Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Did We Enter A New Age of Comics And Not Realize It?

As there were no comics waiting for me at the shop today (curse you American holidays!), I thought I'd put out a post on something that I've been batting around in my head for the last few weeks - mainly, what "Age" are we in? Surely, it can't still be the Modern Age, can it? It was that back in the 80's and 90's! No other age has lasted more than 20 years, yet this so-called "modern" age is older than me and most of the people probably reading comics.

As such, I've put together a little post where I try and pin a date on what I believe is the end of the old Modern Age, which I will be calling the Dark Age, and the beginning of the New Modern Age, whereby the "New" is an homage to Marvel's useage of the prefix on titles such as New Avengers, New X-Men, New Thunderbolts and so on.

Enjoy my bit of fanboy speculation and feel free to chime in on possible naming conventions for the ages or what you think of the new terminology.

What Age Is It Again?

Since time immemorial (okay, since sometime in the 50's), comic fans have been marking the distinction between specific time periods as Ages, beginning with the Golden Age and following it with the typical historical naming scheme with the Silver Age, Bronze Age and the current, and long standing, Modern Age.

Typically, fans have narrowed the beginning and end of each Age to a specific event, such as the Golden Age beginning with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 or the Silver Age ending and the subsequent Bronze Age beginning with the Death of Gwen Stacy.

There are, of course, debates about when, exactly, each began and ended, but, for the most part, everyone agrees that these ages began and ended at roughly the same time and due to very specific events.

The Modern Age Is Not So Modern

However, it seems the current Modern Age of comics refuses to end. Currently, it is the longest running age, dating back to the early 1980's, and any attempts at classifying a new age has failed to take hold. How can anyone honestly believe the "Modern" Age has lasted nearly 30 years when the next longest age is the Golden Age, that being roughly 15-20 years. For reference, the Silver and Bronze Ages lasted approximately 15 and 10 years respectively.

The Dark Age (formerly the Modern Age)

Anyway you look at it, there have been far too many changes over the past several decades and drastic shifts in writing and artistic styles as well as the near collapse of the industry and subsequent rebirth in the new millenium that there is no way this could possibly be the same "modern" age that heralded works such as Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and other works from the grim and gritty era of comics.

As such, I think the Dark Age, which has even been the subject of some books, is an apt name for the 80's and early 90's. The question then becomes, "when did the Dark Age end and the current one begin?"

The New Modern Age

Marvel Files Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

While there are several defining moments that could signal the start of the current era of comics, I believe that the end of the speculator boom and the near crash of the industry, as highlighted by Marvel Comics' filing of chapter 11 bankruptcy, is the definitive starting point of the New Modern Age of comics.

Along with Marvel's restructuring came drastic changes in the way the industry did business, the rise of the comic book movie and an influx of new blood and ideas to the stagnant talent pool that had floundered throughout the 90's.

The Ultimate Universe

Another key moment that brought about this New Modern Age would be the launching of the Ultimate Universe from Marvel Comics. With the industry, and Marvel, in particular, at its lowest point, the Ultimate Universe seemed like another cheap cash-in attempt from the 90's, similar to Spider-Man: Chapter One or Heroes Reborn, and fans and media predicted its failure almost immediately. It would go on to reinvigorate comic book and trade sales and the industry, itself, and became a beacon of hope that lured back thousands of readers that had become disenfranchised over the years.

Why Do We Need A New "Age"?

Anyone that has read comics throughout the 80's, 90's and present day should be able to see that there's been a drastic shift in the way comics are written and that there was a clear and definitive change at or around the time the industry crashed back around 1994-1996.

Whether it was the wanton killing or replacing of older heroes with younger, darker and "cooler" versions, as seen with Kyle Rayner, Azrael, Scarlet Spider and a myriad of others, or the weekly attempts at "growing up" comics with random killings and resurrections followed by even more killings, comics during this Dark Age were clearly becoming a mere characiture of the ground breaking work of the 80's that they were trying to imitate.

In contrast, the New Modern Age of comics features a much more mature, if grown men running around in their underwear can be called mature, method of storytelling that, for better or worse, is dominated by the "writing for trade" and decompression methods. Futhermore, crutches from the past, such as thought bubbles and pointless exposition and explanations has become a thing of the past, allowing writers to flex their writing muscles with tighter character pieces.

It's still just a bunch of super heroes running around beating each other up, but I challenge anyone to tell me Captain America, Nova, Green Lantern, Immortal Iron Fist or dozens of other titles are not more mature books than their 80's and 90's counterparts.

Also note, the maturation of both the writing and art does not make them better comics. It just means these comics have grown up with the aging reading population and have adapted newer and more complicated writing techniques that mark a clear difference between this New Modern Age and the Dark Age.


Considering how serious comic fans take this sort of thing, I find it hard to believe that we've let the whole "Age" categorization model slip for so long. Does anyone else think that there is a need to distinguish between the, as I'm calling them, Dark Age and New Modern Age? It seems comic fans relied on things like pre- and post-Crisis conventions for distinguishing comics in the past, but is there really any need to distinguish between the late 80's and 90's? Should we be using conventions like pre- and post-Crash, in reference to the speculator boom and subsequent crash of the industry? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Eric said...

Great post/article, loved it. As for the name of the new age, I saw a suggestion for "Editorial Age" and found it amusing.

Hikerman said...

Thanks for clearing all this up for me. Ever since I started to read comics, I heard people talking about the Golden Age, and stuff like that, and I was completely confused. But thanks to you, that is all cleared up.

I like the the idea of this "New" Age. It is very interesting, and very true. Awesome work as usual!

Anonymous said...

I never was a fan of putting NEW in front of something because in a few years the NEW age isn't really new...

Salieri said...

A masterful analysis indeed, my friend. Considering the amount of traffic coming from the stars in a load of different stories of recent, I'd probably say that the new Modern Age that we're reading now could someday be classified as the "Space Age", or even the "Chrome Age".

Anonymous said...

Hey Kirk, great article. I wrote up one myself, if you don't mind. It's too long for this comment box, so I put it in my myspace journal.

Here's the link.

Rawnzilla said...

Perhaps the Chromium Age or Foil Age for the 90's?

Chris said...

Good post. I agree that the Modern Age has definetly ended.

Companies are making comics that are vastly different in substance and tone than even ten years ago.

The industry has moved forward and I think that it's important that we acknowledge that face.

The Dark Age sounds good to me.

HIpHopHead said...

This is the "Age of Apocalypse". The rapper Nas released an album called "Hip Hop is Dead" The comic book medium is dying. There are few of us to keep it alive, thus the significant increase in the cover price, which is similar to the movie industry. If we have fewer fans, then those fans will have to pay more to support the genre. This is a digital age. How long before we accept "downloading" comics?

Kirk Warren said...

@eric - Heh, I find the Editorial Age kind of ironic when you see how they've let some of the high profile talent have carte blanche to do whatever they want in a lot of their books to the point of retconning or ignoring events happening concurrently in other titles.

@hikerman -Wikipedia, where I got most of my cover images for the pictures in the article, has a lot of information on the various ages and the events that orccured in each. It's actually a pretty interesting read if you have time and each age has lists of the numerous books that defined those eras along with start and end dates and different choices for events that caused each shift.

@anonymous - Ya, I'm not a big fan of the "new" prefix either, but it's something that's been used a lot for many of the popular books of this age and I figured every new age will still be the Modern Age as viewed by the people of that time frame, so settled on the New Modern Age to distinguish that this is not the same Modern Age everyone else has been using for hte past 30+ years.

Another option I fooled aroudn iwth was the Ultimate Age to reference how important the Ultimate Universe was for bringing in new talent (Bendis broke out with it) and readers (Ultimate trades are huge and sparked the bookshelf / writing for trade format and moved comics into actual bookstores like Barnes and Nobles instead of comic shops).

@salieri - Thanks for the kind words.

I'm not sure about classifying an Age by certain popular stories, like the cosmic stories in Green Lantern or Nova, as they are still written similar to other standard super hero stories, like Captain America or All-Star Superman. It's simply the setting that changed, not the writing style.

Now, if there was a drastic shift where a large percentage of books became space or cosmic based / focused, then I'd consider it.

I'm hoping we see an Indy or Digital Age in teh future to signify either a shift in focus to more creator owned / indy books and diversification of the industry from super-heroes only (or 99% anyways) or a shift to digital distribution (not the crappy Marvel digital service though).

@anonymous 2 - Here's the link that's cut off for everyone else (anyone know how to alter the Blogger comment section to make it wider?)

Myspace blog link

@rawnzilla - Chromium Age fits with the history based naming scheme and could almost fit in as a new age in itself to signify the 90's taking the 80's Dark Age too far and the eventual crash.

@hiphophead - the comic medium isn't dying anymore. It was definitely close to it, but it's seen growth every year for the past several years and as long as Hollywood keeps mining the stories for new movies, it will continue to grow with more and more talent moving towards comics simply for the "movie proposal / written with movie in mind" route alla Kick-Ass, Wanted, 30 Days of Night (this one was actually rejected as a movie in prose form and redid as comic for proof of concept), etc.

Also, the fewer fans are not hte reason for the increase in comic prices. It's mostly inflation and increased quality of product (the paper, colouring, etc, not the actual stories and art).

Older comics were printed on newspaper quality pages with limited colour palletes. Today's are on higher paper stock, some have cardstock covers and most are the lamenated / glossy paper.

If we moved back to the older style, I bet we could drop a $1-$2 off the price of comics easily, but few are willing to try things like that. They could save the high quality stuff for hardcovers and trades, similar to how manga is on flimsy magazine weekly anthology paper in Japan and then collected in a higher stock collected version.

I'm not asking for black and white, but we could drop the quality of monthlies paper easily and still maintain great looking art and the same stories at a much cheaper price and leave the higher grade paper for the more expensive trades.

However, I'm in agreement with the digital revolution. We need an iComics alla iTunes. Marvel's version is horrible flashbased subscription model that fails in the easily accessible department. It also lacks any new content in favour of older stuff and leaves out the ends of most trades in hopes of getting people to buy the physical copy on top of hte subscription.

We should be getting digital copies for 99 cents that we download and view through a proprietary viewer or simple jpg format, but we own and can view at any time.

Add extras, alternate endings, "deleted scenes", etc to the trades and it can easily keep the trades desirable.

The monthlies could have similar features and even have codes in the issues that offer free downloads of back issues or new series or events referenced in the issue (liek the current Batman RIP storyline's Zur en Ahh Batman story could be a code that lets us download it for free and know wtf he's talking about).

One free code to Trinity #1 might be enough to get people hooked on that weekly they were afraid to try or have them picking up a new series.

Kevin D. said...

I feel that that the current "Modern Age" (80's until now) should be broken up into three distinct ages. 1.) Your previously mentioned "Dark Age"; 2.) "The Speculation Age"; & 3.) the current or "new" "Modern Age".

The "Speculation Age" obviously suggesting the rampant speculation of comic books in the 1990s and the resultant multiple covers, numerous and pointless #1 issues, "special" covers (i.e. hologram, foil, etc.). I'm open advice on the beginning of this age, but I'm going to throw out X-Men #1. I would put the end at the Marvel bankruptcy or thereabout.

Kirk Warren said...

@kevin d - I toyed with the idea of a Speculator Age, but, aside from the business practice for the covers, the stories and comics, themselves, are still just an extension of the Dark Age.

Take Spider-Man, for an example. He became dark and gritty with the whole, "I am Spider", story and trying to throw away his identity with all the hardships he'd faced and became more and more brutal, which lead to the decision for back to basics with Scarlet Spider replacing him.

Batman became more and more like the DKR version to the point of absurdity.

Dardevil donned armour and threw away the Murdock part of his life.

Yes, holofoil and variants were rampant, but the stories were still heavily influenced by the likes of Watchmen and DKR, but to the point of absurdity typically.

As there was such a blurred line between a possible Dark Age and Speculator Age, I couldn't really narrow down any particular point or event that sparked a new age that wouldn't be arbitrarily chosen. X-Men #1 did sell a bajillion copies, but it wasn't the first to do the multiple covers and definitely not the last and would be chosen simply because it ist he prime example of the times, not the start of it.

It's possible there could be another Age stuck in there, but it's too difficult for me to pinpoint even a vague start point for it, so I left it out for the time being.

Kevin D. said...

@ Kirk Warren - Good point. I was clouded by the cover gimmicks without paying too much attention to the actual story content. But, there were stories that were thrown out to the consumer just for the sake of having a new #1 on the stands in any given month and numerous "events" & "new costume" gimmicks not necessarily story driven, which were used to make a quick buck off of the consumer. These stories didn't necessarily tailor to DKR/Watchmen types, even though there may have been an attempt to make them so.

Examples include Reign of the Superman, Supes Blue/Red, Jean Paul Valley as Batman (although grim & gritty it was only really used to test out an armored Batman), Aquaman's harpoon, Force Works, 2099, Scarlet Spider & clone saga, etc.

Although the line is blurred, there is a good argument for a distinction, but that's not to say that there needs to be a distinction. Sorry, I'm an Attorney, I like to argue crap.

Kevin D. said...

Anyways. Interesting article, I never thought too much into the different "Ages" in comics until today.

Also, I bought some DVDs off of Amazon after using your store's link to Amazon a few weeks ago. Hopefully, you catch some change off of purchases, beyond what is in your store, if someone links to Amazon from your page.

Thok said...

I'd argue that we're in the "Metatextual Age", an age where part of the point of comics is a self-analysis. I'd consider putting the start of the age at 1997, when Morrison starts writing JLA (although this may be too early.)

Alternatively, call it the Crisis Age. Alternatively, the Sterling Silver Age, as a recognition of the attempts to connect back with the Silver Age while keeping the darkness of the Dark Age.

kilmoonie said...

A friend of mine (who is teaching an Adapting the Graphic Novel class) and I were just discussing this. And I have my own pet terms for these things.

Like "Kevin D.", I was initially tempted to break up the "Modern Age" into three ages, but after thinking about it, I settled on a definite two.

What I call it, only because it is the logical sequence after Bronze. Although, yes Dark Age is definitely apt (if cute) on a couple of levels. Obviously, the Dark Comics and the "Dark" times. Still, not everything in the age fits underneath those two headings, even if Dark Age definitely seems to be the winning term.

Regardless of name, I think it is definitely kicked off with Watchmen and Dark Knight. The Bronze age was building to these two things in many ways, and when it finally did, it opened up the new age. In no particular order:

*The obvious: Dark Comics! Spilling into every character there was. Spiked Daredevil as someone else said.
*Rise of Vigilantes. Four Punisher titles at some point?
*Even Vertigo's formation is an important part of this age. Dark/Adult stuff to use the term.
*Speculators (Multiple Covers, etc.)
*Completing the death of the newsstand.
*Image Comics and "big" publishers other than Marvel/DC.
*Stunts: Death of Supes, the "Darker" Batman in Azreal.
*Marvel's Horror comics peaked again: Ghost Rider had a FAMILY of titles
*Multiple Title Crossovers (all the X-Crossovers, all the Bat crossovers, Infinity this-and-that) and the rise of families of titles (X-Books, Bat books, Ghost Rider books above, etc.)
*Wolverine in everything (oh wait, that hasn't ended yet)
*Sin City even
*Sales Crash

All these things and more, really. And it ended right around 1999-2000. Marvel's Bankruptcy is a good point.

I kind of link the start of the new age to Joe Quesada's hiring as EIC of Marvel. Or thereabouts.

Is a term that Scot McCloud has bandied about because of the diversity in today's comics. And I like it, a lot.

*Blade came out in 1998, but when X-Men came out in 2000 was huge. The rise of the new comic films have been important. Comics have become cool. Nerds can be proud. Coupled with...
*Joe Quesada = EIC. Leading to...
*Hollywood !!! Kevin Smith, Straczynski, Bob Gale, etc. Here come all the fans out of the wood works to write comics. Usually late, but there anyway. Trend continues today with Authors, Screenwriters, TV showrunners, etc. all getting in on the game.
*The rise of Manga in the US!
*The rise of TPBs in book stores!
*The rise of the INTERNET! These effects can't even begin to be figured out yet...
*And yes, Mr. McCloud, The diversity! From small press, to black & white, to OGN to Manga, to Web Comics. To literary, to not-so literary. For girls, for boys, for everyone!

There is so much more. But I gotta jam. So I apologize in advance for a load of typos and errors...


Kirk Warren said...

@killmoonie - Ive heard of these college / university comic book courses before, but have never actually found any information on what they are about, exactly. Any chance you or your friend could expand on this course he is teaching? Id love to hear more about it.

Re the Ages, Iron Age is the logical next step in naming conventions, but I felt the Dark Ages name just fit with the time period better and told people exactly what that age was about just by reading it, similar to how people have, over time, associated the Golden and Silver Age with their respective story types.

Iron Age lacks that punch that tells people what it is about and doesnt outright have any meaning in relation to comics like it does in history.

One option would be to go with Iron Age and have Dark Age be a nickname or alternate naming for the period.

While the Diamond Age could be a naming convention for the current Age, I didnt want to name an age that had not finished (or we havent recognized a new, third, age starting yet), so just bumped the Modern Age up to cover the current one, as it will always be the Modern Age for the current age as viewed by the people reading the books.

To distinguish it from the former Modern Age, which most still view as the past 30 or so years, I simply added the New moniker to it set it apart. I feel naming an age that hasnt ended is premature and lacks the foresight to properly gauge when it began or ends and thats why I left it as is.

As for linking the new age to Joe Qs appointment as EiC at Marvel, I think that undersells Bill Jemas role in the restructuring of Marvel. While hes not the most popular person ever and was eventually ousted from Marvel, he was a key figure in bringing them back from bankruptcy and even brought Joe Q in to do the Marvel Knights line and was heading up the company during many other turning points at the start of the new age.

However, Joe Qs appointment as EiC is definitely a major event, for good or for naught, and one of the defining moments in the early years of this age.

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