Saturday, July 17, 2010

What's So Great About the Bronze Age?

Doug: Today's discussion is a request for testimonials from our visitors as to why you love this period we call the Bronze Age. Now if you're just stopping by and aren't sure exactly what the parameters are, most folks generally say that the Bronze Age started about the time Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics to start his employment at the Distinguished Competition (otherwise known as DC Comics). This would have been around the time Fantastic Four #102 was completed (summer 1970 -- I've posted the cover to FF #101, which was Jack's last cover on the title), although some would argue that Jack had really quit putting out for Marvel before that. At any rate, it's a bit tougher to pin down the end of the era, but I tend to focus on the release of The Dark Knight Returns (March 1986), the first "prestige format" series released by DC. I think you can also zero in on that title as the beginning of the rise of the anti-hero, as more violence and adult themes began to creep into comics and the envelope was pushed concerning what had formerly been taboo in the mainstream (sex, blood, etc.) and what was now not only becoming acceptable, but proliferating. Some comics enthusiasts place the end of the Bronze Age a bit earlier with the advent of the direct market for distribution and the rise of comic book specialty stores.

Doug: One of the elements of the Bronze Age that many people love is the return of the "split book", where the buyer got two stories for the price of one. Some argue that since the stories were shorter, running only 10-12 pages apiece, that good stories were harder to tell and those books suffered because of that. For others, it was more bang for the buck in terms of seeing more characters. As those titles tended to be homes for B-listers, many liked the opportunity to expand characterization for "people" who might normally be lost in the shuffle of a group book, etc. Those books often became showcases for new talent as well.

Doug: And speaking of new talent, the Bronze Age was a veritable explosion of young vibrant minds. As many of the creators of the Silver Age had been holdovers from the Golden Age, there tended to be somewhat of a status quo (particularly at DC, where stories and characters often didn't differ much month-to-month). But as the 1970's approached, many fans-turned-creators jumped into the market and reinvigorated it with new characters, different directions for established characters, and the opportunity for the Big Two to expand what they offered in that battle for shelf space.

Doug: Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't point to a few major events that have become hallmarks of the period -- the death of Gwen Stacy in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #121, and the introduction of the All-New, All-Different X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1. The former was groundbreaking, as it was the first significant death in the Marvel Universe (at least affecting a major character; some could argue that another of Marvel's leading men lost a love when the Lady Dorma was lost to Namor the Sub-Mariner) and changed the status quo temendously for Spider-Man. The latter, of course, was responsible for the X-plosion that would dominate the market well into the 1990's and to the present.

Doug: So, what are your favorite memories? What did you think was particularly innovative? Which characters that were introduced were favorites, whether they lasted long or not? What trends did you see that were influential? How about all of those cool new things like Treasury Editions, the Pocket Books reprints, and Megos? Leave a comment below, and thanks in advance for your consideration.


Steve Does Comics said...

It's odd but, regardless of accepted wisdom, I always see the Bronze Age as happening between 1968, when Marvel broke away from its distribution deal with DC, and 1978 when the DC implosion happened. I have no logical reason for thinking this other than a period between expansion and contraction seems as good a way to define an era as any other.

As for what was good about the Bronze Age, there's the fact I was a kid while it was happening, which always helps when judging these things but also it seems to me that the potential of what Marvel had started in the 1960s hadn't yet been fully exploited, allowing a greater diversity in story-telling but the creative momentum from the 1960s hadn't yet run out of steam.

joe ackerman said...

As Steve rightly puts it, I guess one of the main reasons I love the Bronze Age is that these are the comics I read as a kid.

And the talent. There was staggering ammount of great creative talent around, and they were encouraged to go for it, to cut loose. I think that's another thing that defines the Bronze Age, for me: the willingness to take risks, to move the goal posts, the belief in the possibilities of the medium.

Doug said...

Steve and Joe --

I think you nailed it when you both stated that our main concern for the Bronze Age (and I'll stretch it out of the comics genre and into music and television as well) is that it's "our" comics/movies/music/tv/etc. I always found it curious (I've stated this elsewhere in a post) when I was little that when we'd go to the bookstore there would be a section labeled "Nostalgia" and that's where I'd find Origins of Marvel Comics, et al. on the tables or shelves. Hey, those were my characters, my "friends"! But now, even though these characters I love continue to proliferate and into even more media than I could have imagined 30-35 years ago, the current crop isn't "mine". These belong to newer generations, and to be honest I feel like I no longer know these characters -- I certainly don't know most of the creators.

So that's a pretty subjective evaluation. Trying to be objective, I think Joe hit on a good point and that's the newness of it all, from subject matter (monsters, barbarians, new team books, etc.) to the influx of young talent. While they didn't always knock it out of the park -- one need only look to the number of short-lived series for that evidence -- the attempt was there. Today, much of what hits the shelves seems there only to shock me or to recycle some older idea that a contemporary reader might not know about.

As to the temporal parameters of the Bronze Age, Steve's suggestion seems apt. I probably wouldn't argue that too strongly. I might lean more toward, as I said, the creation of the direct market, the advent of mini- and maxi-series, and as the beginning of the so-called Dark Age. Hey, and if you think about all of that, it roughly coincides with Jim Shooter's tenure as EIC at Marvel, doesn't it?

Other thoughts?

Thanks for the input --


Steve Does Comics said...

I was actually thinking about this earlier this afternoon as I was buying some bananas. Not that I'm sad or anything. I was a bit worried I'd been talking rubbish by saying the Bronze Age ended in 1978 because that'd mean the modern age started before it was even 1980, which would clearly be nonsense.

But what struck me is that we didn't get a straight transition from the Golden Age to the Silver Age. The Golden Age was clearly well and truly over by the early 1950s, meaning there was a kind of limbo era for around a decade, before the Silver Age began. Having thought about it more, I think the Bronze Age really did end in the late 1970s, followed by another limbo era until the modern age began in the mid to late 1980s with all the things you mentioned, Doug.

At heart, all the things I associate with the Bronze Age - Marvel's move into horror, character licensing, Marvel Treasury Editions, 100 page DC's, the influx of new talent, Marvel's black and white mags, the first Marvel/DC crossover, the new X-Men - happened before the late 1970s. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that I'd associate with the Bronze Age that was introduced after that 1978 cut-off.

Doug said...

Hi, again, Steve --

Yeah, I'm not opposed to "limbo periods" either. I do think there were new and industry-changing things happening very early in the 1980's, but I think you are right that they were exclusive to what had gone on in the 1970's.

You know, in regard to the Silver Age, I really think one could argue that there were two periods running concurrently: DC's Silver Age, which began in 1956 with the new Flash, and then 1961 when Stan's so-called Marvel Age of Comics began. I think we both agree that the end for both periods is somewhere around 1970 (I kind of like your 1968 suggestion) -- Jack Kirby's leaving Marvel to go to DC affects both companies and, I suppose for some collectors and historians, puts a nice neat cap on that second wave of greatness.

Good conversation!


Edo Bosnar said...

Man, I came into this one late! I won't bother expounding my own theory about when the Bronze Age started & finished, since that doesn't seem to be the central question. And also, I agree with most everyone else that the reason I think the Bronze Age is so awesome is because I first started reading comics right in the thick of it (I read, or rather, very carefully studied the illustrations, of my first comics at about the age of 5/6 in 1974).
So as to the question posed in the heading to this post, I agree with Joe and Doug - that explosion of talent, and the sheer variety of stuff being produced, whether inside the superhero genre or beyond, with all of the SF, horror, sword & sorcery stuff, etc. And there also seemed, to me at least, that there was this real synergy with genre fiction (SF/fantasy/horror, etc.) publishing at the time.

La Belle Esplanade said...

The Bronze Age pushed boundaries and explored new subjects but it did it while still trying to appeal to all audiences. These weren't children's books but young people could still enjoy them and parents didn't mind buying them. They weren't childish but the themes and events were accessible no matter who the reader was and they didn't cause offense. That changed with the age of the anti-hero. While good vs. evil isn't going out of style, the emphasis on blood, sex and whatever titillating fetish is in the air, doesn't make today's comic suitable for everyone. I'm forty-five and I can't read half the stuff published this week without feeling I've thrown away good money.

I felt like I threw away good money in the Bronze Age, but at least I got a story in one issue that I could judge was trash or not without waiting for the trade paperback.

A good G-rated movie has something to offer everyone in the theater. A bad one is for tykes and a worse one is the kind that disguises all kinds of innuendo in the wisecracks and bathroom humor. Bronze Age comics were like good G-rated movies.

C.A.S. said...

I love the Bronze Age because of its varying genres of the time to choose from, and the great stories they contained, when I was growing up in those years.

Now, my guess at the ending of the Bronze Age: In my senior year in what used to be called "high school", I picked up a 4-issue mini-series about a 5'-3" man who was "the best at what he does, and what he did wasn't very nice".

After reading those 4 issues, my innocence was gone, and, IMO, so was the Bronze Age....

Karen said...

I can't really add to this, I think you folks have it covered. I'll just echo the belief that the Bronze Age, particularly for Marvel, was a time of great experimentation. There was a willingness to try all sorts of stories and styles. After reading many comments and interviewing a few creators from that period, I have to say I think a lot of that is due to the hands-off approach of Roy Thomas, who let guys run with books as long as the sales were good, and nothing truly awful was being done with the characters.

MOCK! said...

The first two comics I remember buying on the newstand were Avengers 228 and Uncanny X-Men 172. I had just "bought" my stepbrothers box of comics from him and made it my mission to hunt down every issue of the Avengers that I could find.

I loved the Avengers.

We used to visit my grandparents and they had stacks of DCs from the time (Brave and Bold, DC Comics Presents, Action). All of those books were just awesome. Self contained stories. I never felt "spoken down" to as a "youngster".

Even today if I find myself at a decent comic shop, I will search for books from the 1970s just to have to read...

Anonymous said...

For me, the bronze age was comic's first faltering steps into "adulthood", for lack of a better term.

I grew up in the 70's, like most of you, and of course, the nostalgia factor is huge - but, re-reading some of the titles recently (in particular, Master of Kung Fu, Miller's Daredevil, Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, and superhero titles like Gerber's Defenders and Claremont's X-Men) it struck me how mature the storytelling was.

As much as I enjoyed the 60s stuff Marvel and DC put out (of course!), you can see, as the 70s set in - much like the cinema of the time - creators being able to stretch themselves within the medium, finding their feet, and seeing just what they could.

Sure, there were boundaries, much stricter than we have now, but in many ways it ironically worked for a lot of titles. We had emotional maturity, instead of flying limbs.

In fact, I'd say overall, in mainstream comics, the 70s offered more maturity than the 80s and certainly the 90s.

As much as I love the current stuff, too often it seems to think that being "grown up" is showing explicit content.

Karlos (aka Anonymous ;) )

Inkstained Wretch said...

Let me second a lot of what has been said here. The greatness of the Bronze Age came from two things: an explosion of amazing new talent entering the industry and a maturation in the art of story-telling that has, unfortunately, been mostly lost.

I frankly have a hard time getting into Silver Age (or earlier) comics. The art and the story-telling is usually too crude and simplistic for me. Even the greats seemed to dashing off their work a lot of time. Given how many comics many of them were working on at the same time that may not be far from the truth.

Then in the 70s, suddenly there was an ocean of fresh blood: Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, George Perez, Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, Jerry Ordway, Keith Giffen, etc., etc. They were young and hungry and wanted to create comics as awesome as the images in their head -- and often succeeded.

These guys seemed to inspire the Silver Age greats still on the scene to improve their own work asc well. I maintain that Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, and Steve Ditko did their best work during the Bronze Age.

The other thing was that maturation in story-telling. Stories grew more complex and characterization went deeper. Though single-issues stories remained common, writers began experimenting with longer story arcs and slowly building characters and themes over time. Comics began to reward close reading. Story-tellers also paid more attention to continuity and establishing a shared universe, which made the stories – even the most fantastical – seem more real by giving the universe a “lived-in” feeling. Occasionally characters died or changed radically adding to the sense of realism by showing the passing of time and that actions had consequences.

Politics, current events and popular culture were noted and commented on, which also seemed to put the stories in something akin to a real world. But the commentary was lightly done. Most Bronze Age comics somehow seem less dated that what came out 15-20 years later.

Yet this maturation did not overwhelm the giddy thrills that Bronze Age comics promised. Superheroes still saved the day -- most of the time -- smashing bad guys with big punches on brightly colored pages and adventuring across space, time and other dimensions to meet the weird and amazing, only to return home a short time later.

This fun began to end, for me anyway, in the latter half of the eighties when every comic suddenly either became wall-to-wall ultraviolence or extended bouts of self-indulgent navel-gazing as characters ponder weighty issues so the comic makers can show off what serious artists they were. The art of simple story-telling seems to have been lost.

The habit since the mid-eighties of continually killing then reviving major characters, as well as serially retconning and rebooting them, has also seriously dimmed my interest in comics. Why bother if the companies are constantly throwing everything out then starting all over again only revert to the original a few years later?

The endless stream of company-wide crossovers also annoys. They are just cynical ploys to get readers to purchase more comics. If the companies don’t have faith in their properties to stand on their own as vehicles for good stories, why should I?

Doug said...

Wretch --

Thanks for posting that lengthy response. I really enjoyed it.

Let me posit this -- Do we remember the Bronze Age for the things that were new only? That is, perhaps outside of the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin, was there anything particularly innovative in the pages of ASM, or the Avengers, or the FF? Over at DC? Certainly new writers and artists coming along left their mark (Englehart's stories on the Avengers left an impression, as did Mike Grell's art on the Legion). But are we really fond of this period due to the new series and ideas?


Inkstained Wretch said...

Doug -

I am not sure I understand your question completely, but I think the answer is "no". For me, it was not just new talent or new series that made the Bronze Age so good, but it was what happened to the old talent and the existing characters as well.

I'll cite as an example Jack Kirby's Silver Age Captain America run vs. his Bronze Age run.

I read most of the Silver Age run collected in the first volume of the Essential series and was surprised at how blah and strained it was. Despite the Kirby art and Stan Lee's dialogue, it's just not very memorable.

Kirby's Bronze Age run, on the other hand, is just wild. It's far from perfect -- I tend to think Kirby needed a strong editor like Lee to bring out his best -- but it is crazy fun. Kirby's art is even more stylized and abstract at this point and his story lines go in all sorts of weird places. This run had an unpredictability that the Silver Age stuff never had.

That is the kind of difference that I think puts the Bronze Age above the Silver.

Other examples of pouring old wine into new bottles that I could cite: Gil Kane's early 80s work on the Superman titles; Perez and Wolfman taking the fairly lame concept of the Teen Titans and spinning gold out of it; Ditto with the Giffen/Levitz run on Legion of Superheroes; Steve Ditko's run on Rom; and John Byrne's revitalization of the Fantastic Four.

In each case a property and/or a talent from the previous era was given a chance to shine again and succeeded.

Does that answer your question?

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