PROLOG:
     In the latest edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (#33), J. C. Vaughn and Arnold Blumberg wrote an article which opened for discussion the subject of the comic book ages. I have been studying that subject for some time and was in the process of putting together my own article when I read theirs. Consequently, I wrote them an email outlining my conclusions. What follows is an expanded version of that email.

     Assuming that comic books are deserving of serious study and assuming that future comic book historians need a framework on which to hang their studies, than it follows that a logical framework needs to be constructed. As it currently exists, the concept of comic book ages are a rickety patchwork of quaint terms, myopic prejudices and totally arbitrary timespans. The entire premise and terminology of comic book ages needs to be amended.

     Certain terms, specifically Golden Age and Silver Age, have themselves developed historical validity having been in use for many years. Indeed, according to fanzine historian Bill Schelly, "The first use of the words "golden age" pertaining to the comics of the 1940s was by Richard A. Lupoff in an article called "Re-Birth" in COMIC ART #1 (April 1960)." Silver Age has a more vague origin, but it came into common use sometime later, around 1965-66. To relabel these periods now would cause unnecessary confusion. However, subsequent terms, such as Atom Age (why not the Television Age?), Bronze Age, etc., not only should be changed, but make little sense. The temptation to continue the "metal motif" is the obvious raison d'etre for most of these labels. The problem is that they do little to either describe the eras or explain them. My proposal attempts to remedy this.

     There is a strong tendency amongst present day comic book fans and historians to equate all of its history to superheroes and their comics. The fervor of the fan sometimes overstates the true importance of the genre. While the impact of superheroes, the main contribution of comic books to popular culture, is indisputable, in reality the history of the medium has more variables than just that one. Looking dispassionately at the history, it is apparent that changes occurred periodically in reaction to outside events, economic factors and trends. Industrywide sea changes in editorial direction should be the determining factor when delineating the comic book Ages.

     I am not the first to question the accepted comic ages definitions. Dr. Jerry Bails, one of comic fandoms founding fathers and probably the first to look at comic books historically, summed up his thoughts on the subject in an email to me, "I did not prefer the terms Golden & Silver Age because the term Golden Age was already in use by fans of syndicated strips. ''Golden Age'' referred to the late 1920s and 1930s, when some many of the great newspaper strips were thriving. I recall at the first significant fan gathering at my house, the Alley Tally, I posted banners using the terms ''Second Heroic Age'' in a gallery of original art I set up. I think that was 1964???

I preferred the terms First Heroic Age and Second Heroic Age to refer tp the 1940s and the emerging phenomenon of the 1960s, which I hoped would not fade out again.

I have found what appear to me to be significant 10-year cycles in comic books that seem to begin and end in years ending in ''8''. 1938-48, 1948-58, 1958-68, and so on. (Maybe I had the Periodic Table in my head.)

In each of these periods we see efforts to glut the market with titles of particular genres only to see many fall by the wayside by the end of the period. Of course, this is just a rough way of classifying events.

As a reader, I could begin to detect the end of the so-called First Heroic Age in about 1948. It hung on with a few of the more popular titles, and even tried to kick start again in the mid-50s, but until about 1959, it showed no signs of a genuine revival. The third tryout of the Silver Age Flash was the first inkling to the publishers that superheroes were possibly going to be hot again, some 20 years after the first explosion.

I would certainly NOT start the Silver Age in the mid-1950s. That is entirely revisionist fantasy. The Martian Manhunter was a backup feature, and did not spark any copycats. Ditto Charlton's brief efforts, and a few others. Only Flash in the late 1950s, GL (note: Green Lantern), and the JLA (Justice League of America) broke open the dike, and led Martion Goodman to instruct Stan Lee to create a group-hero book. Others followed."

     The second continuing problem with defining comic ages is that the milestones are often arbitrary. To ascribe the end of the Golden Age to the end of World War II is one such example. To end the Silver Age with either the end of the 12 cent cover price or just the final year of the 1960s is another. Again, my proposals hope to better define the time periods.

     That said, here is my comic ages proposal:   

Pre-Modern (1933 and earlier)
Nascent Age (1933-1938)
Golden Age (1938-1949)

First Heroic Era (1938-1955)

Genre Age (1950-1958)

Code Era (1955-1958)

Second Heroic Era (1956-1986)

Silver Age (1958-1968)   
Neo-Silver Age (1968-1986)
Post-Heroic Age (1986-Present)

Third Heroic Era (1986-Present)

 

     You will notice that I've subdivided several Ages into Eras. I did this in order to hone in more closely to trends and influences that affected comic books. These Eras don't necessarily correspond exactly with the Ages. Trends sometimes precede an Age, as a harbinger of what would eventually become the prevailing direction of the comic medium. Other times, they span several Ages. Here is how I arrived at these Ages and Eras:

Pre-Modern and Nascent Ages: Important comic: Funnies on Parade (1933)

As Robert Beerbohm, Dr. Richard Olson and Doug Wheeler have written, while Funnies on Parade wasn't the first comic book, nor was it the first to contain original material, it was the first to be published in the format associated with the modern comic book.

Mr. Beerbohm, et al. have conducted extensive research and continue to expand the knowledge of these Ages. However, I believe lumping everything prior to 1938 (and post-Victorian) into a single "Platinum" Age dilutes the watershed importance of this book and its subsequent imitators. The modern comic continued to develop during this time period (1933-1938) and the proposed Nascent Age recognizes that fact.


Golden Age: Important comic: Action Comics #1 (1938)
     
The the first appearance of Superman not only was the single most important event in comic book history, but resulted in the 'purest' and most easily agreed upon starting point of any Age . Where I differ with the current definition is in the duration.

Dawning concurrently with the Golden Age and the introduction of Superman in Action #1, was the First Heroic Era.

Although the height of the Golden Age and the predominant superhero genre may have occurred during the years of W.W.II, and many titles may have ended soon after, the franchise comics of most stable publishers continued for some time. The superhero genre lasted far longer. I set the ending of the Age in 1949 due to the ending of so many established comics and characters in that year. A partial list includes: Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Marvel Mystery, The Flash, Green Lantern, Smash, Crack and the Green Hornet. All contained super-hero strips and it's significant that so many ended in such a short time period. The superhero genre continues (actually, limps) into the 1950s and truly doesn't reach its nadir until 1955.

Just Fading Away...

     With the end of World War ll, many marginal costumed heroes disappeared, particularly those from the plethora of small publishers that sprang up in the War years. Over the next several years, the attrition rate accelerates as the genre loses popularity and others gain. Finally, in 1949, most of the remaining second tier heroes lose their comics and even franchise players begin to give up. This trend continues into 1950.

TITLE
CHARACTER
LAST ISSUE
The Flash
The Flash, Hawkman*
104 (Feb. 1949)
Human Torch
Human Torch
35 (March 1949)
Green Lantern
Green Lantern*
38 (May-June 1949)
Black Terror
Black Terror
27 (June 1949)
Sub-Mariner
Sub-Mariner
33 (July 1949)
Moon Girl
Moon Girl
8 (Summer 1949)
The Shadow
The Shadow
vol. 9, #5 (Aug.-Sept. 1949)
Crack Comics
Captain Triumph
62 (Sept. 1949)
Green Hornet
Green Hornet
47 (Sept. 1949)
Captain America
Captain America
74 (Oct. 1949)
Smash Comics
Midnight
85 (Oct. 1949)
Blue Beetle
Blue Beetle [Fox]
60 (Aug. 1950)
Daredevil Comics
Daredevil
[Lev Gleason]
69 (Dec. 1950)

* Continued appearing in All Star Comics until #57 (Feb.-March 1951), which in actuality went on sale in late 1950.

Comics in transition

     Quite often, a costumed hero lost their venue as their comic was transfigured into a different genre. Captain America provides a perfect example as it evolved from a superhero comic into a horror book.

             
               #70 (Jan. 1949)            #71 (March 1949)          #72 (May 1949)

             
               #73 (July 1949)            #74 (Oct. 1949)              #75 (Feb. 1950)

     The leading Timely/Atlas/Marvel historian, Dr. Michael Vassallo, details the chronology at that company: "At Timely, the immediate post-war period saw the rise of teen comics like Patsy Walker, Millie the Model and others. By cover date Fall/47 Timely introduced 2 crime titles patterned after Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay. Timely released Justice Comics and Official True Crime Cases. In 1948 they followed with Crime Fighters, Lawbreakers Always Lose, Crime Exposed and Complete Mystery. Following Simon and Kirby's Young Romance, Timely introduced their romance comics with My Romance in 1948 and 29 other romance titles in 1949! Horror as a genre began with Amazing Mystries #32 (May/49) and Marvel Mystery Comics #92 then changed to Marvel Tales #93 (Aug/49). Then the 2 Captain America's Weird Tales issues, #74 (Oct/49) and #75 (Feb/50). With #74 & 75 superheroes at Timely were dead and the genres took off."

The transition in a microcosm

    

     Probably no comic went through more changes than the EC title Moon Girl. What had started out as their lone superhero book in the Fall of 1947, became a virtual chameleon, changing genres every few issues. Moon Girl #5 (Fall 1948) con-tained EC's first horror story, Zombie Terror. By issue #7 (May-June 1949), the title had changed to Moon Girl Fights Crime, to cash in on that popular genre. With #9, the title becomes A Moon, A Girl...Romance (Sept.-Oct. 1949), breathlessly relating "True Stories of Young Love."

The short, strange trip ends when the title disappears totally with #12 (March-April 1950) and has its numbering taken up by one of the defining titles of the Genre Age, Weird Fantasy #13 (May-June 1950).


Genre Age: Important comics: EC "New Trend" titles, among them Crypt of Terror #17, Weird Science #12 [#1] and Weird Fantasy #13 [#1] (all 1950)

The transition from the Golden Age into the Genre Age took place over a period of several years, but with the ending of so many established costumed character comics the preceding year and the advent of the very influential EC "New Trend" titles in 1950, this seems to be a likely line of demarcation.

Using the revamped EC line as a starting point is a logical choice. Most assuredly, EC did not publish the first science fiction comic, or the first horror comic, or the first war comic, but they defined those genres with well-crafted comics and their success spawned a phalanx of imitators.

     It should be mentioned that the First Heroic Era lingers into this Age, but suffers casualties along the way. By 1955, the list includes: the Black Cat, the entire Fawcett Marvel clan and the Timely triumvirate of Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner who, after a brief encore, finally disappeared (in the first incarnations) by the end of 1955. Only Plastic Man, alone among the non-DC super-heroes, made it into 1956.


     The Code Era was a very important influence not only on the Genre Age, but even upon the subsequent Silver Age. To ignore this fact by not crediting it with its own historical period is a major oversight of the
cur
rent system. The emasculation of the E.C. line and its imitators along with the editorial changes necessitated to comply with the Code altered the entire industry. Traditional comic history roughly overlaps the installation of the Comics Code with the beginning of the Silver Age. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Silver Age was a Renaissance of the industry, while the Code Era nearly caused its death. The Code resulted in the collapse of some publishers, reduction in others and retrenching by most of the survivors.

     click seal to read 1954
        version of the Code

Tales from the Code Era

No comic book company suffered as much or as publicly as EC. Publisher William Gaines made his famously impassioned if flawed, defense of his comics before the Senate subcommittee investigating the industry. In the pages of his comics and in the bulletin of the EC Fan-Addict Club in particular, he pled his case to his devoted readers. "Your editors sincerely believe that the claim of these crusaders...that comics are bad for children...is nonsense. If we, in the slightest way, thought our horror comics, crime comics, or any other kind of comics were harmful to our readers, we would cease publishing them and direct our efforts toward something else!" (from EC Fan-Addict Club Bulletin #3, June 1954).
                      
                                                                         click on bulletin image to read
          

The handwriting, however, was on the wall and as they announced in the September 1954 Fan-Addict Club Bulletin, "...we at E. C. are giving up! WE'VE HAD IT!" Desperately, EC sought ways to to comply with the Comics Code they had signed onto out of necessity. Drained of the violence and 'disturbing' subject matter they were known for, the results were a bowdlerized, no longer 'weird', science fiction book entitled Incredible Science Fiction and painfully non-engaging New Direction titles such as Psychoanalysis ("stories of people searching for peace of mind through the modern science of psychoanalysis").


A brave effort branded Picto-Fiction attempted to circumvent the Code by presenting 'adult' comics in a black and white magazine format. The same format that was wildly successful for Mad was a commercial failure for such titles as Shock Illustrated. Neither fish nor fowl, they left retailers scratching their heads where to rack them, misread their core market and the consequential poor sales led to a quick death. Nearly a decade later, Jim Warren would revive the format, beyond the clutches of the Code, sucessfully in his horror books, Creepy and Eerie.

     However, not all companies suffered equally during the Code Era. Neither Gilberton, publishers of the Classics Illustrated comics, nor Dell submitted their comics to the Comics Code Authority for its approval. They didn't feel that it was necessary.

Gilberton enjoyed marginal respectability (and the thanks of homework pressed students) for its visual representaions of 'real' books. Meanwhile, the Dell imprint ran on a wide range of licensed material that was generally viewed favorably, or at least innocuously, by the public.

 

Dell president and CEO Helen Honig Meyer's assertion during Congressional hearings that, 'Dell comics are good comics,' was such a powerful statement that it became part of the ubiquitous Dell Pledge to Parents that appeared on their books in the late 1950s. Their claims resonated with concerned parents and were reflected in their sales as their flagship licensed title, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, often sold over two million copies a month.



                                                                 Walt Disney's Comics and Stories
#197
                                                                                        (February 1957)

      


Silver Age: Important comics: Showcase #13 & 14, Lois Lane #1, Challengers of the Unknown #1, Adventure #247 (all 1958)

Here lies my greatest disagreement with the current historical ages. Showcase #4, which featured the origin of the revamped The Flash, is most assuredly an important comic book. However, its currently accepted place as the starting point of the Silver Age is incorrect. As mentioned earlier, the prevailing influence on comic books at this time was the adoption of the Comics Code Authority in 1955. The companies that survived its impact were desperately trying to find ways to continue publishing under its strict guidelines. Showcase was DCs forum for trying out potential comic book formulas and The Flash was but one of the trial balloons. As Dr. Bails has pointed out, The Flash didn't really catch on until his third Showcase appearance, in issue #13. That same year, Lois Lane became the first Showcase graduate to get her own title, followed quickly by the Challengers of the Unknown. Amazingly, in approximately the same month (April 1958), the first appearance of the popular Legion of Super-Heroes occurred in Adventure #247.

     By late 1958, the first issue of The Flash's new comic, #105, appeared on the newsstands (thought dated early 1959) along with the first new offerings from Atlas following its disastrous "implosion" in 1957. Dr. Michael Vassallo explains, "After the implosion Stan Lee used up inventory and new work by Maneely, Ayers and Keller on the westerns and Goldberg, Weiss and Hartley on the teen books. Fantasy and war was old inventory. Then in mid 1958 Stan called back a small core of artists. Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Reinman, Sinnott and Ayers are the core but Forte, Williamson, Wildey, Forgione and others also contribute. Strange Worlds #1 (Dec/58) is the first pre-hero type book in the fantasy genre. World of Fantasy is next with Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales and a revived Journey Into Mystery. They start as sci-fi type books but eventually morph into monster books by mid 1960. To peg Marvel' s Silver-Age down you seem to need super-heroes and this would really be FF (Fantastic Four) #1 but the roots of FF #1 are back in the monster books. The same creators were working on them but they were going nowhere. FF #1 jumpstarted everything."

     Placing the beginning of this historic age in 1956 denies the prevailing tenuous nature of the industry at that time. Calling Showcase #4 the first comic book of the Second Heroic Era is accurate. But it occurred in the Genre Age, not the Silver.


Neo-Silver Age: Important comics: Showcase #73, 74, 75, 76 & 77, Iron Man #1, Captain America #1, Silver Surfer #1, Nick Fury Agent of Shield #1, etc., (all 1968)

Perhaps the most misunderstood ending of one Age and beginning of another. The problem arises from the fact that most of the predominant characters and comics continued publication, unlike previous Ages which were signaled by the ending of established comics and characters. It was virtually a sequel to the previous Age, yet it spawned new comics, new characters and new directions.

     The comic book industry, and DC in particular, had experienced a brief boom and was beginning to suffering from a "post-Batman television series depression" as the popularity of that show waned and the 'campy' trendiness that dogged the industry in that period thankfully went away. The flurry of publishers that sprang up and tried to profit from that superhero boom had either failed (i.e. Tower's Thunder Agents, M.F. Enterprises version of Captain Marvel) or gone back to what they knew best (Archie) by 1967. This left a de facto two company superhero market, despite the sometimes valiant attempts by Charlton.

     There was also DCs increasing awareness of Marvel as the industry's style setter. Marvel brash self-image as 'The House of Ideas' bore a lot of truth and its popularity with a 'hipper' audience than DCs core 12-year olds turned heads at the long established industry giant. Their response to the Marvel threat is noted by Christopher Melchert of Oxford University, England, who points out,"Also significant about 1968: the sacking of what was it five? major writers at NPP (note:National Periodical Publications, DCs official name at the time) & the hiring of enthusiastic young fans like Skeates & Friedrich to take their places, along with promoting Infantino & making various artists into editors to take the place of the old writers like Schiff, Miller, & Weisinger."

     In 1968, DC began a vigorous attempt to add life to its line with a series of original concepts in its long-running Showcase title. The first of these was Steve Ditko's DC premiere with The Creeper. DC had trumpeted for months the arrival of Ditko to their ranks ("Steve Ditko Strikes Like Lightning!"). Ditko and Jack Kirby were the main architects of the 'Marvel style' and his coming to DC was a major coup. Ditko left Marvel over conflicts with Stan Lee and The Creeper was a more personal hero in the mold of his Charlton character, The Question. As described in the text introduction in Showcase #73, "As for The Creeper, it wasn't just a matter of thinking up a new feature for Steve...Bearing in mind all the past and current crop of comic magazine heroes, we strived to create a different sort of hero."

     Subsequent issues of Showcase featured Howie Post's Anthro, Ditko's Hawk and the Dove, Aragones'/Cardy's Bat Lash and the Bob Oksner humor comic, Angel and the Ape. The also began their 'mystery' line of comics with the revamped House of Mystery #174. Even in their war comics DC had changes with the ending of the bizarre, if entertaining, War That Time Forgot series in Star Spangled War Stories and the revival of Joe Kubert's classic, Enemy Ace in SSWS #138 (April/May 1968).

     Many of DCs attempts this year appeared to be of the 'let's throw it against the wall and see what sticks' variety. One of the momumental mistakes in comic book history was the Joe Simon creation, Brother Power, The Geek. The comic tried desperately to tap into the hippie culture of that time, but only succeeded in being an embarassment.

     Meanwhile, Marvel itself was experimenting with the splitting of its established anthology titles Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense into single character books.The Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel and Capt. Savage premiered in their own comics this year and Marvel made its first foray into the magazine format with the two issues of Spectacular Spider-Man and a collection of strips from various men's magazines entitled Pussycat aimed at the adult market. What should be noted is that these books are the first comics published by Marvel to not carry the Comics Code seal.

Marvel's May 1968 hyperbolic Bullpen Bulletins page made sure its readers were aware of its new direction, calling it, "the Second Golden Age of Marvel," and in Stan's Soapbox, Lee shouted, "We TOLD you that Marvel would make '68 the year of the big changes, the big excitement, and the big surprises!"

     Significant too, was the emergence of "star" artists. Not only was Ditko receivng the star treatment at DC, but Neal Adams was in his first full year at that company and Jim Steranko was hitting his prime with the groundbreaking Nick Fury at Marvel.

A Year of Changes...

             
     Marvel added by division. A case in point: Strange Tales #168 (May 1968) begat Doctor Strange #169 and Nick Fury, Agent of Shield #1 (both June 1968).
                                                     

           
     DC tried the opposite. In an attempt to save two struggling Silver Age starwarts, they teamed them up in one comic. Two years before Green Lantern and Green Arrow attempted it, The Atom and Hawkman combined forces in The Atom and Hawkman #39 (Oct.-Nov 1968),
one month after their own titles ended.

In an effort to make a fading star more relevant and 'hip', DC drastically revamped its leading lady, Wonder Woman, with #178 (Oct. 1968) of her comic. In this issue, WW gives up her super powers and under the guidance of a blind mentor named I Ching, becomes a martial arts crime fighter.

Obviously patterned after the Mrs. Peel character of the then popular TV show The Avengers, she continues, sans costume and powers, until issue #204.

A similar renovation attempt, Blackhawk #242, in an issue drawn by Pat Boyette, the old team and classic uniforms briefly return. It's fate,however, had been pedetermined and the comic was canceled, ending its original run, in the very next issue.


...and Beginnings

                       

                    
  
                    
  
                  
  
                

         The Neo-Silver Age was sparked by a definite change in editorial direction for the major players at DC and Marvel in 1968. To accord its beginning to the price change from 12 to 15 cents in 1969 is meaningless. It bore no more significance than any previous or subsequent price change. To end the Silver Age with the end of the sixties decade is another arbitrary line that has no relationship to what was published. Some end the Silver Age with Kirby's defection to DC or the publishing of Conan #1 in 1970, but neither event was followed by the sea-change in content that occured in 1968.


Post Heroic Age: Important comics: Watchmen #1, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 (both 1986)

The dissolution of the Silver Age universe began with DCs Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. In 1986, however, not only did that important series finish, but two highly influential series started. Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comics completely changed the way super-heroes would be portrayed. Their "dark" and edgy characterizations impacted the comic industry and redefined the heroic genre. For that reason, I've called this the Post-Heroic Age that apparently continues to this day. Note too that this redefined hero model gives rise to the Third Heroic Era.

                                
            Daredevil #168 (Jan. 1981)                 Swamp Thing #20 (Jan. 1984)

     Both Watchmen and The Dark Knight had antecedents that were vanguards of this Age. Miller's work on Daredevil, particularly the issues he scripted starting with #168, lay the groundwork for the anti-hero paridigm he fully realized in his characterization of Batman. Moore's Swamp Thing issues (beginning with #20) took comics in directions never explored before in mainstream books and subsequently, beyond the constrictions of the Comics Code Authority. The highly individ-ualistic, and successful, work produced by these creators induced the two industry giants to give greater creative freedom to all artists and writers.

A parallel development that defines this Age is the rise of the creator owned comics. This trend had a sporadic past, first manifested in underground comics and the independent work of such artists as Dave Sim (Cerebus), Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Pini's (ElfQuest).

Emboldened by the success of Eastman and Laird, a brief burst of black and white independent comics, circa 1984-86, proved to be a fertile ground for young artists and widened the opportunities for creative efforts beyond the mainstream publishers.

             Teenage Mutant
         Ninja Turtles
#1 (1984)

     Eventually, with the clarity that comes with some distance over time, the Post-Heroic Age may be further fragmented into defining Eras.


     Hopefully, these offerings will be seriously considered. The purpose of these proposals is not to cause controversy, but to provide a coherent language for the discussion of comic book history. Many years of research and many conversations with comic book fans and historians led to these conclusions. Obviously, there is still much more research and refinement to be done and these proposals will surely evolve.

© 2004
by Ken Quattro
comicartville@comcast.net
Special Thanks to Dr. Michael Vassallo
and Dr. Jerry Bails

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