The early Ages of Comics are pretty clearly demarcated. The Golden Age begins in the 1930s and runs until the mid-1950s. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and most of the DC pantheon make their first appearances. The Silver Age is really Marvel’s moment: The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man are all created in the early 1960s.
The Bronze Age
There’s no clear event that marks the end of the Silver Age. However, several key stories, including Speedy’s heroin addiction featured in Green Lantern #85-86 (1971) and the death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973) suggest the dawn of a new era. It’s what we call The Bronze Age. Arguably the most important character created during that era is Wolverine. At least, he’s the character who first appeared during the Bronze age that has gone on to achieve the most popularity.
The end of the Bronze Age is actually a little easier to pin down than the end of The Silver Age. It pretty much has to be 1985. That’s the year DC put out Crisis on Infinite Earths, a universe-altering crossover that killed off characters like the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl, and also allowed the publisher to reboot many character mythologies (such as Superman’s). It was a polarizing story, since DC was retroactively disavowing many of the stories and characters that fans had come to love. Crisis was intended as a celebration of DC’s 50th anniversary, but also as a way of untangling and resolving many of DC’s convoluted continuity problems. For example, once upon a time the popularity of Superman resulted in Superboy books, which featured stories about Superman’s childhood adventures. But the notion that Superman wore a costume and fought crime as a kid didn’t always mesh with the stories being told in regular Superman comics. Other characters, who were supposed to have fought in WWII, would have to be in their mid 60s by 1985. Crisis allowed DC to restart their universe – not for the last time.
The other big event in 1985 was the publication of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, one of the greatest comic stories ever told, and arguably the closest the comic medium has ever come to achieving “high art” status. The Watchmen is a 12-issue mini-series published by DC which featured original characters who bore some resemblance to established characters in the DC universe. While traditional superhero comics have always been about morality, vigilante crime-fighting, self-sacrifice, and the pursuit of truth, Moore’s Watchmen advanced a more sophisticated and penetrating analysis of these themes. What does it mean to act outside of the law in the pursuit of justice? Do traditional notions of right and wrong apply to a super-powered demi-god? How do disguises alter one’s sense of identity and selfhood? It’s with these kinds of questions that the Bronze Age ends and the Copper Age begins.
The Copper Age
Not everyone acknowledges the existence of the Copper Age. For example, Wikipedia has entries for the Golden, Silver, Bronze and “Modern” ages of comics. According to the online encyclopedia the “Modern Age” begins in 1985 – 30 years ago. Given that the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age were all approximately 15 years in length it seems a bit absurd to suggest that we’ve been living in the same age for twice that long. Of course, it’s hard to be certain about the significance of recent comics history, but an educated sketch should be possible.
1985 marks the beginning of the Copper Age, like previous ages it continued the trend of more serious, more adult themes in comics. Revolutionary mini-series like The Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns tested the limits of the medium and particularly the superhero genre. Violent anti-heroes like Wolverine and The Punisher became increasingly popular. I would argue, however, that the Copper Age was short lived.
Two things happened in 1992 that changed the culture of comics. First, Superman died. Second, Image comics was founded by a group of rock-star Marvel artists. It may not have been clear in the early 90s, but now, 20 years later, it’s clear these were formative events, that signalled the beginning of the Chrome Age.
The Chrome Age
The death of Superman was one of the rare comic book events that actually become a pop culture phenomenon. The news that DC planned to kill off the world’s most famous superhero in Superman #75 drew thousands of people to the comics shop, many of them speculators hoping to turn a quick buck off of comic book history. It also set a precedent for publishers taking risks with their most famous characters. For example, in 1993, DC followed up the Death of Superman story with a very similar Knightfall storyline, in which Batman’s back was broken by a newly created villain named Bane; a character named Azrael then temporarily assumed the mantle of the Bat. In the mid-90s, Marvel pulled a similar stunt with a story known as the Clone Saga, in which it was revealed that the Spider-Man fans had been reading for the past 20 years was not actually the original Peter Parker, but instead a clone of Parker.
Image comics, founded by Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erick Larsen, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino was a kind of revolutionary event. Several of these artists had attracted enormous fan followings, and they all wanted more control over their characters and creations. Image Comics was an attempt to construct a third superhero universe to rival Marvel and DC. Characters like McFarlane’s Spawn and Silvestri’s Cyber Force quickly became “hot” properties. Image’s superhero stories were very popular in the early 90s, though their popularity has since waned. Several of the publishers “founding fathers” have also left and in some cases they have taken their creations elsewhere. However, Image comics has built itself into the third biggest publishing house in the industry; they have become the go-to publisher for creator-owned stories, many in the sci-fi and horror genres, such as Saga and The Walking Dead.
The death of Superman and the birth of Image are, for many people, symbolic of the comic industry’s dark ages. The flood of speculators into the comic store looking to make money off of “event” comics or rare variant covers tempted comics publishers into bad behaviour. Marvel, DC, and Image, anxious to take advantage of this eager audience were only too happy to put out variant covers, and poly-bagged first issues.
However, the crimes of the 90s have been exaggerated and misremembered over the decades. Most of the gimmick comics, which fans associate with “the 90s” were published either very early in the decade or even in the 80s.
For an alternative view of the Chrome Age we might consider the career of Alex Ross. His work on the nostalgic mini-series Marvels was unprecedented. He also provided the art for DC’s Kingdom Come, a near-future take on DC universe in which a greying Superman and an aging Batman square off against each other. That mini-series is an underrated masterpiece. Most of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which ran until 1996, was published in the Chrome Age. The first issue Warren Ellis’s Preacher came out in 1995; his Transmetropolitan ran from 1997-2002. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City began in 1995. In other words, the Chrome Age produced some of the greatest superhero comics of all time! To suggest it was all gimmick covers and Liefeld splash pages is a huge misrepresentation.
So when did the Chrome Age end? As we get closer to the present, it becomes harder to speak about the significance of particular arcs, series, and creative teams. Again though, there’s a good case to be made that “The Modern Age” doesn’t stretch all the way back to 1992. In 1996, for instance 8 of the top 15 selling comics were issues of Spawn. In 2012 10 of the top 15 selling comics were issues of Avengers Vs. X-Men. (Another three were either Avengers or X-Men comics). Things have changed.
The Modern Age
There are three current trends – two industry movements and one story-related –that, I think, suggest the Chrome Age has ended and we’re now in a new era.
In 2008 the Iron Man movie hit theatres. Its success was a home run for Marvel and it signalled a complete re-imagining of how to translate superhero stories to the big screen. Marvel’s success at the box office has even changed the way that Marvel produces comics. Many comics are now, in part, meant to tie into and prepare audiences for a lucrative big screen projects. The purchase of Marvel by Disney late in the last decade is a part of this major transition.
The emergence of tablet computers has also allowed for the dissemination of digital comics. This is really the biggest change to how people purchase and consume comics in the history of the industry. There is not a sign, so far, that it will spell the end of print comics or the local comics shop. But it’s also too early to know what the consequences of digital comics will be.
Finally, in 2011, DC executed it’s most comprehensive reboot ever, restarting all of the publisher’s series at #1, and – as with Crisis 30 years before – dispensing with convoluted and unwanted character chronologies. It’s hard to argue that the New 52 does not signal a shift as significant as 1985 or 1992.
It’s hard to know when exactly the Chrome Age ended, but it seems clear it has. What we’re seeing now is something different.