Classical Greece divided history into three ages: one of Golden, Silver, and Iron. The Golden
Age was a halcyon epoch long ago. From this exalted state Man had fallen through a (still pretty good) Silver Age down to the present—the Iron Age.
In the ancient Greeks’ minds, their Current Year was one of degeneracy, and the iron metaphor captured it well: a strong metal good at killing, but prone to rust (i.e., degeneration).
Greek myths often focused on heroes’ exploits, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that comic books—for good or will, modernity’s purest expression of our its heroic ideal—are similarly broken up into ages. While comics autists can cite exceptions, and there are other spins on the concept, below is the broad outline of each comic book age:
Golden Age Comics
- 1938 (first appearance of Superman) to ’50s
- World War II
- black-and-white morality
- simple powers
- heroes sometimes kill bad guys
- belief in authority
- many patriotic-themed heroes
- normal, human villains (i.e., criminals, enemy soldiers, saboteurs, etc.)
Silver Age Comics
- mid-‘50s to late ‘60s/very-early ’70s
- mostly lighthearted
- authority still respected
- superhero abilities become more and more powerful;
- superhero archetypes/formulas solidify
- hero’s code against killing solidifies
- Cold War
- super-villains (super-powered adversaries)
- effects of radiation (monsters, powers, etc.)
- comic book “universes” begin to arise; shared continuity and geography (such as lost lands inhabited by super-powered peoples, and alternate dimensions)
- casts (side kids, love interests) begin to grow; superheroes universally friends with one another
Bronze Age Comics
- early ’70s to 1986 (The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen published)
- stories start to deal with real-world social, cultural, and political issues.
- Black heroes begin to appear (Black Lightning, Power Man, etc.)
- Increasing conflict between heroes and authority (for instance, society fearing and hating the mutant X-Men)
- Fandom more consciously countercultural.
- Retconning stories (mostly superhero origins) from the Golden Age and Silver Age to make them more realistic to modern readers
- Increasing team-ups and crossovers among superheroes (demonstrates effort to try to make continuity tighter and more believable)
- heroes who work together remain friends, often good ones, but differences in personality and crimefighting methods cause friction
- Heroes or people in their casts develop serious personal problems (such as alcohol addiction)
Iron Age Comics
- Grim; societal decay emphasized
- Social issues and current events important backdrop
- more violence; increasingly, heroes will kill
- amoral heroes; anti-heroes
- Heigtened, sometimes constant, conflict between superheroes
- Higher conflict between heroes and authority
- “Realistic” superpowers; incredibly powerful superheroes retconned to be less powerful; newer heroes centered on skills (and weaponry) than old-fashioned powers
- Continuity continues to be highly stressed
- Entire comic book universes rebooted (to help make internal continuity consistent)
- More involvement of government (either as heroes’ patron or their enemy)
- Secret identities increasingly passe.
Looking at these ages as a whole, it’s easy to see our corresponding social decline. Even the increasing sophistication of comic stories themselves is evidence of this. The stories are becoming more grim and realistic because the audiences are trending older. Rather than moving on from what had traditionally been a children’s entertainment, adults keep reading these them, as if frozen in time. Perpetual adolescence.
Are We Still in Comics’ Iron Age?
While there’s still a lot of grim and gritty aesthetic if that’s your thing, since about 2010 or so there’s been a weird trend in mainstream superhero comics of politicized/feminized wish fulfillment.
Superhero comics have always been politicized, from characters fighting WWII, to studiously ignoring Vietnam, or making a point to normalize minority characters. The different is that now they’re combining the silly unreality of the Silver Age with today’s unofficial (for the moment) Social Justice state religion. Behold how bad it is:
The artwork is terrific at capturing poses, but limp when it comes to heroic action. Worse, the plot and dialogue showcases nothing that might be honestly called heroism. There’s no heroic struggle here, no genuine effort exerted to overcome and win. Villainy, forever in the form of White men, is a pushover, submitting to the new feminized normal.
This feminized normal, in turn, is actually freakish, entitled, and without honor. It’s telling that the male villain, the Absorbing Man, is betrayed by his long-time partner Thundra. Telling too that She-Thor still strikes an adversary that has surrendered.
There is also no moral ambiguity here as was coming of Iron Age comics, just the SJW’s absolute moral certainty in their rightness. The action is all tongue-in-cheek, but the politics are absolutely earnest. Whatever the subtext of “realistic” modern sex or racial politics, these bloodless, struggle-free stories are essentially fairy tales.
If this isn’t Iron Age-superhero storytelling, what should we call it? I’m tempted to jettison the metal metaphor entirely, and just call this is the HIV Age of Comics: infected as a result of their own degeneracy, they’re susceptible to any social contagion. Progress!
The Lead Age of Comics
If we want to follow tradition, however, I guess we should stick with a metal. Because we live in an age that acts as a reverse Philosopher’s Stone, transforming the valuable to the shoddy or poisonous, the beautiful to the ugly, the strong into the weak, I volunteer lead (emphasis mine):
Lead is a metal that preferentially replaces other metals in your body, like the iron, calcium, and zinc you need to function. […] The element causes nervous system damage in babies and children, resulting in developmental delays, organ damage, and reduced intelligence. Lead doesn’t do adults any favors either, affecting blood pressure, cognitive ability, and fertility.
Lead is a good metaphor for Current Year comics. Leads replaces parts of you just like the comic book industry has been substituting its old White male heroes with Black and female versions. Similarly, Social Justice Warriorism has replaced any traditional idea of heroism.
It causes developmental delays, which captures the stunted, childish wish-casting we find in any SJW comics plot. Additionally, lead is a soft metal, again appropriate for these people’s physical and mental weakness.
Lead also affects blood pressure, and fertility, which symbolically captures the anger and general physical unfitness of most comic book writing and reading bugmen.
(There’s a cheap joke that could be made about how both lead and modern comics also affect cognitive ability, but I find most comic book writers and readers are actually very intelligent. It’s just that, if they are White and male, their thinking has been warped. Which make sense: it takes a lot of mental energy to rationalize that self/own-group hate is somehow a good thing.)
Taking it together, the Lead Age is broadly outlined below:
Lead Age Comics
- Starting around 2010(?)
- Different races and females substituting White male heroes
- Social issues and current events at the forefront; supervillains easily defeated
- Stories are mainly vehicles for social/political commentary
- Violence and action are unrealistic, often bordering on the silly
- Dialogue is self-referential, meta; focuses on relationships
- Heroes and storylines moralize constantly
- Type (race, sex, etc.) trumps individuality
- Traditional society illegitimate (racist, homophobic, etc.)
- Authority legitimate to extent it agrees with Social Justice orthodoxy
- New heroes are typically female or minority, and have powers/costumes inspired by older (White male) heroes
- New heroes assumed to be excellent at their roles without the struggle and tragedy common to Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron Age hero origins.
Does it have to be this way? Kurt Busiek in his intro to Astro City’s first volume said something to the effect that the point of deconstructing things ought to be finding ways to put them back together better. He was talking about bleak, Iron Age comic books, but the same logic is applicable here.
Detailing modern, SJW comics’ failings is fun, but it’s not especially useful unless we use that information to learn what’s broken so that it can be repaired and improved. That being the case, simply doing the opposite of the above “Lead Age Comics” list is a good starting point towards building better heroes.