Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Look at Comics History: Golden Age to the Bronze Age

I know I've been quiet on the blog for a while, but things are rolling along quite well on other projects and that's taken some slight priority. But here I am again, ready to tackle something rather insane. My real goal here, and this may take a few posts beyond just this one, is to talk about where the comic medium might be going in the future, in terms of form (digital vs. print vs. beamed into the brain), genre, style, etc. But to get down to all of that, it helps to have a quick run through of how the medium has evolved over the years.

So first, some history. As I'm mainly focusing on the American comic form, the best place to start is with what is referred to as the Golden Age. This began, well, is generally agreed upon to have begun, with the release of Action Comics #1 in 1938. This was, of course, the debut of Superman, a character that is ingrained in culture today very firmly outside comics. The Golden Age saw the birth of many of the most famous superhero characters: Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Human Torch to name a few. But this era also saw a large amount of genre diversity, too, as Westerns and Romance titles were very strong sellers at that time. As a whole, though, through the Golden Age, superheroes were king.

There are a great many big names in regards to creators of this time, the people working to define the language and style of what American comics would eventually grow to become. Will Eisner, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster,  Jack Kirby, and Milton Caniff are just a few.

But as World War II ended, the popularity of superheroes faded somewhat, and it left room for other genres to begin to grow. War stories, Scifi, Western, Romance, and Horror began to grow in strength and popularity, and many superhero books of the time were ended to make room for these new genres. Around 1954, the comics medium came under fire from certain people in the US Government as causes of juvenile delinquency and other problems. It is a trouble that has happened to many forms of entertainment that young people latch onto, from rock and roll to video games, and is not likely to go away in the future. But the result of this was the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory board that made sure all comics were 'safe' for children. This was a death sentence for many of the popular titles of the early to mid-1950s, as crime books and horror books were especially targeted. Thus, publishers turned back to superheroes.

In 1956, the Silver Age was born with the release of Showcase #4, the first appearance of the new Flash. At the time, the only surviving superhero books were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and none of them were doing well. The Flash revitalized the genre and captured an entire new generation of kids. Soon, Golden Age favorites returned in new form, with a new Justice League, Green Lantern, and others. A few years after this rebirth of the genre that was kicked off by DC Comics, a young Marvel Comics got in on the same genre. With Marvel came the birth of even more well known characters: The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, The Avengers, and the return of the Golden Age hero, Captain America.

The Silver Age is very much the birth of what we see today as modern superhero comics. Flaws and problems became vital to the characters, and the stories began to grow more complex as the medium developed and grew. But even more, this is the era of many of the defining creators in American Comics: Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Joe Kurbert, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko, to name just a few. Steranko, in particular, helped to push the art into a new direction, with his art on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. moving from what one expected from comic stories into surrealism.

Around 1970, the Silver Age came to an end. This gave way to the appropriately named Bronze Age, an era of comics that is generally defined by the darker stories and tones that began to creep into comics. Leading up to this era, many of the creators that had been in comics for decades moved on, retired, or were promoted to editorial and less directly creative positions in the various comics companies. This time also saw the beginnings of the shift in audience of comics, moving away from children to a smaller, more specific market of fans.

But for all the negativity that last paragraph implies, there were many interesting developments during the Bronze Age, such as a slight widening of genres being made available again. This mostly began with Marvel Comics release of Conan the Barbarian, which eventually lead to various other pulp books such as John Carter of Mars, Red Sonja, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The horror genre also began to regain footing in the Bronze Age, thanks to books like Ghost Rider and Tomb of Dracula.

These books were generally well received and successful, but still, superheroes were king. The Bronze Age saw the death of Spider-Man's longtime girlfriend, Gwen Stacy,  and the death of Aquaman's infant son. Both of these came at the hands of villains in the books, and it was a strong turn towards much darker villains in comics. The book Green Lantern/Green Arrow tackled issues such as drug addiction and racial inequality, and Batman received a resurgence after the years of camp due to the Adam West TV Show of the 1960s. The Bronze Age also saw the growth of racial diversity in comics, with the creation of Luke Cage, Storm, Blade, a new Green Lantern, John Stewart, and others. 

On the art end, House Styles dominated the two major companies of the time, though not without some diversity. DC's general style emulated Neal Adams, while Marvel's a slightly more realistic take on the classic Jack Kirby style. This does not mean art was at all restricted, as this was the era of great artists like George Perez, John Buscema, John Byrne, Frank Miller, and Walter Simonson. Especially important for creators is this era brought the beginnings of a creator's rights movement, with artists and writers getting more open credit for their work and pencillers being allowed to keep their original pages.

Next I'll hit on the Modern Age and then get into where things could be going and where I think they should. Reading that, its quite an egotistical statement on its own, but hey, this is my blog and I mean it for the best.