How Comic Books Work

Drawn in Steel

The words "epic superhero" hardly do him justice. Superman is a cultural icon for the ages.
The words "epic superhero" hardly do him justice. Superman is a cultural icon for the ages.
Courtesy of DC Comics

In 1935, DC Comics printed the first comic book filled with mostly new material instead of comic strip reprints. The title was "New Fun Comics No. 1," and it introduced the American public to brand-new characters and storylines that spanned several issues as part of a series. Nearly 90 years after "Obadiah," comics were finally becoming a true cultural force.

The sixth issue of "New Fun" featured work from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two men who gave life to a character that changed the face of comic books -- and, in some ways, American culture itself.

That character's name? Superman. Yep, you know the one: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, The Man of Steel. Comic book legend and world-famous American icon.

In June 1938, Superman debuted in "Action Comics No. 1." This was the first superhero comic book, and Superman's success gave rise to all manner of superheroes, from Batman and Captain America to the Fantastic Four and Wonder Woman. That first appearance of Superman is so legendary that a copy of "Action Comics No. 1" can sell for more than $3 million [SOURCE: Nostomania].

Superman wasn't the only legend born in those days. DC Comics published its "Detective Comics" series in 1937. This publication introduced Batman to the world. Just as significantly, The "Detective" series is still going strong today, with more than 800 issues, and it stands as the longest-running comic book title ever.

During World War II, superhero-themed comic books were enormously popular. In some of the most popular titles, iconic superheroes battled (and always defeated) the forces of evil in ongoing series that lasted for multiple issues published over many months and years. Other, non-hero characters were hugely popular, too. Walt Disney's lineup, in particular, scored big with characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Once the war ended, the glut of superheroes lost their luster. To recapture and enlarge their readership, comics publishers introduced more diverse subjects, featuring science fiction, drama, animal, Western, crime and horror comic books. It was those last two categories, in particular, that led to another seismic shift in the comics landscape.

Next, you'll see how a single (non-comic) book completely warped comic book publishing and saddened readers everywhere -- and how a comic book revolt saved the medium from itself.