Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The End of the Golden-Age?

Comics fans like to break things down into their component parts. Especially in this day and age of continuity obsession. It's not enough to tell stories that are more or less free of continuity errors, stories must be continuity driven. DC is cannabalistic in its continuity obsessions as each of their mega stories destroy much of the history behind them while replacing characters right and left with "legacy" characters no matter how obscure.

One of the early products of the fandom, especially in regards to superheroes was the creation of the Comics Ages. Taking its cues originating with Hesiod's "Work and Days", the beginning of comics with Superman was termed the Golden-Age and the then present time of the 1960's as the Silver Age (Hesiod, referred to his own Age as the Iron, one of toil and hardships). Of course, as comics history became a bit more mainstream and better known, a "new" age was created to pre-date the Golden, to refer to the pre-Superman comics which were mostly reprints of newspaper strips as well as a few new non-superhero characters as "Platinum".

Interestingly, while the beginnings of the Comics Ages are usually agreed upon, the endings are not. Partly because one can point to a watershed moment, such as the publication of Superman (1938) and The Flash II (1956) as when things took off for the superheroes. But, when did the Golden Age end? Like the dinosaurs, it's probably not really one significant life altering event, but the culmination of small ones and a slow decline that seems sudden and stark in retrospect.

Just like the dinosaurs, superheroes didn't ALL die out much less at one time. It's just that by 1951/52, they were mostly all gone and many of the companies also leaving the field. But DC continued on and continued publishing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a few others. And a few companies tried introducing new ones but not finding foothold. And, DC being the major company of the time got to be credited to starting the Silver Age with the creation of the new Flash. Although, the character really doesn't seem to be that much more popular than the others that preceeded him at other companies. He debuted in Showcase in 1956, had another appearance in 57, 2 in 58. The next superhero after him was Green Lantern in 1959, 3 years to the month after the Flash's debut, the same year the Flash finally got his own series. Interspersed in those issues of the Flash were sci-fi adventurers like Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, and Space Ranger. Not quite the explosion you would expect. At least Green Lantern would have 3 successive appearances in SHOWCASE before graduating to his own series in 1960. Showcase still doesn't leap onto debuting more superheroes though as it shows off characters like more Rip Hunter and Time Masters and the Sea Devils over the next year before bringing in Aquaman who was currently being published in ADVENTURE. In late 1961, two years to the month after Green Lantern and 5 from the Flash, the new Atom debuts.

If you look to the years preceding the Flash, you will see all sorts of superheroes and pseudo superheroes being created at about the same pace if not moreso. I think it's safe to say DC gets the credit just because they were able to last. I don't see many signs in their published material that they had a lot of confidence in the superheroes to take off. It's not until Marvel gets into the game that you can really say you have the beginning of a new Age.

But, DC really confuses the issues of the delineation of the ages. All the other companies went bust, and Marvel at least stopped publishing straightforward superheroes for some time and changed their company name. DC continually published at least some superheroes. And then "Flash of Two Worlds" came about which put most of their Golden Age heroes on a separate Earth, Earth 2. It became a bit of a fun debate and speculating what was the last adventure of the Earth-2 Superman, Batman, et al and the first solely Earth 1. Unfortunately, the terminology of Earth 1 and 2 became synonymous with Golden Age and Silver age, leading fans to consider the Earth 2 heroes the "original" heroes. Thus there was a big uproar when DC killed off the Earth 2 Superman in one of their mega crossovers a little bit back. How dare they kill off the original Superman? Don't recall as big an uproar when they killed off the Earth 2 Batman, Robin, and Green Arrow. But that was pre-internet fandom.

See, Earths 1 & 2 are not historical delineations, they are continuity retcons. There was NO Earth-2 much less an Earth-2 Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al until the publication of "The Flash of Two Worlds". Until then, all stories featuring Superman were of the same Superman as much as he has always been, just as today's Phantom, Mandrake, and Dick Tracy are historically the same characters that first appeared in the '30s. Because of the "Eternal Now" conceit, one has more or less willingly ignore that in 1955, Robin is still a teenager, that they had WWII era adventures and so on. As such, the Earth-2 Superman is not the "original" Superman, he's a retcon character who incorporates little forgotten aspects and retconned out trivia that was no longer "true" of Superman no matter what cut-off date you choose, his backstory was constantly having small retroactive changes (such as the source of his powers). And those little forgotten pieces are now cemented as being non-canonical of the Earth 1 Superman. Even then, we only had the concept of an Earth 2 Superman, he wouldn't appear for some time. DC could have just as easily decided there wasn't an Earth 2 variation of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, that they were so iconic, they were unique to Earth 1. The transition from one to the other is a fan exercise, but it doesn't really have historical significance beyond the mostly dead continuity of the DCU Multiverse.

When talking the Ages though, one needs to look at the actual historical record, the context of the comics, the growth and abandonment of themes both in-story and in culture in regards to the comics. Dates to look at:

1949: Doc Savage and the Shadow cease pulp publication. Captain Zero is the last of any new pulp super hero titles created and lasts only a handful of issues. Read one and you'll see a character that would fit in very well with the style of heroes created by Stan Lee in the '60s.

1950: Marvel Boy... the last new Golden Age hero from the company that would be Marvel? Or the first of the proto Silver-Age heroes?

1951: The JSA closes it's doors and All-Star Comics becomes All-Star Western, a clear reflection in the changing trends and movement beyond Superheroes. 3 Months later we get Captain Comet

1952/53: Fawcett loses on appeal the lawsuit from DC Comics and closes shop.

1953: Captain America, Human Torch, and Namor are brought back only with then more modern sensibilities, the atomic bomb and Red Menace now fueling the stories.

1953: The Phantom Detective, the last of the pulp superheroes, retires from the pulps.

1954: The Shadow retires from Radio

The Black Cobra (1954), Captain Flash (1954), The Avenger (1955) The Martian Manhunter (1955) are all created, owing more to modern and future Silver-age times than the sensibilities of the Depression and WWII golden-age.

1955: Better drops out of pulps.

1956: Standard/Nedor/ Better closes. Pines Comics, a spin-off company continues for a couple of years, no straight superhero titles.

1956: Showcase #4, Barry Allen Flash

1959: Showcase debut of Green Lantern

1961: Fantastic Four #1: Debut in their own title.

My own take, from Captain Comet on, all "new" continuing titles and characters are post-Golden- Age. After Fawcett shuts down and sells off the next year, no title is really a golden-age title. We're in a bit of no-man's land. Call it the "Atomic Age" or what have you. Superheroes are around, but they aren't the dominant species any more. By the mid fifties, almost all of the chief influences on the Golden-age of superheroes are gone: the Depression, WWII and the pulps, replaced by Communism, atomic bombs, rockets, television, EC comics, Frederik Wertham, cowboys and interest in space. But it's really 1961, with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, that it all gels into something starkly new and the superheroes are made relevant once more.

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