Comic books have been part of popular culture for nearly 100 years now, but few know the complexity and detailed history surrounding them. this article hopes to clear this up by listing the 4 distinct ages of comic book culture and the legacy of each.
The Golden Age 1938-1950
Most would argue that the birth of the comic as we know it started with DC’s Action Comics 1 that saw the birth of arguably the most well known of all the superheroes, Superman in 1938. However, this was not called the golden age for no reason at all; many of the heroes that we still see today; such as Wonder Woman, Batman Arrow and many others hail from this pioneering time of comic book writing.
This age of comic books came at a time when the fantasy and escapism offered by comics was warmly welcomed. The golden age ran right through the Second World War and the subsequent economic downturns afterwards. This was a fertile breeding ground for comics and the advancement in printing technologies made it easier than ever to produce them.
It was a time of many firsts, much of which we see today, including the first superhero team (seen in DC’s Justice Society of America) and many of the origin stories for heroes that endure to this day.
The stories at this time were quite cyclical in nature, with most heroes having an arc was enclosed in the comic itself. For example, the Joker would be up to no good, Batman would stop him, and everything would be ready to tart a fresh in the next issue. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule but generally this was the pattern of the time
Despite this success, there were increasing concerns about the affect that comics were having on the youth of the day; parallels to this have been seen countless times throughout the ages.
The Silver Age 1950-1970
It is generally considered that the start of the silver age began with the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash. Comic books generally had been struggling, as the campaigns to demonise them had gained traction. It was argued that comics were making teenagers more violent and that comics were more than partially to blame.
This did not stop the popularity of comics prevailing, with sales increasing after their post war slump. Also the tone of the superhero took on a new form. Heroes were more grounded as opposed to being entirely different being, above the vulnerabilities of human nature, as seen in the early superman comics.
This shift marked not only the older nature of the readership, but the advancement in story writing. People were calling out for heroes that they could relate to, and the industry responded with heroes such as the Flash, The Green Lantern, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.
This was in part due to the work of pioneers such as Stan Lee, who’s unique heroes and writing style helped propel heroes back into the consciousness of popular culture
The Bronze Age 1970-1985
The bronze age of comics was, of sorts, a passing of the guard, with old faces leaving the industry being replaced by new ideas and faces. In many ways it was one of the most formative eras in terms of the heroes we see today.
One of the biggest aspects to this time in comic history was the introduction of more women and minority heroes; a shift that was sorely in the industry. Heroes such as storm from the X-Men and cyborg of the Justice league, bought minorities into the fold and giving people who may not identify with the other heroes on offer someone to rout for.
As well as bringing new faces into the fold, the bronze age saw the rejuvenation of heroes of old. Having been around for so long, those who were working on publications like Batman and superman were looking for ways to keep their characters relevant. It was in this time that the stories to a much different tonal shift, with heroes facing much darker and testing times that ultimately impacted on the character themselves. This more mature approach to writing and character development helped breath life into characters that, to some, were becoming stale. An example of this is when in Spiderman #129, Spiderman himself died and The Amazing Spiderman was born out of it.
All of this was made possible by the abolition of the comic code, a piece of industry self-regulation drafted in 1954 to stop government regulation surrounding the industry. It was born out of a time where the influence of comics on youth was called into question, however with it’s abolition in the mid 60s, it allowed for the more bold storylines seen throughout the bronze age.
The modern age 1985-present
In my opinion the birth of the modern age of comics came one seminal work that many of you might know, Alan More’s Watchmen. The piece threw out many of the conventional aspects of comic writing and went for a much grittier and grounded body of work that went where many other writers dared not to go. This included hyper violence and sexual aspects to his writing and characters. In tandem with this it also had a much darker storyline than most at the time.
In a way Watchmen paved the way for ultimate creativity within the industry, much of which we enjoy today. It also inspired works like Batman’s: The Killing Joke which took the Dark Crusader to some truly dark places.
This paved the way for much of the hero landscape we see today, certainly Marvels cinematic universe and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy would not have been possible without it.
It was the first time that the industry had a true creative autonomy when writing and drawing new comic books. The shackles were off and there was no turning back. Although not all comics have taken this darker route, it reflected the much older audience that was consuming these new publications. Many who grew up with comics were ready for an older approach with characters that had true human flaws.
Although it’s difficult to tell what direction the industry will turn next, its easy to see what effect it’s having on popular culture today. In all, it’s a great time to be a comic book fan.
By Ryan Pointon