Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hallmarks of the Silver Age part one

Obviously the Golden Age of comics is where it all started, so it’s always going to have that going for it. In the 80’s, revolutionary work by guys like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, John Byrne and more turned the industry on its ear and forced it to grow up while the underground underwent a revitalization as well. The 90’s was the era of access and the past decade has been nothing to scoff at with leaps and bounds both creatively and commercially.

But after all is said and done, no period in comic industry proved as pivotal and creatively fertile as the Silver Age.

From 1956 to 1969 (which is what we’ll be classifying as the Silver Age for our purposes), dozens (if not hundreds—maybe hundreds) of iconic comic book characters were created and a generation of incredibly talented creators picked up their pens and pencils to make their mark. These were the years that established comic books—and the super hero genre in particular—were here to stay as a fixture of pop culture that would spread like wildfire over the second half of the century in beyond into all facets of media.

The other day, Rickey and I were having a conversation about some of the more incredible concepts that sprang out of the Silver Age and how amazingly rich they’ve proven for a time often considered simplistic until you take a closer look. That chat prompted me to do a little digging, figure out what characters debuted when, and try to tag year-by-year what I thought were the most innovative, dynamic and influential creations to emerge over that 14-year stretch; here’s 1956 through 1962.

1956: The Flash
Though I’ve made no secret that the Flash has long been one of my favorite characters (though since we’re talking Barry Allen here, that’s more in the broad, abstract sense that I love the costume and powers in this case), he doesn’t need my personal endorsement to be the undisputed king of 1956, the year that kick-started the Silver Age. Make no mistake: had Julius Schwartz not rolled the dice and commissioned Robert Kanigher, John Broome and Carmine Infantino to give DC’s old Golden Age Flash concept a sci-fi-heavy sprucing up, and had Barry Allen not succeeded, there may not have ever been a Silver Age, and comic books might all still be about war and romance to this day. So yeah, in addition to being the character of 1956 by a long shot, the Barry Allen Flash is also in my mind one of the top five most important super hero characters of all-time.

1957: Challengers of the Unknown
Compared to 1957 with the Flash’s dynamic debut, 1958 was a pretty lean year for comic book creations, but Jack Kirby did produce one standout concept that would end up being even more notable for influencing his more high profile work down the line in the Challengers of the Unknown. With the Chals, Kirby became one of—if not the—first creators to delve into protagonists who weren’t just square-jawed good guys getting into fist fights with society’s undesirable elements, but rather a quirky group built around a family dynamic whose adventures emerged from their ongoing quest to chart the undiscovered regions of our world. And the whole “living on borrowed time” because they survived a plane crash together thing? Pretty cool.

1958: The Legion of Super-Heroes
Super hero teams were not an altogether new idea when Otto Binder and Al Plastino introduced the Legion of Super-Heroes into Superboy’s life in 1958, but whereas the Justice Society of America and Invaders had set a certain precedent, the Legion broke new ground. Unlike those aforementioned teams, the Legion did not come about from a company taking all its biggest name characters and using the surefire recipe for success of putting them all in the same book, but consisted instead wholly of new characters who appeared for the first time as part of a pre-existing team. Obviously this approach stemmed from the original intent of the Legion being to supply Superboy with fresh supporting cast members, but the group proved so rich and popular that they would eventually supplant their ostensible lead in terms of popularity and even longevity. Also making the Legion unique from the start was their membership consisting solely of young characters that represented the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy for readers and their setting in the future putting them completely apart from the rest of the DC Universe.

Honorable mention for 1958 has to go to another character that came into existence via Superman: Bizarro, who has proven the most popular and enduring in a long line of “evil twin” villains.

1959: Green Lantern
The thing that got this whole ball rolling in terms of the conversation I mentioned between Rickey and I was Green Lantern, who was DC’s next big Silver Age pillar three years after the Flash, with John Broome and Gil Kane stepping even further into the realm of sci-fi for this twist on an old favorite. Honestly, I don’t think Hal Jordan on his own would necessarily have been a hugely impactful character, but the incredible mythology he helped his creators introduce into the DC Universe is virtually unparalleled in terms of grand scope. While Batman and the Flash both have superior rogues galleries, the idea of 3600 space cops from every alien race the folks writing and drawing could imagine has produced some truly amazing characters and stories over the years. Beyond that, the huge ideas behind the Guardians and their Green Lantern Corps have beget such monumental contributions to the DC Universe as Krona, Qward, the Manhunters and so on and so-forth; no franchise has done more to enrich the vast galaxy beyond Earth than Green Lantern, and as the success of the Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night as well as the seemingly endless parade of new ideas Geoff Johns keeps churning out demonstrate, it continues to be incredible relevant and productive.

Believe it or not, I did think for a moment about giving Sgt. Rock the nod for 1959 as he was the character who first pulled war comics through into the Silver Age, but ultimately Nick Fury became a far more prominent character and Rock can’t hold up against Green Lantern besides. Supergirl was also introduced this year and has merit as the first female version of a male character to really last as well as on general popularity and visibility, but she falls just short as well.

1960: The Justice League of America
Really the decision by Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox to unite their seven most marquee heroes as the Justice League in 1960 wasn’t particularly innovative since it was just the Justice Society done over, but it was undeniably smart from a business standpoint and has certainly provided immeasurable entertainment for fans over the last half century. Unlike the Flash or Green Lantern, the JLA didn’t deviate much from the JSA formula of simply bringing huge draws together, but there’s no denying the impact of the group or that the success of this launch would raise the stakes as far as team books and thrown down the gauntlet to DC’s competition.

While certainly dwarfed by the events that took place around him during his first appearance, Snapper Carr was one of the first truly non-powered characters to earn himself an active spot as the Justice League’s trusted mascot. Also, Elongated Man never quite achieved headliner status, but his publicly-known identity—a major problem for him way down the line—as well as his more lighthearted persona and well-adjusted romantic life made him a unique creation.

1961: The Fantastic Four
I’ve written at some length before about the huge importance of the Fantastic Four in terms of changing comics and super heroes forever—and for the better in my humble opinion—so I’ll direct you there rather than rehash too much, but to touch on the big stuff, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby changed the game by introducing a group of protagonists who actually had flaws and distinct personalities and who didn’t always get along; in other words, they were human. With Lee, Kirby took his basic formula from the Challengers of the Unknown and raised it several echelons with the FF in terms of building on the idea of a family of heroes as well as a group that was concerned with exploration first and incidental do-gooding a close second.

1962: Spider-Man
Speaking of game-changers, when I spoke about Barry Allen being one of the five most important super heroes ever, Spider-Man is ahead of him on that list. While the Flash may have begun the Silver Age and the Fantastic Four gave comics its first feet-of-clay heroes, I don’t think I’m overstating that when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, they spawned a character that ensured the survival of their industry. For the most part, comics have always been the realm of young men when it comes to who is making up the fan base, and while guys in their tweens, teens and slightly above thrilled to the adventures of Superman and company, they connected with Spider-Man in a way they never had any other character. First and foremost, this was a young character who was not playing sidekick to an older hero, he was out there on his own the way the kids reading him longed to be. Second, while the FF had their flaws, Spidey practically made them look like the Justice Society; yes, at his heart Peter Parker is a fundamentally good person who wants to do the right thing and that has driven the success of Spider-Man for over 40 years, but he was not born with this innate nobility, he had to learn it through a series of costly mistakes, the same way most of us do in the real world. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Peter Parker was an outcast in the same vein as many of his fans. Sure Clark Kent was a nerd, but only because he pretended to be, and besides, he was still a hugely successful reporter; Peter could not escape his put-upon persona unless he put on a mask—and even then his life was hardly bed of roses—and he was constantly bombarded by life’s mundane villains, from trouble with girls to bullies to making ends meet financially. I’ve not always been the biggest Spider-Man fan myself, but I could never doubt the nearly-unparalleled and universal appeal by virtue of being relatable the character has among a huge chunk of fandom and the amazing—pun intended—impact he has had on comics.

In any other year Thor or the Hulk would have a good shot due to bringing high fantasy to comics in a way not accomplished prior and the strength of a great Jekyll and Hyde dynamic respectively, but as far as this list goes, they had the misfortune to be “born” in 1962.

To be continued...


Rickey said...

Schwartz!!! Some of the most fascinating articles I've read - out of old issues of Amazing Heroes I've found on eBay - have been about Julius Schwartz and that era in DC Comics. I wanna read an oral biography about that man.

John Kimbell said...

Silver Age is overrated. These so called "amazing ideas" had been done by sci-fi and pulp writers for years. There was an old sci-fi short story that Schwartz admitted to reading called "Whip Wilson" about a police detective who gets super speed as a thank you for rescuing an old wizard's daughter.