Comic Books Through the Ages, According to Me

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.

Golden Age Green Lantern before the changes of the Silver Age

The Golden Age Comics: Radio Dramas with pictures.

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 Fantastic Four propelled Marvel Comics into the Silver Age

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 Bronze Age brought humanity to the super human

 

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.

One of the most memorable moments of the Tarnished Age

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.   

Event books dominate the comic book landscape of the Mercury Age

 

Independent comics take their place in the industry during the Mercury Age

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!

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A Requiem For Comic Books OR Enter the Mercury Age

So it has been awhile since I’ve bought comics regularly.  Money is tight these days.  The wife and I recently bought a house, there is a financial crisis lurking around, and when it came to saving my hefty weekly comic book fund was put on the chopping block.  A shame to be sure, but I kept up as best I could by reading a few forums and checking out the publishers official sites and browsing sites like Newsarama and others.  I’ve picked up a few trades now and again but it’s been almost two years now since I’ve stopped reading comic regularly.

Well the other day a few friends and I paid a visit to our once regular comic shop.  We were making the journey to see what was new and to help point out some good X-Men trades for one of our group who was just getting started down the long winding X-Men path.  While we were pointing out trades and suggesting writers from the X Universe that she might enjoy, she made the off-handed comment that Wolverine seemed to be in a lot of these books.  The more veteran comic enthusiasts among us had a good chuckle.  Someone mentioned Wolverine’s apparently unspoken ability to warp time and be in every place at once, and I joked that Marvel should just make a new title that consisted of nothing but Spider-Man and Wolverine and just get it over with.  We chuckled and sighed.

However after I said that, one of the shops other patrons, who just happened to be lurking around nearby, walked up to us and said “You joke, but that’s actually on about issue three now.”  It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about, but then he walked over to the shelf and pointed down to a book entitled “Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine #3

Grueling hours of writing must have been put into creating this concept . . .

My only response was “You have got to be shitting me.”  But alas he was indeed not shitting me.  There it was plain as day, selling out incarnate.  Upon further inspection I saw that it is only a 6 issue story arc where Spidey and the runt get caught up in some crazy whirlwind adventure that takes them all over the Marvel universe.  I also realized that the series is written by Jason Aaron and Adam Kubert which are some names with some clout.  When it comes to Jason Aaron I could take him or leave him, but Kubert has some pretty impressive artistic credentials.

From the few reviews I’ve parsed through dealing with this series it sounds like fans are enjoying it for the most part, even though many had the same trepidations about its selling out potential.  The only real complaint I’ve been able to gather is that it is constantly late, I guess it’s taken about five months to get the first three issues out, but then again what good Wolverine mini-series doesn’t take years to complete?

Going back to one of my earlier blog posts about the death of Johnny Storm, and the hint at several more main hero deaths to promote book sales, and now this; literally a clichéd joke come to life, it makes me worry about the future of the comic books industry.  I long for the days when creators were creating and building up the comic universes they wrote within.  Writers like Simonson and Gerber introducing crazy characters, that when you try to think of them off the page seem to be insane, but when they laid it out in the panels and ink they brought something new, imaginative, and at the same time tried to make a point and actually speak to the readers.  Today however writers simply struggle to put “hot” characters into some sort of mildly adventurous and entertaining plotline that will sell books. Or barring even that level of creativity writers seem to enjoy tearing apart the history of past creators to make use of the easy concept of “dealing with change” while at the same time being able to avoid the burden of actually coming up with some sort of point. 

Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes created Omega the Unknown, what I consider to be the Pulp Fiction of super hero books.

It’s like building a huge house for a family so that you can see the family grow and evolve and spark all these great events, only to come back later and tear it down just to watch them cry without really thinking beyond how cool it will be when you snap a heart wrenching photo of them in a sobbing embrace.

Perhaps that’s a bit of a melodramatic analogy, but I’m all worked up and pissed.   

With both of the biggest comics companies now under the boot of major corporate control (DC/Time Warner and Marvel/Disney) I have a gradually growing anxiety that the days of the comic industry are in their twilight.  With more and more corporate involvement, mixed media with large-scale Hollywood productions, and the digital revolution at hand I worry that the days of the small, privately owned neighborhood comic shops are on the way out.  Comics are becoming more streamlined, sticking to “popular characters” while letting others fall to the wayside, they’re experimenting less and less and the things we get beyond the printed pages such as DVDs, cartoons, and even movies are often rehashes of old concepts and storylines, despite how well produced they might be.  The comic book industry is like a band in the “Greatest Hits” phase of their career, which of course as we know often signals the end.  When the diversity of a company starts to slide people get bored.  Contrary to popular belief fans do enjoy seeing heroes other than Wolverine and Batman.

Green Lantern Mosaic a series cancelled not due to sales but rather executives not agreeing with the books tone.

Although I was not around during the 70’s I look at the comics from that era and pine for those days.  When heroes were aplenty, the Thing was the hot property of the Marvel universe, and there was at least a pinch of some sort of social, moral, or philosophical commentary mingled with our comic books.  Of course there were a great many shitty comics back then too, but even the shit seemed to have a heart.  Perhaps I have just grown too cynical about the current state of comic books.  There have been several periods in the past when people thought the industry was on its deathbed.  I realize there is still some great stuff out there today.   Green Lantern’s Darkest Night was epic, Marvel brought back some old school sci-fi adventure with Secret Invasion, and there are other great reads among the non-hero comics such as the Walking Dead.  I suppose I am just disheartened by the corporatization of the world at large and the comic book industry in particular.  Back in the day we humble comic fans dreamt of a huge geek revolution, where everyone knew the names of the Avengers and previously second tier heroes like Green Lantern could star on the big screen.  Oh but be careful what you wish for, for how many Mephistos must we bargain with to make our dreams come true?  How many hands will reach to reap the rewards of that popularity?  And how will our heroes change in order to maintain their corporate perceptions?

Thor #337 by Walt Simonson and the first appearance of Beta Ray Bill

I guess one thing I’m getting at is that each era of comic books has its own tone and general spirit, and that I am not a fan of this current up and coming era which I would dub the Mercury Age of comics, for its fast paced mutability that seems to run all over the place without maintaining any real substance.     

It all reminds me of the storyline from Doom 2099 where . . . . ah hell I’m done, I’d just continue rambling forever!

That is all!