Friday, October 8, 2010

Base Metals

Because geeks like lists and categorizations, it was inevitable that comics would inevitably become grouped into pseudo-scholarly categories. The exact origins of the “Gold”, “Silver” and “Bronze” ages are something I’ve been trying to discover for a while now, but it’s surprisingly hard to track down who came up with this in the first place. The Overstreet Price Guide seems to be the culprit, but I’m not certain that that’s the case. For the most part, comic nerds seem far more interested in arguing about the demarcation lines between the different period, with no particular authority being cited. Anyone (like, say, myself) who enjoys having a running, nitpicky, good-natured debate about stuff can while away many a happy hour debating the exact definitions of these terms.

For the record—and to prove my nerdy bona fides—the Golden Age begins in 1938 with Action Comics #1, which introduced Superman (this being the one point everyone can seemingly agree on). This continues until 1956, when we switch over to the Silver Age with Showcase #4, which introduced the new version of The Flash.

Then the arguments begin.

Since the “Bronze Age” had only just begun when this style of categorization came into fashion, no one seems able to agree on exactly where it begins. The most commonly cited reference points are Conan #1 (1970), The Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow (also 1970), the death of Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973) and the introduction of the “new” X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975). (A reference point I’ve never heard suggested is the publication of the Overstreet Guide itself…) Tentatively, people apply either Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns (both 1986) as a demarcation for the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the “Iron Age”, though that’s still a alittle shaky. Everything after the Iron Age hasn’t really been defined, despite much talk of the “Chromium Age” and “Diamond Age”.

This stuff is fun to hash over, and it can be useful in casual discussion, but I think it’s important to remember that this is a very loose system at best. For starters, the Gold/Silver/Bronze terminology applies to superhero comics only. It's borderline useless in describing any other genre of comics--do we talk about "Silver Age Carl Barks"? "Golden Age EC"? "Bronze Age Will Eisner"? And what about the many, many comics published before Superman ever made his appearance? Getting too hung up on Gold/Silver/Bronze ages may have helped relegate a lot of significant comics to the dustbin of history.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that you can accurately lay out an "era" of comics while you're still in it. I'm pretty sure the "Gold/Silver" delineation came about in the early 70s, which happens to be the point that marked the end of those eras...and as pivotal as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are, it took quite a while for people to start declaring them markers of the end of the Bronze Age. You need the context of distance to be able to call this stuff. That's why I get a little annoyed by the "Chromium Age" or "Diamond Age" talk for recent comics; in particular, I think trying to hold up the collapse of the speculator's market, or the publication of "Kingdom Come", as a demarcation line is a mistake. KC isn't that significant a comic--it only felt that way at the time because people were getting sick of all the grim 'n' gritty nonsense of the last decade. And as undeniably significant as the speculator's boom and bust were, they don't really fit the spirit of the "rules", which use single, epochal issues to mark the beginnings of new trends.

Of course, even there we run into a problem, because the system seems to have been developed primarily for the sake of pricing old issues, which means it wasn’t really looking at comics for their artistic value; it’s simply geared towards the initial superhero boom post-Superman, and the resurgence of the genre post-comics code. While you can see the logic, it means that Showcase #4 is considered pivotal, while Fantastic Four #1 isn't.

I think we need to work on a new system of categorization, one that engages more with creative trends and milestones, and takes into account ALL kinds of comics. My suggestions for pivotal comics under this imaginary new system:

1894--Hogan's Alley debut (eventually became "The Yellow Kid", arguably the first newspaper comic strip)
1929—Tarzan newspaper strip begins.
1934--Famous Funnies #1 (First modern comic book with original material)
1936--Wow! What a Magazine #3 (first comics work of Will Eisner)
1938--Action Comics #1 (Introduction of Superman)
1942--Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (Carl Barks' first Disney Duck comic)
1947--Young Romance #1 (Beginning of the Romance Comic in its modern form)
1950--Crypt of Terror #1 (Later renamed Tales From the Crypt, marking the new era for EC.)
1950--It Rhymes With Lust (Arguably the first modern graphic novel)
1956--Showcase #4 (introduction of the new Flash)
1961--Fantastic Four #1 (Duh)
1973--Giant-Size X-Men #1 (Launch of new team and Chris Claremont)
1978--A Contract With God (Popularization of the Graphic Novel)
1981--Love & Rockets #1 (Beginning of the black and white indie boom of the 80s)
1985--Watchmen/The Dark Knight Returns/Crisis on infinite Earths
1992--Youngblood #1 (The first published Image comic, I think)

A little more research will turn up tons of others, no doubt. Anyone out there have any further suggestions?

No comments:

Post a Comment