I’ve been talking about the ages of comics for the past three columns (if you think I’m being long-winded, you should see all of the stuff I left out). Either way, I appreciate your perusal and participation. So far, I’ve speculated as to whether or not Brightest Day and Heroic Age will launch a new age, sided with the broad consensus that there is such a beast as a Bronze Age, and struck out on my own to propose a Fourth Age from 1987-1996. That leaves the issue of what do we do with the last dozen years or so. Is it another age?
If you’ve been reading along, then you already know that my answer is “Yes.” However, I’ll readily admit that this is my own opinion rather than a widely-accepted theory.
There are two major arguments against this being a fifth age. The first is “everything since **** is just one big age.” There is some validity to that argument. Indeed, every new age has had to overcome that perception.
Jeff-of-Earth-J had a great quote in response to the first column: "Modern Age" is a term I use for whatever the current age which has not yet been defined. For example, I used to say "Golden Silver and Modern," but now I say "Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern."
This shows that, despite initial resistance, the idea of a defined age of comics can gain acceptance. The argument would have been at one time, “everything since 1970 (the end of the Silver Age) is just one big age.” Now, it’s more likely to be “everything since 1986 (the end of the Bronze Age) is just one big age.”
However, I argued that the years 1987 to 1996 have all of the features and characteristics of an age, with one notable exception- a widely agreed-upon name. However, if we were to insert one of the suggested names, we would have Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron and everything after. In other words, “everything since 1996 (the end of the Iron Age) is one age.”
I’m glad to say that I’m not the only one who has considered this. In 1997 and ’98, Wildstorm Studios produced a crossover between the X-Men and their own Wildcats. The story would span several eras of time, reflecting the different ages of comics. The four issues were the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Dark Age (one of the other suggested names for the Fourth Age) and the Modern Age.
The second major argument against this being a fifth age has to do with sales. Figserello wrote, “Sales follow successful new storytelling fashions, so the two are interlinked.” Indeed, the earlier ages are defined not only by peaks in creative output, but also by spikes in sales.
That causes a problem for the current age. After all, current comic book sales pale in comparison with earlier ages. The best-selling comics of today would be mid-level performers in the ’80s or in danger of cancellation in the ‘60s.
However, I don’t think that necessarily precludes the possibility of a fifth age. For one thing, an age is not necessarily a direct comparison between peaks. By that definition, the Silver Age wouldn’t count as an Age either. After all, the sales of the Silver Age were one-fifth of the sales of the Golden Age. Similarly, the Bronze Age peak may not have been as high as the peak of the Silver Age but it was still a peak compared to the years that had come between.
On the other hand, the last fifteen years have given us a valley and a peak that help shape the ages of comics. The years of 1997-99 had the lowest comic book sales in history. They’re so low that I wouldn’t even include them in an age. They’re kind of like the years between the Golden and Silver Ages (which saw great sales in other genres but the near-extinction of superheroes) and the years between the Silver and Bronze Ages (according to some definitions). In contrast, the years 2000-2007 saw seven straight years of growth. That’s something that hadn’t happened since the Golden Age (the Silver Age’s best stretch was 4 years).
Another issue is that sales contrasts across eras are not apple-to-apple comparisons. Silver Age numbers are based on the number of issues printed for returnable newsstand distribution and could be double the number of issues actually sold. Current numbers are based on issues sold to the direct market- while ignoring subscriptions, newsstand distribution and international sales- and could be half of the actual number of issues sold. I’m not saying that current comics sell as well as Silver Age comics. They don’t. But the gap isn’t as great as some observers would have you believe. Plus, modern comics are also sold in trade paperbacks, a secondary market that extends shelf-life and raises readership.
The current age may not be as commercially successful as the Silver Age, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s not an age at all.
I think it is. I think the sales are part of the story (including the seven straight years of growth that I mentioned previously). I think the expansion of the market is part of the story. Comics have expanded into new genres, new formats and new territories. The last decade has seen the explosion of manga, trade paperbacks and bookstore sections devoted to comics. You can even buy comics in airport terminals.
Luke Blanchard asked (yes, I’m quoting Luke again; sorry, Luke), “Is there the same kind of contrast between superhero comics of today and of fifteen years ago as there was between the superhero comics of the mid-70s and those of the early 60s?”
I think so. Modern comics have very different features than Iron Age comics. Comics of the early ‘90s were often fast-paced, action-packed affairs. An actual story sometimes took back-seat to a sequence of fight scenes. Comics of the mid-aughts were slow-paced. They were deconstructed and fans would sometimes wait four to six issues for a big fight.
Compare Jim Lee’s first issue of Wildcats in 1992 with Joe Casey’s first issue of Wildcats 3.0 in 2002. Compare the “Reign of the Supermen” in 1993 with “World without a Superman” this past year. Compare Joe Madureira’s X-Men in 1994 to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men in 2004. They’re completely different animals.
And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. John Dunbar made a good point when he discussed the history of Marvel comics in terms of its chief editors. The comic books from the Joe Quesada era are as different from the Tom DeFalco era as the Jim Shooter era is from the Stan Lee era.
So yeah, I think we’re in the fifth age of comics. Call them what you like: Chromium and Platinum (I haven’t given up on them yet), Dark and Prismatic (with a tip of the cap to Figserello), Iron and Modern. But I think that they’re two very distinct and different ages, rather than one big “everything after.”
And, yeah, I’m worried that we’re actually at the end of the fifth age of comics. After the highs of 2007 (the best-selling year since the pre-crash days of ’95), we’ve seen two years of slight decline. The industry isn’t back to the lows of 1997-’99. At least, not yet.
Which brings me back to the subject that started this all. I sincerely hope that DC’s Brightest Day and Marvel’s Heroic Age can reverse the trend. I hope that new technology like Apple’s iPad can be a jump-start for the industry the way that the direct market was at the beginning of the Bronze Age. I think things have been pretty good for the past decade. And I’d like to see it keep going.
Thanks for listening, everyone. The End.