Ever wonder why comics from the Bronze Age to today feel so different from the comics of the Golden and Silver ages? Is it new developments in printing techniques? Changing times lending new themes and topics? The inevitable change that happens as generations of artists retire and start? Well, yes, all of those things play a role but the real difference is this:
The first crop of comic book creators had never read a comic book when they started.
See, in the 1930's, comic books were invented as a way to repackage previously published newspaper comic strips. In a few rare instances, publishers bought new strips from unknowns as filler material. It wasn't until 1938's Action Comics #1 that a comics magazine containing all- new material was introduced.
When a demand for new material was established, the majority of the artists and writers (in many cases the same person) were young hopefuls, desperately hoping to get noticed and picked up by one of the big newspaper syndicates. If you were a newspaper cartoonist, you were a celebrity, if you drew comic books, you were nothing. To get noticed, you needed something unique... yet familiar.
The first comic book creators drew on what they knew. The first superheroes are clearly influenced by some of the great newspaper heroes; The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Buck Rogers... but it goes deeper than that.
Tights, Tights, Tights!
The first comic books heroes were also influenced by literary (often pulp) characters. Writers such as Conan-Doyle, Verne, Burroughs, Stevenson...In the hands of an eager young crop of creators, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes became Batman, Doc Savage became Superman, Robin Hood became the Green Arrow, The Shadow became The Spirit, The Sandman, The Crimson Avenger, Jekyll/Hyde became the Hulk...
The visual influence of silent films cannot be underestimated, either.
Comic book artists were influenced, without a doubt by comic strip artisits like Hal Foster, Byrne Hogarth, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond. But they were also influenced by classical illustrators such as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.
I'm pretty sure The Mole Man was based on Wyeth's Treasure Island painting of Blind Pew.
Another great source of inspiration seems to have been the circus. E. Nelson Bridwell cites the circus as the obvious origin of the tights worn by Flash Gordon, The Phantom and their brood. At the circus you could see men and women engaged in acts of daring do- acrobatics, mastering fierce beasts and soaring through the air. In the side show, you could see the ever-stretchy India Rubber Man,The Strong Man, the Fire-Breather, Giants and tiny people... The circus was a font of amazing super-people.
By the late 1960's and early 70's, things began to change. A new generation fo writers was coming in. They were more influenced by current events and socially critical non- fiction. Their art informed by advertising design and Pop-art. At their best, the comics they created were a mirror to social ills, illustrated with a cutting edge flair for design. At their worst, they were a pale imitation of comic books they had read as children, copying the look but not the essence or the creativity.
Contemporary comics are at worst an over-designed series of splash pages with nothing to say and at best, a self-referential pastiche of ideas put together by greater talents.
IF comic books are to grow and flourish in this new century, I believe we will need to look beyond the comics we so dearly treasure and look eslewhere for inspiration.