A pantheon of new gods in capes and cowls were introduced in the Golden Age (pre-1950s). Bigger business and the Comics Code refined and cultured the industry into superhero escapades during the Silver Age (1950s and 60s). In the Bronze Age (1970s and 80s), comics got real with darker story lines, shady elements—clearly not just for kids anymore.
Realism and relevance invaded the comic world as heroes fought less against aliens and more against drugs, racism, and death. More and more titles were dealing with real world issues instead of just caped adventurers battling beings from other galaxies. Green Lantern stopped policing the universe to go cross country with Green Arrow to help ‘regular people’, and in the process found out that Arrow’s own sidekick Speedy had become a heroin junkie. The X-Men faced off against Magneto, but had more trouble dealing with mutant prejudice and racism.
Events beginning the bronze age
- Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC. Arguably, the Silver Age ended with the breakup of one of the most mythic combinations of talent ever, Lee and Kirby. Though almost all rights for the comics ultimately belonged to the company, pencil artists were allowed to keep their originals, and they usually sold them on the open market. When a number of Kirby’s key works mysteriously vanished, it began the feud that caused Kirby to leave the House of Marvels that he himself had helped build.
- In 1970, Marvel published the first comic book issue of pulp character Conan the Barbarian, a reintroduction of 1930s pulp elements in comic books. Combined with an established ‘underground’ comic community, great talent could be found in a variety of books from many different places.
- In 1971, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do a comic book story about drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story, Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. Banned by the CCA, he ran it anyway without the CCA seal of approval.
- DC Implosion: In the mid 1970s, with Carmine Infantino at the helm, DC flooded the market with numerous new titles such as Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Steve Ditko’s Shade the Changing Man. The company referred to this as the DC Explosion. DC greatly overestimated the appeal of so many new titles at once and it nearly broke the company and the industry. Marvel eventually gained 50% of the market and Stan Lee handed control of the comic division to Jim Shooter while he worked with their growing animation spin-offs.
- For many, the most significant event of this age was the murder of Spider-Man’s long-term girlfriend Gwen Stacy at the hands of the Green Goblin in 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man #121-122. A villain killed not just an innocent, but the woman Spidey loved. The scene in question is one you’ve seen in Raimi’s Spider-Man movie, on the bridge. Our hero is given a choice. Whether Goblin killed her or Spidey broke her back trying to save her is a moot point. In the book, she died. For real. Comics would never be the same.
The very industry that was saved by the code in the 1950s was being stifled by its censorship and its resistance to change and evolution. The great revolt against the Comic Code Authority began with the best intentions (and government backing), and thus they were forced to revise the code in 1971. The revision to the Comics Code allowed drug use (in a negative light) and also relaxed the rules on the use of vampires, ghouls and werewolves in comic books, allowing the growth of a number of horror-oriented titles, such as Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, and The Tomb of Dracula.
Following trends of Blaxploitation and Kung-Fu movies, minorities became more common. “Sweet Christmas” Luke Cage was the first black hero to star in his own title, and Shang Chi was the master of martial arts (and bore an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Lee). While some criticized reinforcement of ‘stereotypes’, the end result was a more diverse and realistic comic universe.
New Gods of the Age:
- Writers: Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Jim Shooter, and Roy Thomas
- New realism was reflected in art styles of John Byrne, Frank Miller, George Perez, and Howard Chaykin
- Chris Claremont helped revive the X-Men back into their own books in 1975, becoming a new mainstay of the Marvel universe and one of the biggest franchises of the 1990s
- Steve Gerber’s work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck was also very influential with its philosophical impact of questioning society
Some new innovations saw two heroes sharing half a book each in double feature comics, or popular heroes teamed up with lesser selling heroes in full length stories—Green Lantern & Green Arrow, Marvel Team-Up—and even cross-company crossovers between DC and Marvel, such as Superman Vs Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. Reprints and Reissues of old books, as well as resurging independent comics, led to the creation of the ‘Graphic Novel’ and the ‘mini-series.’ Comics had again returned to a variety of sizes and formats.
From the page to the screen and back again, the stories went cross-media. Comics were big business, and becoming part of the big Hollywood money machine. Cartoons based on comics were followed by a surge of comic adaptations from other media like movies or even toys, from Star Wars to GI Joe and Transformers. The 1978 Superman movie is one of the biggest of all time. Saturday morning cartoons were flooded with Spider-Man and Superfriends.
The Bronze Age was a return to Golden Age sensibilities, non-superhero books and pulp fiction with pictures, and a coexistence of mainstream icons both on the page and on the big screen. Crisis on Infinite Earths at DC, and Marvel’s own Secret Wars were huge multi-issue, multi-title events bringing each side of the industry into a cohesive whole. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns heralded the end of the Age by deconstructing the mainstream comic book form and taking it to a new level, creating a new dystopic reality for our beloved heroes. It wasn’t just escapist media anymore. It could also be intelligent literature—a harsh look at ourselves and our own ideals.
The Dark Age (aka Iron Age, or to some the Adamantium age) brought the best and the worst that comics had to offer, polarizing the industry. The rise of such Anti-heroes as Wolverine and Punisher saw them becoming two of the most popular mainstream ‘heroes’ of the time. This ultimately led to unsavoury protagonists like Venom, Cable, a new darker Daredevil, and Spawn, who became the norm rather than the exception as people became too cynical to trust in the squeaky clean Old Gods. On the other side of the fence were fantasy, horror and “sophisticated suspense” as comics became works of fine literature with imagery.
Unfortunately, one of the most identifying characteristics of the Dark Age was the involvement of teams of lawyers, as comics became entrenched in the courtroom rather than the newsstand.In the UK, American comics like Captain Marvel were reprinted in black and white until Fawcett Comics ceased publication due to a lawsuit from DC comics in 1954. Mick Anglo was called in to help revive/continue the series and Captain Marvel became MarvelMan. Similar in concept and premise to its predecessor, it ran until 1963. In 1982, Alan Moore took over the series that he grew up reading and adoring and in so doing touched on many themes of his later work (including the superhero as a source of terror, the sympathetic villain, and exploring the mythology of an established fictional character). Neil Gaiman took over the book at issue 17, and began three new arcs: Golden Age, Silver Age, and Dark Age (though it never progressed past issue 24 in the midst of the Silver Age). One of the most groundbreaking and trailblazing comics ever printed was eventually mired in a heap of legal woes and disputes over who really owned the masterpiece, a legal quagmire that continues to this day.
In the 1980s comics were finally allowed to be imported into the United Kingdom in their original form, and a new surge of talent from overseas began the British invasion of the American comic industry. Seemingly not entirely trusted by the comic publishers, the Brits were usually given ‘worthless’ properties and freedom to create. Alan Moore took over and reinvented Swamp Thing in 1982, turning the protagonist from a scientist disfigured by accident and seeking revenge to a plant elemental with a deep mythology he described as “a plant that thought it was Alec Holland, a plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.”
Please, Sir, I Want Some Moore
The lazy British genius who transformed American comics.
In 1989, Neil Gaiman was given the reins to reimagine the 1970s character Sandman, originally drawn by Jack Kirby as a gas-masked crimefighter with a sleep-gas gun. Together with long-time collaborator artist Dave McKean, Gaiman wove a profound and expansive mythology about Morpheus, the King of Dreams and his Endless siblings. Like dreams themselves, each book was a series of semi-related ethereal stories, usually drawn by different artists, which added to its dreamlike quality, capturing the imagination and enrapturing the soul. McKean’s cover art was stunning—thought-provoking mixed media representations of paintings and sculptures more likely to be found in an art exhibition than in some ‘funny book.’ Sandman would eventually be the cornerstone of DC’s Vertigo imprint, comics for ‘mature readers’ focusing on a whole new audience. While the series lasted only 75 issues, its effect on not just the comic industry, but the realm of fiction and storytelling itself, are still felt today.
The Sandman issue #19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” won the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for Best Short Fiction. It was believed the award was given reluctantly to a work that clearly wasn’t a ‘real book’, and the committee changed the nomination criteria the next year to prevent such nonsense from happening again (though they have since denied any such change of the rules).
This helped inspire an infusion of fresh, brilliant talent from overseas—writers such as Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, and Garth Ennis, and artists such as McKean, Brian Bolland, and Dave Gibbons. Not to be outdone, ‘local’ artists such as Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, Rob Liefeld and other creators also began to embrace celebrity status as fans began following their favourite artists and writers rather than particular titles and characters. It didn’t matter what (or where) Frank Miller was creating. Ardent fans would find and buy his work, be it Batman (DC), Daredevil (Marvel), or Sin City (Dark Horse). This superstar fanbase based on creator talent, as well as the seemingly endless legal battles and disputes over ownership, helped launch a new wave of independent and creator-owned publishing.
Jack Kirby’s dispute over the rights to the work he created, as well as the influence of vocal proponents of independent publishing, helped to inspire a number of Marvel artists to form their own company, Image Comics, which would serve as a prominent example of creator-owned comics publishing. Newcomer Valiant Comics began publishing specialty comics and sold more than 80 million comic books in its first five years, becoming one of the largest companies in the American comic book market during the 1990s. Valiant folded by the end of the decade, and eventually even Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996.
Amidst the clamour of great works coming from just about everywhere, the Dark Age also saw the Speculator Market boom and crash. With the rise of specialty comic shops, price guides, and the desire for rare and valuable special editions, publishers released an endless stream of variant or alternate version covers for ‘collectors.’ Books were no longer simply entertainment, but investments. Ultimately this lead to an overkill of foil covers, action figures and card collectibles until the market was flooded, making each ‘collector’s edition’ practically worthless.
The Dark Age saw the rise of the Neo-Silver movement, makeovers of iconic heroes and entire universe reboots. There is no defining line between this and the Modern Age, other than the passage of time. In the next installment, I’ll be looking at the current comic industry, and where it’s headed.