The Many Ages of American Comics

Recently, I saw someone on Twitter talking about classic Golden and Silver Age Iron Man stories. I just about leapt out of my skin. I didn’t want to be that person, but it really bugged me. Why, you ask? Because Iron Man didn’t exist in the Golden Age. In fact, almost all the iconic Marvel characters didn’t. While “Golden Age” is an easy phrase to apply to one’s own period of preference, within the discourse surrounding American comics “Golden Age” has an established meaning of its own, and the Golden Age of comics was over by the time Stan and Jack started swinging at the fences and teaming up on 18 books a month.

So, I’m going to tell you about each of the ages of American comics, the books that started them, and the things that are seen to have ended them.

The Golden Age (1938-1950)

Action Comics #1 - DC Comics 1938 - Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
The Birth of the Golden Age – Action Comics #1

The birth of the Golden Age is incredibly easy to define, because it’s also the birth of the American superhero. Action Comics #1 just celebrated it’s 80th birthday, and so did the country’s medium of superhero comic books. After the success of Superman, every comic publisher rushed to jump on the bandwagon with their own heroes. Detective Comics introduced Batman. All-American Publications introduced Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Timely Comics (Remember them? They’ll become very important later.) introduced The Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and a little known guy named Captain America. Fawcett Comics introduced Captain Marvel (now better known as *sigh* Shazam).

Eventually, National Comics (home of Superman) would merge with both Detective Comics and All-American Publications, and we would get the Justice Society of America. Timely and Fawcett would do their own thing, at least for a little while. In Fawcett’s case, they did not go quietly, but were rather sued out of existence by National because their Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman (even though he really wasn’t). The result was that in 1951, Fawcett ceased to publish any superheroes, and DC would eventually buy the rights to Captain Marvel and bring him into their own line of comics.

After World War II, superheroes started to decline in popularity, and other genres started to get a foothold. All-American and All-Star both set aside superheroes for Western stories. Star-Spangled Comics, which featured Batman’s sidekick Robin, became Star-Spangled War Stories. Horror comics, detective stories, war stories, and westerns all took the forefront of the medium.

The final nail in the coffin of the Golden Age though was Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. Wetham’s treatise on the damages that “crime” comics—a genre he threw detective stories, superhero stories, and horror stories into—did to the youth of America led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the effective end of the of the Golden Age of Comics. The CCA put strict limitations on what could and couldn’t be shown in comic books and effectively put publisher EC Comics out of business, since they focused on horror comics. After Wertham, EC was down to Mad Magazine, and only a handful of superhero comics were still being published, all of them from National/DC Comics. Wertham’s book misrepresented the industry and was inherently biased, but it did it’s job in forever changing the future of comics.

The Silver Age (1956-1970)

Showcase #4 - DC Comics - 1956 - Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert
The Birth of the Silver Age – Showcase #4

The dawn of the Silver Age and the return of the superhero came six years after what most historians see as the end of the Golden Age, and three years after Wertham’s book. It came when DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz (he’s not all good) decided to bring back the hero the Flash. He didn’t do it by bringing back the Golden Age version of the character, but introduced a new version. Barry Allen’s successful introduction led to the reintroductions of several other Golden Age heroes, including Green Lantern, Atom, and Hawkman. The reintroduction of the superteam came with the Justice League of America in Brave and the Bold. New directions took hold in Superman and Batman’s books, and new characters were introduced, including Supergirl and Batgirl.

Meanwhile, across town—at the offices that used to belong to Timely, and then belonged to Atlas, and now belonged to Marvel—they were also thinking about how to get back into the superhero game. In 1961, the “first family” of comics debuted. Like DC had before, Marvel reinvented a Golden Age character with the Human Torch, but they added him to a familial group with Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, and the Invisible Girl (later, woman). The Fantastic Four was born, and so was the Marvel Universe. Soon after, more heroes joined Marvel’s pet reality, including Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, the X-Men, and the Avengers.

Marvel and DC took different approaches during the Silver Age. DC’s heroes fought fantastic threats and basked in imaginary stories. Marvel’s were more human, more real. They challenged the issues of the day. They fought real world villains along with super-villains. They were flawed humans, while DC’s characters were less grounded.

Unlike the Golden Age, the Silver Age doesn’t have a clear line where it absolutely ends. In fact, both companies seem to have different points in which that change occurred. Over at DC, the era ended when a new creative team took over one of the Silver Age’s flagship characters: Green Lantern. At Marvel, it ended with Stan Lee’s push back against the Comics Code Authority, with the “Green Goblin Reborn!” arc chronicling Harry Osborne’s battle with drug abuse.

The Bronze Age (1970-1985)

Amazing Spider-Man #96 - Marvel Comics - 1971 - Stan Lee, John Romita and Gil Kane
The Birth of the Bronze Age: Amazing Spider-Man #96

The change from Silver to Bronze was a lot more subtle than the change from Gold to Silver. Over at 1700 Broadway, DC had launched a new creative team on Green Lantern to help boost its sales. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams brought in Green Arrow and a new era at DC Comics. They changed how DC Comics worked, focusing more on characters than epic battles. They took the Marvel approach and started talking about real world issues, like racism and drug abuse. And with them, the rest of the DC universe started to change. Superman left the Daily Planet. Supergirl and Robin went to college. The Teen Titans were allowed to grow up. Batman started to return to his darker roots. Robin was replaced, and Dick Grayson became Nightwing.

The biggest change to occur to DC Comics with the transition from Silver to Bronze is a focus on continued storylines. It’s something that was briefly played with in the Silver Age, mainly in backup stories like the Supergirl pages in Action Comics. But as the Bronze Age bloomed, we saw it spread to other books. Superman had “Kryptonite Nevermore.” Green Lantern/Green Arrow had “Hard Traveling Heroes.” We had long, epic storylines in the New Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Bronze Age was a fantastic time for storytelling in DC Comics.

At the House of Ideas, the Bronze Age involved the introduction of black superheroes, like Luke Cage and Storm, and others got larger roles, like Black Panther and Falcon. Following DC’s lead with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Marvel also started doing team-up books like Heroes For Hire and Captain America and Falcon. Horror characters and stories were allowed to headline books again. And similar to how the Legion of Superheroes and New Teen Titans were given new life under new creative teams, so were the X-Men. Chris Claremont’s immense run on the X-Men books is one of the hallmarks of Marvel’s Bronze Age. It was, arguably, a sign that the Bronze Age was going to end when he started losing control over the X-books.

But really, two huge events are what capped the Bronze Age. Before Secret Wars in 1984, there had never been a company wide crossover event. There had been team-ups and smaller mini-series, but never something that involved every character. So, with Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, we transitioned from the Bronze Age and into the next.

The Dark Age (1985-2000)

Watchmen #1 - DC Comics - 1986 - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Birth of the Dark Age: Watchmen #1

In 1986, the DC Universe died. Sure, it was reborn immediately, but there could be no surer and cleaner sign that things had changed. While the Bronze Age had introduced more realism to comics, both with story-telling and with art, the next age would take that even further. While the end of Crisis is the delineation point, the first two books to represent the era were Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in 1986. Both went to a darker place than most comics did and set a new trend.

Comics started getting more violent, and more and more focus went to the art over the story, especially at Marvel. Young hotshot artists like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld started to push for more and more control over the books, and supportive editorial moved Bronze Age talents like Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson off of the books they had shepherded for years.

This latter change helped to bring us two of the most long lasting contributions of the Dark Age. Those young, hot artists eventually left Marvel in the early 1990s to form their own comic company, Image Comics. Image Comics in turn helped to transition the comics industry from the newsstand market to the direct market. While the direct market started in the 1970s, by the mid 1990s, it had choked out newsstand editions. Sadly, it was no longer possible to find comics on spinner racks or with magazines at grocery stores and convenience stores. For better or worse, these are the two biggest contributions the Dark Age has to comics history.

Along with Image, we saw two other big names in comics publishing get introduced. In 1993, DC launched the Vertigo imprint, focusing on their darker and more mature titles, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Hellblazer. Vertigo would make the blueprint that Image would later follow when they moved away from superheroes. Milestone Comics was also founded in 1993. While not technically an imprint of DC Comics, they were published through them. Milestone was a company founded by African-American creators Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle to bring more minority representation to comics.

Another big thing to happen in the Dark Age is character and team-specific events. With the hyper success of “Death of Superman” in 1992, DC followed up with “Knightfall,” breaking Batman’s back, as well as “Emerald Twilight,” featuring Green Lantern turning evil.

Over at Marvel, a lot of the events were based around the X-Men, Marvel’s biggest intellectual property of the 1990s. “X-Cutioner’s Song,” 1992-1993, centered on the offspring of a crush introduced in 1963’s X-Men #1. Wolverine had the adamantium ripped from his skeleton in “Fatal Attractions.” We saw a bleak alternate universe with “Age of Apocalypse.” Even the biggest non-X related event of 1990s Marvel still happened because of the X-Men, as “Onslaught” sent the Avengers and Fantastic Four into an alternate universe, where returning Image Comics talent Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld got to take their crack at the most iconic Marvel protagonists in “Heroes Reborn.”

Much like the transition from Silver To Bronze, the transition from Dark to the next age is not super clear. For DC Comics, I think it came with a changing of the guard. One of the first books of the Dark Age was John Byrne’s new take on Superman. When he left, a renaissance of talent took over and made the book a weekly interconnected story. For eight years both Dan Jurgens and Louise Simonson wrote big chunks of Superman. Both their runs ended at the end of 1999, as the world looked to the new millennium. As a new editor looked to take the Superman books to a new direction, the most stable and consistent hero of the Dark Age of comics closed out the era he helped to start.

The Modern Age (2000-Now? Maybe?)

Ultimate Spider-Man #1 - Marvel Comics - 2000 - Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley
The Birth of the Modern Age: Ultimate Spider-Man #1

As Eddie Berganza (he’s not all good either) took over the Superman books as their new editor, he brought in new talent, like Jeph Loeb and Joe Kelly, to replace long time writers, like Jurgens and Simonson. The change between the Dark and Modern Ages was more subtle, and indeed, Wikipedia doesn’t delineate between them. For Marvel, I mark the change with the introduction of the Ultimate universe.

Marketed as a less continuity-heavy reimagining of their characters, the Ultimate line brought us Modern Age Marvel’s biggest star: Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis got his start with Marvel on Ultimate Spider-Man, but went on to work on almost every major Marvel hero over the next 17 years, including an eight year run on the Avengers.

Three major things shape the Modern Age of comics. The first is the rise of superhero movies. The first X-Men movie kickstarted a renaissance of superhero films and coincides perfectly with the start of the modern age. In the last 18 years, we’ve gotten twelve movies featuring X-Men characters, four Batman movies, and a nineteen movies and counting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For better or worse, the movies have reshaped how comics are seen.

The second major contribution to the Modern Age is the reliance on the “Event.” Avengers Disassembled and Identity Crisis in 2004 started a trend of huge company events that have become a yearly (sometimes twice yearly) staple at the two companies. DC pulled back a little in 2011 when they spring boarded from Flashpoint into the New 52, and then didn’t have an event until 2013’s Forever Evil. Most recently, Marvel had Secret Empire and No Surrender, while DC currently has Doomsday Clock and just wrapped up Metal. While the giant event is what ended the Bronze Age, it’s what defines the Modern Age.

The last focal point of the Modern Age is a focus on looking beyond what is seen as the traditional comic fan. Movies have opened up the fandom, and the industry is trying to reflect that, with titles like Squirrel Girl and DC’s new Zoom and Ink imprints. We’ve seen new legacy characters, like Jane Foster as Thor and Sam Wilson as Captain America. We’ve had Dick Grayson take over as Batman and seen LGBT representation centered with Batwoman and titles like Bombshells. Cry as they might, the white heterosexual market isn’t the only one to look at anymore for comics.

A New Age? (Now? Maybe? Who Knows?)

Smile - Scholastic - 2010 - Raina Telgemeier
The Birth of a New Age? Smile

You’ll note that almost every era of American comics has lasted right around 15 years. Some a little less, some a little more, but there seems to be a defining moment that changes things, right about every 15 years. We’re potentially in year 18 of the Modern Age, but maybe not. It may be a few years before we can define where the last age ended and the new age began, but I think, at the very least, we’re on the cusp of something new and powerful.

The biggest thing I can point to is the rise of Raina Telgemeier. Raina has become the biggest name in cartooning, and she’s done so by ignoring the traditional method of doing so. Raina doesn’t rely on the “big two,” but outsells both of them, because she can focus on the markets they don’t like book stores and big box department stores. She gave DC the blueprint for Ink and Zoom, and hopefully it’s a trend Marvel will follow. Comics has a rich history in the United States, and, I think, a bright future.

Cori McCreery

Cori McCreery

Cori is a life long comic nerd residing in Northern California. A life long Supergirl and DC Comics fan, she is the DC Comics Beat Reporter for Women Write About Comics.