The best books on the history of golden age comics

Who am I?

Brett Dakin is the author of American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason and Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos. Brett's writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the International Herald TribuneThe Washington Post, and The Guardian. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Brett grew up in London and now lives in New York City with his husbandand their dog, Carl.

I wrote...

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By Brett Dakin,

Book cover of American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

What is my book about?

Meet Lev Gleason, a real-life comics superhero! Gleason was a titan among Golden Age comics publishers who fought back against the censorship campaigns and paranoia of the Red Scare. After dropping out of Harvard to fight in France, Gleason moved to New York City and eventually made it big with groundbreaking titles like Daredevil and Crime Does Not Pay.

Brett Dakin, Gleason's great-nephew, opens up the family archives and the files of the FBI to take you on a journey through the publisher's life and career. American Daredevil, you'll learn the truth about Gleason's rapid rise to the top of comics, unapologetic progressive activism, and sudden fall from grace. Whether it was Dr. Frederic Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent or the House Un-American Activities Committee, Gleason was always ready to take on the enemy.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Why did I love this book?

I wasn't a fan of comics growing up, and I never met Lev Gleason—he died five years before I was born.  My mother would tell me stories about her flamboyant, free-spending uncle from New York City, and I especially loved hearing about Uncle Lev's Day: once a year, Lev would drive to my mother's house near Boston, pile her and her friends into his gleaming aqua Packard, and head for the mall, where everyone was free to buy whatever their hearts desired--courtesy of Uncle Lev. He was my mother's Emperor of Ice Cream!  I knew he had made a fortune in comic books in the 1940s—and lost it all when his business collapsed in the 1950s.  That's about it.

It really wasn't until I picked up Michael’s novel during my last year of law school—when I should have been studying for finals—that I thought to find out why.  His chosen milieu was exactly the one in which Lev made it big as a publisher, and the anti-fascist superhero at the novel's heart sounded awfully familiar.

By Michael Chabon,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' is a heart-wrenching story of escape, love and comic-book heroes set in Prague, New York and the Arctic - from the author of 'Wonder Boys'.

One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay's cramped New York bedroom, his nerve-racking escape from Prague finally achieved. Little does he realise that this is the beginning of an extraordinary friendship and even more fruitful business partnership. Together, they create a comic strip called 'The Escapist', its superhero a Nazi-busting saviour who liberates the oppressed…

Book cover of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

Why did I love this book?

David’s book came out while I was still searching for the truth about Uncle Lev, and it provided a useful and entertaining overview of the effort to censor comic books—catching Lev directly in its cross-hairs—and the industry code that was implemented as a result. Ultimately, David argues, “the generation of comic-book creators whose work died with the Comics Code helped give birth to the popular culture of the postwar era.”

By David Hajdu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ten-Cent Plague as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the years between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, American popular culture was first created in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. But no sooner had comics emerged than they were beaten down by mass bonfires, congressional hearings, and a McCarthyish panic over their unmonitored and uncensored content. Esteemed critic David Hajdu vividly evokes the rise, fall, and rise again of comics, in this engrossing history.

Book cover of Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code

Why did I love this book?

Amy’s book takes on the same topic, but from the perspective of an academic—and with a more balanced, objective approach. In particular, she examines the role of anti-comics crusader Dr. Fredric Wertham, arguing that his “role in the crusade against comics has been largely misinterpreted by fans and scholars alike, who dismiss his findings as naïve social science, failing to understand how his work on comic books fits into the larger context of his beliefs about violence, psychiatry, and social reform." 

By Amy Kiste Nyberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seal of Approval as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For the past forty years the content of comic books has been governed by an industry self-regulatory code adopted by publishers in 1954 in response to public and governmental pressure.

This book examines why comic books were the subject of controversy, beginning with objections that surfaced shortly after the introduction of modern comic books in the mid-1930s, when parents and teachers accused comic books of contaminating children's culture and luring children away from more appropriate reading material.

It traces how, in the years following World War II, the criticism of comic books shifted to their content, and the reading of…

Book cover of Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America

Why did I love this book?

Another readable academic work, Bradford’s book helped me situate the history of comics within the broader narrative of post-war America’s emerging youth, pop, and consumer cultures.

By Bradford W. Wright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Comic Book Nation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As American as jazz or rock and roll, comic books have been central in the nation's popular culture since Superman's 1938 debut in Action Comics #1. Selling in the millions each year for the past six decades, comic books have figured prominently in the childhoods of most Americans alive today. In Comic Book Nation, Bradford W. Wright offers an engaging, illuminating, and often provocative history of the comic book industry within the context of twentieth-century American society. From Batman's Depression-era battles against corrupt local politicians and Captain America's one-man war against Nazi Germany to Iron Man's Cold War exploits in…

Book cover of The Great Comic Book Heroes

Why did I love this book?

Jules wrote this book in 1965, so it certainly doesn’t reflect the latest scholarship. But as probably the first critical history of the Golden Age, it’s a valuable read—and a lot of fun!  Jules gives a real sense of what it was like to be alive, in New York City, creating these great works.

By Jules Feiffer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Comic Book Heroes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A great book about the super heroes of comic books( Superman, Captain Marvel, Human Torch, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Spectre, Hawkman, Wonder Woman.Sub Mariner, Captain America, Plastic Man, The Spirit, Afterword. All in colorful comics book style. In tub 87

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in comics, cartoonists, and dogs?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about comics, cartoonists, and dogs.

Comics Explore 120 books about comics
Cartoonists Explore 47 books about cartoonists
Dogs Explore 368 books about dogs