“Don’t let no one get you down
Keep movin’ on higher ground
Keep flying until
You are the king of the hill
No force of nature can break
Your will to self motivate
She say this face that you see
Is destined for history”
(“History”, Michael Jackson)
I never really looked up the different ages of comic books we had or have. I was interested but somehow needed a reason to get into it. Now that I opened this Box of Pandora I cannot close it anymore. It is fascinating how different websites and opinions are in naming the different ages. And it’s not just the names that vary. Even the years do. I collected information from various sites, read their descriptions and arguments for their system. To be honest, that didn’t satisfy me, so I came up with my naming system (mostly borrowed from the various sites – you can find them, as always, in the source section of this article). So here it is – the ultimate, maybe the final list of comic book ages you will ever need (eventually):
- Golden Age
- Atomic Age
- Silver Age
- Bronze Age
- Dark Age (Copper Age)
- Extreme Age
- Diamond Age
Now let’s talk about the how and why? Come with me into this rabbit hole, leaving Kansas behind – good luck getting out.
The Age of the Proto-Superhero
This idea I got from a very popular and vital website called tvtropes.org. In my opinion, this is a very suitable name for everything that happened before comic books emerged, but at the same time a very arrogant one, because it lumps everything together. Thousands of years of culture put into one big messy drawer. But these are the ages of comic books, and as you are going to see later, not everyone focuses on the comic books, when naming the different eras of such.
It is, of course, essential to recognize what was before, because not every character from those early days is remembered and honored by us:
“Only a lucky handful (Zorro, Tarzan, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Lone Ranger, Golden Bat) have remained popularly-recognized since their inception. But superpowered or not, widely-remembered or not, it’s these Proto Superheroes to which later Golden, Silver, Bronze, Dark and Modern Age comic superheroes owe their success, as inspiration for their archetype and the industry that birthed them.” (Proto-Superhero, n.d.)
Scott McCloud talks in his book Understanding Comics at length about the history of comics. The definition sequential art by Will Eisner, is, after McCloud’s analysis, the perfect description for most comics. But there were similar things before 1842 – the year of the first comic strip. Over 2000 years ago the Egyptians had an entire writing system based on symbols.
Other cultures had similar things as well and told stories of their heroes, legends, and myths. Enter a church, and you can see the suffering of Jesus frame by frame. Granted, they don’t have any dialogue or speech bubbles, but they tell a story. There are entire graphic novels without a single word in them. So the word “comic” can be a rather broad definition.
Maybe we will talk about the medium itself in another article. For now, in this context, we want to focus on the modern day comic books – mainly American comics. You could also make such an article about mangas or other region/culture based ways of telling stories via a culmination of text and pictures.
The Golden Age of comic books were simple times. The good old times, if you will. The supposedly good guys wear capes and won. The bad guys lost. There were no grey areas. “[N]o mercy! The moral of this story ladies and gentleman is… Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always England prevails!” (V for Vendetta, 2006)
I think the birth of Superman in June 1938 is the perfect date to start the Golden Age of comic books. Superman – the first Superhero. He was and is the embodiment of justice, truth, and the American Way. He is not only good but infallible. Strong, fast, incorruptible. Ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good. The perfect man – but not human. An ideal. Never to be reached. By the way, he talks, moves and behaves he might fool you.
Nevertheless, he is an alien. But his strength is not limitless. The Hulk gets stronger and stronger the angrier he gets; this is a genuinely infinite strength. Superman does not have this luxury. He is as strong and capable as the story needs him to be. I read a sentence like that in an article about Superman – unfortunately, I didn’t note where I found it – but it is a valid description of the character.
In his newest adventures, he has a family, even a dog and handles that great as well. But why do I talk about Superman in such lengths? To be honest, it started out as a sarcastic list of everything Superman is and can be – you might have picked up on that. But as I thought about it, it is a logical step, to start with the ultimate superhero. An alien who has lost everything, overcame his grief, was raised by good people and now gives back as much as he can.
The only one better as Superman (no, I am not talking about Batman) is Wonder Woman. In my favorite origin story of this character, she was molded by clay and brought to life by Zeus. No suffering. Then, as Steve Trevor came along, she decided to go with him and do good. No sign of guilt. She chose to do so. Not something tragic from her past that forced her into this.
As we look back at the history of those great characters, let’s not forget, that we take a 1930s point of view. And as I said, Superman was not the first Superhero. James Henry (2016) wrote:
“Heck, Superman wasn’t even the first superhero by DC comics, that would appear to be “Doctor Occult” published in 1935 by DC comics in New Fun Comics #6. He was a private investigator specializing in cases involving the supernatural. He used his magical abilities (like astral projection & telekinesis) to solve his cases.”
Still, he wasn’t alone for long. The Golden Age also witnessed the rise of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Captain America, as well as the Justice Society of America in 1940, and many many more. Some writers point out, that the characters behind the masks and under the capes, where not that interesting. Though I think that is a bold statement, I get where they are coming from.
The heroes were the focus; not their alter egos. At some point, I want to go back and read the first adventures of Batman and the others so that I can join the discussion about this particular topic. Be that as it may, the age of the Superheroes faded away as fast as it came to life. After World War II they were replaced by non-superhero stories. Sometimes this meant for the heroes to phase out of their own titles slowly.
“Although Batman and Superman would continue to exist through this time, Captain America did not fare so well. His book was renamed into Captain America’s Weird Tales and was completely phased out of the comic in the same year as the human torch and replaced with horror genre material.” (Grant, 2016)
Most people don’t write about the Atomic Age and instead make a direct transition from the Golden Age into the Silver Age. But in my opinion, it is important to point out, that Superheroes had some years, where they were not as popular as one might think, and took a hiatus.
During these years, “Horror comics became very popular, and the most successful publisher producing those books was EC Comics’ Bill Gaines. These stories visually depicted beheadings of women, murders, and other crimes…” (Grant, 2016). Because of those very detailed descriptions of how crimes went down, and the gruesome visuals, concerns arose. I talked at length about those concerns in a previous article (I also mentioned what Bill Gaines accomplished after he closed down EC Comics). The era of horror and crime comics ended basically with the foundation of the Comics Magazine Association of America and the Comics Code Authority (I wrote about them here).
With the guidelines in place – how to make comics without manipulating children to become murderers, thieves, and villains – superheroes awoke to new life. Others might date the start of the Silver Age a few years later:
“Over at DC Comics, Carmine Infantino applied his art to various genre of comic books, and one that struck a cord with the mainstream and did well under the comics code authority was Showcase 4, 1956 which introduced the modern Barry Allen Flash and started off the Silver Age (1956-1969)” (Grand, 2016)
Or: “The Silver Age lasted from 1956note to about 1972 (although some people count everything up until 1985 as part of it, folding in The Bronze Age of Comic Books).” (tvtropes, n.d.)
Though I like the idea, that DC plays a significant role in starting new eras of comic books, the start of the Comics Code Authority seems to fit better. But as you will see in the next couple of ages, this area of comic studies, needs more research. Especially after the Bronze Age, the differences between author’s opinions on how to define the periods are vast. Therefore I wanted to provide a full list, so you can decide for yourself, how to divide the eras.
I asked myself: Why is Barry Allen’s appearance in DC Showcase #4 in Oct. 1956 supposed to be the beginning of a new age? Martian Manhunter, for example, first appeared in Detective Comics #225 in Nov. 1955 and Captain Comet had his debut in Strange Adventures #9 (1951). What is so special about Barry Allen?
We have to look at the storytelling of this comic. It is interesting to see that a #4 comic of an ongoing series started the Silver Age and not a #1. Showcase #4 was the first comic to focus on a Science-Fiction approach. Make the heroes more realistic. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (the remaining three ongoing comics still published by DC at the time) and others followed. So maybe, if you take this point of view, Showcase #4 is the beginning of the Silver Age.
If we look at Marvel, we can see that they introduced their major characters during the Silver Age: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and so on and so forth.
The end of the Silver Age is often connected to Green Lantern and the following quote from 1972:
”Those days are gone – gone forever – the days I was confident, certain … I was so young … so sure I couldn’t make a mistake! Young and cocky, that was Green Lantern. Well, I’ve changed. I’m older now … maybe wiser, too … and a lot less happy.”
The 1960s ended, the Comics Code Authority lost its grip and superheroes became vulnerable. Society had to deal with some setbacks, but before I go into some details, an abstract-ish overview:
“When many loved ones perished or people got emotionally distressed, heroes and villains became poor and depressed which had resulted in them being addicted to drugs and alcohol. With codes of authority being broken, the supernatural came to take over. Heroes had darker villains, and they had to work together to survive these darker times. Minority characters chose to fight for crime and become heroes whether it was for money, survival, or to bring justice.” (Spider10, 2016)
Massacres, the Vietnam War and NASA losing a significant part of their funding, are just three things, that occurred at that time. Also, the comic book industry was changing. In 1971 the CMAA released a new guideline, in 1970 Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to DC, and Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy died in 1973. But there is some agreement, that the Bronze Age started with the first issue of Conan the Barbarian.
Again: Why? Created by writer Robert E. Howard in 1932, Conan had his comic debut in 1970. The looser guidelines of the comics code, fired up the creators urge for experiments. To let a guy run around basically naked, was a logical move, I guess. So, like Superman, Conan represents more, than just the beginning of a new comic book series. He represents an idea.
Finally, to come around full circle on our main topic, the X-Men were reborn in 1975. Marvel released Giant Sized X-Men #1, and Chris Claremont began his 17 years of reign in all X-Men related titles.
Dark Age (Copper Age)
The Dark Age or sometimes referred to as the Copper Age began in 1985. Why I don’t want to call this age the supposedly “modern age” is further described in the Diamond Age section.
As with our real Dark Ages, this term is not meant literally but figuratively. Characters such as Barry Alan as the Flash, Clark Kent as Superman, Wonder Woman and many more were replaced by darker, grittier and psychologically complex aspects. As a starting point, we can once again, glance at DC and their Crisis on Infinite Earths event. After 50 years of publication, they needed to simplify their rich and complex mythos. The solution was a 12-issue mini-series that would change the DC Universe forever.
If you want a detailed discussion of Crisis on Infinite Earths I suggest you read the article “’Crisis on Infinite Earths’ 30 Years On” by Gregory L. Reece. First, he talks about the history of DC and the idea of a multiverse. Then he continues to point out why and how Crisis on Infinite Earths was such a hit.
DC also released one of their all-time favorite, best-selling graphic novels Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli. Frank Miller also wrote The Dark Knight Returns. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created The Watchmen (I don’t think I have to describe the impact of this comic).
But “Marvel also had their fair share of Dark, psychologically complex stories like the Morlock Massacre, Scourge murdering villains, and the Punisher being a hero compared to dirtbags like Nuke or Sabretooth.” (Grand, 2016)
For some, the Extreme Age began in 1991 with the release of X-Force #1 by Rob Liefeld. But in my opinion 1992 would be a better fit, because that is the year Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, and Rob Liefeld founded Image Comics – former employees of the Big Two. It was a little revolution and the beginning of indie comics.
In 1993 a coalition of African-American artists and writers, consisting of Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle founded Milestone Media. They gave minorities a platform.
The Extreme Age took the Bronze Age further. Darker anti-heroes were born. For example, one of my all-time favorites: Spawn. “While a strange assailant stalks the city, ripping out human hearts, another otherwordly being arrives. As his mind reels, our tortured hero remembers that he struck a deal with the devil in order to return to his beloved wife – five years after his death.” (imagecomics; n.d.)
It is important to point out such developments and give them their own age, no matter how short it may be. But Image still plays a huge role as a comic book publisher, and Milestone Media inspired a lot of people (you can read their story in detail in the book Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans by Jeffrey A. Brown).
This was also the time, trade paperbacks became popular and DC started their _Death of Superman_ story-arc. But the word “extreme” also refers to the artwork, which was not always anatomically correct (especially when it comes to certain features of the female body or the muscles of men). Also, we were given a lot of gimmicks in the storylines, as you can see in the early comics published by Image.
Diamond Age (1997-now)
Some call it modern age or movie age, but both are neither suitable nor appropriate. The modern age is a very subjective term. If we would be in the 80s we also could name the age “the modern age of comic books,” but that would do nothing good. Or as the user Spider10 (July 17, 2016) from the website playbuzz puts it: “We can’t call anything ‘The Modern Age’ because let’s face it: ‘The Modern Age’ you have now will not be called that in the near future.”
Movie age is also inappropriate because it shifts the focus away from comic books. But the name Diamond Age is a good compromise to hint at the millions of dollars movies based on comic books make. And I am not just talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DCEU. We also have to remember the early films. Spawn from 1997, Blade from 1998, the first X-Men movie from 2000, etc. And don’t let us forget movies like Atomic Blond or Valerian. In my opinion, the real age of comic book movies started with Spawn and Blade.
Of course, there were some attempts to bring superhero movies to life before those two, but the technology was not ready for such projects. I think it was also an issue, that movies didn’t get that much money to be produced. One of the first mega-projects of such a kind was The Lord of the Rings.
Twenty years seems to be like a huge time span. Maybe we need to make a cut at some point and start a new phase. It is too early for such a drastic move, because who knows what happens in the future. Maybe, from a DC Comics point of few, we could use 2011 or 2016 for a new beginning. 2011 was the new52 initiative and 2016’s Rebirth (but this is connected to the new52, so it would have to be 2011). Or we could start with one of the many, many, many events Marvel had over the last couple of years. Or, and this is my favorite, we take a step back from the Big Two and take an indie comic to be the beginning of a new era. It doesn’t have to be Image. We could look at Boom! for example, who did a great job at creating original, exciting comics. Valiant could also be a possible alternative.
As you can see, there are a lot of options and only time will tell, in which direction we will have had been moved on to (does this make any sense?!).
Before we get to the usual bibliography-section, I want to provide a detailed list of everything that happened beginning with 1933, up until now. You can find the list at bipcomics.com, and though they did not divide the eras as I did, for example, their Golden Age began in 1933, it is an interesting list with a lot of information.
If you are specifically interested in the history of DC Comics, I can recommend the books by Paul Levitz. He wrote an XL hardcover book series about the various ages of DC. I have not read them yet, but the reviews are promising. There is also a visual history guide of DC Comics (although from another author). And finally, you can read the limited comic book series The Comic Book History of Comics published at IDW. The resource on various topics are vast, and you could fill libraries with them. Pick the topic you are interested in most, and get started.
– Spider10 (July 17th, 2016). The Ages Of Comic Books Explained. Retrieved from paybuzz.com
– Proto-Superhero (n.d.). Retrieved September 27th, 2017 from tvtropes.org
– tvtropes (n.d.). Useful Notes / The Silver Age of Comic Books. Retrieved from tvtropes.org
– behindthecomics (n.d.). Ages of Comic Books. Retrieved from behindthecomics.weebly.com
– Grand, A. (Oct 6, 2016). The 8 Ages of Comic Books. Retrieved from comicbookhistorians.com
– Henry, J. (Nov 1, 2016). Which was the first comic book ever? [comment]. Retrieved from quora.com
– Strausbaugh, J. (Dec 14, 2003). ART; 60’s Comics: Gloomy, Seedy, and Superior. The New York Times.
– imagecomics (n.d.). SPAWN #1 [publication info]. Retrieved from imagecomics.com