Let me begin this article by saying that I love the current age of comic books. The variety and quality of stories put out by every publisher is simply astounding. Looking beyond DC and Vertigo’s stable, there are great titles everywhere you look, such as Image’s Saga and Sex Criminals, Monkeybrain’s Captain Ultimate, and Thrillbent’s Insufferable. The popularity of films such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers, along with television programs like The Walking Dead, Arrow, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.have made superheroes and other comic book creations the hottest commodities in pop culture. However, none of this would be possible if not for the brave experimentation of comic book creators from decades ago.
I’m not referring to the seminal works produced in the 1980s by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing) or Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Born Again). Nor am I talking about the infusion of relevance and realism by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams (Green Lantern / Green Arrow, Batman) in the 1970s. As great as those periods were, their very existence might be called into question had it not been for the Silver Age of Comics.
The Rise and Fall of Comics – The Golden Age
The Golden Age birthed many of the pop culture icons that we know today (e.g. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America). From 1938 to around 1950, comic books were king. They served as a form of entertainment to both children and servicemen during World War II, not only for their simple “good vs. evil” storytelling, but also because they were cheap and could be easily provided to military personnel. Then, just as quickly it rose, the superhero genre declined. The publication of Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Dr. Frederic Wertham did not help. The controversial book alleged that the rise in juvenile delinquency during the late 1940s and early 1950s was attributed to the gruesome imagery and sexual themes found in comic books. Though it has since been proven that nearly all of the Wertham’s allegations were inaccurate and that the “facts” he presented were fabricated, the book crippled the industry. Publishers that relied on horror and crime comic books were put out of business, and the industry adopted a self-regulating Comics Code Authority to censor its publications. (Source: history)
Resurrection by Lightning
Showcase #4 is widely recognized as the comic that kickstarted the Silver Age. In 1956, DC editor Julius Schwartz paired writers John Broome and Robert Kanigher with artists Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert, tasking them to resurrect the Flash concept in the anthology series Showcase. This new Flash, Barry Allen, was a police scientist who gained his abilities from a science experiment gone wrong—a formula Stan Lee would later exploit to great success at Marvel. After a couple more successful outings in the pages of Showcase, Barry Allen found his way into his own series. The success of this new Flash triggered a new rise of the superhero.
Seeing the success of this new Flash, DC began to fully exploit the popularity of science fiction in the late 1950s. Green Lantern—another dead Golden Age property—found new life in the Silver Age as a member of an intergalactic police force in Showcase #22. J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter, made his first appearance in 1955 and was a popular backup feature in Detective Comics. Even established heroes would jump on the sci-fi bandwagon. Batman stories were filled with enough space adventures and cosmic tropes to make Ed Wood blush, such as the classic “Robin Dies at Dawn.” In this particular story, written by co-creator Bill Finger, Batman volunteers for a military experiment to test the long-term effects of isolation on the human psyche, which results in a myriad of hallucinations including the death of Robin on an alien world. Again, this was not published during Grant Morrison’s zany run. This was published back in 1963!
The resurgence of the comic book medium allowed for greater experimentation from creators. At DC, titles such as Young Love, Tales of the Unexpected , and Dial H for Hero enabled writers and artists to tell unique stories that operated outside the status quo. Even Lois Lane had her own title! Unlike the Golden Age, which suffered a fairly abrupt ending, the Silver Age would enable the medium to thrive and ultimately evolve as the Bronze Age dawned in the 1970s.
The Silver Age and the Present
Much of today’s audience looks back on Silver Age stories with disdain for storytelling that is deemed goofy or unsophisticated, and art styles that are considered crude. However, many of the acclaimed comic books that have been published in recent years do not owe their success to the “grim and gritty” movement that characterized the late 1980s to the early part of the 2000s, but rather the “outdated” concepts birthed the 1950s and 1960s.
Grant Morrison’s Batman saga, while divisive during its initial publication, is now considered one of defining runs for the character due to its incorporation of elements from the character’s entire 70-plus year publication history. The crown jewel of this run is (arguably) Batman: R.I.P., a story celebrated for its creativity and use of antiquated Silver Age concepts. But would this story even come to be without the publication of 1958’s “The Space Batman from Planet X” (Batman #113) or 1959’s “Batman Meets Bat-Mite” (Detective Comics #267)? The concept of Batman, Incorporated from later in his run is a resurrection of the “Batmen of All Nations” story from 1955. Even the oft-derided Rainbow Creature from 1960’s Batman #134 had a cameo in Morrison’s Bat-epic.
Green Lantern is considered one of the coolest corners of the DC universe, yet its popularity would not be possible without the passion of Geoff Johns for the classic Silver Age material. Prior to his death in the mid 1990s, Hal Jordan was not a terribly compelling character. In resurrecting him, Geoff Johns returned the character to his roots as a brash, unpredictable hero. Though the storytelling techniques used in Johns’ run had modern day sensibilities, the core essence of the Hal Jordan character was that from Showcase #22 back in 1959.
Looking at current publications at the local comic shop, those that receive the greatest acclaim are not the ones that are inherently dark and serious, but rather titles that have managed to capture the charm and joy of the comic books published in the 1950s and 1960s. Marvel’s Daredevil and FF have received high acclaim for their sophisticated stories paired with a sense of fun. DC has earned similar accolades for its lighthearted fare such as Adventures of Superman, The Flash, and Batman ‘66, the last one being an adaptation of the campy television series. Even the acclaimed Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello has enjoyed moments of levity throughout the course of its run. Meanwhile, much criticism has been laid at DC’s feet for the overly serious tone of its other titles. Sure, there have been exceptions—Batman and Green Arrow come to mind—but more and more of today’s comic books are able to blend the complex themes of modern storytelling with the amusement of the Silver Age to great success.
With an increased demand for “brighter” stories, readers may benefit from diving deep into the back issue bins at their local comic stores. The writing may be simplistic and the artwork not as refined, but never was there a period filled with more insane concepts (complemented by a wink and a grin) than the Silver Age. Pick up a collection of Tales of the Unexpected, or read some Martian Manhunter before his addiction to Oreos. Check out Batman: The Black Casebook for off-the-wall stories that inspired Batman: R.I.P, or some classic Elongated Man that’ll really make you cry the next time you take a spin through Identity Crisis. More and more, writers are informed by the stories of the Silver Age. Isn’t it time you were too?
(Note: this opinion piece was originally published at DCComicsNews.com on November 5, 2013)