In discussing the existence of a Bronze Age, I neglected to define it. Happily, the Legion of Superfluous Heroes (otherwise known as the members of the Captain Comics Message Board) took up the task. The discussion centered on two main theories. The first is that the Bronze Age lasted from 1970-1986, starting with Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (sometimes in conjunction with other key issues of ’70-’71). The second theory is that the Bronze Age lasted from 1975-1986, starting with the introduction of the all-new X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #4 (with 1970-1974 serving as either a period between ages or a proto-Bronze Age). Both theories shared a common end-date of 1986- the year that the Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars II brought significant changes in both tone and continuity. Those weren’t the only theories- there are still those who reject the concept of a Bronze Age and others who offer a different end-point- but they seem to be the main ones.
This week, I want to move beyond that part of the discussion. What comes after the Bronze Age?
One major view is that nothing comes after the Bronze Age. Luke Blanchard wrote, “The last twenty years seem to me one long period.” Jeff-of-Earth J described the ages of comics as “Golden, Silver, Bronze and something else.” Wikipedia- a reflection of popular consensus- agrees. It follows entries for Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages with one for a Modern Age, encompassing everything from 1987 until now.
I’m on record with another view. I admit that I’m probably departing from the majority on this one. But I think that the past twenty-five years contains at least two distinct ages, bringing us to a total of five.
I see several different factors contributing to the beginning of the Fourth Age (which, for now, will remain nameless). One is the change in tone initiated by Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Those two stories led comics to a different approach that was clearly distinct from the comics that came before. Story-telling was darker and more mature, which is why one of the most popular names for this period is the Dark Age (a quick aside: those two features are not always the same thing though they’re often treated that way). Those two works paved the way for other successful properties such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Luke Blanchard is right when he writes, “I don't know that the post-Crisis DCU immediately got darker.” It didn’t. But the Silver Age didn’t happen over-night either. The new Flash debuted in 1956. Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t enter the Silver Age until 1958. Green Arrow and Aquaman entered the Silver Age in different years despite co-starring in the same title. Some people even argue that Batman didn’t enter the Silver Age until his “New Look” in 1964.
Another factor giving rise to the Fourth Age is the change in continuity. This was especially apparent at DC. Fans even developed a new lexicon of “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” to refer to the many changes wrought by that series. This became particularly evident to me when I recently read the trade collection of Superman: Man of Steel. The changes to the character, the cast and the universe were far-reaching. The changes were so significant that the editorial and accounting departments actually credited the writers with creating new characters (Marv Wolfman mentioned in a preface that he receives royalty checks for creating a new version of Lex Luthor). In its way, the introduction of a new Superman in Man of Steel is as significant as the introduction of a new Flash in Showcase #4. This time, the new Superman was followed by a new Wonder Woman, a new Justice League and a new Flash. In a couple of years, Marvel followed with new titles for Spider-Man and X-Men.
That leads us to several more factors. The previous ages were all defined, in part, by an expansion of new characters, new titles and new companies accompanied by a noticeable increase in sales. Well, that is certainly true of the Fourth Age. The Fourth Age brought Dark Horse (1986), Malibu (1987), Valiant (1991), Image (1992), Topps (1992) and Malibu’s Ultraverse (1993). Marvel and DC also expanded rapidly. The result is that the early 1990s saw more new companies and more new characters than any era since the Golden Age. Did all of these characters and companies succeed? No. But that was also true of the Golden Age. Most of those characters were canceled quickly as well. On the other hand, many characters from this period achieved popularity, longevity or jumped to other media (a category that includes Cable, Deadpool, Spawn, Hellboy, Witchblade, Static and Hitman).
The early ‘90s can also boast of publishing the most titles since the pre-Comic Book Code 1950s and achieving the highest individual sales since WWII. Yes, you read that right. The early ‘90s beat the Silver Age on several (though not all) peak markers. I know that many older fans don’t want to give this era the status of an official age, but objectively, it stands out as much as the Silver Age did.
Of course, all of this could be true and we’d still be dealing with only one post-Bronze Age era if not for another factor. There is a very clear end-point. In the first article, I mentioned that previous ages were characterized- not by the cancellation of one title such as Captain Marvel or X-Men- but by the cancellation of many titles and even the cessation of multiple publishers. This was true of the Golden Age. This was true of the Silver Age. This was partially true of the Bronze Age. And this was dramatically true of the Fourth Age.
The comic book market, propped up by speculator and investment buyers, collapsed in 1996 and 1997. Almost all of the aforementioned companies went out of business or were sold. Even Marvel, the biggest publisher in the industry, declared bankruptcy. And both Marvel and DC slashed their titles until they were publishing between one-third and one-half of their peak numbers. The shock to the industry was so significant that George cites it as the end of the Bronze Age (which didn’t have the cataclysmic ending of earlier ages). And even Luke Blanchard seems to agree with me (phew! I didn’t want to disagree with Luke on everything) when he writes, “I suppose the speculator boom was a distinct period, since it brought with it new companies and characters which were wiped out when the boom collapsed.”
That’s a beginning, a middle and an end. That looks like an Age to me- the Fourth Age of comics.