Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs | The Silver Age
Since this is a column about big-concept, adventure comics, I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to talk about the Silver Age, especially as DC did it. A lot of fans, myself included, point to DC’s Silver Age as something we want to see more of: angst-free characters facing bold concepts in stories that don’t take more than an issue or two to tell and don’t crossover into other series. A lot of older fans grew up at least at the tail end of the Silver Age, so we recall those comics as the kind we enjoyed when we were kids. And if we enjoyed them, then our kids might too. For that reason, the Silver Age sometimes becomes a rallying point for grown up fans who wish their children had good superhero comics to read. But, was it really everything we remember it as?
I’ve been going through DC’s Showcase Presents Aquaman volumes recently and just finished the second one, which takes me through the birth of Aquababy. The reason for this is that I’m fascinated by Aquaman’s reputation as a lame character. I’ve been trying to unravel it on my own blog for a while now and have found numerous examples of industry professionals who love Aquaman and defend his concept. By all rights, he should be an awesome character. So why does the world at large give him such a hard time? The only way to find out was to stop reading what other people think and visit his stories for myself. I don’t know that I’m any closer to my answer about Aquaman, but I have learned one important, broader lesson. The Silver Age kind of sucked.
It’s not just Aquaman’s solo series. I’ve been reading Silver Age Justice League stuff too as well as odd issues of World’s Finest and Brave and the Bold. And though I’m focusing on DC, this isn’t just their trouble. Try reading all the way through Essential Ant Man sometime. I dare you. The problems I have with Aquaman’s series apply to the early adventures of (Gi)Ant Man and the Wasp as well.
It’s true that the Silver Age is full of nutty, bold ideas. That’s its strength. I don’t know if it’s true that DC editorial came up with the cover concepts first and then asked the storytellers to create around them, but it certainly seems plausible. Regardless of how they came about, DC’s Silver Age is full of stuff like Ant-Head Superman, Jimmy Olsen as the Red-Headed Beatle of 1000 BC, Bat-Baby, and Quisp the Water Sprite. And as stupid as some of that sounds, it’s also kind of insanely brilliant. That’s the kind of imagination that I’d love to see more of in today’s comics.
What I don’t want to see is the crappy characterization and sloppy continuity that plagued these stories. And before anyone misunderstands that “sloppy continuity” comment, I should clarify that I’m not advocating for some kind of extremely tight, nigh-impenetrable continuity where the minutia of each story has to stand up under a magnifying loupe examination and cross-reference with every story that’s come before. I’d just like for a character not to change completely her personality between issues.
As an example of this, I’ll offer Mera from Aquaman. I enjoyed getting to know the Silver Age version of her for a while. More powerful than Aquaman himself and no sidekick, she was an adventurous, fun-loving, equal partner with the sea king in her first several adventures with him. And then they got married. Overnight she retired from adventuring and became a moody, depressed harpy of a woman who berated Aquaman for continuing to adventure without her and punished Aqualad in her husband’s absence.
We could have a whole other discussion about male perceptions of marriage and women in the ‘60s, but my point for now is how fluid characterization and continuity were in that time period. See also Superman’s love-hate relationship with Lois and his subscription to the New Power of the Month Club (not that he was he the only member). Or back to Marvel, witness the constant concept-refiguring that went on in many of their early series (Ant-Man again and Hulk immediately come to mind) as Stan and Company tried to figure out what they were doing on the fly.
I’m complaining, but please don’t think that I hate these comics. I like them. I love the ideas in them. But these aren’t All-Ages Comics. They’re Kids Comics, because kids don’t care about things like characterization or stories making any damn sense. What I advocate for in today’s comics is the fun and the imagination of the Silver Age, but for crying out loud let’s not pretend that the Silver Age was the pinnacle of superheroic perfection.
That’s why I appreciate Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC (or whatever DC’s calling their all-ages line these days) and the work of writers like Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin, Fred Van Lente, and Paul Cornell. And what Grant Morrison’s doing with Batman right now. They’re making comics that my son and I can enjoy together, each on our own level. They’re capturing the pleasures of the Silver Age without the audience-hating carelessness that characterized so much of it. Let’s see more of that.
This week’s Discussion Question: What’s your favorite and least favorite moment of Silver Age zaniness?