Dark clouds loomed over the comics industry of the mid-fifties. Already the Golden Age had lost its luster; without a Depression to relieve or a World War to wage, it’s heroes had no foes to fight. Worst yet, the gold had been tarnished by Wertham’s 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, followed by moral panic, parental outcry, Senate hearings, and the establishment of the soft-censoring Comics Code Authority. But then, in October of ’56, from these storm clouds a bright bolt of lightning struck the newsstands of the nation: Showcase #4, debuting Barry Allan as The Flash, and running up alongside him was the Silver Age of Comics.
No one knew it at the time, of course. It would be another ten years until the term was first coined in the letters column of Justice League of America #42. The intervening decade was a period of invention and reinvention. Hal Jordan soon replaced Alan Scott as Green Lantern. The Justice Society was reborn as the Justice League. The latter’s success in turn moved Marvel to respond with The Fantastic Four, followed soon after by the Hulk, Spider-man, Thor, Iron-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men. In the face of a real world that neither needed nor wanted them, the superheroes as a whole, like many individual characters to come, resurrected from death, ascending to a new narrative realm of the truly fantastical. This move from the streets of Keystone and the shores of Normandy to the heavenly halls of Asgard and Oa was a defining trend of the Silver Age.
We too are living in the early days of a new age of comics. As per all artistic movements, it is defined by trends which distinguish it from the period which preceded it immediately, while also adding novel contributions to the medium entirely. The social awareness of the Bronze Age (c. 1970-1985), as seen in works such as the O’Neil and Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, was a response to the detached escapism of the Silver. The Dark Age (c.1985-2004), under the guidance of the British Invasion, brought back the truly weird and fantastical in levels not even seen in the Silver Age through titles such as Miracleman, Sandman, Flex Mentallo, and Promethea, but also for the first time began deconstructing the superhero genre in works such as Watchmen, followed by a wave of nihilistic antiheroes and cynical storylines.
The Modern Age (c.2004-2011) began the work of reconstruction, defining the superhero no longer by his acts of heroism or moral code, but rather as one out of a plethora of protagonists in a publisher-wide meta-story existing across numerous titles and events. Just as Greek mythology first had a corpus of loosely interrelated myths, upon which poets such as Homer constructed grand epics spanning the Iliad and Odyssey, such seemed at the time the inevitable artistic direction for American mythology too. At Marvel, Avengers Disassembled began a narrative chain which snaked its way through House of M, Civil War, Messiah CompleX, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, and Second Coming, culminating in Avengers vs. X-Men. At DC, Infinite Crisis was merely the first act in an overarching saga surrounding the multiverse, continuing on through Final Crisis, Flashpoint, and heavily incorporating the runs of Johns on Green Lantern and Morrison on Batman.
What then distinguishes the comic medium circa 2011 through to the present day? After all, Marvel’s latest events, Secret Wars and Infinity before it, are themselves part of an epic which has its genesis with Hickman’s debut on Fantastic Four in 2009, while DC continues to place their fifty-two worlds in jeopardy in titles such as Multiversity, Convergence, and The Darkseid War. What makes this the Postmodern Age of Comics?
Much like the transition from the Golden Age to the Silver, comics transitioned from the Modern Age to the Postmodern Age with the passing of a mantle. Just as on a different earth than that of Jay Garrick a man by the name of Barry Allan became the Flash, in a different universe than that of the familiar Peter Parker a boy by the name of Miles Morales began to call himself Spider-man. And as Barry would soon be followed by a whole wave of reimagined heroes from Hal Jordan to Johnny Storm, so too would Miles inspire a wave of reinterpretation, reimagining, and mantel passing.
Starting with Miles, a character of mixed Black and Hispanic decent, the new and redesigned characters of the Postmodern Age are almost universally representatives of previously marginalized demographics. A brief enumeration of the most prominent examples of this trend would include: The New 52 Alan Scott and New X-Men Bobby Drake as gay; the mantels of Earth-2 Superman and Captain America passing to the Black Val-Zod and Sam Wilson, respectively; the mantels of Captain Marvel and Thor passing to the females Carol Danvers and Jane Foster, respectively; and the mantels of Green Lantern and Ms. Marvel passing to the Muslims Simon Baz and Kamala Khan, respectively. And such does not even begin to cover more modest wardrobes worn by female characters and the deliberate distancing from the male-gaze in general.
Make no mistake. Such seemingly small alterations signify a total paradigm shift. Whereas in the Modern Age the reader’s primary investment was assumed by each publisher to be in an overarching cape opera, the individual heroes mere windows into more wondrous worlds, in the Postmodern Age of Comics heroes are not windows but mirrors, each a reflection of a particular group of readers the publisher is targeting. It is an approach which presumes the purported narcissism of the Millennial generation, that what each reader really wants are stories of himself in the spandex and skivvies. Put another way, the Modern Age had its focus on immersion, the Postmodern on identification.
Neither approach is artistically right or wrong, but they are substantively different. From the business perspective, the Modern Age targeted a core audience, expecting the same small segment of the total population to heavily invest in the industry, each buying multiple issues weekly. The Postmodern Age of Comics seems to have embraced the Blue Ocean strategy, wherein a larger portion of the population purchases fewer titles and less frequently. Again, both are valid business strategies. For comparison, only the hardest of core gamers have purchased a Vita, but the low selling system sports a staggeringly high attach rate, whereas everyone and their grandmother owned a Wii, but granny might never have bought another game besides Wii Sports. (Maybe as part of the Postmodern Age there ought to be a Ma Hunkel revival to reel in the geriatric demographic).
The term Postmodern Age of Comics is not merely in reference to its position subsequent to the Modern Age. The principles of the Postmodernist movement in art and philosophy are clearly reflected in the direction which certain characters have been steered by comic creators in recent years. This extends even to the original himself. Morrison’s run on the Superman starting in 2011 saw the character engage in class warfare for the first time since Action Comics was last in single digits, and Greg Pak’s recent work on the title continued the activist bent by drawing deliberate parallels to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In both cases, the character of Superman is being used to give voice to and show solidarity with marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities and the economically underprivileged. Thus, even a character that does himself not display diversity demonstrates its centrality as a first-order value in Postmodernist thought. Moreover, associations with Modern and Pre-Modern values such as Moral Realism are actively shunned. Mormon science-fiction novelist Orson Scott Card, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, was disinvited to contribute to Adventures of Superman in 2012 for espousing normative claims on sexuality. Over and against the heroes of yesteryear, the supermen of today fight a never-ending battle for personal truths, social justice, and a new American way.
What then comes after the Postmodern Age of Comics? It is certainly too early for serious speculation as to such. The medium is not simply cyclical, each age reactionary to the one before it; there’s always a genuinely novel element at play, as unpredictable as a racing rocket suddenly streaking across a clear Kansas sky. And yet it will inevitably be in some part a response to and repudiation of aspects of the Postmodern Age. Perhaps it will at long last see series released from the tight reigns of editorial control, the focus being on neither intricate continuity or superficially identifiable characters but on solid standalone stories. Perhaps it will court the core audience of previous ages, seeking not a shallow sea but a smaller pool with deeper pockets. Perhaps it will be a move away from Moral Relativism back to moral certitude and fortitude.
Regardless, any such developments are many years hence, far too far to see. For now, we are living in the Postmodern Age of Comics.