Part 1, Part 2

One For The Ages:
Barbara Gordon and the (Il)-Logic of Comic Book Age-Dating
Part Three: Age of Iron or Age of Rust?

Wizard claims that "The Modern Age" did not begin as much as default, being birthed from the orgy of crossovers beginning with Marvel Super-Heroes' Secret Wars where "team-ups lost their specialness […] subsequently signaling the end of the Bronze Age" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 91).

Klock considers a "Dark Age," a bastard spawn of Watchmen's deconstructive tendencies - "Alan Moore was disturbed to find people actually liking Rorschach, and wanting to read more comics that starred characters like him" (2002: 80). Semich agrees to this assessment, even if under the moniker of "The Iron Age," where much of Superman's morality, optimism, and confidence were siphoned away (which has only in recent years, with writers like Grant Morrison on JLA, begun to return).

Ultimately, though, Klock rejects both of those models, instead proposing the Third and Fourth Movement of the genre: a system of Oedpial narratives in the tradition of theorist Harold Bloom where one generation's heroes supplant the former (e.g. Watchmen, Authority, Planetary). Coogan agrees that the movement has been a four-step one, but he holds to a different chronology. His Baroque/Iron Age "began with DC Comics Presents #26 (October 1980), the first appearance of the New Teen Titans," marked by a "larger shift toward reinvigoration" than ever before (Coogan, 1996).

Coogan never quite defines what he means by "reinvigoration," but provides examples of it: "Self-conscious revivals sprouted everywhere: the Fantastic Four and Superman by John Byrne; Daredevil and Batman by Frank Miller; Thor by Walter Simonson; Captain Marvel and Marvelman in Miracleman and the Charlton heroes in Watchmen, both by Alan Moore" (1996).

These examples, though, are highly problematic. While Watchmen originated from a Charlton character proposal, the ultimate product had little to do with them at all. And Miracleman was a forced alteration of Marvelman, caused by Marvel Comics' lawyers on the British import. Further, it becomes difficult to distinguish how these are greater revivals that those of the Silver Age or Bronze Age, some of which Coogan names to concede. Coogan posits that a Second Golden Age now follows the rather empty Iron one, where the staid superhero conventions are reborn and experimentation lives again.

In a sense, his forecasting fulfills Busiek's own: "I haven't heard anyone put together a decent argument for another Age after Silver […] But, I'm sure somebody will - I'm sure there's some sort of organizing principle out there. Whether it's writer-driven or artist-driven, it's always a cycle" (Lewis, 2002). Franke and Wechsler-Chaput also admit, "There is no clearly defined Age after the Silver Age, although a number of possibilities such as Platinum, Bronze, Independent, and (in more depressed moments) Mylar and Silicon (the last based both on computer coloring and the ever expanding female breast size in many comics these days) have been suggested" (1998).

Bailey follows the "mineral theme" to an extreme, proposing "The Mica Age" and the "Electroplate Age": "Mica" because "glitter frequently contains little more than powdered, color mica," referring to the cheap marketing gimmicks of the late 90s, and "Electroplate" because of its deeper-than-Silver penetration such as Kingdom Come's admirable and "surprising discovery of everything Kirbyesque" (2000).

To summarize, one has a number of broad dates to use as guidelines in moving, to use Bailey's phrase, "toward a consistent nomenclature for the Ages of comics" (2000). The Golden Age, with some precursors, begins in June of 1938 with Action Comics #1, the debut of our recognized Superman. The Silver Age is after 1955, most likely September 1956 with Showcase #4, the debut of Barry Allen as the revamped Flash. The next Age, which I hesitantly call Bronze, comes as early as 1967 with Strange Adventures #205 (Deadman's first appearance), but more likely between 1970 and 1972 for a multitude of possible reasons and events. If there is a fourth Age, its beginning ranges from 1980 to the early 1990s, if it can even be said to exist. The 2003 viewpoint of this article is most likely too myopic to suggest a subsequent Age without at least a decade of distance from which to view it.

Systemical Logistics for the Ages
It is now worth suggesting a particular perspective from which to examine all of these aforementioned theories: Consistency.

As said in the opening, this article is more interested in the logic behind these Age-systems than the systems or dates themselves. And, for the most part, few of these personal systems exhibit a consistent logic all through their various stages; many manage to isolate a range of years, such as the summary above has just done, and then, within that span, seems to find the event that holds the most impact to them personally. In addition, there is a remarkably strong bias towards formulating these Ages strictly in terms of progress; the industry's backslides and declines in are often relegated to either designations like Bailey's "tribulations," or they are overlooked entirely. While Bailey's "Mica Age" may be a little extreme, it at least confronts the declining standards of the comic book product of that time, similar to the discarded "Dark Age" perspective.

This over-optimism and slapdash date-selection process belies any application of hypothesis or scientific method; to be useful to the academic and not just the collector or fanboy, a degree of infused objectivity is required.

Coogan and Klock, regardless of their actual selections, have the most consistent systems, with Semich a distant third. Coogan's analysis is based on Schatz's template, a very safe and wise procedure; while one can dispute its application to comics as a medium, to criticize its consistency would require deeper familiarity with Schatz's own corpus and his work as a whole. As it stands, Coogan remains true and consistent to his source, straying only to extrapolate and deduct what comes next. He looks for those moments that best fit Schatz's mold; the only question, then, would be whether Schatz's theory is appropriate for this inter-media correlation.

Likewise, Klock has his own mentor of sorts, Harold Bloom (and, to a lesser degree, Slavoj Žižek), and keeps his theory always front-of-mind. Any detours into nostalgia or outside commentary are soon righted by a return to his Oedipal paradigm. And, Klock is further limited - said in a positive sense - by focusing primarily on narrative rather than industry fluctuations, social climate, or staffing changes.

Outside of his mineral theme, Bailey holds to no steady source of data. His examples run the gamut from narrative-driven to industry-driven to marketing-driven. The same holds for Wizard, Dashiell, and even Busiek (though, given the chance to rebut, Busiek might argue his focus to be on eras of experimentation, which, in turn, argues against Coogan); first-appearances, creator turn-over, price-increases, and audience-targeting hold to no one (or two…or three) criteria. And, only if one argues that Semich tracks shifts in Superman's morality - an issue only made overtly in his Iron Age section - can he be said to have reasonable consistency. Format-driven, narrative-driven (including both conventions and overall tone), price-driven, staff-driven, society-driven, morality-driven, progress-driven, aesthetically-driven, etc.: By what standard does one judge the Ages?

This article has an answer, but certainly not the answer. After all, the goal is not to create a new system to beat all other systems - the intent is not to slug it out with any of these aforementioned writers. But, the following system (with Barbara Gordon in the place of Bloom or Schatz) is proposed in order to demonstrate how a consistent criterion can help in rationally sorting through the Ages without totally discarding the traditional Gold, Silver, Bronze, and even Iron classes.

To demonstrate my personal logic, return again with Action Comics #1. Again, it is highly significant given its opening pages "fully employs the definition of the superhero of mission, powers, and identity. The very first page presents the origin, analogical science (superhero physics), the costume, the dual-identity, and the urban setting. In the story itself emerge the secret identity, the superhero code, the supporting cast, the love interest, the limited authorities, and the super/mundane split" (Coogan, 2001, my emphasis).

A key but overlooked piece of Action Comics #1 is the birth of the superheroic ethic: a morality system that demands great power be used for the greater good. In short, this is the reason why the term "superhero" was coined following Superman's debut and why Action Comics #1 is elected the genre's starting point. Golden Age stories would tend "to be straightforward confrontations between good and evil in which the superhero, society, and the audience were all presumed to be on the same side and working for the same goals," those goals being "the defense of the normal, with defense of property rights and relations included therein" (Coogan, 1998: 439).

These principles remain rather firmly in place, even as the character who inaugurated them began to change slightly. Coogan believes that "by the end of 1940 nearly all traces of Superman's social conscience have disappeared and he fights to protect property against theft, politics against disruption, and life against killing, thus enshrining the status quo" (Coogan, 2001).

Semich, on the other hand, sees the 1940s version of Superman as:

…essentially a sort of "super-Roosevelt." He spent most of his time helping to save people from natural disasters or corrupt business men. He thought nothing of leveling entire neighborhoods of slum dwellings in order to force the city fathers to build decent housing. He used his powers to terrorize munitions makers who were, in his mind, the cause of all wars. Except for the Ultra-Humanite and Luthor, there didn't seem to be any supervillains for him to face (Semich, 2003).

Coogan, though, notes that writer "Mark Waid, who claims to have read every single Superman story ever published, asserts that the real shift in Superman's devotion to social justice took place in 1945" (Coogan, 2001).

Whatever its slope, Superman's core morality never truly changed, even if the targets of his quest did. The character helped to initiate the superheroic ideal that strongly appealed to audiences at least until the "impetus driving the Golden Age ended with the Second World War […] with a surge in cancellation occurring in 1949" (Coogan, 1998: 435). And that impetus, arguably, could be the strong - almost blind - adherence to the agreed-upon morality of the American status quo.

By using concepts of morality as a guide for the moment, then Fredrick Wertham's publication of Seduction of the Innocent becomes the most crucial event in the post-war era for the superhero genre. Largely because of both Wertham's popular outcry against comic book's fallen standards and the Congressial hearing on that matter, "the Comics Code Authority was created, which mandated regulations that all but sunk #1 publisher EC Comics by wiping crime and horror comics off the shelves (some say it was done intentionally by rival publishers to break EC's stranglehold on the industry).

As a result, the Code […] buried the Golden Age" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 87). However, it also set the stage for superheroes reemergence via an amended (and ironfistedly ordained) moral code. Wizard says, "The comics industry would be resurrected by trying to adapt to the Code's rigid restrictions" (2001: 88), but that is only half-true: the superhero genre would be resurrected, dragging the industry along with it: "What makes the Silver Age all the more amazing is that it still turned the field on its ears despite working within the rigid confines of the Comics Code. The Code forced comics out of entertainment and more toward morality and ethics…yet the Silver Age embraced the restrictions and entertained nonetheless" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 94).

Once again: by embracing the Comics Code's dictated morality did the superhero genre survive. Thus, "DC reinvented its classic heroes starting with Flash in 1956's Showcase #4" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 94) paving a route to success by means of the same Code that bound them.

Therefore, the Golden Age begins with the implementation of a morals-system for the superhero genre; the Silver Age began with a forced revision of those waning morals, namely the Comics Code. Can the Bronze Age, with all its varied dates and events, be said to have a precise relationship to the Code's dictated sensibilities?

Yes, it can and does: Amazing Spider-Man #96, dated June 1971. Written by Stan Lee, this issue focused on the perils of drug use. However, since the depiction of drugs - even when portrayed negatively - violated the Comics Code, the issue went without the CCA's seal of approval, making it to the newsstands and readers' hands just the same.

In later years, Lee would be praised for his determination: his "courageous action was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health because the Spider-Man comics attracted a large number of young readers, a segment of the population most at risk with respect to drug abuse" (Entertainment Industries Council, 2003). While many underground, independent creators thrived without the CCA approval, this was the first instance of a mainstream superhero publisher willingly defying it in favor of a higher morality. "The Comics Code Authority subsequently changed its rules to support the inclusion of anti-drug abuse messages in comics" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 91), indicating that the power to determine comic book ethics had swayed: By the climax of the Bronze Age, it now belonged largely to the publisher, the main force in shaping a book's destiny and sensibilities.

"By the mid-1980s the Comics Code, once a force powerful enough to bring even EC's William Gaines to heel, had become a spent force, with both Marvel and DC insouciantly advertising many of their comics as 'Suggested for Mature Readers'" (Reynolds, 1992: 9). The Bronze Age is also marked by the onset of "relevant comics," those that focused on the issues then eating at America, such as trust in government, equal rights, and foreign policy. Many titles from this team of publishers had lead the charge in addressing these topics, and those books that did not were often exploring the creative boundaries of the genre.

However, by the 80s, that freedom had become irresponsibility. The Code was flimsy, and there was little fear of its violation. Marvel Comics and DC Comics - the Big Two - operated largely as their own censors (even though they remained part of the CCA's committee). And, after fourteen years of determining their own borders, the self-policing suddenly turned lazy when Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns showed there was money to be made in compromised heroes.

Certainly, this was not Moore and Miller's intention, but it was their effect. For at least a half-dozen years, Marvel and DC released the reigns on hero's accountability in favor of profit. Darkened heroes ruled the day and "heroism itself was questioned by the psychotic characterization of many heroes […] Heroes seemed to serve themselves more than society" (Coogan, 1996) It could be called an "Iron Age" or a "Dark Age", the "Amoral Age" or a "Tarnished Age", but perhaps calling it a "Rust Age" for all of its forebears serves just as well to illustrate the point without sacrificing the metallic theme.

The Golden Age set the moral standard, the Silver Age revised it, the Bronze Age broke free of it, and the Rust Age ran wild with it. The irony, it seems, is that one of the worst offenders of this Rust Age also serves as the most logical starting point for the last identifiable Age.

Coogan claims, "The Iron Age of superhero comics is marked by numerous deaths of superheroes […] Perhaps most emblematic of the death of the superhero is the Iron Age's self-proclaimed greatest success, Spawn, the corpse as superhero" (Coogan, 1996)

What he fails to acknowledge is the fact that this emblematic hero came not from the Big Two, but from a company formed by "seven renegade comic artists [who] shocked the comics establishment by walking away from mega-giant Marvel Comics to form Image Comics in 1992" ("One for the Ages", 2001: 92).

The content of their books, for example their premiere Youngblood #1 in April 1992, was largely of the same grim-and-gritty anti-hero variety, if not even more vacant of ethical values. But, the formation of Image Comics echoes the same preliminary break Marvel made with the CCA twenty years prior: the Big Two could no longer lay sole claim on the ethical standards found in mainstream superhero titles. And while the founders of Image may not have produced the creations (e.g. Spawn, Youngblood, WildC.A.T.S., Savage Dragon) that critics might embrace as the next generation of the superhero genre, they did up the ante and challenge the long-undisputed Big Two throne.

The precipitous rise of CrossGen, Oni Press, and even Big Two prestige imprints like Wildstorm (which was originally part of Image -- ed.) and Marvel Knights owe their voices to Image; it is a stronger Age where the spectrum of morality can be represented - a stronger Steel Age.

In closing, it is worth citing a favorite title amongst the various sources used above: Busiek's own Astro City from Homage Comics, one of the post-Image upstart subsidiaries of Wildstorm and DC. Astro City #1/2, "The Nearness of You", is considered a "critically important moment" by Klock as it recounts "the story of Michael Tenicek, who is plagued by dreams of the same woman every night" (2002: 88). This woman, it turns out, was Tenicek's wife before a superhero conflict imperfectly rewrote reality; her existence was lost in the shuffle, and her only remaining trace exists in Tenicek's dreams. When given the choice by the supernatural Hanged Man to have her purged from memory or leave that last remnant of her alone, Tenicek chooses to remember. He finds peace from this rational explanation and, from there, is willing to accept the imperfections of his existence.

In some way, perhaps this article's guide is just as much Michael than Barbara. "While Miller's Batman needs to create order, and Moore's Joker finds madness in acceptance, Michael Tenicek finds peace through understanding, not by forgetting, but through memory" (Klock, 2002: 89). Hopefully, that same serenity will guide further the systems of logic in remembering the Ages.

Page 4: Chart and Citations

-- A. David Lewis

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