Ages 150 150 Paul Levitz

So the scheme of sorting comics history into Ages was mostly influenced by those of us who were disproportionately fans of the super hero material.  That classification scheme gave us Gold, Silver, Bronze…and even according to some (including my big Taschen book), Dark eras.  The boundaries have always been a bit fuzzy though.  A few random thoughts on the subject:

First off, our biases show too powerfully in the whole analysis.  While the super heroes were the dominant genre of American comic books in the years when this taxonomy was developed (the 1960s and 1970s as comic fandom began to be an organized phenomenon), for most of the time of comics in America that hasn’t been the case, including now.  Younger kids’ comics have ruled for most of the years that we might focus on separate physical print comics (whether as comic books or graphic novels), with Dell as the largest publisher up until around the time of the Dell/Gold Key “divorce” in 1962, and Scholastic has claimed the title in much of the 21st Century.  Did the decline of Dell create the opportunity for the long era of the super hero dominating the field?  It’s an argument that I can’t recall seeing before, but it’s not impossible to consider.

Second, there’s no singular way to draw a line of demarcation even if we accept the Gold/Silver/etc logic.  Take the end of the Silver Age:

            On one content-based analysis, the demarcation between Silver and Bronze is often argued as either drawn at the publication of GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW #76 (April 1970), CONAN #1 (October 1970) or SUPERMAN #233 (November 1970).  A close enough cluster, but which is the trigger?

            An alternative content-based analysis looks at the moment when the long-static creative assignments.  On the DC side, you can make a case that Infantino leaving THE FLASH at the end of 1967 is the key moment.  As he took on more responsibilities as Editorial Director, he instigated changes that would unsettle every long-running artist on a series, and preside over the hiring or onboarding of several new editors as well as the replacement of a group of contributors who were being pushed out over their requests for benefits.  The singular moment at Marvel isn’t until three years later, when Kirby departs, but the transitions at DC serve to see more new names popping up at Marvel in that period.

            If we consider technology as a factor (which is always worth thinking about), the shift in the late 1960s from artwork being created “twice-up” to 10”x15” deserves examination.  It fundamentally affected the styles of many major artists, some for the better, some sadly for the worse.  Neal Adams made the argument that for the first time the artist at their board could focus on the whole page, and his work certainly demonstrates the evolution that took place as a result.

            And if we look at the issues of distribution and business, certainly Marvel moving away from being a distribution client of DC’s affiliate in the summer of 1969, and the consequent expansion of their line after a decade of constraint is an interesting demarcation point.

Alternatively, though, a lens I use in discussing the evolution of comics in America is to consider what marketing people refer to as the product life cycle.  It looks at the key marketing characteristics of a product, and suggests certain behaviors that are common to different stages of its evolution.  Product life cycles can overlap, as products that have great similarity can still be differentiated. 

Looked at that way, we might parse the modern history of American comics:

            The life cycle of the newspaper comic strip, beginning at the turn of the 20th Century and fading into near irrelevance towards the end of the century.  As a product, it’s ubiquitously available, what marketers define as a convenience good, focused on an entire family audience, produced with the cheapest possible technology, and priced invisibly as part of another purchase (the paper itself).

            The life cycle of the newsstand comic book, beginning in the 1930s and fading out in the 1980s (by my estimate if the transition to comic shops hadn’t occurred, the traditional comic book would have vanished by around 1985).  Again ubiquitously available, a convenience good, focused on children from the beginning of reading (5?) to puberty (12?), produced with cheap technology, and priced cheaply.

            The life cycle of the direct market comic book, beginning in the 1980s and still going, probably in the market maturity stage.  Now a purchase that requires going out of the consumer’s way which means it is what’s defined as shopping good or even a specialty good, focused on people from 16 to 35 (originally primarily men but broadening out), produced with relatively high technology, and priced more expensively.

            The life cycle of the graphic novel, beginning in the 1980s and still in what marketers might consider either the market introduction and development stage or market growth stages.  We can argue that it is again ubiquitously available via the internet, yet a shopping good (consumers select based on a number of factors), with an audience that’s evolving as we speak, produced with relatively high technology, and priced at a wide range of price points.

And webcomics, well, maybe it’s too soon to tell what they’ll be here in America, but they’ll certainly have a life cycle of importance of their own.

Just something to think about…

  • Really good piece , Paul. My thoughts aren’t nearly as well thought out .What bothers me about those terms – Golden Age, Silver, etc. is they indicate books are worse than ever. Silver isn’t as valuable as Gold, bronze is less valuable than silver, etc. leading to today when In fact today’s books are probably better written and drawn across a multiple of genres and formats than ever before. This should be the Golden Age, not whatever derogatory term they’re calling it these days.
    Anyway, your article is really good and opens up to lots of discussion.

    • I think the “value” part of the Ages defined by metals is not so much the aesthetic value as the monetary value in the collectors market. “Golden Age” comics, within their particular genre, carry a higher price tag (generally) than similar titles produced in the “Silver Age” or the
      “Bronze Age”.

    • Douglass Abramson June 15, 2022 at 6:07 pm

      They certainly were value declarations when they were first applied, by the people who grew up reading the first age of superheroes off of the newsstands, and a core of the Baby Boomers could be argued to have followed suit; but I’m not sure that most people view them that way anymore. I think most people who take the art from seriously will favorably compare the best from the Bronze Age, or last month, to the best of the Golden and Silver Ages. The names are just cute dividers for the timeline, instead of dry academic ones. Now where the “ages” should start and stop and wether there is a need for more before 1939, or between the Golden and Silver; or how many ages have there been since 1986 and what are they called, are unsettled issues. But we all know that the last thing that comic book folks like is a good argument.

  • I haven’t actually seen any age names past “Dark” except “modern” which is boring and always moving anyway. I suggested “digital” once but nobody bit. The way I look at comics “ages” is based on the birth dates of the audience. Thus Golden Age comics appealed to the Greatest generation and the seekers, while Silver age was for the boomers and the Bronze Age is for Generation X, after which comes the Millenials and the Zoomers. It seems to work and the people out there in the “real world” know what you’re talking about.

  • Very interesting, as are all takes on comics “ages” that question them! Too often they are taken to be self-evident, not the retroactive inventions they are. They are almost always defined by (superhero) content, but what about the actual comic books in terms of size? As any collector who bags and boards comics knows, Gold, Silver, and later comics require different size supplies: there are exceptions, but on the whole the American comic book gets smaller (especially in width) with each “age.” And this crosses genres, so a Golden Age Western or Romance comic generally resembles a Golden Age Superhero comic book in size, if nothing else.

  • Robert L Beerbohm June 15, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    Paul, It is good you are starting a re-examining of the supposed “ages” of comic books. Reading thru your thoughts, however, I see you remain mired in a DC Marvel centric dichotomy.

    Which actually does not fly very well when examining what was transpiring. Many of us have never ever been mired in super hero centric ages BS . Those who chose to push certain metallic nomenclature agendas were all caught up in the bigger buck marketing of vintage back issues.
    The Overstreet centric crowd even went so far as to declare ALL Sept Oct 1956 comic books, especially DC, are “first Silver Age” issues. This is simply marketing ploy to justify jacking up prices on collectors.
    Take for another example here: The late 1960s Zap Comics was the single most influential comic book of the 1960s in terms of how it altered the comic book industry regarding creator-owned, paying royalties on what sold, reprinting to keep on selling via a then-birthing “direct market” to retail outlets. Most every one back then below a certain age in the comics business was also absorbing Crumb, Shelton, etc.

    Zap soon sold a million copies in multiple reprints which Print Mint paid their comics creator super stars. When Zap #4 was published summer 1969, all legal hell broke out. Crumb went a bridge too far. Being busted for Zap #4 saw Phil Sueling spend a night in jail, being fired from his high school teaching job even, when he and Sol cut that first drop point deal from Sparta to Coney Island, NY
    Between 1940 and 1945 riding the first wave brought on by super heroes, the American comic book became one in every three periodicals sold in the US of A.
    Dell becomes half the comic book business unto themselves as one company post World War Two for a decade there just post war late 40s thru late 50s. That throne began to crumble post American News ceasing distribution in June 1957. And went exponentially bad in 1960 when George Delacorte thought he could force push the other publishers to 15 cent cover prices.

    In a year and a half Dell lost 90% of its paid circulation before the Dell/Western divorce spawned Gold Key. Irwin and I talk on talk on many details of what was transpiring as he became publisher guy for his father.
    Those who chose (still choose) to call the late 40s thru mid 50s as some sort of “Dark Ages” in comic books merely demonstrate an utter ignorance of actual comic book publishing history.

    1952: Mad #1, Uncle Scrooge Four Color 386 (#1) as just a couple title examples saw the beginning of the largest ever comic book glut in American history. Some four Billion printed in America in just 1952. The distribution wagon was coming off its wheels

    1) Feb-April 1968 Zap Comics begins national distribution
    2) Summer 1973 Phil Seuling jail busted for Zap.
    First shipment Sandman #1 Fall 1973
    3) Summer 1979 James Galton, then new Marvel President, calls for a special meeting at San Diego for all “Direct Market” guys & gals. Maybe max 80 of us show up stuffing the too small a room. This is when Marvel decides to jump in both feet in to the deep end of the pool.
    Marvel also began to think they *owned* this DM expansion. They brought on what I call in Comic Book Store Wars by Black Sept 1984. Knocked out some key players. Also created huge animosity back lash.

    At its peak the Direct Market was 19 Marvel Directs, 17 DC Directs, distributors.
    The super hero aspect of the “Direct Market” was ALWAYS aimed at comic book speculator ‘investors’ seeking to get rich quick. It was the Super Hero Collector who was always after paying ever more money for certain issues deemed “HOT” by those who sought to be the back issue power brokers.
    I agree with you there was an excellent chance the news stand comic code mainly New York City based two staple folded over magazine periodical “comic book” would most likely have dried up by 1985

    The comic book store phenom which begins in earnest late 1960s would have kept growing albeit maybe a bit slower than what happened beginning in the 1970s.

    The American Comic Book has been a viable business since Sept 14 1842. Over 175 years now. One has to look at the large rmacro picture. Or, at least, one should if one seeks the whys and wherefores of what evolved over those many decades.
    And, nope, am not (yet) donating my extensive research files as a suggested short term solution. That hurt.

    • With respect, there’s stuff on which we have to disagree, Bob. As important as the undergrounds were culturally (and they are a vital step in the medium’s evolution), they were a very small factor in business reach. Its long term effects on the field (like inspiring parts of the contracts we eventually developed or royalties) took decades to percolate through, and were only part of the influences along with things like children’s book compensation structures) While ZAP #1 may have sold a million, during the same time how many Superman comics were sold–70 or 100 million? Never mind the scope of the Batman fad of overlapping years.

      I do hope you ultimately donate your files (which I admire your effort to accumulate) to research institution, but by all means, don’t give them up while you’re still working with them.

      • Robert L Beerbohm June 15, 2022 at 5:52 pm

        Also with respect, ZAP COMICS #1 sold a million copies. You instead to compare with a semi monthly Superman title with reach into tens of thousands of more outlets in 1968-69

        March 1973 Print Mint first print of Zap Comics #6 was 100,000. June 73 SCOTUS rules on Joe Blow Zap #4 story. Bay Area comix industry freezes

        Some of you guys still insist on maintaining an actual “West of the Hudson” arrogant snobbery these days I still find semi amusing. Quaint.

        Partly so cuz you guys want to sound so dang authoritative sure of your perceived (ie wrong) set of facts twisted like pretzels to fit a certain long held myth of Direct Market origins.

        And we both know that perceptions of this comic book “war of the roses” over proper historical time line narrative will not be resolved here. Some of the “Quaint Ones” like you, Bud, Bill Schanes, etc. are still way too entrenched in personal agenda mind set over how some of you *want* the history books to

        In 1984 when this guy Will Eisner asked this other guy named Phil Seuling inside Will Eisner Quarterly #3 where he got this idea for shipping comic books out of World Color in Sparta, Phil immediately answers talking about Crumb, Zap, Shelton, “Foolbert” Sturgeon (Frank Stack), etc

        Phil most likely never would even gotten in to such an at the time desperate experimental move unless he too had been busted for Zap Comics. He talked about that
        But, go ahead, remain inside such worn old gods texts of supposed origins of the Direct Market
        Paul, while you begin to talk about non-super biases re comic book “ages,” sorry to report you STILL remain mired in the quicksand of super hero centric thought. I can respect that up to the point of denying actual reality. And I will continue my gentle teaching modes of explaining this stuff.

        See, Paul, and others who may read these words, you most likely do not have the research materials I accumulated back when I was able to still be a funny book dealer and had a lot of cash flow. This not a boast, nor do I think (as some spew out still) I have ever thought I was a main guy in the comics business. That aspect went away for me forever Feb 1986 same week end Eclipse HQ was destroyed in northern Calif Cat Y wrote about so much in her Beautiful Balloons in CBG 35 years ago now

        Hopefully, I finish this damn comics business history book finally – and soon
        Last year I already made initial arrangements for whom Katy should communicate with to house this rather unique batch of research files occupying a lot of boxes. Actually now that I think of it back in 2020 when Covid was beginning its pandemic . There are still so many thousands of pages to scan.

        • Your picture is backed up in the new book Dirty Pictures by Brian Doherty, in which you are quoted throughout, Bob.

          Doherty paints the undergrounds as the first domino in the chain leading to creator’s rights in comics.

          • Robert L Beerbohm June 25, 2022 at 6:43 pm

            Dan, Just saw your reply here from June 16 re Dirty Pictures by this fellow Brian Doherty. I would have responded much sooner. You say he quotes me throughout. Now am interested in what he places there. He never contacted me at all to ask any sort of permissions, etc. Or, things like corrections, things that might be out of context, etc. Guess I have to buy one soon. Thanks for the head’s up. First I heard of it’s actual contents.

            Creators Rights in comics goes all the way back to Outcault with Yellow Kid. When that character was pirate bootlegged by so many others it’s first couple years, RFO stumbled around until he struck more paydirt with Buster Brown, but even then he did not own the character’s name in comics.

            It was not until Bud Fisher’s Mutt & Jeff created in 1907 did that creator gain 100% ownership control through the upfront brazen subterfuge of placing a copyright notice on his last LA strip right on the printing plate on the printing press on his way out the door.

            Rudolph Dirks also early on fought it out with Hearst over Katzenjammer Kids. So did others.
            Zap Comics was copyrighted via a strong push from Victor Moscoso to the others back when Print Mint assumed publishing and distribution beginning in April 1968. At that stage all the Bay Area alternative comix were being copyrighted in the creator’s name(s).

            Most all the then mainly NYC based comics creators early on were aware of this next generation. Phil Seuling’s 1969 NYC comicon hosted the first panel on these then new comix being produced. And the story goes on from there,
            Now I wonder why this Mr Doherty did not contact me. Makes me wonder if earlier errors from years before I made on the net were corrected. Thought sort of sucks, actually. But judgement with held until I page thru his book

  • Great post Paul!

    I have never liked the “Olympic medal” eras of comics as it breaks down after Bronze. What’s after that? Tin? Dumb. It never made sense to me as a) as Marv points out above, infers that everything after Golden is inferior when nothing could be further from the truth – from an art and storytelling perspective to the way the books are created and manufactured. b) The metal eras doesn’t address what’s next after maybe “dark” and that was almost 30 years ago and c) doesn’t take into effect too much of the history of comics both in terms of publication content and editorial decisions.

    I, myself, have taken some cues from the classifications of genres used in film studies which are: Primitive (or Pioneer), Classic (or Golden), Revisionist, Parody, Post-Modern, Nostalgic and modern (which is used as a sliding scale to whatever is the “current” era). I’ve applied this to comic books and came up with the following classification system*:

    Primitive: 0 – 1935 (Proto-comics to New Fun #1)
    Classic (or Golden): 1935 to 1952 (Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #1, etc.)
    Revisionist (or Atomic): 1953 – 1970 (with the passing of the Comic Code, Incredible Science Fiction #1, Showcase #4, etc.)
    Post-Modern (or Super): 1971- 1985 (Green Arrow 85 , ASM 96, Crisis on Infinite Earths)
    Dark: 1986 – 1994 ( Watchmen, DKR, Spawn )
    Nostalgic: 1995 -2000 (Astro City, Zero Hour, Starman)
    Ultimate (or Marvel): 2001-2010 (Marvel Ultimate, Alias, Wolverine: Origin, Editorial changes at DC)
    Post-Revisionist: 2011 – 2015 (Flashpoint, New 52, Marvel NOW!, Ms. Marvel)
    Modern: 2016 – present (DC Rebirth, etc.)

    Granted I realize that the “edges” of these eras aren’t as clear as I’m making them out to be, but ya gotta draw the line somewhere! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this classification system of mine!

    * I freely admit that my classification has a bias towards American superhero comics in general and DC published books in particular.

  • To some extent, the idea of ages has to do with readers’ perceptions. I think a lot of comic readers felt that there was a clear difference in the art and writing styles of the Julius Schwartz-edited superhero titles of the late-50s, as compared with the Superman and Batman titles. This was furthered with Fantastic Four # 1, and all the rest of what became Marvel.

    Along these lines, I once saw someone , whose name I forget, unfortunately, suggest in Comic Buyers’ Guide, that the “ages” could be identified by style (mostly art, probably, but story as well.) In this scheme, the Silver Age doesn’t begin for Superman until “Kryptonite Nevermore.” I suppose New Look Batman would begin the Silver Age for that character. To me, Silver Age Green Arrow begins with the O’Neil- Adams revamp in “The Senator’s Been Shot,” in Brave and the Bold. I realize this has as many overlaps and contradictions as any other scheme, but I think it works for superhero comics. And I think it should be stated that the Ages are basically designations for superhero comics, not the medium as a whole.

    So it is not a matter of years or dates, but of style and approach to the character. Weisinger edited silly Superman stories, for example, continued right through the 1960s, and were a holdover from earlier styles of comic storytelling.

  • Edit — I shouldn’t say “holdover” in the last line of my post, but rather “continuation of.”

  • I’m in agreement with you Paul. I find how comics were distributed has a great effect on the type of content were in comics.

    Newsstand comics had to have mass appeal. As a time line I’m still not sure if I would split this in 2 or 3 spots.
    Currently I spit it with the shut down of American Comics News just due to the massive effect that had on the industry. I think a second split might be in order just due to it’s declining importance after the direct market took over, but certain books that (I believe) sold well (eg Marvel’s Barbie) at this time. I’m not sure where I’d put it but I’m thinking possibly Marvel’s GI Joe #1.

    Promotional / give away didn’t need to have mass appeal, their purpose was to promote whatever was inside. Although I think a split should probably be done to distinguish the 20th century books and the 21st century FCBD type promotions.

    Undergrounds needed to appeal to the counter culture, which was a fairly large niche. I think I would categorize Tijuana Bibles as a type of Underground comic and there would be a split between when they stopped and what we traditionally think of as Underground Comics start.

    Direct Market, unlike the newsstand market, could survive on creating material for niche subsets of committed readers and collectors.. EG. World of Krypton might not have sold well in the Newsstand Market, but is something that could be done in the direct market. Perhaps a split between Pre and Post Diamond monopoly should be noted. People in the industry used to talk about “the next Bone” which is something that never happened in the 25 years Diamond had the monopoly. Self Publishing is now effectively Crowdfunding comics, which should be considered it’s own ‘era’. Perhaps the start of it (as a force) is C. Spike Trotman’s Iron Circus publishing Smut Peddler.

    Graphic Novels started out (particularly with Eisner) as being a more adult/sophisticated/literary with Eisner works and some of those that were also creating them at the same time, but has evolved significantly since then. TokyoPop’s “authentic” (unflipped) Manga should be noted as a major shift. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan was a changing force as lots of book publishers started doing graphic novel after that. Schoolastic publishing Bone I think started the current shift into the North American YA dominance.

    Digital Comics is fairly wide open due to the low cost of getting work out there.

  • Nice article! I’ve always thought it strange that we had the generally accepted golden, silver and bronze-ages, and everything since then – almost 40 years now – largely lumped together as “modern”, or “post-crisis” in the case of DC up until 2011, or whatever. It makes more sense to look at them from a different perspective than just certain decades as your article so wonderfully articulates. And I agree with Marv’s comments too!

  • My position as a consumer on comic eras is that we must look outside of the comics themselves toward the changes in civil society, as comics are a reflection of the zeitgeist . WWII, Red Scare, Cold War, Nuclear MAD, baby boom/counter culture-escapism, broader drug use, head shops, deindustrialization, Reaganism, perestroika/détente, digital age, and post-modernism. When I read old comics (which I often do), I place them in these types of categories that can also be set in the broader Gold/Silver/Bronze ages. I am not discounting the business side or the creative side of comics in this; as comics are the only character -driven medium that continually publishes monthly year after year (Is Superman officially the longest continually published character with new monthly material?) It is intrinsic to the comic medium (for the business, for the creators, for the readers) to represent the world as it is at the time. This is why I collect comics. They are fun historical artifacts.

    • Interesting point on Superman. Depending on how you count it, he might be the longest running comic book character continuously published…though the strips have longer ones, like GASOLINE ALLEY. Regardless, comics continuing publication and evolution is absolutely part of their power, in my opinion.

  • While it is true the naming of the comics ages was done by comics fans who were primarily super-hero centric, it is also true that this same crowd laid the entire foundation for where we are today. They dominated the 1960s fanzine scene, were the primary drivers behind all of the early comic conventions, and they were also the driving force behind price guides, the adzine boom of the 1970s, comic book shops AND the Direct Market. Barks fans, EC fans, and other non-superhero factions were always there, but they were always in the minority. For example, look at EC fandom from the 1950s. They were enthusiastic and engaged, but they had largely faded away by the time the 1960s rolled around. There was finally an EC convention in the early 1970s, but it only happened after a burgeoning superhero fan base during the 1960s laid the groundwork. All of this said, of course it makes sense to periodically re-evaluate certain canons. But unless a better way to loosely group comics eras is devised, the basic age groupings we use now will have to suffice. Personally, I’d like to see a master timeline of comics history, but even that might need to have the current ages listed above to help clarify, for context, when certain timeline actions occurred.

  • So often, when people say they are interested in comics, what they mean is they are interested in superheroes. I find this on college campuses, where courses on comics are often courses on superheroes. Mention Winsor McCay, Carl Barks, Will Eisner, and so many others even to professors who teach the courses and they look at you blankly.

    On another subject, has anyone paid much attention to war comics? Do they fit the same ages-paradigm as the superheroes?

  • Actually most of the courses I teach start with Thomas Nast, before moving into the era of Outcault and McKay, but your point’s well taken. War, romance, teen comics, and phenomenally successful material in the humor category like Barks’ work or MAD often get short shrift.

    • Thanks for your response, Mr. Levitz. Your courses sound great — in including Nast, do you cover news r political/edititorial cartoons generally? Or just Nast because of his famous contributions?

      I speak from personal experience, however. In fairness, it should be noted that manga (and animé) as well as graphic novels (though often Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns more than Eisner or Blankets or even Maus) are often areas of students’ interests and are discussed.

      I mention war comics because they continued into the 70s. While they reflected the changing times (I remember DC started running “War No More” slogans in the early ’70s), generally speaking, they seem to me to have been relatively unchanged in basic style over the decades. There was a movement toward superhero tropes, such as the Unknown Soldier, though and we saw this also in titles such as Tomahawk or in Marvels westerns — suddenly the Rawhide Kid was fighting costumed villains. Marvel’s Sgt. Fury was an anomaly of sorts — it was a “Stan and Jack” comic first and foremost. They advertised it as the war comic for people who don’t like war comics.”

      I guess, though, what we’re saying, is the metallic ages only apply to superhero comics in terms of genre, and certainly not to the medium as a medium.

  • After the Bronze Age, I propose The DIY Age starting May 1984 with TMNT #1.

    Sure, there were self published comics before that but the incredible financial success of TMNT was a shot across the bow. This creation tattooed dollar signs on virtually every creator’s eyes.

    There would be no Image Comics, far fewer publishers, and likely far less variety in comics today without it.