Brightestdaylogo In January, the two biggest comic book publishers each announced major new initiatives. DC announced “Brightest Day,” a long-form limited series that would follow on the heels of their “Blackest Night” crossover- promising the return of bright and shiny heroes after the recent darkness. Marvel announced the Heroic Age- a cross-title branding which includes a re-launch of several major titles that similarly promises the return of heroes who were truly heroic after a period of
moral ambiguity. Most fans seem to be excited by the prospect whether they’re looking forward to something new or fully anticipating a return to greatness for their favorite comics and heroes
. The similar and concurrent announcement of a new direction prompts some big questions, beyond the success of individual series. For example: is this the beginning of a new age?

Ever since someone first coined the term “the Golden Age of Comics,” comic book fans have loved to define the history of comic books in ages. Maybe the categorization speaks to the collector mentality in us- the same way that we’re attracted to long-boxes, price catalogues and online databases.

There are five general ages of comics. The first three- the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages- have fairly widespread acceptance as terms. You even encounter them in populist places like eBay. The Golden Age refers to the first comic book boom, in the years before, during and after World War II. The Silver Age refers to the second comic book boom, from the late ‘50s to the late ‘60s- the same time period when many baby boomers were young. The end points of the Bronze Age are less-agreed upon, but the age itself spans the ‘70s and ‘80s (most suggestions range from ’70-’85 or ’74-’90). It includes the third comic book boom, which is generally associated with the rise of the direct market.


Then, there are two more ages, though these are less-attested for a number of reasons (including the fact that they’re both fairly recent). The terms that seem to be used the most widely are the Image Age (after one
of the dominant publishers of the time) and the Modern Age (though that will necessarily change should we move into a new age; after all, the Bronze and Image Ages were once considered the Modern Age). The Image Age describes the time of the late ‘80s and early to mid-‘90s when comics boomed
again, partly based on a market of investment speculators. The Modern Age started with the new century, when a major upswing in sales followed a major lull in the late ‘90s.

(Personally, I like the terms Chromium Age and Platinum Age for the last two, in keeping with the metallic sounding names of earlier ages. But I suppose I’m going to have to come to grips with the fact that I’m alone in this as those names haven’t caught on).

A lot of fans like to define ages in terms of a single starting point and a single end point. In some cases, this is fairly easy or obvious. For example, the Golden Age started with Action Comics #1 and the
introduction of Superman.
In other cases, it isn’t as clear-cut. Some suggest that the Golden Age ended with World War II while others point to 1951 or ’53 and the cancellations of Golden Age stalwarts like All-Star Comics or Captain Marvel. While it’s fun to argue those kinds of details, the arguments themselves
demonstrate that the end-points may be handy references but the truth is more complex.

Showcase4 There are several distinguishing features that define a comic book age. First, there is the expansion of new titles and new publishers. This is accompanied or even instigated by the introduction of new characters. This rise can be quite rapid as was the case in the late ‘30s when hundreds of characters were created in the wake of Superman. However, this rise can also be quite gentle. For example, fans like to cite the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash in Showcase Comics #4 as the comic that launched the Silver Age. But the Silver Age expansion
didn’t take place for several years (Showcase #4 was in 1956; Supergirl, the new Green Lantern and the Justice League of America debuted in ’58, ’59 and ’60).

Second, there is a noticeable increase in popularity and sales. As much as
some critics may try to argue that comic book ages are defined by quality, critical acclaim or internal continuity, the truth is the single biggest determining factor in determining an age is sales. If you were to look at the sales of comic books over the years, you would notice peaks- sometimes sharp ones- in the ‘40s (during WWII), in the ‘60s, in the ‘80s, in the ‘90s (when Youngblood became the first
comic to sell a million or more copies since WWII) and in the ‘00s (when comics enjoyed seven straight years of growth from 2000 to ’07).

Wonder_Woman_v.1_98 That’s not to say that those other aspects are irrelevant. Changes in continuity can serve as useful markers within a specific title’s history. For example, Wonder Woman is considered to have entered the Silver Age with 1958’s issue 98 as she was given an updated origin at that time. There are also clearly differences between the ages in terms of writing and artistic styles. For example, the transition in Marvel’s Amazing Adventures in 1971 from Jack Kirby to Neal Adams provides a stark contrast in terms of Silver and Bronze Age styles. A similar transition between Bronze and Image Age styles can be seen in Marvel
Comics Presents in 1990 as the title moved from John Buscema and John
Byrne to Erik Larsen and Rob Liefeld. However, those changes are
significant when they are accompanied by- or even when they give rise to- a boom.

Third, there is a decline in sales that leads to the cancellation of many titles and even the cessation of several publishers. This is significant. The Golden Age didn’t end because All-Star Comics was cancelled or because Fawcett Publishing (the company behind Captain Marvel) went out of business. The Golden Age ended because almost everything was canceled and because multiple companies left comics. All-Star Comics and Captain Marvel are cited as markers or end-points because they were some of the last titles standing. This decline can be spread out over a significant amount of time. The Golden Age decline took about a decade, which leaves room for some events to mark the beginning of the end (the end of WWII) and others to mark the end of the end.

1-1 Also, I should make the caveat that when we’re talking about comic book ages
we are primarily talking about superheroes. For many, comic books and
superheroes are so intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish between the two. But that wasn’t always the case. When sales of superhero comics were falling in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the overall sales of comics were actually going up thanks to the popularity of other genres such as westerns, romance, horror and funny animals. That’s one reason why I reject Conan the Barbarian #1 or House of Secrets #92 (the first Swamp Thing) as starting points for the Bronze Age. They may overlap and coexist with the Bronze Age, but they represent other genres.

That’s a short treatise on the ages of comics. Hopefully, it helps us understand our terms so that we can answer our initial question: is this the start of a new age?

The short answer is “Possibly yes.” However, we won’t know for sure for some time. It’s hard to define an age when you’re in the middle of it. The Golden Age was named long after it was over. Wait 5, 10 or 20 years. In that time, we will have a clearer picture, a better idea and the benefit of perspective.

In the meantime, there are a couple of major reasons to think that this might not be the beginning of a new age.

First, it’s not clear that the current age is over. The current age experienced a long run of success. As previously mentioned, there were seven straight years of growth from 2000 to 2007. That string of
success has been broken as the comic book industry has experienced slight declines in the last two years (’08 and ’09) and is now back to the sales levels of ’05 and ’06.
But we are not yet at a clear nadir. Comic books haven’t bottomed out. So it’s possible that if these new ventures- Brightest Day and Heroic Age- are successful, they will represent a resurgence in the current age rather than a new age unto themselves. We have seen resurgences before, such as the late Silver Age when the Batman television show brought additional popularity to the comic books.

However, I will offer my own counter-point. It is possible to transition from one age to another without one. We’ve seen it before. There was no big bottoming out between the Bronze Age and the Image Age. That’s what makes it so hard to define the two (and why some pundits refuse to recognize them at all). They are clearly different, in terms of tone and style as well as sales peak (’85-’86 for the Bronze Age, ’92-’93 for the Image Age). But they also seem to overlap in ways that earlier ages did not. Newuniverse_housead

Second, it isn’t clear that you can start an age intentionally. Surveying the long history of comics reveals several attempts to declare one venture or another to be the beginning of a new age of comics. Most of these attempts failed and failed miserably. The most noteworthy example is Marvel’s New Universe in 1986. The company compared the launch of the new line to their entry into the Silver Age in 1961. It would be, Marvel declared in advertisements, the dawn of a new age. Instead, it was a dismal failure that contributed to the firing of then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.

It doesn’t appear that you can intentionally set out to start an age of comics. A new age begins when someone does something that’s unusually and phenomenally successful. And while that’s welcome, it can never be planned or predicted. Instead, what happens is that other people imitate the success and they become successful in turn. Before you know it, there are multiple successes from multiple companies featuring multiple characters in multiple titles and comic books are enjoying a new boom. If it could be planned in a writers’ summit or a shareholders’ meeting, it
would happen all of the time and we wouldn’t have the nadirs that plague comics again and again (or the repeated choruses sounding the death knell for comics every couple of years).

Finally, it’s too early to say that Brightest Day and Heroic Age represent a new age in that we don’t know whether or not they will be successful. I hope they will be. After all, it is good to see both major publishers making an intentional attempt to stimulate interest in comic books without waiting for a full nadir. I wish them a ton of success. But it’s way too early to know if they will be successful, let alone know whether that success is the start of a new age.

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Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on February 27, 2010 at 9:49am
Very interesting article, Chris (and on one of my favorite topics!). Regarding the Age To Come, you've captured my two thoughts in your concluding paragraph: 1) I hope so, and 2) time will tell.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on February 27, 2010 at 12:28pm
I'm always uncomfortable with attempts to continue "age" periodisation down to the present.

In the 30s and 40s adventure comics were often crude and/or violent. After the introduction of Superman there was a boom in superhero comics, which faded out in the mid to late 40s. Although the stories were often crude, the number of superheroes created makes the period look creative. Coming into the 50s comics cut back on pages, and hence features, and many new comics were genre anthologies, horror, crime, war or SF-themed, that didn't rely on series characters.

In the Silver Age there came a new superhero boom, a wave of great creativity, and (perhaps a bit later) shifts in style that made superhero comics more melodramatic, more soap-operaish, and less little-kid oriented. At Marvel and DC there was a movement away from genre anthologies. (Some introduced genre series, others became superhero features.) In the war genre series heroes were introduced who lasted into the 70s or 80s.

Coming into the 70s styles changed further, a number of creators who'd been prominent at DC departed the industry or changed their styles, former fan creators arrived at Marvel and DC, and the Comics Code was relaxed. Comics remained a mass medium mainly aimed at kids. Fewer lastingly-successful new characters were created. (Horror-themed characters were added to the Marvel and DCUs earlier in the decade: Dracula and Ghost Rider were the most lastingly successful. There was a wave of martial arts characters, of which Shang-Chi had the most success. DC had some success with new western heroes. There was also a wave of black heroes, mostly from Marvel, of whom Luke Cage had the most success. The Punisher was introduced in the 70s, but his break-out success came in the 80s.)

By the early 80s Marvel and DC were raising the average standard of their lines, and feeling the need to break new ground with their bread-and-butter characters. Genres other than the superhero genre were dying off. More new creators were coming into the industry. Fans and creators were very interested in continuity. Superhero comics still had a mass-marked audience but were in the process of becoming fan-oriented. Few lastingly-successful characters were created.

So I think it makes sense to speak of the Golden Age and the Silver Age, although the former is a somewhat fuzzy concept since it's not clear whether it means "that period when the industry was new, the storytelling was crude, comics were more violent, and all kinds of things were being created" or "the first superhero boom". By the Bronze Age I understand the period from the transitions that mark the end of the Silver Age to those that marked the transition into the 80s.

I'm less familiar with comics after the 80s. I suppose the speculator boom was a distinct period, since it brought with it new companies and characters which were wiped out when the boom collapsed. But does the post-speculator boom industry really break up into distinct ages? Is there the same kind of contrast between superhero comics of today and of fifteen years ago as there was between the superhero comics of the mid-70s and those of the early 60s?
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 1, 2010 at 8:50am
I believe that the disconnect lies in the fact that the Golden Age was the "Golden Age of Comics" whereas the Silver, Bronze and subsequent ages are the "Silver/Bronze Age of Superhero Comics" specifically. I have come to accept Craig Shut's definition of the beginning of the Bronze Age (Giant-Size X-Men #1 for Marvel and New Teen Titans #1 for DC), and "Modern Age" is a term I use for whatever the current age which has not yet been defined. For example, I used to say "Golden Silver and Modern," but now I say "Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern." Actually, I say "Golden, Silver, Bronze and something else," but that's another topic for another time.
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 2, 2010 at 7:54pm
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm going to use them for a follow-up column.
Comment by Figserello on March 2, 2010 at 10:49pm
As usual, I'm impressed by your use of sales figures to back up your argunments.

At first I was a bit put out that you were measuring 'Ages' of a creative pursuit in sales figures, but it is an industry where sales follow successful new storytelling fashions, so the two are interlinked.

Going by sales, there's no way you could argue for chromium or platinum ages as we get closer to the present. More like tin or iron pyrite Age! Sales have completely collapsed since the 60s. Even since the 80's. I have a copy of Rom from the early 80s with the postal details column in it that seems to show they printed 300,000 copies and sold 158,000. I'm sure Rom wasn't even one of the best sellers of the time.

A major crossover would kill for those sales today.

We're in a kind of Dark Ages at the moment, in regard to popularity.

Taking the ages as being divided up according to content, its clear that Gold Silver and Bronze are different, with the advent of the fan-creator being the hallmark of the Bronze Age, as well as the whole 'illusion of change' philosophy that became entrenched around then.

As to what followed the Bronze Age, I'm fine with the Dark Age, where the industry replicated Moore and Miller's Grim'n'Gritty without replicating their y'know, great writing and creativity.

As to what followed that be-knighted Age, I really like the name put forward in this blog post. The Prismatic Age. It's very long-winded, and overly stylised, but I summarised it in this post on the lost, unlamented Aztek series.

Basically, for the last 15 years we've been fed endless variations and reflections on a few themes and stock characters. Legacy characters, clones, reboots, rehashes, resurrections, evil duplicates, thinly veiled 'tributes' etc.

It's driven by the Big Two corporations pushing their core 'brands' and also by the refusal of savvy young creators to 'gift' those corporations with new ideas and concepts that said creators won't benefit from in the long term. The third factor is the conservatism of the core (horribly diminished - see above) market in clinging so long and hard to what they know. (I'm as guilty as anyone myself...)

I think this 'endless reflections' Prismatic concept defines our present age.

I don't see Heroic Age/Brightest Day as anything other than another marketing push, like Heroes Reborn/Return etc before them.

The big thing that has marked the last 5-10 years of superhero comics has been the dominance of the 'Hyper-story' like Bendis has been steering at Marvel, and DiDio has overseeing at DC since Identity Crisis. They are a new development and define our present moment, whatever they will lead to.

For a true new Age to begin though, the paradigm would have to shift so that sales shot up beyond the current core fanboy audience, who can only add to the sales of one group of titles by dropping others. Otherwise we are stuck with our current endless variations on the theme.
Comment by Figserello on March 2, 2010 at 10:51pm
Curse this lack of edit facility!

Here's the link - The Prismatic Age
Comment by Luke Blanchard on March 2, 2010 at 11:48pm
That's a sharp observation, Fig, about Marvel's and DC's hyperstories.

I don't think the traditional format comic book is going to start reaching a mass audience again. My hope is that comics storytelling will be successful in other formats.
Comment by Figserello on March 3, 2010 at 12:37am
I more or less agree with you about the sales. When I wrote that, I was conscious that the only place to buy comics is a comics shop. Given that the monthlies are probably essential in making the collected TPBs etc viable, the current marketing model is stuck with the small fanboy market share.

However, I think 'Civil War' probably did break out of that market a little. I think people bought the monthly that normally wouldn't buy a comic, or hadn't in a while. It's probably pertinant that it a) seemed to be real change in the MU, not the illusion of change (hah!), b) it tried to go beyond the usual good versus evil superhero template and c)it seemed to tie in closely with current events of the day.

Many people blame the collapse of comics sales to the mass audience over the years on the loss of these qualities in comics.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 3, 2010 at 9:29am
The cynic in me agrees with Figs' observation: "I don't see Heroic Age/Brightest Day as anything other than another marketing push, like Heroes Reborn/Return etc before them."

I also agree with the "hyperstory" paradigm; whether or not that defines an "Age" remains to be seen.
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 3, 2010 at 12:43pm
I agree that's the most likely scenario but it was fun to speculate otherwise.

Another observer signing up for "more of the same" rather than "a new age" is Heidi MacDonald of The Beat. She noted that Marvel released a teaser image for their post-Siege stories featuring a death in silhouette.* A shocking death isn't exactly an auspicious beginning to the new Heroic Age.

*reminded me a lot of Countdown to Infinite Crisis and the death of Blue Beetle.


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