Saturday, February 25, 2012

Four Colors in Decay

We live in the declining years of an Age. We have been for about six years, now. It's only in the last six to seven months that the haze started wearing off, and the real evidence began to surface. I give you the last page of the first Detective Comics #1 published since 1937 as my exhibit A.

The face of the Nu-DCU

Here's exhibit B.

Not that reliance on gruesome imagery and pandering to fanboys too cheap or timid to buy their comics and pornography separately are exactly new phenomena. So many characters in the Nu 52 are so angsty or vapid or overdesigned, it almost reminds me of... of... OH NO! It's back.

It's a sad fact of reality folks. The early nineties are back. Really though, it shouldn't be too surprising. Since our current age has been built so much on recapitulation of the concepts of past eras, it makes sense that our decedent years look something like those of the preceding Dark Age. However, this isn't the first time, and I expect it wont be the last, assuming superhero comics survive in some form beyond 2015. In fact all superhero comics Ages so far have followed a similar arc of initiation, pinnacle, and decadence leading to the initiation of the next age. Likewise each period of decadence is marked by some common features, among them, increase in visible genre variety beyond superheroes, exploitative excess in terms of violence and fanservice related content, and the expression of the given Age's tropes taken to their most extreme and absurd level.

Most people date the start of the Golden Age of comics to the publication of Action Comics #1 featuring the first appearance of Superman in 1938, but comics had been around in a recognizable form since 1933 with the publication of Famous Funnies (A collection of reprinted newspaper comic strips.) and in 1935 National Allied Publications (Later to become DC Comics.) published New Fun #1, the first comic book to consist entirely of original material. 

This is the real start of the Golden Age. A cheap content rich piece of escape for country ravaged by the Great Depression. This starting period of 1933-35 as opposed to '38 is important, because it allows us to set up the Golden Age and the Ages that follow in a series of twenty years cycles. In this reckoning the Golden Age goes from about 1933-35 to 1954-55, the Silver Age goes from 1955-56 to 1974-75, the Dark Age goes from 1974-1994-95, and the current (Prismatic or Renascence or whatever we end up calling it.) age started around 1994-95 and is ongoing. Some may note that I have skipped over the Bronze Age here. Usually a Bronze Age is posited as existing from the early seventies to mid eighties. Basically from O'Neil and Adams's Batman to Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns. I however, along with a few others, think that ten years isn't really long enough for a proper Age. I do think that 'Bronze Age' or something like that term is useful for talking about the unique qualities of that period when late Silver Age and early Dark Age sensibilities were blending in exciting ways. Of course, you can call these periods anything you like. History is a chaos. These terms and structures merely tools like maps to give us points of reference useful for human discussion.

As said, the Golden Age starts in the mid thirties. In 1938 we get Superman the first definitively super superhero. He has predecessors such as Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Phantom, but in the popular imagination he is the seminal being of the superset. As the US is drawn closer and closer to war, the heroes thrive and multiply. Then in 1945, a decade after the advent of the comic book, the war ends. For the Golden Age, the apex of the age is the sustained interest in superheroes in and of itself. The first supervillains, the first sidekicks, the first super hero teams. All develop within a span of less than five years. The apex around 1944-45 is the establishment of the basic genre conventions of the superhero story. Then the war ends. Interest in musclemen and women in tights fades with it. These thing are hard to pinpoint, but perhaps this is the most poignant example of the decline of the superhero in the late Golden Age.

Green Lantern is displaced from the cover of his own book by his canine sidekick, Streak, the Wonder Dog, who would go on to displace Green Lantern completely as the star of the book. During this period of the late forties early fifties publishers would resort to any gimmick that might sell a superhero book. This is not to run those gimmicks down. Some of these gimmicks went on to become classic elements of the individual characters' books.

The demise of the superhero left the field open for many other genres of funnybook. Best remembered today are the Crime comics published by Lev Gleason and the Horror and Science Fiction and Horror comics of EC, but romance, war stories, westerns, and cartoon animals all stepped into the void, as the would during the declining years of subsequent superhero comic Ages. Another feature of the late Golden Age was the so-called 'Good Girl Art' not a reflection of the virtue of the ladies depicted, but a descriptor of the art itself being good. Phantom Lady covers of the late forties tend to be the prime example. 

By way of comparison, here's how she appeared during the earlier years of her existence.

We will find that this drive toward exploiting female characters mostly for titillation of a readership presumed to consist mostly or entirely of men and boys a defining characteristic of the decadent years in an Age. Not that depictions of super-heroines and other women in comic books don't often tend toward the exploitative and the cheesecake at other times, but I think these tendencies become particularly notable during these so-called decedent periods. This is presumably because these are also times when the financial fortunes of super-books seem to be fading, and it's decided that sexy ladies are the answer to these woes. 

All of this sexiness, horror, and crime eventually led to the Senate hearings linking comic books to juvenile delinquency and the self-imposition of the comics code authority by the industry in 1954. This self-censorship group banned from comics the more lurid horror, romance, and crime stories that had come to dominate comics in the late Golden Age. Out Of the main comic book genres of the Golden Age, pretty much all that was left for publishers to rely on were nonthreatening funny animal comics, westerns, science fiction monsters in the style of King Kong or Godzilla, and superheroes. This would turn out to be a boon to superheroes.

The Silver Age of comics was launched in 1956 with the wholesale re-invention of a Golden Age superhero, The Flash. Follwing this success, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom were also re-invented for the cold war era. Superman spent the time developing into something akin to its own separate comic book universe running on a story logic entirely its own in Superman, Action, Adventure, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen comics. Batman languished in sci-fi silliness until the early sixties when Julius Schwartz, the editor behind the reinvention of all of those Golden Age heroes, revamped the Caped Crusader's book back into a book focused on action, adventure, and mystery. In 1960 the high Silver Age began when flailing Marvel Comics's publisher Martin Goodman charged his nephew Stan Lee with creating a superhero book to compete with the Justice League of America. With few Golden Age characters well remembered enough to revive, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced something original. 

It should come as no surprise that the high point of the silver Age is then a classic Fantastic Four story. One that neatly encapsulates Silver Age Marvel's  sense of cosmic cold war paranoia.

On the DC side this high point comes in a story that solidified the new continuity heavy characterization focused style of Marvel and DC comics as a sort of soap opera in tights.

I submit that it is from the success of this story that the likes of the 'Titan Traitor', 'Days of Future Past', and even Marvel's 'Civil War' storylines descend. 

After this comes the decadence. The likes of Jacjk Kirby and Steve Ditko seek increasingly pure expressions of their superhero stories. Kirby would persue this in his "Fourth World" saga at DC, and Ditko would with increasingly didactic stories featuring original creations such as Hawk and Dove and reaching their culmination in his objectivist champion Mr. A.

Other examples include the Byzantine plotting of the Kree-Skrull War storyline in the Avengers, and Stan Lee's propensity for overwritten monologues reaching its zenith in Silver Surfer's first solo series.

As in the late 40s-early 50s the late 60s-early 70s saw an expansion of genres beyond the superhero. This was possible, because of loosening of restrictions by the CCA in regards to horror content. The starting point for this was, in my opinion, the success Warren Publishing was having with it's black and white horror magazines such as Vampirella. By publishing in a large magazine format Warren circumvented the content restrictions of the CCA.

Around this time DC and Marvel started experimenting with horror tinged concepts of their own such as Deadman and a revival of the Golden Age character the Spectre. Marvel took a bit, but started testing the waters with semi-supernatural characters like Morbius, the Living Vampire and Man-Wolf in the Amazing Spider-Man.

This set the stage for monsters who would star in their own series such as Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider, and Tomb of Dracula. These characters often either were superheroes themselves or because of shared fictional universes often encountered superheroic characters.

This time around the titilating sexual objectification aspect was less wholly blatant than it once was or would become again, largely because of the continued strength of the CCA in keeping unsavory content off the racks. It was still around, though.

Despite the obvious exploitative nature of constantly bursting out of ones clothes or incorporating a boob window into a costume. This period is also notable for introducing some of the strongest female characters around today. Although still often derivative of a pre-existing male character, as at the dawn of the Silver Age, characters like Power Girl, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk are a notable step up from the female character's who inhabited super-comics up to that point.

This leads into the Dark Age where the humanizing of the super hero begun by Marvel would reach it's peak. Characters like the Punisher and Wolverine with gritty backgrounds and a willingness to kill became possible with the aforementioned loosening of CCA restrictions.

If Vampirella and the horror wave she launched were the conception of the Dark Age, this is it's birth. Marvel may given this age its precursory push with its emphasis on 'relatable heroes with problems' but DC eventually took it to its apex in 1986.

Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are often cited as the beginning of the Dark Age of comics, but as far as I'm concerned they are only the culmination of the self deconstruction of the superhero already in motion when Wolverine kills that mook up above.

After Watchmen and  Dark knight the decadence begins. The themes Miller and Moore explore artfully are exploited for sensationalism. The Comedian's comments above are taken not as criticism but as directive. 'This IS what you LIKE!. This IS what gets you HOT!' And did it ever get people hot. The decadent period of the Dark Age is best remembered for ignoring the deconstructionist satirical elements of these works. The critiques on the violent, fascist, and patriarchal nature of the classic superheroes (RE: Superman.) were ignored for the sensate materialist pleasure of violence, lust, and over-designed costumes. 

Spawn is pretty much the poster boy for this era in terms of solo heroes.

As before, genre proliferation began in the late eighties. This time, however, the big two stayed away, and the non-super books were part of the Black and White indie glut of the late 80s early nineties spurred on by the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

As for the sexploitation angle the early to mid nineties was one of the ripest times for nearly pornographic superheroine and supervillainess wank material. Jim Balent and Brian Pulido lead the way.

As the excesses of the Dark Age continued aided by a boom in speculator investment in any comic book with varient covers or a big #1 plastered on it, the tendency toward grand guignol culminated in the destruction and rebirth of the two most iconic superheroes in the world.

In 1993, however, the precursors of the next age were already in place. Creators nostalgic for the superheroes of their youth began to produce comic books that reflected this nostalgia. Prominent among these visions of the coming age were Marvels by Kurt Buisiek and Alex Ross and The Golden Age by James Robinson and Paul Smith. 

This brings us to the current Age of superhero comics. Primed by the success of Marvels the pump flowed forth with comics such as Kingdom Come and Starman from DC, and Kurt Busiek's run on Avengers and Brian Micheal Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man from Marvel. Something all of these comics, and many others from this period, share is a certain reverence and lionization of the Golden and Silver Ages. There seems to be a longing for a time before superheroes got complicated, a desire for a type of super-purity. There is also a return to bright primary colors and solid lines as opposed to the darker costuming and scratchy seas of crosshatching that dominated early nineties superhero design. This age really hit its stride as computer animation and special effects technologies became sophisticated enough to make superhero movies where the heroes displayed their powers nearly seamlessly. 

However, that was about ten years ago. This age has since hit whatever it's peak was. My personal guess is All-Star Superman, which seems to perfectly sum up the things that are enjoyable about the Age. At the same time, going back to the Silver and Golden Ages has also served to cover up some of the very accurate critiques that led to the excesses of the Dark Age. A generation of interesting Dark Age scions (Wally West, Kyle Rayner for example.) have been swept aside so that the 'real' versions of those heroes can come back. In recent years this has led to things like the serious de-diversification of much of DC Comics's line, a general lack of criticism of the more unsavory aspects of the superheroic genre within the superhero books, and the simplification of superhero comics in the attempt to be as movie friendly as possible. 

This is not an apology for the missteps of our current age, or previous ages, but it is an attempt to offer some perspective. Current Starfire, as bad as she and her anatomically impossible kin are, is a symptom of a greater disease. The gore-sploitation and sexploitation of current comics comes out of a climate of fear that's led to shuffle after shuffle until DC decided to throw the deck to the ground and play new 52 pick up. 

Next: The Sentinels


  1. "Then in 1935, a decade after the advent of the comic book, the war ends."

    I think you mean 1945.

  2. It's interesting you brought this up now, as I just started reading "Irredeemable" and "Incorruptible" both of which are rather... Mature in their content. I also picked up "Kingdom Come" which is by the same author.

    While I don't keep up with comics, and was never than much into DC, I can see this slow grind taking place in the comics I do read. I enjoy seeing comics about things other than superheroes, but I wonder how much longer it will last.

    As always, you've brought up some very good points to think about.