Green_lantern_76 For the past two weeks, I’ve written articles about the various ages of comics. It’s an admittedly academic topic, but one which fascinates me (and interests quite a few readers, judging by the number of comments generated by the past two columns). The first column speculated as to whether or not DC’s Brightest Day and Marvel’s Heroic Age are the start of a new age (probably not, but I hope they at least lead to a resurgence in the current age which is beginning to stall). The second column defended the existence of a Bronze Age, a term used to describe the third comic book boom.

In discussing the existence of a Bronze Age, I neglected to define it. Happily, the Legion of Superfluous Heroes (otherwise known as the members of the Captain Comics Message Board) took up the task. The discussion centered on two main theories. The first is that the Bronze Age lasted from 1970-1986, starting with
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (sometimes in conjunction with other key issues
of ’70-’71). The second theory is that the Bronze Age lasted from 1975-1986, starting with the introduction of the all-new X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #4 (with 1970-1974 serving as either a period between ages or a proto-Bronze Age). Both theories shared a common end-date of 1986- the year that the Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars II brought significant changes in both tone and continuity. Those weren’t the only theories- there are still those who reject the concept of a Bronze Age and others who offer a different end-point- but they seem to be the main ones.

This week, I want to move beyond that part of the discussion. What comes after the Bronze

Wa One major view is that nothing comes after the Bronze Age. Luke Blanchard wrote, “The last twenty years seem to me one long period.” Jeff-of-Earth J described the ages of comics as “Golden, Silver, Bronze and something else.” Wikipedia- a reflection of popular consensus-agrees. It follows entries for Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages with one for a Modern Age, encompassing everything from 1987 until now.

I’m on record with another view. I admit that I’m probably departing from the majority on this one. But I think that the past twenty-five years contains at least two distinct ages, bringing us to a total of five.

I see several different factors contributing to the beginning of the Fourth Age (which, for now, will remain nameless).

One is the change in tone initiated by Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Those two stories led comics to a different approach that was clearly distinct from the comics that came before. Story-telling was darker and more mature, which is why one of the most popular names for this period is the Dark Age (a quick aside: those two features are not always the same thing though they’re often treated that way). Those two works paved the way for other successful properties such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and DC’s Vertigo imprint. Byrne

Luke Blanchard is right when he writes, “I don't know that the post-Crisis DCU immediately got darker.” It didn’t.But the Silver Age didn’t happen over-night either. The new Flash debuted in 1956. Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t enter the Silver Age until 1958. Green Arrow and Aquaman entered the Silver Age in different years despite co-starring in the same title. Some people even argue that Batman didn’t enter the Silver Age until his “New Look” in 1964.

Another factor giving rise to the Fourth Age is the change in continuity. This was especially apparent at DC. Fans even developed a new lexicon of “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” to refer to the many changes wrought by that series. This became particularly evident to me when I recently read the trade collection of Superman: Man of Steel. The changes to the character, the cast and the universe were far-reaching. The changes were so significant that the editorial and accounting departments actually credited the writers with creating new characters (Marv Wolfman mentioned in a preface that he receives royalty checks for creating a new version of Lex Luthor). In its way, the introduction of a new Superman in Man of Steel is as significant as the introduction of a new Flash in Showcase #4. This time, the new Superman was followed by a new Wonder Woman, a new Justice League and a new Flash. In a couple of years, Marvel followed with new titles for Spider-Man and X-Men.

That leads us to several more factors. The previous ages were all defined, in part, by an expansion of new characters, new titles and new companies accompanied by
a noticeable increase in sales. Well, that is certainly true of the Fourth Age. The Fourth Age brought Dark Horse (1986), Malibu (1987), Valiant (1991), Image (1992),Topps (1992) and Malibu’s Ultraverse (1993). Marvel and DC also expanded rapidly. The result is that the early 1990s saw more new companies and more new characters than any era since the Golden Age. Did all of these characters and companies succeed? No. But that was also true of the Golden Age. Most of those characters were canceled quickly as well. On the other hand, many characters from this period achieved popularity, longevity or jumped to other media (a category that includes Cable, Deadpool, Spawn, Hellboy,Witchblade, Static and Hitman).

The early ‘90s can also boast of publishing the most titles since the pre-Comic Book Code 1950s and achieving the highest individual sales since WWII. Yes, you read that right. The early ‘90s beat the Silver Age on several (though not all) peak markers. I know that many older fans don’t want to give this era the status of an official age, but objectively, it stands out as much as the Silver Age did.

Of course, all of this could be true and we’d still be dealing with only one post-Bronze Age era if not for another factor. There is a very clear end-point. In the first article, I mentioned that previous ages were characterized- not by the cancellation of one title such as Captain Marvel or X-Men- but by the cancellation of many titles and even the cessation of multiple publishers. This was true of the Golden Age. This was true of the Silver Age. This was partially true of the Bronze Age. And this was dramatically true of the Fourth Age. Static01

The comic book market, propped up by speculator and investment buyers, collapsed in 1996 and 1997. Almost all of the aforementioned companies went out of business or were sold. Even Marvel, the biggest publisher in the industry, declared bankruptcy. And both Marvel and DC slashed their titles until they were publishing between one-third and one-half of their peak numbers. The shock to the industry was so significant that George cites it as the end of the Bronze Age (which didn’t have the cataclysmic ending of earlier ages). And even Luke Blanchard seems to agree with me (phew! I didn’t want to disagree with Luke on everything) when he writes, “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.”

That’s a beginning, a middle and an end. That looks like an Age to me- the Fourth Age of comics.

Views: 284

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 17, 2010 at 8:27am
For the pst several years I've been reading reprints of comics from every decade which were not published by Timely/Marvel or National/DC, and I now tend to see superheroes as only a part of comics' rich history. It is only by the necessary addition of the phrase "of Superhero Comics" that I'm able to discuss comic book "Ages" at all.

I'm currently hard at work researching the "Earth-J Theory of Everything" (I still haven't settled on a proper name), but it's still going to take several more weeks of reading before I'll be able to compile and present my finding, if ever. ;)
Comment by the_original_b_dog on March 17, 2010 at 9:01am

I think I'd peg the key comics of the age that followed as Morrison's JLA (1996) and Busiek's Avengers (1997). Around them you can congregate lesser selling but influential titles such as Robinson's Starman (1994), and Busiek's Marvels (1994) and Astro City (1995).

I think you often can find progenitors to each age: Wolverine for the Dark Age, a grim-and-gritty character before most other characters became grim and gritty. If you consider the Silver Age to begin with Fantastic Four No. 1 in 1961, then the revival of the DC superheroes are progenitors, too. I wouldn't consider the current age to begin as early as Marvels in 1994, because that was before Marvel's bankruptcy. But it could count as a progenitor.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 17, 2010 at 9:30am
If we're looking for progenitors of the so-called "Dark Age", let us not forget to mention GrimJack, the very title for which the term "grim 'n' gritty" was coined!
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 17, 2010 at 3:46pm
George wrote:
I don't think we should let nostalgia blind us to whether something is good or bad. I was a child in the '60s and a teenager in the '70s, but I sure don't revere everything produced in those decades (in comics and other fields). There was some great stuff and a lot of worthless junk. The '80s and '90s also brought great stuff and worthless junk.

If my childhood tastes were all that mattered, I'd be collecting those awful "Mighty Crusaders" comics that Archie put out in the late '60s (Fly-Man, Steel Stirling, the Black Hood, etc.). I loved 'em as a 7-year-old. But I have no interest in wasting my time or money on them today. I'd probably also be collecting "The Brady Bunch" on DVD. But I'm not.

In reality, there never has been a "golden age" where everything was wonderful. Every era brings a mixture of good and bad.

Oh, absolutely. I have learned the hard way that I shouldn't watch most of the cartoons of my youth (including Scooby Doo and Super Friends). Even though I loved them as a kid, they're really bad and they should be left to my childhood. The same goes for some of the fantasy novels that I read as an adolescent. They are not worth re-reading as an adult, though that doesn't mean I can't recall them fondly. Actually, not re-reading them as an adult makes it easier to recall them fondly.

And yes, the same goes for some of the comics that I read as a kid (in the '80s) or as a teenager (in the '90s). They are not all good.

But, in another sense, that's not really the issue. As you pointed out, George, every age is a mixture of good and bad. Every age has its gold and its garbage.

So it doesn't necessarily hold water to say the comics of the Iron Age (or Chromium Age, or Dark Age, or whatever) aren't good enough to be called an Age. Not when we look objectively at the comics of earlier ages. Consider the comics of the so-called Golden Age. They're pretty crude (I believe our own beloved Captain Comics has even used that word to describe them). They're rough stuff. But that's not what people remember about them. They remember the newness, the excitement, the sense of wonder. I'm going to get in trouble with some of the members of this board for saying it, but consider the Silver Age as well. The stories are very simple and, especially in the case of DC, formulaic. This is not great literature that we're talking about. But that's precisely why some people feel nostalgic for it. They have fond memories of the simpler, more innocent time reflected in those comics (whether it was real or not). That's not a bad thing. I enjoy a lot of Golden Age stuff. Some of it does reach the level of literature (there's a reason why I have a bookshelf with Spirit Archives). And even the bad stuff can be a lot of fun in the right frame of mind (there's a reason I used to buy the Men of Mystery Golden Age reprints).

But I can't say, "that was all good" and "this other thing over here is no good." I do find merits to the comics of the Iron Age- the energy, the excitement, the newness (kind of like the Golden Age). It was a "Golden Age of Action Comics." Plus, there are the objective markers indicating that this was a significant era, including heights that occasionally outsold the Silver Age.

But, no, I won't say that it was all good. There was a lot of chaff with that wheat, or duff with that whatever-the-opposite-of-duff is. Of course, that was true of the Silver Age, too. After all, the Mighty Crusaders were part of the Silver Age and you're right, that was some pretty bad stuff.
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 17, 2010 at 3:50pm
the original b dog wrote:
I like the name "Dark Age." I think it fits rather nicely for an era starting in 1986 (Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen) and concluding ... well, I just don't know when. But I think that era is already over.

We also have the speculator boom and bust of the '90s, which shut down many comic-book shops and nearly destroyed Marvel

That, in a very, very rough nutshell, is why I think Dark Age fits. The question is, when does this era end? I'm not really sure, but I certainly think it's over. 2000, maybe?

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that era came to an end (even if we disagree about what to call it). I pegged the end date as Marvel's bankruptcy in 1996. However, I could be convinced that the bankruptcy was more of a "beginning of the end" like the end of WWII for the Golden Age.
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 17, 2010 at 4:04pm
b dog, I think you're onto something with the idea of progenitors. As much as I love the books that Figserello mentions, it's hard for me to objectively argue that they launched a new age. I love that era- Marvels, Kingdom Come, Astro City, Heroes Return, etc. I even wrote some huge posts about it in the days before I had a column and I labeled those comics and that era as Reconstruction. But while they reversed some of the creative trends that had defined the previous age, they didn't exactly lead to a new boom in terms of comic book sales. Sales continued to bottom out in the late '90s and didn't start to bounce back until 2000.

To me, they're a lot like the Relevance era of the 1970s. Despite the influence of Green Lantern/Green Arrow on other titles (especially Titans), the title didn't actually lead to a commercial resurgence. The Titans were back in costumes by 1975. The real Relevance issues of GL/GA were over in about a year and a half. It helped point the way to the age that would come next, but the age wouldn't really get off of the ground until the return of the Uncanny X-Men (and yes, I know, I've gone with GL/GA as a possible start date but despite the the conventional wisdom, I still think that Mr. Silver Age makes a lot of sense on this subject).

Another significant progenitor is the short-lived superhero boom of 1953-54 . This was a quick response to the success of the Superman television show. It never quite caught on in the comics. But it did give us some interesting tidbits- the 1950s Captain America currently appearing in Captain America again; the mysterious Starman of 1953 from James Robinson's excellent title; the Fighting American. It also laid some of the groundwork for the Silver Age. Sterling's Captain Flash was the first hero to get his power through radiation, beating the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk to that claim by several years. Captain Flash's costume is also a progenitor for DC's Silver Age style (especially the Ray Palmer Atom).
Comment by George on March 17, 2010 at 4:31pm
"Crude" is a good word for most golden age comics. You also need a high tolerance for racism to read some of these stories without gagging (i.e., the depiction of the Japanese during WWII). The golden age did produce some high quality work -- I don't know if I'd call it art or literature, but it was certainly well-crafted entertainment. The output of Eisner and the Quality Comics line comes to mind: The Spirit, Plastic Man, Blackhawk, Doll Man, etc. Most of that stuff is far superior to the output of DC and Timley/Marvel in the '40s.

What do you think the current age should be called? I'd go with "Crossover Age," because of the popularity of comics material in other media (especially movies) and the growing acceptance of what used to be called "geek stuff" or "nerd stuff." Even jocks think our hobby is cool now! Plus the growth of graphic novels, trades and manga in bookstores, not just comic shops.
Comment by Chris Fluit on March 17, 2010 at 4:41pm
My column on the current age should come out on Friday (blatant plug alert).
Comment by the_original_b_dog on March 18, 2010 at 12:26am
I think it's hard to name an age while you're in it. I wouldn't have necessarily thought of Dark Age or Chromium Age or whatever during the '90s. That's why I think Modern Age works well as a moniker until a permanent one becomes evident later (assuming it ever does)!
Comment by the_original_b_dog on March 18, 2010 at 12:39am
A thought: You could tie in with the current age with the rise of successful superhero movies, perhaps even with the first X-Men. I think that movie led Marvel, under Quesada, to clean up the X-Men line -- even though there have been several different attempts at that. JMS coming to Spider-Man more or less coincided with that movie. Waid was brought onto Fantastic Four in anticipation of that movie. And lately the focus has been on the Avengers franchise, with those movies under way.

Another factor in the current age, as George mentioned, is the editorially driven, major-league crossovers, books such as Final Crisis, 52, Secret Invasion, Civil War and so on. The writers on the books seems to hold more sway now, whereas in the '90s, the Image effect asserted that it was style over content. But at the same time, computerized coloring has matured and really helped advance the look of comic books, usually for the better.


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