The transition between the Golden Age and the Silver Age of Comics is marked by intense scrutiny of the comic world. In the Golden Age, the 1940s was the starting point of comics such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and many more classic comics. The Golden Age was a time where comics thrived as storytelling vehicles for a wide spectrum of audiences, regaling a vast variety of tales, rather than being pigeonholed as simply hero stories for children. Some other comics included non-superhero themes as well such as horror, romance, and crime. The Silver Age of Comics, also known as the “Age of Innocence” was heralded by the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory measure put in place as a response to public outrage at the perceived effects inappropriate comic books were said to have on children. A major contributing factor to the growth in popularity of this theory was the book Seduction of the Innocent by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, which directly blamed comic books for a rise in juvenile delinquency.
The Comics Code Authority regulated the content of comic books, limiting portrayals of violence, removing gore and restricting sexual imagery. The CCA even reviewed the plots of comic books to ensure that themes and lessons were wholesome in nature. Many of the Golden Age comics were affected by the code being implemented.The comics would receive a stamp on the cover indicating it received a review and was up to code. The Golden and Silver comic ages happened in United States history while cultural shifts, such as with race and women, were happening in society. For example, the Silver Age of Comics encapsulated civil rights movements in the United States, which begs the question, did the comics resemble the movements or were they counter-cultural? In order to answer this question we examined different covers of comics during these two time periods.
At left is issue Number 11 of a series called the Young Allies which debuted during World War II. It was produced by Timely Comics, the predecessor to Marvel Comics. One of the main characters is racist caricature of an African-American who is not so subtly named Whitewash Jones. Whitewash is shown here in the lower left corner, tied up and being held captive by Japanese soldiers with some of his companions. Two aspects of this cover immediately leap out at modern viewers. The first is the minstrelesque portrayal of Whitewash. His image fulfills many of the common
African-American stereotypes of the day from his flat nose and large lips to his clothing. The obviously racist overtones were accepted when these comics were published, despite their offensive nature. The second glaring detail in this cover is the portrayal of the Japanese. They are monstrous and savage looking, likely due to their role as the villains in both this book and the War. Anti-Japanese sentiment swelled across the country after Pearl Harbor and no one would object to this racially charged image of Japanese soldiers. The difference between Whitewash and the Japanese is that Whitewash is caricatured for no other reason than to fit his role as the comical uneducated black character. The Japanese portrayal stems from a similar racist idea, but serves the additional role of making it completely unquestionable that the Japanese are the evil enemy.
All Negro Comics was published in 1947 by a team of writers and illustrators composed completely of African-Americans, led by Orrin C. Evans. This cover is astoundingly different from the Young Allies cover. Every character in this image is black and they are not displaying racial stereotypes. The people are drawn in a cartoon style, but they are not overtly caricatured. The two parts of this image that may be concerning for modern viewers are the apparent tribal and simplistic depiction of some of the people. This however was likely not done with racist intentions but rather to pay homage to the producers’ native African heritage and ancestry. The other noticeable detail is the use of the word “Negro” in the title. This often has a negative and racist connotation today, but in 1947 the word had a much different meaning. It was an accepted and normal way that both white and black Americans used to refer to people of African decent.
Perhaps most important is the man in the suit. He is detective Ace Harlem and clearly shown to be the hero of this story. He has an air of respectability and admirability. When his clothes are contrasted against the dilapidated nature of Whitewash’s from the previous image, it is clear that Ace is meant to be a role model for young African-American readers while Whitewash is merely comic relief. The most interesting information about this image relates to its production and circulation. At the end of this issue, Evans and his team promised a second installment, intending for All-Negro Comics to be released monthly. When Evans put in his order for more paper to print his second issue, his paper supplier refused to sell to him, as did all others that he contacted. Evans and the others working on the project believed that the rejection was likely racially motivated by either the paper suppliers or other large publishers who did not want a new competitor, especially a black one. Though this effort to make comic books more inclusive ultimately failed, it was an important first step. All-Negro Comics set the stage for future efforts, even though the industry was not ready for it during its time.
[Text by Jimmy Kaldor]
At right is an example of a comic written and drawn during the Golden Age of Comics. This is the 2nd issue of Mandrake the Magician, wherein Mandrake is seen pictured with his partner, Lothar. Lothar is commonly cited to be the first serious black comic book character who served a greater purpose than simple comic relief. Lothar was an African prince who instead chose to follow Mandrake on his adventures. His dress is indicative of his exoticism particularly when juxtaposed next to Mandrake and his very formal and civilized tuxedo. Interestingly enough, Lothar is not a caricatured representation of black people, which was particularly noteworthy for entertainment during the 1930s and 1940s. In this particular example, the ideas and conclusions one may draw from the cover follow a pattern similar to the leading school of thought at the time. This is indicated by the white character leading the black character out of a cave and thus out of danger. This could be seen as a metaphor for the way many people thought at the time, that white people had led the way for black people to advance themselves. So while not caricaturing black people in an overtly racist manner, the cover may still be suggestive of racist undertones and attitudes that were commonplace in the 1930s.
This edition of Mandrake the Magician was published during the Silver Age of comics, which is clear from the Comics Code Authority stamp featured in the top right of the image. It features Mandrake and Lothar on the cover, and Lothar is seen saving the life of the titular hero. Lothar is clearly shown to be more than simply Mandrake’s follower or his assistant, rather Lothar is much more akin to being Mandrake’s partner. The art on the cover has managed to find a balance of appeal across demographics, as white viewers may be drawn to a white character in the foreground which is indicative of the fact that he is the protagonist. A black viewer, looking for affirmation in their favorite media may have their eye drawn to the black character performing the superhuman and heroic action in the background. The artist has managed to evoke the sense that Lothar is a key element to the success of the pair in their adventures. Based on the look on Mandrake’s face, it is clear he was caught off guard and would have potentially suffered great harm without his teammate. This cover is also clearly marked with the seal of the Comics Code Authority, meaning that the Comics Code Authority approved of the content therein, including this cover depicting a popular hero being saved by his black sidekick.
[Text by Earl Bell]
Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane was a widely distributed comic during the Silver Age, and kept up in popularity with DC’s other titles. Despite Lois being a single career woman, the plot lines and imagery of this comic routinely undermine what would be considered the counter-cultural values of an independent woman. In fact, the portrayals of Superman’s girlfriend in these comics goes a long way to suggest that silver age comics were representing the traditional place of woman as wives and mothers. In this first image, Lois and Superman are depicted in a domestic scene. Lois’ attempts to seduce and marry Superman are central to the comics plot lines and the romantic twists and turns of their relationship the primary draw for the reader.
This cover of issue No. 19 published in 1960, demonstrates Lois’ ideal goal of one day being Superman’s wife. Lois is portrayed in an apron setting a table telling Superman to hurry home supper will be ready soon, as Superman rushes off to save the day. The comic publishers may have pushed for this type of representation to address concerns by the comic authority about comics potentially subverting traditional values.
Not only is the life of Lois Lane depicted as culturally normative, but her personality is depicted as an over dramatization of society’s view of women at the time. She is depicted as jealous, needy, emotional, dim-witted, and in need of a man’s moderating sensibility. This cover of issue No. 39 published in 1963, once again depicts Lois with Superman in a domestic scene, this time their baby has managed to open a safe containing images of Superman’s old flames. In line with her character’s personality, Louis is depicted overeating in a fit of rage and jealousy as Superman stands stoically by waiting for her to calm down. Society at the time viewed women almost as children in need of a strong masculine figure to help take care of them. In his book Seduction of The Innocent Fredrick Wortham criticizes DC’s Wonder Woman character for being too strong-willed and independent, claiming her independence promoted lesbianism and sexual deviancy in children. This meekness of Lois could have been a reaction to such concerns.
[Text by Jonathan Hamblen]
Volume 1, Issue 1 of Wonder Woman broke boundaries in 1942 as the first female superhero. The release of this comic marked the beginning of an era for woman to finally have representation in comics. Sales for the comics are not available until 1960, but the fact the comic and character lasted for almost 80 years shows how popular it became. The cover, drawn by Harry Peter, depicts Wonder Woman wearing a skirt, corset, and boots charging into battle on horseback. Her outfit she wears was seen as scandalous to many people during the 1940s because women did not dress this way. Her outfit wasn’t the only part of the cover breaking down barriers for women. Soldiers can be seen charging into battle alongside Wonder Woman. Based off the date of the comic’s release, it’s most likely these soldiers are meant to represent American soldiers in World War II. This display of Wonder Woman being able to do what these soldiers can do goes along with what was happening in United States history. Woman were stepping into roles on the home front men left behind such as working in factories. Wonder Woman is a symbol here for feminist women working toward breaking out of stereotypical roles while still displaying very feminine qualities. She represents strength and fearlessness many woman needed to have during World War II.
Wonder Woman Volume 1, Number 73 was published in March 1955. Irv Novick illustrated the cover along with several other Wonder Woman issues, and DC Comics throughout the late 1950’s. The cover displays Wonder Woman rescuing a man dressed as a cowboy from falling. Something to note about this illustration is how Novick drew Diana. This comic was the first Wonder Woman issue to have the Comic Code Authority stamp on it. One of the major rules of that code was woman were to be drawn “realistically without exaggeration of physical qualities.” How Novick depicted Wonder Woman follows this description. She still retains some of her 1940’s and early 50’s style such as her hair and outfit, but she is more built throughout her body. Her seeming to be more physically strong, and not so feminine and voluptuous, may be a bit of an illusion though because she is hanging in the sky while also keeping a grip on the cowboy. Her strength and courage from this image are obvious, but Diana also physically resembles what a women superhero would look like. For readers this may have painted a better idea that a woman doesn’t have to look feminine to be strong.
Volume 1, Number 181 of Wonder Woman was released in April 1969. Drawn by Mike Sekowsky, it was the fourth comic of the Incredible I-Ching and the New Wonder Woman series. When looking at this image there is an important element to take note of. Diana now resembles an everyday woman of the late 1960’s with her bright yellow ski pants, matching green shirt and boots, and her long hair. She is also missing her magic bracelets and her lasso. Even without these tools, it is obvious she is still unafraid of danger. One element exemplifying this is where her body is positioned. Wonder Woman is taking a protective stance over an injured man even though several villains are moving in to attack her. The point of view of looking through one of the skier’s eyes at Diana amplifies the notion she is about to be confronted. The reason for Wonder Woman resembling the modern woman was the male editors and publishers were trying to attract feminist women readers. Instead of having her resemble a pin-up doll, which was no longer fashionable, she embodies what they think is a strong 1960’s woman fighting crime like a spy. Sales records of the comic are difficult to find, but according to Comichron the average sales per issue of the comic was roughly 171,197 copies.
Feminists though did not take to the “new” Wonder Woman because they did not see a feminist, but rather a woman caught up in her looks, and submission to men.
[Text by Isabella Pico]
As we can see in the cover art, a Japanese “zero” fighter plane from World War 2 is firing on a seemingly innocent Asian family with the Amazonian Princess courageously protecting them with an M60 machine gun in foreign clothing. As Wonder Woman acquired popularity she also became a sort of embodiment for what an “All-American Girl” should be and to what that meant to mainstream society.
However, we must realize that Wonder Woman’s constant change of style and character is a reflection of just how hard it has been to put label on what womanhood means in America, due to its ever changing nature. Also to note is the popularity of the M60 machine gun during the Vietnam War which was still being fought at the time of this comics release. You can get the idea from the image exactly what is being portrayed. Wonder Woman (America) is standing up for the little guy who embodies or symbolizes the South Vietnamese under attack currently at this time by the influence of Communism. There seem to be many political undertones within this image as well as sexual. Through the use of a popular Army issued machine gun, which for imagery purposes is viewed by many Americans following the Vietnam War as the quintessential “tough guy weapon”. Something I’ve found interesting is the transformation of Wonder Woman from the Golden Age to Silver Age into a more “hip” James Bond style of hero. It seems that the brute forced Amazonian princess with the strength of 100 men, as portrayed in the Golden Age of Comics (pre-Comic books Code Authority) made a transition into an Emma Peel type character during the Silver Age. This was not caused by lack of female contribution in the writing of the series either, in fact Wonder Woman’s first writer was Joye Hummel, who began writing for the comic in 1945. She has since been followed by several female writers and editors of the series including Dorothy Woolfolk, the first female editor of DC Comics and Ruth Atkinson, famed writer and cartoonist.
Text by Anthony Clark
These images seen above are both examples of the revamped identity of Wonder Woman at this time period (late 60s/early 70s) where she has taken on the role of “Diana Prince” and has somehow lost her powers and must make it as a hero with her courage and bravado alone. These new images of Wonder Woman seem much more provocative and sexier than earlier drawn images of the figure. I chose this set of images in order to point out that her clothes are often ripped off and tattered whenever she finds herself bound. Wonder Woman can be found frequently tied up throughout the 1960s and 1970s which seems anything but liberating for a hero of her stature.
Both images were drawn by Mike Sekowsky of DC Comics. The cover image on the left was released in October, 1971. The cover image on the right hand side was released slightly earlier in June, 1970.
Overall, comics were representative of cultural and not counter-cultural ideals. As seen in comics about race from the 1930s and 1940s, much of how African Americans were depicted showed how strong racism was in the United States. Comics made for black communities, like All-Negro comics, were more realistic to how African Americans wanted to be portrayed. As the culture of the United States shifted during the Civil Rights Movement, so too did the portrayal of black people/characters in comic books.
Overt racism and caricature became less and less prevalent throughout the Silver Age of Comics and particularly towards the end of the 1960s. Black characters became more and more powerful and independent in a way that paralleled progressive thinking at the time. Women also have better portrayals as the Silver Age overtook the Golden Age.
The Wonder Woman comics shifted by trying to represent what the publishers thought Diana Prince as a modern woman should be like. This proved to be difficult due to the ever changing identity of what womanhood is perceived as, in America. The success and failures of the Wonder Woman comics sales fluctuate essentially as often as her characters style and persona. While there is no direct correlation between any one style and successful sales, her changes do reflect changes in societies perception of women. It should also be noted that after the Silver Age influence, Wonder Woman did emerge as a top icon for the feminist movement of the 1970s. Nothing encapsulates this point more than the 1972 first ever issue of MS. magazine in which Wonder Woman graced the front cover of the progressive feminist magazine with the headline reading “Wonder Woman for President”.
[Text by Isabella Pico, Anthony Clark, Earl Bell, Jimmy Kaldor, and Jonathan Hamblen]
Sources & Credits
Cited in Introduction: Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (New York: Rinehart, 1954). Text by Jimmy Kaldor: Young Allies No. 11 and All-Negro Comics from Comic Book Realm. https://comicbookrealm.com/series/2580/0/young-allies-comics and https://comicbookrealm.com/series/19269/0/all-negro-comics. For more information, see http://www.tomchristopher.com/comics3/orrin-c-evans-and-the-story-of-all-negro-comics Text by Earl Bell: Cover images of Mandrake the Magician Nos. 2 (Feature Productions) and 7 (King Features) sourced from Comics.org and the Suzy Covey Comic Book Collection, Popular Culture Collection, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida. Text by Jonathan Hamblen: Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane Vol 1. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Superman’s_Girlfriend,_Lois_Lane_Vol_1. Text by Isabella Pico: Cover images of Wonder Woman Nos. 1, 73 and 181 from Cover Browser. Information on cover artists Harry Peter, Irv Novick and Mike Sekowsky is from DC Database at FANDOM and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. The quote on women portrayal from the Comic Code Authority comes from the World Heritage Encyclopedia on Project Gutenberg Self Publishing Press. Feminist response to No. 181 comes from a published essay called ‘What a Woman Wonders’ by Jason LaTouche from “The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times” edited by Joseph J. Darowski. Sales information found on Comichron: A Resource for Comics Research. Text by Anthony Clark: Images for Wonder Woman belong to DC Comics. All cover art drawn by Mike Sekowsky of DC Comics. Sources listed below. https://comicvine.gamespot.com/wonder-woman-189-red-for-death/4000-109348/