October 4th, 2009

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Sparkling Like Sterling Silver

Silver Age (1956-1971)
For a couple of years after the creation of the Comics Code Authority, super heroes in comics were almost non-existent. Sure, there were Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel (the guy who got his powers from a magic word, not the guy from space, or the guy who split his body . . . . because). And occasionally, a super powered character would debut, but usually the hero's powers were either downplayed (like the Martian Manhunter, who very briefly at first, wasn't so much a super hero as an alien disguised as a police officer), or kind of integral to the setting (like Adam Strange, which was more a toned down update of the John Carter of Mars series, with a little Buck Rogers tossed in for texture). Basically, comic books subsisted on other genres, like westerns (primarily) or romance or horror stories that were scaled down so much they barely qualified as scary. Horrible, sure. But scary? And it wasn't entirely the CCA's fault, or Dr. "I Don't Realize I May Be Ruining A Medium With My Overblown Scare-Mongering" Wertham, either. Super hero comics were actually on the decline since the end of the second World War. Without that inherent jingoism and a focused threat like the Axis (and the Nazis), coupled with the general attitude of the Nuclear Age that such simplistic heroic characters might not be needed, super heroes declined. And declined. And declined. And declined.

But super heroes never completely left us, and a guy named Julius "Julie" Schwartz, who got his start writing pulp science fiction (and wrote comic books to make ends meet since the 1930s--in fact, he wrote the Batman story in which Batarangs debuted), was an editor at DC comics, and realized that most of the kids who had grown up reading super hero comics . . . had grown up, and there was a new batch of kids out there ready to rot their brains on comic books. But he wasn't just going to throw the same characters at kids, he was going to retool them to appeal to the mass market needs of the day. Namely? Science fiction.

Ever since people realized what scientists were capable of during WWII, what with submarines, jet planes, radio communications, the first computer applications (mostly codemaking and breaking), and FRIGGIN' NUCLEAR WEAPONS, they realized this "science" mumbo-jumbo could actually move stories, and not just be a nebulous threat that heroes had to defeat. Sure, there were still mad scientists, and often the comic book science made less sense than just plain ol' magic would have, but there had been a paradigm shift. Before, in the Golden Age, super heroes as often as not got their powers from fully occult occurrences or what I like to call "folk science"--not real science, but if you think about it on a certain level, it makes a kind of sense, and is what people who may not have made it all the way through high school would remember. But now, "science" props were replacing "magic" props. Chemical mixtures super-charged by lightning, artifacts of advanced cultures powered by the wielder's will, nuclear experiments gone wrong, just being from an alien and/or advanced species, or whatever. There had been a few characters like that in the Golden Age--like Superman or the first Robotman--but now it pretty much was de riguer. The first true Silver Age comic book character was the updated speedster The Flash. Originally, the Flash was slowpoke college student Jay Garrick, who when working late in his lab after breathing "hard water vapors"--possibly mistaken for heavy water vapors, which increases circadian periods . . . so it seems like you have more energy, I guess? Like I said, folk science--found himself able to run really fast. However, the new Flash was slowpoke police scientist--think today's CSIs--Barry Allen, who when working late in his lab (sounds familiar) was struck--from outside--by a bolt of lightning that knocked him into a cabinet full of flasks full of different chemicals that shattered all over him and entered his bloodstream, presumably from the cuts on his skin. A slightly more plausible scenario, though it still has its problems. But who cares. It was a success, it drew lots of new kids into super hero comic books, and it opened the door for plenty of new reimagined Golden Age super heroes using a science-ish origin: the Silver Age Green Lantern became a space cop and test pilot, the Silver Age Atom became a college professor who could actually use a "shard from a white dwarf" to shrink to miniature size, and the Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl were alien police officers hunting down criminals congregating on Earth. There were others, but those were the main ones. Even previously established heroes became more "science fiction-y": Superman fought more alien threats and traveled through time, Wonder Woman's invisible plane stopped being a single prop and entered the jet-age (there were other changes, but those weren't "science fiction-y") and Batman . . . fought alien threats and traveled through time. Okay, so it didn't always improve things. He did get better, eventually.

Another change that characterized the Silver Age was, because of the CCA, comic books lost the bit of pulp-influenced edge they'd had and became rather tame and amazingly simplistic. Due to constraints--or as a way for writers to rebel against those constraints--the stories also became bug-fuck insane. There were several gonzo plots in the Golden Age but in the Silver? To tone down violence below what in America would still allow you to have a G-Rating, villains were now no longer allowed to kill people, which led to often goofy plots in a sometimes vain attempt to antagonize the heroes. (In one case, the Joker's scheme is to cause people sadness. One way of doing that? Not by killing people and having others mourn, but by stealing a little kid's report card, whose grades had started to improve. That was just the surface plot, but yeah, you can see that whatever interest might have been garnered by it was stymied by the ludicrous set-up. Another infamous silly story from the Silver Age had Superman being plagued by a minah-bird. That's right. Not a super-villain. Not even a criminal. A bird, which was squawking that Clark Kent was Superman. Clark apparently talks in his sleep and dreamt about revealing his identity to Lois. He eventually--and let me emphasize that Superman at this time has a super-intellect, and it takes him multiple tries to outwit a fucking songbird--managed to overcome by . . . dressing up as a giant bird and scaring the minah into muteness. I completely sympathize . . . with the bird. What makes it even more mind-bogglingly ludicrous is that he actually has to get the bird to repeat his identity spoiling squawking!).

However, it wasn't all goofy stories that insulted the reader as often as not. Several of those stories were actually able to be grippingly told tales, like the first appearance of the Guardians of the Universe in Green Lantern, judging whether Hal "Green Lantern" Jordan was worthy of the ring. The Silver Age's resurgence of the super hero also gave rise to completely new heroes, particularly at Marvel, which became DC's main--and eventually only real--competition. You see, Marvel had been in a rut for much of the early 50s, grabbing onto whatever new fad was popular and trying to milk some money out of it. If Westerns were popular, they'd publish westerns. Romance popular, publish romance. Monsters? Publish monsters. Super heroes popular? Really? Again? Okay, well, let's publish some super heroes . . . but when the bottom fell out of super heroes last time, they almost closed up shop completely, so lets keep elements of the last popular thing: monsters. So, first came the Fantastic Four, a sort of psychologically deep group who emphasized a family dynamic, and like all families, they constantly bitch at each other. Particularly Ben "The Thing" Grimm, the resident "monster" character. It struck a nerve--partly because of dynamic art by Jack "The King" Kirby, partly because of the unusual narration and dialogue by Stan "The Man" Lee. Before this, all super heroes were noble and pure and kinda dull. Suddenly here was a group of heroes . . . who would constantly verbally snipe at each other, or make mistakes (in fact, that's how they got their powers, Reed Richards, their ringleader, led them to fly in an unshielded rocket and they got bombarded by mutating "cosmic rays") or had actual falling outs (they would usually get resolved by the end of the adventure, but still). Following that was stuff like The Hulk (basically a monster story inverted: the military trying to stop the monster's rampage was the main antagonist of the tale, and the monster himself was actually somewhat sympathetic, or at least was the protagonist); Dr. Strange (one of the few supernatural heroes created in the Silver Age, who had been a successful but egotistical surgeon who lost his skill after a terrible car crash . . . caused by him because he'd been drunk, so he seeks someone who can heal his hands, even trying supernatural aid, and instead learns great mystical power, eventually becoming Sorcerer Supreme); and the true Marvel success story, Spider-Man.

There were three main differences about Spider-Man, as compared to almost every other super-hero out there. Firstly, Spider-Man was a 15-year old boy, or at least that's how he started. He was someone who would've been another hero's kid sidekick. To completely hide his age, he used a full face mask that had no hint of skin, whereas most other superheroes covered the top of their face, or just used a domino mask, or didn't use any mask at all. Secondly, his personal life was a mess. Most super heroes were either independently wealthy, or just able to keep most of their life from spiraling out of control, outside of romance, anyway. Spider-man couldn't keep his personal life straight. He was constantly battling his need for personal relationships with his need for money, and both of those always waged war with his need to go out at night and fight crime. In short, he needed a valuable lesson in time management. Finally, Spider-man was generally hated by the public. Sure, the people he saved were appreciative, but he was always hounded by the police, at then there was The Daily Bugle, which had the editorial slant that fear-mongering about Spider-man sold papers. This was practically unprecedented--well, sure, the Hulk was hated and feared . . . but he was a giant rampaging monster destroying almost everything in his path, fueled by anger and hate. And Batman, at first, was as feared as the criminals he put behind bars . . . but a) he's Batman, cultivating an aura of mystery and fear is his modus operandi and b) all of that had completely evaporated by the middle of the Golden Age, and this was the Silver Age, bubby. But Spidey? He never did anything to deserve the terrible things said about him in the press, and it was strange that the police were going after a masked vigilante when that's what the super hero genre ran on! It took a while, but eventually these kinds of differences spread to a lot of other comic book characters, new and old alike. And these differences resonated with the comic buying public. It made sense: Superman was practically perfect, and it would take a lot of work to approach Batman, and the Fantastic Four? They were essentially celebrities. But Spider-man, outside of his super powers, was practically a normal human being. Many readers knew a guy like Spidey . . . or heck, they were a guy like Spidey, always plugging away, doing some good, here or there, but rarely appreciated for their efforts, often struggling with the demands on their time, rarely sure about anything.

So, that was the Silver Age, the height of sci-fi concepts, somewhat goofy story-telling that often veered into the outright bizarre (in one instance, Superman generates a miniature Superman out of his finger . . . which has all of Superman's powers and in fact was better at hero-ing than Supes . . . which made him almost insanely jealous. What? I mean, what? That's downright Freudian! What kid would understand what the fuck that was about?), sadly uber-sexist (this was when Lois Lane, for example, became essentially a gold digger with few redeeming qualities, and when Wonder Woman became her super-powered equivalent, doing lots of stupid stuff to "land her a man"), but the beginnings of surprisingly mature subject matter. It's easy to see where the Silver Age began, but harder to see where it ended. In fact, some people think it lasted until the mid-80s, when the "grim 'n' gritty" style overshadowed everything else.

These people are idiots.

Most agree it was some time in the 70s, and usually cite the death of Peter "Spider-man" Parker's long-time love interest Gwen Stacy as the end of the Silver Age, claiming that's when comic books lost their innocence. Others are more nebulous, citing a general increase in "social consciousness" in comics. There are other theories, but I think, just as the creation of the Comics Code Authority marked the end of the Golden Age, the high-lighting of its ineffectiveness should mark the end of the Silver Age. What ineffectiveness? Well, throughout the 50s and 60s, the threat of the CCA was enough to keep comic books at that "less than G-Rated" level I mentioned earlier, because the CCA had been created to keep the government from shutting comic book publishers down completely. However, in 1971, the U.S. government, no less, commissioned Marvel to do an anti-drug story in Spider-man. Seemed simple enough, but the story was rejected by the CCA, because drug use was prohibited in comics. Well, Marvel published the story anyway, without the CCA seal of approval . . . and nothing really happened to them. I think there was a fine, but that was it. Comic publishers realized the CCA was toothless, and gradually broke more and more CCA rules, forcing more and more rewrites to the Code until almost no one uses it anymore. But it was the 1971 story that proved that the CCA wasn't the great big bogeyman publishers believed it to be, and that's when I mark the end of the Silver Age.

ETA: typos, lovely typos, they're the greatest thing in his-tor-eee. From the. Town of Bedrock. It's a song that's steeped in par-o-deee.

Aaron "The Mad Whitaker" Bourque; I've been talking about writing a little, too, huh. That's because I'm really trying to dig in and make my break. It's not going well.