Bronze-Age Comics

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Bronze Age comics

Why it’s daunting: Because there’s so much of it, and the vast majority is awful. There are no hard-and-fast definitions for what constitutes comics’ respective Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages. But generally speaking, the Golden Age begins with Superman’s 1938 Action Comics debut, runs through the World War II-era superhero boom, and ends around 1950, as horror and crime comics made superheroes passé. The Silver Age begins with DC reviving Golden Age hero concepts (starting with The Flash in 1956), continues through the dawn of Marvel Comics and the introduction of such iconic characters as Spider-Man and The Hulk, and ends in the late ’60s with DC belatedly trying to catch up with Marvel by revamping its core characters, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The Bronze Age then marks the moment when the richer characters and more expansive storytelling of the Silver Age met the pervasive push for “social relevance” in popular culture, and extends (roughly) from Green Lantern and Green Arrow’s 1970 journey across America to the “Okay, now let’s really get serious” debuts of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in 1986.

For about a 15-year stretch, Marvel and DC put their heroes through the wringer, having them deal with racism, sexism, pollution, poverty, drugs, and a loss of faith in America. Green Arrow’s ward Speedy became a heroin addict. Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed. Captain America gave up his name out of disgust with government corruption. Batman’s battles with The Joker became deadlier. Tony Stark’s alcoholism became a problem. It was a heady era for the costumed set, and their descent into real-world problems was documented by a wave of superior artists with flowing, dynamic styles: Neal Adams, John Byrne, Mike Grell, Marshall Rogers, Gene Colan, and others.

Yet the writing wasn’t always up to the level of the art, in spite of the creators’ ambition. Young bucks like Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, and Steve Gerber tried to infuse their work with a sense of “now,” by using the lingo of the times, relating the concerns of a generation, and even borrowing ideas from popular movies and music. But they hadn’t yet figured out how to do all that in the context of monthly superhero stories, pitched to pre-teens. The angst and the action often don’t sync up, which results in heaping piles of old comics that sport typically ridiculous plots interspersed with overly earnest speeches about the proper use of power.

Possible gateway: Manhunter, by writer Archie Goodwin and artist Walt Simonson. The stories originally ran as a backup feature in Detective Comics in 1973 and ’74, and have been collected and reprinted multiple times since then.

Why: The Bronze Age is often remembered for its ungainly sociopolitical commentary, but the best mainstream comics of the ’70s and early ’80s leaned more toward breezy genre-play. The seven Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter stories are hardly devoid of “relevance”—the comics obliquely reference the oppression in Tibet, and the plot is driven by the bad behavior of government agencies—but they aren’t about institutional malfeasance so much as they treat it at a given. Besides, with only eight pages each for the first six chapters, and only 20 for the big finish (guest-starring Batman!), Goodwin and Simonson can’t waste time on full-page rants. Instead, Goodwin structures each story cleverly, beginning in the middle of a chase or a shootout, then peppering each page with brief flashbacks, catching readers up with the adventures of Paul Kirk, a superior tracker with an advanced healing ability, a mastery of martial arts, and an army of clones out for his head.

Manhunter as a character dates back to the 1940s, but as re-conceived by Goodwin and Simonson, the hard-nosed soldier of justice (outfitted with exotic guns, knives, and throwing stars) inspired a wave of similar bad-asses in the years that followed, including Wolverine, The Punisher, and Elektra. Goodwin himself was inspired by the spate of kung-fu movies making their way over from Hong Kong in the early ’70s, as well as international spy thrillers and gritty pulp heroes like Donald Westlake’s Parker. Simonson, meanwhile, shows a little of Will Eisner and Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking sense of comics design, but adds his own penchant for quirky sound effects and tiny, scratchy drawings—two elements that make the characters look more like toys at play than page-hogging super-folk. In short, Manhunter has the sophistication in style, structure, and scripting that other adventure comics of the era tried to achieve through subject matter alone. 

Next steps: If you want a taste of prototypical Bronze Age, you pretty much have to start with Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck and Omega The Unknown. Both series exemplify the combination of issue-driven plots and comic-book wildness for which the era is known, but they’re executed with more wit and passion than their drearier peers. Still, Gerber reached beyond his capabilities on both. Omega The Unknown is a thoughtful series about an alien super-being with a mysterious connection to a precocious Hell’s Kitchen orphan; it strains to combine science fiction and urban drama, but the effort is admirable, and the “street” dialogue has an authentic smack. Gerber had more success with the freewheeling Howard, also about an alien “trapped in a world he never made,” but less self-serious—at least initially. When Howard began to become a phenomenon, Gerber took his growing popularity as a license to indulge himself, and the comic became increasingly self-referential and hectoring. It’s still a lively read—and Gene Colan’s art is always a treat to look at—but Howard The Duck is undeniably a product of its time, and of a writer more ambitious than deft.

The same could be said of the groundbreaking Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Neal Adams’ art looks amazing, and Denny O’Neil’s scripts are still bracing in the way they directly challenge the frivolousness of 30 prior years of superhero stories. But O’Neil’s stories aren’t any less frivolous, really, and while the pairing of the liberal Green Arrow and the stodgy Green Lantern makes for some entertaining interplay, their political debates aren’t exactly Firing Line material. Mostly, GL/GA is valuable for paving the way for Adams disciple Frank Miller in his masterful early-’80s run as writer and artist on Daredevil, where (like Manhunter), he used social ills as a backdrop to mature, well-crafted adventure stories.

Superheroes weren’t all about drug lords and teen runaways in the ’70s and ’80s. Veteran herosmith Jack Kirby helped inaugurate the era with the cosmic contortions of his Fourth World Saga, which spread across a handful of DC titles, telling a dense but youth-friendly story of children rebelling against their oppressive parents. It’s weird and impenetrable at times, but Kirby’s opus is also brimming with original ideas and vivid art. And Bronze Age superhero storytelling doesn’t get much better than The Uncanny X-Men, especially the run from #108 to #143 (the bulk of which is collected in The Essential X-Men Vol. 2), written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Combining the best elements of classic melodrama—from soapy romance to cliffhangers—Claremont and Byrne created a set of stories that move breathlessly from one chapter to the next, leaving fans in a state of genuine anxiety over the fates of an eclectic cast of characters. The collaboration reached its apex toward the end, with the sprawling Dark Phoenix Saga and the compact two-part story “Days Of Future Past,” both of which still influence Marvel continuity—and the aspirations of comic-book creators.

Beyond that, leave the superheroes on the shelf and check out DC and Marvel’s trove of genre stories, many which have been made available via the companies’ respective Showcase Presents and Essential series. Writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith do Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery stories justice in their Conan The Barbarian, while in The Warlord, writer-artist Mike Grell dispenses with sword-and-sorcery traditionalism in its twisty tale of a U.S. soldier dropped into a lost world of dinosaurs and wizards. In the ’70s, some of DC’s best writers and artists also contributed outstanding stories to the horror anthology series House Of Mystery and House Of Secrets, including Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, who collaborated on the original, groundbreaking run of Swamp Thing in the ’70s as well. Meanwhile, Marvel’s The Tomb Of Dracula expands the mythology of Bram Stoker’s gothic villain to include exciting new monsters and monster-fighters. Marvel delivers its own spin on the martial-arts epic with Master Of Kung-Fu, while DC came up with the quintessential Western comic in Jonah Hex.  Nearly all of the above titles were in some way trying to exploit popular trends in movies and television, but the Bronze Age spirit of experimentation and maturation is in ample evidence in each, as the creators attempted to produce something different for the medium and the genre.

And don’t neglect comics without the DC or Marvel imprimatur. The Bronze Age likely wouldn’t have been possible without the underground-comics revolution of the late ’60s, which continued with less fanfare into the early ’80s. Three anthology magazines—Arcade, Raw, and Weirdo—showcased underground legends like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman alongside new talents like Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, and Dan Clowes, and provided the burgeoning comic-shop business a quality product that the newsstands wouldn’t stock. Similarly, the hard-fantasy/science-fiction anthologies Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated (the latter published by Marvel), and the Warren horror magazines Creepy and Eerie gave European artists, mainstream moonlighters, and even some willing undergrounders an outlet for adult work with a built-in audience. The success of all the above inspired a wave of self-publishers and small publishers, leading to the debuts of titles like Elfquest, Cerebus, and Love & Rockets, all of which combined genre elements with literary aspirations, and helped bridge the gap between The Bronze Age and the post-Alan Moore “Modern Age.”

Finally, though it wasn’t produced during The Bronze Age, the recent (and ongoing) “The Dark Age” storyline in Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City is a layered, incisive homage to/analysis of the superhero comics of the ’70s and ’80s, revealing how they gamely tried to reflect their times. Like a lot of Astro City, “The Dark Age” evokes the pleasures of reading the comics of the past, while leaving out the parts that haven’t aged so well.

Where not to start: Perhaps because Marvel had been dealing with real-world issues since the ’60s, the company’s overt stabs at relevance in the ’70s often seemed like overkill. Case in point: the early ’70s Steve Englehart run on Captain America, a big chunk of which is collected in Captain America And The Falcon: Secret Empire. The good Captain gets framed for murder and goes on a cross-country trip with his jive-talking partner, looking to uncover a conspiracy that leads all the way to the White House. The book is interesting from a historical perspective (and as a direct inspiration for Astro City), but Sal Buscema’s art is stiff, and Englehart’s strained earnestness is entertaining mainly as unintentional comedy.

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