So Sayeth the Odinson: The Odinson Takes a Look Back at Comics History: Part 1 – The Golden Age to the Modern Age

Greetings from the Odinson,

Anybody who has read comics for any extended period of time is familiar with the Ages of Comics (i.e. The Golden Age, Silver Age, etc.).  This week, in the first of a two-part column, the Odinson is going to discuss these Ages and point out the single most important issue that, to him, embodies each of these Ages in comics history.  Plus, I will add a few fascinating sub-Ages (indicated with an *) to the list.  This may not necessarily be the issues that kicked off their respective Age, but these are the single issues or storylines that define these different Ages for the Odinson and this is what the different Ages mean to me.  Let’s get started.

Part 1 of 2: The Golden Age to the Modern Age

The Golden Age (1939-1955): Action Comics #1 – The Golden Age of comics was a bright, shinning beacon of hope.  It set the standard for all others to follow.  Its heroes were stalwart and true, fighting the never-ending battle to preserve truth, justice, and the American way.  The heroes of the Golden Age took on gangland crime, political corruption, and oppression.  And with the call to arms for World War II, they joined the Allies in their fight against the Axis Powers.

This pantheon of comic book legends consisted of some of the greatest champions for justice from comics history, names like Captain America, Captain Marvel, Batman, Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, the Human Torch, Green Lantern, Cat-Man, the Black Terror and Bulletman. But no Golden Age star burns brighter than the super hero that started it all – Superman!  The Man of Steel was the first and greatest of all the super heroes.  Not only were his actions the bar by which all other heroes are measured to this very day, his power set – super strength, speed, intelligence, flight, invulnerability – is the accepted template for countless of heroes that came after him.

The Golden Age was also the Age of the Sidekick.  Captain America had Bucky.  Captain Marvel had Captain Marvel, Jr.  Batman, of course had, Robin.  And Superman had Jimmy Olsen.  There were also Kitten, Toro, Bulletgirl and many others.  Through these teenage avengers, the comic industry’s number one target audience, children, could live vicariously and experience the adventurous life of fighting crime alongside their adult super hero supervisor.

The Silver Age (1956-1969): Flash #123 – As America and the world entered the Atomic Age, comic book heroes took on a more science fiction tone.  Magical whimsies and fantasy elements of the past made way for alien influence and super science.  Heroes like Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom got sci-fi makeovers.  And no hero exemplified this change more so than the Flash.  Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, with his winged helmet, resembles the Roman god of myth and legend, Hermes.  Barry Allen’s Flash, however, wears a sleeker costume.  Allen is a police scientist who received his super speed when a lightning bolt strikes and dowses him with electrified chemicals.

For the Silver Age, Green Lantern’s power ring is no longer magical.  Instead, ace test pilot Hal Jordan receives his power ring from a dying alien and becomes part of the universal police force known as the Green Lantern Corps.  The Atom is no longer a feisty, two-fisted masked hero, he is now a brilliant scientist that can shrink down to the size of his namesake.  And Hawkman is no longer a reincarnated man from ancient Egypt but now an interstellar police officer (though to be fair, Hawkman’s origins are so convoluted I don’t even know where to begin).  It is also during the Silver Age that the World’s Greatest Super Heroes assemble and forge a mighty beacon of righteousness the world would come to know as the Justice League of America.

* The Marvel Age (1961-Present): Fantastic Four #1 – By time the 60s had arrived, longtime comic scribe Stan Lee was becoming burned out on the whole Atlas Era monster/romance/western style of comic book storytelling.  He was ready to give up comics all together.  It was at that moment something very serendipitous happened.  Stan’s editor came to him and told him that their distinguished competition over at DC was having all sorts of success with a series called Justice League of America.  So, at the behest of his beautiful supportive wife Joan, Stan decided that if he was going to do one last comic story, then he was going to tell the kind of story he wanted to and with the publication of Fantastic Four – the Marvel Age was born.  The Marvel Age ushered in a new kind of super hero.  These were not the demigods that looked down on mankind from high on their perch in an orbiting satellite.  No, the Marvel super heroes were mankind.  They reflected man’s daily struggles with self.

Ben Grimm is an everyman from Yancy Street who is transformed into a monstrous Thing.  Peter Parker as the Spectacular Spider-Man can match wits with Doctor Octopus and stop the Green Goblin from pumpkin-bombing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, but still struggles to make ends meet, pay the rent and get the girl.  The Mighty Thor is the strongest warrior of fabled Asgard, but he’s trapped inside the crippled shell of a mortal man.  Bruce Banner is arguably the world’s most brilliant mind, but whenever he becomes angry he transforms into the monster the world has come to know as the Incredible Hulk.  Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer by day, but by night he is Daredevil the Man without Fear and protector of Hell’s Kitchen.  The Uncanny X-Men are mutant heroes that protect a world that fears and hates them for being different.  The Invincible Iron Man is an unstoppable armored hero, but as Tony Stark, he struggles with the vice of alcoholism and a bad heart.

The Marvel Age gave the reader heroes they could relate to, characters that were more than one dimensional cardboard cut-outs.  In many ways, thanks to Stan Lee’s vision, a talent pool of some of the most legendary artists in the history of the medium, and the Marvel style of narrative, the Marvel Age legitimized comics and paved the way for the future of comic book storytelling.

The Bronze Age (1970-1981): Conan the Barbarian #1 – The Bronze Age is defined by its variety and the exploration of other genres other than just super hero.  The 1970s were going to be different and nothing signified that more than the coming of Robert E. Howard’s mighty Cimmerian to the four-color format.  It would not be long before Conan would be joined by other fantasy legends like Red Sonja, Claw the Unconquered, Kull the Conqueror, and Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth.

The Bronze Age would also bring back the horror comic and take it to new heights with titles like Werewolf by Night, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider, Demon, Son of Satan, Weird War Tales, and the crown jewel of horror, Tomb of Dracula.  It was also the Age of the Dragon as two-fisted (and footed) heroes like Iron Fist, Richard Dragon, the Sons of the Tiger, Karate Kid, and Shang Chi the Master of Kung Fu used their “Deadly Hands of Kung Fu” to distribute a unique brand of justice.  And with the Sci-Fi cherry-on-top of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Planet of the Apes, and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, the Bronze Age stands out as a prominent cornucopian Age of variety in comic book history.

The Modern Age (1981-Present): Watchmen – The Modern Age brought two major changes to the comic book medium – the comic universe-changing Big Event and the maturation of comic book storytelling.  Nothing symbolizes that second like the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons instant classic Watchmen, a sophisticated deconstruction of the super hero genre set against the backdrop of a murder mystery and the 1980s Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation.  Watchmen was not the only tale of its time to signify to readership that their comics weren’t just for kids anymore.  The Dark Knight Returns, Squadron Supreme, the New Universe, The Killing Joke, Demon in a Bottle, The Longbow Hunters are all storylines that helped comics and the fans grow up a little and showed that this wonderful medium can be used for more than just telling another villain-of-the-week story.  DC Comics introduced its Vertigo line, a Mature Readers Only banner with titles like Swamp Thing, Sandman, Hellblazer, and Preacher, that allowed writers and artists to explore stories aimed at an older audience.

The big company-encompassing-event story was birthed in the Modern Age.  Contest of Champions is the first of its kind to feature every single character from the entire spectrum of its respective comic universe in one epic tale.  Then Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths took this epic style of storytelling to the nth degree and the industry has not looked back since.  What followed was a never-ending slew of massive event stories with varying degrees of success, including The Mutant Massacre, Fall of the Mutants, Zero Hour, Deathmate, Civil War, World War Hulk, etc.  The Modern Age is definitely the Age of the Big Event.

The Modern Age also birthed a darker kind of hero – the Anti-Hero.  Gun-toting, take-no-prisoners, judge, jury and executioner type “heroes” like Deadpool, Venom, Vigilante, Elektra, Deathstroke the Terminator and, of course, Punisher.  These are men and women that walk a thin line between good and bad.  Their version of justice is absolute and they are just as likely to take a life as they are to save it, and in some cases, more likely.  Hard-edged servants of the law like Judge Dredd, the ultimate judge, jury and executioner, were introduced to the format.  Characters like Cable and his militant X-Force and government sponsored teams of assassins like Suicide Squad and Bloodstrike aren’t shackled with the moral compass heroes like Superman and Captain America wear with pride.  In their book, bad guy equals dead guy and they won’t lose a moment of sleep over it.

Tune in next week as the Odinson finishes up his trek through the Ages of Comics with a look at the Post-Crisis DCU, the Age of the Renegade, the Ultimate Age, and more!

This is Odinson bidding thee farewell

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About Odinson

I am a lifelong comics fan and pop culture enthusiast. Comic books, novels, games, television, movies, I love it all. From fantasy to science fiction, drama to comedy, as long as the writing and execution are interesting, I love it, and I want to talk about it.

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