Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hallmarks of the Silver Age part two

Picking up from where we left off...

1963: Iron Man
It’s possible 1963 may have been Marvel’s biggest year of the Silver Age, with Doctor Strange making his debut and both the Avengers and X-Men coming together while the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and the Hulk all continued to churn forward, introducing new villains and supporting characters as they went. However, I place Iron Man at the head of the class for this one, and would have done so even without the character’s recent big screen success (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). Just as Thor did with fantasy, Iron Man introduced the realm of technology into super hero comics in a way not done before; yeah, heroes and more often villains often wielded fancy weapons of some sort or another, but Iron Man was really the first high profile comic book character who relied solely on technology to provide him with his “powers,” with invention and innovation playing a huge part in his ongoing adventures. On the human side of the coin, Tony Stark was in many ways Bruce Wayne done over Marvel styles, with the same crazy wealth and playboy persona—though his was not a front—but also with his feet firmly planted in the clay of hubris and the unawareness of the idle rich. Iron Man was a richly flawed character from the start, and he’s never really completely reformed his ways, but he has persevered as a good guy in spite of them, which makes him a compelling character. It’s also worth noting that few tropes in super hero lore have been re-used as often as “guy in a suit of armor,” but not other similar character comes close to Iron Man’s success and popularity.

As a recently enlightened Doctor Strange fan, I was tempted to consider Doc here almost on the strength of Steve Ditko’s visuals alone—coupled with being comics’ most prominent magic-wielder—but like how Thor and Hulk get eclipsed by Spider-Man, so too does Strange by Iron Man. The Avengers was just the Justice Society or Justice League done Marvel style, with all the biggest names coming together, and while it’s proven a vital franchise, there wasn’t much innovation behind it and unlike with the year the JLA was created, there was actual competition here. The idea of misfit heroes embodied by the X-Men and Doom Patrol, both created in this year, took Spider-Man’s plight somewhat to the next level, but the latter have never really managed to hit it big, and the former have succeeded not really in much part due to its original incarnation.

1964: Daredevil
Way before the likes of Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, et al. came along to reinvent him into Marvel’s hard-luck kid and most hardboiled costumed hero, Daredevil was in many ways a sort of second rate Spider-Man, ripping off his counterparts acrobatic moves, witty repartee and other trademark qualities in hopes of lightning striking twice. It was a success in some regard as DD remained a viable star who could support his own ongoing series until the 80’s where his renaissance took place, but he never achieved Spidey’s success, nor could he really be expected to given that he basically inherited all his big brother’s hand-me-downs. However, it’s not like Daredevil just exploded two decades after his creation without there being anything there, as Stan Lee, Bill Everett and their collaborators certainly invented a unique protagonist and took some pretty significant risks in his realization. The idea that a hero with a major handicap like blindness would swim as opposed to sink with an audience chiefly composed of young boys who were highly unlikely to find such a setback sexy or appealing certainly could have been enough to shoot the idea down, but Daredevil’s creators persevered and indeed his unique standing as comics’ first and most well-known blind hero—though not the last—laid the groundwork that gave Miller somewhere to start and that has always set him apart from his contemporaries enough to keep him noticed. Major credit must also go to artist Wally Wood, who created one of the medium’s sleekest, coolest looks by modifying DD’s somewhat gaudy original yellow togs into that slick red costume.

The other most significant creations of 1964 were both villains: Spider-Man’s true archnemesis the Green Goblin, and the Justice League’s evil counterparts the Crime Syndicate; both have endured and made for some excellent stories, but neither rates above Daredevil.

1965: The Inhumans
While both Marvel and DC were thriving in terms of the ongoing adventures of their existing characters, 1965 was a bit of a lean year for new characters in comics. However, I’d tag Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s introduction of the Inhumans in the pages of the Fantastic Four as being the most noteworthy new arrival. Though nobody has ever found quite the perfect recipe to making the Inhumans true headliners—though Paul Jenkins made a damn good case—so many creators come back to them time and again wanting to give it a shot because the characters possess some intrinsic quality that makes them quite appealing. I’d say a large part of that can be attributed to Kirby doing some of the finest design work of a remarkable career, particularly with Black Bolt, whose costume has few peers when it comes to sheer radness. The bizarre and intriguing mix of personalities and powers within an extended family unit also presents an irresistible hook for fans and inviting challenge to writers and artists.

Speaking of great looks, the bizarre Metamorpho also hit the scene in 1965 and parallels the Inhumans somewhat in terms of being a consistently popular character with both fans and creators who has never really reached that upper echelon. These days Donna Troy is better known as being the greatest symbol of continuity’s potential damage, but years before her first retcon she was significant as the first female sidekick who really stuck.

1966: The Black Panther
This was maybe the toughest call of this little exercise, as three pretty iconic and impressive characters all debuted as part of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s ongoing Fantastic Four tour de force in 1966, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to go with the Black Panther. Obviously the major consideration here is that he’s the first African-American hero who really broke through comics’ color barrier and emerged as a legitimate star, but that aside, T’Challa really is a pretty great character on merits aside from that as well. The concept of the warrior king was hardly a new one in either comics or fiction in general by the time Lee and Kirby created the Panther, but I’ve always liked the way they made him a thinker first and fighter second—a trend pretty much every subsequent creator handle the character has continued and improved—who had an edge over opponents who outmatched him based on his ability to keep his cool and strategize. The idea of a technologically-advanced civilization in the middle of Africa may not have been born with Wakanda, but certainly Lee and Kirby gave this particular fictional nation more spark than any others. Ultimately though, great character or not, the Black Panther will always be most remembered for being a trendsetting black character not only due to his coming first (or darn close), but also for the respectability he has garnered.

The other guys I had under consideration for 1966 were the cosmic duo of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, introduced in perhaps the best Lee-Kirby collaboration ever. The Silver Surfer is one of the most incredibly tragic figures in all of comics, Galactus is the amazing realization of two of the medium’s most epic minds working at their biggest scope and both sport, again, great Kirby designs, an had they just been introduced a couple months earlier they would have been shoo-ins; oh well.

1967: Batgirl
While Wonder Woman has always been recognized somewhat de facto as DC’s top female character—and the biggest female character in comics history—I daresay the Barbara Gordon incarnation of Batgirl is not only more affable in many ways, but has also left a more fondly remembered impression on a wider audience (within comics at least; despite Yvonne Craig’s best efforts, she can’t topple Lynda Carter on her best day). At first thought, the idea of a teenage girl slipped into the grim world of Batman may seem an odd fit, and during some periods it would have been, but Barbara came about during the Dark Knight’s more innocent Silver Age days and acclimated perfectly. In the long view though, just as Robin gave Batman a necessary counterbalance to his darkness in the Golden Age, Batgirl added a just as crucial element of renewed enthusiasm as the 60’s began to wind down. With a great costume and that neat link to the civilian side of Gotham as Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara gained an acceptance among male fans many female characters never enjoy—and was probably the first crush for more than a few—and was certainly also a more than decent role model to young girls with her pluck, independent spirit and ingenuity. Her translation to various forms of multimedia (Alicia Silverstone aside) also demonstrates the character’s enduring value.

1967 also saw Steve Ditko leave the Marvel nest definitively with his creation of The Question perhaps his best-known character from outside the House of Ideas and another chance for him to explore his fascination with the ideals of right and wrong. Vic Sage has become a neat vessel for creators like Denny O’Neil to play with over the years and benefits from strong roots put in place by Ditko.

1968: Franklin Richards
As you’ve no doubt gathered by reading this list (and likely by being a comic book fan), a lot of first took place in the pages of Fantastic Four, including the first time two teammates entered into a lasting marriage, followed in 1968 by the Invisible Girl giving birth to Franklin Richards, the first child of super heroes after a fashion. Certainly Franklin has not always been the most beloved character, but his continued presence (and lack of aging—save for time travel hijinx) in the FF’s world over the last 30 years both speaks to a core of quality and the fact that once again Fantastic Four is not quite like most other comics. Some creators have also done some pretty neat stuff with Franklin over the years—not just in terms of Chris Eliopoulos’ laudable all-ages efforts, but in the Marvel Universe proper as well—including current FF scribe and major Franklin fan Jonathan Hickman.

Two other enduring figures who showed up in Avengers during 1968 were the yin and yang of the Marvel robotic set, Ultron and the Vision, with one becoming an implacable villain who has become only more terrifying with time and the other carving a niche as a unique hero and touching examination of humanity’s nature.

1969: Black Canary
DC wrapped the Silver Age as it had begun it: by taking a Golden Age concept, applying some polish, and creating a new superstar. In this case, the elevation was done in the form of Dinah Laurel Lance, the second and more well-known Black Canary. Though at the time the Canary was thought to simply be the same lady from the 1940’s migrating over from Earth-2 to Earth-1 following the death of her husband, she immediately displayed a new take-charge personality in fitting with the rising feminist movement, and we would learn years later via retcon this was in fact the daughter of the heroine who served in the Justice Society, so we’ll go ahead and recognize her first appearance as being in 1969. Regardless of her origins, the revitalized Black Canary represented a new breed of female characters who didn’t need the powers of Wonder Woman to break out of the role of damsel in distress, and gave the Justice League a feminine counter to the similarly non-powered Batman and Green Arrow. The romance between Arrow and Canary would also quickly become one of the most intense and popular in comics, opening up a whole new world in the 70’s.

Across the street at Marvel, Stan Lee and Gene Colan gave Captain America a new partner who couldn’t be more different from his original teen sidekick Bucky: the street-smart, mature, high-flying Falcon, who also happened to be a black man. Written with a combination of savvy and passion by Lee and successors, Falcon would prove popular enough to share billing with Cap on his series for several years.

Well this was fun and educational for me, so I hope you all dug it—anybody wanna see me tackle the 70’s next?


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