptions. Bronze Age books tend to fare a little better, value-wise, especially those in exceptionally good condition. Some books from this period, including Giant-Sized X-Men #1, X-Men #94 and Incredible Hulk #181, are extremely collectible and can bring thousands of dollars each at auction in high grade.

Books from the Silver Age and before are prized by collectors, especially in top condition, as books from those periods were not considered collectible at the time of their publication. They were regularly folded, spindled, and otherwise mutilated, making it that much harder to find high-grade copies today. Consider that many were also destroyed, thrown away, given to paper drives, or otherwise discarded, and it's easy to see why comics from this vintage are so rare.

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