Several posts back I talked about the new age of comic books, the current era, which has been quite unique in its style and media presence. I called our modern comics era the Mercury Age due to its fast paced storytelling and penchant for drastic change. Today however I would like to go through and further define the various stages of development of the comic book industry as I see them, and offer up my suggestions for the eras that have for the most part gone undefined.
The Golden Age of Comics– 1930’s to early 1950’s
The Golden Age is very familiar with most comic book fans, it is the age that started it all. The Golden Age produced many of the icons of comics that are still around today, characters that are pillars of the entire industry. Detective Comics was the powerhouse of the day, and established the indelible style of that company. I would describe this era as a highly imaginative time where creators worked hard to set their characters apart from other heroes. However though the character designs were very stylized and unique the plots of this era seem fairly interchangeable. Initially almost all superhero characters dealt exclusively with street level crime, gangsters, corrupt businessmen, etc. Even supernatural and science fiction elements that were employed by villains dealt primarily with petty crime or personal gain. During the time of World War II comics of course gained a very distinct patriotic tinge, practically becoming propaganda. This worldly shift in tone lead to a larger scale in the stories being told. Having the comics take place overseas or showing heroes aiding the war effort on the home front helped broaden the superhero scope. Inspired by the media of the time this era can best be described as radio dramas with pictures, heavy on narration and very flat, interchangeable stories. Though the individual heroes were quite outlandish there came to be a general pattern which most comic books ascribed to. With the advent of television this style of storytelling became less and less popular.
The Silver Age of Comics– 1950’s -1960’s
After a short lull in comics after WWII when there was no longer the need for such enthusiastic patriotism there came a reinvigoration of comics with a new focus; high adventure in the atomic age! New characters were popping up all over with origins dealing with radiation and scientific achievement. Old characters were being altered and reinvented, doing away with vague mystical elements and tweaking powers and origins to include more plausible, science based logic. The cold war and the space race kick started some of the most outlandish and memorable tales in comics history. The mysteries of space and the wonders of atomic power fueled the imaginations of comic book writers and the nation as a whole. Fear and wonder during this time were also put to use selling alien invasion stories and horror comics. Several comic book publishers rose and fell during this highly creative era, which saw the rise to prominence of Marvel comics which had its own golden age during this Silver age. Here is where the concepts of continuity and the development of in-comic universes began to solidify. The various publishers tightened their focus while at the same time widening their scope laying out their own distinct views of the world as it was in their comic book stories, during this period there was a discovery through storytelling. The comic book industry was still figuring itself out and didn’t exactly take itself serious, but there were crucial developments in style, art, and writing. Overall I would describe this era as high concepts, with low execution.
The Bronze Age of Comics– 1970’s – early 1980’s
An important time in comics. This era saw a greater development of the comic book industry and its established characters. During this time writers spent a great deal of time explaining earlier concepts and aided the various universes to flesh themselves out with a great sense of continuity. There was a desire to experiment during the bronze age. Established characters were put into new and unusual circumstances and new characters were introduced who had more socially relevance, continuing the evolution of the stories told in comic books. A new time of zaniness emerged, reminiscent of the Golden Age, but with a much greater self awareness. There was a more satirical tone during this time, with more social commentary not often found in comics prior. Social change and political unrest were rampant in the country at this time and though these issues are not always directly addressed in the comics of the Bronze Age there was a much greater use of comics as a platform for addressing cultural concerns. The two major comic book universes at Marvel and DC were broadened to their greatest scope. During this time comics start to become a more commercial outlet featuring movie comic book adaptions and other comic book tie-ins. The comics of this time range from street level crimes, to interstellar wars, to mystical realms, and classic horror stories. There are many new developments during this time but the major work of this era deals with building up and reinforcing the established comic book universes, while at the same time providing greater insights and cultural awareness.
The Tarnished Age of Comics– 1980’s -1990’s
Here is where we get into uncharted territory, this time period is most commonly referred to as simply the modern age of comics, which I believe at this point is a bit passé. Here begins a time of pessimism and realism in comic books. The same familiar comic book universes that were established in the decades prior were now given a distinct patina across their once shining exteriors. During the tarnished age the comic book industry starts to mature, due in part to an increasingly older readership. Comics are no longer simply kids stuff and those who read comics as kids continued reading and were interested in more complex stories. This is an age of darker tales, more realistic premises, dynamic events, and humanistic plots that do not shy away from depth, complexity, or social commentary. Continuity becomes more important than ever and a new generation of readers and writers delve into angsty character driven plots. This period is also tainted by company arrogance from the big comic publishers, which are at this point are becoming large corporations. This era saw the height of the commercialism of comic books and the extensive use of variant covers, and special rereleases to boost sales. Fueled by the booming collectors market for older comics publishers believed they could make a substantial profit by encouraging their readers to buy up the plethora of exclusive and “hard to find” printings that were being cranked out. This lead to a comic book collectors bubble of sorts which eventually imploded discouraging comic fans and nearly bankrupting the bloated comic book industry. This of course lead to a rise of new upstart comic publishers that attempted to break away from the corporate mindset of the old guard at Marvel and DC allowing their writers and artists to retain all rights to their creations and allow for a wider range of subject matter and grittier, more mature reads. Dark Horse and Image comics are byproducts of this era.
The Mercury Age of Comics– 2000’s to present
This is the age that is still in development, an age like no other. I call this age the mercury age due to the fast paced mutability of the comics industry nowadays. Comics are now completely corporatized; both DC and Marvel are now parts of enormous corporate media conglomerates. The smaller comic book publishers like Dark Horse and Image are now firmly established as the alternate choices for fans who are tired of the “same old thing” while also providing some of the most creative and dynamic comic books and graphic novels. Independent comic writers now gain substantial popularity and notoriety, so much so that they are highly sought after to be part of the creative teams on titles at the big two publishers, effectively turning the tables on the once dominate superhero genre. In the mainstream DC and Marvel universes small intimate character driven stories are all but forgone in favor of larger cross title arcs that have a wider impact. Few titles, even books based on single superheroes, actually deal with just one hero instead they incorporate any number of various characters from across their respective universes. Characters are dealt with more realism than ever. With the advent of the internet and the fast paced flow of information in our modern day, comic books have learned to adapt along these lines as well. Superheroes no longer simply fight crime, the characters are portrayed with a great sense of self awareness and the characters are written with more concern for how they are portrayed in the media and with a greater understanding of manipulation of information technologies. At this point there seems to be a greater inkling that everything has already been done in the superhero genre and so therefore the landscapes of the major comics universes need to be shaken up. This is one of the most prominent features of the mercury age, change, death, events, additions, and topsy turvy stories that skew the idea of the status quo and continuity dominate the comics landscape. To make things interesting and to develop original plots creators seem urged to tear apart the established universes, and effectively deconstruct the superheroes. However the changes made in these events are often inconsequential, fleeting, and either quickly reversed or completely forgotten about almost immediately afterward. Congealing and separating like mercury.
As I’ve said these are simply my thoughts on the subject, and though I might seem to be casting some kind of judgment on certain time periods, I’m really not. I can respect all points in history of the comic book industry and I understand that it is a constantly evolving and changing medium that will/must find new ways to attract more readers. Also these definitions are of course in broad general terms and there are countless examples of titles from each era that go against those generalizations. If you don’t agree with what I’ve laid out here, or have some additions/corrections you’d like to make, feel free to leave me your thoughts in the comments. Since there is probably no chance that I will ever be able to contribute directly to the developing comic book universes, maybe there is a chance that I can indirectly affect the business by defining these previously undefined eras. So if you agree with what I’ve got here do me a favor and start dropping the phrases “Tarnished Age” or “Mercury Age” into your everyday conversations with your fellow comic book fans and when they give you a confused look just pretend like it’s an established thing, and that they should already know what you mean. I don’t need any credit, let’s just get this started!
That is all!