Tangled Webs: The Eras of American Comics


For some time, American comics has been divided into four distinct eras: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Modern Age. The Spider-Man comics figure into this in some big ways.

In looking at the ages, there are going to be some important caveats. While there are distinct features about particular eras, all the work of a period will not always be representative. Some writers and artists are going to go against the grain, often as a way of offering readers alternatives to the prevailing style. There will sometimes be work that is ahead of its time, influencing later writers and artists, and that may even be stylistically closer to later periods era than to the comics when it was published. There will always be some books that fall outside of the analysis (Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck stories may not be identifiably different in the silver or golden age.) Changes aren’t going to be immediate, as it can take a while for publishers and talent to respond to market trends.

Comics didn’t start with the golden age. There were some precursors including editorial cartoons, early comic strips, and sequential art projects such as the woodcut “novels” of Lynd Ward, Milt Gross’ parody He Done Her Wrong, and the surrealist Une Semaine De Bonte: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage. Newspapers published inserts of comics material, and there was some promotional material consistently entirely of comics, but Eastern Color Publishing’s Famous Funnies #1 in 1934 appears to be the first modern comic book, the first time a product composed mainly of comics material was available for sale.

The Golden Age

Action Comics #1 introduced the superhero genre. DC would publish the adventures of Batman, Superman and others. Pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman got into the business with Marvel Comics, starring Human Torch, Namor and Kazar, although the company took the name of Timely Publications. Their most popular character would be Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Goodman would hire his wife’s cousin Stanley Lieber as a proofreader and later as a writer. That guy was initially worried that working in the disreputable field of comics would hurt his reputation if he ever became a novelist, so he used the pseudonym Stan Lee.

While there were many publishers of superhero comics at this time, there were other types of comics available on the stands, including war comics, romance comics, crime and horror. Several future Spider-Man talent got their start during the Golden Age. John Romita Sr worked on some early Captain America adventures. Steve Ditko did science fiction and horror comics for Charlton comics. Gil Kane started as an inker and a ghost artist for Jack Kirby, before illustrating Sandman and Wildcat.

This era came to an end with a backlash to violence in comics after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a minor bestseller by psychiatrist Fredric Wertheim that led to Senate hearings. The series that survived tended to be geared towards younger readers, with the literal seal of approval by the Comics Code of Authority. Marvel stuck around as anthology titles.

The Silver Age

The Silver Age of comics is generally agreed to have started in 1956 with Showcase Comics #4, the introduction of the Barry Allen Flash. This was followed by the Hal Jordan Green Lantern. While Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman would remain, it would soon be canon that these were different versions of the characters than the ones from the Golden Age, who were later specified as existing in the Earth 2 Universe.

One of DC’s biggest titles was Justice League of America, a team book with their major heroes. Goodman asked Stan Lee to make something similar. As he explained in Comics Creators on the Fantastic Four, he made a team book, but it was in a different direction.

I was planning to quit my job at that time. I had been working for the company, which was now calling itself Atlas Comics, for over twenty years and I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was getting a big salary and all that, but nothing was happening. I mean, I was just turning out one book after another and I didn’t think any of them were great. Martin believed the comics should be produced for very young readers or stupid older readers. He wanted the stories to be kept very simple. He didn’t want me to use words of more than two syllables, or worry about characterization. He told me not to use too much dialogue and to just put a lot of action in the story. The stories followed a very strict formula and I got really sick of following that formula. I also knew that I’d be too old to write comics at some point and then where would I be? How would I be able to support myself? So I told my wife Joanie that I was going to quit comics and try something else. So she said, ‘Well since Martin asked you to do a new book and you’ve been complaining for years that you don’t like doing them this way, why don’t you do this new title the way you want to do it? The worse that can happen is that he’ll fire you. Big deal! You say that you want to quit anyway.’

With Jack Kirby, he created The Fantastic Four, a series about heroes with distinctive personalities, who weren’t always beloved by the people they saved. During this period, Stan lee would cocreate the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Antman and the Wasp, all of whom—along with a returning Captain America—would be members of the Avengers, Marvel’s premiere superteam and their version of the Justice League.

With Steve Ditko, Lee cocreated Spider-Man, a character that was so different and risky that he was introduced in the pages of a soon to be cancelled anthology title. When that sold out at newsstands, it led to a new title. Spider-Man was a teenage superhero who wasn’t a sidekick and who had to deal with financial and romantic problems. When Ditko left, the title was illustrated by the more traditional John Romita Sr.

Marvel emerged as DC’s main competitor, an idea Stan Lee openly pushed in the letters columns.

Stan Lee was initially convinced that superheroes were just a trend, but it soon became clear that they were here to stay, and that his characters would enter a new era.

The Bronze Age

There isn’t as clear an ending to the Silver Age, but two Spider-Man stories are widely considered potential defining points of the new bronze age. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” featured Spider-Man’s archenemy killing his girlfriend, a character who had been in the supporting cast for just under eight years, longer than most readers had been following the title. Amazing Spider-Man #129 introduced the Punisher, a bloodthirsty vigilante who had a different way of taking the law into his own hands than most superheroes. Both stories were written by Gerry Conway, a guy in his (very) early twenties.

The bronze age of comics largely continued the series of the silver age. The stories got darker and dealt with more mature themes. The new talent tended to be fans of comics from a young age, often getting their start in fanzines. New more relaxed standards from the Comics Code of Authority allowed for the exploration of social issues following pushback from publishers—Stan Lee wrote a three issue Amazing Spider-Man saga without the Comics Code of Authority approval when he felt its anti-drug message was worth violating the regulations against depicting drug use—as well as the return of supernatural creatures like vampires, largely banned during the Silver Age. Morbius was one early result.

There were some new hits, especially licensed titles like Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars. Some long running series had their most iconic runs, including Walt Simonson’s Thor, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Wolfman/Perez’s Teen Titans. With a focus on a diverse, international team, the X-Men went from a bimonthly reprint series to Marvel’s best-selling title.

Spider-Man shifted to an illusion of change approach, as it became clear that these characters weren’t going anywhere. For his first 100 issues, Spider-Man appeared in a monthly solo title, but now he appeared in spinoff titles: Marvel Team-Up—which mostly paired Spidey up with other Marvel heroes, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man—which initially focused more on his college life and Web of Spider-Man—a replacement for MTU after 150 issues. Following the death of Gwen Stacy, the big changes were mainly reversible or cosmetic. Peter went from college to grad school, broke up with MJ (with whom he would later reconcile), quit grad school (he would later return), got a new costume, and briefly left the Daily Bugle for the Daily Globe. Roger Stern’s run on the character pit him against Marvel villains he hadn’t fought before, while Bill Mantlo and Peter David focused on street level scenarios, and Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz tackled Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane, who returned to the series aware of his secret identity.

Marvel and DC were dominant, but there was a new market in independent comics, like Dave Sim’s Cerebus ,initially a Conan parody, Wendy and Richard Pini’s fantasy series Elfquest, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Frank Miller satire Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets.

The end of the bronze age was marked with two defining stories: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, which led to the cliche about how superheroes weren’t just for kids anymore. This was seen as the beginning of the modern age of comics, although it’s been thirty years, so it’s probably no longer appropriate to refer to the material as modern, or to lump it all as one era.

In the next column, I’ll consider possible divides for later eras of comics. How do you guys think it should work? And, do you have a favorite comics era?

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(7) Comments

  1. Thomas Mets - Post author

    Old Guy, one reason I wouldn't call the current age the reboot age is that the era we call the 80s had a lot of reboots . Al, I didn't know you worked at DK. That's interesting about the different eras for the main characters. It would be a bit weird with Spider-man since he wasn't around in the golden age of comics. With the modern age, it doesn't make as much of a difference since Crisis applied evenly to every DC book. While Wonder Woman's reboot occurred last, that was largely because there was a larger gap between it and the last issue of the first volume. On the changes in the bronze age, the two that weren't reversible were the deaths in "The Night Gwen Stacy Died" and MJ learning Peter's secret. I'd qualify the rest as largely cosmetic or reversible. So, Peter swapped the trappings of college for the trappings of grad school. He dropped out of grad school, with the possibility he could come back later (and did three different times). He left the Bugle and came back to it. MJ left the book, and then came back. etc.

  2. Al

    At my work the policy tends to be that every DC character and every series has their own specific Golden, Silver, Bronze, Dark, Modern, 'New 52', Rebirth era. I was even directly told this by Landry Q Walker who wrote the recent Wonder Woman Ultimate Guide. https://www.dk.com/uk/9780241285312-dc-wonder-woman-ultimate-guide/ The demarkation points and dates for when the Golden Age ended and Silver Age started are different for say Wonder Woman compared to Superman or the Justice League as a whole. For instance 1986 is the start of the Dark Age for Superman but it's 1987 for Wonder Woman because those are the dates their post-Crisis versions officially debuted. For Marvel characters guide books just go decade by decade although when we do massive overall guide books like 'Ultimate Marvel' I believe there are divisions between the Golden Age, Silver Age, etc but if I remember correctly after the Bronze age it is just generally referred to as the 'Modern Age'. https://www.dk.com/uk/9780241288122-ultimate-marvel/ Mets Spider-Man shifted (toxically) into the illusion of change model prior to Gwen’s death not after wards and shifted out of it come the 1980s (the very latest being DeFalco’s run). Also ‘the big changes were mainly reversible or cosmetic’ changes? Like Peter leaving college or Mary Jane learning his secret?

  3. Old Guy

    Although the so-called Diversity Era is noteworthy, it really is just an extension of the Reboot Era - with major names being reimagined with no particular regard for continuity. The-Throw-It-Against-The-Wall-And-See-If -It-Sticks Age sounds a bit cumbersome, as does The-Dead-Like-Game-Of-Thrones Age, so at least for Marvel and DC, I'm seeing two: The Dark Age The Age of Reimaginings

  4. Thomas Mets - Post author

    Andrew, that's pretty close to how I've figured it. I've got the grim age and extreme age combined, mainly because ages tend to be about 15 years. I refer to it as the Dark Age (I'm not the one to come up with that name.) The best name I have for the 2000s is the cinematic age, marked by decompressed storytelling, readily available material in reprints/ digital comics. I think it's possible we're in a specific diverse age, although it's a bit early to say for sure. This might end up being a temporary blip, or it may soon be overshadowed by a bigger development.

  5. Andrew C

    @xonathan Thank you for the kind words. To expand upon my previous posts, I think the starting points for each era would be: Watchmen/The Dark Knight: Grim era Launch of Image and Spawn #1: Extreme era Ultimate Spider-Man #1: Reboot era Introduction of Miles Morales: Diversity era

  6. xonathan

    Andrew, great way of dividing the modern era. Hadn't thought about it like this, but it's spot on.

  7. Andrew C

    I think the modern age can be divided into the four eras. Late 80s to early 90s could be the 'grim age' where comics got serious. The rest of the 90s could be the 'extreme' age when everything got so serious it actually got silly and *extreme* and had to be pulled back at the end of the decade. The 2000s are the 'reboot age' where Marvel and DC were subject to many reboots and relaunches, big and small (e.g.: Identity Crisis, House of M, New 52, One More Day, Ultimate universe line, etc) and freedom of storytelling started to be prioritized over keeping to continuity. And the modern age of the 2010s may be the 'diversity age' with all the legacy heroes, often minorities, taking over. And that may be coming to an end now.

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