Robot 6

Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs | The Silver Age

Aquaman '64

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.

Jimmy Olsen '64

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.

The New New Giant Man '65

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?

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Comments

7 Comments

Favorites:

Jimmy Olsen, coolest reporter. The concept is amazingly dopey, and yet it worked a lot better than most Silver Age comics I’ve read. I think that kids could relate to Jimmy. He was living their fantasy: being Superman’s pal but also being a hero. The stories have an innocent kind of fun about them.

Spider-Man. Not just better than anything DC had. But better than anything else I’ve seen from that time. Edgy, a little risky, not always what you expect. Interesting villains, more depth from the characters that anywhere else, and great art. These hold up amazingly well.

Fantastic Four. Like Spidey, unusually sophisticated for the era. Especially from issue 30 till about issue 60. And Ben Grimm was one of the greats already.

The Atom. DC’s one SA book that felt like it took place in the real world just a bit, with Cold War spy schemes and trips to visit historical figures in the Time Pool grounding the book enough that a six inch hero who weighed 150 pounds never seemed too silly.

Least favorites:

Thor. Bombast but little else. And yet dull enough that i returned an Essential Thor TPB to the library unfinished. The mix of mythology and bad science fiction never worked for me, and to this day leaves me bored with Thor.

Batman. He suffered as an amiable but dull scoutmaster of a hero. He suffered when Carmine Infantino took over as the artist even as the scripts remained uninspired. And the less said about the Outsider, the better.

Hawkman. Just plain dull.

I love the Silver Age for pieces, but I agree with that last point. One of my first thought when I started reading Silver Age comics was “I wish I could have read this when I was 10″. Most of even the best stories from that era require a huge amount of suspense of disbelief, more than one can reasonably ask of an audience capable of critical thought. I appreciate even the most ludicrous Silver Age stories as absurdist fun (hello, Jimmy Olsen!), but by no means would I want all or even most comics today to revel in such insanity. There are more than enough actual Silver Age comics to be read if I want that. The key is to incorporate the Silver Age imagination and sense of wonder (All-Star Superman is a shining example of this) while still telling well thought out and coherent stories.

“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.”

This sentence makes no sense, and generalises too much.

I’m not sure which part is confusing to you. Is it the distinction between Kids and All-Ages?

I agree that it’s a generalization. It was supposed to be. If you disagree, I’d welcome a discussion about it.

I don’t really understand why fans divide comics into “ages”, or why they’re ranked the way they are, *but*. According to wikipedia, the “silver age” runs from 56-70, so some “adventure” comics from the era:

Simon/Kirby on The Fighting American and Boys’ Ranch; Kirby on various Atlas monster comics, Challengers of the Unknown, Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America; Steranko on Nick Fury; Ditko on Spider-Man, Dr Strange and various Charlton stuff; Colan on Daredevil; Adams on X-Men; Kane on the Atom and Green Lantern; Infantino on Elongated Man, Flash and Adam Strange (inked by Anderson!); Kubert then Anderson on Hawkman; Kubert and Heath on Sgt Rock, Haunted Tank and Enemy Ace (war comics can be “adventure” comics, right?); various Weisinger Superman and Superman-related titles, many of them with Swan art; Hughes and Whitney on Herbie; Barks on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge; Tezuka on Astro Boy; Herge on Tintin; Caniff on Steve Canyon; Gray, Gould and Foster still going strong on Annie, Dick Tracy and Prince Valiant….and that’s just stuff I can see on my bookshelves.

Granted, for every Kirby or Barks, there was a Heck or Kanigher (or maybe three or four of them), but still. That looks like a pretty good period for “adventure” comics to me, even if you just mean “superhero” by “adventure” and exclude Barks, Herge et al. from the running.

I’m reading thru these Showcases too, Michael. I really appreciate your insights. And I must say, the Cardy artwork looks awesome in B & W! What a master!

No doubt about that, Ed. Between Cardy and Ramona Fradon, Silver Age Aquaman looked VERY good.

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