Popcultural Histories: Close Reading American Comics

In the current age of seemingly endless blockbuster superhero franchises, it’s always fun to look back on some of our favorite superheroes’ retro looks. However, for those interested in American Studies, using comic books and their contents as cultural artifacts gives us snapshots of historical, political, and cultural moments in 20th century America. The advertisements, coupons, and promotional specials found among each comic’s story panels are can give us clues about the interests and consumer habits of the issue’s contemporary readers.

The Burns’ Edward Kane Comics Collection, donated by Boston College Professor of Finance Edward Kane, consists of more than 11,000 issues of comic books. American superhero comics are divided into four eras based on their date of publication: the Golden Age (1938-1956), the Silver Age (1956-1970), the Bronze Age (1970-1985), and the Modern Age (1985-present). With issues ranging from the 1940s-early 2000s, the Edward Kane Comics Collection includes comics from DC, Marvel, and other publishers.

In September 1963, Marvel Comics released The Avengers #1, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Almost 60 years later, the series has generated over 650 issues in eight volumes as well as several spin-off, limited-series, and one-shots, and graphic novels.

The Avengers Annual #7 (1977), is part of the “Final Threat” series that ran from 1976-77. The subheading for this issue reads:“With Special Guest-Stars Warlock and Captain 

Cover Page of Avengers Annual #7. Editor: Archie Goodwin. Completed by: Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin. Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

[Cover Page of Avengers Annual #7. Editor: Archie Goodwin. Completed by: Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin.] Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

Marvel Battle Thanos Lord of Evil!” Under editor Archie Goodwin, this issue was completed by Joe Rubinstein, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Goldberg, and Jim Starlin.

Comics produced in the Bronze Age (1970-1985) retained archetypes and conventions of the previous Silver Age, but gradually shifted into the darker and more complex storylines which eventually defined comics produced in the subsequent Modern Age. Several plots found in Bronze Age comics responded to rapidly changing youth culture, advances in technology, and socio-political and racial tensions increasingly consuming national attention.

America’s rapid interest in science fiction came in the wake of the United States’ success in the Space Race following the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. By the time The Avengers Annual #7 was published in 1977, five of six following Apollo missions successfully placed astronauts on the moon. In 1976, the year the first issue of “Final Threat” was published, NASA’s Viking 1 landed on Mars and one month following The Avengers Annual #7’s release, NASA’s shuttle prototype Enterprise flew for the first time. Reminiscent of popular science fiction television series such as Star Trek and Star Trek: The Animated Series and films such as The Andromeda Strain and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Avengers Annual #7 features superheroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America traveling in a chromatic spaceship preparing for an explosion-filled battle with their intergalactic enemy, Thanos.

 

 

Advertisements within The Avengers Annual #7 provide context for American–specifically youth–consumer habits of its time. The comic’s first page features a promotion for Marvel fans to to subscribe to Pizzazz, a magazine that ran from 1977-79. Pizzazz, though short-lived, was intended to be a response to the growing youth culture of the late 1960s-70s. The magazine included interviews and advertisements with famous musicians, actors, and celebrities, as well as small serials heavily based around science fiction narratives.

[Advertisement for Pizzazz Magazine, featuring Stan Lee] Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

[Advertisement for Pizzazz Magazine, featuring Stan Lee.] Burns Library, Edward Kane Collection, Avengers Annual, 1977.

Found among the advertisements in The Avengers Annual #7 is a page for custom shirts by “Crazy David,” from which readers could select designs from logos for bands such as Kiss, Led Zepplin, and Superkid, or with popular catch phrases. Alongside pop cultural celebrities, athletes also make appearances in ads. Retired Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas advertises a Daisy BB rifle with his son, with the tagline: “The sport a boy grows up with…Shooting a Daisy.” Several appearances of ads that encourage readers to “make money fast” and invest in bodybuilding courses. Calls to “Get Taller!”, “Skinny? Muscles will appear…almost like magic!”, and “Fat? Fat will disappear…replaced by muscles!” make us wonder about the target demographics, and what that could tell us about how comic book fans were perceived at the time. Within the next few years, many comic books would orient their advertisements toward toys, gag items, collector’s pieces, and, video games. This trend continued throughout the 1980s-90s and into modern comic books, which predominantly feature ads for video games, gaming systems, and role-playing games.

The Avengers Annual #7 is just one of many comics with rich cultural artifacts found among the pages. While not viewed as “literary” texts, comic books are full of primary source material covering a wide range of topics, each one providing exciting and sometimes surprising glimpses into American cultural history.

  • Annie Malady, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of English

 

Works Consulted:

 

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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