Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chapter Two: The Silver Age

The comic book landscape of the mid-fifties looked bleak. The Wertham scourges had had the most deleterious effect on the medium but other factors also influenced the superheroes’ decline. Television, although still in its infancy, diverted significant attention away from comics. Children of the day were more interested in Superman’s show than they were in his comic; the drudgery that program imposed on the Superman canon affected all remaining titles similarly, furthering the decay of artistic and narrative quality. Sales figures from this period also suggest that readers were simply not interested in the exploits of the superheroes anymore. After a brief decline, Western and Science Fiction titles enjoyed a surge in readership and the few surviving publishers responded by focusing their energies towards those genres. The shift in focus from superhero to Science Fiction and from comics to television left the hero market nearly devoid of innovation– but not completely. During this otherwise depressing period readers were introduced to Krypto, the Superdog pal of Superboy, and Ace the Bat-Hound, “a generic looking dog who battled criminals wearing a black mask over his eyes, presumably to prevent thugs from recognizing him and striking at him through his loved ones.”[43] The two were only the first in a long line of superpets, but the novelty of costumed animals wasn’t strong enough to reverse the slump. Ironically, the redemption of superhero comics arose from an attempt to please science fiction fans and nostalgic adults.

The Silver Age of comics was born in DC’s Showcase#4 (Oct. 1956).[44] This particular issue introduced a strategy, and subsequently a character, that would form the cornerstone of DC’s efforts to resuscitate the dying genre. Despite superheroes waning popularity, Showcase#4 brought back the Flash, a Golden Age hero whose power was superspeed– but there was a twist. Instead of presenting the adventures of Jay Garrick, the original Flash, DC updated the character and gave him a new alter ego. In the new version, police scientist Barry Allen is reading a comic book containing the adventures of the old Flash when he is caught in a freak accident involving lightning and a cabinet full of chemicals. As a result, he acquires superhuman speed and, appropriately, takes as his moniker the name Flash. “Here, then, was a hero who seemed to bespeak a return to the Golden Age, but who also, with a streamlined style and science-fictional milieu, was purely of the new decade.”[45] The mere fact that an old character was revived and remolded suggests that by this point in comic history enough self-knowledge and nostalgia had developed around superheroes that an introspective creation like the new Flash could exist. Showcase#4 generated quite a bit of attention for DC and superheroes in general, but the time was still not quite right for them to make their comeback.

The launching of Sputnik in October 1957 seemed to spur what had been a mild interest in Science Fiction into a full-blown craze. The nation’s fascination with science and space was reflected in comics, not only in the titles devoted to Sci-Fi but in Superman’s and Batman’s books as well. The cancellation of the Superman television show in 1957, in combination with a concerted effort to inject Superman’s canon with a healthy dose of Sci-Fi, resulted in a revitalization of the character through creative expansion of his myth.[46] Over the following three years a number of new elements would be added to the Man of Steel’s world. In order to accomplish the revamping of comic’s first costumed hero, Superman’s editor, Mort Weisinger, hired Captain Marvel writer and Sci-Fi aficionado Otto Binder; under Binder’s influence Superman stories began to include such items as the City of Kandor and red kryptonite. The City of Kandor, first discovered in Action Comics #242, is actually a shrunken city of Krypton that escaped the planet’s destruction.[47] The existence of this miniaturized Kryptonian city, complete with Kryptonian citizens and lore, gave Superman the opportunity to escape the pressures of Earth and behave like an average person.[48] Another new element in the Superman canon that, rather than personalize the hero, molded him to the Sci-Fi craze of the period, was red kryptonite. A variation on Superman’s one weakness, red kryptonite could change a Kryptonian into anything from a fire-breathing dragon to two different people. All of these new features of Superman’s myth helped break the character away from the tired traditions of the Golden Age and presented writers with a host of new possible story lines. DC expanded the potential of the character by publishing Imaginary Stories, a title that allowed writers the freedom of altering the canon without permanent results.

The science fiction fad of the late fifties became a driving force in DC’s editorial policy. Aside from the influence seen in comics like Superman and Showcase, DC also released a handful of new titles, all of them devoted to space adventures and science fiction. Although these titles were successful, as was the editorial policy in regards to Superman and Flash, the Batman titles of the period suffered terribly. The shadowy, mysterious atmosphere of the Batman stories of the forties was replaced in the late fifties by an ill-suited air of Science Fiction. Under the influence of Sci-Fi, Batman underwent ridiculous mutations (e.g. the Bizarre Batman Genie), met alien enemies, participated in temporal and dimensional travel, and even acquired a “Bat family”. Besides Ace the Bat Hound, Batman was accompanied in his adventures by Bat-Woman (1956), Bat-Girl (1961) and, in an interesting twist, the Bat-Ape (1958).[49] While such additions may seem frivolous, they are significant to an extent; the development of variations on a heroic model by gender, age or species, while experimented with somewhat in the Golden Age, became a natural aspect of the genre throughout the following decade. Despite some innovations, the Science Fiction policy that worked so well and was so well received with Superman and Flash functioned as a detriment to the Batman character. By the end of this period in the hero’s development, he had been reduced to such exclamations as “Great Scott! Another bizarre creature with a fantastic weapon!”[50]

The return of the Flash and the changes in Superman revived the flagging interest in superhero titles and in 1959 the Flash was granted his own title. With the success of this revived character editor Julius Schwartz was prompted, in classic generic style, to repeat the formula in the hope that another revived hero would fare as well as the Scarlet Speedster. The character he chose was the Green Lantern, a Golden Age hero originally powered by a ring that could perform miracles; the ring itself acquired power from an ancient lantern. The new Green Lantern, premiering in Showcase#22 (Oct. 1959), was an intergalactic police officer and his ring this time was powered by a race of telepaths known as the Guardians of the Universe.[51] By attaching his origins to space, Green Lantern’s writers could fashion his adventures in the Sci-Fi mold of the day without creating the dissonance that such techniques evoked when applied to such earthly characters as Batman. As a result, Green Lantern represents not only the first successful crossover between the two genres but is also exemplary of the complete infusion of Sci-Fi themes into the comic industry at this point. The results of a poll published in Green Lantern#3 (Feb. 1961) revealed that Green Lantern’s popularity had eclipsed that of the Flash, Batman and Superman.[52]

By 1960, it seemed clear that the comeback of superheroes was underway. Julius Schwartz underlined this phenomenon by reviving one of the most popular titles of the Golden Age. The Justice League of America appeared in The Brave and the Bold#28 (Mar. 1960) as an incarnation of the Justice Society, the first, and similarly named, superteam. Although most of the members of the Justice League differed from the original, it was basically the same team and the writing chores were appropriately assigned to the man who had created and written The Justice Society of America, Gardner Fox. Along with the other revivals, the Justice League was a great success and was awarded its own title in December of that year. Interestingly, nostalgic readers of the original comic, not children, comprised the JLA’s main readership; proof of this came in a flood of letters to Fox and Schwartz, praising the return of the greatest team-up yet known.[53] A year after the reappearance of the Justice League, Schwartz assigned Fox to revive yet another of his own creations; this time it was Hawkman, who, in his new guise, was a police officer from the planet Thanagar visiting earth to observe police techniques. Hawkman was differentiated from the other, Science Fiction oriented, Golden Age revivals by his wife and equal partner in crime fighting, Hawkgirl. The premiere of this couple in The Brave and the Bold#34 (Mar. 1961) marked the first appearance of married superheroes. Despite this innovation, as well as popular support from older readers, Hawkman and Hawkgirl failed to capture the imaginations of the younger readers who represented the great majority of DC’s sales base; they were canceled after three issues.[54]

Six months after the debut of Hawkman, DC published a comic that would alter the perception of the new pantheon of heroes completely. In Flash#123 (Sept. 1961), Barry Allen accidentally stumbles into another world, a world which is parallel to ours but which “vibrates at a different speed”. On this second earth, Allen encounters Jay Garrick, the original Flash. It is explained that the most significant difference between the two Earths is the year in which costumed heroes first appeared; to this end, Garrick is older and graying about the temples, although still crimefighting.[55] In this one story, DC effectively restored the existence of all their old heroes; by inventing the Earth-1/Earth-2 theory, the company acknowledged the old heroes and created the possibility of their return.

In the summer of 1961, DC was riding the new wave for all it was worth. Not only were the new heroes successful, but DC had no competition in the genre whatsoever; most of the remaining publishing houses were still milking the Sci-Fi fad and printing some Romance and Monster titles on the side. The return of the heroes did not go unnoticed, however.

During a golf match between DC publisher Jack Liebowitz and Timely Publishing owner Martin Goodman, the success of Liebowitz’s Justice League was discussed. Evidently Goodman, whose company published a few floundering Monster and Romance titles, was intrigued by the comeback of costumed heroes and assigned the head writer and editor of his comics line, Stan Lee, to imitate the JLA and create a superteam of their own. The result came in November that fall when Fantastic Four#1 hit the newsstands. At first glance this comic did not seem extraordinary. Visually, the book was substandard, suffering from rushed drawing, poor inking, and coloring that was muddled by the overuse of grays. The material itself seemed like a rehashing of old formulas; superhero teams were certainly not a new concept. The team was lead by Richard Reed, a character whose superpower, stretchability, had already been ascribed to two other heroes, the Golden Age Elongated Man, and the very recent Plastic Man. Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, resembled any one of the myriad of monsters populating comics of the day and the Human Torch seemed like a revived, albeit human, version of Timely’s Golden Age android of the same name.[56]

There was, however, something very unique about these characters. Unlike most costumed heroes, the Fantastic Four had no desire nor need to live under alter egos and initially appeared in their street clothes; rather than alienating the readers, these techniques actually humanized the characters. This humanization was achieved in other ways, as well. Previously, heroes had been good natured and friendly people, especially when they appeared in superteams where cooperation and camaraderie were the two most important qualities one could have. The Fantastic Four challenged that convention by portraying a team in which group harmony was seldom, if ever achieved; bickering constantly erupted between the adolescent Torch and the horribly disfigured Thing. In fact, in the character of the Thing, Lee explores for the first time in comics what effect superpowers could have on a person.

Until 1961, no comic writer would have suggested that acquiring strange powers might drive a wedge between a man and his society, bringing him more misery than contentment. But...the Thing had paid for his powers with an unalterably monstrous appearance; his enormous strength could not console him for the loss of his humanity. Resenting the world as strongly as he felt bound to protect it, he had to struggle as fiercely against his own bitterness and self-pity as against any villain.[57]

The attempt to show the less romantic side of superheroism was to be the first example of real characterization in comics and the greatest contribution of Lee and Marvel Comics to the genre.[58]

The new approach Lee took in regard to the actual crafting of his books was less significant than his characterization, but innovative nonetheless. Generally, a writer would submit a finished script to the penciler, who would then draw the comic accordingly. In Lee’s method, he and his penciler, Jack Kirby, would plan the plot together and only when the entire story had been conceived would Kirby then draw the action; when the entire comic had been drawn, Lee would write in the dialogue and captions. Not only did this new strategy free Lee from the usually onerous task of preplotting, allowing him to explore his characterization more fully, but it also took advantage of the interplay between text and image; never before had the verbal and visual components of the comics been so artfully utilized.[59]

The response to Fantastic Four was, if not overwhelming, very enthusiastic. Lee’s new approach to costumed heroes seemed to attract the attention of some older readers and, most importantly, adolescents. Bored with a DC style they felt was childish and cliché, teenagers began writing unsolicited letters of support to Lee. The letters pages of comics were a convention introduced by Mort Weisinger in 1958 with his Superman titles.[60] Up until this point, DC’s letter pages had not been used nor taken very seriously. Lee, on the other hand, quickly instituted a letters page that was both intimate (Dear Stan and Jack began all the letters) and responsive. By issue number four, Lee and Kirby had bent to the desires of their fans; the Four now had skintight costumes and a “scientific” headquarters. In addition, issue four saw the return of Prince Namor of Atlantis, otherwise known as the Sub-Mariner. His appearance is especially important because Namor was not a reinterpretation of the original character– he was the same Golden Age seafarer whose ambiguous morality and questionable motives had awarded him the distinction of being the comics’ first anti-hero.[61]

As defined by Jacobs, the comics’ anti-hero was “a character unaware of his heroic role, not caring much for human society, but nonetheless sympathetic to the reader.”[62] Lee and Kirby, heartened by the success of the Fantastic Four and Prince Namor, decided to introduce yet another antihero to their comics line. In May, 1962, The Hulk, a green skinned, dim-witted rampaging monster, debuted. Here was yet another scientist, mild-mannered Bruce Banner, who was afflicted with superpowers as a result of an accident in the lab. The Hulk was set apart from all the others by powers that dulled his mind and filled it with constant thoughts of destruction.[63] Although The Hulk looked even deeper into the chasm that physical superiority creates between “hero and humanity”, the character was handled unwisely and sales of the title remained mediocre.[64] It is important to note that the seeds of the following decades lie here in Marvel’s first titles, despite their poor production quality, overwrought scripts and shabby art. Whereas the Golden Age heroes, as well as DC’s Silver Age lines, depicted characters who were of noble virtue and unquestionable morals, the new Marvel approach humanized the characters and, consequently, began a demythification process; no longer would heroes be as unapproachable ideologically as gods, at least in the Marvel titles. DC, on the other hand, shunned this new characterization and continued to focus its energy on tight scripting, concise art and solid storytelling.

Between 1962 and 1963, Marvel Comics released eleven new titles, all of them introducing some new character type or approach. With the teenaged character Spiderman, Marvel not only strengthened its adolescent fan base, but also continued its foray into the realm of the reluctant hero. In his origin story, Peter Parker is a nerdy science student who gains superpowers from the bite of a radioactive spider. Instead of pledging himself to battling evil everywhere, as some heroes were prone to do, he decides instead to use his powers to gain wealth and fame. Waiting for his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Spidey watches as a thug runs by and flippantly refuses to help the pursuing guard; when Peter’s Uncle Ben is later killed by that same thug, Spiderman finally understands the responsibility that comes with his powers and assumes them reluctantly.[65] Spiderman spends his first eight issues grappling with his dilemma; not only does he battle his own ambivalence, a fight that would continue for many years, but he also acts “unheroically” when he beats up citizens who “look” suspicious and considers joining the side of evil, embodied in Dr. Doom. Even the supporting characters of Spiderman act in a manner at that point unknown. J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the newspaper for whom Peter Parker works as a photographer, is most likely the first comic character to be opposed to superheroes he sees as lawbreaking vigilantes. All of these factors, including the fact that Spidey was the first real teenaged hero who wasn’t a sidekick, solidified Spiderman’s popularity among Marvel fans.

Marvel finished off the year 1962 with a new character who was more than a hero– he was a god. When lame physician Don Blake finds and handles Mjolinir, Thor, the son of Odin and thunder god of Norse myth, is reincarnated.[66] The concept of a god-hero was certainly new to comics, but Lee and Kirby may have bitten of more than they could chew. Thor was an intriguing character but his godliness, the most unique aspect of his persona, was relatively unexplored and mishandled in the first few years of publication.[67] These drawbacks would have doomed a title any other time but in those “hero-hungry” days, Thor sold moderately well.

Although the new success of superheroes encouraged the return of publishers like Charlton, Dell, Harvey and the Mighty Comics Group, all the great developments of the Silver Age were products of the Big Two. By 1963, the Silver Age battle between DC and Marvel was fully engaged. DC’s strategy for the early part of the decade was comprised mainly of further investigations into the possibilities created by its multiple Earths theory. One of the more popular results of this formula was the yearly team up, beginning in 1963, of the Justice League and a revived Justice Society. DC also appeased older fans by releasing, for a short time, new adventures from Golden Age favorites. Conversely, Marvel boasted a limited stable of heroes and had only recently solidified their “flawed character” formula; Stan Lee compensated for Marvel’s late start in the industry by launching a marketing campaign based on self-aggrandizement and fan participation.

Nineteen sixty-three also saw Marvel introduce a host of new characters afflicted with a variety of handicaps.[68] In Tales of Suspense#39(Mar. 1963), munitions dealer Tony Stark visits Vietnam to observe his products in action. Besides presenting the earliest portrayal of the conflict in Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin incident hadn’t even occurred yet) this issue also shows Stark critically wounded by a land mine. All that saves him is an iron body suit that sustains his weakened heart and gives him superstrength; ironically, Stark needs the suit to survive and is confined in it forever. Iron Man is a hero that is not only flawed, but also crippled.[69] The formula was applied again shortly after with Daredevil. Matt Murdock is a costumed adventurer that takes to the rooftops at night and battles criminals with one interesting handicap; he’s blind. The innovative quality of characters such as Iron Man and Daredevil lies less in their handicap and more in the treatment of that handicap. Crippled heroes were not a new concept. For example, the original Daredevil was mute, and the blind Dr. Midnight overcame his weakness with the help of infrared goggles.[70] However, the handicaps of Golden Age heroes were merely gimmicks used by their writers to differentiate them from other heroes; only in the Marvel titles were those physical obstacles presented as the central aspect of the character.

Single character titles weren’t the only new creations of 1963. Marvel joined the “superteam” market with their version of the Justice League, The Avengers (Sep. 1963), a standard teaming up of familiar heroes.[71] Undoubtedly more intriguing were DC’s and Marvel’s parallel attempts to innovate the superhero team itself. In a strange coincidence that most agree cannot be ascribed to plagiarism, both DC and Marvel, within three months of one another, introduced new hero teams that were strikingly similar. DC’s Doom Patrol, labeled “The World’s Strangest Superheroes”, was comprised of heroes who, as a result of various accidents, were freakish in appearance and power; they were led by a wheelchair bound genius named the Chief. Marvel’s X-Men, “The Strangest Superheroes of All”, were a group of young adventurers who, as a result of genetic abnormality, were superpowered mutants; they were led by a wheelchair bound psychic genius named Professor X.[72] The nominal similarities between these two titles was heightened when, in the same month, DC and Marvel introduced their teams’ arch foes, The Brotherhood of Evil and The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, respectively.[73] These two titles are useful in comparing the different approaches to comics by the two most powerful companies in the medium. DC’s Doom Patrol represented a departure from the norm, taking the company deeper into the realm of the alienated hero than ever before; however, the focus was still more squarely centered on presentation and polish. Marvel’s approach emphasized characterization and the interplay between team members, to the detriment of art, writing, and, in this case, theme; the alienation of the mutant X-Men from a fearful society is not examined in much depth until the mid-seventies.

Taking cues from DC’s success with revived heroes, Marvel revived Timely’s Captain America in the spring of 1964. Like Namor, Steve Rogers was the original character, but unlike the Atlantean, he was human. This created a challenge for Stan Lee: how to revive an aged hero and incorporate him into the slowly growing universe of Marvel Comics. The answer was found in an ice block. Frozen for twenty years, Captain America is revived by the Avengers in the same state in which he was trapped.[74] The return of the hero was obviously a DC inspired nod to Golden Age fans but the fashion in which Lee accomplished the revival was exemplary of the growing effort to construct one unified Marvel “universe”. Whereas DC characters were separated by different “Earths” and countless centuries, the Marvel characters all existed in the same place, often the same city, New York. Marvel characters frequently crossed over to other characters’ titles; the result of these crossovers, regardless of their participants, was often a battle.[75]

DC had their share of innovation in 1964, especially in the Aquaman stories. The first wedding between heroes bound Aquaman to his bride, Mera; shortly afterwards Mera’s delivery of Aquababy became comics’ first birth.[76] The Batman titles of that year finally broke out of the dying Sci-Fi mold and returned the Dark Knight to his pugilist detective mode for what proved to be a short time. Perhaps the most interesting new DC concept of nineteen sixty-four was the new supergroup The Teen Titans; the team consisted only of sidekicks, including Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl.[77] Despite these fresh contributions to the genre, DC was still hampered by an editorial policy that forbade any story from running over one issue. The restriction limited the writer’s and artist’s ability to convey character and depth in their plots. Marvel followed this policy as well, until The Hulk (in Tales to Astonish) broke the standard and ushered in a new style. Each Hulk adventure would end with another cliffhanger, whetting the appetite of the readers in the fashion of old movie serials. Initially not all Marvel titles would incorporate this technique but as continuity became more important to fans, so did the continuing storyline.[78]

The role of fans in the development of the genre cannot be overlooked. Ever since the first letters page in 1958, comic fans have had the opportunity to criticize, compliment and, ultimately, shape their favorite titles. While DC’s readership was usually more interested in nit picking about continuity and art flaws, Lee built an intimate and fiercely loyal following. Marvel letters were loaded with inside references and character nicknames (“Webhead”: Spidey, “Stretcho”: Richard Reed) that solidified the fan base and lent credit to reader’s voices. Marvel acknowledged the importance of their fans in 1965 when Roy Thomas, a loyal and long-time comic reader and letter writer, was hired as their second writer.[79] The implications of Thomas’ employment are greater when examined in combination with the publication Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. Published that same year, Feiffer’s book was the first thorough history of Golden Age comic books. The occurrence of these two events indicates the institutionalization of superhero comics; the art form was now old enough to be historically critiqued and directed by its own students. Marvel acknowledged this self-awareness in The Fantastic Four’s Third Giant Sized Annual (1965). In this issue the wedding of Sue and Richard Reed attracted a gathering of forty-two of Marvel’s heroes and villains; the event was billed as “The world’s most colossal collection of costumed characters, crazily cavorting and capering in continual combat.”[80]

During the sixties superhero comics continually received attention, especially in the popular media. The Batman television show premiered in 1966 and was an instant hit. Batman wasn’t the first superhero to make the crossover into television, but the show’s impact was astounding. Comic book characters became the focus of “magazine articles, the stars of Saturday morning cartoons, and a fixture of Wednesday and Thursday night television.” Comic sales skyrocketed not only for DC and Marvel but also for all the companies. The self-parodying, exaggerated humor of the show had its effect on the face of comics and a new style known as “camp” began.[81] Besides the changes in the Batman titles themselves, the first recognized result of the camp phase came with the introduction of Metamorpho, the Element Man; the character’s writers purposefully injected his adventures with corny dialogue and “tongue-in-cheek grotesqueness”. Element Man was followed by the “Inferior Five”, a more blatantly self-parodying superhero team that included such members as Awkwardman and Dumb Bunny.[82]

The camp phase would not really affect Marvel’s comics, as they chugged ahead on the steady course set by Lee. There would be little innovation for the company in the latter part of the decade, with one notable exception. During a Fantastic Four saga involving the Inhumans in 1966, comics were introduced to their first black superhero, Black Panther.[83] This seemingly innocuous innovation was actually a revolution of sorts; the curious and almost absolute absence of African-Americans in comic book America is noted by comic book scholar William Savage: “...there seemed to be no Blacks in comic-book America: no Black heroes, super or otherwise; no Black citizens living in Gotham or Metropolis; no Blacks out west; no blacks anywhere in the United States...”[84] The creation of Black Panther began to correct this failing; more heroes of color would follow and Black Panther himself would later go on to become a member of the Avengers.[85] The only other major contribution from Marvel Comics during the end of the decade would come from artist Jim Steranko. Steranko’s approaches to layouts were the first to take in the whole page. His art, which first appeared in Marvel comics in the mid-sixties, would pave the way for more exciting experimentation in the use of panels and whole pages to convey greater meaning.[86]

Although DC Comics was fully submerged in the camp craze for most of 1967, they somehow managed to create “the grittiest costumed hero yet conceived.” The story of acrobat Boston Brand appeared in Strange Adventures#205 (Oct. 1967). Brand is murdered in the first issue but his soul lives on; he is granted the power of possession and his adventures center on the mystery surrounding his death. The “highly realistic” manner in which Deadman’s material was presented made the title especially unique. Aside from the hero himself, there were no aliens, mutants or superpowered beings in Deadman’s world. Instead his adventures were populated with such real people as drug dealers, immigrant smugglers and various other criminals. Deadman was further detached from normal superheroes in his motives. Most superheroes were pledged to defeat crime and protect society, regardless of their enthusiasm. This hero, on the other hand, was dedicated solely to vengeance, a more morbid yet realistic calling. The mature nature of the work was complimented by the art of Neal Adams, whose detailed penciling helped Deadman gain the moniker “the first truly adult comic book in the costumed hero genre.”[87]

The cancellation of the Batman show in 1968 augured the end of the prosperous Silver Age. The overall sales of comics dropped for the first time since the fifties, despite a few desperate innovations on the part of DC and Marvel to reinvigorate the genre. In 1968, DC killed its Doom Patrol, presenting the first death of a hero (Deadman was never actually “dead”).[88] Marvel inaugurated a few new concepts as well, including the first villain to have is own comic (Dr. Doom) and the first Asian superhero (Sunfire), but neither helped flagging sales.[89]

The woes of the comic industry in the late sixties were the result of a myriad of factors. Marvel and DC had both increased the price of their comics from twelve to fifteen cents, moving them slightly farther out of the reach of some children. Both companies suffered from weaknesses in their respective editorial policies; while DC struggled to make up for their lack of characterization, Marvel fell into a malaise initiated by their phenomenal success. Marvel’s problem can be traced to the moment Marvel surpassed DC’s sales in 1967. After this point Marvel rested its laurels on the strongest innovation it had brought to comics– characterization. Where once their approach had been unique, they now fell into cliché:

[Marvel’s] characters had to be either [sic] hotheaded, alienated, bitter, frivolous, hard as nails (if female), or slow and genial. Between any two heroes, a conflict had to be contrived where there had formerly been no reason for one to exist...character nuance was achieved through forced thought bubbles or overwrought captions.[90]

DC’s problems were aggravated by an organized breakdown of their editorial stable system. Before the reshuffling, artists and writers were set in editorial teams; the reorganization resulted in irregular and ill matched pairings that produced disastrous results.[91]

Perhaps the most damaging development of the late sixties in the sales of superhero comics was the rise of alternative, independent comics and direct market sales. Before 1969, one could only purchase comics in pharmacies or on newsstands. The efforts of a few determined fans encouraged comic publishers to sell comics directly to small, fan-owned stores, cutting out the distributor. The introduction of these shops had a revolutionary effect on comics. Most locations that had previously carried comics usually stocked the most popular DC and Marvel titles. Occasionally titles from the smaller companies appeared but many newsstand owners were unwilling to risk shelf space with products that might not sell. With the introduction of direct market sales, not only did the smaller companies have an outlet for their titles but the experimental and psychedelic comics of such artists as R. Crumb and Denis Kitchen did also. Many of these “underground comix”, as they were known, did not comply with the Comics Code and often contained explicit sexual and drug related references that were intended only for adults. The “comix” were the first American comics directed specifically at older audiences and the effects were deleterious to superhero titles.[92] One of the more immediate effects the independent comics had on the Big Two was the luring away of their most promising craftsmen. Artists and writers had no ownership rights at either of the two giants. Ownership of one’s creations proved to be an attractive proposition and a wave of DC’s old guard left in a battle over privileges.[93]

As a result of the serious decline in superhero sales, most companies began exploring other genres, as they had in the fifties. DC reduced its overall number of titles and a few companies folded altogether. Marvel canceled The X-Men in 1970 and began a long, fruitless battle to reinvigorate their other titles. According to some comic scholars, 1970 marked the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of a Dark Age of comics. In the words of Will Jacobs:

Gone were the ingeniously plotted short stories, the unified editorial visions, the colorful and decorative art, and most of all the sense of fun[94]...Thus from 1970 to 1973, the doors were thrown open to vigilantes and barbarians, gods and jungle lords, monsters and pulp heroes, every stripe of hero and antihero, both original and adapted, in a mad scramble to find something that would keep comics alive.[95]

One outcome of this “mad scramble” was DC’s experiment with social relevance. Comics were tied to social realities of the time beginning in Green Lantern/Green Arrow#76 (May, 1970). In this issue the intergalactic Green Lantern is confronted by an elderly African-American man with the accusation that he had helped various alien races of different skin tones but never once had he helped any Black people. This acknowledgement of the general failing of comics to deal with such everyday topics as racism led the title to explore a variety of such concerns over the course of its fourteen issue run. In each episode, a different contemporary topic was explored; the two sides were represented by the conservative Lantern and the radical Arrow. The success of the philosophical move spurred Marvel to alter their Captain America. Not only does he take on a Black partner, the Falcon, but in a conspiracy story reminiscent of Watergate, Captain America also loses his faith and retires.[96]

Marvel also applied “relevance” to Spiderman with more interesting results. In Spiderman#95-#97 the topic of drug abuse is discussed and portrayed. Those issues broke the rules of the Comic Code and were the first from the major companies to run without the Code’s approval since its inception in 1954. Realizing that some of its regulations were outdated, the CCA loosened its restrictions to “allow more freedom to the industry.” Among the changes to the Code, the injunctions against “walking dead, ...vampires and vampirism, ghouls,... and werewolfism” were lifted.[97] By 1972 the relevance fad had begun to wane but its effects were lasting. Not only did they result in a relaxation of the Comics Code, but more power was granted to writers and artists, further broadening characterization and directing comics into a more somber, serious direction.

On the part of DC the more adult approach took form in the Batman titles. Finally free of the camp and Sci-Fi trappings, Deadman artist Neal Adams returned the character to his psychotic, night stalking origins. Robin is sent away to college and the detective and vigilante aspects of the hero are highlighted more than ever before.[98] Unfortunately, the book suffered from the same decline in quality of writing, art, cover design, coloring, packaging, and printing that plagued the rest of the comic industry during the seventies.

The only exception to the general blandness that besieged comics was the introduction in 1975 of a new Marvel superteam. Reviving the five years defunct X-Men, Marvel introduced a new team led by Professor X. In Giant Sized X-Men#1 (Summer 1975), Professor X recruits a new group of mutants to save the old team; most of the old members leave by the end of the issue. The persecution the new X-Men suffered as a result of their otherness set them apart from standard heroes. This “otherness”, embodied in their mutantism and foreignness of birth, was the comics’ way of addressing the more sensitive issue of racism. In a variation on a standard comic theme, the new X-Men rarely go fight crime– they are usually the object of an attack themselves. In addition, writer Chris Claremont’s female characters are unapologetically stronger than his males, another first in comics. Aside from these strengths, the new X-Men fared so well because it was not subject to the constant mix-up of artist/ writer teams that afflicted so many other titles.[99] The new X-Men continued to be one of the only bright lights of the late seventies and its success would eventually help to bring superhero comics out of their slump.

As the decade dragged on, the downward spiral in which hero titles had been caught became more severe. In an attempt to boost sales, Marvel and DC flooded the market with a slew of new titles from a range of genres. Between 1975 and 1978 the Big Two turned out at least eighty-five new comic titles in addition to at least fifteen reprints and magazine format titles (one hundred combined) in varying genres: Costumed Hero, Science Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Kung Fu, War, Horror, Humor, movie and T.V. tie ins. Of all one hundred, more than half were canceled within the first ten issues, over two thirds within fifteen issues and only seven survived until 1985.[100] The two companies felt that by saturating the readers with new titles, lagging sales could be reversed. The strategy backfired mainly because the books were ill conceived, poorly realized and rushed; creators rarely stayed on their creations and good writers were rarely paired with good artists and vice versa. Realizing that drastic measures had to be taken, both DC and Marvel hired new personnel for their front offices. DC hired Jenette Kahn as publisher in 1976 and Marvel brought on new editor-in-chief Jim Shooter in 1978.[101]

When Shooter and Kahn took the respective helms of the two biggest companies in the comic industry, the superhero genre was over forty years old. Ever since its birth in Action Comics #1, the genre has continued to grow and change, constantly refining its vocabulary of characters, scenarios, locales, et cetera. Superhero characters were initially borrowed from other media, such as film and radio. They displayed a one-dimensional perception of the world around them most evident in their black-and-white morality. Heroes could be men or women but the heroines were always subservient to their male counterparts; heroine comics were also the site of veiled sexuality. All heroes had secret origins and alter egos to protect their identity from their enemies. Many characters operated in teams or with sidekicks and sometimes the sidekicks themselves were the heroes. The first superheroes possessed a wide array of powers that set them apart from other humans.

These basic units continued to evolve undisturbed until the early nineteen fifties when they were interrupted by the investigations of Frederic Wertham and the House Committee on UnAmerican activities. The self-imposed Comic Code restricted the industry’s creative possibilities and many companies went out of business. The companies that survived turned to other genres but all titles suffered from poor sales.

The Silver Age of comics ushered in many changes to the status quo of the genre. Older characters were revived and reinterpreted while others were molded to the space and Science Fiction crazes of the time. Stan Lee reinvigorated the archetypical hero by instituting a second level of characterization. His two dimensional heroes were able to act more like real humans; some even began perceiving their powers as a nuisance. The allegiances of the characters were more difficult to decipher because their moral schema were clouded with ambiguity by heightened humanity. The world of the heroes was practically devoid of persons of color until 1967 when Black Panther began adventuring. Women evolved in this period and became more independent and freethinking. Some heroes got married; others had children. In the late sixties and early seventies, heroes were written for adult audiences and contemporary issues were finally discussed with candor.

The dimensions of the comic books had remained constant but their content had become more sophisticated. The quality of both writing and art had been raised from the rudimentary level established in the Golden Age. Although full panel layouts were experimented with, many creators chose to relay their narratives in standard three row by three column structure.

Shooter and Kahn both assumed their responsibilities in the late seventies, a period in which “mainstream comics reached their nadir.”[102] Unskilled writing, sloppy art, and poor printing processes all contributed to their downfall. Inflation increased prices and continued to drive comics out of the range of young children.[103] The early 1980’s brought reform in the area of artist/writer benefits, including royalties; creator rights helped retain talent at the big companies but direct ownership was still not offered, as it was by the new independent companies. Unlike the “underground comix” of the late sixties, these new independent companies were reaching a larger and continually growing audience, a result of developed direct market procedures.[104] By the end of the seventies, the economic crises of comic publishing companies began to reach critical proportions. If comics, and especially superhero comics, were to survive into the next decade, publishers would have to effect drastic and radical changes in the form and content of both the medium and the genre.

43 Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc, 1985) p. 31.

[44] Showcase was a title that featured new concepts in one-issue appearances.

[45] Jacobs and Jones, p. 5.

[46] Ibid., p. 22.

[47] Jacobs and Jones. This is also the issue in which Superman fights his first extraterrestrial foe, Braniac.

48 Ibid. The individualization of Superman was bolstered in that same issue by the introduction of the Fortress of Solitude, an Antarctic retreat where Kal-El (Superman’s given name) could relax and be himself.

[49] Jacobs and Jones, p. 30

[50] Ibid. from Detective Comics #287 (Jan. 1960), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 38.

[51] McCue, p. 38.

[52] Jacobs and Jones, p. 41.

[53] Ibid., p. 42

[54] McCue, p. 39. Hawkman was given another, equally abortive, shot a year later. It was not until 1963, in his third attempt, did the character catch on.

[55] McCue, p. 39.

[56] McCue, p.41.

[57] Jacobs and Jones, p. 50.

[58] Timely would change its name to Marvel in 1962.

[59] McCue, p.42.

[60] Jacobs and Jones, p. 25.

[61] Jacobs and Jones, p. 52.

[62] Ibid., p. 95.

[63] McCue, p. 44.

[64] Jacobs and Jones, p. 54. In three of the Hulk’s first six issues he was pitted against Communist stereotypes.

[65] Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 (1962), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 62.

[66] Jacobs and Jones, p. 88, Mjolinir is Thor’s hammer.

[67] Jacobs and Jones, p. 88.

[68] Ibid., p. 70.

[69] Ibid., p. 89.

[70] Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 89.

[71] Jacobs and Jones, p. 108.

[72] Ibid., p. 100.

[73] Jacobs and Jones, p. 109.

[74] Ibid., p. 94.

[75] Ibid., p. 107.

[76] Jacobs and Jones, p. 100.

[77] Ibid., p. 105.

[78] Ibid., p. 95.

[79] Ibid., p. 72. Up until that point Lee wrote everything himself.

[80] Jacobs and Jones, p. 113.

[81] Ibid., p. 115.

[82] Ibid., p. 105.

[83] Fantastic Four 52 (1966), in Jacobs and Jones, p. 124.

[84] Savage, p. 75.

[85] Milestone Comics, a subsidiary of DC, is a new company dedicated to the publication of adventures centered on superheroes of color.

[86] Jacobs and Jones, p. 145. Comic scholar, writer and artist Will Eisner used full-page layouts but not in panel style.

[87] McCue, p. 50.

[88] Jacobs and Jones, p. 105.

[89] Joseph Tirella, ‘Toon Black, Toon Strong.’ Vibe Magazine n.d., p. 102.

[90] Jacobs and Jones, p. 209.

[91] Ibid., p. 153

[92] Gary Groth and Robert Fiore, eds. The New Comics. (New York: Berkley Books, 1988). p. 5.

[93] Jacobs and Jones, p. 151.

[94] Ibid., p. 154.

[95] Ibid., p. 168.

[96] Jacobs and Jones, p. 157. His retirement as Captain America is temporary.

[97] Ibid., p.161,198 . Torture and cannibalism were still taboo.

[98] Ibid., p. 169.

[99] Jacobs and Jones, p. 248. Artist John Byrne replaces Dave Cockrum from 1977 -81.

[100] Jacobs and Jones, p. 242.

[101] Ibid., p. 244. Shooter had begun his association with Marvel as a writer when he was thirteen years old.

[102] Jacobs and Jones, p. 248.

[103] Ibid., p. 248.

[104] Jacobs and Jones, p. 261.

3 comments:

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who talks about the new collection of his comic strips from the Village Voice, Explainers, getting his start with Will Eisner on The Spirit, his plays (Little Murders), his movies (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye), the Disney musical adaptation of The Man in the Ceiling, and his forthcoming memoirs.

Ankit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ankit said...

While describing Golden Age, you should have also mentioned the contribution of Lee Falk (through Phantom and Mandrake). Mandrake, introduced in 1934, also had an African character Lothar. This is much before Black Panther's introduction. While talking about post-WWII phenomena of surge of science fiction heroes, Flash Gordon should have got an explicit mention.