Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Golden Age of Pop Culture?

I was fairly young when I came to the conclusion that if there was ever a Golden Age of American pop culture, it was probably from around 1929 (very shortly before the start of the Great Depression) to 1945 (the end of World War II). Although I was only in junior high when I came to this conclusion, even now I cannot deny my reasoning at the time. By then I had already studied the history of comic strips, comic books, pulp magazines, and radio shows (I would study television and movies a few years later, when I was in high school). I realised that many of the most notable characters in pop culture were created at this time. And I also realised that this period was roughly concurrent with the Golden Age of many of these media.

With regards to comic strips, I have never read anywhere when its Golden Age was set, although almost everyone agrees there was one. While I can see arguments made that the Golden Age of the comic strip was the Fifties, when such heavyweights as Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, and B.C. debuted, I would probably argue for the Twenties and the Thirties. While the medium had produced superstars before this era (Mutt and Jeff debuted in 1909 and Krazy Kat in 1913), it seems to me that an inordinate number of big name comic strips debuted form 1929 to about 1938.

In fact, I can even name the date when the Golden Age of comic strips (at least in my opinion) began: January 7, 1929. That is the date when the two first adventure comic strips debuted. One was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Not only was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century one of the first two adventure comic strips, but the very first science fiction comic strip. That same day saw the debut of the Tarzan comic strip. While it is widely known that Tarzan had originated in books, it is not so well known that Buck Rogers also originated in another medium. He made his debut in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories in a novelette entitled Armageddon 2419 A.D. That novelette featured Anthony Rogers (not yet "Buck"), an Army Air Corps officer who goes into suspended animation after exposure to a mysterious gas. He woke in the 25th century, where Earth was dominated by evil warlords. Both Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Tarzan proved to be so successful that more adventure strips were to follow.

There was certainly no shortage of them, as the Thirties would see the debut of several important adventure comic strips: Dick Tracy (1931), Flash Gordon (1934), Mandrake the Magician (1934), The Phantom (1936), Prince Valiant (1937), and Red Ryder (1938). Of course, there was no shortage of humour comic strips during this period. One of the most successful and longest running humour strips debuted in 1931: Blondie. Little Lulu debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935. Li'l Abner, Al Capp's legendary satirical strip, first appeared in 1934.

Of course, comic strips were not the only things people read in these days. The Twenties were arguably the Golden Age of the American magazine. More magazines made debuted in the Twenties than any other period. Despite this, I would set the Golden Age of the pulp magazine a little bit later. For me the Golden Age of pulp magazines began in 1930, the year that the science fiction pulp Astounding was first published. Hugo Gernsbeck's Amazing Stories preceded it in 1926 and his Science Wonder Stories in 1929, but it was Astounding that would lead to a plethora of science fiction pulp magazines on newstands in the Thirties and Forties. Astounding would print stories by some of the top names in the business over the years: Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E.van Vogt among them.

If the debut of Astounding was not enough to create a Golden Age of pulps, then another magazine certainly was. In 1930 a mysterious narrator called The Shadow made his debut on the anthology radio show Detective Story, sponsored by Street and Smith. It was not long before people at newsstands were asking for "That Shadow magazine." It was in 1931, then, that Street and Smith published the first issue of The Shadow. Writing under the house name "Maxwell Grant," Walter Gibson handled the scripting chores. The Shadow was Street and Smith's first pulp magazine dedicated to a single character since the company had turned Nick Carter Weekly into Detective Story in 1915. The Shadow turned into a run away success, creating a boom in hero pulps that lasted nearly for the rest of the Thirties. It was during this period that such classic characters as Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8 and his Battle Aces, and The Avenger all made their first appearances. Many of these characters would have runs lasting into the mid-Forties. The Shadow and Doc Savage lasted until 1949.

Of course, no discussion of pulp magazines is complete without mentioning Weird Tales. The magazine had debuted before what I consider the Golden Age of pulp magazines, but it was very much in its heyday during that period. Making its debut in 1923, it would publish some of the greatest fantasists of all time. H. P. Lovecraft was first published in Weird Tales in 1925 and his work would continue to appear there until his death in 1937. Robert E. Howard's first published work was in Weird Tales in 1925 as well. He would also continue writing for the magazine until his death. In fact, his characters King Kull (a prototype of Conan the Barbarian), Solomon Kane, and Conan himself all first appeared in Weird Tales. Howard would also write for the magazine until his death. Besides Lovecraft and Howard, Weird Tales also published the works of such writers as Robert Bloch (who made his first sale to them), Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Comic books could be considered the children of both comic strips and pulp magazines. Comic books originated as magazines reprinting newspaper comic strips, but once they started publishing original work, they largely looked to the pulp magazines for inspiration. Indeed, the influence of pulp magazines on comic books can be seen in both of the medium's most lasting characters: Superman (who drew heavily upon Doc Savage) and Batman (who drew heavily upon The Shadow). Invented in 1933, comic books were a relatively recent phenomenon in the Thirties, but their Golden Age is considered to have begun in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics. Superman was a veritable phenomenon, creating both a boom in comic book superheroes and a boom in comic books themselves. In Superman's wake would debut such legnedary characters as Batman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, The Spirit, and Plastic Man. And while she debuted prior to Superman, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, undoubtedly benefited from the Man of Steel's success.

Superman would be the first comic book character to make it to radio, his show debuting in 1940. Radio would look to other comic book characters with varying degrees of success. From the pages of All-American Comics, aviator Hop Harrigan had a show that lasted from 1942 to 1948. The Blue Beetle would not see nearly as much success. His radio show, airing in 1940. only lasted briefly.

That having been said, radio had little use for comic book heroes, as it had heroes of its own. In 1933 radio debuted what may have been its most famous hero, The Lone Ranger. The creation of Fran Striker, The Lone Ranger proved to be an enormous success, finding his way into pulp magazines, comic books, and movies. The Lone Ranger ultimately lasted until 1954. Indeed, the show was successful enough to warrant a spinoff of a sorts. First appearing in 1936, not only was The Green Hornet more or less a modern version of the Masked Man, but he was also The Lone Ranger's nephew! Like his uncle, The Green Hornet would see a large amount of success. The Green Hornet found his way into comic books, Big Little Books, a movie serial, and television. The radio show itself lasted until 1952. As mentioned above, The Shadow originated as the narrator on Detective Story. He received his own radio in 1937. Among the men who lent their voice to their character was an actor named Orson Welles. The Shadow radio series lasted until 1954.

Not every radio show was about superheroes, however, as there were many sitcoms and variety shows on the air. Some of the biggest names in comedy made their mark on radio in this era: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Ed Wynn. Sitcoms were as popular on radio as they remain on television. Among the most popular were Fibber McGee and Molly (perhaps best known for Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet), The Aldrich Family (perhaps the most popular sitcom focusing on a teenager), Lum and Abner (the ancestor of such rural television sitcoms as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres), and Ethel and Albert (a sitcom about a married couple).

Besides radio, perhaps the most popular medium of the Thirties may well have been the cinema. The Golden Age of Hollywood is a rather vague concept, considered by some to last form te Silent Era right into the Fifties. Regardless of when one believes it to have ended, I think it is safe to say that in the Thirties the American motion picture industry was amidst its Golden Age. In fact, it would be impossible to list every single classic film which debuted in the Thirties. It was the era of screwball comedies (It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby), classic Westerns (Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach), adventure movies (The Count of Monte Cristo, Gunga Din), and classic horror movies (Frankenstein. King Kong). In fact, 1939 could well have been the best year for movies of all time. Among the films released that year number many considered classics: Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, Gone With the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Other years saw other classics: 42nd Street, The Adentures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Front Page, The Grapes of Wrath, Top Hat, and many more. Some of the biggest stars of all time begin their careers at this time: Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne (in B Westerns), and Loretta Young.

Of course, in the Thirties one would see more than feature films at the movies. Theatres showed programmes filled out by newsreels, cartoons, and serials as well. If there ever was a Golden Age, the Golden Age of the movie serial was probably the Thirties. Serials were still a regular part of matinees, and there was no shortage of them. There were many Western serials, featuring such names as Gene Autry, John Mack Brown, Smiley Burnette, Crash Corrigan, and even John Wayne. And while science fiction feature films were a rarity in the Thirties, the genre was relatively common in the Thirties. In fact, Flash Gordon made it to the big screen in no less than three serials during the period: Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). All three featured Buster Crabbe as Gordon, who would also play Buck Rogers in the serial based on the comic strip (1939). Indeed, the studios were not below combining genres (what I call genre melange. Most people think of Gene Autry as a Western star, but in 1935 he starred in The Phantom Empire, an odd cross between science fiction and Westerns in which cowboys must face an advanced, underground civilisation. Sadly, serials would decline in the Forties until they ceased entirely in the Fifties.

Not only were feature films and serials doing well during this period, but so were animated shorts. It was during this period that some of the most famous cartoon characters of all time first appeared. Mickey Mouse debuted in 1928, Betty Boop in 1930, Porky Pig in 1935, Daffy Duck in 1937, Bugs Bunny in 1940, and Woody Woodpecker that same year. Disney would do some of its best work ever in its Silly Symphonies series. The first full colour cartoon, Disney's "Flowers and Trees" were made during this period. In fact, it was during this perod that animated feature films emerged, with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels in 1939, Fleischer's Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1939, Disney's Pinnochio in 1940, and Disney's Fantasia that same year. It was the first blooming of the Looney Tunes and the era of Fleischer's classic Superman cartoons.

Of course, not every medium enjoyed a Golden Age in this period. The United States had the technology for television in the Thirties, but the Great Depression and World War II prevented its implementation until after the War. Of course, other media would develop much later, but so far the Internet has not produced any great characters that have made a large impact on pop culture.

Too, it must be kept in mind that while many media had Golden Ages during this era, it does not mean that great works did not emerge in other eras. As I pointed out earlier, the Fifties were a great time for newspaper comic strips, with several classic strips debuting in that decade. Great movies were also made in the Fifties and Sixties. And as much as I love Golden Age comic books, I think Neil Gaiman's Sandman is greater than any of them, save perhaps Will Eisner's Spirit at its best.

At any rate, it amazes me that so many of the classic characters of American pop culture emerged in a period of only about sixteen years. Blondie, Flash Gordon, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Betty Boop, and Bugs Bunny all made their debuts during this period. And that is only a short listing of the characters who first appeared during this time frame. Of course, the question is why so many great characters came about at this time period? Why did almost every medium existing in America at the time go through a Golden Age during this period?

It is a difficult question to answer, but I think it might have something to do with adversity. The Great Depression thrust the United States into one of its darkest periods. Unemployment was at all time highs. Incomes were lower than they had been in years. World War II came immediately upon the heels of the Great Depression. It was the largest conflict ever known to Man. Many people served in the war. Many people died. Along with such adversity came the need for people to escape. Perhaps, then, on a subconscious level, the creators in the various media were spurred to do their very best, to create characters and situations that would be remembered for decades. Quite simply, America needed heroes and the mass media at the time gave them to America. Interestingly enough, other times of adversity or change may have had a similar effect. It is notable that it was in the Sixties, with social unrest and the Vietnam War under way, that the Silver Age of comic books took place, the Golden Age of series television, and a revolution in music brought on by British bands.

Regardless of the reasons, the period from 1929 to 1945 seemed to produce much of what is truly great in pop culture. It was a milieu that produced so many of the characters that are still popular today. I doubt we'll see another like it.

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