August 3rd, 2008
“How long would you say Heroic Ages last, Wally?”
- Jay Garrick, the Flash (I)
“Twenty years, according to Jones and Jacobs. The Golden Age lasted until 1955, the Silver Age until 1975, but the Dark Age just ended in ’95. That’s why it’s still too early to say what this new age is going to be called yet.“
- Wally West, the Flash (III)
Flash #134, cover-date Feb 98, script by Mark Millar & Grant Morrison
It always comes back to the Flash, in the end: from a purely DC pantheon angle, it’s easy to see how the missing middle mantle above, Barry Allen, and his death (“outracing the tachyon at the heart of the Anti-Monitor’s anti-matter cannon…[he] became one with the other side of light.” – so impossibly romantic, that) resonate with the term “Dark Age”, certainly as used pejoratively.
Seems only natural, then, that the Scarlet Speedster should be a key figure in the reconstituting of a shattered mythosphere; cursory details in part one, and I should – I suppose – add here that this sort of classification is, by nature, a slippery business – as any one phase of an allocated historiography, I should imagine, ends, elements of the incoming dominant paradigm are in play already and the ending is hardly a full stop, so much as a gear shift. I got the Marvel Vault for my birthday: a lovely present, the sort of thing you’d not buy for yourself, unless minted, but would really quite like to own, and looking through it – with particular note to the contents of the perspex pouches, openable for naughty universe touching, smashing replicas of Bill Everett sketches, Marvel restaurant menus, that sort of thing – it became fairly evident that that publisher’s phases could effectively be divided up into 10-11 year slots: the relatively smooth transition from monster mags to Fantastic Four and the Hulk, the company’s first dip back into superheroes, is strikingly evident seeing these things side-by-side, for example. The text itself, I should say, is a fairly superficial bit of shill-work from Roy Thomas who gets the chance to refer to himself in third-person surprisingly often, and really the only major benefits it offers over Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, where I first encountered the Heroic Ages categorisations that exorcise me presently, is modernity. (And the polypockets, with their precious minutiae. Giving the lie to Daniels’ presumably well-intentioned duplicity about Stan Lee only ever having a snout in that one pic as a prop by having ‘The Man’ sucking/about to suck a lungful of the Noxious Weed in every single pic is really only an extraneous bonus.) Also it became apparent books like Jungle Action and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire which to some extent, perhaps retrospectively laughable, represented a move toward urbanity and ISSUE-concerned comics (e.g. Black Panther fighting the Klan) began publication around 1971-72, alongside other such socially motivated items as Speedy on the smack and the infamous codeless Spidey drugs issues. Not so light, odd and pop-science fun as, certainly, my notional Silver Age and – I’d like to believe, if you’ve ever pondered this niche concern among niche concerns – yours too. We here at MindlessOnes-dot-com don’t care to shirk the brutally simple, elegant-if-only-by-accident, solutions though and all I want to do is basically reaffirm the Jones/Jacobs model, a simple, cyclical, top-down, entry-point framing, whilst shifting it maybe a teeny-tiny bit – done! sort of. I’d actually misremembered the page-top citation to such an extent whilst writing post one, way before the big boys and girls linked here, that I thought it was Nightwing, probably one of my three least favourite ever superheroes – beside Gambit, natch, and Harold ‘prurient conservative’ Jordan, the Green Lantern – who spake it’s [in-continuity, would-be cavilers] truth. And I thought it was 17 or 19 years. The length. Of an era. What a relief, then, to reread the issue and render my earlier scrappy workings entirely second-hand!
What’s the metric for defining this period in superheroes, ongoing from the mid-to-late 1990s, then? Essentially, I want to look at notable superhero comics or runs from 1993 onwards and see if any grand unifying theme, or recurrent characteristic, like the grime and ‘realism’, the serious-facedness, of the Dark Age or the quiddity, the constantly reshaping body and brinks of science that Silver contained, is in evidence. SPOILERS: I have a prefigured answer. It goes a little something like this:
(Don’t worry, readers! Wally West is able to reconstitute himself in the end)
And that’s the new science: it’s proliferation, within the native comics medium, and without, particularly – but not exclusively – onto cinema screens. The metaphysics of brand penetration. It’s a multiplicity squeezed out through a few specific lenses: the manifold reflection. In keeping with the image above that strikes as so summary – justification cometh! – I’m offering the coinage of this period, drawing to its close, in superhero books as: The Prismatic Age.
I had kind of thought of ‘The Streaming Age’ as a possibility, but it didn’t hold quite as much water with the whole attendant qualities of light metaphor, and mmm, it played quite good with the whole torrents affair but that’s latterday stuff – maybe around 2012-14 we can start to get our highly-if-dubiously symbolised pictorial, emotional and narrative aggregates shot direct into our brains? What a rush(!) that would be, particularly if delivered in injection by two scary, beardy men via plastic spiky armour tips. Cool jetpack, eh? Super shoes. Or ‘the Shattered Age’, after that well-loved Image miniseries. But no.
It’s not as if I’m unaware that proliferation was an occasional standby in days of yore; everyone met their antimatter opposites at one point and another, but it wasn’t at all a commonplace device – too silly, unrealistic – of the 1980′s when everything was singular, contemporary and probably really quite miserable, standing about moodily in the rain. Brutish, steroidal archnemeses like Bane, Doomsday and Venom. Nor, I think and I’m out on a ledge-of-little-knowledge saying so, was the occurrence of such either a consistent thematic motif or particularly regular occurrence in the period between the late 30s and early 70s. Look conversely, at 1994-5 and there’s the disastrous embarkation on the clone saga in Spider-Man, Mark Waid getting deep into his cris-crossing time-and-space romantic extended Flash family epic, James Robinson’s dynastic Starman and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, which was to anticipate numerous City of Heroes (to the extent that it comprises a decent and interesting subset of what we’re talking about here, as well as that computer game I always quite fancied but never bothered with) comics, pre-eminent among them the likes of Top Ten and Powers. Astro City is a handy citation too because it bleeds out of Marvels, which – obviously – is also all about a city full of superpowered beings, and essentially, one imagines, an opportunity for Alex Ross to paint his favourite Silver Age bits from the publication history of a corporation whose bread-and-butter – probably 80-90% or so of their output – had been this, admittedly, often fumbling magical realist, psychogeographical tour of New York city and state. Marvels was often quoted in these mid-to-late 90′s alongside Waid’s Flash as part of a neo-Silver vanguard, reclaiming and reaffirming these lost or broken icons – enshrining them, even. Neo-Silver, like Bronze or Iron, is one of these subdivisional taxonomies that complicates a broad swathe reading but is a handy enough codifier for then emergent moods and modus. It’s also easy to understand this, essentially, reactionary reading and impulse among both conservative readers and wounded corporations; as response to the attempted substitution of the two poles of really all superdom, Batman and Superman, to seeing smaller ‘Universes’ founder and die, largely unloved and unremembered – “well, let’s flip back to before it all went to shit”. What did you really love, after all? Affirmative iterations, legacies, it turned out initially, as opposed to replacements.
Alan Moore’s Supreme, one of the early frontrunners in this Modern Age and also, advantageously, published outwith the DC billet for extra flexibility power (see also 1963 for a Marvel pastiche and, latterly, Planetary which is fundamentally an issue-by-issue assayal of that company’s character stable) and is, essentially – many people will tell you and it’d be hard to dissent – the best Superman comics of the 1990s. Moore’s first issue, #41, features the lead hero active behind the process of his creation, of his continuities, witness to its’ functionality: heavy allegory for the hard reboot, as a knowing, ‘meta’ pre-Crisis Superman, that is to follow. It’s possibly noteworthy that among his other achievements in Superhero Year Zero, 1986, Alan had capstoned this version’s story. Ten years later, in a fit of – presumably – contrition, it was Oppositesville. The difference between this and Captain Britain and his multiverse assembly is slight, but telling, in that all Supremes are delineated more clearly as part of a gestalt vying for the central role, for ‘timeliness’, and that there’s no attempt to validate or ratify by assigning each an Earth-#. It’s a splintering and dissonance from the tight grip continuity that had grown so dominant that DC had gone to the trouble of eliminating any and all ‘confusing’ alternates a decade prior; additionally, it seems a more honest and less flim-flam portrayal of the actual existence of these trademarks in actuality; the internal- and externalisation of the legacy/ies to the lead character.
I have to confess I’ve never quite understood in superhero discourse the hardcore fans insistent onus on “characterisation” which seems to be, so far as I can see, the regular display of several underpinning tics and catchphrases. (Benjamin ‘The Thing’ Grimm is troubled and thus “clobbers” things.) A sham: of course their idiolect and methodology, the world they exist in, shifts sometimes quite perceptibly, sometimes less so, when written by different people. This is because these are different people, writing in different cultural currents, with all that entails. Continuity – especially as gargantuan a continuity as the serial history of Superman or similar, always – so far as I can tell – existed in a flux-state, some parts active, others inactive. Over time, like a circuit board, these parts change. Writers on a legacied character will tend to, almost inevitably, highlight the period of their childhood where their defenseless fascination had its inception.
The ideology of the Prismatic Age, what it insistently moves toward, is that all parts are active, all of the time. While not necessarily visible monthly, nor are they hidden or overwritten – this was the notion of Hypertime, never fully realised but approached in the much-loathed-for-rule-breaking Kingdom. Summary of all incarnations, a distillate. This is partly what I find so terribly aggravating about the PopMatters piece that set me on this path many moons ago, apart from its attempts to cloak in inscrutable terminology a daft enthusiasm for two largely consequenceless and really quite markedly shit event-books from last year, is the lack of understanding of either superheroes or, really, the postmodernism it touts. Postmodernism is largely about (oh-ho-ho, I am going to tell you what postmodernism is “largely about” on a comics blog,) textually, shifting loci on a subject, a lack of definitiveness in portrayals and readings – to read Civil War(!!) as somehow having achieved a permanent destabilisation of the superhero archetype because it wasn’t about a binary black & white bone of contention?! No: that ship had long since sailed, it was a pirate ship in a comic read by an African-American child beside a fire hydrant, and the sole difference was that it was big duopoly franchise comic events that were dealing, ham-fistedly of course, with the supposed issues: none of which were terribly worldly, one of which was sort of, if you squinted, slightly topical. Boring, kneejerk Dark Age scions, really – Civil War literally ordains the Keene Act, for Rao’s sake! The spirit of this age seems to me throughout to have been essentially one of recapitulation and of remixing, in this case 2006 remixed 1986 badly – but this is also how you end up with Batmite as a Jungian portent of impending demise.
As a node to read the era through, I imagine you won’t go much better quality and substancewise than Grant Morrison’s JLA which delved into the earliest recorded (Western) Heroic Myth and affixed Greek God meta-identities, albeit extra-textually, to the titular heroes. In doing so he, typically, superceded Moore’s point in what was to be his last issue on the aforementioned Liefeld-vehicle, delivered of course via a giant Kirby cosmic head: Gibsons, Wylies and Moultons, maybe chuck in a ‘Doc’ Smith and these were the pulp roots of a premier superteam. Flash fact: that character doesn’t appear to have, speedsters don’t as far as my research goes, any pulp-age antecedent and just seems to go the straight path way back to Thoth-Hermes.
Morrison’s JL fought (alongside,) became and met primarily, if not exclusively, alternate counterparts of themselves, through a spectrum leading to direct binary opposites: the Hyperclan, the WildCATS, Elseworlds/Imaginary Stories dreams, the Injustice Gang, an ‘ultimate future dystopia’ version of the team, Justice Legion A, the Ultramarine Corps, the reintroduced Justice Society, the Guardians of Wonderworld (it’s no mistake the putative ur-Superman character there is named Adam-One: all superheroes sprang from his rib,) another Injustice Gang, most of the prior incarnation and, finally, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. There are also numerous tributaries in and out of this – pointedly and probably most importantly, the somewhat contentious (Morrison believes, Warren Ellis doesn’t) notion that the Ultramarines pre-empted The Authority who embodied another strong strand of the modern age, the autocratic superteam. Certainly, Midnighter and Apollo, the gay Batman and Superman of that title, did appear initially as part of a direct Justice League analogue and Ellis also had has Planetary baddies – the Fantastic Four by any other name – kill the superpowered trinity that spearheads the group, so it’d be safe to say he was well onboard the ‘variations on a theme’ bandwagon without invoking, additionally, the many eras + summary nod to the future of Batman in his Planetary/Batman. There was also Joe Kelly’s latter run on JLA which featured a replacement League and and an ancient one in a particularly baroque storyline, albeit one which served reasonably as a direct addendum to the Morrison run and his later reincorporation of the Authority/Stormwatch Black (Ops) concept into the DC Universe proper, JL Elite. Oh, and Marvel reintroduced their tyrannical League, the Squadron Supreme. There’s other offshoots, such as Moore’s paedo-league in Top Ten, the very enjoyable JLU cartoon and I guess Chuck Austen’s Worldwatch is probably the horrid porno version and so on, but this is fairly evidently a seven-(or so)-point lightstream that’s pinged about the block a bit in the last decade-anna-half.
Earth-2, the graphic novel, featuring the aforementioned CSA, stands fixedly at the crux-point between modalities of the League and Authoritarian superteam. It consciously reintroduces the possibility of a multiverse, 13 or 14 years after this had become effectively verboten, pitches the team into what, certainly, a cynic like me would consider to be a far more accurate replica of our world in terms of its workings, and has them try and fail to impose their better, stronger and kinder order onto it. Earth-Prime as they called it, long ago – the point is rather hammered home by authorial avatar Alexander Luthor giving the titular, appendant nomenclature to the JLA’s Earth. The book is of particular interest because it effectively summarises both approaches to ‘the real’ that the modern era had taken – the CSA are a sideways expansion of the brand, a versioning of the JLA, this lateral occupation of ideaspace is their real existence, pursuing full amplitude. As can be seen above, this is what that comic was all about, but here is full circle with opponents occupying the diametrically antonymic space; ethically, visually and spatially on either version of the cover – the positional tendencies of the League are thereby finally, fully redefined through juxtaposition; incrementally pushed on. So too “our” world, despite the author-surrogate’s complimentarily noble, doomed self-portrait (“…what have I done?…why do I always fail?”) The Authority, too, always fall back to the centre, despite their best attempts to go after “the real bastards”, because of the inertia of an essentially conservative (however psychedelic and occasionally leftist or libertarian idealist) form – superhero comics chasing “a better world” as raison d’etre are like trying to flip the planets axis with a spatula: impossible.
This though, I’m sure, is what people are referring to in our milieu when they talk about “deconstruction”, positively or otherwise. DC characters seem much more capable at facing ontological variances on the page, so to speak, so the Marvel aspect of the Prismatic Age is more about their, generally, quite successful feedback looping into other media and into the alternative, new-reader friendly, but also summary and recapitulatory Ultimate line. Marvel are basically a more capable corporation to the former’s sort-of charity wing of a massive multicorporation status, so far as I can see. They have embraced multiplicity to an extent, with most recently Iron Fist‘s place in a lengthy lineage of mantle holders and battling with one old thematic nemesis alongside five other new ‘ultimate weapons’ much like himself or Captain America‘s replacement and recent spate of fakes, be they shapeshifting Skrull or Supreme Director (there were four, non-original, Captain Americas in Marvel Comics in the last month alone.) Their current event comic, Secret Invasion, has in fact offered the tantalisingly awful possibility that in fact many Marvel heroes were replaced by Skrulls before the Dark Age which serves only to further illustrate the major bulletpoint of the Prismatic Age: that supervillains, with the possible exception of archnemeses (those dark mirrors of the soul,) are almost entirely irrelevant – nowadays the superheroes’ battle is onanistic, with themselves. Iron Fist writer Matt Fraction did, I think, recently describe his (day) job precisely as breaking apart and putting together these toys.
It’s harder to see, and I know having created the notion that I may be purblind to its’ flaws, many big duopoly books nowadays that aren’t about the mantle and the iconography of their actual title primarily. From fairly diverse sources, too: Brubaker and Morrison, for example, share little stylistically with one another and probably yet less with – say – editor Mike Carlin who appeared to be the guiding hand in Prismatic Year Zero, mid-1993, the Reign of the Supermen. It’s interesting, and perhaps one of the thin consolations of following works-of-many-hands-several-inept, to consider a force acting on superhero books divested of any one actor. Again and again this pattern seems to re-emerge, perhaps due to a number of factors:
that creators are not overly invested in pushing new creations because the readership is generally unresponsive and because, they know by now, they will not be adequately rewarded for their efforts should they make such a breakthrough. Conversely, Mike Mignola is probably doing very well indeed, thank you. What remains is some kind of fascinating interbreeding, like royalty.
that these trademarks have a cyclical, quite fascinating, existence – ultimately corporate hands are responsible for their upkeep but the pressures of maintaining their original home, their appearance in the media that birthed them and with a somewhat linear continuity, creates unusual conceptual side-effects.
that this is still some aftershock response to a period in time when Dark Horse were in a position to try and buy Marvel, an act of preservation through prolific brand-seeding. I don’t know how much these things effect writers who generally start as fans, nor about marketing and trademark maintenance; I kind of wish I did for purposes here, but do – on the other hand – regard it as something of a black art.
various positions which are basically less realistic or materialistic but rather more valorizing of the material and conceptually probably rather strange, such as affixing superheroes to the much longer and nobler lineage of heroic fiction and mythology; some of this work is being done in situ.
I’d be interested in hearing about competitive taxonomies here. I do know Alan David Doane has being playing the Fan-Fiction Age of Superhero Comics song for a while now, which is basically ascription one above plus some evocative phrasing – my two word dismissal is mentioned atop this post: Roy Thomas, who was really the first faunlike devotee to make such a living, nearly forty years ago. I’ve not encountered many full narratives covering the last fifteen years in the game, would like more, and please feel free to burn holes in this – it’s hugely incomplete, it doesn’t mention (except now) metacritiques such as Marvel Boy or X-Statix which were fascinating books in and of themselves, becoming yet more so in this context, and it took three months to write up.