Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back to the Bronze Age - Part One

One thing that seriously only dawned on me recently is that I can reasonably expect some readers to not only be unfamiliar with the Bronze Age of comics, but to have not even been alive then.   Man.  So I've spent the last week working on the section on what makes a Bronze Age comic story.

This is a fun, but consuming section.  I keep wanting to write more than I probably should, specifically in coming up with connections:  connections between themes in the comics (how the social issues ties into all those wacky cults); connections between movements in the real world for those who didn't live through them (such as the cult scares of the 70's, which grew out of the spiritual searching of the 60's; and , of course, connections between the real world and the comic world (such as how wide-spread concerns about groups such as the Unification Church aka "the Moonies" translates into things like Brother Power and Sister Sun, who appeared in Spectacular Spider-man No. 12 (1977)).  I blame this on my former life as professional historian.

So I'm enjoying this even as I am wearing myself out.  I'll have to take a break on this soon and probably go back to the working on the Power Tables to avoid turning my game into an essay.  But I thought that I might post some of the work here and see if it makes sense to folks and seems helpful.  There is more to the section than this, but it's not presentable yet.

Back to the Bronze Age
Comic book historians describe the period of time covered in this game as the Bronze Age.  Unlike some of the periods in comics, there is no very clear line between the preceding Silver Age and the Bronze Age (although that doesn’t hinder virulent arguments about when the Bronze Age “really” started).  Rather, it was an evolution in which certain themes and ideas came to the fore while others receded.   It was both continuity and change.

But if you want a simple summation of the what the super-heroes of the 70’s faced, you could do worse than this: social injustice, student protests, Satanism, the Energy Crisis, Women's Lib, lonely Space-Messiahs spouting poetry in psychedelic space-scapes, classic monsters, disillusionment with the Government, Golden Age legacies, barbarians, Vietnam fallout, wacky cults, drug problems, Alien Astronauts, and the power of Kung-Fu.

Simple, no?

Well, maybe we could flesh that out a little.

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
Silver Age comics were very focused on defending the status quo.  The government is good, the police are good, American society is good.  Communists are bad, Bad Guys are bad, and violence beyond the cartoon level is bad.  This was in part a legacy from the comics reaching their height during World War II and in part a requirement of the Comics Code.  The point is that super-heroes in the Silver Age fought attempts to change things.

In the Bronze Age, heroes began to discover that some things might need changing.  Those student radicals taking over a campus might have a valid point to make.  Heck, rioting convicts had a point about inhumane treatment in the American penal system; Spider-man found out and went live on the Johnny Carson show to tell the whole country.  The super-heroes of the time confronted issues of social justice, economic justice, and the gender divide.  Sure, a lot of those folks were villains, but not all, and even the ones who were crooks seemed to have some justification for what they were doing.  As the Green Lantern learned to his dismay when he tried to protect a sleazy slum-lord from his aggrieved tenants, he had been so concerned with helping out the purple skins and the green skins that he had forgotten the needs of the brown skins.

But more than that, heroes began to find that bad guys did not always wear distinctive clothing and might well hide behind the façade of the corporation or the government.   The mood of the times was very much against “the Man” and He turned out to have His fingers in all sorts of pies. Particularly the kind of shady operations that had proliferated in the Viet Nam vortex.  The Rand Corporation, a think tank spun off from the military years earlier and still tied to them, was a good target for nefarious machinations within the halls of power.

The point is that the Bronze Age heroes stopped being automatically reactive defenders of the status quo, bringing them back full circle to the very beginning of the genre, when Superman was an agitator out to clean up corruption.

It wasn’t just society that turned out to be flawed; the heroes and their pals found themselves prey to inner demons that would never have shown up in earlier eras.  Marvel Comics laid the groundwork in the 1960’s with it’s less than perfect characters, but this only took full flower in the Bronze Age when the Comics Code was flouted to feature a storyline in which Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osbourne suffers from drug addiction. The competition went one better when the Green Arrow walked in on his sidekick Speedy preparing to shoot up.

Now, not every single hero turned out to be an alcoholic (just Iron Man, I think), but the idea was established that flawed hero meant more than just arguing with your partners.  Guilt and sin were prominent themes, whether portrayed realistically (Spider-man’s guilt at Gwen Stacy’s death) or metaphorically (The Ghost Rider is pretty easy to read as a religious parable).

Space Odyssey; or see Kirby, Jack
Outer Space had not been ignored during the Silver Age; indeed, that was a very science-fiction oriented period when previously mystical characters such as the Green Lantern were retooled into sci-fi characters.  Aliens of every conceivable shape, size, and four-color tone proliferated during the period.  This was a generally pulpy, Buck Rogers kind of science fiction.

In the Bronze Age, space turned out to be pretty trippy man.  Just as the film 2001: A Space Odyssey had brought the unfathomable, mind-altering qualities of space to the fore, the comics were doing the same thing.  This was a sort of “cosmic mysticism”, full of existential and religious themes.  And it had it’s Space-Messiahs, like the Silver Surfer and Warlock, who wandered the stars seeking enlightenment and an end to violence while still finding time to kick some bad guy ass.  But even there, the bad guys might turn out to be a vaguely-scientific looking reinterpretation of Satan (like Darkseid).

Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and proved to be a popular theme in comics.  This is the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis that extraterrestrial life-forms had visited the earth in the ancient past and influenced the development of human beings in some fashion or another.

These space odysseys could turn up in the most unlikely of places: Thanos the death-loving Eternal premiered in the pages of Iron Man of all places.  And poor Rick Jones, who had begun life as the Hulk’s sidekick ended up sharing bodies with Captain Marvel through the power of the Nega-Bands.  The most notable expressions of all of this were Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books for DC and the very same Jack Kirby’s Eternals stories for Marvel. Considering that he had pioneered this stuff in the Silver Age with Galactus and the Watcher, that should come as no surprise.

Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting
Kung-Fu was big in Bronze Age comics.   In earlier periods, heroes were better fighters because they had a mean right hook.  Neither Captain American nor Batman fought in a style that, in any way, was not good old Yankee fisticuffs.  If you read the comics from Cap’s revival in the 1960’s, you see that he is constantly called “an acrobat” and Batman is referring to his style of combat as “street-fighting” as late as 1970.

But the Bronze Age brought in the Fu.  Five years after that street-fighting reference, Batman is suddenly referred to as a master of judo, kung-fu, and aikido (in addition to plain old fisticuffs). Martial Arts heroes sprouted everywhere, even the 30th century (the Karate Kid in the Legion of Super-heroes). Despite that last example, though, the Martial Arts heroes of the Bronze Age did tend to inhabit their own “street-level” sub-culture. They did not usually fight aliens or gods or powerful master-villains (well, except for Fu Manchu); instead, they fought street gangs, corrupt businessmen, and Martial Arts villains.

Kung-fu wasn’t just about fighting, though. There was a great deal of interest in “alternative spiritual traditions” (i.e. not the Western monotheisms) and this played an important role in Kung-Fu stories. Again, you can find the roots of this in the 60’s, particularly in the faux-Eastern mysticism from Doctor Strange.  The Kung-Fu characters from the Bronze Age often brought with them images of Chinese temples, meditation, and a quest for peace--although, being the comics, this quest for peace could only be preceded by extreme ass-kicking.

It’s worth noting that this was all pretty Sino-specific; the omnipresent ninja of later years didn’t really pop up until the early 80’s and “batarangs” were still actually boomerangs in the 70’s, rather than the shuriken they would eventually become.

All You Need is Love…and Satan
More than just the philosophy of Kung-Fu, the Bronze Age stories paid a lot of attention to variant religions, which had been pretty much absent during earlier periods (perhaps because the comics were created by a lot of Jewish fellas writing for predominantly Protestant audiences?). The favourite depiction was the cult and the cult was usually one ostensibly proclaiming universal love or brotherhood or spiritual enlightenment or one of those hippie-things and then turning out to be a front for neo-Nazis or master villains or alien squid-men (yes, alien squid-men.   See Nebulon’s Celestial Mind Control movement, which also involved it’s participants wearing Bozo the Clown masks.  See, this is what I’m talking about: the Bronze Age was awesome).

A special kind of cultist is the Satanist and these fellas were also coming out of the woodwork in the 1970’s, spurred on in part by the popularity of movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and the Exorcist.  There were lots of evil Satanists as antagonists, whether or not the object of their affection was “Satan” strictly speaking or not.   For instance, there was "Satannish, which would sound like the adjectival form of Satan, but was his own…er, demon.  His cult, called “the Sons of Satannish”, involved wearing funny masks and adopting scary names.   It was sort of a diabolic LARP.  He also made Faustian bargains with individual diabolists.  Other maybe-Satans included Mephisto, who bedeviled Thor and was constantly tempting the Silver Surfer, and Trigon, who played the Rosemary’s Baby gambit to produce the new Teen Titan Raven.

That last example points to one of the stranger phenomena of the Brozne Age: super-heroes with diabolical origins. If DC had the demonic Raven, Marvel went one better in having a hero actually called “the Son of Satan”, who was just as advertised on the box (he also had a sister called “Satana” not to be confused with the musician).  More famous today is the Ghost Rider, a human who made a deal with someone (let’s call him Satan for the hell of it) and had a demon bonded to his soul as a result.  This guy could never have been a hero in the Silver Age.


  1. Good write up, I shall share this with my current ICONS group to know what they have to look forward to as the Silver Age ends (my campaign being set in the 1960s).

  2. I've thought that it might be fun to play a game that begins squarely in the Silver Age and watch the Bronze unfold around them. Bit of a downer, though, probably.