Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Just What Is the Bronze Age?


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Just What Is the Bronze Age?

By Matthew Sunrich

In the realm of comic-book fandom and collecting, the terms "Golden Age" and "Silver Age" are firmly established. They represent, respectively, the era in which superhero comic books originated and the one in which they enjoyed a renaissance. Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1 (1938) is universally considered to be the start of the Golden Age, and Barry Allen's first appearance as The Flash in Showcase #4 (1956) is recognized as the beginning of the Silver Age.

These ages are primarily concerned with the birth and refinement of superheroes. While there were other types of comics published at the same time, they are usually omitted because their relevance is limited. Comics were a new thing during the Golden Age, which only lasted for about seven years (the popularity of superheroes waned after the end of World War II, leading to the cancelation of dozens of titles), so creators weren't really sure what they were doing. For the first half of the 1950s, superheroes were virtually absent from the comic racks (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only survivors of the "crash"), but they returned in a big way when DC decided to bring back a hero from their early years, The Flash, in a new identity. (The fact that this eventually destroyed DC's continuity is another matter altogether.)

The success of this venture led to the resurrection of other Golden-Age heroes and the retooling of the concepts behind superhero fiction. "Comic-book art" became a legitimate thing, whereas it had only been an offshoot of comic-strip illustration during the Golden Age. By 1968, comics had "solidified" (especially at Marvel), and it was apparent that the next big development in the medium was just around the corner.

But what form would this development take, and what would be the "event" that would initiate it?
This is where the problem comes in.

The Bronze Age is typically defined as the era from 1970-1985 (this effectively makes it the longest of the comic book ages), but there is no consensus as to what started it or what caused the "break" from the Silver Age. Between the Golden and Silver Ages, there was an "interregnum" period of about eleven years. If we are to accept the idea that the Bronze Age began in 1970, that would mean that the Silver Age just abruptly ended at the end of 1969, with no "gap" and for no apparent reason.

In an issue of Comics Buyer's Guide a few years ago, a group of industry experts discussed the various ages of comics and tried to make some relevant determinations in the interest of posterity or whatever. The consensus in regards to the end of the Silver Age/start of the Bronze Age was that 1970 was significant because that was when Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC. As anyone familiar with comic history knows, Kirby was responsible for the co-creation of most of the Marvel Universe, and his move from the company he had helped to create to its direct rival was a monumental thing indeed.

This means that the end of the Silver Age, not unlike the Golden Age, was defined by a real-world event. If we adhere to this model, then, comic book ages start with the introduction of a significant new character and end with a change in the real-life status quo (although the end of the Second World War and Kirby's departure from Marvel can hardly be compared).

The Bronze Age does not fit this pattern.

There were many new characters introduced during the Bronze Age, certainly, but can any of them really be thought of as definitive? Wolverine is probably the most significant character introduced during the early 1970s, but was his debut really earth-shattering? Is he the superhero most associated with the Bronze Age? While Incredible Hulk #181 (1974) is perhaps the Holy Grail of Bronze-Age back issues, is it really a standout comic?

One could argue that Wolverine was the first antihero in mainstream comics (the Punisher debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #129 the year before, but he was a bad guy at that time), but this doesn't really become clear until later. In fact, his nature is somewhat unclear during his first appearance, and, moreover, it's reasonable to speculate that he might have been forgotten had he not been chosen as one of the new X-Men (and, furthermore, that the initiative of revamping Marvel's mutants had worked at all; recall that X-Men had gone into reprints and was facing cancelation before its overhaul). And, as far as that goes, antiheroes didn't really become definitive until after the Bronze Age. So, the "introduction of a character" idea doesn't really work here.

It's been suggested by some that Gwen Stacy's death in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973) marked the start of the Bronze Age, but I think this is kind of arbitrary. There had been deaths in Spidey's comics before (Uncle Ben most notably), so I don't see why this is especially significant (even though it caused an uproar in the fan community).

It is also important to note that the Bronze Age, unlike the ages that preceded it, is not just about superheroes. This was the period during which we saw the return of horror comics and the introduction of Conan the Barbarian (not to mention his host of imitations) as a comic-book character. Science fiction/science fantasy also gained considerable momentum. One cannot ignore these things; they are vital components of the Bronze Age. Superheroes remained dominant, but other genres were woven into the fabric of the age, creating a four-color tapestry that was unlike what had come before.

Why, one has to wonder, did horror, sword & sorcery, and sci-fi become fixtures in comics at this time? One factor is certainly the oft-cited relaxation of the standards of the Comics Code. While comics remained "kid friendly," creators were given more options in terms of content (monsters, most notably). Also, a great many creators were fans of these genres and wanted to see them represented in comics. Furthermore, it's possible that superheroes seemed to be reaching their creative limits. A plethora of new characters had exploded onto the comics page during the Silver Age, and there really wasn't much else one could do because Lee, Kirby, and a handful of others had already done it.
I suggest, therefore, that the Bronze Age is the comic-book equivalent of postmodernism. No one can define it; every reader is allowed to see it in his or her own way. There are a lot of things to choose from, but one thing is certain: the Bronze Age has a unique feel and is an immensely satisfying era of comics for those willing to explore it.

What brought about the end of the Bronze Age? That can be attributed to the release of two celebrated DC comics in 1986: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. In one way or another, comics have been trying to recover ever since.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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At November 27, 2014 at 9:32 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I have a problem with modern experts presenting this idea of a Bronze Age starting in 1970. I started seriously collecting comics in 1989. About that time I got a collectors kit that only mentioned a Golden Age and a Silver Age (concurrent with the Marvel Age) and a Modern Age starting in 1986. Further reading since then let me know that the Golden Age had waning years but at that time still everything up to the Silver Age was still considered Golden Age even the waning years. Thus likewise this explosion of other genres during the Silver Age would have at that time been considered just a thing during it instead of a new age. I first heard of this multiple ages in a DK Batman encyclopedia from early 2000's that divided his history up into a bazillion micro ages. If we are to keep up this micro age idea are we to create a special age for titles producing sequential trade paperback with the advent of Crossgen; or one for same time digital for new comics; or one for Jim Shooter getting a comicbook idea farting in the bathroom?
So in short I am sticking with the ages idea from when I grow up. Golden Age until the 60's, Silver age until 1986, which mean the Modern Age of the time would now be the Bronze Age ending with 2011. As you noted this would coincide with DC doing a brand new slate cleaning continuity (not just minor adjustments like Zero Hour but slate cleaners like the original Crisis and the new 52).


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