So. Mindless Ones is good name for a comic blog, isn’t it? (I didn’t come up with it.) Conjures the notion of a ravening* horde, slavering* devotion to Dormammu, the Dark One, battling NeilAlieN on some etheric plateau adrift in this noosphere. Perhaps that’s exactly what we are. Perhaps we really are just that.

*Having no mouths to eat, only hands to type, I’m not so very sure a Mindless One such as I really can raven“? I can surely slaver, though.

Anyway, enough bullshit. I came here today to talk about the entire history of superhero comics because, well, better to start big and THEN drift into meandering personal vendettas and general self-loathing with a little credit hopefully in the bag, you know? Oh, and the love. Of the thing. Because they’re important to me, no matter how – generally, if the internet is to be believed – repugnant the fandom (like, whenever there’s a fan ‘outcry’, I’m like, “good”; I love seeing these risible chuds bathing their innards in acid,) how venal the publishers, how dubious the sexual and racial politics… there’s a massive iconic energy these things harness, or can harness, thousands of cultural, thematic and generic worlds they (can) straddle in bright, tight trouserpants and they’re just. my. favourites.

So, I was eventually tipped to my debutante topic by a trifecta of comics internet postings; primarily Shawn Roke’s frankly crack-addled take on the import of two, really quite shite, event comics from last year, at PopMatters, but also Todd C. Murry’s altogether-more-admirable potted history of the Dark Age, pre-Watchmen and Mike Sterling’s stellar seller’s guide to comics eras, which features some exceptional terminology I’m about to outright ignore.

Can you guess what it is yet?

It’s the systemic view of the four ages of a microcosmical hybrid sub-genre – colourful, violent, pictorial fiction. With a special view to looking at the position March/April 2008 offers on the curve of this unnamed Fourth Era. In two or three parts, depending.

Break it down into simple terms: superhero comics have had three prior Ages, as most readers will know – everyone agrees almost entirely on the first two, the Golden and Silver, though dates for either shift a little dependent on who you ask, and there’re proposed antecedents (Pulp) and so on. Thereafter, you’ve got the Bronze or Dark Age… now if you’re opening new tabs for these links, reading them as we go, you’ll notice wikipedia defines these latter two as basically mid-70s-Watchmen/Watchmen-now, which is why no-one can ever get a handle on anything, because the perception of Watchmen as the weightiest tome ever produced in the field distorts everything; don’t get me wrong, I love Watchmen, but its gravitas – such as is – is a black hole. Going back to Murry’s piece “Whatever Alan Moore tells you, he really didn’t start it” it does seem counterintuitive that stylistically and thematically similar prior works, especially by Moore, or his consistent attendant in any discussion ever of this matter, Frank ‘Dark Knight Returns’ Miller, should belong to a differing period – conjoining the two, it’s easy enough to construct a narrative bridge for, say, 1975-1993 (more on the latter date shortly, Murry has the former pretty covered): bleaker, often politicised, more worldly comics. Grim, some say, and also gritty. Where there’s… there’s no real arc for any proposed Bronze Age (75-85), and it’s also half the length of the two prior eras – what could you say of that time period? There were horror books, blaxploitation, martial arts – it was a period where newly emergent or reemergent popular genre culture, films really, were absorbed and hybridised to the superhero gestalt. And melodrama like the X-Men and Titans were in dominion. And then Watchmen.

Yes: Watchmen, Watchmen, Watchmen. And Dark Knight Returns. And that one that talks about the Holocaust, sort of autobiographically, using animals; isn’t it brilliant? So brilliant. 1986. Crisis on Infinite Earths. Pow! Bang! Zap! Comics aren’gghhff kuhhds anuhmuh – Watchmen and it’s stand-bys, (though not Maus which is… it’s nothing to do with this, really, it’s a grave topic handled well, but why the animals? What on Earth could be the point? I hate anthropomorphic animal comics,) are to this system’s reckoning the apotheosis of an era; I opt for Dark Age because ‘Bronze’ also is such a prelapsarian judgment call, irksome in its Olympian connotation, and I can read very few superhero comics – practically none that don’t involve Jack Kirby in some sense – published prior to my birth in 1979. They don’t age well, generally, and maybe that’s why it’s always the Modern Age: the readers’ lifetime, looked back on, like I’d say, oh, the modern age is 1985-2008. Or the period in which the former reader, read. After is silence only. So, ‘Dark’, yes, a quality or absence of light: the morning arrived wreathed in gold, noon passed as the rockets shimmered silver through our Venusian spaceport and in the evening it was dark, and beasts prowled the edges of our habitats. I think the, what I’d call the actual Modern era has been a relative slumber, interspersed with some very rich, tangential, correlative dream matter, but basically – and this is partially doubtless because of the aforementioned venality of the major publishers, that creators understandably do not want to give over rights to something they made whole cloth – not one in which new properties have emerged.

Since 1994, we’ve had, uh, Aztek (he dead), X-Statix (all dead), the Power Company (who? exac’ly) and The Order (who owe a bit to X-Statix, and will probably nearly all, if not all die in their next and final issue, out this month. Except Pepper Potts, the only member of the cast not created for the title, an old Iron Man support, who [SPOILERS] survives fo’ sho’). One could argue The Authority, but the concept’s roots and characters lie with Stormwatch, from 1993, toward the end of a period where a great deal of new(ish: Rob Liefeld’s own creations owe a lot to his former employees’ stables) stuff was created for the launch of Image Comics. 1992-94 was clearly, in hindsight, enormously transitional: the “Berger books” at DC had shifted so far beyond recognition as superhero properties they were given their own supernatural ghetto as the Vertigo imprint, Superman died and was followed in short order by a crippled Batman, dead Daredevil and dead, evil Green Lantern, the market boomed, bloated, racks sagged under universe after universe, world upon world and, ultimately, crashed.

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