WHEN DOES "THE BRONZE AGE" OF COMICS BEGIN?
If you were to believe the people who wrote entries for certain publications, you would think that the Bronze Age was a "made up" era invented by comics retailers. To be honest, most people encountered the term in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, but its origins lie with the collector community. While many of the Golden Age & Silver Age collectors of comic books will stick with what they read in their favorite literature, it's important enough that the community as a whole should provide some recognition of its actual beginnings.
Collectors who were born in the early 60s came of age at the dawn of the 70s, resulting in their having a separate experience with comics and comics history. This experience was partially formed by the older generation, as well as having been influenced by a range of exposure to the industry and its changes during that time. Personalities from the comics industry - creators, really - becoming known to these readers and being followed for their work resulted in a few very specific events that shaped the beginning of the Bronze Age.
For historical context, it's important to lay out the experience of the comic book consumer. As collectors, we are the first arbiter of any term associated with comics. Why? Because we became concerned with comics history before the industry did. Which gave early collectors carte blanche over the coining of terms, such as the Golden Age of Comics and the Silver Age of Comics. As such, consumers/collectors should serve as our frame of reference for determining when these events actually mattered.
With this in mind - and for the purposes of this article - a few ground rules for understanding how things work(ed). It's important to establish that the on sale date of the comic books discussed herein and the actual date of occurrence within the industry should be taken into account as the time period during which we place these events. For instance, if a certain issue is cover dated a certain month, it's usually on sale a few months before that cover date. This is because the cover date has historically indicated to newsstands when periodicals were to be removed from their place on the rack.
Bronze Age readers knew exactly when their comics were out, because we had constant reminders. The words "NEXT ISSUE ON SALE ON OR ABOUT AUGUST 25TH" were, at first, difficult for a child to discern sans punctuation. But upon asking mom or dad, we found that this meant that some time around August 25th, we could expect to see the subject issue showing up on the comics rack or at the newsstand. These announcements and their associated comic books have been researched and published by Mike Voiles and the information is found in the Newsstand Section at Mike's Amazing World of Comics.
Conversely, any event within the industry (the good folks who created and published comics) having been associated with any issue actually happened at least 6 months prior to the on sale date because comics were produced with a considerable amount of lead time. They still are, for the most part. Therefore: "On Sale Date" & six months prior are standard operating points of reference.
In the beginning of the 1970s, a rather specific shift in the attitude of DC Comics - and, as a result, Marvel Comics - provided us with a touchstone. A juncture in time to which we can point indicating a "new beginning".
But let us start at the end, first, shall we?
THE END OF THE SILVER AGE:
Most important to the beginning of the Bronze Age is the end of the Silver age, as the Bronze Age can only follow the ending of the age preceding it. Might they overlap a bit? Unlikely. But perhaps. Possibly. A little bit, maybe.
In this article, we're going to generate a consensus of the Silver Age's ending in order to move on to the beginning of the Bronze Age.
Many pundits will simply give you a year as the end of the Silver Age. 1969. It's touted as the last year of the Silver Age. No event, no prominent issue - just that year. But there are a few events which are then provided as evidence that things had changed - most of which occur anywhere from mid-1967 to late 1970.
The earliest of these are the loss of the DC "go-go checks" pattern atop the covers of their line. However, these only lasted 18 months on the newsstands (comics on sale from December 1965 to June 1967). I remember seeing them on the rack as a young reader, but they weren't really there for the entirety of the 60s.
Also, Marvel was purchased by a corporate take-over in 1967, which created tremendous editorial changes and resulted in Jack Kirby being denied a raise for his work. In response, Stan Lee suggested he draw fewer panels - which he did. It begins a downward spiral for the once-proud "House of Ideas".
The later spate of items include Julius Schwartz turning over Green Lantern to Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams (this actually occurred in 1969, but the first issue went on sale in February of 1970), Mort Weisinger retiring (late 1969 or early 1970, his last issue - Superman 229 - appeared on newsstands in June of 1970) and Jack Kirby leaving Marvel comics entirely to work for DC (his new works also appearing June of 1970). Further, John Romita penciled his last Spider-Man story some time in mid-1970 - one of the last remaining ties for Spider-Man to the Silver Age.
Most historians agree with the statement that the Silver Age went out with less of a bang and more of a wimper.
Folks who focus on the Silver Age say it ended in 1969. For the sake of this article, then, let us simply agree that the Silver Age was quite certainly gone by mid-1970 at the latest (for those of you willing to side with Kurt Busiek, who asserts that the Death of Gwen Stacey in 1973 was the end of the Silver Age, I refer you to the "End and Aftermath" section of the Wikipedia article on the Silver Age, as Craig Shutt ("Mister Silver Age") refutes that attempt to re-write history).
SO, WHERE IS THIS "NEW BEGINNING"?
Sadly, many of these same Silver Age pundits will then surmise that the Bronze Age was simply an ad hoc manner of referring to the period just following the Silver Age and, therefore, has no event by which to determine its beginning. That retailers "invented" it as a sales gimmick. While there may be truth to it being used to refer from comics of a certain era, the idea that it has not event to tie into is patently untrue.
The purpose of this article is to establish that there is a general beginning of the Bronze Age that we've been overlooking for quite some time. There are several events that demarcate the advent of the Bronze Age, and only one heralding event appears in a comic book.
Now, I hope many of you will forgive the fact that I'm primarily DC-centric in these pages. It informs my opinion, but doesn't make me oblivious to what else was going on at the time. Many comics historians who are fond of the Golden Age and Silver Age of comics - particularly those who hold the Silver Age as the Marvel Age - have held forth that very little produced by Marvel in the Bronze Age was quite as significant as the decade prior.
As such, I hope you will further forgive that - like the Golden and Silver Ages before it - the Bronze Age's beginning appears to be declared, again, by a DC comic book.
A couple of precursors, if you will:
First, the Comics Code Authority was revised (more than a couple of times) in response to Denny O'Neil & Neal Adams' stories in Green Lantern from early 1970 (#76 on sale in February 1970) in which some criminals were treated with a more sympathetic depiction and political officials were shown to sometimes be corrupt. It was further amended to allow for some of the horror tropes (monsters, vampires, werewolves, etc.) it had initially been created to eliminate.
Second, Jack Kirby brings his flair back to DC Comics, starting with "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen" #133 (on newsstands in August of 1970) and kicking into gear with "The New Gods" #1 (on sale November 1970).
But the most significant culmination was not only incorporation of Kirby's world into the Superman family of titles, but the significant shift in the editorial & artistic departments as well as the general continuity of the DC Universe to depict Superman's world as cohesive during this same period.
If Kirby's departure from Marvel is important enough to mark the end of the Silver Age, then his impact after his arrival at DC is certainly a watershed moment, as well. However, it appears this event and its impact have been overlooked. If you read about the results and you weren't paying attention, you very well may have missed how much changed both in the industry and at the comics rack.
When Julius Schwartz, architect of the Silver Age of comics, took over the Superman titles and hired Denny O'Neil to write the flagship title, Superman, the waves of creativity and change were abundant. O'Neil was tasked with "de-powering" Superman and depicting him in a continuing story showing the cause and results of bringing the most powerful hero of all time to a more "relatable" level of power.
At the same time, they ensured that there was editorial consistency by placing Superboy's adventures in the late 1950s, so that Superman was of an appropriate age (29) in Superboy, issue #171.
Further, Murphy Anderson inked Curt Swan on both Superman & Action Comics (fans coined the term "Swanderson" as a shorthand for describing this team) as well as embellishing Bob Brown on Superboy, bringing further artistic uniformity to the look of the Man of Steel.
It was so important that the company took, at minimum, two pages out of every Superman-related title (perhaps others) in order to make the announcement that "a new year brings a new beginning for Superman - 1971". This was in reference to the change beginning with issues cover-dated January 1971, when Denny O'Neil began his epic story arc, "Kryptonite Nevermore". Superboy, in particular, had an added explanation for the shift in timeline, adding a third page.
The issue (Superman #233), however, was on sale in November 5, 1970 - almost colliding with Kirby's arrival at DC with the August 25, 1970 issue of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (barely 70 days apart).
All of the writers and artists were under one editor, working to ensure as much solid continuity as possible. During this period, O'Neil and Adams were still at work on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow (GL/GA stories by O'Neil & Adams continuing after cancellation of this title as a backup in The Flash in 1972-73).
SO, WHAT HAPPENED THEN?
Well, several things. Kirby's Jimmy Olsen introduced Darkseid, who is now an iconic character in all media. Further, six months after the arrival of Jack Kirby and the revising of the Comics Code Authority, the now-much-sought-after 48 page comics of the DC line (with a 25¢ cover price) that followed had expanded the page count of new stories and featured reprint backup stories, as well. This was closer to the page count of the Golden Age of Comics. The success of the O'Neil/Adams team and the added space gave them the determination to tackle the issue of drug use by teens in the United States.
Also, the Justice League of America was at its height, penned by new writers Len Wein & Mike Friedrich. This is the period during which the Legion of Super-Heroes begins to come to prominence in the DC Universe. Add Elliot S! Maggin & Jim Shooter to the mix working at the height of their powers with great artists like Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Irv Novick and Dave Cockrum, to name a few and - for a few years - DC was at its pinnacle.
It all begins, however, with the arrival of Jack Kirby and the shift in editorial in response to other departures and industry changes.
Most certainly, this one event - this "announcement" - is the point at which DC ushers in the beginning of the Bronze Age of Comics. There is no other singular event which encompasses the retirement of Mort Weisinger, the advent of Julius Schwartz as Superman Editor, Denny O'Neil's writing, the addition of Jack "King" Kirby to DC's ranks and the art of Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson & Neal Adams (who was also a Superman cover artist and some-time interior artist).
No other event is heralded by its publisher in such a manner. No other event encompasses all of these changes at once.
Nowhere else does this or any other publisher take on as a new task the unification of several titles into a more singular narrative at this time.
Now, certainly, following the early 1970s, DC would see several ups and downs. The last great run of this period for the Distinguished Competition (as they were called by Marvel) could likely be said to have been Steve Englehart's & Marshall Rogers' run on Batman in Detective Comics. But the early period from 1971-1973 was truly the apex of this decade for DC as a whole.
Considering that Kirby's Fourth World was impinging on Superman's corner of the DC Universe, it was a solid bet that it would have implications down the line. No one knew how impactful it would be until about a decade later when Len Wein and Keith Giffen unfolded the Legion of Super-Heroes' "Great Darkness Saga".
Since then, the Fourth World has been an integral part of the DC Universe. Particularly in any cosmic sagas. Speaking of which...
IMPACT ON OTHER PARTS OF THE INDUSTRY:
It took almost 2 years for Marvel to focus on their more "cosmic" characters. While Adam Warlock had been given something of a start in Marvel Adventures #1 a year after the New Gods appeared (cover dated Jan. 1972, on sale Nov. 1971), it took an additional year for Captain Marvel's title to be rekindled and for Thanos to appear in the Marvel Universe. While there might be some critics who would call Thanos an imitation of Darksied (most would posit that even if the origins of this character had some touchstone of appearance based on Kirby's classic character) the similarities outside of appearance have been lost to the two characters' divergent development over the past 40-plus years.
There was a considerable surge of creativity at Marvel in the mid-70s that created considerable fan reaction. In particular, The Defenders, Roy Thomas' run on The Invaders and the appearance and growth over time of the New X-Men are solid examples. Some excellent storylines in The Avengers during this time also became stories which writers would continue to mine for decades to come.
That said, even Kirby's eventual departure from DC and return to Marvel in the mid-70s failed to reignite the fires of creativity that had been so synonymous with the "House of Ideas" in the 1960s. Marvel was still a powerhouse, but its momentum had been stalled over the course of the early-to-mid 1970s.
In the mid-70s, DC attempted a rebirth with the "DC Explosion", but upon having to cancel every title that came out of it due to a recession in 1977 (prompting many to refer to it as the "DC Implosion"), they were left with little to show for their efforts.
Marvel and DC would most certainly recover, but that wouldn't occur until further along - more toward the 1980s. Right about the time that John Byrne left the X-Men for the Fantastic Four, George Perez and Marv Wolfman revamped the Teen Titans at DC and Frank Miller began his now-legendary run on Daredevil. These three artists would help define the next decade of comics for the Big Two.
While it might result in a seemingly short "era", it could fairly be deemed appropriate that the end of the Bronze Age would come somwhere around 1979-1981.
THE END OF THE BRONZE AGE
Historians may wish to consider ending the Bronze Age with a few different events showing a further shift in the industry and in comics publishing. Expansion of the Direct Market beginning in 1980. Dave Sim self-publishing Cerebus the Aardvark. The advent of Warp Graphics in 1979, Pacific Comics in 1981, Comico Comics in 1982 and First Comics in 1983. John Byrne's move to writer-artist on the Fantastic Four (1979), Frank Miller as writer-artist on Daredevil (1980) and Jim Starlin returning as writer-artist on the first Marvel Graphic Novel "The Death of Captain Marvel" (1982). Also, the move to an industry-wide cover price of 50¢ in 1981.
All of these moves began an "independent streak" that led to a growth in the industry, a shift from newsstand distribution to comics shops and the fuel that gave rise to the Independent Age (generally considered to begin in the early 1980s - also known as The Carol Kalish Age or the Speculator Age - which has its own consequences further down the line in the early 1990s).
Ending around 1979 or 1980 or 1981 segues into the next considered age and compresses the Bronze Age comics and creators into a singular, rather focused period of change.
Compared to the 50 years previous in the comics industry, the decade that followed (1981 - 1991) would be a vastly turbulent one which would include some of the greatest surges of artistic merit, increased production values, universe-building and shifting of leadership at the helm of the publishing arm of the industry ever seen. But the beginnings of non-underground and firmly independent publishers outside of the Comics Code Authority becoming popular through Direct Market comic stores is truly another story and another age. Maybe even a second Golden Age.
While some might point out that the entire publishers' narrative and editorial teams changed with "Crisis on Infinite Earths" for DC, others would counter that this was indicative of this particular period and industry, which - by this time - were quite different than during the Bronze Age. The 1980s to the early 1990s were an unraveling of everything that had come before. DC's efforts to further codify their universe under a singular narrative in 1985 would have never happened if not for these dramatic shifts in the industry.
Hopefully this article has provided some context and insight into the Bronze Age and its beginnings. One hopes that readers will appreciate and ponder the information provided, here.
It is our hope that 1971 and the changes surrounding the revamping of the Superman titles at DC by Julius Schwartz and Denny O'Neil upon the departure of Mort Weisinger will eventually be recognized as a key beginning point for the Bronze Age of Comics. The incorporation of Kirby's Fourth World, attempts to incorporate or acknowledge goings-on in other characters' titles, the O'Neil & Adams storytelling in Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the Batman titles, among other changes at this time will tell the tale.
And, perhaps, that the period from around 1981 to 1991 (or thereabouts) might be considered its own "age". Acknowledging that the following decade from the early 80s to the early 90s was a time very different from its previous 50 years (the shift to direct market at the expense of the newsstand market alone was a force that came close to destroying it entirely). The vast number of new comics companies and popular independent titles (sometimes creator-owned) by new and exciting creators unencumbered by the Comics Code Authority, plus the rise of popular artists at DC and Marvel to becoming creative forces in their own right made for an entirely different time in comics. By the time the speculator boom collapsed in the early 1990s, publishers had been adjusting to new "norms" for about a decade. A decade considerably different than the Bronze Age had been. But that's another story, entirely.
Thank you for "listening"!
I hope that you enjoyed this trip through the past. I sure did!
Brian G. Philbin
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