One For The Ages:
Barbara Gordon and the (Il)-Logic of Comic Book Age-Dating

(as originally appeared in The International Journal of Comic Art volume 5, issue 2)

Editor's Note: This is a bit of a change of pace for Once Upon A Dime. Our stated intent has been to bring articles from Don and Derek's classic fanzine to the web. But when noted comics scholar A. David Lewis offered us this, which he had written for the International Journal of Comics Art, it was hard for me to resist. So I asked Don what he thought. Obviously, he went wild for the piece, too, but I'll let him tell it.

-- Derek McCaw

Like most fans of the Golden Age I'm often called upon to define that age. And that begs the questions when and where the other ages begin and end. And how many ages are we talking about? Was there a period with no age? Well that's for the scholars to debate.

Then at the San Diego Con I met A. David Lewis and if he isn't a scholar I don't know who is. I'm excited that he asked if we would reprint his article on the web, though I'm going to disagree with him on one point: for me, the Golden Age will always end when Commander Courage Adventures became Courage To Love in 1954, leaving an "age-vacuum" until Showcase #4.

-- Donald Swan

When undertaking the question of the comic book Ages, one could look no further than a character from that selfsame medium, Barbara Gordon, as a guide. Best known as DC Comics' Batgirl, Barbara Gordon provides a useful entry point into the discussion of comic book classification and dating nomenclature. The heroine long ago hung up her chiropteran tights out of necessity: a gunshot would to the spine left the librarian-by-day/vigilante-by-night permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Moving from the physical to the cerebral, the paraplegic turned handicap into opportunity and reinvented herself as Oracle, remote "freelance information broker who specializes in metahuman activities" and "the JLA's secret member" (Morrison, 1998: 1, 75).

In this role, she essentially acts as one of the superteam's most "analytical thinkers" and information sources (Morrison, 1998: 123). Credited as being "a genius-level intellect with a near-eidetic memory and a master in her field" (Howze, 2003) as well as Wizard magazine's Greatest Super-Heroine of All Time, Barbara is, to one way of thinking, both the superhero most emblematic of and the icon most flattering to the comic book scholar.

With Barbara in mind as a muse, start with a crucial scene from her history, that of her crippling in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke. She is at home with her father, Gotham City's Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, as he clips the latest Joker article for his scrapbook. This scene follows pages in which Batman occupies his lair, studying the little concrete information he himself has on the Joker. In both the case of the scrapbook and the Batcave database, classic, Golden Age images of both Batman and the Joker appear, though the savvy reader knows that these versions have been overwritten by subsequent decades of creative teams and retroactive continuity (retcon). With his sloppy pasteboard system, the Commissioner is unbothered by this, mainly because he doesn't focus highly on precise dating: "Look at this one. First time they met. Now when was that?" (Moore, 1988: 12). Barbara, on the other hand, has an altogether different approach: "Some day you ought to let me work out a proper filing system, like we used at the library" (Moore, 1988: 12).

In his book How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock notes this moment, saying:

Such a system [as suggested by Barbara], however, would be impossible when a contemporaneous article was authored by another character practically written out of continuity, Vicky Vale. History flows through the whole of The Killing Joke, but particularly in this scene of Gordon's book keeping. Most revealingly we are given a moment that reflects on the pastiche quality of Bolland's art […] Barbara remarks, "Urrgh. Look, you used too much paste! It's all squidging under the edges of the clipping," exposing the artifice of the pastiche and emphasizing the difficulty of making the pieces fit together nicely. And Gordon literally tries to fit Batman's history into a whole (2002: 59-60).

Klock further argues, though, that a character's reaction to this discombobulated history is what helps to define them. "Batman's response is to organize the chaos, the Joker's to embrace it, but Commissioner Gordon simply cannot remember" (2002: 60). Barbara, similar to her mentor Batman, wants to remember and wants to organize Bolland's pastiche. Most of all, though, she simply wants to have a logic to the system by which history is dated. And, in that general manner, one should follow Barbara Gordon.

Some, though, would argue against wrangling with the Gordian (or Gordanic) knot of chronological comic book classifications - The Ages. Some, akin to the Commissioner, would rather not be bothered with scrutinizing where one age or stage of the genre ended and the next one began.

In his 1997 article for Comic Book Marketplace, Lou Mougin highlights the arbitrariness of such labels. First, "it can be argued that all these 'Ages' apply to superhero comics only" (1997: 71). But, instead of being begrudging about this limitation, it is more useful to whole-heartedly embrace it; it is an acceptable, even welcomed, limitation to this corpus, giving it a manageable shape.

Still, there is the subjectivity of determining what is and is not a 'superhero comic'; there is also the imposed back-dating of the Ages with which to contend. "You can really only identify the Ages that are clearly over," says writer Kurt Busiek (Lewis, 2002). "So, the one you're in at the moment is always called 'The Modern Age' until you give it an actual name - because then you've put a headstone one it and you're on to the next one" (Lewis, 2002).

So, not only is the content of an Age determined by outside forces, but also its span. This constructedness leaves Mougin to ask, "Were there really Platinum, Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Whatever Ages?" (Mougin, 1997: 71). In the end, he is basically resigned to the frustrating group consensus that "now we have four 'metal' Ages (Iron/Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze)…and it's only a matter of time, an age, really, before somebody gives us another age" (Mougin, 1997: 71), even if there is no mass agreement to those headers and no driving rationale behind their creation. This sort of haphazard, slipshod arrangement barely qualifies as organization - continuing Klock's Batman analogy, Mougin sees the Ages as more Joker-esque, operating in a world either without logic or with a twisted one, than like the Commissioner or Barbara or even the Dark Knight himself.

All this subjectivity doesn't invalidate the Age-dating system; quite the contrary, it invites any number of outside interpreters to make sense of its content. And plenty have. So, before adding this article to their ranks, it seems advisable to sketch out both parameters of the discussion, a sampling of the various theories that have been set forth, and then propose a new, potential classifications.

Therefore, this dialogue will start at a point with the most logic, agreement, and tradition: The Golden Age. Some sources, including The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, consider there to be a Platinum Age, which predates the Golden Age. However, few if any, superhero titles populate this era; in fact none of Overstreet's "Top 10 Platinum Books" resemble anything that would be considered from the superhero genre (1999: 70).

The main reason for this absence should be obvious: by all accounts, the genre had not yet been created. "The costumed superhero burst into seemingly fully-fledged existence in June 1938, with the appearance on American newsstands of Action Comics 1, featuring Superman's first ever appearance in print" (Reynolds, 1992: 8). As Sterling Dashiell says in his Comic Book Marketplace article, "No one argues the fact that the first appearance of Superman inaugurated the Golden Age" (1998: 80).

Certainly, there is no argument from Klock, Busiek, Mougin, the writers of Wizard: The Comics Magazine, online columnist Murel Bailey, or comic scholar Pete Coogan. In fact, Coogan recasts the entire Golden Age as the first of a four-step evolutionary cycle modeled after Thomas Schatz's blueprint for the progress of cinematic genres. Calling the Golden Age the Experimental stage may be more fitting for Action Comics #1 than is generally acknowledged.

Whereas the first 13 pages of Action Comics #1 would determine "much of what would become central to the superhero genre" henceforth, it came after years of revision, influences, and predecessors (Reynolds, 1992: 12). Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had actually conceived of their opus under a number of failed guises before the 1938:
In the January 1933 issue [of fanzine Science Fiction], Siegel's "The Reign of the Superman," illustrated by Shuster, saw print. In this tale, the "Superman" becomes a villain after being granted super-powers by a mad scientist who is very much like the later arch-villain, Lex Luthor […]

In Action Comics #1, a one page origin of Superman is given. This was expanded to two pages for Superman #1, which also featured four additional pages tacked on to the beginning of Superman's first adventure. Both of these versions are abridgements of the story as actually written by Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster in the early '30s. That version had initially been prepared in 1934 as a newspaper comic strip and submitted to syndicate after syndicate collecting rejections. The tale had been rewritten and recut several times, with no version achieving much success (Semich, 2003).

So, this start-point should not be mistaken for an instantaneous birth - a sort of superheroic immaculate conception, with no progenitors or prior development. Action Comics #1 should still be the first full-fledged superhero comic and thus start the Golden Age, but not because it introduced an entirely new set of conventions: it merely presented them all together. Whether this all proves Coogan's overall claim of modeling the various comic Ages after Schatz's model, however, remains to be seen.

Models such as Busiek's, Bailey's, and Semich's each propose some sort of intermediary period that occurs after the Golden Age, but before the next stage or step - a period before clear change has taken place, but pure Gold has been replaced with a tawny rust.

Bailey calls this "The First Tribulation" (2000), a time where, following the conclusion of World War II, superhero comics had gone out of fashion in favor of other genres. While this sway in popularity is certainly factual, it does not necessarily argue for inclusion in this article's Age-dating scheme. There is fundamentally ebb and flow to the reception of a genre as it is moved from one stage to another. Genre is, after all, by Coogan & Schatz's definition "a system of interaction between the producers and audiences of a medium" (Coogan, 1996), thereby necessitating a form to fall from grace in some way that effects change.

Just as with an empire, some fall will bookend the rise, but to mark that fall as its own period seems redundant. (And the empire-comparison seems especially relevant given the Age system's origin, the Greco-Roman myth of the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages of Man.) Some events and characters will hearken for the end of one Age and the arrival of another, even if they seem improperly fitting in either.

Coogan cites some of these precursors, such as Gladiator or the Phantom whom "play this role for the Golden Age, as do the Timely revival of Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner for the Silver Age" (Coogan, 1996).

Many contend that the debut of J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter and Deadman act as similar precursors for the Silver and Bronze Ages, respectively. So, in short, precursors may well exist, but declaring a host of separate interim-periods such as the pre-Silver "Atomic Age" or the pre-/mid-/late- prefixes defeats what seems to be the overall goal of codification: simplicity.

Page 2

-- A. David Lewis

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