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 Figserello on March 18, 2010 at 1:09am
I argued in Alan M's thread that the movies in turn were very influenced by the Ultimate line of comics. Spider-man X-men and the Avengers all followed that template to some degree.

Anyway, the trouble with bringing in superheroes acceptance into the pop culture in movies etc in the 'Modern Age' is that we risk sidelining the comics altogether. Most of my friends and family are no much more savvy about comics than they were 5-10 years ago and allow that they have merit, but they still don't read the things.

The comics are an irrelevance compared to the massive bucks involved in the Hollywood movies.

Also the linking with the movies only applies to Marvel.

The Dark Knight might be the first seriously presented and received superhero blockbuster, but it was hugely removed from what was going on in the comics from DC at the time.

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)!

I agree, but its always fun to speculate. And free! Bring it on.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 18, 2010 at 2:50pm
"Hypercontinuity" seems to dominate the current age ("...of superhero comics")... whatever it ends up being named. Sturgeon's Law applies to any Age of comcis.
Comment by George on March 18, 2010 at 4:28pm
"The (Silver Age) stories are very simple and, in the case of DC, formulaic. This is not great literature we're talking about."

Well, don't bash the Silver Age too much, Chris. In my opinion, no writer has equaled Stan Lee's run on Spider-Man from 1962 to 1972. Nobody comes close. Certainly not Todd McFarlane.

Only Byrne came close to matching Stan's work on the FF. Only Simonson came close on Thor.

I won't argue that Stan Lee produced great art or great literature. What he produced was consistently well-crafted entertainment that broke from the cliches of the past. It was funny, exciting and surprising -- especially when compared to what other companies were publishing. And every now and then, on some of those Kirby-drawn FFs and Ditko-drawn Spideys, he did approach art (or literature).

I don't regard the majority of Bronze Age or Chromium Age comics as literature, either. For every Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, there were a dozen hacks filling pages to meet deadlines. Jeff's line about Sturgeon's Law is on target, and it does apply to any age of comics.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 18, 2010 at 4:54pm
"Only Byrne came close to matching Stan's work on the FF. Only Simonson came close on Thor."

I was planning to make those very points in response to Chris's upcoming column.
Comment by Figserello on March 18, 2010 at 8:16pm
With res[pect... (heh, heh)

Byrne updated the FF and made it slick again for that generation, but he was very much riding on Stan and Jack's coat-tails, in true Bronze Age fashion.

Simonson's Thor went back to first principles and was much better at invoking the sense of wonder and excitement that Stan and Jack invoked, but did it by breaking new ground in plotting, pacing and art, much as they had done. He copied their drive to innovate and push the medium rather than just thier ideas and concepts.

Instead of using Stan and Jack's work as his starting point (like Byrne) he went back to the Eddas and sagas that had inspired them so was able to do original stuff with the tired old Thor franchise.

I don't see them being on the same level at all.

If we are going to talk about Silver Age stories that came close to art, then Swan's Superman has to get a mention. Elegant, beautifully finished, humerous, iconic, full of symbolism and metaphor, all the drives and states and aspirations of humanity pared down to simple brightly coloured fables. They're the dog's you-know-what.
Comment by Figserello on March 18, 2010 at 8:44pm
As I say, Chris, looking forward to your thoughts on the Present Age. Not sure how I feel about basing it just on rising and falling sales. Surely the content matters too?

There was definitely a strong sea-change in content and the fashions comics were following that became mainstream around 96-97, even if that wasn't reflected in overall sales. The deliberate movement to stop the bleeding of fans and the harm done in the previous 10 years is obvious. Even if they didn't bring more fans into the medium (although they did), they did bring writer-driven quality into previously marketing-department driven comics production. It's a highly significant sea-change in how comics were breing produced.

I don't have your grasp of the numbers, but I can't help but imagine that the difference in sales between 1996 and 2001 are only different degrees of abysmal compared to the Silver Age or even Bronze Age numbers.

With collected editions becoming the only way a huge swath of the market has been buying superhero comics since this time, there is an argument that the sales of all those comics I mentioned still haven't stopped racking up, which your criteria doesn't cover. They've all probably been in print longer than not over the last 15 years. The comics we agree were great from these few years are a wave of superhero comic gold that is ludicrous to bunch in with your speculator boom-driven Chromium Age.

A subtext of the last few posts might be that Ages are judged on their best examples, rather than their Sturgeonic Aggregate.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 19, 2010 at 10:28am
Figs, we're going to have to agree to disagree on what degree Walt Simonson drew on the original Lee/Kirby classics!


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