Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Like all things, comic books developed over time, in comics varying phases of development are called ages. Pundits and hobbyists often debate the exact moment a certain age began or ended. Though certain eras are pretty much given, The Golden Age started in the late nineteen thirties with the rise of the iconic titles Batman and Superman titles. In the late fifties and early sixties the Silver Age began with the rise of Marvel. It was a period where superheroes dominated the market and heroes lived by a code of honor, though this code was often forced upon the writers. Many people have given different times when the Silver Age of comics ended and was replaced by the Bronze Age, but I date it squarely in 1973, when Spider Man inadvertently kills his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, in an attempt to save her. The Bronze Age was an era of darker and grittier stories that tackled topics like racism and drug use.
There were two more ages after the Bronze Age, the Dark Age and the Modern Age. Many people lump these two periods into one, calling the combined epoch the Iron Age. If the hallmark of the Bronze Age was mature more “realistic” stories then the Iron Age took this trend “up to eleven.” Heroes were out and anti-heroes were in. Writers and artist had more control over their creations. In the terms of the early eighties that spawned the Iron Age, it was both heinous and awesome.
The dark part of the modern era crept up on us in the eighties, with the publications of two titles. Alan More’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Up until Miller’s opus, when most American’s thought of Batman they envisioned the campy sixties Adam West or the cartoon Super Friends version. TDKR set in a near future dystopia where Bruce is fifty-five years old and has put up the cowl, but crime has risen to such a high level that Gotham needs him again. Batman was no longer a joke, but a certifiable bad ass once more. This is the concept of Batman that Tim Burton glomed onto when he made his movies and the Batman that America has looked to ever since.
TDKR and Miller’s Batman: Year One, redefined Batman. This was a very good thing for the stagnant Batman franchise, but it had repercussions on comics in general. In the past if a new writer came on board a title, the change was pretty much seamless, maybe a little difference in writing styles, but the core of the property stayed the same. But with Miller’s success it gave license to any new writer to basically ignore president and redefine a primary character in any way they felt fit. This would lead to some very incoherent stories that practically ignored what came before them.
In 1986 Alan More’s The Watchmen was published by DC, set in a different universe than it’s main titles. It took expys of classic golden age heroes and made them all too human. The Joker was now a deadly government agent, Bat Man had became an impotent has been until he put the mask back on. Wonder Woman is an unfulfilled child prodigy with a demanding stage mother, and The Question turned into a raving ultra-concretive lunatic. I love those guys.
With The Watchmen the comic buying world was flipped on its collective head. Heroes with human flaws had been seen before but not like this. With the exception of radioactive powered blue skinned Dr. Manhattan, all the heroes where at the level of maximum human ability, not super powered. You don’t get that way, then plop on a mask to beat up baddies, because you are a paragon of mental stability. The heroes where powered by their neurosis and psychosis. Watchmen and Dark Knight opened the door for the Dark Age of comics.
When DC embraced darker story lines. Marvel felt it had to follow suit. They took B list baddie The Punisher, who up until then had been trying to kill Spiderman and gave him his own title. In the age of Bernie Goetz, an anti-hero gunning for drug dealers and third string villians sold big time. X-Men was marvel’s lead product, Their ensemble cast’s setting was a no brainer for angst and human foibles. The bled into other Marvel titles with characters with problems in the past had story lines that highlighted their issues, like Tony Stark’s alcoholism.
Though the term graphic novel had existed for decades it came to prominence during this time. Collected stories began to sell better than they had in the past. This forced the titles to focus on arcs with a beginning a middle and an ending. It also allowed stand alones like The Watchmen to flourish. It also changed how some people read comics. They ceased to be serials, read every month, a reader could now make two or three purchases a year and keep up with a full year’s story line. This changed how some people digested the story, they no longer had to remember where they had left off the month before.
The Iron Age was the time that owner owned publishers began to flourish. It is no secret that traditionally publishers screwed writers and artist out of profits. This came to light when the Superman movie came out and it was revealed the creators Joel Siegel and Jim Shulster, not only weren’t getting a penny form it but also that they were both living in poverty at the time. Image was created by writers and artist to counter the policies of DC and Marvel. The line did not own the rights to any of the creations. The only thing they held a copy right to was the companies logos and name. This not only allowed creators to profit from their creations it also gave them more creative control.
One of the worst aspects of the Iron Age of comics was the rise of misogyny in the industry. Comics had always been mostly targeted to young males, so there was always was a bit of cheesecake and wooden female charters inherit in the genre. But this period saw a proliferation of gritty female characters whose only purpose seemed to be to look sexy. Dark female anti-heroes began to rival their male counter parts. Titles like Lady Death, Pergatori and Witchblade all had profitable runs. In many titles female characters were scantily clad. Misogyny and in some times out right torture of female characters became a hallmark of this style. Eventually a lot (not all) of the excessive treatment of Iron Age ladies was rolled back.
Comic books became more expensive as the transitioned away from supermarkets and drug stores into comic book stores. Many began seeing pristine comics as an investment, buying one copy to read and another to stay in a Mylar bag, for future resell. It seemed like a logical investment with value of the original Superman comics. The comic investment bubble though went bust because of over production and the fact that so many people did sock away the titles that supply almost always outweighed demand.
During Comics Silver Age, the number of non-superhero comics greatly diminished. Before that period besides the cape and cowls there were romance, horror, sci-fi, and westerns, as well as many other titles. Other than eternal teenager Archie, most non-spandex titles disappeared. In the Iron Age horror comics began to sneak back inside the hero books, with Alan More’s run on Swamp Thing, and Lovecraftian horror appeared in Niel Giamans Sand Man. Though once banded by the Comic Code Authority, horror comics are once again en vogue with The Walking Dead.
Other titles began to stray away from traditional supers, Los Hermonos Hernadez hit it big with a fictionalized version of my home town Oxnard Ca in Love and Rockets. Art Spieglmen’s heart wrenching story of his parents survival in a contraption camp, where the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazi’s as cats, Maus, is a touching classic on a painful topic. And even Sci-Fi movies comics have had an upsurge in sales with Dark Horses Aliens, Predator and Firefly titles. Though heroes are still the big draw, there are more and more non power related stores out there now.
One of the defining factors in the modern age of comics is the use of color. Before the eighties color was limited, but the use of computers allowed much more colors in the stories. This made the tones both brighter and darker, allowing for more contrast. Trying to copy the success of Japanese anime such as Akira comic book art not only added more colors but also more shading. This is seen is the very Iron Age art style that still exist today.
So what is the next age of comics? I like to call it the Digital Age. Less and less product is coming out on paper, but instead digital medium. Marvel is offering all their monthly titles as a download. The comic book Godkiller is also releasing video as well as print stories. More and more superhero and comic book stories are now being made in to movies and TV shows. I see the next big thing is more digital mediums coming out as well as multimedia projects for our favorite heroes.