Monday, June 04, 2012

The Dark Age of Comic Books

Crisis on Infinite Earths # 1

Everyone pretty much knows about the Golden and Silver Age of comics.  The Bronze Age then basically started in the '70s and began to show the darker turn that was coming and started to bring in real world issues to superhero stories (most famously in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series).  The end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of what has often been called the Modern Age occurred around 1985-86 with the release of Crisis on Infinite Earths (which signified the end of the Bronze Age) and then Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (which signified the beginning of what has been known as the Modern Age).  

From '80 through the early 2000s comics became incredibly dark, and as one creator put it you could sometimes only tell the heroes from the villains based on the name on the book.  It was during this period that Superman died and Batman was nearly killed, but it wasn't just those stories that marked the change; even the heroes origins were darker (see Batman: Year One and The Man of Steel).  During this period it seemed like superheroes were willing to cross any line to beat the bad guy.  In many ways that was a reflection of how dark society had become and how hopeless things often felt during those years.  But then things started to change (the seeds were laid with Kingdom Come).  

Infinite Crisis # 6 Death of Connor
According to Wikipedia, the Modern Age of comics and the Dark Age are the same thing.  I disagree.  I think the term "Modern Age" will always be used to describe what is going on now in comics but the comics being made now (and for the past few years) are different from those signature events of the '80s and '90s.  Personally I think the Dark Age ended with Infinite Crisis.  That book was dramatically dark but ended with the heroes pledging never again.  Since then events like 52, Final Crisis, Blackest Night, Brightest Day, and Flashpoint, while having dark moments, never seemed to fall into despair.  The heroes strive to be good.  This is shown in the return of Barry Allen, the salvation of Hal Jordan, and the reboot of Superman's origin in Superman: Secret Origin.  It’s the treatment of Superman that I think is especially telling.  In both The Man of Steel and Birthright, Superman was treated very differently than in the past.  Much of this was needed for the character to stay relevant (downgrading his abilities, focusing on the Clark Kent part of his life/persona) but in the process Superman as the beacon of hope was lost.  That angel was hinted at in Infinite Crisis and brought back to the forefront in Superman: Secret Origin and in the television show Smallville.  Both interpretations of Superman show a hero who, despite being from another planet, strives to be the best possible human being he can be.  This Clark Kent, while far from perfect, is the kind of person that we should all aspire to be—good, honest, fair, and someone who judges a person based solely on his/her character/decisions/behavior and not things like color of skin, financial status, etc. 

So what will this Modern Age bring us?  Well it’s already brought us the most complete reboot since COIE, a more diverse set of superheroes in the forefront, and an iconic openly gay superhero, but more than that I think it has brought back a sense of hope and wonder.  Sure we may not have the ability to fly or a cave full of super cool toys in real life, but these stories and characters show us our potential.  Just like the metaphors of mythology, folklore, and religion, comic books show us what we can become and right now, despite its failure to translate from a campaign slogan, we could all use some hope.
Superman Secret Origin # 6 Great Savior


Otter Limits said...

I have a problem with the title "Modern Age". The problem with using such a term to describe a particular time period in comic books history, to me, does not describe a time period in comic book history at all. Where does it begin and where does it end? Is the time after COIE ALWAYS going to be the Modern era? What about the time between COIE and the New 52? Should it not have it's own title? You had the Bronze Age, the Silver Age, the Golden Age...should the other eras follow suit with some sort of metallic compound such as The Platinum Age or something to that effect?
It just seems to me that by using the term modern, you can only be talking about present time.
I dunno. Just my thoughts.

Dave said...

Great questions. I think at the time the term Modern Age was used to separate things from the Bronze Age. I'm not sure who decided to use the metallic thing but it works for those first three ages really well (kind of like the Ages of Man). Going forward I think the terms should reflect the times. And in a sense Modern Age should be used to define the current time because it isn't until the modern becomes the past that it can really be examined, defined, and explained.

Otter Limits said...

But what happens in 20 to 30 years? What term do we use to describe the time between COIE and Infinite/Final Crisis?

Dave said...

I think that time (1985-2005) will be known as the Dark Age; at least that's what I'm calling it. To me the current Modern Age started with Infinite Crisis and will probably go for about 20 to 30 years or so. At some point the tone of things will begin to shift and people will look at the time from 2005-2025 (or whenever it ends) and come up with a name based on the content of the stories from that time. I can't imagine calling the years of 1985-2005 anything other than the Dark Age because that's exactly what it was.