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[GUEST POST] Gina Misiroglu on The Bronze Age of Comics: Cultural Innuendo, Relevance, and More

Gina Misiroglu is a pop-culture historian, best-selling author, and editor of The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes (2nd edition, Visible Ink Press). To find out more about what happens to superheroes in the Modern Age, look for Gina’s next guest blog coming soon!

The Bronze Age: Cultural Innuendo, Relevance, and More

By Gina Misiroglu, author of The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes (Visible Ink Press / $24.95).

During the 1960s, Marvel Comics snuck up on DC Comics and usurped the industry’s number-one spot. DC’s editorial director, Carmine Infantino, started the 1970s with both guns blazing, vowing to regain DC’s market share. The biggest bullet in Infantino’s holster was the illustrious Jack Kirby, the veteran artist who co-created most of Marvel’s major superheroes, including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the X-Men.

In 1970 Kirby began working exclusively for DC and introduced a mythic tapestry into the company’s universe, a series of four interlocking series—three new books of his own design, The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle, plus a revamp of DC’s long-running Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen—under the umbrella title The Fourth World. Among its gaggle of gods, both good and evil, stood Darkseid, DC’s first utterly malevolent villain. Kirby’s vigorous artwork and concepts recharged DC with an energy never before seen at the company. But not enough people are buying it, thought DC, and Kirby’s Fourth World died after two years, although the characters have continued to exist for decades. After follow-ups, including The Demon, OMAC, Sandman, and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, Kirby returned to Marvel.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1970) was a revolutionary step forward for DC Comics. It borrowed from Marvel Comics’ propensity toward argumentative superheroes, but with “GL” and “GA,” their struggles were ideological debates. GL, a power-ring-wielding intergalactic cop, represented the conservative right, while “GA was the voice of the streets, of the left,” writer Denny O’Neil declared in the 2003 History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked. With artist Neal Adams, O’Neil took this groundbreaking series into realms political, radical, and racial, but the market was unprepared for its level of sophistication and Green Lantern/Green Arrow was canceled with issue #89 (1972). Green Lantern/Green Arrow put the industry on notice, however, proving that superheroes’ exploits could involve matters beyond skirmishes with supervillains.

For the first few years of the 1970s, contemporary thematic material—dubbed “relevance” by those in the biz—became common in many DC books: Robin the Teen (formerly “Boy”) Wonder left Batman for college and took on campus unrest, Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon went to Washington, D.C., to tackle crime as a congresswoman, and the Justice League of America battled polluters. Having revitalized long-running DC heroes from the Flash to Batman, editor Julius Schwartz now took charge of Superman. Superman #233 (1971) started a new era for DC’s flagship hero, updating his alter ego, Clark Kent, to a television reporter and eliminating his weakness to kryptonite, but those changes were short-lived. Now that the “camp” superhero fad was over, Schwartz also oversaw a revitalization of Batman for the second time. Batman’s tales, in his own series and in Detective Comics, shied away from this relevance trend and veered more into gothic terrain, returning the hero to his original, baleful nature.

Marvel Breaks New Ground

A three-issue, anti-drug story Stan Lee penned for The Amazing Spider-Man #96 through #98 (1971) was rejected by the industry’s censorship board, the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Lee lobbied Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to resist the CCA and print the issues, which Marvel did—without the Code’s seal of approval, the first time a major comic-book publisher had exercised such defiance. The CCA, in response, relaxed some of its requirements to more adequately address societal changes.

One of those liberalizations permitted the depiction of the undead, which had been taboo since the implementation of the CCA in the mid-1950s. Marvel took full advantage of this, fostering a 1970s horror-comics fad with titles including Ghost Rider, The Son of Satan, Man-Thing, The Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night—series that occurred inside the workings of the Marvel superhero continuity (DC published its applauded Swamp Thing series during this period). Marvel steered two other Bronze Age industry movements: “sword and sorcery,” beginning in 1970 with its adaptations and continuations of Robert E. Howard’s fantasy hero Conan the Barbarian; and Kung Fu, through Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist and others. And a cinema trend—”blaxploitation,” low-budget action films starring black actors—inspired Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972), the first comic book to headline an African-American superhero (although other black superheroes preceded him—notably the Black Panther in 1966), ushering in multiculturalism in mainstream comics.

Marvel continued to build upon its Silver Age foundation of human heroes with “real” problems. In the controversial The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973), the hero did not save the day, as Gwen Stacy, girlfriend of Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, died at the hands of the villainous Green Goblin. Just eight issues later, in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (1974), the beleaguered wall-crawler was targeted by the assassin-for-hire called the Punisher, a dangerous enemy of organized crime whose methods were sometimes more brutal than his enemies’, and later that year, in The Incredible Hulk #181, the Green Goliath battled the feral Canadian superhero Wolverine. Brandishing retractable claws forged of the unbreakable metal adamantium, Wolverine’s “natural inclination was to disembowel an antagonist without a second thought,” notes Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (1992).

Both the Punisher and Wolverine premiered in 1974, the year that U.S. president Richard Nixon resigned from office due to his role in the Watergate scandal. The American people, particularly its youth, had grown jaded by a leader who lied to them. Readers knew exactly where they stood with visceral heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher: there was no talk, no compromise, no manipulation, only quick, decisive action. The Punisher and Wolverine were anti-heroes for a cynical generation, and would grow into superstardom.

The Bronze Age re-popularized heroes of yesterday. DC’s noir interpretation of The Shadow won acclaim. DC also obtained publishing rights for superheroes previously under the jurisdiction of Fawcett Publications and Quality Comics, the results being its Shazam! series (starring the original Captain Marvel) and its superteam title, Freedom Fighters (with Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, and others). Marvel published Doc Savage, one of the major forebears of modern superheroes.

One 1975 Marvel Comics revival produced unparalleled results. Giant-Size X-Men #1 introduced a new team of offbeat superheroes—multicultural mutants including Storm (African), Colossus (Russian), Nightcrawler (German), Sunfire (Japanese), and Wolverine (Canadian)—and began its trek toward becoming Marvel’s number-one series.

Lackluster sales did not encourage many publishers to attempt superhero comics during the Bronze Age, but a few gave it the old college try: Atlas Comics produced a diverse but short-lived comics line in the mid-1970s, including superheroes Tiger-Man and the Destructor, and longtime player Charlton Comics published King Features’ jungle hero The Phantom and introduced a wry superhero parody, E-Man.

DC’s Infantino-steered accomplishments narrowed the sales gap between his company and its competitor. Still, Marvel largely dominated the entire decade, although a 1976 project would unite the publishers on equal ground. Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, a one-hundred-page, tabloid-sized special edition by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and Dick Giordano, mixed up DC’s and Marvel’s top superheroes in a momentous clash followed by “the greatest team-up of all time.” Infantino worked with Marvel’s Lee to nurture the bestseller, but before a sequel could be brokered, Infantino and DC parted company. Children’s magazine publisher Jenette Kahn replaced him as DC’s head, but her long, impressive tenure would begin on a bumpy path. The quality of DC’s titles suffered later in the decade, and the company’s content expansion—the highly promoted “DC Explosion” in 1977—led to a market glut and a devastating “DC Implosion” in 1978.

Both DC and Marvel benefited from multimedia visibility of their superheroes during the Bronze Age. Mego Toys’ “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” eight-inch action figures funneled icons as diverse as Superman, Spider-Man, Conan, and Wonder Girl into a shared commercial line. Hostess Twinkies sponsored a popular series of one-page comics that appeared as house ads in Marvel and DC comics, featuring famous superheroes as product pitchmen. The Justice League ventured to animated television in ABC’s Super Friends, and live-action superheroes Captain Marvel (in Shazam!), Isis, and ElectraWoman and DynaGirl starred on Saturday-morning TV. The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and The Amazing Spider-Man were weekly CBS dramatic series, and the multi-million-dollar theatrical blockbuster Superman: The Movie (1978) set box-office records (for the time). Spider-Man and Superman both appeared in newspaper comic strips. The merchandising of superheroes became big business, though readership of the comic books themselves continued a gradual decline.

By the end of the 1970s, most traditional outlets for comics like newsstands and drug stores stopped carrying comic books, since their low profit margin offered little incentive for shelf display. Print runs of individual titles, in many cases exceeding one million copies per issue during the 1940s, had slipped to several hundred thousand, at best. Television (broadcast and cable), special effects–laden movies, and the emerging video game and computer technologies now competed with comics for the young consumer’s interest. Yet this most persistent of art forms, comics, stood poised to begin a path of rediscovery as the new decade dawned.

Gina Misiroglu is a pop-culture historian, best-selling author, and editor of The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes (2nd edition, Visible Ink Press). To find out more about what happens to superheroes in the late Bronze and Modern Ages, look for Gina’s guest blog next week.

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