From bookshelves to streaming services, the superhero maintains a vice grip on pop culture and science fiction. Since their inception, superhero narratives have raked in billions of dollars, and with a cash flow that strong it’s safe to say they won’t disappear anytime soon.
Comparing the genre from its bombastic beginnings to now, there’s some notable changes. The world of superhero comics can actually be broken up into different “ages”, each with its own tropes and traits that make it unique. Identifying the ages of the past is simple, however identifying the current age proves a little more difficult. When we’re caught in the thick of it, it’s harder to put our finger on what makes the present unique.
I have a proposal for our current age of superheroes, but before I get ahead of myself, I’d like to briefly cover the previous time periods.
The Golden Age: 1938 to 1950
On the tail end of the 30s, Superman made his historic debut in Action Comics #1. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Superman inspired children of the time with his selfless acts of servitude, and motivated writers and business people to cash in on the success.
In 1941, Batman appeared on the page, created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. That same year, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby presented Captain America, depicted on a cover clocking Adolf Hitler across the face. Soon, a boom of heroes in skin-tight spandex exploded in stores, and the Golden Age was in full swing. Everyone wanted to create their own heroes and cash in on the craze.
Since this era occurred during World War II, there’s an inflated presence of patriotism among these comics. More than Good Samaritans, these heroes proved to be paragons of good nature, never failing to overcome evil. It’s what people needed — these heroes reminded readers to hold onto hope.
The Silver Age: 1956 to 1970
Following the end of WW2, superhero comic sales declined due to a rise of other genres (westerns, romance, horror, etc.) in addition to growing skepticism about the merit of comics and their effect on youths. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book preaching the negative consequences of children reading comics that claimed the magazines and pulps led to a rise in juvenile delinquency, lust, and violence.
Seduction of the Innocent led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which enabled publishers to regulate themselves while restricting content. Violence, gore, and innuendos were limited, and writers adapted to the new regulations placed on them. Thus, superhero comics took on a new form, and ended up being more character focused.
A resurgence of classic characters like the Flash occurred during this time, as well as the creation of other legendary heroes like Spiderman and the X-men. Many of your favorite Avengers popped up in the Silver Age: Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and so on. Other characters were revisited and reinvented, with writers favoring science fiction in their stories over fantasy.
The Bronze Age: 1970 to 1985
During the Bronze Age, the Comics Code lost some of its sway in monitoring content, due in part to the change in direction for superheroes. Many original creators and legacy writers stepped down at this time, retiring and creating space for new writers. The shift once again forced the genre to evolve, this time shifting towards narratives analyzing societal issues.
Adapting a darker, serious tone, the superpowered characters faced higher stakes that went beyond mere bank robberies. They faced even more emotional turmoil and behind-the-scenes obstacles. In 1973, Green Goblin killed Spiderman’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. DC Comics released a story arc where Green Arrow learned that his sidekick, Speedy, struggled with heroin addiction.
Black and female superheroes became more commonplace, as well as other demographics. Taking on issues like poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and grief, comics moved further away from their humble beginnings with playful antics towards a grittier genre. Writers grew less afraid to kill off characters and reinvent the wheel with pre-existing dynamics.
The Modern Age: 1985 to Present
Or the name I would like to propose…
The Deconstruction Age: 1985 to Present
To me, the Modern Age encapsulates a movement seeking to reevaluate heroes and their role in society. In the beginning of this era, DC Comics published Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ limited series Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both of these stories depict superheroes as gritty and sadistic vigilantes acting outside of the law, often with selfish intentions like fame and satisfaction.
Watchmen also poses the question of what happens when allowing ‘heroes’ to go unchecked. The phrase “Who watches the watchmen?” serves as a thesis for the graphic novel, showing the horrific possibilities of a real-life Superman. In Watchmen’s wake, other comics including The Boys, Invincible, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Red Son Superman have posed similar iterations of the same question: can we trust the powerful to serve us the way we need?
Comics have also increased their attention to the emotional and traumatic effect of crime fighting. Stories like Heroes in Crisis, Batman: Three Jokers, and Under the Red Hood address the mental toll heroes endure when facing villains seeking to destroy. Watching these superheroes face off with their mental health makes them relatable, and allows us to see ourselves in these characters in a new way. In the early days of comics, we wanted to see humans as superheroes. Now, we want to see superheroes as humans.
As society continues reshaping itself, so will comics morph to match the current zeitgeist. We may not know where superheroes will go in the future, and who knows how long they’ll continue dominating the market. Whatever happens, I am confident that they will reflect the culture. Perhaps a complete embrace of the absurd, or a return to the hopeful paragons of old?
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.