Monday, September 13, 2004

Looking To The Stars: What's My Age Again?

I'm often asked, both in e-mail and at work, about the various "ages" of comic books. Ages, in this case, refers to the various eras and epochs that can be used to classify the various defining moments in comic book history. Many newbies to the comics game and even some of the people have been at this a while are confused exactly what terms like "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" mean.

This confusion is well founded, for like most matters in our little hobby, the subject of ages is open to debate. Indeed, it is heavily debated and discussed at length by other scholars and comics historians. Sadly, settling the matter is not nearly as simple as going by the printing size of the comics in question. This standard, while useful in the design of the "Golden Age", "Silver Age" and "Current Age" protective bags many use to store their comics, is ineffectual in a discussion of content.

Many different events are held up as "the story that changed it all" and such distinctions are made upon a historian's favorite comic company or character as much as they are any historical relevance to the genre.

With that in mind, here is my guide to the generally accepted ages of comics.

In The Beginning…

Ignoring all discussion of cave paintings being an early form of comic book and the points that many periodicals in the 1800s and early 1900s featured illustrations to go with their short stories, it is generally accepted that the first comics as we know them today were published in the early 1900s. It began when newspaper publishers realized there might be a market for collections of their most popular comics. This lead to the publication of original material in the same format and the art-form began to develop.

The Golden Age: 1938-1949

Perhaps the only point that the majority of scholars agree on is that the release of Superman #1 in 1938 started what is commonly known as the Golden Age of comics. While Superman wasn't the first vigilante with powers beyond those of an average man, he was the first one to develop a major following and fueled the creation of hundreds of other super-powered heroes.

Superhero books were popular throughout World War II, with heroes such as Captain America fighting NaziTop of Form Ubermensch. Still, superheroes were but one genre among many at this time, with war comics depicting ordinary soldiers still just as popular as the adventures of The All Star Squadron. Indeed, after the war ended the superhero genre began to slowly become less popular.

Comics of many genres were published during this time. Crime and detective comics were quite popular and many young girls read romance comics. And of course, there were all manner of comics with scary monsters.

By the start of the 1950's, all but the most popular of the superheroes had lost their titles. Later writers would parallel this decline of the genre with the McCarthy hearings and say in retro-historical pieces that most of the superheroes retired after WWII rather than give up their secret identities to a dangerous demagogue. It is here, as we enter into the 1950's, that we encounter our first major point of contention.

Bottom of Form

The Silver Age: 1956-1970?

The Silver Age came about as a direct result of the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which allowed little leeway in what could and could not be shown in books that might be read by impressionable young children. Faced with the prospect of bloodless westerns and horror comics without horror, many writers and publishers turned to the one genre that still allowed them to show some excitement; superheroes.

Most mark the start of the Silver Age with Showcase #4, published in September 1956. This issue marked the first appearance of Barry Allen, the second man to be called "The Flash". Allen's creation came about as a result of a desire to retool some of the old superhero concepts into more scientific models.

This mirrored the new emphasis on science and math in the public school system at a time when we were all still worried about the Russians getting an death ray into orbit. This would later lead to revamps of other heroes, such as changing Green Lantern into one of a corps of intergalactic police officers armed with technological rings rather than a train engineer with a magic lamp. It would change The Atom from a 5'1" wrestler anxious to prove himself to the girl next door to a scientist who gained the power to shrink to microscopic size but retain the strength of a normal man.

Still others, mostly Marvel Comics fans and devotes of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, point to Fantastic Four #1 as the true start of the Silver Age. They point out that Fantastic Four was a landmark book, depicting for the first time heroes who really didn't want to be heroes. Whereas most heroes of that time took great joy in their powers and in serving humanity, the Fantastic Four were composed of…

  1. A war veteran turned into a hideous, by most accounts, rock monster.
  2. His best friend, a detached scientist who'd rather be in the lab than trading blows with bank robbers.
  3. Said scientist's girlfriend, who wanted nothing more than to be a normal mommy.
  4. Said girlfriend's teenage brother, who was more interested in retooling his car and using his powers to pick up women than he was in saving the world.

Personally, I fall into the former camp. I'll be the last person in the world to disrespect the contributions that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made to the genre. Lee was the first writer to try and put real problems and complex personalities into his characters. Kirby was one of the spiritual godfathers to the genre, who revolutionized the way perspective was used in comic panels and no mean writer himself.

Still, it cannot be denied that while The Fantastic Four WERE an important contribution to the tone of the Silver Age, they were created in response to the popularity of the Justice League of America. The Justice League of America was made primarily of retooled Golden Age superheroes, including Barry Allen; The Flash.

Still, as heated as the beginnings of the Silver Age are, there is even greater debate as to what event marks the end of the era. Most those who argue the subject generally agree upon the end of the Silver Age falling within the same rough span of a few years but there is little consensus as to what specific event marked the end of the Silver Age and the age that followed.

I say "the age that followed" because even the name of this age, and its' very existence is a point of contention among comic historians. There are some who put the end of the Silver Age even further back than the early 70s, marking its end with the death of the hero who they believe started the Silver Age. Barry Allen sacrificed himself to save the universe from being ripped apart at the seams in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 in early 1986.

1986 would prove to be an important year in the comic industry and the start of the last agreed upon turning point for an age to start with. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, as we still have the most argued upon age to deal with.

The Bronze Age: 1970ish to 1986

The most contentious age of the four rough ages that comics' history is divided into, this one boasts a number of "beginning" points. The only major agreement between all those who argue one major event over another is that most of the comics of this time began to tell more mature, reality-based stories than anytime since before the introduction of the Comics Code.

Indeed, many of the "starting points" involve books that were published in defiance of CCA guidelines in order to tell a story that could make a difference. Many mark Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May 1971), where Stan Lee wrote a subplot about Harry Osborn's problems with pill-popping and Peter saving his "tripping" friend while wondering how he could do such a thing to himself, as the start of the Bronze Age.

A scant three months later, DC would go one-step further in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85, when they revealed that Speedy (sidekick to Green Arrow) had become a heroin addict while trying to infiltrate a gang. While Marvel got their anti-drug issue out first, DC won more attention for being more specific about what drugs were involved (heroin vs. "pills") and in giving the addiction to a teenage superhero rather than the superhero's best friend.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow itself is held by some as the start of the Bronze Age. The book had been simply Green Lantern until Issue #76, when it was taken over by the new team of writer Dennis "Denny" O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.

O'Neil had the idea of teaming Green Lantern with fellow JLA member Green Arrow, whom he wrote as an idealist liberal like O'Neil himself. He then began to push the genre by doing stories centering upon political issues and moral quandaries. No more would Green Lantern fly off to stop intergalactic bank-robbers; not when he had to reconcile his soul with the difference between upholding law and order and serving justice. Who should he help? The property owner attacked by his renters or the young man arrested for protesting against the landlord who was kicking people out of their homes to sell the land for a huge profit?

O'Neil's work on Batman during these same years is also heralded by some as the start of the Bronze Age. In these years following the release of the purposely campy Batman television series, the Batman comics suffered from the same type of cornball humor and hackneyed plots. With the introduction of new villains such as the environmental terrorist Ra's Al Ghul, O'Neil slowly turned Batman back into The Dark Knight Detective with a heavy emphasis on the dark. The giggling criminals were put to the wayside for a bit as Batman was made into a James Bond figure; saving the world through the use of keen intellect, raw cunning and a heck of a lot of wonderful toys.

Still, what is probably the most popular "start" point for the Bronze Age is The Death of Gwen Stacy (Amazing Spider-Man #121, June 1973). Countless writers have marked that event as a major turning point in the life of Peter Parker which still haunts him to this day. Indeed, writer Kurt Busiek based the last issue of his famous "Marvels" mini-series around her death and titled the last chapter "The Day She Died", paralleling her death with "The Day the Music Died". As much as the death changed Peter Parker, it would shape the comics-reading public even more. Marvel Comics had broken the unspoken rule that the hero ALWAYS saved the girl at the last moment and it was truly a momentous occasion.

And there are dozens of others points that can and have been argued as the start of this new age of comics. Conan The Barbarian #1 (1970) brought a hero who had no qualms about killing into regular publication for the first time in years. Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975) is often held up, as it introduced the first major superhero team made up of an international cast.

Still, for my money, I have to agree with the infamous Unca Cheeks of the much missed Unca Cheeks Silver Age Comics Site in that the defining end of the Silver Age and start of the Bronze Age had nothing to do with a comic story. It had to do with the movement of a legend.

In 1970, amid arguments of unfair treatment among other problems, artist and writer Jack Kirby would leave Marvel Comics, the company that he had helped found as Timely Comics and helped grow to new heights in the 60's, in order to continue his work with his former competition at DC Comics. Marvel was never quite the same after Kirby left and DC grew all the richer for his years of experience. While some of Kirby's creations are looked upon with a fair amount of ridicule today, his creation of 'The New Gods' and 'The Fourth World' left a heavy mine of material that has been put to good use by countless scribes since. And lets not forget, he created Darkseid who is probably the best new villain Superman has had in the last fifty years.

Still, it is widely agreed that no matter what kicked it off, the Bronze Age did come to a definite end in the mid-80's with the introduction of the first inter-company crossovers. While crossovers were nothing new at this point, doing a major story featuring dozens of characters from several books was.

Marvel was the first to attempt this with 'Secret Wars' (1984), a story in which Spider-Man, The Hulk and several members of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Defenders and X-Men were pulled from the Earth by a being called The Beyonder, who wished to test the strength of both "good" and "evil" in an epic battle on an abandoned planet.

A year later, DC Comics would publish the twelve-part story 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'. The story centered upon the villainous Anti-Monitor, ruler of the Anti-Matter Universe, who attempted to destroy the myriad of matter-based realities. Many heroes were killed and numerous Earths destroyed. In the end, only one universe survived and the refuges of the various destroyed worlds were absorbed into the reality of this new Earth.

This was as much a house-cleaning project as it was an attempt to match the success of Secret Wars. DC scrapped the history of numerous alternate Earths in an attempt to make their comics more accessible to new readers who wondered why in some comics Batman was married to Catwoman and in others he wasn't.

This brings us to 1986 and the books that lead to the creation of the next age of comics.

The Modern Age/The Dark Age: 1986-1996.

There are two books which it is generally agreed ushered in the fourth age of comics: 'Watchmen' and 'The Dark Knight Returns'. Both of these comics were mature, thoughtful and definitely darker looks at the superhero than had ever been seen before. Watchmen was particularly gruesome, having starker portrayals of death, sex and adult subject matter than any mainstream comic beforehand. Still, despite its more graphic content, DKR was all the more shocking as it took two of the most familiar superhero icons in the world (Superman and Batman) and set them to war against one another in a dystopian future.

Both comics were critical and financial successes, inspiring a great deal of commentary from critics outside of the traditional comics-reviewing media. Spurred on by this success, the publishers began trying to market more titles exclusively to adult audiences.

DC had the most success with this, establishing the Vertigo Press imprint to better label their more dangerous properties. This included such notable series as The Sandman and Hellblazer, both of which started out as standard DC titles. Never making the jump to Vertigo, but no less controversial, was Mike Grell's Green Arrow, which drew sharp criticism and high praise for its' accurate, if unsettling, portrayals of vigilante justice and the violence involved.

Marvel never had the success with an adults-only imprint that DC did, but this didn't stop them from trying. As the age progressed, violent heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher became more popular, with the latter hero supporting several titles at the height of his popularity.

The anti-hero as a figure would eventually become the paradigm of choice for many creators and many more traditional heroes had darker sides grafted onto their personalities, no matter how poorly this fit their character, in an attempt to be more "gritty". In one particularly grievous example, the Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who had been given superhuman powers for being the bravest and most honest of men, would have his background changed so that he had a drunk-driving conviction and was responsible for the death of his best friend.

Image Comics, founded in 1991, would go to press with a stable of original characters made up of almost entirely of anti-heroes. While Image's comics sold quite well initially, they drew sharp criticism from some for excessive violence and poor writing.

Despite this, many of the more established comic companies began trying to imitate the success of the new kids on the block. Artists with styles similar to the "Big Seven" artists who founded Image Comics were given job preference over the more traditional artists in the hopes of winning over new readers. New gimmicks, such as restarting titles with #1 issues and alternate covers were tried, to win the dollar of the many comics fans getting into a burgeoning collector's market. And then came what many say was the final nail in the coffin: character death events.

The precedent was there long before even Image was founded. It was 1988 when DC conducted a telephone poll to determine if Jason Todd, a street kid who Bruce Wayne had adopted and trained as the new Robin after the old Robin left for college, should be killed by The Joker as part of an on-going storyline. The fans chose death, with a mere 72 votes out of thousands deciding the world's most famous sidekick's fate.

The death of Robin proved to be a sales bonanza even as armchair psychologists decried what such a vote said about our society. They would be strangely quiet some four years later, when DC Comics did it again with a story that came to be known as "The Death of Superman". Batman was put through a similar ringer, having his back broken and being permanently crippled during the "Knightfall" storyline. While both heroes would eventually recover (Superman was later revealed to be in a coma and Batman was healed by a chi-channeling doctor), the third of the classic DC Comics heroes to undergo a "death event" that year would not be so lucky.

Hal Jordan, the most famous of the many to be called "Green Lantern", had his home town was destroyed during the events of "The Return of Superman". Jordan went mad and wound up destroying The Green Lantern Corps as he tried to get steal the power he needed to "put things right", after he attempted to use his powers to restore the lives of all the innocents killed during an alien invasion he was not there to stop. This would eventually lead into 'Zero Hour'; a sort-of sequel to 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' spanning all of the books DC Comics published then and centering around all of the heroes of the universe trying to stop Hal Jordan from using his newfound power from destroying the universe, so that he could rebuild paradise and in-effect, play God.

DC was far from alone in this kind of gimmick-based writing. In what is perhaps the most reviled comic-book storyline of all time, it was alleged that the Peter Parker we'd been reading about for years was not really Peter Parker, but a clone of the original who had been "killed" and thought to have been a clone himself before his body was stuck in a smokestack and assumed incinerated. This would eventually and painfully be resolved some years later, but not before Spider-Man's sales fell to new lows.

In short, writing fell to the wayside in favor of artwork. Gimmicks of both story and artwork ruled the roost. And traditional heroism would be replaced by a "the ends justify the means" attitude.

The Current Age/The Renaissance: 1997 to Present

Some argue that we are still trapped in this era of barbarism. Avengers is soon to start over with a new #1 after several of the team members are due to die as part of the "Avengers Disassembled" storyline. Despite a major crash in the late 90's, the collector's market spurred on by several artists still continues albeit it not as strongly. And despite all attempts by decent people everywhere, Youngblood continues to be published as a small-press independent title.

Still, there are some signs that we have truly progressed out of the Modern/Dark Age and that a new movement has begun. Change occurs slowly, of course and as we have seen, there were some long transition periods marking the changes between the various ages. It is my belief that we are now entering a Fifth Age, where we are somewhat the wiser for the mistakes of the Dark Age and ready to move forward with that knowledge to create something new and wonderful as a tribute to our roots. Like the Italians who looked back at the great artistic and scientific achievement of their Roman forebears, we are on the verge of a Comic Book Renaissance.

But what event shall we say marked the beginning of this era? I can think of two to start with…

  1. Kingdom Come – 1996. Probably the most influential Elseworld Story within the last 10 years, this story was plotted by Mark Waid and Alex Ross as a direct response to the increasing darkness in the comic book industry. If you haven't read it by now, you really should as the story's moral about the importance of heroes not stooping to the same methods as the criminals they fight against is more relevant in the post 9-11 era than ever before.
  2. Grant Morrison's JLA – 1997. It all began with a simple idea; why not make the Justice League like it was in the good ol' days? All the big-name superheroes fighting against major, end-of-the-world disasters, once a month, every month? Simple. To the point. And bloody brilliant when a mad Scotsman named Grant Morrison pulled it off. Best known for his work on various Vertigo mature titles, Morrison showed that it was possible to do a smart, mature modern superhero title with an old-school touch.

So what do you all think? Was the "Dark Age" really all that bad? Is there some story besides Kingdom Come or the new JLA that shows a shift away from the values of the Dark Age? Are we really entering a new age of enlightenment? Or are we, to quote the preacher from Blazing Saddles, "just jerking off?"

As always, my mailbox is open to debate.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

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