In January, the two biggest comic book publishers each announced major new initiatives. DC announced “Brightest Day,” a long-form limited series that would follow on the heels of their “Blackest Night” crossover- promising the return of bright and shiny heroes after the recent darkness. Marvel announced the Heroic Age- a cross-title branding which includes a re-launch of several major titles that similarly promises the return of heroes who were truly heroic after a period of moral ambiguity. Most fans seem to be excited by the prospect whether they’re looking forward to something new or fully anticipating a return to greatness for their favorite comics and heroes. The similar and concurrent announcement of a new direction prompts some big questions, beyond the success of individual series. For example: is this the beginning of a new age?
Ever since someone first coined the term “the Golden Age of Comics,” comic book fans have loved to define the history of comic books in ages. Maybe the categorization speaks to the collector mentality in us- the same way that we’re attracted to long-boxes, price catalogues and online databases.
There are five general ages of comics. The first three- the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages- have fairly widespread acceptance as terms. You even encounter them in populist places like eBay. The Golden Age refers to the first comic book boom, in the years before, during and after World War II. The Silver Age refers to the second comic book boom, from the late ‘50s to the late ‘60s- the same time period when many baby boomers were young. The end points of the Bronze Age are less-agreed upon, but the age itself spans the ‘70s and ‘80s (most suggestions range from ’70-’85 or ’74-’90). It includes the third comic book boom, which is generally associated with the rise of the direct market.
Then, there are two more ages, though these are less-attested for a number of reasons (including the fact that they’re both fairly recent). The terms that seem to be used the most widely are the Image Age (after one of the dominant publishers of the time) and the Modern Age (though that will necessarily change should we move into a new age; after all, the Bronze and Image Ages were once considered the Modern Age). The Image Age describes the time of the late ‘80s and early to mid-‘90s when comics boomed again, partly based on a market of investment speculators. The Modern Age started with the new century, when a major upswing in sales followed a major lull in the late ‘90s.
(Personally, I like the terms Chromium Age and Platinum Age for the last two, in keeping with the metallic sounding names of earlier ages. But I suppose I’m going to have to come to grips with the fact that I’m alone in this as those names haven’t caught on).
A lot of fans like to define ages in terms of a single starting point and a single end point. In some cases, this is fairly easy or obvious. For example, the Golden Age started with Action Comics #1 and the introduction of Superman. In other cases, it isn’t as clear-cut. Some suggest that the Golden Age ended with World War II while others point to 1951 or ’53 and the cancellations of Golden Age stalwarts like All-Star Comics or Captain Marvel. While it’s fun to argue those kinds of details, the arguments themselves demonstrate that the end-points may be handy references but the truth is more complex.
There are several distinguishing features that define a comic book age. First, there is the expansion of new titles and new publishers. This is accompanied or even instigated by the introduction of new characters. This rise can be quite rapid as was the case in the late ‘30s when hundreds of characters were created in the wake of Superman. However, this rise can also be quite gentle. For example, fans like to cite the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash in Showcase Comics #4 as the comic that launched the Silver Age. But the Silver Age expansion didn’t take place for several years (Showcase #4 was in 1956; Supergirl, the new Green Lantern and the Justice League of America debuted in ’58, ’59 and ’60).
Second, there is a noticeable increase in popularity and sales. As much as some critics may try to argue that comic book ages are defined by quality, critical acclaim or internal continuity, the truth is the single biggest determining factor in determining an age is sales. If you were to look at the sales of comic books over the years, you would notice peaks- sometimes sharp ones- in the ‘40s (during WWII), in the ‘60s, in the ‘80s, in the ‘90s (when Youngblood became the first comic to sell a million or more copies since WWII) and in the ‘00s (when comics enjoyed seven straight years of growth from 2000 to ’07).
That’s not to say that those other aspects are irrelevant. Changes in continuity can serve as useful markers within a specific title’s history. For example, Wonder Woman is considered to have entered the Silver Age with 1958’s issue 98 as she was given an updated origin at that time. There are also clearly differences between the ages in terms of writing and artistic styles. For example, the transition in Marvel’s Amazing Adventures in 1971 from Jack Kirby to Neal Adams provides a stark contrast in terms of Silver and Bronze Age styles. A similar transition between Bronze and Image Age styles can be seen in Marvel Comics Presents in 1990 as the title moved from John Buscema and John Byrne to Erik Larsen and Rob Liefeld. However, those changes are significant when they are accompanied by- or even when they give rise to- a boom.
Third, there is a decline in sales that leads to the cancellation of many titles and even the cessation of several publishers. This is significant. The Golden Age didn’t end because All-Star Comics was cancelled or because Fawcett Publishing (the company behind Captain Marvel) went out of business. The Golden Age ended because almost everything was canceled and because multiple companies left comics. All-Star Comics and Captain Marvel are cited as markers or end-points because they were some of the last titles standing. This decline can be spread out over a significant amount of time. The Golden Age decline took about a decade, which leaves room for some events to mark the beginning of the end (the end of WWII) and others to mark the end of the end.
Also, I should make the caveat that when we’re talking about comic book ages we are primarily talking about superheroes. For many, comic books and superheroes are so intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish between the two. But that wasn’t always the case. When sales of superhero comics were falling in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the overall sales of comics were actually going up thanks to the popularity of other genres such as westerns, romance, horror and funny animals. That’s one reason why I reject Conan the Barbarian #1 or House of Secrets #92 (the first Swamp Thing) as starting points for the Bronze Age. They may overlap and coexist with the Bronze Age, but they represent other genres.
That’s a short treatise on the ages of comics. Hopefully, it helps us understand our terms so that we can answer our initial question: is this the start of a new age?
The short answer is “Possibly yes.” However, we won’t know for sure for some time. It’s hard to define an age when you’re in the middle of it. The Golden Age was named long after it was over. Wait 5, 10 or 20 years. In that time, we will have a clearer picture, a better idea and the benefit of perspective.
In the meantime, there are a couple of major reasons to think that this might not be the beginning of a new age.
First, it’s not clear that the current age is over. The current age experienced a long run of success. As previously mentioned, there were seven straight years of growth from 2000 to 2007. That string of success has been broken as the comic book industry has experienced slight declines in the last two years (’08 and ’09) and is now back to the sales levels of ’05 and ’06. But we are not yet at a clear nadir. Comic books haven’t bottomed out. So it’s possible that if these new ventures- Brightest Day and Heroic Age- are successful, they will represent a resurgence in the current age rather than a new age unto themselves. We have seen resurgences before, such as the late Silver Age when the Batman television show brought additional popularity to the comic books.
However, I will offer my own counter-point. It is possible to transition from one age to another without one. We’ve seen it before. There was no big bottoming out between the Bronze Age and the Image Age. That’s what makes it so hard to define the two (and why some pundits refuse to recognize them at all). They are clearly different, in terms of tone and style as well as sales peak (’85-’86 for the Bronze Age, ’92-’93 for the Image Age). But they also seem to overlap in ways that earlier ages did not.
Second, it isn’t clear that you can start an age intentionally. Surveying the long history of comics reveals several attempts to declare one venture or another to be the beginning of a new age of comics. Most of these attempts failed and failed miserably. The most noteworthy example is Marvel’s New Universe in 1986. The company compared the launch of the new line to their entry into the Silver Age in 1961. It would be, Marvel declared in advertisements, the dawn of a new age. Instead, it was a dismal failure that contributed to the firing of then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.
It doesn’t appear that you can intentionally set out to start an age of comics. A new age begins when someone does something that’s unusually and phenomenally successful. And while that’s welcome, it can never be planned or predicted. Instead, what happens is that other people imitate the success and they become successful in turn. Before you know it, there are multiple successes from multiple companies featuring multiple characters in multiple titles and comic books are enjoying a new boom. If it could be planned in a writers’ summit or a shareholders’ meeting, it would happen all of the time and we wouldn’t have the nadirs that plague comics again and again (or the repeated choruses sounding the death knell for comics every couple of years).
Finally, it’s too early to say that Brightest Day and Heroic Age represent a new age in that we don’t know whether or not they will be successful. I hope they will be. After all, it is good to see both major publishers making an intentional attempt to stimulate interest in comic books without waiting for a full nadir. I wish them a ton of success. But it’s way too early to know if they will be successful, let alone know whether that success is the start of a new age.