Friday, July 16, 2010

The Ages of Superman

People familiar with superhero comics often make reference to the Golden Age or the Silver Age, and less frequently to the Bronze Age.  It is not obvious to a newcomer what exactly these terms refer to -- and that is partly because the people who use them don't always use them in the same way or with the same connotations.  So let's look at the Ages of superhero, and shed some light on what is the jargon.

The language of ages comes to comics by way of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and to a lesser extent Hesiod's Works and Days, upon which Ovid's ideas were based.  For both Hesiod and even more for Ovid, these were mythological ages of humanity.  The Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic (Hesiod only) and Iron ages represent the decline from peace and unity with the gods into the state of depravity that we find ourselves in now.

The specifics of the classical Ages of Men aren't especially pertinent, except in two ways.  Firstly that they are mythological rather than historical ages, which does not necessarily mean that they were not believed to have literally happened, but rather means that they are instructive and enlightening about the nature of the world we live in now. Secondly that with the exception of Hesiod's "Heroic Age", the ages represent a continual state of decline or entropy.  The use of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron as metaphors for the ages is a deliberate value judgement.  For Ovid the Golden Age was the best age, and the Iron Age is the worst.

In Comics the ages are not clearly defined, and become more obscure and contentious as we come closer to contemporary comics.  Two things worth noting, however, are that in contrast to the meaning of the ages in Classical mythology, the ages of comics 1) Refer primarily to publishing rather than mythology, and therefore have chronological dates attached to them, and 2) Do not necessarily involve value judgements.  The first point is important to remember because since the ages -- especially Golden and Silver -- are chronologically defined, and based on sales rather than on any artistic or mythic vision, there is not necessarily a thematic or artistic unity within an age.  With regard to the second point, we should remember that it is not universally recognized to be the case that the Golden Age was better than the Silver Age, even by people who use the terminology of the Ages.  In fact, the Silver Age is arguably the version of most superheroes that is taken to be the standard, and for which modern writers demonstrate the most nostalgia.  We should also note that the ages do not necessarily follow directly upon each other.  The Golden and Silver ages, in particular, were originally conceived of and are still often thought of as two highpoints separated by a lull.  The Silver Age was perceived at the time as a renaissance, harkening back to the Golden Age rather than a shift away from it.

The Ages are essentially a hallmark of superhero comics rather than any other genre, and as such the Golden Age begins with the 1938 publication of Action Comics 1, and the first appearance of Superman.  The Golden Age featured the introduction of some of comics' most enduring and iconic superheroes, most notably Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Captain Marvel, and Captain America.  Note that of these all but Captain Marvel and Captain America were published by DC or its earlier incarnations.  Captain America was published by Timely Comics, the predecessor of Marvel, and Captain Marvel was published by Fawcett Comics, and was eventually acquired by DC.   It is not too much of a stretch to say that in the Golden Age, superhero comics were dominated by DC, especially in retrospect.

The Golden Age Flash Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions) The Golden Age Green Lantern Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions)
The beginning of the Silver Age is generally agreed to coincide with the1956 first appearance of the newly imagined and redesigned Flash.  DC had decided to reimagine some of their classic superheroes, and the Flash was their first -- and successful -- attempt.  Following the success of the new Flash, DC published new versions of Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, and the Justice League.  While Green Lantern and the Flash underwent the most extreme transformations, other characters were re-imagined with changes to their backstory, motivations, powers, or character traits.

Silver Age: Flash #1Green Lantern (No. 10) (Number 10) 

The Silver Age had different effects on different characters, but the general trend was away from magic or mysticism and toward science-fiction.  So Golden Age Green Lantern had a magic lantern, but Silver Age Green Lantern had an alien power battery.

The Silver Age marked a dramatic increase in sales and popularity of superhero comics, including superheroes who had not been explicitly re-imagined.  What this meant for comics publishers was that superheroes seemed once again like a viable market.  At Marvel Comics the team of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby responded to this newly rejuvenated market by creating such superheroes as the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Lee with artist Steve Ditko created Spider-Man.  If the Golden Age was dominated by DC, the Silver Age marks the rise of Marvel.

The Bronze Age has a less clearly defined beginning than do the Golden or Silver ages, but it begins in roughly 1970, the year Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC, and long-time Superman editor Mort Weisinger retired, to be replaced by Julie Schwartz.  Additionally, the early 70s saw Green Arrow's sidekick "Speedy" developing a drug addiction in 1971, and the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy in 1973.  Finally, in 1971 the comics' self-regulating body, the "Comics Code"--an analogue of the MPAA--relaxed its rules against horror elements such as vampires and werewolves.  All of this together led to an impression of a shift both within the fictional universes of DC and Marvel, and in the publishing and editorial practices of superhero comics.  The Bronze Age is characterized by increased darkness, seriousness, and more attempts at social relevance than had been in the Silver Age.

There is little consensus about when -- if ever -- the Bronze Age ended, or about what succeeded it.  In accordance with Ovid's ages, the Iron Age should reasonably come next, and some would argue that the 1986 John Bryne reboot of Superman constitutes the beginning of an Iron Age of Superman at least.  By the same token, the DC universe of comics was substantially re-imagined in the wake of the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, the recognized authority for collectors, includes a Copper Age and a Modern Age, both following the Bronze Age, though Overstreet does not explicitly name the dates for these categories.  The implication of Overstreet's categorization, however, is that the Bronze Age ends in the early 80s, and the Copper Age ends in the early 90s.

So roughly then, the Golden Age is 1940s and 50s, the Silver Age is the 60s, the Bronze Age is the 70s, the Iron/Copper Age is the 80s and the Modern Age is now.

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