03 Sep

The Amazing Art History of Superhero Comic Books

Imagine buying a comic book for only 10 cents and selling it for $3.2M. 

Yup, you read that right. 😱

That’s how much the world’s most expensive comic—Action Comics #1— actually sold for! Intrigued, we looked into the dynamic history of superhero comic book art, from its dime store past to its collectable art status today. 

The Golden Age (1938 – 1956)

The birth of our laser-shooting and spandex-wearing Kryptonian superhero in 1938 kickstarted the Golden Age of comics. 

action-comics
Action Comics #1, Superman’s first appearance 
Source: http://po.st/eHe6J4

It was an idyllic time where superheroes were cheerful do-gooders who battled villains motivated by money or world domination. Oh, and of course, the good always won. 💪🏼

The art style reflected this simple world—panels were usually laid out in basic square grids, often with more dialogue than imagery. Cartooning was also simple as publishers did not hire serious artists.

wonderwoman
Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics #81 (1948)
Source: http://po.st/FN1N3x

The Silver Age (1956 – 1970)

Following the end of WW2, comic books about larger than life superheroes declined (alas, we all have to grow up!), and publishers turned to racier genres like horror and crime. 😮

Crime-Suspenstories-22
Beheading stories, anyone?           
Source: http://po.st/4kteZg

But controversy arose due to alleged links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, and comics became regulated. The changing landscape resulted in a resurgence of superhero comic books (yay!), with the likes of the Justice League and the Hulk making an appearance.

hulk
Marvel’s very own monster
Source: http://po.st/xSA5dE

Unlike their Golden Age counterparts, Silver Age heroes tended to have science as a common explanation for their powers (think Hulk and Spidey), and many had human fears such as worrying about rent money, making them all the more relatable!

Comic artists drew inspiration from art movements like surrealism and pop art to illustrate the strange worlds their heroes lived in. Cover images depended less on cheap, attention-grabbing tactics and became complex representations of the issue’s themes or a protagonist’s state of mind. 

shield
Jim Steranko’s awarding-winning, surrealism-inspired cover
Source: http://po.st/xSA5dE


The Bronze Age (1970 – 1986)

Think of Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy dying at the hands of the Green Goblin. Her shocking end, once unfathomable as long-established characters used to be untouchable, is a definitive Bronze Age event—a period distinguished by its grittier stories of urban life.

gwen-stacy
Source: http://po.st/9xEtfD

The art of this era was characterised by photorealistic depictions of the urban landscape. Depth of focus and lighting also gave the comics a more cinematic look, making us feel more for the characters (and cry more 😭).

iron-man
Iron Man is revealed to be a struggling alcoholic
Source: http://po.st/xSA5dE


The Modern Age (mid 1980s – present day)

The trend of creating complex personalities continued into the Modern Age. And to make sure our heroes weren’t all alone being complex by themselves, supervillains were also affected by this trend. 

Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke introduced us to a Joker who was not just a giggling jester, but a psychotic serial killer who cannot control his impulses. 

How did the art reflect this complexity? The era started with an art style that favoured strategic lighting, long shadows, disturbing portraits, and unnatural angles that created a perpetual sense of unease. 

watchmen
Watchmen’s art style gave the story a dark and bleak feeling
Source: http://po.st/X0K0ig

But as more publishers surfaced, the variety of art styles also increased. Designs today vary drastically, often depending on the nature of the comic and creative choice of the creators. 

Which is your favourite comic art style? If you’re looking to learn more about comic book art (and maybe become a millionaire by collecting comics), be sure to check out these books in the library:

  1. The Art of the Comic Book : An Aesthetic History 
  2. The Silver Age of Comic Book Art