When we last left off in our Beginner's Guide to Comics, we talked about the Golden and Silver Ages. Now let's take a look at recent history.
The Bronze Age
Some point in the 80’s comics got very serious. Even with some of the more mature subject matter of the Silver Age, comics were still lighthearted and fun. In 1986 specifically, comics had to move out of mom’s house and start acting their age.
During this point, we saw the release of two specific books; The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These books changed everything. Before this point, mature comics existed but they were underground and you probably couldn’t really show them off to your friends without looking like a creeper. These two books coined the term Graphic Novel, particularly as they were collected from single issues into a single bound hardcover book.
What did these two books do that was so revolutionary? They told a story for grown ups, using artwork that was unlike anything in the past. They were dark. They were gritty. They were real.
The Watchmen took several superhero archetypes from the past, put them in the real world, namely 1980’s New York City, and then posed the question, what if superheroes were real? How would the American government superheroes in the Vietnam War? How would society behave if there were masked vigilante’s running around fighting crime? Were these people even sane? How would the world’s smartest man end the Cold War and bring piece to the world? Even though the book is over 30 years old, I won’t spoil it for you.
In The Dark Knight Returns, we see Batman as an old man having retired from fighting crime. The Batcave lies in ruin, and Gotham has fallen again. The story explores why Batman can never truly take off his mask and how he needs to be Batman to feel complete, and how Gotham needs Batman to keep a lid on the crazy that tends to build up there. There’s also a pretty sweet scene where Batman has a fist fight with Superman (and wins).
It’s also the plot of the next upcoming Superman/Batman movie, so you should check it out.
The Modern Age - The Renaissance
After the Bronze Age, we have the current age of comics, where once campy and kid friendly superheroes have grown up and act like real people. There are consequences, there is tragedy.
In some ways, we’re revisiting the older ages, as some characters have returned from the dead, and others have taken up the masks of the fallen. The Modern Age represents a mix of the older ages, as we’ve recaptured that lighthearted sense of adventure from before, but mixed it with a touch of the enlightened and mature.
Much of today's tales either borrow heavily from the past, often bringing back older, forgotten characters and breathing new life into them, or retelling old stories but rewritten for modern times.
For instance, in Action Comics, which is where Superman first premiered over 75 years ago at the time of this writing, DC revamped the title, starting back at Action Comics #1, but rebooting Superman for the modern world. This time, Superman showed up around five years ago, wearing a t-shirt, jeans and work boots, saving lives. Rather than making him in his late thirties, as he was during the modern continuity in the 80's up to early 2010, this time, he's in his mid twenties, straight off the bus from Kansas. Clark Kent, his secret alter ego is trying to get a job at the Daily Planet, this time owned by a much larger media conglomerate called Galaxy Broadcasting System. Instead of a reporter, he starts off as a blogger, using social media to report the news, and keep an eye out for trouble.
Also as a departure from the Golden Age, Superman isn't trusted by Uncle Sam, or the public. As he tries to save people, he faces fear from a public that doesn't understand his powers and can't quite cope with a benevolent super-being.
As writers and artists have gotten better, and readers have matured, comics have grown up and are now comfortable with who they are. A common thread amongst comics are real issues faced by the world today.
In a post 9/11 world, Marvel Comics introduced a story line called Civil War, where superheroes debated (with their fists) on how much the government should know about their citizens. After a recent tragedy in the city of Stamford Connecticut, where a super powered villain blew up a school, and a team of super powered teens failed to stop him, their was a public outcry to have superheroes registered with the government. This lead to a rift between the superhero community, much like in the real world.
In the next part of this series, I’ll explore some of the common tropes of comics, as well as explain the lingo so you can sound like a fanboy (or girl).