Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"Put your hands on the wheel, let the Golden Age begin"

I mentioned a while back that we're in the Golden Age of comics goodness. It got me thinking if I was just blowing smoke up your collective asses, or if we really are in a Golden Age. We need to rethink our classifications of "Comic Book Ages." Since I am an unemployed historian (the best kind!), I thought I would spitball my ages of comics. As usual, nothing I write has any redeeming social value. That's what makes it essential!

1. The Stone Age (1896-early 1920s). The Yellow Kid began in 1896, so that's where we start. The era of the newspaper comic strip was born! I know only a little about this era, but for comic "book" purposes, this is the Stone Age - the rudiments of the medium were there, but unexplored. For newspaper strips, this might be the Golden Age for all I know.

2. The Bronze Age (mid 1910s-mid 1930s). Yes, there's an overlap with the Stone Age. Just like the marauders from the steppes of Asia had iron weapons before the more "civilized" nations (Egypt, Babylon, and the like), so the Bronze Age of comics began with the pulp magazines of the war years, but only displace the Stone Age in the 1920s, when the pulps really took off. Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the high priest of this era. The pulps laid the groundwork for the explosion of superhero comics of the next era (which is not the Golden Age - take that, comics historians!) with their heroes, wild sci-fi settings, damsels in distress - you know, everything young nerds of the 1930s (Siegel and Shuster, hiding out in their parents' basement) wanted!

3. The Classical Age (1939-1950). Let's face it - a lot of the comics from this era were crap. Come on, it's okay to admit it! DC just brought out The Batman Chronicles, which I'm dying to buy - the first Batman comics in chronological order. Seminal comics, sure, and occasionally powerful, but kind of ... childish, I suppose. However, this age laid the foundation of everything that came afterward. Kind of like the Greeks and the Romans of Western Civilization's Classical Age. Maybe there's some weak work, but the influence is what counts. What Siegel and Shuster and Bob Kane and Bill Finger and Kirby and Lee and Joe Simon (and countless others) did during these years was create an entire industry based on American myths - something we, as a culture, did not have because of our ethnically-mixed melting pot kind of country. In the space of a few years, we had a pantheon, and what a pantheon it was. The King (Superman), the King's Dark Brother (Batman), the Queen (Wonder Woman), the Thunder God (Captain America), the Sea-King (Namor, or Aquaman), the Sun God (Human Torch) - an amazing burst of talent and creativity. But again - not the Golden Age, for the simple reason of what was going on behind the scenes - wage slavery, anti-Semitism in the industry, censorship - the 1940s were a time of hope for America, but also a time of structure. A wonderful comic book era, but not the Golden Age.

3. The Dark Age (1950-1971). Well, the first part of the Dark Age is easy to understand - thank you, Dr. Wertham. But hark! say you. What about 1956 and the new Flash? What about the Marvel Explosion? How can this be the Dark Age????

Well, my forte in history is our own Dark Ages, and I can tell you that it's a lousy description - there was quite a lot going on from AD 500-1300 - at least two Renaissances, for instance. I call this comics age the Dark Age because of the Comics Code - even Marvel's wonderful stuff in the 1960s was published with the Code. True, there was a new flowering of creative craziness, and the world of comics became more "real-life" with the inclusion of angst, soap-opera elements, and a not-really-subtle look at race relations with Marvel's merry mutants. I would call the rebirth of the Flash and the superhero comics of the late 1950s the "Carolingian Renaissance" of comics' Dark Ages, with Marvel's explosion of the early 1960s maybe corresponding to the "12th Century Renaissance" - brief periods when creativity exploded before societal strictures dragged it down again - equivalent to the Comics Code. If you read some of the chansons of the courtiers of Marie de Champagne's court (Chretien de Troyes most notably) or the political satire of John of Salisbury, you realize that these men were walking a razor's edge with what they could get away with, as were the early Marvelites - they were working within society's norms, but reading the texts as allegory, the satire becomes clear. However, the same problems that plagued the industry in the 1940s was still evident in the 1960s - witness the problems that Ditko and Kirby and Lee had distinguishing who created what when. And through it all, some of the landmark comics are still unintentionally hilarious when read by a modern eye. I'm sorry, but it's true - I love the early Marvel stuff as much as the next guy, but I groan a lot, because comics were simply not a mature art form at this time.

4. The Renaissance (May 1971-early 1980s). When did the Renaissance start? Amazing Spider-Man #96 - the famous drug issue (actually, issues #96-98 were the drug issues). It's the most obvious beginning of an era - defiance of the Comics Code by a mainstream publisher with its most popular, iconic character. This was a huge leap forward for comics, showing that they were not afraid of censorship and were willing to tackle the difficult issues and had the power to do so. The fact that the government never censored comics is sometimes lost - the companies did this to themselves. And the chains, not surprisingly, were illusory - the world didn't end because Harry Osborn took hallucinogenics. The conservative nature of any long-standing business, however, meant this defiance was short-lived, but it gave us a glimpse of what comics could do - bring serious subject matter to the masses in a way that was not preachy and was also entertaining. It's a Green Goblin story, after all! The 1970s became a time when the mainstream comics companies, like Hollywood, embraced the counter-culture that had been simmering beneath the surface since EC and the horror comics of the 1950s - Swamp Thing was born, Batman became darker and the Joker became nasty (in 1973's Batman #251, "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," with that great opening splash page by Neal Adams), Captain Marvel bit the big one, Len Wein introduced a short Canadian mutant you may have heard of, and Claremont began a long storyline dealing with the consequences of power and what happens when Jesus shows up again (let's face it, that's what Jean Grey became). The Comics Code would remain in force until the turn of the new millennium, and still exists today, but Stan Lee and Gil Kane's little story opened the can of worms. Hooray!

5. The Golden Age (early 1980s-present). I'm not just saying this because this is when I started buying comics. I'm saying this because it's true - we are living in the Golden Age of Comics. Congratulations, true comic book reader! How did we get here?

Well, the previous Ages all had one problem - the companies owned everything. Sure, on the fringes there were independents and creator-owned stuff, but for the most part, the companies ruled their little fiefdoms like medieval lords, and the creators were the serfs, toiling away for years with no recognition. Ask Siegel and Shuster about it. But in the early 1980s, that began to change. Imagine the wonderful feeling you'd have today if, in 1982 or so, you had stumbled across a little comic called Mage and decided to pick it up. Or if you had gotten a Justice Machine Annual that happened to have a super-team called the Elementals in it, written and drawn beautifully by some chap named Bill Willingham. There are other examples, but the explosion of artistic triumph in the 1980s and the talent that came along with it - Moore, Wagner, Starlin, Barr, Bolland, Totleben, Veitch (both of them), Bissette, Miller, Byrne (before he went insane), Perez, Davis - just to name a very small few - were the result of creators taking matters into their own hands and not bending over for the big companies any more. This movement toward independence means better comics all around - creators can work on their own stuff if they want to, so the big companies have to treat them a little better if they want to keep them. It started with the writers - the British invasion - and extended to the artists with the Image defection. Image did more to create this Golden Age than a lot of people want to give them credit for. Sure, Lee no longer drew the X-Men, but the independent comics scene got a huge boost. The democratization of comics is why this is a wonderful time to be a comics buyer - whether you read independents or not. If you're a superhero geek, fine - they're better too. Sure, everyone claims to love the original Marvel stuff, but, again, a lot of it is pretty simplistic. Today's superhero comics are much more complex and mature and interesting - yes, some writers take the license that has been given them too far (I'm looking at you, Meltzer!), but for the most part, it's good stuff. When you consider that 75% of comics are crap, according to Christopher Butcher's April 7 entry, well, 75% of the stuff in the 1940s and 1960s was crap too. I would rather read David Lapham's take on Batman than Bruce smoking a pipe and acting like a jerk toward poor Julie Madison! Superhero comics, as well as all other comics, are in a Golden Age. Unfortunately, we can't see it because the wonderful access we have to all these comics means that we see the crap as well as the good stuff equally. The Internet and the rise of comic book shops means comics are more accessible, which is another reason why we're in the Golden Age.

I don't know if and when it will end. I think someone in the future will have to judge, because it's tough to tell when an era ends when you're living through. It's a great time to be a comics fan, people - enjoy it.

13 Comments:

Blogger Lex said...

There have been times when I think you might be right is saying that we are in a Golden Age. But then I see stuff like Countdown and other un-fun comics and it makes me doubt that.

For me, the eras of comic books follow the work of Jack Kirby. Every 10 years or so, he went in a new direction and helped to reshape the landscape of comic books. Look at his work in the 40's and then the changes in the 50's and then Fantastic Four and other Marvel icons in the 60's. Then, there is his DC work in the 70's. And, if the New Gods books weren't cancelled, it surely would've reshaped comics (Kirby had wanted those stories to be finite mini-series (before mini-series existed) and eventually be collected into trades (I don't think anyone had done that before either). Using this Kirby timeline, I don't yet know how I define Post-Kirby comics. So much of DC and Marvel is still influenced by his work.

4/12/2005 07:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think I can really agree with this entirely, but nice idea for a post! It's true, finding an issue of Mage in the way-back times would've seemed like finding a million dollars in your backyard...how the hell did THIS get here?

Wow!

But today, Mage is just okay, probably because, as you say, we see everything now, and also there's a lot more to see. Do we think Mage is not so impressive anymore because we can read Watchmen and Bone and Palookaville any time we want to? Probably. I suppose that's what makes those times innocent-seeming to us, surely a major part of what people are talking about when they invoke the Golden Age...but if this is the real Golden Age right now, how do you account for the popularity of Millar-type epics and rebootings that seem to all be about emphasizing (even celebrating, it sometimes seems) the decadent side of the superhero? (I say Millar here instead of Moore, because I don't think Wanted and Watchmen are about the same thing. Of course your mileage may vary.)

And one more thing, history-man: I wonder about your Pantheon, even though I like it. Is Batman really the King's dark brother? I think from our historical perspective now it's tempting to think of the birth of superhero comics strictly as a culmination of previous trends, a kind of monobloc innovation, but do Batman and Superman really come from exactly the same place and exemplify exactly the same thing, exactly the same cultural urges or pressures? I'm not so sure that they're not each a kind of separate happy accident, only later perceived as hewing closely together as part of a trend merely by virtue of having guys in capes in them. Christianity worked just this way too, didn't it? A bunch of different religious ideas that just all happened to be contemporaneous with each other, but perceived now as a single homogeneous cultural development.

So now, of course, we have Superman and Batman as the mainstays of DC's profitability, very firmly entrenched as part of the same universe, and with characters that have been honed over time to make them merely dialectical. So maybe the dark Batman/bright Superman is a figment of our Golden Age imagination? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

4/12/2005 08:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also like what you're saying there, Lex...but there must already have been some other age besides the Kirby Age, mustn't there?

I could argue the Moore Age, he's a pretty influential guy.

The Morrison age?

4/12/2005 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Point by point: Lex, excellent point about Kirby - it's astonishing how influential he was, even if I don't particularly love his art - that's not the important thing. I would argue against his work defining eras, however, because he didn't start the superhero age in 1939, and he didn't start the revival of the superheroes in the 1960s - Showcase #4 did that, I would think. He fits in really well with my idea of the 1970s being the Renaissance - still working within the corporate structure, but doing his own thing and challenging what could be done with comics.

As for you, "anonymous," the "Millar-type epics and rebootings" emphasizing the "decadence" of the superheroes - that's just another aspect of the superhero that we never were allowed to see before this era - whether you like it or not, it fits into the sensibility of treating superheroes seriously rather than an infantile fantasy. I hated Wanted, but that doesn't mean I didn't appreciate what Millar was trying to say (even though, I think, he failed). The darkness of the superheroes is just an aspect of the Golden Age - if you want straight-up superheroics like "things used to be," you can read Invincible. It's all about choice, which is the great thing.

As for the pantheon - I would argue that Superman/Batman were always a dialectical pairing - I seem to recall Bob Kane inventing Batman specifically as a counterpoint to Superman - I could be wrong. Superman is Zeus, and people are always in awe of Zeus but cannot relate to him. Batman is Hades - people are still in awe of him, but they can relate to him better because everyone can understand death. That's the way I see it, anyway.

I wouldn't call Christianity a bunch of different ideas, but you're right - we used to perceive it as a continual development toward today's versions, but there were many stops and starts and it could have gone a much different way (Arianism, for instance, was once more powerful in Western Europe than Catholicism). I don't see the Superman/Batman dualism that way, however - I see it as more deliberate, for the reasons I gave above.

Fascinating thoughts, people!

4/12/2005 09:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I'd agree that this is the "golden age" of comics-I'd like to think the best is still to come, but I liked your post, and I do agree that there are some excellent comics being published right now.
Thanks for the post.

4/12/2005 10:31:00 PM  
Anonymous plok said...

A while ago I was given a copy of a book called "How To Read Superhero Comics And Why", by Geoff Klock -- don't know if anyone else has heard of this or read it or what -- and although some of what the author concludes in this seems dubious to me, most of it is pretty interesting, and reading this discussion reminds me of it: he, too, argues for Superhero Ages, but specifically as ages of different types of *revisionist narrative* starting around the time DC put Crisis and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow out. He drags in Harold Bloom to say that the superhero narrative is also all about commenting on the previous narratives that it's heir to; in other words, the act of writing superhero comics becomes more charged with the influence of *reading* superhero comics as time goes on -- a "strong misreading" of somebody else's work is the same thing as a highly individualistic reading, an active reading, because "to read actively is to make a fiction as well as to receive one". Over time (he argues), it's these repeated inspired misreadings on the part of an author that lead to new stories and new directions, and over a very long time the web of misreadings that the new stories embody take on such a mass of meaning that they turn into a canon.

So from then on what gets powerfully misread in each story isn't just the story, but the canon too. And therefore every further story (about superheroes, anyway) is also necessarily about the reading of superheroes. Even when you break the canon to bits, or go outside it, it's because you can see it: because in perceiving it you free yourself to operate on it productively (or otherwise, I guess) instead of simply being invisibly bound by its conventions.

Does that sound like it connects to what we're talking about here?

I know, I know, boring old postmodern junk, yawn...still, you do get a Golden Age out of this after a while, I think. And the interesting thing about it to me is that you can also get all the flood of current-day indie comics out of it as well, because they too are influenced by the comics-reading experience, unless whoever's doing them has simply grown up in a cave. This guy Klock is pretty big on analyzing the importance of Dark Knight, Watchmen, Authority, ABC, and especially Planetary, that's where he sees the faultlines in comics history showing themselves most plainly in the present day. He also says this is where you eventually get new fresh comics from, I think that means Morrison comics but I'm not sure...but what Lex says about Kirby makes me think here: if Kirby had been allowed to chase his Fourth World stuff right to the end, maybe the faultlines would be different, the field of misreadings more tilted towards dealing with and incorporating the meaning of his latter-day mad shit, as trippy as any Invisibles...

Wrote too much there, now my head hurts! But: whaddaya say, relevant? Not relevant? I am not Mr. Postmodern myself, I bring it up merely because it struck a bit of a chord.

4/12/2005 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is really just a history of the ages of the SUPERHERO comic book, considering that any history of American comics that makes absolutely no mention of E.C.'s brief, amazing dominance of mainstream comics is woefully incomplete. Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, Crime SuspenStories, and especially Mad are far, far better than almost all of the superhero comics in your "classical age", and represent a time when many different genres not only were published, but flourished. Excepting the undergrounds of the '60s and '70s, and the alternatives of the '80s and beyond is one thing, excepting the greatest mainstream comic publisher of them all is ridiculous.

Still, this would all be okay if you just put the word "superhero" in there somewhere.

4/13/2005 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Plok: I haven't gotten Klock's book yet, but I've seen good and bad things about it. It sounds interesting, even though I might not agree with everything he has to say. "Post-modernism" in comics is a fascinating sub-topic of the past couple of decades - deconstructionism and the like fit right in with the somewhat more jaundiced view of superheroes that we've seen.

I thought about EC and the other sub-genres, but EC's reign was woefully short (keeping up the history motif, it's like Tamerlane's empire - vast but ethereal), and like it or not, the dominant theme of comic books HAS been superheroes - Marvel did a TON of romance books in the 1950s, but only because they had neutered their superhero books. Obviously, if this were a longer essay or a book, I would have gone into all those different genres, but when we're talking comics, for the most part we're talking superheroes. That's why I think today is the Golden Age - all the genres are much more visible, and big names are exploring every genre, whereas forty or fifty years ago, if you weren't doing superheroes, you weren't doing anything. Still, EC and to a lesser extent the romances are an important part of comics history. I don't think it changes the themes too much, however - EC could be seen as a manifestation of Roman decadence and the demise of the Classical Age, Wertham becomes St. Augustine, sinful in his youth but then becoming the worst kind of religious type - the converted zealot - and then the Dark Ages ensue. See how I can still make things work? We English and History majors - it's all about knowing how to bullshit!

4/13/2005 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Togger Jay said...

I've never delved into the history of comics, so I appreciate the background.
I came to the party too late for Jack Kirby and other than some classic Captain America reprints I've never read his work. So, I'll check out some Kirby collections soon.

The grit of Miller's Daredevil is what really took hold of me. I was a movie junkie as a child and that book showed comics could resonate the same way.

I think the reason comics are so good now, and I do think this is the GOLDEN AGE of comic writing, is because their creators not only read Kirby, Miller, Moore etc but has also been influenced by the Golden Age of cinema- The 70's, has also listened to the Stones, Miles Davis, or George Jones- read Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer etc

4/13/2005 07:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point! So does that mean the more influences you have, the less confined you are?

4/13/2005 08:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg listens to Beck? Awesome!

4/14/2005 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Someone got the Beck reference. Happy happy joy joy.

4/14/2005 08:36:00 PM  
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