Comics Alchemy: Silver into Bronze

Having recently been called out for proposing that the Silver Age of comics ended the minute Jack Kirby put his Fourth World series into motion, I thought I'd explain my point a bit more. Doing a little research beforehand, I find that my thought it not altogether an original one: Wikipedia, for example, gives the Fourth World as one of a handful of possible end points for the Silver Age, though without further commentary.

The end of an era can hardly be discussed without understanding its beginning, and for the Silver Age, that's usually considered to be the first appearance of Barry Allen the Flash in Showcase #4 (1956). Why? Because these Ages refer to superhero comics in particular. Though DC's big three were published uninterrupted through the 1950s, the multitude of superheroes spawned in the '40s had pretty much gone away in the wake of horror and crime comics' popularity. After EC was effectively shut down by the new Comics Code Authority, publishers resurrected the superhero action comic to fill the void. But the superhero comic hardly comes to an end in 1970 (despite the return of the horror genre through the '70s).

If we look to a DC comic to establish a Golden-Silver-Bronze Age timeline, it may be because it is the company has been around longest, spawning more surviving characters (in name if not in body) than any other, as well as being first to revive the superhero genre in the pages of Showcase. Jack Kirby too has been around that long. He came out of the Golden Age of comics to become indisputably the most influential artist of the Silver Age (and of the entire American comics tradition).

So while we're looking at DC for the overall timeline, Marvel Comics may well be the most important element in the superhero revival's longevity. While DC resurrected old names and kept old properties alive, Marvel created a mostly new stable of characters. Though it sometimes sounds like Stan Lee created it all single-handedly, the very fact of the Marvel Method - with artists pretty much plotting out issues based on outlines with images alone, then a scripter adding relevant dialogue to those pictures - means the artist's input was as great as the writer's, and it becomes difficult to ascribe certain inventions to a lone writer. Setting character ownership aside, Kirby defined a style of storytelling that was more energetic, grander, more epic than what was being done elsewhere. His pages have a momentum all their own, probably developed by virtue of not working from a set script. They don't need the words.

Bridging the Golden and Silver Ages as he does, Kirby is one to watch, just as DC is, in establishing the superhero comics timeline. If we need a historical point to mark the end of an Age, Kirby provides us one by switching sides, as it were, at the end of the '60s, leaving the company (and shared world) he helped create for the opportunity to start something new. But I'm less interested in history than in symbolism. After all, superhero iconography is incredibly symbolic. It is a genre full of tropes, archetypes and chest emblems.

So when I chart the end of the Silver Age to the very second Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 was published, it is a symbolic changing of the guard I seek. First, there's the chosen champion to carry out such a change. Kirby, a man of all eras, is it. I find this both historically and creatively appropriate. Then, there is the story's content, wholly different from what that particular series had been doing before.

And this is where I must pause to talk about what we've come to associate with the Silver Age style at DC (still our timeline holder). The stories were frequently high concept one-offs, silly and disposable, usually not issue-length. Today we celebrate the creative zaniness of such writers as Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher, their ideas at once bold and ridiculous. No franchise was more Silver Agey than Superman's, with spin-offs like the Legion of Super-Heroes, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen being particularly insane. Any given month, Jimmy might take Superman in as his roommate, find a caveman in a block of ice, and turn into a giant turtle, each story resolved in the space of 8 pages.

Enter Kirby. Suddenly, Jimmy is an action hero thrown into the beginnings of Kirby's Fourth World. The story is action-packed and always to be continued in the next (it isn't even really isolated from his other three titles). Jimmy, who was always subservient to Superman, now rejects him as a mother hen, and ultimately absorbs him into his supporting cast. Either on the cover or the splash page, the comic calls itself Superman's Ex-Pal, or boldly proclaims Superman "Jimmy Olsen's Pal". It is a reversal of everything that had gone before, and done in the pages of a comic that TO THIS DAY is held up as representative of that particular Silver Age lunacy.

And what comes next? Kirby brings to life an entire pantheon of characters using (as we'll discover in later articles) the purest possible comic book tropes. Granted, he's imported a lot of that from Marvel - a hyperbolic narrator, a more tightly bound shared universe, and the energy of his art style - but he's distilled what's worked for him and for other comics creators into something akin to PURE genre.

Did it stick though? Did he usher in a new era of comic book making? That is debatable. I can't look at the 1970s and see a change in that direction (pure comics) unless it's a Kirby book. Notoriously, the Fourth World books weren't even well received. And yet, the New Gods have been a mainstay of the DC Universe since. Far from forgotten, creators invariably try to bring them back, for good or ill, and that includes Bruce Timm's WB cartoons. Superhero comics creators cannot get away from Kirby's influence or creations. In any case, I doubt that Kirby tells us to be like him. Rather, he wants us to be like ourselves, to go our own way, and that's something that IS evident in comics today.

Look at my description of DC's Silver Age again. It doesn't read like Marvel's. Marvel had its share of lunacy (Ant-Man's catapult anyone?), but its characters were a lot more psychologically human, there was more soap opera weaved into the stories, a more continuous narrative, no isolated characters, etc. But Marvel still had a house style, different from DC's, but still very coherent (Stan intimately running the show is responsible for it, surely). After Kirby's Fourth World, there is a sense that there is no set way of doing comics, even within the same universe. It may account for the renewed multiplicity of genres (horror, fantasy, etc.) and certainly gave birth to true originals like Steve Gerber, to name but one example, and eventually, the rise of the independents.

In any case, if we're looking for a symbolic clean break with the previous decade's tradition, Jimmy Olsen #133 provides it. The title best known (and derided) for its rampant Silver Ageism becomes a new vehicle for action and originality, with its starring character vocally rejecting the old order and discovering a new mythology (and methodology) along with the reader.


Matthew Turnage said...

Jimmy Olsen #133 is not a bad point to mark the Bronze Age. It not only signals Kirby's return to DC and the beginning of the Fourth World Saga, it also marks a big change in the entire Superman line with Mort Weisenger's retirement and the impending Superman line mini-revamp getting underway. At this point, we're just three months away from "Kryptonite No More" and one month after a new costume for Supergirl. Also, Jimmy Olsen #133 shares a cover date with Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #1, which I view as marking the beginning of the period when Roy Thomas will overtake Stan Lee at the House of Ideas.

However, I personally consider the bronze age to start about six months earlier with Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, which is another DC book that really seems to break away from DC's Silver Age style..

Sea-of-Green said...

Yeah, I've always thought of GL-GA as the starting point of the Bronze Age as well. However, I am admittedly completely biased because I am a lifelong GL-GA fan. :-)

Austin Gorton said...

Well said. Thanks for expanding on this. It's one of the more compelling arguments for the start of the Bronze Age I've heard, largely because it considers the tropes/archetypes/symbols of comics that many other "dividing points" seem to overlook.

I like this idea much more than, say the Death of Gwen Stacy or Giant Size X-Men 1, two other points I see thrown about a lot.

Anonymous said...

I think Kirby's move to DC is a very good place to mark the start of the Bronze Age. Following the move, the Big Two were forced to change the way they did things.

At DC, they were desperate to regain their market share. From what I understand DC lost their top spot in comic book sales by the end of the 60s to Marvel, and gave Kirby creative freedom he wanted in order to woo him into their stable. This is not to say that DC wanted to Marvelize their product, but DC did add new titles and new ideas, and not only those that Kirby brought. Green Lantern / Green Arrow was a nice addition to early 70s DC, as was fresh talent like Neal Adams Batman revival.

At Marvel, they were hit with Kirby leaving and Stan Lee scripting Spider-Man and Fantastic Four (Thor too? not sure), and that was it. Many of their titles stagnated as a result. So many comics in the post-Lee/Kirby Marvel became poor imitations of what had come before, trying to imitate the Silver Age without rocking the boat too much when it came to expanding and changing the core characters' mythos. There is a reason why the core characters experienced a 'dead' era, and very few of the big name comics had great runs in the 70s. The revivals of mainline Marvels, like it or not, didn't happen until the early 80s: Micheline/Layton on Iron Man, Byrne on Fantastic Four, Simonson on Thor, Claremont on X-Men, Miller on Daredevil, etc.

Even if people balk at placing one man as the catalyst for a new era, it's still undeniable that superhero comics changed forever right around the time Kirby made the move.

Siskoid said...

If Kirby has an artistic DC analog, it's Neal Adams. Totally different, but no less inventive as far as storytelling goes. Kirby remains the better symbolist however and is stronger as a comic book "prophet". While Kirby's work became more and more abstract, Adams went the other way, bringing a more realistic art style than had been used before at DC.

GL/GA isn't a bad starting point, and certainly O'Neil's work on Batman in the 70s makes a break with the 60s version. I was thinking of him as much as Gerber when writing the article. However, if I'm to stick up for my thesis, though GL/GA came out first, it seems more an outgrowth of Marvel's house style (superheroes dealing with real problems, though the inovation is the focus on social problems rather than personal ones) than a pure and unique "voice".

Turning to world history, I find that while certain events and people are credited with heralding a new era, you can always find precursors, or contemporaries who seem to have edged out the creditee, and yet, it's the Big Author who gets the credit, the Important Figure. Probably because that better known "character" has a more direct influence on others. Not to sideline Adams and O'Neil too much (they're great), but they certainly didn't have the already legendary status of "The King" at that time (or as yet). So his influence was necessarily stronger.

I do agree that eras start and end with a confluence of factors, so all of these projects contributed to the change and strengthened each other.

Anonymous said...

A great essay, Siskoid...and you make some excellent points. However, I tend to gravitate toward the mileposts like the early 70's appearances of anti-heroes (the Punisher, Wolverine, Ghost Rider) and darker storylines (the death of Gwen Stacy) to mark the dawning of the Bronze Age. It's no accident that all of my examples are Marvel characters and stories, since I believe DC would have kept their Silver Age style going in perpetuity if Marvel wasn't there to nudge them in a more sophisticated direction (just as Marvel nudged DC toward their brand of storytelling a decade earlier).

If Kirby's move to DC represents any kind of a new era, I would submit that it was the dawning of a much more damaging "celebrity factor over content" factor that the comics biz is still struggling with. In other words, Kirby was the star of New Gods, with the actual characters and concepts almost non-factors in its initial splash into the marketplace. I would agrue that Kirby's legendary status may be one of the only things that has KEPT this creaky property around for so many years afterward....since banishing the characters would be an affront to KIRBY and not so much to any inherent creative value in characters like Granny Goodness or Vermin Vundabar.

Siskoid said...

Ooh, that's not a very nice thing to say about Granny Goodness (which I happen to think is a brilliant creation). ;)

My literary studies background informs me on this, but I tend to think of the Bronze Age as English lit's Romanticism. From the Neo-Classics who were using mostly Roman and Greek formulae, literature moved to an individuistic vision. Suddenly, poetry (indeed all of literature since) has been at least in part about the AUTHOR him/herself.

Byron talks more about himself than his title protagonist in Don Juan. Wordsworth is all about his own distinct perceptions. Blake creates his own mythology. Authors trying to break the mold and do something new fill the canon up to this day (since it's outside the bounds of this conversation, I've oversimplified here).

I definitely agree that Kirby is the star of the show (says so right on the cover) and you have a point that the New Gods cannot die because they are Kirby's legacy (though note no such drive when it comes to Captain Galaxy and other projects... we're not seeing that much Kamandi either, etc.), but don't rob these concepts of their vitality. There's something THERE that strikes a chord, and it's not just Kirby's star power (as future articles will explore).

Where was I? Oh yes "celebrity-driven" comics. I'm not sure I can agree that Kirby is the precedent for such things. After all, he IS a comics creator. What's terrible about a celebrity-driven market is the Picoults and Meltzers of this world who get into comics like a hockey player goes golfing in the summer.

That didn't really start in 1970 did it? It seems a fairly recent development, right in tune with the rest of society and its love affair with celebrity. If you're talking about big name comics creators getting more opportunities by virtue of their popularity, well, that's as it should be. If you do good work (or at least work that people like, I avoid all notion of quality here), then you should get the opportunity to do more. That's not an aberration, that's success.

I have always been more interested in the work of individuals that have produced interesting work than in any given "property", which is why I applauded DC's adding creator names to the covers back in the late 80s or early 90s while it took a while longer for Marvel to do so.

Matthew Turnage said...

DC was putting creators names on some covers as early as 1983, as the cover to Batman and the Outsiders #4 indicates, but I think the practice didn't become line-wide until around 1986 (I don't remember Superman comics naming the creators on the cover until "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" but I may be mistaken). As a kid, I didn't understand why Marvel didn't put the creators names on the cover, but I'm glad they finally came around.

The rise of the superstar creators and creator prominance over characters may be a sign of the post-Bronze Age era, whatever that is.

Siskoid said...

Maybe Marvel didn't want you to know the insides weren't drawn by the same person who did the cover, I don't know. They weren't very big on giving artists their expected due, if we remember the Image split.

Of course, I was always on the lookout for writers, not artists, but that's me.

Thomas Mitchell said...

The silver age did not begin the month after the golden age ended. There were several years in between. Although I am in the extreme minority, I do not believe the seventies belong to any age, silver or bronze. Or perhaps they represent a dark age. Rather I believe the Bronze Age began when creativity in comics once again flowered in the eighties, which I believe began with the arrival of DCs Wolfman and Perez Teen Titans.

Siskoid said...

That's an interesting take on it, allowing for transition periods that share elements from both adjacent "age" as well as attempts at doing new things that prove to be dead ends that will not define the next "age".


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