Friday, April 19, 2013

Beta vs. The Ages of Comics

"F**k you, car; I'm Superman!"
As I mentioned in previous posts I’m approaching blog #250 (this is #249, not counting the April Fool’s Day post that has since been taken down). I don’t want to make a huge deal about it, since it’s not the huge milestone #200 was or #300 probably will be, but I still wanted to do something special. To that end I decided to do a Nerd Rage post regarding my least favorite era of comic books: The Dark Age of Comic Books, or more specifically the 1990s. You may recall me bitching about how annoying I found 90s comics in the past. However it has occurred to me that it’s difficult to talk about any age of comic books out of context. I know many of you are not comic book fans and may be a little lost. So for this post I’m going to, very briefly, look at all of the ages of comics form 1938 to present day.

A few things to keep in mind: 1) There is a lot of debate over when which era begins and which era ends and in some cases whether or not certain eras ever ended (such as the Bronze Age). So when reading this blog take in mind that this is how I view the divide and that other people may have it different. There’s no exact answer here. 2) I will likely not go into much of any of the detail for the Dark Age of Comics here, since I’m saving that for next time, so save any comments you may have about that for later. 3) I’m only going to sum up the Ages, not go into specifics. As such I’ll be doing A LOT of summarizing and leaving A LOT of information out. I’m not a comic book historian and there are a lot of resources out there that go into far greater detail than I ever could. So If I leave something out take that in mind before you start criticizing me in the comment section. 4) I'm mostly talking about superhero comics today, mainly because I'm significantly more knowledgeable about them than other genres from back in the day.

More after the jump.



The Golden Age of Comics 
"Go to hell, car; I'm Captain Marvel!"
Range: 1938 to about 1950/1954-ish 

The Golden Age of Comic Books began with the creation of the first superhero (as opposed to non-powered action hero, science fiction hero, or pulp hero) Superman. At the time Superman was just another comic book to entertain the kids but he proved to be so popular that he spawned an entire genre. A huge amount of knock-off characters, such as the infamous “ Wonder Man” in 1939, popped up before creators started getting more creative with their books. There were a ton, and I mean a ton, of superheroes made during this time and only really a handful actually made it out of the 40s (a lot of them ended up in the public domain and can be found here). Also this may have arguably been the bestselling era for superhero comics as the most popular books regularly sold over a million copies. Compare that to the average one hundred thousand copies the top books sell today!

An important note about this era was the impact World War II had. Even before America entered the war comic book creators depicted Hitler (and Stalin, for that matter) as villains that their heroes fought. Hell, Superman flew over to Germany and straight up arrested Hitler with zero issues. War over. Many patriotic themed characters were created during this time who fought the Nazi and Japanese threat…of course the Japanese were depicted as at best buck toothed fiends and at worst serpent-like monstrosities because, you know, everyone in the 40s was at least casually racist. Captain America was by far the most famous and most successful of these type of characters but there was a ton of others.

Because superheroes were new you won’t find too much of the typical tropes you may usually associate with them. For example, the who “Do Not Kill” thing most heroes abide by was not a concept a lot of these characters had in the early days. Batman gunned down (!) crooks all the time and even Superman was not above tossing assholes off buildings. A lot of these stories are a little hard to read because of this different tone, as well as some of the more offensive depictions of minorities and women (though there were numerous examples of women being portrayed well, Lois Lane and early Wonder Woman being the obvious examples). But still a lot of writers like to draw from this era for inspiration as many concepts, and sometimes characters, tend to sneak into modern comics.


Really? Slap a Jap? Thanks for nothing, 1940s
Also I want to point out the most popular character during this time was easily Captain Marvel and the only reason we’re not all getting ready to see the new Captain Marvel summer blockbuster and reading Fawcett Comics in stores is because DC Comics won a copyright infringement lawsuit citing Cap as a rip-off of Superman…which he likely was but to what extent I think is debatable. But that’s a whole other blog.

Important Creations: Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, the Justice Society of America 


Or, How to Be An Uptight Out-of-Touch Asshole
In the time between the end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age superhero books were on the decline. While not all of them were being pulled from the racks (Batman and Superman books were still doing well) most of the popular comics tended to be horror themed or crime themed anthologies, which tended to be particularly violent (funny animals were popular too but they weren’t as violent. Presumably). Eventually in 1954 Dr. Frederic Wertham released his book  Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that comic books were corrupting its juvenile readers. And since traditionally parents will look towards anything outside their own terrible child raising to explain why their kids are assholes (See Also: Rock & Roll, video games, and Dungeons & Dragons) many people bought this book. In response the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority. The CCA deserves its own post but for simplicity’s sake the code heavily restrained and censored comics books that wanted their seal of approval thus the medium was greatly dumbed down and sanitized to the point that adult readers completely gave up on comics and the stories were full of ridiculous goody-good stories that dealt with almost nothing resembling real life.

Thus the stage was set for the Silver Age.


The Silver Age of Comics
52 years later Barry and I, *ahem*,are not on the best terms
Range: 1956 to 1970(-ish) 

The Comic Code Authority set stage for this particularly goofy time in comic history. It’s generally agreed that this era began with Showcase #4 which the debut of terrible superhero Barry Allen, a remake of the Golden Age hero The Flash. With the Code in place stories were very childish, bizarre and often nonsensical. Also for some reason Superman was at his worst during the 60s, constantly trying to either kill or otherwise ruin the lives of his supporting cast. Seriously.


Oh Superman, you rascal
Things were very campy and silly and this is where the “Comic Books Are for Kids” stigma that continues to this day pretty much came from. Also women took something of a step backwards here. Though there were many cases of women playing second banana to the dudes some women during the Golden Age, particularly Lois Lane, were portrayed as tough, smart and independent. However by point that was tossed out the window and Lois was regulated to the role of a scheming shrew who’s biggest motivation as to somehow trick Superman into marrying her. Yay feminism?

Thankfully there was a silver (Ha!) lining to all this. While DC was giving us wacky tales of impossible things where everyone has big smiles Marvel Comics was letting Stan Lee write a new type of hero: heroes with problems. Starting with the Fantastic Four Marvels heroes, unlike other companies' characters, had self-doubt, self-loathing, uncertainty about their place in the world and weren't sure if what they were doing was the right thing. This made them easier to relate to than other heroes and while Marvels stories were still goofy as hell there was a bit more maturity rising from their house than their competitors. The further along in the 1960s they went the more apparent this became.

Spider-Man was probably the biggest superhero of this era as his creation is usually considered the turning point from the traditional hero into the more realistic and human characters that have dominated the industry since. Spidey (along with the Hulk) was particularly popular with college students. I think this more than anything is what would truly get the comic book industry to mature as the creators realized that there was a potentially lucrative market for their work outside of young kids. It’s also probably why Spider-Man eventually became a college student (though I would have read the shit out of a “Hulk Goes to College” Silver Age book).


Spider-Man's visits to the Senior Center always end badly
Important Creations: Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Flash II (Booooo), the Justice League of America 


The Bronze Age of Comics
Pictured: The most overused comic book cover in history
Range: 1970 to maybe 1986 or so 

It’s generally agreed that the key turning point from the campy Silver Age to the more mature Bronze Age of Comic Books was when Jack Kirby, the most important and influential artist of the Silver Age, left Marvel for DC with his Fourth World line of comics. If the 50s and 60s was comic books as little kids doing silly things the Bronze Age was comics books as the socially conscious college student, eager to prove how much he’s grown…sometimes too eager. Thanks to a three part anti-drug story Stan Lee wrote in Amazing Spider-Man despite protest from the Comics Code the CCA had begun lifting some of its restraints and comic creators began telling stories with more mature themes. Racism, drug use, religion and overt sexuality became topics that were suddenly okay to talk about when previously such things were heavily restricted or outright banned. One of the best examples was Green Lantern/Green Arrow which transformed lame Batman-rip off Green Arrow into a liberal minded rebel paired up with the stiff cop-like Hal Jordan and the two tackled social injustices. Their book took on many social issues and was critically acclaimed for it.

Also this was the era that began a medium wide increase of black superheroes. Indeed, you’ll notice that many of the black superheroes I profile every February originated from this era. A lot of them were racist stereotypes that seemed less like a genuine effort and more like a joke but there were some indication that things were getting a lot better. Women were also getting a larger slice of the pie. After fixing a misplaced reboot of Wonder Woman that turned her into a de-powered martial artist (…sigh) things were looking up; Wonder Woman was re-powered, many new heroines were introduced and several Silver Age heroines gained new confidence and new powers (See: Invisible Girl becoming Invisible Woman).


This may have been the original inspiration for the song "Accidental Racist"
Marvel’s method of superheroes with problems allowed them to surpass DC which eventually prompted the creators of Superman and Batman to try the same strategy with their heroes (although it seems their first assumption was that it was the number of titles Marvel was selling that had given them success, the DC Explosion/Implosion that I’ve talked about before). The most popular titles may have been Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans which were their respective companies best received stories but also represented everything that made this era great: diversity, strong writing, and a mature mindset. Things were maturing during this decade, despite still left over silliness from the Silver Age, and overall thing were taking a drastic turn from the previous era.

Important Creations: The New Gods, Wolverine (Booooo), Storm, Luke Cage, The Punisher


The Dark Age of Comics
If you can't tell what's wrong with this image please exit this blog now
Range: After the Bronze Age to Before the Modern Age 

So I’ll talk about this in great detail next time. For now the only thing I want to mention is that it is HIGHLY debated when this era ended or whether it actually even has. Many, many people argue that we’re still in this age. I disagree with that sentiment since, were it true, it would mean we’ve been stuck in this never-ending hell for over twenty years with no end in sight. That’s just depressing.


The Modern Age of Comics
Note: "Genetic super spider" is no more hard science than "radioactive spider"
 Range: Somewhere between 1996 and 2000 to Current

 This is a weird era to talk about because a) a lot of people still say we’re still in the Dark Age (Wikipedia doesn’t even bother separating the Dark Age from the Modern Age) and b) because this era is still ongoing there hasn’t been a lot of proper analyses about where it began and when it ended and what themes were presented. Still there are some pretty notable things going on in here. This is mostly the Post-Comic Book Crash industry at this point (we’ll revisit the crash next time) and things are overall not doing well as they previously had been. But Superhero movies have become huge money makers and have driven much of the genre. Hell, Avengers was a two billion dollar film even if the Avengers comics never sell anything close those numbers.

Trade paperback collections have also become a big part of the economy of the comic book industry (as a lot of people prefer them over single issues) and sometimes companies will force writers to do their stories precisely in number of issues equal to what they would sell in one Graphic Novel. So a two part story is stretched to six issues, which can be problematic at times. There’s also been a resurgence of Silver Age elements and later Dark Age Elements. Across the board Marvel and DC seemed to be run by professionals who used to be the same kind of diehard comic fans that they now cater to, which is good in a lot of ways but it also means people who preferred the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s now have the ability to change things to match what they consider the “most iconic” era of certain characters. “Mary Jane married to Spider-Man? That makes no sense; retcon that shit!” Or “Barry Allen is clearly the one true Flash. Get rid of that Wally West guy. He’s married and has kids anyway. BOR-RING!” Or “Young Justice? The hell is that? Bring back the Teen Titans. Also change Impulse to [Editor’s Note: Ugh] Kid Flash so people will to take him seriously.”


"Eat shit, Superman; I'm Superman...wait."
So weirdly the first bit of the Modern Era was a direct reaction to the Dark Age of Comics, with deconstructions and the idea that superheroes are supposed to be fun. But things have gotten considerably darker as we’ve moved along the 21st Century; here in 2013 we seem to be in the middle of a Dark Age renaissance almost certainly due to key writers and artists form that era now in positions of power but not seemingly realizing how shit awful things were back then.


2011: Stephanie Brown's Batgirl comic was canceled and Deathstroke got his own book
Welcome back, 1990s!
This brings me my major problem with comic books at this moment: things seem like they’ve been regressing lately. Things that were tried and ultimately were shunned form the 90s seems to be again popping up. I’ve heard creators literally say “Why’s everyone mad about the 90s coming back? I liked the 90s.” Yeah the 90s were great, except for the artwork, the depiction of women, the hyper masculinity, the tremendous amounts of violence, the over saturation of antiheroes, the massive crossovers that lead to nowhere (though that problem has actually gotten worse in the Modern Era) , the over use of guns and the overuse of the word “Blood” and "Death/Dead" in people’s codenames, and a shockingly large amounts of artist working on major titles who could not for the life of them keep a schedule. Except for all those things the 90s was great. Oh and aside from that other awful stuff that happened.


Next time we’ll be looking at those things more closely. I’ll be looking at what is my least favorite era of comics books, one where both fans and creators were being idiots, the marketing departments had creative control, and writers played second banana to “Superstar Artists”; The Dark Age of Comics Books, aka The Iron Age of Comic Books.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Beta,

    Nice overview! I'll take your version over those stuffy comic historians anytime. I'm looking forward to your next post about the Dark Age, and maybe sometime you can tell us why you booed Flash II and Wolverine.

    Anyway, I wanted to say that I recently read Whiz Comics #2 (the origin of Captain Marvel) and while he is a little bit like Superman I didn't think it was close enough to go to court over. Oh, who am I kidding, DC was just trying to bring down a rival who was getting bigger than their number one character. Anyhow, that issue also debuted a lot of other characters too, and I thought it was a fun read, plus you can read it for free online! Here's my post if you're interested: http://www.comic-prospector.com/whiz-comics-2/

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    1. Thanks Rusty.

      I agree with you 1000% about Captain Marvel. That always felt like a cheap move on DC's part and something like that would never be allowed to go to court these days (I'd like to write about this some day. Interestingly not only do I LOVE Captain Marvel I actually prefer him over Superman.

      I actually went into great detail explaining why I hate Wolverine waaaay back in my 50th blog (http://betaisdead.blogspot.com/2010/11/nerd-rage-3-join-claw-today.html). As for Barry Allen I plan on doing a Nerd Rage post on him some day. His day is coming. Oh yes...

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