I Was Twelve Years Old in 1964, Comics History and Culture
“One for the Ages”
by Mike Tiefenbacher
Much of being a fan of anything is being able to talk with others about the past in general as well as in specific terms. Most of the time you can get by with simply speaking about decades, since everyone is usually able to get the gist of your point. Unless they’re younger than you are and never read any of the things you’re talking about. Then you have to resort to terminology that’s less decade-specific.
An eon is longer than an era. An era is longer than a period. A period is longer than an epoch. And an epoch is longer than an age. That's historically speaking; geologically, you have a stage instead of an age, but otherwise it's the same order. In classical mythology, the Ages of Man were Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and Iron Age. In the relatively short history of comics, eons, eras, periods and epochs are still in the future. We need only concern ourselves with the ages.
Sometime in the '50s, the earliest fans of the earliest days of comic books decided that the halcyon days of the late '30s and early '40s were the Golden Age of Comic Books. For them, this era--er, age--was easily defined as the four or five years when virtually everything published in America focused on super-heroes. Ordinary humans populated only strips soon to be replaced by costumed adventurers. Humor strips were consigned to filler positions in comics dominated by super-heroics and romantically garbed figures. There weren't any horror, mystery, romance, or other non-heroic sub-genres. A 64-page issue might feature as many as eight different super-heroes, and might have been published by as many as twenty-five different publishers. And all of it cost one thin dime. For these early organized fans, the year 1944 was the year it all went south, the year the super-heroes lost their early luster. In retrospect, it's hard to argue that they're wrong; the over-saturation of the market with so many similarly themed comics inevitably meant that many would not survive, and that the surviving titles diversify their content. Because the same thing could be gotten from so many different sources, even the strongest titles began to suffer, and the leading publishers either began to diffuse their super-hero anthologies--none of which ever specifically promised super-heroes per se in their descriptive titles--with other genres, or abandoned their super-heroes completely. And comics were never quite the same.
Around 1961, the Jay Garrick version of the Flash came back, soon to be followed by the full membership of the Justice Society of America, and research into the '30s and '40s comics culminated in Jerry Bails' first drafts of what soon became entitled The Collectors Guide to the First Heroic Age. For Jerry and his confederates, this age was pretty well demarcated by the demise of most of the long-running super-hero anthology titles that occurred chiefly in a very short period in 1948-49. With few exceptions--Action Comics and Detective Comics, which continue to the present, and Adventure Comics and World's Finest Comics, which made it into the '80s, plus a relative handful such as Sensation Comics (1951), Star Spangled Comics (1952), Master Comics (1953), Whiz Comics (1953), The Marvel Family ('53, dated '54) and Boy Comics (1956)--every other super-hero anthology title ended or dropped all their costumed heroes in 1947-50. All-American Comics ('48), All Star Comics ('50, dated '51), Flash Comics ('48, dated '49), Feature Comics ('49), Smash Comics ('49), Crack Comics ('49), Hit Comics ('49), National Comics ('49), Police Comics ('50), Modern Comics ('50), Blue Beetle Comics ('50), Speed Comics ('47), Green Hornet Comics ('49), All-New Comics ('47), Marvel Mystery Comics ('49), Pep Comics ('47, dated '48), Thrilling Comics ('48, dated '49), Exciting Comics ('49), Startling Comics ('48), America's Best Comics ('49), Wonder Comics ('48), Daredevil Comics ('50), Wow Comics ('48), Target Comics ('49), Blue Bolt Comics ('49, '51 in reprints), Dick Cole ('50), Prize Comics ('47, dated '48), Clue Comics ('47), Shadow Comics ('49), Super Magician Comics ('47), Big Shot ('49), Super Mystery Comics ('47), Four Favorites ('47), Dynamic Comics ('48), Punch Comics ('47, dated '48), and Red Seal Comics ('47)--34 different super-hero titles--met their demise. Some of the few characters that merited solo titles of their own survived--Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Superboy, Blackhawk (1968), Plastic Man (1956), Captain Marvel Adventures (1953), Doll Man (1953), Captain Marvel Jr. (1953), Airboy Comics ('53), Marvel Boy ('51),Black Cat ('51), and Captain Atom ('51) but others did not: Green Lantern ('49), All-Flash ('47, dated '48), Kid Eternity ('49), The Spirit ('50), The Human Torch ('49), Captain America ('49. dated '50), Phantom Lady ('49), Sub-Mariner ('49), Blonde Phantom ('48, dated 49), Sun Girl ('48), Namora ('48), The Fighting Yank ('49), The Black Terror ('49), Ibis the Invincible ('48), Golden Arrow ('47), Captain Midnight ('48), Mary Marvel ('48), Spy/Crime Smasher ('48), Skyman ('48), Funnyman ('48), and Moon Girl ('49), or 2/3 of the 32 solo titles still around in 1947. Suddenly, instead of rip-roaring costumed adventurers, comics were filled with westerns, jungle adventures, horror stories, romances, crime tales, war stories, hot rod adventures, humor funnies and both original and movie cartoon funny animals, often in titles that were the same or quite similar to those super-hero titles. There was no clear exterior force which caused this, apart from the end of the war and G.I.s who had spent many dimes at PXs suddenly returning home and abandoning their pastime, but even after the companies held the line for a few years, it simply became clear that the comics market was going to have change to survive, as the peacetime buying public seemed to have grown tired of super-heroes. Clearly, again, the end of the Golden Age...right?
Trouble is, considering the huge numbers of genres covered in comic books, this is completely super-hero-centric. In a broader view, perhaps "golden age" describes more than just they hey-day of the classic super-hero. The selfsame people who did the super-hero stories also created the comics that replaced the super heroes. And most of the companies that published super-heroes (DC, Quality, Fiction House, Fox, Harvey, Marvel, MLJ-Archie, Better-Standard-Pines, Lev Gleason, Novelty Press-Star, Fawcett, Dell, Eastern Color, Hillman, Prize, and Ace) made the transition to other titles, at least for a while. True, there was a remarkable influx of new publishers during this transitional period (Ajax-Farrell, Argo, Avon, Comic Media, Dandy, Dearfield, D.S.-P.L.-Seaboard, E.C., Mainline, Master-Merit-Premier-Story, ME-Magazine Enterprises, Mikeross, Nationwide, Nesbitt, Parents, Patches, Pflaum, St. John, Stanhall-Trojan, Stanley Morse, Sterling, Superior, Toby, Youthful and Ziff-Davis), but for the most part, this was a small hiccup in the scheme of things. The period from 1935-1955 represented the age of experimentation, both in the aforementioned genre formats and in the very basics of deciding what comics should look like. In terms of story and art, technique and execution grew to a level of sophistication over this span of years that is unparalleled. Whether you're talking about the comics aimed at teens or adults such as the crime, horror, science fiction and war comics (best represented by E.C.) or the '50s incarnations of '40s super-heroes, there is a level of traceable professionalism that peaked around the beginning of 1955.
And if you take all of that into account, plus add in the very brief super-hero renaissance that occurred in 1954, it may alter your perception of what constitutes the golden age. Besides Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Superboy, Action Comics, Detective Comics, Adventure Comics, World's Finest Comics, Blackhawk and Plastic Man, there were Strange Adventures with Captain Comet (launched in 1951), Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (’54), Captain America ('54), Human Torch ('54), Sub-Mariner ('54), Young Men ('53), Men's Adventures ('54) (the latter two with Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner stories), Fighting American ('54), Captain Flash ('54), Space Adventures (with Blue Beetle) ('54), Blue Beetle ('54, dated ‘55), Phantom Lady ('54), The Flame ('54), Samson ('54), Terrific Comics/Wonder Boy ('54), Black Cobra ('54), The Avenger ('54 dated '55), and Strong Man ('54, dated '55). Old-time readers might've imagined that they were on the cusp of a return to the heyday of the previous decade, but alas, it was not to be, and by the end of 1955 all but the first ten and Jimmy Olsen were no longer in existence. In many respects, with all but a handful of these books devoted to revivals of heroes from the '40s (almost all unchanged from their earlier adventures), this was the last gasp of that era rather than being part of a small pocket age for this short span or the beginning of a new one.
Since 1954 also coincides with the reduction of page count for some of the DC monthly titles from 40 to 32 pages (necessitating the dropping of one strip each from them, ending the runs of Robotman, the Vigilante and (somewhat earlier) Shining Knight in Detective, Action and Adventure, respectively), this has always been the line of demarcation for me. (In the old days, when it mattered, it was also my cut-off for which heroes were on Earth-One or Earth-Two. And I was always a hard-liner, even if it conflicted with the prevailing attitudes: since Superboy existed in this era, that meant that there was an Earth-Two Superboy career for the Earth-Two Superman as well, despite DC’s denials in the ’70s and ’80s.) This, and the fact that the '60s revivals of various hero names completely altered their identities, backgrounds and powers, makes it an easy decision to separate this additional five years from the sixties. Howard Keltner's self-published monograph, The Golden Age Comics Index, Revised Edition agrees with me, its subtitle being 1935-1955. And, though it seems to have had little to do with the demise of the momentary rebirth of the super-hero comic, the end of 1955 also coincides with the launch of the Comics Code Authority. It did, for whatever other outside factors that were at work (mostly bad press for the alleged effect on juvenile decency bad comics had), coincide with the demise of nearly twenty comic-book publishers, who either went out of business in ’54-’55 or eked out a year or three more. (The demise of distributor the American News Company in 1956 was another factor.) The lack or presence of the Code symbol on the cover of a comic book is easy to determine, and requires no prior knowledge of the history of comics. It seems the easiest and most identifiable means for everyone to determine if they have a comic from the Golden Age or any later age (except for the companies which never joined, such as Dell, Gold Key and Gilberton). These are the reasons I consider 1955 to be the true end of the Golden Age.
And this opinion seems to have been reinforced in about the strongest means possible. The dominating force in back-issue comic-book sales today, eBay, defines Golden Age comics as those published prior to 1955. To the thousands of buyers and sellers who have never been exposed to a comics fanzine, this is the only definition they have to go by.
If the exact date of the end of the Golden Age is rather fuzzy--with many of those 1954 titles lasting long enough to have Code-approved issues--the beginning of the Silver Age is as well. Most of the time, you will hear the revival of the Flash as the issue and incident that defines the beginning. (Oddly enough, it appears that the existence of the Flash's reappearance in 9-10/56's Showcase #4 can be directly traced to the publication of Sterling Comics' Captain Flash in 1954-55. The actual reason for bringing back the character at all seems to have beem to simply retain the "Flash" trademark for DC. Otherwise, this single 1956 issue, and then a single 1957 issue, Showcase #8, and then 1958’s Showcase #14 would have been immediately followed up with more issues, as was the case with all the other Showcase features of the era . It would not be until December of 1958, when The Flash #105 (2-3/59) appeared that it was obvious that there was a commitment to a new age of costumed heroes by DC, so it seems rather odd to pinpoint a one-shot legal technicality as the launch point of anything, no matter how important it might be.) Though I don't find a real need to have a single month cut-off for the Golden-to-Silver Age transition, I find that November of 1955's Detective Comics #225 (out in September), which introduced the true first super-hero series of the Silver Age, J'onn J'onzz, Manhunter From Mars, works better. Forever minor-league, at least until he became a bonafide TV star on this decade's Justice League cartoon series, Manhunter's birthdate seems, nonetheless, far more apropos than the Flash's rebirth. It rather neatly coincides with the end of hangers on like Sub-Mariner (#42 is dated October, which came out in July or August), and enables us to designate such other early minor leaguers as Charlton's Nature Boy (1956-57), Mr. Muscles (1956) and Zaza the Mystic (1956) as Silver-Age heroes. Challengers of the Unknown (debuting in Showcase #6 in 1956, dated ’57, and getting its own series in 1958), Space Ranger (Showcase #15, 7/58), Adam Strange (Showcase #17, 11/58), The Double Life of Pvt. Strong (6/59), Adventures of the Fly (8/59), and Green Lantern (Showcase #22, 9/59) were all there were (along with new Superman spin-offs Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (1954) and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane (1958), the latter launched in Showcase in 1957) as far as Silver-Age additions to the nine existent super-hero titles from the pre-Silver Age days go. (There were more super-hero titles in that brief period in 1954!) It took 2-3/60’s The Brave And The Bold #30 and the debut of the Justice League of America to cement the Silver Age, soon to be followed by Hawkman, The Atom, The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to change things for good. Since that point, there has been no point in the intervening years in which super-heroes were not the overwhelming dominant force in comic books. And again, eBay considers the Silver Age starting point to be 1956, which I guess is close enough.
To this point, apart from the early fans’ shorter Golden Age, there really isn’t much debate about significant ending dates. This is not the case with the Silver Age, however. For some, it ends as soon as the end of the ’60s. Using the second Golden-Age model (the dying off of the dominant super-hero titles of the decade), 1968 seems to have some support. The great explosion of super-hero titles had fizzled by then, with Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Harvey and Archie abandoning their lines, ACG going under completely, and new publishers Tower, King, Lightning, and MF gradually abandoning the field. Over at Marvel, which had rapidly gained and perhaps surpassed DC in sales by this point, all of the titles which had been transformed from mystery or monster books into super-hero titles--Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish--had gradually been turned into or replaced by solo titles Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, Thor (which actually changed in 1966), Captain America, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Sub-Mariner. X-Men went reprint. New titles were being added, some of which were not super-heroes at all, but the return of mystery, romance and humor titles to a line that had had no room for them while they were being distributed by DC. DC, meanwhile, was undergoing a huge overhaul in which longer-running super-hero titles were being discontinued, dozens of veteran writers and artists were being dropped in favor of new (if mostly veteran) blood, and the publisher himself being replaced by former Flash artist Carmine Infantino. Besides ending many titles, every one of the surviving series each went through an often jarring change in circumstance or direction, in what I’ve often described as the first DC Crisis event (all in the fear that they were losing the hearts of the readers to Marvel, which they did anyway). So a convincing argument could be made for the end of 1968 as the end of the Silver Age.
Or not. It appears that the Marvel fans like 1970 better, as it features the departure of Jack Kirby for DC and the retirement from writing monthly comics by Stan Lee. Conversely, it places the Kirby titles in a different age. It places such new publishers as Skywald (1970) and Atlas (1975) on the other side of the Silver Age line. But eBay claims the Silver Age ends in 1969, splitting the difference.
I could go along with ’69, since it certainly felt like something new was beginning at the time, and it‘s only off by a little bit. But I can also make a good case for choosing 1975-76 for the changeover, for many of the same reasons I extended the Golden Age beyond 1949. (I figured this out back in the late ’80s when I was creating comic-book computer inventory software and needed to have cut-off dates for the various ages.) X-Men #94 is dated August 1975, and if there was any individual comic that characterized the decade that was it. It changed Stan Lee characters significantly for the first time, it outsold everything else for a long time afterward, it influenced the approaches taken by DC’s pre-adult heroes Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and shifted focus to group comics again. Around the same time, DC fired Carmine Infantino and replaced him with Jenette Kahn, and at Marvel, Archie Goodwin ascended to the managing editor position which had briefly been Gerry Conway’s. Martin Goodman’s new Atlas line ended its own brief attempt to become a newsstand presence. Charlton gave up its final shot at super or action heroes (E-Man, Yang, Monster Hunters, et al.). The abovementioned Atlas launch (the last real attempt at a third newsstand presence by a super-hero publisher from former Marvel publisher Martin Goodman) failed due to monumental distribution problems. And Phil Seuling began Seagate Distribution, the first attempt to sell unreturnable comics directly to comic-book shops. All of these events make for a good end point for the Silver Age, since again, we saw a sea change in the status quo nearly equal to the institution of the Comics Code Authority. Plus it makes better symmetry with the Golden and Silver Ages both being roughly twenty years long. But, frankly, despite this logic, eBay may prevail here with their choice of 1969, and I can live with that.
Although there seems to be no unanimity at all in what constitutes the Bronze Age, I’m not about to argue for another name for it, since it again parallels classical mythological ages. I really don’t understand why 1979 was chosen for its end by eBay, since that seems almost completely random. Sure, there’s New Teen Titans in late ‘80, but if Frank Miller is deemed important enough to hang an age on, he’s already debuted on Daredevil in ‘79, and the inadvertent start of the mini-series with World of Krypton (originally meant to appear in the cancelled Showcase) also occurred in 1979. Nothing else of significance coincides here except the end of the experimental attempt to counter the bad publicity generated by 1978’s DC Implosion (in which Time-Warner enforced a severe cutback in titles) by a very short-lived expansion to 40-page comics. I say we need a better date.
For DC fans, of course, 1986 marks the end of Earth-One continuity, with the conclusion of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. With the relaunches of everything in ‘86 and ‘87, there’s a precedent for hinging a new age on that basis. But again, though for me it’s certainly part and parcel of when I lost interest in current comics, this is centering a decision on one company. While Marvel went through something similar in ‘96 with its abortive Image makeover, there’s no parallel reason to place the end of an age there (though the Crisis did provoke Marvel ventures such as Squadron Supreme and the failed New Universe series of titles. Marvel launched their noble line of children's comics in '85, following the demise of the Hallden and Harvey lines. (Harvey came back for one final try in '87, bowing out for good before the mid-'90s.) In this decade, the first wave of the Independent Comic Book (i.e, publishers who eschewed newsstand distribution and the Comics Code) came of age, with nascent players like First, Eclipse and Comico coming onto the scene prior to 1985. 1987-93 was the boom (and bust) for black-and-white comic publishing, and the rise of Dark Horse, Image, Topps, Valiant, and Malibu, essentially replacing First, Eclipse and Comico, followed shortly thereafter. If we can live with making the Bronze Age half the length of the two previous ages, I can see a mountain of valid reasons to end it in 1986. And if we accept the 1969 eBay end date for the Silver Age, then both it and the Bronze Age are each about 15 years long.
We are then left with the last twenty years. The eBay name for the most recent period is the Modern Age, which seems remarkably temporary since it‘s just another way of saying “current.” Whether today’s very confusing DC Crisis results in the transformation date, or some other benchmark event has already occurred and I just haven’t become aware of it yet, the number of years that the “Modern Age” has already piled up is indicative of its ensuing end. But at some point, whether you begin it at eBay’s 1980 date or my 1987, we will soon need another name than “Modern.” Classical mythology’s age following Bronze is the Heroic, but the definition for it hardly fits these years: “an age of demigods and heroes who eventually went to Elysium.” In fact, the following age, Iron, defined as “the current age where humans bicker and fight and have to struggle to eke out an existence,” fits much better, as it eschews precious metals for the dull, hard metal of reality and war. With the muted colors and the denigration of traditional costumes, it certainly feels that way to me. But I can’t see either “Heroic” or “Iron” being adopted by fandom. “Platinum Age” has been used off and on since the ‘70s, but it never seems to stick, though the cover prices of today’s comics and books certainly make it price-appropriate, and given the odds, I‘m guessing that‘s what we‘ll end up calling it. (One problem here is that eBay calls the years prior to 1935 the Platinum Age, a seemingly autonomous decision on their part because I’ve never heard or read of the term as applied here anywhere else, and nobody seems to have ever found a need to define that period by name, since it comprises a few dozen scattered hardcover comic-strip collections, some oversized or alternate format weeklies, and a handful of giveaway or promotional comic books, and was seemingly well-served by the more appropriate “pre-Golden Age“ designation.)
I do know this: we won't know when the post-Modern Age begins till later. That's always been the way it works, and as shown above, it won't be agreed upon for decades afterward.
A long time ago in the Comics Buyer’s Guide I cynically offered “the Plastic Age” as a fitting sobriquet for the present-day, given the then industry-driving tendency of companies to try to appeal to investors who buy their comics bagged and never remove them for fear of decreasing their value. These buyers are most valuable to publishers because they buy multiples for investment and to turn around for quick profit, and the "plastic" also applies to their credit cards. Add to that the horrible “slabbing” of valuable Golden, Silver, Bronze--and even Modern Age issues deemed too perfect to ever be again touched by human hands--and you’ve pretty well defined the age. Just a few years ago, I thought we’d passed out of that phase, but the recent proliferation of multiple covers and instant reprintings make me think that it’s suddenly again become quite applicable. When comics exist only to be locked up in safe-deposit boxes, you might as well be collecting stamps or coins.
Ideally, of course, I’d much prefer that the next age finally attain the right to claim title to “the Heroic Age,” the Age skipped in the above rundown, and a name which would come closest to "Golden Age" in connotation and, one would wish, content. But to do that would require ridding ourselves of today's rampant cynicism, and a cessation of the weirdly popular and unromantic carnage and destruction which makes individual issues in which this or that beloved icon of some prior Age is hacked to pieces by deranged woodchoppers (or the like)--to emphasize the irony and the meaninglessness of it all--but which is then deemed oh-so significant and historically important (and financially foolproof no matter how many times it's done). It would require more focus on individual characters and less on group-wide crossover events. It would require more legitimate heroism vs. issue-long battles that resemble role-playing games. It would necessitate a recognition of the fact that child-friendly comic books are a far more admirable goal, worthy of attainment, as well as being far more sustainable, and thus far more commercially sound in the long run, as it creates a readership base that has an actual chance of growth.
Given the wishful aspects involved in all of these unlikely events occurring, I think I’ve found the perfect name for this mythical age. “The Pyrite Age” would perfectly describe the content, and my own naiveté: “fool’s gold,” in both cases.