An extremely fast and loose definition of comic book ages

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degausser
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An extremely fast and loose definition of comic book ages

So for those who have heard of 'comic book ages,' but don't know what they are, I thought I'd post a little primer here that I was working on after being inspired by a conversation with Platinum Warlock.  Now, there's a whole heck of a lot of wiggle room and different ideas about what is what, and many people have different opinions, so please don't take this as gosssipel. 

But, essentially, people have been trying to classify the phases that comic books have gone through from their inception until now, and since clear deliniation points are rare, there is a lot of guesswork.  I have chosen to break comics into 5 different phases (called ages) that represent different major trends in comics.  Some only use four, some use different dates or different breaking points.  Some say there should be a 'void period' between 1945-1954 . . . it's a mess and no one agrees.  However, this is my best attempt at a somewhat quick and loose explanation of the comic book ages, for any who want to know about it.

Let me explain what I've done here: for each age I have:

Named it

Given a rough timeframe of when it started

Given an event or two that many see as the start of that period

Given a one-sentence super generalized description of the time.

Described what kinds of stories were most common

Described what was happening "Behind the scenes" in the industry to steer comics in the way that happened.

Listed some iconic comic characters that were created at the time.

Listed some Sentinels of the Multiverse characters that 'feel' at home in this time (or, their creation/morals/way of doing things align closely with this age.)

 

I hope you enjoy!

 

degausser
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The Golden Age:

Start: c. Mid to late 1930s

Precipitating event: Creation of Superman

One Sentence Summery: Simple stories where good triumphs over evil, sometimes patriotic to the point of Jingoism.

Story Elements: During the golden age, most of the stuff was pure power fantasy. Most of the time superheroes fought normal goons that were gangsters, or occasionally an evil scientist. Good guys were always right in whatever they did, and bad guys were almost never redeemable. Also, there was very little 'conflict.' Once the hero had figured out the mystery or overcame the particular hurdle of that issue, they usually walked though the thugs and villains like tissue paper. Superheros may have fought the occasional space monster but it that was about the limit of the super-powered beings they went up against.

 

This was the time when many heroes (including Batman) used guns to kill people, and it was portrayed as 100% okay to do this as long as they were faceless goons. Might made right. In fact, there is a superman story where the man of steel breaks into the governor’s office, into his (basically) panic room, and intimidates him into pardoning an innocent man on death row. Lots of misogyny and racism, which was more a sign of the times than an indication of what was going on in the comic book industry as a whole.

 

The Industry: The reason it was called the golden age was that people were reading these comics in untold numbers that have never been seen since. It wasn't uncommon for books to sell in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies. There were very few crossovers and even multi-issue stories were rare. There was also almost no restrictions on the industry. Lastly, comics were seen as something both adults and kids could enjoy.

 

Before the US entered WWII, comics were a huge deal, though during and after WWII, they saw a massive slump in popularity. Only a few books made it through WWII (like Superman and Captain America), but they were never near the sales numbers they had before the war. For the majority of the late 40s to the 50s, superhero comics were not very popular, instead horror and detective-based comics were the most popular comics at the time.

 

Heroes Created at this time:Captain America, Justice Society of America (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Allen Scott (1st Green Lantern), Jay Garrick (1st Flash)

Example SotM characters with a 'feel' of this era: America's Greatest Legacy, G.I. Bunker, Ra

 

The Silver Age

Start: c. Mid to late 50's

One Sentence Summery: Restricted storytelling with often silly stories, but we start to see hints of more depth.

Precipitating event: Creation of Barry Allen (2nd Flash)/Introduction of the Comics Code Authority

Story Elements: The CCA heavily restricted what comics could publish, making their stories more juvenile and less enticing to adults, a stigma the industry still haven't gotten over. Lots of very silly stories, (Superman even shoots Lois with a Fat ray at one point, and then mocks her for it!) However, the creation of the CCA did solidify morals in many superheroes, as they were now no longer permitted to kill. This is when Batman got his famous 'no guns' policy.

 

During this time we start to see the emergence of super-powered threats to superheroes (supervillains), and times when the heroes don't always win or can make mistakes. Spider-Man was particularly groundbreaking in this event, though he was still very good and moral. We start to see more challenges to superheroes during this time, and problems that heroes can't simply 'punch' their way out of.

 

It is important to note that this time frame encompasses all of the 60s, so there's also a great deal of psychedelic stuff here too. Drugs were never mentioned, of course, but we often see alien, bizarre worlds or dimensions that are so far removed from our own that they are unrecognizable. Doctor Strange was particularly known for this, but many other heroes also got in on the action.

 

The Industry: In 1954 Charles Murphy, an outraged psychologist petitioned for the creation of the Comics Code Authority which was essentially a self-policing entity for comic books. Comics would promise to adhere to certain rules and if they did so, they'd get a stamp of approval. Newstands and most major outlets would not sell comics that did not have this stamp of approval. The CCA was very restrictive, necessitating that most of the types of stories from the golden age be changed to things that were more juvenile 'silly,' and 'fanciful.

 

These restrictions were quite difficult for writers to get around, and limited many story ideas. Some of the restrictions were: heroes were not allowed to kill people, heroes had to dress in 'reasonable' clothing (WTF?) and alcohol and illegal drugs couldn't be portrayed in comics at all (even in a negative light.) Many themes or story elements were off-limits too, such as sympathetic villains, (“Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal"), corrupt cops and politicians (“Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”), or the heroes being defeated (“In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”). In fact, the code went so far as to restrict the naming of books (“No comic magazine shall use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title.”)

 

Marvel/DC Heroes at this time: Too many to list! Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Barry Allen (2nd flash), Hal Jordan (2nd Green Lantern) Aquaman

Example SotM characters with a 'feel' of this era: The Freedom Five, Ardent Adept, Haka

 

The Bronze Age

Start: c. Early 1970s

Precipitating event: Jack Kirby Leaves Marvel, Gwen Stacy is killed in Spiderman #121

One Sentence Summery: Comics start to get into politics and start to address social issues, but are mostly ham-fisted.

Story Elements: The CCA had been relaxed and changed somewhat at this point, and many new stories were now possible. Comics began to loose their 'silver age sillyness' and start to tackle real-world consequences. Many consider the death of Gwen Stacy (where Spider-Man accidentally kills Gwen Stacy by catching her with his webs too fast so that her neck snaps) the turning point. Not only does evil triumph over good in this story, but it also dealt with more mature themes like Spider-Man mourning the death of a loved one and dealing with the guilt that he killed her because of his carelessness.

 

This was also the time of creation for Heroes like Luke Cage, who was a superhero that primarily dealt with racial inequality. There also were a rise of female heroes that had tried to deal with gender inequality, such as a reboot to Black Widow. Additionally, both Marvel and DC decided to publish stories dealing with substance abuse (this was a risky move on their part, as those issues were not approved by the CCA). Many issues dealt with perversion of justice in the government, such that Captain America even gave up being an 'American' superhero and became 'Nomad.'

 

Industry: Much like the comics, the industry was striving to distance itself from the sillyness of the silver age and become socially relevant. However, most of the writers and artists at this time are still old white dudes, so their ability to write for a jive-talking black man who has faced racial inequality all his life was . . . questionable. There's clearly an attempt here to have comics take on social issues, but . . . let's just say it's not quite there yet.

 

Marvel/DC Heroes at this time:Luke Cage, Punisher, Wolverine, Cyborg, Vixen, Starfire

Example SotM characters with a 'feel' of this era: Unity, Mr. Fixer, Tempest, Visionary

 

The Iron Age (or Dark Age, sometimes).

Start: c. Mid 1980s

Precipitating event: Creation of 'event comics,' primarily 'Crisis of infinite earths.'

One Sentence Summery: Comics get darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous, and some stray into terri-bad juvenile-ism while pretending to be 'mature.'

Story Elements: As the Bronze age became darker and more gritty, many writers lost sight of the social commentary they had started with, and bodycounts, blood, and guns started to add up. Now, there were many perfectly good comics made at this time, such as Chris Clairmont's X-men,( which started in the bronze age and went through the Iron age) which is held up as particularly good, as is DC's 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Watchmen.' However, many comics devolved into over-muscled guys using a ludicrous amount of guns. Super dark storylines and unnecessarily sad back-stories permeated the market.

 

We try not to talk about it. It should be pointed out though, that some comics did become more nuanced with their social commentary and started treating large-scale systemic social problems like something that could not be solved in a single comic book issue.

 

Industry: Honestly, there's an entire essay here we could talk about what happened in the industry during the Iron age. Rob Leifeld's unique style of artwork became very popular at this time (giant, overly muscled men and wafer-thin female sex-objects were the norm), and many aped his style. Additionally, there was a massive speculator boom in the 90s where the industry kept on printing new #1 issues of comics, trying to trick readers into believing they would be valuable one day. When the bubble burst, the comics industry crashed and Marvel had to actually declare bankruptcy (they got better.)

 

It should be obvious that the CCA changed again during this time, and also that some comic companies (namely Image Comics) didn't bother trying to make content that conformed to the CCA at all. They got away with this because of the rise in popularity of the 'direct market' (comic book stores.)

 

Marvel/DC Heroes at this time:Deadpool, Cable, Azrael, John Constantine

Example SotM characters with a 'feel' of this era: All the X-Treme! Prime Wardens, Normal Fanatic, Expatriette, K.N.Y.F.E.

 

Modern Age:

The Modern Age (Sometimes, the Electrum Age)

Start: c. 2000

Precipitating event: 'Popping' of the speculator bubble, rise of popularity of superhero movies.

One Sentence Summery: Comics are getting better all the time; inclusion and representation are up, you can get any style of story you want, but there are still some stumbling blocks.

Story Elements: The best definition of the Modern age of comics is that there is no definition. A person can find just about any type of story they want, from post-modern deconstructions of superheroes to silver age sillyness, to a more updated and sophisticated take on bronze-age comics tackling social issues. There are even some iron-age-style comics still being published. There are a few trends however, such as questioning what truly makes a hero or villain and the reformation of some villains (Superior Spider-Man). There are also several hero vs. hero stories (Marvel's Civil War I and II.) There's also an emphasis on diversity and more representation.

 

Industry: The industry has basically decided to run comics like a giant commercial, constantly using their many different franchises to see what works and what doesn't, and adjusting. If a movie is popular, then they incorporate elements from the movie into the comic. There is also a large emphasis on cross-overs and collected trades (collections of a storyline into a single magazine-like book.) For a while, there were large amounts of 'event comics' (Massive cross-over storylines with ramifications for an entire comic book universe, with an emphasis on buying multiple different titles in order to be caught up), but fortunately, those seem to have died down recently as readers got fatigued by them pretty quickly.

 

It should be pointed out that no major comic book companies follow the CCA anymore, and no one really cares about it, making it defunct at this point.

 

Marvel/DC Heroes at this time:Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), Spider-Gwen, Superior Spider-Man, Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes), Miss Martian,

Example SotM characters with a 'feel' of this era: America's Newest Legacy, Akash'Threya, Harpy

Phantom5613
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"Comics are getting better all the time"

All I'm gonna say is it depends on who you ask.

degausser
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Phantom5613 wrote:

"Comics are getting better all the time"

All I'm gonna say is it depends on who you ask.

 

I did say it was a fast and loose generalization, right?  But in general what I meant was that there was more inclusiveness, more attention being paid to LGBTQA, gender equality, and bigotry issues.  Of course there are bad comics out there, but in general, we are slowly, over time, trending in an upward curve I believe.

I did also say there were stumbling blocks too, right?

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I always enjoy these sorts of discussions; glad to see that this popped up again!

degausser
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Hope I was at least generally in the right ballpark.

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The thing about the comic book ages (and any historiography), is that it's entirely subjective.  Different historians and scholars view events in different ways all the time, and there's often little that's universally agreed upon in terms of historical time markers. 

I did much of my undergraduate work studying the Crusades.  Many historians would say that the First Crusade started with the Council at Cleremont, where Pope Urban II put forward the call to crusade.  Others start counting in the following year, when the actual Crusade started in earnest.  Others start with the Crusade of Peter the Hermit.  Still others go all the way back to the initial Seljuk Turk raids that prompted Alexius I to ask Urban for aid in the first place.  Who's right? Well... all of them.  There's no hard and fast limit to when the Crusades began; they're all important demarcations.  It's all a matter of what you think is most important.  A scholar covering Byzantine history might start with Alexius, while a military historian might look at the initial marches of Bohemond, Raymond and Godfrey as the start. A scholar focusing on the Church might say Urban's decision, while someone focused on popular movements and Marxist theory might start with Peter the Hermit.  

Perspective, in all things historical, is the most important thing. 

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Wow this is quite interesting as a casual comic nerd. (I have mostly short runs the bigest is the 36 issues of Scooby Apocalypse that just ended this month) And really Marvel went bankrupt?! It's kinda hard to believe one of the 3 Big Names in comics had trouble. Though is Dark Horse a publisher? I've seen them publish Dc and Marvel comics but they also seem to have their own unique heroes (I believe Hellboy franchise isn't DC or Marvel and DH owns it entirely) 

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Marvel bankruptcy information:  Screencrush article

Most notably to the fan realm, the Marvel bankruptcy in 1996 is why the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man were inaccessible to Marvel Studios for so long.  The film rights to those characters (and several others, like Namor) were sold off as assets to various creative studios to help pay off Marvel's debts.

Comics, by themselves, aren't a particularly lucrative revenue stream, particularly in this digital age, where competition for entertainment dollars has become much stiffer.  It's actually kind of an anomaly that boardgaming/roleplaying have become so popular in recent years--in many ways, they're the definition of a backlash against the current market:  where most entertainment wants you to be digitally connected, these allow you to 'unplug'.  And, even now, while Marvel's comics arm may certainly be marginally profitable, there's no doubt that their big bucks come from the films (I mean, when we can drag out characters like Guardians of the Galaxy and have them make a literal billion dollars, that's saying something) and from licensing fees. The comics themselves aren't meant to make money at this point; they're the creative sandbox where writers/artists create the stories that, if successful, later become films or other media.

Dark Horse has never, ever published Marvel's or DC's titles.  As one of the first big 'independent' studios (along with Image), they certainly shared a good degree of talent with Marvel/DC (Frank Miller, John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Walt Simonson, and many others...), but the only real overlap came in licensed properties like Conan or Star Wars, which have drifted between comics studios for years.  But, Marvel's Star Wars series is not contiguous with that of Dark Horse; they're totally independent, even as they share the same universe.

degausser
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I’ve been tinkering with the idea of next week doing a ‘Comic ages’ schtick over the next week or two where I make a hero representative of every comic book age over on my heroic NPC thread.

degausser
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Anubis wrote:

Wow this is quite interesting as a casual comic nerd. (I have mostly short runs the bigest is the 36 issues of Scooby Apocalypse that just ended this month) And really Marvel went bankrupt?! It's kinda hard to believe one of the 3 Big Names in comics had trouble. Though is Dark Horse a publisher? I've seen them publish Dc and Marvel comics but they also seem to have their own unique heroes (I believe Hellboy franchise isn't DC or Marvel and DH owns it entirely) 

And in case you thought I was lying about the other stuff: here's a link to a guy recapping the story of when Superman shoots Lois with a Fat Ray and then makes fun of her for it:

https://youtu.be/ALh2RhpItk8?t=367

degausser
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Stumbled across this on the internet: 

If you want some examples of Silver-Age wackyness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83WH09oFMvw

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there's also the "Pre-supers" era... Action Comics #1 is 1938... the first comic book was Famous Funnies in 1933, and the comic strip format was 1896. Political doodles go back further still, as do other comic-style images, but not generally in story modes. It's also important to note that the strips of the 20's were often what we'd now consider half page or full page episodic.

Likewise exceptional heroes were becoming part of pulp literature in the late 1910's and into the 1820's... 

1917 got one of the first "supermen" - John Carter. His superhuman abilities are not superhuman per se, excepting the ability to travel between Earth and Mars, and his unaging nature... his superhuman ability on Mars is from having earth-normal strength. Buck Rogers came out in 1928's Armageddon: 2419 and continued in 1929's Airlords of the Han.  It turned into a strip in 1929, which is where  "Buck" was applied. Flash Gordon in 1934, and Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire in 1935.

Conan the Barbarian is 1932. Again, exceptional in motivations and skill, but not superhuman physically. Ironically, he was so successful in text that it would be decades before it hit comic form...

Pulp heroes like Conan and street level supers are about equal in overall capability;  they clearly pave the way for superheroes... at a time when the world wasn't looking all that hopeful....


Aramis

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The Pulp era (pre-Golden Age) certainly informs a lot of Bronze and Iron age comics; it's why we see such a resurgence of horror and fantasy in the '70s and '80s.  Many of the comics writers of that era grew up reading Robert Howard, Lovecraft, Zane Grey, and lots of the other pulp writers, so the inspiration was already forming.  Star Wars in 1976 is nothing if not heavily informed by Flash Gordon; He-Man (1982) originally started as an attempt to make a kid-friendly Conan character.  And, of course, the influence of characters like The Shadow on the street-level vigilante archetype almost goes without saying...

degausser
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All true, all true.  I stuck to Superhero stuff because, well, we are talking about a superhero game.  And the metaverse (fictional sentinel comics publishing universe) follows the superhero comic book ages.

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@degausser given that the rise of pulp heroes, especially in the paper, made the public ready to accept übermenschen and to accept visual storytelling .... it's an important chapter. If we didn't have Buck, Flash, and their ilk, Supes wouldn't have been such a hit. Likewise, Famous Funnies is the first real public argument for comics as durable-form art... without it, most of the strips likely would be lost in the papers, not collected and preserved. (newspaper collections are often pretty rough...)


Aramis

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Which in turn goes back to one of my original points:  in any form of historiography, there's always going to be a matter of debate when it comes to the start or end of a given era.  If the idea was to delineate eras of superhero comics, then starting with Action Comics #1 as the opening of the Golden Age makes sense.  If we're talking about comics as a medium, then yes, it makes more sense to go back farther.