Friday, July 30, 2010

The Bronze Age: Part Deux?

FRIDAY'S EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing my theme of New Columnist Week, today we have a guest column by MattComix, a name many of you may recognize from the comments section of this blog. If the name is unfamiliar to you, then read on for a true introduction...

My name is Matt. I write, I draw, and I dream of heroes. ...and who disguised as a mild-mannered bookseller for a major retailer fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and other cool stuff!

Seriously though, as a child in the hazy days of the late 1970s my Grandpa would walk to the corner store every morning and while getting the morning paper he would pull a random comic book off the ol' spinner rack to bring to me. So before I could really even read I had begun to develop this insatiable admiration of superheroes and a love of animation, movies and of course comic book art. It was not only the idea of having that freedom to summon power that would break the bonds of our earthly limitations, but also having the courage to use such power to protect life.

When it comes to superheroes whether they are classic American heroes or from other shores like the dynamic henshin-heroes of Japan, my adventures within these wild and colorful fantasy worlds always remind me to do one thing in real life: look up in the sky.

...Welcome aboard Matt! - Jim

The Bronze Age: Part Deux?
In comics fandom, it can be very difficult to have a conversation about current comics or the direction the genre has taken over the course of the past few decades. If you disapprove of what's going on in comics now, people will tell you that you hate change and just want nostalgia. This argument has heated up more than ever thanks to the resurrection of popular Silver Age characters like Hal Jordan and Silver Age status quos like an unmarried Peter Parker. I think changes like this strain believability beyond any reasonable limit, even by the standards of superhero comics, but other people would say that DC and to a lesser extent Marvel are just doing whatever shameless thing it takes to appeal to the nostalgia of older fans like me.

Honestly, I'm not sure who is supposed to find this stuff appealing. Guys like me, who grew up at the end of the Bronze Age and saw the early days of "modern" comics or the current fans, who've been taught since their comic-reading birth that everything was like Superfriends until Miller and Moore descended from the heavens to bless our undeserving world with serious superhero books? It doesn't make sense either way.

I think the big superhero publishers do assume fans that came out of the Bronze Age of comics want these resurrections to work and are against any form of change whatsoever. I think the publishers believe the easiest way to get back in a Silver or Bronze Age fan's good graces is to reverse everything that happened after the 70s or 80s. At the end of the day I can only speak for myself, but I don't think this is true. I think the issue is not that things changed too much but rather that publishers weren't careful about how they transformed characters and status quos. As Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker in the first Spider-Man movie, "Be careful what you change into."

I think any Bronze Age fan is well aware that some degree of change is inevitable. The problem is when the changes we're asked to accept in our favorite characters are just stupid or require silly explanations mired in boring corners of continuity. These clumsy fixes could be avoided if writers asked themselves some simple questions:

  • Does an idea for a character change make sense?
  • Is it a good idea on its own merits?
  • Does it add something to that character over the long-term instead of being a gimmick?
  • Is this a change being made just because its "different or "edgy," something to gain cheap heat that might generate a temporary sales boost that'll go away quickly enough.
  • Does killing a character truly have any storytelling benefit past the shock and angst of their demise? In fact, is there really anything wrong with a given characters status quo in the first place?
Put simply, I think many Bronze Age fans recognize that tradition and innovation don't have to be mutually exclusive. I think that’s the heart of what Bronze Age fans really want. I don't think many of us necessarily wanted to see Wally West dethroned in favor of Barry Allen, especially since all things considered Barry got one of the better write-outs in comics.

For all that various Silver or Bronze Age characters and concepts may be re-appearing in modern comics, it's still the same bands playing the same song. We're still under the same editorial regimes that green-lighted questionable projects like Identity Crisis and Civil War. Marvel can talk about a Heroic Age all it wants, but its output is still full of bloated event stories, pornographically detailed violence, and pretentions of "realism" and "relevance"

Isn't that just the same old grim n' gritty nonsense? It feels like business as usual. The big superhero publishers act like they want to do the time warp again, but are still ashamed of a simple three-letter word that at some point became verboten in the comic industry: fun.

In my view, one of the cooler things about Bronze Age comics had a lot to do with how the stories were approached. Superhero comics had come out of the (arguably) more comedic style of the Silver Age thanks to Marvel, but the industry and the fandom were not yet required to worship at the First Church of Watchmen. Bronze Age books took on a more dramatic tone and had a greater focus on action, but they were still bright, bold, and... well, comic booky as ever. Superhero comics of that era had what I like to refer to as equilibrium, something that won't come back just by resurrecting old characters or resetting your continuity.

Have a great weekend

- Matt


Trey said...

Welcome, Matt! I'm a bit confused, though, as to what exactly you're praising about the Bronze Age. They were "fun" seems more the line that older fans have always used to refer to there era (SA vs. BA), (SA vs. "Modern" Age), whatever, as opposed to the current one.

Aren't pretensions of "realism" and "relevance" who of the hallmarks of the Bronze Age with stories like "Hard-Travelling Heroes" and the Harry Osborne's on drugs storyline, or the exploration of the urban black experience?

Wasn't Punisher born in the Bronze Age, and didn't he appear in "adult" b&w mags in the period?

While I don't disagree with your point about modern comics, I think a lot of your dissatisfaction is perhaps more "been there, done that" than any big change in comic book themes.

The real problem, I think, is that most comics haven't gotten appreciably better since the BA--only cynical and slicker.

cash_gorman said...

Agree wholeheartedly. It's hard to consider comics fun when characters are being killed and maimed right and left...or are the ones doing the killing and maiming.

MattComix said...

@Trey Thanks for the welcome! Let me see if I can answer your question.

I agree that the seeds of what comics become were planted in the Bronze Age, something like HTH was an exception rather than the rule. With the Punisher he was a villain. His methods were not meant to be considered cool. The adult black and whites served their function because that's an itch the mainline superhero titles were not expected to scratch.

I'll put it this way, if the SA was too wacky for you and modern mainline superhero comics are too nihilistic and cynical the Bronze Age to my eye represents a middle-ground that I think really works.

A kind of heroic melodrama that is not ashamed of how grand a colorful fantasy it is or even how funny it is with kids and older readers alike being more or less invited to the party.

If you wanted to see heads fly you went to Conan, not JLA.

RKB said...

"If you wanted to see heads fly you went to Conan, not JLA".
3 cheers for that, and it was done better in Conan back then too. If Marvel wants me to like, like them again having Spidey do a deal with the devil to get back a unmarried Peter Parker isn't the way to go about it. Da' Q should never give interviews again, he and Marvel would be better off. You do get the whole 'everybody always says it was great way back when, but comics are moving on' comment from time to time. I would just say it's not only nostalgia, it's I've read these stories before, done better the first time around. No one needs to read recycled stories and character resurrections any more, these days the iconic run current creators seem to want to do over (tweaked by them to make it 'better') is probably readily available to anyone in a trade, or if not anyone can go on a online back issue hunt. It set's a higher standard all around when you can take a current issue of any comic and you TPB out, then go through and compare and contrast page by page.
The Bronze Age had serious themes/characters, and silly themes/characters, but they didn't throw in the gore in every book because they thought it would make it sell better, editors/creators knew better than that. Having off-colored blood (not too red, if it's red at all) didn't hurt sells then, splashing it about all over the place doesn't help much now. Mangled up bodies in mangled up stories is a hard sell for 3 bucks, let alone 4.
Their are some good titles out and about now, and all the retro-story lines/ and just making things bloodier did serve one purpose: The dark age of comics started with Watchmen/The Dark Knight Returns ended with the Justice League -Rise of Arsenal mini. Something that bad/sad/pointless so afflicted with the 'Sipwicz syndrome' (something I just made up, but meaning going so far down the old 'you got to tear a character down, before you can build them back up' path you end up with gallows humor wondering just what is left to do to a character to show his 'heroic suffering' cause options are running out, and so are relatives to kill) so too much of a unintended joke not to herald the ending of an age. Done right you get Spider-Man and the death of Gwen Stacey storyline among others, done wrong the Dark Age of comics are done. [I thought they might have ended with Evil Hal Jordan, but time proved me wrong]

MattComix said...

@RKB Thanks for your response!

I'm gonna call a "wait and see" before I decide that Rise of Arsenal is the end of it. Though it's probably notable that even some folks who usually like the superhero comic fare served cynical didn't seem to care much for Rise of Arsenal either. So who knows? Maybe the industry did finally hit a wall on what sometimes seems like a mad quest to turn superhero comics into Saw.

nude0007 said...

Found this story late, but here goes:
Comics are definitely trying to be more graphically violent and sexy/sexist, not necessarily more realistic. Almost all plots seem to be engineered to torture the character or even kill them, then either undo it or change the character in a way that was really unnecessary. Jeff Johns made GL have pain when he uses his ring, for instance. Truly ridiculous and does nothing for the character except prove how dedicated he is (a reminder not needed) and how tough he is (ditto).
Also, as the author here states, ongoing universe sweeping stories or drastic changes throughout the comicverse are commonplace. I would think it hard enough to actually be a superhero without having your world in complete turmoil all the time.
They also continue to resist making superheroes anything like what they must be in reality. Most weak or non-superpowered beings would need a support staff (including medical and legal plus more), an informant network, and would have to be very good to avoid cops who demand ID and WILL remove your mask if you don't provide it. Then, I'd like to see a real explanation of how vigilante-ism is accepted or if it isn't, see more results of that.
I think younger and new readers don't buy into the "beat the $#!+ out of bad guys and avoid consequences" premise. Nor the "cops are ok with this masked vigilante" routine. They wanna see more realistic portrayals and more real physics. As I have stated before, fewer stories that involve more than one continent being destroyed as a possibility, much less the galaxy or the universe. It is just to unrealistic even for make believe superheroes. It's hard enough believing heroes can survive punches carrying tons of force.
Sadly, I think the current caretakers of my childhood heroes will destroy the medium altogether. Hollywood is certainly doing their best to ruin them. How can non-fans get excited abut heroes when they change them all up from the wondrous, awe-inspiring GOOD guys they were meant to be?


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