Comic Books: The Iron Age


Here is Donny expounding on the Iron Age of comics. Be sure to catch his story about meeting Chris Claremont…. 😉

According to Ovid, during the Iron Age of man: might makes right, bad men use lies to be thought good, humans no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing, the gods will have completely forsaken humanity, and there will be no help against evil. (He must have known Todd McFarlane.)

Contrary to Ovid’s use of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron as representing historical decline, in comics most aficionados regard the greatest era, not as the Golden Age, but as either the Silver or Bronze Age. The case could be made for either. Myself, I’ll take the Bronze Age, but of course I’m biased. I started reading comics around 1983, when I was eight-years-old, and I grew-up on Jim Shooter’s Marvel (especially Conway and DeFalco’s Spider-man and Claremont’s X-Men), so it may be mostly nostalgia, but the Bronze Age contains most of my favorite books.

Fans can debate Silver vs. Bronze… but nobody with any sense will dispute that there certainly was a general decline in quality after the end of the Bronze Age. Some (in keeping with Ovid) call it the Iron Age. Some call it the Gilded Age (all style, no substance) or the Chrome Age. Sometimes, when I’m in a mood, I call it the Dog Doo-doo Age. Where did it all go wrong? Well, just as the Bronze Age was the natural growth of Silver Age trends, in many ways, the Iron Age (I’m choosing the more neutral nomenclature) grew out of trends from the Bronze Age… but took them to stupid and untenable extremes.

Superman, iron age

Marvel and DC became obsessed with schlocky gimmicks that gave a temporary boost in sales but didn’t create new readers. Alternate covers. Hologram covers. Glow-in-the-dark, scratch-n-sniff, double-gate-fold covers. The worst of these was the overly-publicized “Death of Superman” (1992). With unintended symbolism, the Man of Steel was beat to death by a huge, ugly, hulking, “Image-looking” brute called Doomsday.

Image? Okay, let me back up. From 1978-87, as Marvel’s most dictatorial editor-n-chief, Jim Shooter, was all about clarity and consistency. He would always take boring but clear art over flashy but confusing, and in writing he demanded clearly of character, plot, and exposition. (“Every issue is somebody’s first comic book.”) Just look at his Secret Wars – a book featuring a couple of dozen heroes and villains that never becomes confusing or muddy. He deliberately schooled the talent that worked for him (guys like Frank Miller, John Byrne, and Chris Claremont). But Marvel fired Jim Shooter in 1987. Despite his talents, Shooter was an asshole and no one enjoyed working for him (and he poisoned his reputation by needlessly screwing over Jack Kirby). However, firing Shooter opened a door…

Electra, Iron age

Ah, the sexy, cool triumph of Image over substance… In the early ‘90’s a group of artists arose at Marvel with a flashy, sexy, hyperactive style that was aimed at “giving 14 year-old boys what they want” (McFarlane): huge guns, massive testosterone-fueled muscles, explosions, blood, lots of clinched teeth, and lots and lots and lots of T&A. One was Jim Lee. Jones and Jacobs (The Comic Book Heroes, 1997) ironically describe Jim Lee’s “most distinctive invention” as “the Lee woman: elongated legs, plastic flesh, wasp waist, molded breasts… the Sports Illustrated swimsuit girl as action figure, collectable, superhero trophy.” (And we won’t even get into what people have written about Rob Liefield!) Lee and McFarlane’s “girls” were so hyper-sexualized that they were actually ugly, and one wondered if these guys had ever seen an actual woman’s body before. The story (if there was one) didn’t matter to them – only the adolescent visual appeal. It was all surface flash and no substance. All Image.

In 1992, this group of hot artists (McFarlane, Liefield, Lee, and a few others) founded Image Comics – without any writers. Many of the comics looked good, but the pages were sometimes incomprehensible and the stories (excuses for one pin-up splash page after another) were just freaking awful! But they had HUGE muscles, big guns, lots of blood, and freakishly hyper-sexualized “women.” Al Gordon coined Image’s motto: “Think puberty!” (Seriously, I’m not making that up.) As Grant Morison put it: “All in all, Image was comics’ greatest success story since Stan Lee stuck the Marvel logo on Fantastic Four. What Image Comics lacked was stories, relatable characters, and any real sense of emotional involvement… It was cocaine comics.” (Supergods, 2011) McFarlane had asserted vocally and belligerently that nobody needed writers in comics… then he laughed all the way from the bank to his Malabo beach house.

(Full disclosure: I met McFarlane at a con in 1992. He was just as much of a shallow, immature, self-promoting tool as you would expect. After meeting him, I went and found Chris Claremont at the same con and swore a solemn oath to this writer I’d always admired that I would never again buy one of McFarlane’s books. Chris rested his hand on my shoulder and pronounced, “You are my favorite person.”)

Another problem that plagued superhero comics of the ‘90’s was that the continuity of the stories, which was so cool in the ‘60’s, ‘70s and ‘80’s, had finally become so long and complex that potential new readers couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. You couldn’t buy just one issue and enjoy it anymore; you had to buy 10 comics just to get one story – and still may not understand half of it.

If that was turning away potential new readers, the “been there done that” problem was turning away long-time fans (like myself c.1993). Most of the superhero stories were just repeating things that had already been done and trying to take it to more extremes. It was a never-ending game of “one-up” with diminishing returns. Scott Lobdell took over Marvel’s ever-growing number of intertwined X-books after Claremont left, and he controlled them for most of the ‘90’s. Lobdell was a mediocre writer who made less use of Claremont’s slowly-building, layered character development and instead relied on one big cross-over “event” after another: X-Cutioner’s Song, Fatal Attractions, Phalanx Covenant, Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught… but they all sort of felt like same-old-same-old. After being a fan for 10 years, I quit reading X-men in the mid-90’s. But it was the same all over. Once you’d read the best of the Silver and Bronze Age superheroes and culminated with Watchmen – really, what else was there?

So why, then, were comics sales (especially Image Comics) going through the roof? Because of the “speculators” who started buying (but not reading) comics as a fad investment. In the early ‘90’s, they had created an artificially inflated “bubble” in the market – publishers were printing-up like 6 million comics of Superman for only ½ million readers. Of course, the comics were so over-printed they never rose in value (comics are only valuable if they are rare), so, finally catching-on to the scam, the speculators quit buying, and, in 1993-94, sales dropped catastrophically! Monthly sales dropped from 48 million comic books sold in the US… to 7 million! (Ironically, Jack Kirby had just died, and many bitterly joked that “the King” was “taking comics with him.”)

In 1996 Marvel Comics went bankrupt, was bought-out, laid-off nearly half its employees, and canceled most of its monthly books. Since the ‘93-94 crash, Marvel and DC Comics have continued to lose money on the comics… but they now make money off movies, cartoons, T-shirts and video games. Superheroes are bigger than ever in pop culture, but American superhero comics seem to be in a terminal decline.

Sandman, Iron Age

But it hasn’t all been bad news! In 1993 DC created its Vertigo imprint for publishing non-Code-approved comics for mature readers (like 18-year-old me). (Marvel finally dumped the Comics Code completely in 2001, and good riddance!) Vertigo led to more sophisticated and complex books for adults. The most successful (and most literary) Vertigo comic has been Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a gothic fantasy series that dealt intelligently with religion, art, death, love, identity, family, sexual orientation, mythology, fate, and William Shakespeare. After Maus, Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen, Gaiman’s Sandman became the fourth graphic novel to make the NY Times Bestseller List (the first one since 1986).

Since ‘93, more attention has been focused to graphic novels written for adults and sold in mainstream bookstores (like Will Eisner always wanted). At the same time, the arrival of Japanese manga in those same big box bookstores (beginning with the now defunct Borders) expanded the readership of comics (mostly by including this mysterious new thing called girls) and expanded the selection of genres (including domestic comedies, sports, horror, cyberpunk, steampunk, historical tales, and lots of teen romance). Today, more Americans are reading manga than are reading American comics.

Many truly great graphic novels have appeared in those bookstores in the last two decades: From Hell, Cages, Fun Home (which was also a NY Times Bestseller), Hicksville, Persepolis (which Newsweek ranked as #5 on its list of the 10 best books of the decade), Understanding Comics, Blankets (which topped Time magazine’s best comics list), Bone, Pedro and Me, Road to Perdition… In fact, many of the best comics ever! Wait! What am I talking about? Ignore what I said before. The Iron Age has been great!! Even as the superhero books declined in order to pander to “what 14 year-old boys want” (just in time for me to start college and want something more demanding and mature from my reading) it allowed for other comic books to grow up and fulfill the potential that Eisner always saw in them. Wow… The Iron Age is really awesome! Maybe the best yet.

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