Steranko’s Ages of Comics: naming our eras

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In addition to popularizing “Sterankoing,” artist Jim Steranko is quite a tweeter. Every Sunday night he holds a regular talk, and last night he started identifying The Ages of Comics. Steranko, best known for his innovative comics work of the 60s, and his current painting, also has a history as a publisher—Prevue Magazine was an early outpost of nerd culture, and he wrote two volumes of The History Of Comics, but only got through the Golden Age. Anyway, in his tweets, Steranko proposed his own system, comparing it to the Overstreet Price Guide’s system:

https://twitter.com/iamsteranko/status/691491737856921600



I’m sure labeling everything post 1985 as The Digital Age won’t satisfy most observers. The traditional listing goes like this:

The Golden Age (1938-1950)

The Silver Age(1956-1970)


The Bronze Age (1970-1985)


The Modern Age (1985-Present)



Here at the Beat, I’d break it down a bit more. There’s the Chromium Age, from 1991 (X-men #1) to about 2002, during which all kinds of cover gimmicks and variants, from holograms to lenticular to tyvek to foil, were explored and driven into the ground. This was followed by, in Superhero comics anyway, The Crisis Era, which saw the rise of the Event and a bevy of crises of various sorts, identity, secret and final. Given the anxiety about recent publishing plans, the Crisis Era seems with us still. However, looking at comics in a macro sense, I think the Graphic Novel Age began in 2002, and is ongoing. Still, it doesn’t really have a defining metal, does it? 

That’s all I got. What do you think, readers?

13 COMMENTS

  1. The big problem with ages is that the concept was first coined to differentiate the first round of superheroes from the first (successful) superhero revival that reworked Flash, Human Torch, Namor, etc. for the then-modern era.

    This was a misstep from the very beginning because 1) it’s only relevant to superhero history and not comics as a whole, and 2) it suggests further ages should be determined based on the each time superheroes were reworked for a new generation of readers.

    Personally, I think the best way to salvage it would be to create two separate sets of “ages”:

    – A superhero-specific set of ages that give a simple overview of how the superhero has changed with the times, so we’re not destroying these original historical ages

    – A general comics set of ages that gives an overview of how comics as a whole have changed.

    The Silver Age of comics would likely start in either 1947 or 1954 with the advent of the ACMP or CMAA, with the book burnings, Senate hearings, and regulations that had a dramatic impact on content, demolishing entire genres. The events of those years set comics on a firmly for-children-only track that the film industry had narrowly managed to avoid by not boiling everything down to the equivalent of G-rating or no rating.

    I think that’s just a tad more significant than Flash getting a new costume and identity.

  2. The Manga Reprint age.

    The Mercurial Age, when queer comics start getting decent distribution – I mean Fun Home on the NYT best seller list and adapted into a musical? That’s a thing.

    The Treadmill Age, when superhero comics keep endlessly “rebooting” to try and make 70-year-old corporate-owned characters relevant to a new audience. Possibly AKA the Silver Chromide Age, when the superhero comics get a bunch of big-budget movies dominating the box office.

  3. While they still make up the majority of sales, it seems as though the Superhero age may be starting to relinquish it’s role. Seems like the big two are last ones to have fortune with this (a monopoly, some would say), metahuman mythology is certainly showing cracks in it’s armor. Quality wise, though, there’s no doubt that they have been surpassed.

  4. As Kate said, the “ages” discussed by fans always begin and end with superheroes:

    Golden Age: Begins in 1938 with Superman’s debut; ends in 1949 with Marvel and DC cancelling most of their superhero titles.

    Silver Age: Begins in 1956 when the new Flash debuts and kicks off a superhero revival; ends in 1970 when Kirby leaves Marvel.

    Bronze Age: Begins in 1975, when the “new” X-Men spell doom for those weird, quirky comics of the early ’70s, much as Star Wars and Jaws swept away the weird, quirky movies of the early ‘7os.

    I’m not sure when the Bronze Age supposedly ended. Maybe with Marvel’s bankruptcy in the mid-1990s?

    These “ages” ignore times when non-superhero genres caused the most excitement, namely the early ’50s and the early ’70s. And maybe today as well.

  5. This is the same issue I have with the terms “independent” and “mainstream”. It’s the filter of the comics art form according to what appeals to ComiCon. Not slamming geeks, but it puts a ceiling on the audience. Where it used to mean “anything not produced by Marvel or DC”, now people try to fudge it through some arbitrary threshold of popularity, where if sales rise and people are talking about a comic, it’s now graduated to “mainstream”. Same publisher, same artists, same storyline. What was it independent from? Money? The words don’t mean anything anymore.

  6. I’ve always believed “ages” should be defined by comic book distribution. Mainly because the distribution method (and major changes) affect what gets published in both format and content. A promo comic is different from a news stand comic, the same goes for underground comics and a current day direct market comic. All of these differences has to do with how and where the comics are sold. What works in those markets shape the contents of the books.

    Also, using metals is starting to get ridiculous and while we joke about Tin Foil age, we may one day have to actually use it if monthly comic books are still being published many, many years from now. I also don’t like that we’ve decided to define our comic book history by the rise and fall of one genre – Superheroes.

    This defining our history by Superhero comic pretends that other genres like Crime (Crime Does Not Pay), Romance (Young Romance), Kids comics (Carl Barks duck books & the Harvey line), Horror (EC and Warren), Humor (Archie & MAD), War (St. Rock), Kids (Harvey Comics), Fantasy (Conan, Cerebus, Elfquest, Heavy Metal) and other genre books don’t matter. These are clearly some important and influential books and also some of the best selling as well. While I enjoy superhero comics and recognize it’s been a long popular genre, it does us a disservice to define our history by them alone.

    My ages would be:
    Pre Newsstand Age (possibly called Mail Order) 1842 – 1921. Starting with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck and ending with the first newsstand comic. My understanding is many of these were sold via mail order and some by bookstores. I don’t know enough about the market place back then to definitively call it one way or another.
    .
    Newsstand Age 1: 1922:- 1955. The Comics Monthly is the first newsstand comic (and monthly to boot). In 1955 we saw the reduction of American News Distribution to a regional distributor. This had a huge effect on the comics industry as they were distributing half of all comic book titles and the change was in large part the reason many Golden Age publishers went out of business.

    Newsstand Age 2: 1956 – 1984. GI Joe #1. is the last important newsstand comic that I know of. Comics were advertised on TV within GI Joe and it was a major starting point for a lot of comic readers. I don’t recall there being a significant newsstand comic after that. Also in 1984 Charlton and Goldkey/Whitman ceased publishing on the newsstands & Harvey stopped a couple of years prior. I think 1984 is a good ending point for ending the Newsstand Age, while comics were still published on them the bulk of the American comic book industry were making the majority of their money in another market or at minimum had tailored their content for another market seeing the future was inevitable.

    Underground Age 1: 1920s to 1960s – This is for the Tijuana Bibles, which we often forget about when talking about comic book history.

    Underground Age 2: 1964 – 1973. We would start with the God Nose by Jack Jackson (Jaxon) and The Adventures of Jesus by Frank Stack which are considered to be the first underground comix’s and were published in 1964. This ends when the courts rule Zap Comix #4 to be obscene and many head shops are put out of business by local obscenity laws.

    Direct Market Age: 1974 – Present. The Underground Market morphed into the direct market with comic book stores and dealers picking up the slack. Slowly but surely Direct Market only publishers (both self and independent) began to fill the void of the undergrounds. It’s possible that this Age could be split into 2 like the newsstands. The split would be when Diamond became a monopoly.but I’m no so sure that it had a large enough impact to warrant a split age, especially considering all the other issues happening prior to that (speculator market crashing, Marvel buying Heroes World and distributing exclusively though them, etc..).

    There is obviously a book store age(s) with Graphic Novels, but generally these ‘age’ debates are about the monthly comics by and large. How to define/divvy up the whole bookstore/graphic novel timeline is a whole other topic. The same goes for digital comics.

    I know these ages overlap, but that’s a more accurate method of describing comic book history. Our industry did not flow in one straight line and we shouldn’t pretend that it did.

  7. Jamie Coville said: “While I enjoy superhero comics and recognize it’s been a long popular genre, it does us a disservice to define our history by them alone.”

    I agree. One reason for this is that comics fandom was started by Golden Age superhero fans (Roy Thomas, Jerry Bails, Maggie and Don Thompson, a few others). Their tastes dictated what was considered valuable and collectible. Guess what? They saw superhero comics as the most valuable and collectible. And generations of fans followed their lead.

    If fandom had been started by EC fans, or Donald Duck fans, we might have different touchstones. And eras might be defined differently.

    I’ve had debates with fans who regard the ’50s and ’70s as the worst decades for comics, for one reason: superheroes were in decline in those decades. For these fans, the only good years are the years when superhero sales are booming. Because superheroes are all that really matters to them. For them, superheroes ARE comics. I haven’t felt that way since I was about 12.

  8. Note that these are just ideas and I’m just tossing them out to help, not necessarily saying these are what I think they should be…. but here goes…

    I would also propose that there was an era from 1984/1985 to 1992 or so that correlated with DC’s Crisis reboot and Marvel’s cross-overs beginning with Secret Wars, and the expansion of X-Men into a franchise with New Mutants, Alpha Flight, X-Factor and Excalibur and ended with the demise of virtually all of DC’s Post-Crisis directions in 1992 (notably the end of Perez’s Wonder Woman and JLI), the failed Impact imprint and the artist exodus from Marvel to Image.

    Then the next age would possibly begin with the Death of Superman, Knightfall, Image’s launch, Dark Horse’s growth with Legends and World’s Greatest Heroes , the launch of Vertigo, the increased speculator presence ushered in by Hero Illustrated and Wizard Magazine and the shift away from the newstands into the Direct Market.

    Then possible starting points for the current age could be one or any of the following-
    Marvel abandoning the Comics Code in 2001, followed by DC in 2011 (after publishing Identity Crisis in 2004)
    The launch of the Walking Dead comic in 2003.
    The Iron Man movie in 2008.
    The Walking Dead show premieres in 2010.
    DC’s reboot in 2011.
    DC and Marvel Comics going same day digital in 2011.
    Wizard Magazine publishing its last print issue in 2011.
    Karen Berger leaving Vertigo in 2012.

  9. Anyone who has purchased more than one size of archival plastic bag and backing board can tell you quite plainly that it is all about the size of the book. The ages of comics are Golden, Silver and Current.

  10. I’d say there are three ages:

    The Mass-Market Age (1935-1965): This is the period when comics were just another sector of the periodical publishing business, with titles geared towards attracting readerships in the 100,000+ range. The creative community (cartoonists, scriptwriters, etc.) saw themselves as publishing professionals whose jobs were to maximize the publications’ appeal. The publication formats were cheap and disposable; the work was not produced with an eye towards being of lasting interest.

    The Fandom Age (1965-1985): This is the period when comics became increasingly geared towards a subcultural fan readership. The creative people, who began to see themselves as authors rather than periodical contributors,, developed a more idiosyncratic bent–visionary at best, and hopelessly self-indulgent at worst. For all the talent and readership’s pretensions, though, the work was still being done in disposable formats, and few outside the subculture took the material seriously

    The Graphic-Novel Age (1985 to present); This is the present period, which builds on the fandom period in a way respects some of the thinking of the mass-market era. The creative people are more mature than their fandom-era counterparts. They see themselves as authors, but they and their publishers also take their work seriously enough to package it for audiences outside the fandom subculture. The most valued success is success in the book trade. The disposable periodical format becomes increasingly irrelevant as both the creative people and readerships abandon it.

    There is a transition period of roughly a decade between eras. I wouldn’t say the fandom period had fully taken over from the mass-market period until the mid-1970s, and the graphic-novel period hadn’t taken over from the fandom period until the mid-90s. But the mid-1960s is when the fandom period gets going, and the mid-80s is when the graphic-novel period begins its ascent.

  11. So….Underground Comix, Alternative Comics, mini-comics/zines, literary comics and art comics don’t count?

  12. Making genre distinctions is a fan subculture thing. People outside the subculture don’t make them when looking at the field.

    Underground comix are part of the fandom period; Crumb is part of the same zeitgeist that produced Steranko and Steve Gerber. With alternative comics, the Hernandez brothers, Chester Brown, and so forth are transitional figures between the fandom and graphic-novel periods. Literary and art comics are graphic-novel period. Minicomics and ‘zines are venues for talent that hasn’t broken through to market publication.

  13. Here we go again…
    NO ONE is a bigger fan of Steranko than Steranko himself.
    His total time spent actually working in the comics industry can’t be more than 3 years total.
    What he did was GREAT, but frankly he did so little of it in terms of quantity.
    Anyone still waiting for the upscale reprint of CHANDLER: RED TIDE???

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