Comic Book Ages: From Golden to Modern, These Are The Defining Eras Of Comic Book History
Have you ever wondered when some of your favorite comic book characters were created, or why?
Comic books have a storied history that runs parallel with the century’s biggest events: from World War II to The Cold War to contemporary social issues, you can find it all represented within the pages of your favorite comic.
We put together a guide to the different comic book ages so you can gain a better understanding of what your favorite characters and books represent, not only for the development of comic books themselves, but for the development of American culture.
Golden Comic Book Ages
In 1938, Action Comics #1 debuted the first superhero comic, which featured one of the most recognized characters of all time, Superman.
Seen as a response to the growing threat of fascism and the rise of Nazi Germany, comic books began as a patriotic output where the “good guy” allied powers fought the evil axis, and always won.
This period of time, later called the Golden Age of Comic Books, saw the invention of some of our most lasting and iconic heroes – Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, The Flash, The Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Human Torch, and of course, Captain America, with his iconic debut cover that defines the era.
Throughout this time, comic books became increasingly popular with American youth, and have remained so to this day. Comic books, along with jazz music, are among the only completely original mediums created by American culture.
While superhero comics took off in popularity, they weren’t without their detractors, as academics and psychologists warned parents of the dangers of the violence and sexuality between the pages.
Attempts to censor comic books, however, remained unsuccessful. In the end, it wasn’t the warnings of Dr. Fredric Wertham or the like that steered children away from superheroes – it was the end of the war and the loss of the modern world’s greatest villain.
Without Hitler, who was there to fight?
Silver Comic Book Ages
As WWII ended and the Cold War began with the dropping of the atomic bomb, comic books slowly awoke from a period of stasis to re-enter the public consciousness.
The Silver Age of Comic Books was born in 1956 with the release of Showcase #4, the first comic book reboot, which redefined the origin story of The Flash.
Superhero comic books became wildly popular due to the 1954 establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a regulating body that approved or banned explicit content from comic books due to the allegations that they caused juvenile delinquency.
Due to the heightened fears of nuclear fallout and radiation from the Cold War, many of the lasting heroes created during this era gained their powers through the misuse of atomic weapons and the residual harm from detonation. The most famous of these, Spider-Man, debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15, in August of 1962.
Some comic book historians consider the Silver Age of Comic Books the most important of all, as it marked the first time superheroes were written in a more naturalistic style with human failings and emotions.
This revolution is also what ended the Silver Age. Characters like The Green Lantern, who were once filled with the optimism of the 60s, met the progressive decline of the “American Century” with a sigh.
Historian Will Jacobs points to a single Green Lantern line that ushered out the Silver Age in 1972:
“Those days are gone – gone forever – the days I was confident, certain … I was so young … so sure I couldn’t make a mistake! Young and cocky, that was Green Lantern. Well, I’ve changed. I’m older now … maybe wiser, too … and a lot less happy.”
Bronze Comic Book Ages
The Bronze Age of Comic Books is generally agreed to have begun in 1973 with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man #122, which featured the deaths of both Gwen Stacy and The Green Goblin.
This type of comic book character death had not been seen before the era, and it became commonplace with the arrival of darker story lines and a return to the real-world conflicts of the past.
Death, alcoholism, drug use, and environmental pollution all became mainstays of character plotting in this era, as human failings were expanded upon and explored deeper than in the Silver Age.
The beginning of the Bronze Age of Comic Books gave rise to the first ever “pulp characters” in the medium, modeled after dime-store paperbacks and the pulp fiction of the decade.
Conan the Barbarian, Warlord, Beowulf, John Carter, and Swamp-Thing all made their debuts during the Bronze Age, becoming staples not only of comic book culture, but also of the cultural decade.
Contemporary social commentary found its way into many stories of this era, with important highlights including both the Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane story, “I am Curious: Black,” where Lois becomes a black woman for a day, and the Iron Man title, “Demon in a Bottle,” where Tony Stark confronts his alcoholism.
While many historians argue that the Bronze Age of Comics never really ended, most cite the period of 1986-87 as the final days. This timeline synchs up with the release of what most critics agree is the greatest graphic novel ever written, and the exemplar of the Modern Age of Comic Books: Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
Modern Comic Book Ages
Ranging from approximately 1987 to the present day, the Modern Age of Comic Books is by far the most diverse and popular era in comic book history.
With the mainstream acceptance of superheroes in the form of hit television shows such as Agents of Shield, The Green Lantern, and Gotham, as well as the blockbuster success of the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, the influence of comics can be felt in every artistic medium.
Also known as the Dark Age of Comic Books for its emphasis on gritty and realistic story lines, the Modern Age is home to some of the most influential comic stories, including The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Civil War, and The Infinity Gauntlet.
The beginning of the Modern Age was a time of significant change for long-standing comic franchises.
Large comic events, such as the earlier mentioned Infinity Gauntlet, rewrote characters’ entire story lines, changed their personalities and looks, and resulted in the deaths of several high-profile characters such as Supergirl and The Flash.
While marketing and sales had always been an important part of comic book creation and plotting, here it became indispensable, with these “re-establishment” events occurring every few years, leading to a huge spike in sales that undermined the individual plots of the comics.
The Modern Age also changed the way comics were distributed, including digital comic books, such as Biowars, and emphasized single-artist created graphic novels, such as the contemporary staples Blankets and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, both of which we included in our list of the Top 10 Literary Graphic Novels.
Thus far in the Modern Age, the most important change has been the decentralization of comic books among the “Big Two” companies, Marvel and D.C.
Independent comic companies, such as Image, have found mainstream success with titles like The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Manifest Destiny, which are viewed as contemporary classics.
Comic Book Ages Takeaways: What Does The Future Hold?
Comic book trends have always been shaped by societal events and the state of humanity. Born from a reactionary movement that opposed the biggest threat the world has ever known, Nazism, the comic book industry evolved with the world.
The modern age of comic books has been in place for over 30 years now. The gritty, bleak state of the world is often reflected in their narratives. Modern comics are a social commentary and a cautionary tale, more than they are means of escapism.
So what does the “post-modern” age of comics hold?
In terms of format and content, graphic novels are becoming more popular, as are children’s comics, which have surpassed superhero comics as the most popular genre.
As for the theme and subjects of future comics, 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic has set a grim tone for the future analysis of where humanity is headed. But the world will also need solace and consolation. Comic books and graphic novels will have to provide a light at the end of a very bleak tunnel.
It is also safe to assume that digital comics will reign over print in the years to come. Digital comics are more accessible, sustainable and they “tear down the wall between the reader and the story,” as Curt Pires, writer of “Youth,” remarked.
Whatever the societal implications of the health crisis, lockdowns and curfews for future comic books, it certainly gave Biowars something of a prophetic aura.
What is your favorite comic book era? What changes do you think will the end of the Modern Age of comics bring? Let us know what you think in the comments below!