Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Just as Action Comics #1 is considered to be the first superhero comic and the beginning of the Golden Age, most historians agree that the first comic of the Silver Age was Showcase #4, published by DC in 1956.
Showcase #4 featured the return of the Flash—or at least the name and basic concept of the Flash. Where the original Flash was Jay Garrick, a college student who was given his super speed abilities from “inhaling vapors from hard water,” this Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who gained super speed when he was hit with chemicals that had been struck by lightning. Where Jay’s stories, like most superhero comics of the Golden Age, tended toward crime fiction mixed with comedy and a little supernatural thrown in, the adventures of Barry Allen had a particularly science-fiction bent. The new Barry Allen Flash was said, in the stories, to be inspired by the adventures of Jay Garrick, whose comics he’d read as a child. This idea, initially meant to be a quaint nod to Barry’s namesake and predecessor and nothing more, would have major implications both within the stories and in the real-life history of superhero comics and fiction.
This version of The Flash was a big success, and DC started reimagining some of their other 1940s superheroes. Green Lantern was no longer Alan Scott, the man with a magic ring, but Hal Jordan, a fearless test pilot conscripted into an intergalactic peacekeeping force. The Atom was no longer Al Pratt, diminutive tough guy, but Ray Palmer, a scientist who had mastered shrinking.
This led to the creation of the Justice League of America in 1961. There had been superhero teams before—Timely had had Captain America leading the Invaders all around Europe in World War II, and DC’s Justice Society of America had formed in 1940 as well—but the JLA was different. The Invaders had had a specific mission—they were at war with the Axis. The Justice Society had focused less on team-ups—although they did that too—and more on being a group of likeminded individuals sharing their exploits together. The Justice League was a team.
The original Justice League consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. Putting these characters in one story together was problematic, though: Superman and Wonder Woman had been members of the Justice Society, along with the original Flash and Green Lantern, Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. The earliest Barry Allen stories had established that, in world of the Justice League, Jay Garrick was fictional, a comic book character who had delighted Barry Allen as a child. How could Superman and company have met and worked with both Barry Allen and Jay Garrick? And if they had somehow worked with the fictional Jay Garrick in the 1940s, presumably as adults in their mid-20s or early 30s, why were they still in their prime twenty years later when they should have been in their 50s or 60s? In order to reconcile these contradictions, the DC Multiverse was born.
It was decided that the adventures of the Justice League and the rest of the Silver Age heroes of DC Comics lived on Earth 1, the “main” universe of DC Comics, while the Golden Age heroes had had their adventures in a parallel universe operating on a slightly different vibrational frequency known as Earth 2. Therefore, the versions of Superman and Wonder Woman who were members of the Justice League with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were the “main” versions, while the slightly older Superman and Wonder Woman who had been members of the Justice Society with Alan Scott and Jay Garrick were the Earth 2 versions. Occasionally the events of Earth 2 would be subconsciously relayed to Earth 1, which is why Jay Garrick’s adventures could turn up in comics that had inspired a young Barry Allen.
This led to stories of travel between the universes, whenever a “Crisis” would necessitate collaboration between the Justice League and the Justice Society. Soon, there were more than two Earths in the DC Multiverse. There was Earth 3, and evil counterparts of the Justice League like Ultraman and Superwoman and Owlman wreaked havoc as the Crime Syndicate of America. There was Earth S, where the Captain Marvel characters, who DC had acquired when they purchased Fawcett comics, lived on. Earth 4 and Earth X were the homes of characters from other publishers DC had acquired, Charlton Comics and Quality Comics, respectively. The Multiverse was an exciting new story engine for DC Comics, but also a potentially maddening one as it introduced different almost-identical versions of characters and created a convoluted continuity.
While Justice League of America was becoming popular, the former Timely Comics, which had become Atlas Comics in the 1950s and was now called Marvel Comics, had been out of the superhero game for years, instead publishing humor comics like Dippy Duck and Patsy Walker, and sci-fi/fantasy comics like Journey into Mystery, Amazing Adventures, and Tales to Astonish. Martin Goodman, still publisher, saw the success of Justice League of America and asked his editor, Stan Lee, to come up with something similar. Lee worked with Jack Kirby to create the The Fantastic Four, which started publication in late 1961.
The Fantastic Four were another revelation: They had no secret identities, they had no costumes at first, one of their number was a grotesque monster. They bickered and argued and acted like people and had real problems. They were realistic.
The success of the Fantastic Four led Lee, Kirby, and another artist, Steve Ditko, to begin building the Marvel Comics Superhero universe by creating more flawed and “realistic” superheroes. Daredevil, The X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor. Like DC’s Justice League, Marvel assembled the Avengers, a team of heroes mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and within those pages revived their Golden Age success, Captain America. Like DC’s Silver Age heroes, Marvel’s heroes were based in science and the atomic age. Where Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and The Flash and the rest of the Justice League were godlike figures of authority, however, Marvel’s heroes were counterculture underdogs. Spider-Man might do the right thing and fight crime, but both Peter Parker’s Aunt May and his boss J. Jonah Jameson thought Spidey was a menace. The Thing wore a trench coat and a fedora when he went out for fear of being mocked and jeered at by the Yancy Street Gang, and only felt comfortable dating a blind woman. The X-Men were victims of prejudice, hated and feared by the people they were sworn to protect. Further, where Superman and Batman and The Flash were guardians of fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham and Keystone, the Marvel heroes lived in New York City—The FF on the corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue, Spider-Man in Forest Hills, Queens.
Where the Golden Age superhero costumes were derivative of 1930s sportswear, the Silver Age costumes were derivative of . . . Golden Age superhero costumes. This led to costumes looking like an abstraction of the Superman template, with tights and trunks and chest emblems, but without the basis in real clothing to ground it. Steve Ditko’s design for Spider-Man and Gil Kane’s design for Green Lantern are the purest distillation of the Silver Age superhero costumes—streamlined, sleek, and boldly graphic.
While Action Comics #1 and Showcase #4 are the clear catalysts of the Golden and Silver Ages respectively, there isn’t a single flashpoint that started the Bronze Age. It happened instead over the course of a year, specifically 1970.
In April 1970 the Green Lantern title was changed to Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The addition of a second main character led to a major tonal shift, as writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams used GL/GA to explore more serious social and political themes like racism and poverty.
Later that year, Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics and ended his partnership with Stan Lee. Kirby went to DC and took over as both writer and artist of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and began his Fourth World saga. This epic chronicled the cosmic war between the benevolent New Gods of New Genesis and the dark forces of Apokolips, as the mad god Darkseid sought to subjugate the universe with the Anti-Life Equation. This was a new mythology, full of characters and concepts both awesome and ridiculous, and Kirby went wild building psychedelic cosmic vistas and majestic and terrible creatures.
Also that year, the editor of the Superman titles at DC, Mort Weisinger, retired. His replacement, Julius Schwartz, worked with writer Denny O’Neil and artist Curt Swan to scale back Superman’s powers and make him more vulnerable and therefore more relatable.
Instead of the pulpy, lurid crime fiction of the Golden Age and the candy-colored harmless fun of the Silver Age, the Bronze Age saw the stories in superhero comics becoming more and more adult. Both major publishers began making steps toward diversity, with characters like Storm, Blade, Cyborg, Vixen, John Stewart, and so on. Characters might actually die in the stories, sometimes not even villains—in 1973, Spider-Man’s true love, Gwen Stacy, was killed by The Green Goblin, and future stories would involve Peter Parker contemplating whether and how much he was to blame. The stories became more serialized, focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the characters just as much as the high-concept sci-fi and the fantastical and colorful powers and personas.
In 1971, Stan Lee was asked by the US Government to write an anti-drug comic, and so he wrote an epic storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man about the dangers of addiction. Since depiction of drug use was outright forbidden by the Comics Code Authority, but the government had specifically requested the story, this led to a relaxing of the Comics Code (drugs were now allowed to be depicted, but had to be very clearly shown in a negative light).
This led to a famous story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow called “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” in which Green Arrow discovers that his sidekick, Speedy, is addicted to heroin. As the storylines got more and more serious, the art style became weightier and more detailed.
The X-Men had not originally been very popular, and by 1970 there was no more new X-Men material being published at all. In 1975, Marvel published Giant-Size X-Men #1, with a brand new team searching for the original X-Men. This multicultural team would include a few new characters, like Storm and Nightcrawler, a few old X-Men characters, and a one-off villain from an issue of The Incredible Hulk the year prior called The Wolverine. The new X-Men comics were much more character-oriented than Marvel’s previous offerings.
The All-New, All-Different X-Men became hugely successful, and DC took notice, revamping its Teen Titans franchise into The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez with a similarly character-based approach.
As Superhero characters and concepts become more and more complex throughout the Bronze Age, and as the kids who grew up on Silver Age characters were beginning to reach adulthood, superhero comics were about to go through another major shift—and while some of the best comics ever written would come out in the 1980s and 1990s, so would some of the worst.
Join us next time, True Believers, as we explore the period of comics so terrifying we could only call it . . . THE DARK AGE.
Until Then . . . Make Mine Lifeline.