Jan 11, 2012

A Sense of Wonder: The Bronze Age of Comics

Welcome to the a new installment of A Sense of Wonder, a feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

Recently, I've been reading a lot of comics from what we call the Bronze Age of Comics, and I have been absolutely loving them. It may be, hands down, my favorite age of the superhero. With runs like Roger Stern's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Bill Mantlo's SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy's MASTER OF KUNG-FU, Walt Simonson's THOR, Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL, Alan Moore's SWAMP THING, and Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers' DETECTIVE COMICS, I'm convinced that I can throw a dart at a stackful of Bronze Age comics, and whatever the dart hits would be a comic book worth reading.

But what makes that era of comics so good? In short, it's what I (fine, Ben came up with it) call "grounded fantasy." See, the Bronze Age was sandwiched between the fancifulness of the Silver Age, with what some might call its unsophisticated storytelling (which is probably true by and large), and the Dark Age, for which the superhero was constantly deconstructed and revealed to be less super than he was. The Bronze Age gets the balance of both, managing to treat the superhero with realism without going so far as to resort to cheap storytelling tactics such as (narratively) meaningless rape and decapitation.

Now, I'm not saying that every comic book at the time was perfect, but man, in terms of output, I can't find fault with most of these.

Now, for the purposes of this article, we're going to define the Bronze Age as being from June 1973 (which is the date of THE NIGHT GWEN STACY DIED, which is the unofficial end of the Silver Age according to MARVELS) to September 1986 (which is the debut date of WATCHMEN and the start of the Dark Age). Now of course these "ages" don't have a hard-set start and end, but that'll just make the article easier.

First, let's look at the art. Here's a pin-up of Dr. Mid-Nite from an issue of Roy Thomas' ALL-STAR SQUADRON, drawn by Mike Clark and Gerry Acerno.

This is probably my favorite style, artwise, and it also goes into the idea of "grounded fantasy." Before the days of computer coloring, artists relied more on their linework to create the illusion of realism. It's the type of thing that was done so well in the Golden Age by people like Mac Raboy and John Celardo, but which the production values of the time just didn't do justice. In the Bronze Age, the production values still had a way to go, but it was significantly better. And remember, this was in the days before computer coloring, so the coloring could still be rather crude and garish. The pencillers and inkers had to do the best job they could. Check out this cover to PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #84, done by Dave Simons. Sure, the coloring is pretty garish, but it's an excellent cover, building lots of tension and drama — all with the idea of Spider-Man fighting a bunch of muggers at an arcade!

(That's another thing about this time period — the covers still depicted something that went on in the actual comic.)

Inside, the story by Bill Mantlo and Dave Simons is a solid, done-in-one, compressed 22 pages of Spider-Man looking for a missing baby. The catch is that it seems that the woman who kidnapped the baby would have been a more loving parent than the baby's actual dad. I love this sense of ambiguity, and that was present through a lot of the Bronze Age titles, but it didn't bash you over the head with it like comics of the last decade or so have. At the end of the day, the superhero was still an optimistic character, who dealt with the hand life gives him, and then moved on to the next job.

Writers really understood the medium here; fitting in what story they can in what little space they had. There was no trade-writing, and very little decompression. You'd get a full story in 22 pages, and sometimes, if it was really special, they'd go beyond an issue. What would have been told in six issues today would have been told in three back then. This is not to say that creators did not use decompression and other cinematic techniques, but when they did use it, it was in the service of the story, and they never let it take away the space they needed to tell the story. Here's a page written by Doug Moench and drawn by Paul Gulacy for MASTER OF KUNG-FU. Look at that pacing and that drama.

The effect of the compression is that when something was an epic story and necessitated several issues, the fact that it took several issues would be more effective. One of the more famous epics of the age, "The Dark Phoenix Saga" by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, required the several-issues-long buildup after Jean Grey (as Phoenix) obliterated a sun for the characters to really come to terms with how they felt about it. It was such an emotional issue that taking their time (all the while filling up the interim pages with lots of plot-advancing action) gave the readers time to come to grips with it as well. The sequence with Wolverine is, I think, particularly inspired.

This isn't to say that the Bronze Age was great because it was getting darker. In fact, it was great because it was veering off into so many tones and directions, but the underlying one was still one of optimism. In "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut," Spider-Man fights for his life, knowing full well that he cannot stop the Juggernaut, but hoping against hope that somehow he can beat the odds.

They didn't let go of the sense of fun and wonder of the Silver Age; they just modified it for the times. Check out this exchange from SUPERMAN VS. SPIDER-MAN: THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru.

How about Captain Marvel and Superman mysteriously interchanging costumes?

Still, as I've said, the Bronze Age was the time when fantasy was being grounded, and in a way, its name is appropriate. It's still shiny, but it's not as shiny as sterling silver, and you're forced to examine it a little more down to earth. Perhaps no one exemplified this more than Batman, who went from the campy caped crusader as seen in the Adam West TV show to the Dark Knight Detective, under the pens of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams.

This emphasis on a more realistic, grounded Batman saved the Masked Manhunter from cancellation and inspired a whole generation of artists. I figured you'd want to hear from one of them, so heeeeeeeere's Ty Templeton!
Denny O'Neil's influence on me can't be overstated. He was comics' greatest writer when I was a kid, with no obvious second, except perhaps Stan Lee, but Stan was writing fluff where Denny was writing meat and potatoes life stories. When everyone else was writing about events, and "Things" that were happening, Denny created memorable characters that stuck in your head who were in the middle of their lives, when events and stuff started happening to them. There was no comic like Green Lantern Green Arrow previous to Denny and Neil creating it. Their characters lived in much the same world I lived in, discussing politics, and religion, and racism, and poverty when everyone else was fighting Galactus. Denny and Neil's run on Batman is still the high-water mark in that character's history (including Frank Miller or Bob Kane's time there). Denny gave the world Ra's Al Ghul (the best modern villain in comics), and Leslie Thompkins, and though Len Wein first used Lucious Fox in a story, it was Denny that picked him up and ran with him. Denny's Superman "revamp" in the early seventies ushered in the period of Superman I still have the most nostalgia for, with Morgan Edge, and the Sand Superman and Kryptonite No More. Denny wrote the Justice League when it was at its classic best, with Dick Dillon on art, and Green Arrow yelling at everyone who wasn't a leftie. Denny's runs over at Marvel on Daredevil, Spider-Man, and whatever else Sergio O'Shaunesee got up to when he was moonlighting, always stood out as the best thing on the stands while he was there.

It was the humanity of his people, and the undisguised liberalism of his point of view that got to me, but it turns out he was a MASTER at complex plots, surprise twists, and everything else that is required of a great writer.

I've only gotten to work with Denny once, on an issue of Spirit he wrote that I got to draw.

Pure heaven.

The humanity and the complexity Ty mentions seems to be the aim for the Bronze Age creators. One of the most famous runs, for example, of the Bronze Age, is Marv Wolfman and George Perez on THE NEW TEEN TITANS (for which you can expect a retrospective series soon, as I've just completed the full run). Issue 38, "Who Is Donna Troy?", is a done-in-one story where Dick "Robin" Grayson uses the detective skills at his disposal to learn as much as he can about the past of his teammate, Wonder Girl. It's a heartfelt story that is rooted in Dick and Donna's friendship, all the while celebrating the fact that Dick Grayson is a master detective.

See, that's one of the things that made superheroes so awesome to me as a kid, and which I see less and less off these days: their pure, unadulterated awesomeness. The fact that these guys are the best in the world and it is great to see them cut loose. That this was displayed in a heartfelt done-in-one story was a treat as well.

Not that everything was a bed of roses for the superheroes in the Bronze Age. Another of the more prominent runs, Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL, continually placed the protagonist in morally ambiguous situations. Sometimes, his hand was forced.

Man, look at that pacing. Check out the rest of the scene here.
It's marvelous what Frank Miller was able to come up with back in the day.

Sometimes even Captain America's hand was forced, as seen in this scene from Roger Stern and John Byrne's WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (which is the finest collection of Cap stories I've ever read, frankly):

Sweet Jesus, look at that art.

Such a scene was indicative of loosened restrictions on comics, both in terms of violence and of sex, as seen here in the Batman story "The Laughing Fish," by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Here's Batman walking into the room of Bruce Wayne's then-girlfriend, Silver St. Cloud:

In these examples though, I feel there is a sense of classiness and taste to it that is passed over these days in favor of gratuitous and shock-inducing descriptions of same.

This story also bridges the silliness of the Silver Age with the all-too-real stakes of the Dark Age. The Joker has crafted a poison that changes the faces of fish to look like him. Thus, he wants a share of the profits, or people will die.

The Joker here is clearly insane, and clearly dangerous. This is a far cry indeed from the Joker seen in the campy versions of Batman. But his style is original; it's highly imaginative. It perfectly encapsulates the kind of criminal he is. Once again, I feel this type of art has been all but lost in today's comics, where supervillains constantly threaten or actually do such things as rape and decapitation, all of which involve much less imagination and are far more unsavory.

No article covering this time period would be complete without mentioning the rise of Alan Moore, and even on a horror comic like Swamp Thing, Moore would push Swamp Thing to his utter potential as a character, transforming him from a muck-encrusted Hamlet to a plant elemental who was actually appreciative of being a plant elemental. In one issue, he featured the Justice League, and Moore's descriptions of them manage to encapsulate their grandeur, even when the whole point of the story was that they were taking a back seat to Swamp Thing.

There is a house above the world, where the overpeople gather.
There is a man with wings like a bird. There is a man who can see
across the planet and wring diamonds from its anthracite. There is a
man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues.

In the 2005 edition of BATMAN: YEAR ONE, David Mazzucchelli expresses in his afterword that perhaps YEAR ONE and other such comics post-WATCHMEN went too far in making the superhero "realistic." He states: "The more 'realistic' superheroes become, the less believable they are. It's a delicate balance, but this much I know: superheroes are real when they're drawn in ink."

As far as I'm concerned, by and large, that balance was achieved in the Bronze Age of Comics. It was an age that still shone, though with less luster than the Silver Age, and provided a groundedness to the superhero genre without losing that sense of wonder. And as such, it may be my favorite age for superheroes.

Some great Bronze Age comics here:


Anonymous said...

If you want more Bronze Age fun, the Superman Podcast Network has a show called Superman in the Bronze Age that specifically follows Superman's adventures in this era. Http//supermaninthebronzeage.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

For a lot of us, Crisis on Infinite Earths marks the end of the Bronze Age.

Not Her But Me Richie said...

Duy, Most will sayb that the Bronze Age was the end of innocence in comics. With the onset of the first crisis, it set the stage for comics to become ever so much more relivent.Of course all comic fan boys and girls know The Golden Age gave birth to a generation of great fun and bolstered fantastic imagination. Back then comics were fun, somewhat on the side of gore and flat out sexy. All the things a growing boy needed right? I loved that time for comics as much as did the Silver Age. What better way to revitalize a genre than in the late 50's. Basically the industry thumbed its nose at the nay Sayers and pressed on to keep the fun going. The rise of a great age when Marvel came into its own. Man did i really fall for comics then. 1959 was my year and the first time I saw Superman in the comics I became instantly hooked. The greatest of all superheroes could move mountains, change history and even extinguish a star with a single breath. How cool was that. Really in the 40's 50's or 60's did we really care how these heroes could get their powers in the real world. It seemed the Bronze Age gave way to that change. No matter how slow it may have been, it was still in the air. I was sadden a bit by the Bronze Age because I could see that comics were on the verge of growing up. Still in all even us old saps managed to adapt and learned to love comics again even through the Bronze Age new heroes and villains were born and old ones died. It was painful but like all things they must change. Change is good and the way I see it, adapt or fade away. To tell you the truth my friend I just don't see myself becoming a shadow of the former, just an advocate for it's future. Thanks for all the fun buddy and I look forward to all the goodies ya'all can dish out. Here's what old Stan says, "Excelsior!"

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