“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems – the effect of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant … Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”  Chicago Daily News, May 8, 1940

Soon we will know if the new Wonder Woman movie is any good. This weekend expect a forest of reviews and think pieces and nostalgia fests in the papers and online. We will be reminded that the character was created by the inventor of the lie detector William Moulton Marston, a man with feminist ideals and a strange obsession with bondage imagery; that Gloria Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of the very first issue of Ms Magazine in 1972, under the banner headline “Wonder Woman For President.” (She was back on the cover in 2012 for the 40th anniversary accompanied by the message “Stop the War on Women”, suggesting that things might have gone backwards if anything in the four decades in between.) And yes, Lynda Carter, the 1970S TV Wonder Woman may make an appearance.

But reading the new edition of Paul Levitz’s 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking you get a glimpse of a parallel world in which superheroes disappeared at some point in the 1950s.

Levitz, a former editor and writer for DC Comics, notes that by the early 1950s Superman was still a best-selling comic star. But though Batman and Wonder Woman were also still in print other DC heroes were disappearing as western comics and romance comics saw a surge in popularity.

Indeed, by 1950 Wonder Woman got a new job writing romantic advice in a newspaper column as the comic was retooled more and more as a romance comic. (Meanwhile, over in Superman, Lois Lane was swooning to Perry Como.)

You could call this moment the Tales of the Black Freighter moment (a reference to Alan Moore’s comic within a comic in his superhero strip Watchmen), a moment when an alternative history of comic books might have sailed into view as the superhero, under pressure from Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous attack on horror and superhero strips. Wertham had noted the recurring BDSM imagery in Wonder Woman if no one else had.

And yet by  the 1960s the superhero was on the rebound. The success of DC’s superhero team Justice League of America was such that a rival publisher asked Stan Lee to come up with a superhero team. That became the Fantastic Four and that launched the Marvel Universe, DC’s long-term rival.

Truth be told, when I was a kid (back in the 1970s) I was always more of a Marvelite than a DC fan. But I was also pretty promiscuous and so many of the comics featured in Levitz’s compendious visual history were familiar to me. (Not included, though, is Wonder Woman 215, January 1975, which I remember holding while being squeezed for money by a local bully).

From this distance it’s easy for me to get all Paul Simon about all this (you know: “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.”) But there’s a nostalgic charge to so much of the material in Levitz’s book that’s hard not to be touched by.

And there are a number of entertaining minor subplots in these pages. I wasn’t aware, for example, of the influence of New York’s DeWitt Clinton High school which nurtured such future comic book talent as Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Will (The Spirit) Eisner and Stan Lee.  All of the above were pupils at the school which educated Jewish immigrants. And that is itself a reminder that, like American cinema and American comedy, American comic books were for a long time a Jewish American creation.

The Herald:

And it sounded such fun in those early days. Levitz quotes Jules Feiffer who worked with Eisner on The Spirit: “We were a generation of gentlemen who thought of ourselves the way the man who began movies must have. We were out to be splendid – somehow … Experiments in the use of angle shots were carried on. Arguments raged: Should angle shots be used for their own sake or for the sake of furthering the story? Everyone went back to study Citizen Kane. Rumours spread that Welles himself had read and learned from comic books! What a great business!”

Levitz also offers a reminder that the popularity of those romance and western comics continued long after the 1950s. One of the pleasures of the book was being introduced to artist Jay Scott Pike who was a mainstay of the romance comics line before realising that working in advertising was more lucrative (as was drawing pin-up art).

Romance comics, like the superhero comics, reflected the politics of the time and so by the 1960s and 1970s were showing an awareness of sorts of the political upheaval of the time in the United States. That said, when Jack Kirby, comic’s most protean creator, came up with a black romance comic called Soul Love it was killed because of fears of protests from retailers in the south. (Amazingly, Soul Love grew out of a story idea Kirby had for another abortive comic entitled True Divorce Cases – one of those if onlys you just wish had happened.)

By the 1980s the work of Frank Miller on The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on Watchmen had rebooted the very concept of the superhero genre. Not totally for the better. In their wake DC was ever ready to kill off characters if it thought it might lead to a sales boost. Superman himself was killed at one point. There was also a phone vote as to whether Robin (not the Dick Grayson version) should be killed off. The vote was yes.

DC’s more adult Vertigo line could also default to ultraviolence at times but it was also a platform for some of the more adventurous and ambitious creators (many of them British) who pushed the envelope as to what commercial comics could be. If Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is the first among equals here, there should also be mentions for Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s  Y: The Last Man.

The 21st century has seen superheroes reach a new level through their cinematic incarnations. If DC have lagged behind their Marvel counterparts it’s worth remembering that DC led the way with the big-screen versions of Superman and Batman.

A Wonder Woman film, then, has been rather late off the mark. But it’s here at last.

DC Comics, meanwhile, goes on. The superhero is not going away any time soon. That’s fine for those that like them.

A few more romance comics would be fun now and again though.

The Herald:

75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking, by Paul Levitz is published by Taschen, priced £49.99.