A History of Comic Books: The Silver And Bronze Ages
Every September 25, fans, collectors, readers, and creatives come together to celebrate National Comic Book Day. While comic books have been around since the late 19th century, the comics that we know today have gone through several different iterations and continue to change with the times. In honor of the auspicious day celebrating comics and their creators, I’ll be digging into the history of comic books: the Silver and Bronze Ages of Comics, which included a move towards camp and a return to horror, an awareness of social issues, and the introduction of the likes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The Silver Age Of Comic Books
In my post about the Platinum and Golden Ages of comic books, we ended with the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency being created and essentially censoring comic book content for influencing youth to juvenile delinquency. This was the start of the Silver Age of comics (1956) and while this age got off on the wrong foot, it ended up being an important time, lasting until about 1970.
So the Silver Age of Comics began with people claiming that comics were bad influences on readers. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote in his bestselling book Seduction of the Innocent that comic books of all types were corrupting the youth of America. Just for kicks, some of these claims included Superman representing fascist ideals, Batman and Robin promoting a homosexual lifestyle, and Wonder Woman being a lesbian with a bondage fixation. The comic book industry decided to come up with the Comics Code Authority in order to self-regulate. They laid down several new ground rules, which had gems such as “In every instance good shall triumph over evil…”; “If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity”; “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities”; and “…vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.”
Because of this, comic publishers focused mainly on superheroes, revitalizing the genre by bringing back old superheroes and creating new ones (this was when groups of superheroes became popular e.g. The Justice League and Fantastic Four). Previously, DC had had Superman (and his younger incarnation, Superboy), Batman and his sidekick Robin, and Wonderwoman. During the Silver Age of Comics though, we got introduced to Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Atom, and Hawkman. In a similar vein, Marvel also came up with a host of new characters, which included Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Hulk.
Most historians agree that the release of Flash in Showcase #4 was the first comic book to kick off the Silver Age. Some also argued that science fiction and aliens replaced magic and gods, the latter of which was very popular during the Golden Age of Comics.
Flash in Showcase #4/Image via Wikimedia, DC Comics
The Silver Age was also the time when some of the greatest comic book writers and artists came on the scene, namely Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Gardner Fox, just to name a few. Due to the continued Comics Code Authority, the stories created during this time tended to have sillier plots and higher levels of camp. While DC and Marvel were establishing themselves as the biggest names in the comic book industry, the Silver Age also saw other publishers establishing a name for themselves.
Harvey Comics, which had sold horror comics before the Comics Code Authority, changed its target audience and started to focus on girls aged 6-12 years old. They featured characters who “defied stereotypes and sent a message of acceptance of those who are different” as seen with Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Little Dot. Publishers Gilberton, Dell Comics, and Golden Key Comics still maintained a reputation for wholesome content, so they continued to publish horror-themed comics under the guise that it wouldn’t influence kids to do bad things. Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated line adapted literary classics like Frankenstein into comic book format; Dell Comics offered licensed TV series comic books of titles such as Twilight Zone and published superhero versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Werewolf; and Gold Key Comics had comics that starred Warner Bros. cartoons like Bugs Bunny and comic strip properties like Beetle Bailey.
We were introduced to ridiculous characters like Bat-Ape and Bat-Mite; in addition, several forms of kryptonite were introduced (gold, blue, Jewel, red-green, Magno, red-gold kryptonite and Kryptonite Plus). In Superboy #76, there was a story called “The Super-Monkey from Krypton” in Superboy #76 and in Jerry Lewis #97, Batman and Robin team up with comedian Jerry Lewis to fight the Joker. More “campy” styles were also written, such as American Comics Group’s Herbie character becoming Fat Fury or even the popular Archie Comics teens becoming superheroes (Archie as Capt. Pureheart and Jughead as Captain Hero).
The Silver Age of Comics also saw the beginnings of “underground” comics in response to the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s. These comics could be found in counterculture bookstores and smoke shops and were typically printed in black and white with a glossy color cover.
The Bronze Age of Comic Books
The Bronze Age of Comics is thought to have started in the early 1970s, with many saying it officially began with the death of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in a story titled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in 1973. This event showed that comics were willing to venture into darker territory and that superheroes were not “untouchable” as previously seen in the Golden and Silver Ages. The Bronze age is thought to have ended in 1984 and it was notable for bringing back darker themes set against the background of racism, pollution, and social injustice. The Comics Code Authority also loosened some of their restrictions, so comic creators started to experiment with adding more horror and supernatural elements to their stories.
“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”/Image via Wikimedia Commons
Many of the writers and artists that came to prominence during the Silver Age were either promoted or replaced with a younger generation creatives who learned about the industry from fan conventions and publications. They were also more conscientious of social issues, so we saw an increase in comics that addressed these harder topics (e.g. Green Arrow confronting his sidekick, Speedy’s, heroin addiction and Iron Man coming to terms with his alcoholism). In 1971, Marvel Comic’s Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee was approached about publishing a comic that addressed drug abuse.
There was also a push for less Caucasian male leads, so we saw characters such as Storm, Black Lightning, and Blade. Female versions of originally male characters also appeared (She-Hulk, Spider-Woman), and the X-Men, who were a metaphor for minorities, skyrocketed in popularity. Luke Cage, Mantis, Misty Knight, Shang-Chi, and Iron Fist were created by Marvel to cash in on the kung fu craze of the 1970s, although that was problematic in its own way.
Additionally, there was an increase in non-superhero comics, with more inspiration being taken from Westerns, fantasy, and pulp fiction hitting the market. Thanks to the revised Comics Code Authority in 1971, the horror genre once again came back and many comics publishers took advantage of it, publishing many supernatural-themed series like Ghost Rider and Swamp Thing. Science fiction post-apocalyptic stories were also a hit, as evidenced by Marvel’s nine-year run with the Star Wars series. Though not necessarily considered “non-superhero,” DC and Marvel came out with some series that had supervillains as the protagonists.
Image via Marvel Comics
The art style of the Bronze Age saw a different art style. Gone were the stylized illustrations of the Silver Age and the simple cartoons of the Golden Age, the Bronze Age was all about “sophisticated realism.” Artists that became well-known in this style included Frank Miller, Berni Wrightson, and George Pérez. There was also a secondary line at DC that was devoted to horror titles that sought artistic talent from Asia and Latin America.
Comics also stopped appearing in newsstands and started to be stocked in specialty comic shops in the hopes of reaching a more niche audience. Fans became familiar with their favorite writers and artists as more of them started to retain copywrites for the work they created rather than ceding it to the companies they worked for. With comic shops, small-press publishers could reach audiences easier and some comic artists began to self-publish.
Lastly, anthologies disappeared, which had the effect of standardizing the length of comics to a narrow range so that multiple stand-alone stories could appear in one issue. Before, anthologies had been used to create new characters, host characters that had lost their own titles, or to feature several characters without making single issues for each one.
How will the comic book industry keep changing? Keep your eyes out for my article on the Dark and Modern Ages of Comics, coming soon!
National Comic Book Day is celebrated on Saturday, September 25. How are you celebrating?
Did I miss anything in my write-up on the history of comic books: the Silver and Bronze Ages? Do you have your own history to add? Let me know in the comments below!
Featured image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Keilin Huang is a freelance writer that likes the Oxford comma, reading from her neverending pile of books from the library, and Reeses peanut butter cups. She thanks her Dad for introducing her to his Superman comics and probably majored in Journalism because of Lois Lane. Contact her at [email protected]