Looking To The Stars: What's My Age Again? – 2007

I recently added another hat to my collection.

This week, I became a Scholar in Residence for an on-line course on Information Resources and Services for Graphic Novels and Comic Readers. Or, in plain English, I’m helping one of my old professors give librarians who want to know more about comics and manga a crash course in Graphic Literature 101.

It’s been great fun so far and the work has given me a renewed enthusiasm for the genre. And what is more, it’s had me go back and reread and rework some of my old writings into lectures regarding points that either were not covered in the reccomended readings or not covered well enough to my liking.

What follows is an expansion upon a piece I wrote over three years ago regarding the various Ages of Comics. Quite a bit has changed in the last three years and I thought it worth noting that the Ages seem to have shifted again.

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IN THE BEGINNING (PRE-HISTORY TO 1938)

Ignoring all discussion of cave paintings being an early form of comic book, mythological heroes such as Hercules and the Catholic Saints being the world’s first superheroes and the point that many periodicals in the 1800s 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 comic strips. This led to the publication of original material in the same format and the art-form began to develop.

THE GOLDEN AGE (1938 TO THE MID-FIFTIES)

One of the few points the majority of historians agree upon is that the so-called Golden Age of Comics began with Action Comics #1 and the first appearance of Superman.

Now, Superman was not the first tights-clad crime-fighter. Nor was he the first comic hero with unusual powers. But Superman was the first character to mix elements of the legendary hero (amazing powers far beyond those of Mortal Man) with the traits of a mystery man/masked hero (secret identity, theatrical clothing such as capes and tights) and develop a major following – a following that turned Detective Comics (soon to be renamed DC Comics) into the world’s largest publisher of superhero stories and sparked a host of imitators.

Superhero books continued to grow in popularity throughout World War II, with heroes such as Captain America fighting Nazi Ubermensch. Still, it is worth noting that 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. Westerns, romance and true crime comics were also major genres at this time.

But immediately after the war ended, the superhero genre began to slowly become less popular as horror and true crime novels began to grow in popularity. By the start of the 1950’s, all but the most popular of the superheroes had lost their books. Even Captain America was canceled and All-Star Comics– the book of The Justice Society, the first superhero team book ever – was changed to All-Star Western.

Is this when the Golden Age ended – with the slow death of the superhero genre? Some think so. Others say it came later in 1954 when the book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ killed off the rest of the industry.

What’s ‘Seduction of the Innocent’, you ask? An article in and of itself.

The brief version is that a noted psychiatrist, after years of waging war on the comic publishers over “indecent content”, wrote a book that got a lot of attention and the major publishers established a voluntary code of conduct – The Comics Code Authority – that all but made it impossible for any genre except superheroes to be published.

This is why, even today, the superhero genre is synonymous to comics with the majority of Americans.

Fun Fact: Later comic-book writers would, in retroactive continuity stories, explain away the disappearance of superheroes in the 1950s by tying them into real world events or events based on those real world events. For example, the Justice Society was said to have chosen forced retirement rather than reveal their secret identities to Sen. Joe McCarthy, who found all the mystery men “suspect” and demanded that they unmask on live TV or be arrested.

For a good tale of the Golden Age heroes of DC Comics and an alternate time-line story of how they dealt with Post-War life, I highly recommend the graphic-novel The Golden Age by James Robinson.

THE SILVER AGE (THE MID-FIFTIES TO THE EARLY-SEVENTIES)

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”. The original Flash had been an aspiring college athlete who gained amazing speed powers after a chemistry accident in his college classroom. The new Flash was a forensic investigator who gained his powers after being struck by lightning and thrown through a shelf full of chemicals.

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 a death ray into orbit with the launching of Sputnik.

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 fantastic rings created through alien technology rather than a simple train engineer with a magic lamp and ring.

One major point of contention worth mentioning here is that some people – 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.

Why? 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 the era 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 and housewife someday.

4. Said girlfriend’s teenage brother, who was more interested in retooling his car and using his powers to pick up girls than he was in saving the world.

Now, 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. And Kirby was one of the spiritual godfathers to the genre, who revolutionized the way perspective was used in comic panels and was 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 a superhero team 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 of 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 beginning of 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 ahead 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 (THE EARLY-SEVENTIES TO 1986)

The most contentious age of the four rough widely-accepted ages that comics’ history is divided into, The Bronze Age 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 mature, reality-based stories for the first time since 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, all the 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 Roy Harper a.k.a. 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 an actual teenage superhero rather than the superhero’s best friend.

The Green Lantern/Green Arrow series 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 speaking out against the landlord who selling his land for a huge profit while leaving dozens homeless?

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 Ra’s Al Ghul, O’Neil slowly turned Batman back into The Dark Knight Detective with a heavy emphasis on the dark and the detective. 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 THE major turning point in the life of Peter Parker, which still haunts him to this day.

In fact, 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 single 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 reach 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 let us not forget he created Darkseid, who is probably the best new villain Superman has recieved 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 between individual books 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 DARK AGE (1986 TO THE MID-NINTIES)

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 adult-oriented 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 solo 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, had his background changed so that he was serving time for drunk-driving 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, whose home town was destroyed during the events of The Return of Superman, went mad and destroyed The Green Lantern Corps as he tried to steal away the power he needed to “put things right”. 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 build 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 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 an “the ends justify the means” attitude. Thankfully, this movement would come to an end after a decade.

THE RENNISANCE/LIGHT AGE (THE MID-NINTIES TO TODAY)

Some argue that we are still trapped in this era of barbarism. Despite a major crash in the late 90’s, the collector’s market for alternate covers spurred on by several popular pin-up artists still continues to move on – albeit it not as strongly. Many publishers are once again giving preferential treatment to artists over writers. And in the last few years, both Marvel and DC became more and more obsessed with big, bloody event books, such as the recent Civil War and Identity Crisismini-series.

Still, there are some signs that, for a time at least, we progressed out of the Modern/Dark Age and that a new movement was started. 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 some ten years ago, we entered a new era somewhat the wiser for the mistakes of the Dark Age, 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 entered a Comic Book Renaissance.

But what event shall we say marked the beginning of this era? I can think of three candidates over five years…

1. Kingdom Come – Probably the most influential alternate future story within the last 15 years, this story was plotted by Mark Waid and painted by 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 – 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 at the time 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.

3. J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man – winner of an Eisner Award for his first six-part story, Coming Home, it is theorized by some that JMS won the award not for writing the best comic story of the year but for writing the first post-Clone Saga Spider-Man story that was any good. Regardless, his uplifting tale of Peter Parker trying to help people in his new position as a teacher while fighting a super-predator who feeds on the life-force of people with animal-powers struck a cord with many readers and brought new blood into a failing franchise.

For the most part, most of the comics of the last few years have been increasingly optimistic in tone. Yes, there has been a fair amount of death and violence but the general message that good will triumph over evil rings out loudly. The Justice Society of America got their own book again during this period and it continues to be published monthly with several heroes of The Greatest Generation serving alongside the teen titans of today

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So where do we stand today? Well, despite some misgivings on the return of some Dark-Age gimmicks, I believe that graphic literature in America is stronger than ever. Over the last ten years, independent publishers have begun to branch more and more into genres outside of superheroes. Horror is once again the most popular genre apart from superhero tales and Shojo-Manga style comics are bringing a new generation of female readers into the hobby.

Tune in next week! Same Matt Time! Same Matt Website!

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