Last year I set myself the task of trying to in some way explain or contextualize Hickman’s run on the Avengers. I struggled and failed to explain what I was feeling then, which was that Hickman’s Avengers—itself a continuation of his run on Fantastic Four—is in some way representative of a new way of thinking about superheroes. I put aside the topic as one I wasn’t ready to deal with. However, another year’s worth of comics and some recent conversations have helped shape and clarify my thinking. I’ve come to the conclusion that what I was perceiving was more than a single writer handling supers in a unique way. Rather, I believe we’ve entered into a new era in superhero comics—by my count the 6th.
I want to talk about why I feel that’s the case and what I see as the defining aspects of this new era. But I need to back up a little first and talk about the previous superhero eras to put these thoughts in context. I’ll address the first three very briefly because they are generally well understood, and then talk in a bit more depth about the second three—all of which have at various times been called “The Modern Age.”
There is broadly speaking a consensus regarding the first two ages—the Golden Age and the Silver Age—as distinct periods in comics. The Golden Age began with the creation of Superman in 1938 and ended at the beginning of the Silver Age, around 1956; the accepted dividing line being the introduction of Barry Allen as the new Flash in that year. The exact end of the Silver Age is a question of some debate, but I think it’s fair to consider the period of roughly 1970 through 1986 as its own distinct era—the Bronze Age—for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
In 1986 we have Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths all being released simultaneously. This not only ended DC’s classic multiverse continuity but provides a stark line between the end of the Bronze Age and the first era to be called the Modern Age. It’s here where I want to start speaking in more detail, because after ’86 there aren’t any clear guidepost moments. So let’s look at what defines an era in comics.
An era is distinguished both by the types of heroes it features and the conflicts they confront—internal as well as external. Each is also, in its own way, a reaction or response to the era that preceded it. We can see this sort of contrast when comparing the 15ish year period from 1970-86—the Bronze Age—with the 15 years before it (1956-70) that made up the Silver Age.
The Silver Age was the era of science fiction heroes. On the DC side we have characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter being invented. On the Marvel side we have all the classic characters: Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Captain Marvel, and others. All heroes that received their powers from science and/or outer space, in one form or another. It was a period of expansion into new, unknown realms in the depths of space or other dimensions. We saw the creation of the DC multiverse, invasions from cosmic beings of unimaginable power like Galactus, and the evolution of superheroes from crime-fighters into stalwart protectors who warded off the total destruction of the Earth.
Contrasting this with the comics of the 70s, the era of realpolitik, there is a shift towards stories grounded in the real social problems of the day: racial and class tension, political disillusionment, the birth of the War on Drugs, and street crime. Its heroes were characters like Luke Cage, Black Panther, and the Punisher. This was also the period when Green Lantern and Green Arrow took their much famed road trip across the US in a Winnebago, Wonder Woman lost her powers and learned Kung-fu, and Captain America quit (for the first time). Star-spanning stories like the Kree-Skrull war in this period were more an allegory for the escalating cold war than the galactic romps of the Silver Age.
This brings us up to the late 80s and the first of the modern ages, which lasted roughly from 1986 until the late 90s, and tends to get called either the Dark Age or the Iron Age of comics, depending on who you ask. I like Iron Age, so that’s what I’m going to stick with here. This period—which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of that cold war which consumed so much thought in the Bronze Age—was in many ways about freedom and release. It was dominated by an edgier, more *EXTREME* take on the superhero, as well as a strong departure from the grounded-in-reality comics of the preceding era.
This was the time that comics increasingly began to move away from news-stands and supermarket racks and into specialty comic shops. There, they were freer to embrace more graphic and adult storylines, as well as place a stronger emphasis on continuity between books. Heroes began to abandon the limitations of restraint and rectitude which had previously been in effect; replaced with bulging muscles and ballooning breasts. This was the time of anti-heroes like Spawn and Cable, who had no problem with killing their enemies. It was also an era in which many classic heroes were replaced—albeit temporarily—with most extreme versions.
The teams had cool names like Extreme Justice, Force Works, Youngblood, and the New Warriors. The founding of Image Comics kicked off a wave of knock-off supers that all competed with one another to be the most edgy, the most violent, the most sexy. Stories were once again moving towards the fantastic and otherworldly. They often focused on intra-superhuman conflicts away from the mundanity of everyday life, or on vast conspiracies involving aliens and vampires outside of public view.
This was when the big event books—cast in the mold of the Crisis—began to take form. These events frequently focused around larger than life problems like the sun being extinguished, reality itself being rewritten, and battles against vast cosmic powers. There was little social commentary in The Death of Superman or The Infinity Gauntlet. Armageddon 2001 and Age of Apocalypse taught us little about heroes’ responsibility to confront the problem of addiction in our communities.
The Iron Age was also the period of the great comic book speculation bubble which drove the comics industry to dizzying heights, followed by the inevitable collapse that decimated the industry and left Marvel in bankruptcy. By the late-90s the wheel had once again turned, and we move into what I consider the second modern age—up until the last few years the *current* age. It began, in my opinion, around 1999 with titles like The Authority—part of the “wide-screen comics” movement.
This Widescreen Age was an era in which superheroes started to reconnect with the mundane world around them and take part in the changing world of international politics—particularly in the realm of counter-terrorism and asymmetric warfare. In titles like Checkmate and in the Ultimate Universe we saw heroes operating increasingly like military operatives. The concept of a superhero universe itself was recast in the context of a world where super-beings don’t simply observe and comment, or play off in the margins of reality, but take an active role in shaping human civilization.
On the villain side, we saw an evolution of the super-crime underground. No longer did we just see A-list villains seeking world domination and C-list criminals knocking over banks. Rather, the villains were becoming just as interconnected as the heroes, forming criminal coalitions which share information on heroes, becoming black-hat mercenaries, and gaining definition outside of their role as foils for the heroes.
This evolution was perhaps more visible at Marvel, who from 2004-2011 had an ongoing chain of events beginning with Secret War—in which Nick Fury recruits a black-ops team of superheroes to instigate regime change in a sovereign nation, then brain-washes them to forget what they did. This event kicked off an ongoing chain of events from Avengers Disassembled, leading through Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and finally ending with Siege. On the DC side this shift in storytelling was more evident on a character level than an event level, but was still clearly visible in popular characters like Black Adam and groups like the incarnation of The Society founded in the run-up to Infinite Crisis.
Regardless of the details, throughout this era we clearly see the influence of first brushfire conflicts like those in the Balkans in the 90s and later the War on Terror, which dominated the global consciousness for the past decade much as the cold war did throughout the Bronze Age. This era saw its culmination—and perhaps conclusion—not in the comics themselves but in the movies. I feel Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, which was based in large part on a storyline from 2005, is the ultimate distillation of what comics were about in this era.
The Widescreen Age, from roughly 1998-2010, was defined by a sense of endless conflict against enemies of our own creation, by a feeling of deep moral compromise regarding the tactics used to combat those enemies, and by an ineffable sense of futility in finding peace. A sense that America, as the world’s sole superpower, was both inevitably corrupted by that power and unable to use it to in any way truly better the world. That we were, in the end, prisoners of our own hegemony.
The driving question of this era was, “What is the role of the superhero in the modern world?” The answer, such as it was, is that supers cannot allow themselves to be made pawns or servants of nation states. When they do, it leads inevitably to greater destruction, greater bloodshed, greater human misery. Yet the problem of evil still exists, and those with the power to combat it have an obligation to do so in proportion to the power they wield. Much like the United States itself, supers find themselves drawn into conflicts they profess not to desire, yet seemingly cannot help but participate in.
In late 2010—post Siege—Marvel changed the marque at the top of their comics from Dark Reign to The Heroic Age. A few months later (early 2011) they changed Editors-in-Chief, with Alex Alonso replacing Joe Quesada. Meanwhile in *early* 2010, DC’s own long-standing “Editorial Vice President”, Dan Didio, moved up to Co-Publisher and was replaced with former Marvel EiC, Bob Harras. In September 2011, DC rebooted their universe producing the New-52 DCU.
In this nexus of changes in leadership, reboots, and rebranding which occurred over the course of 2010 and 2011, I believe we have once again moved into a new age in superhero comics. Like the eras before it, this new age is driven not just by the world as it is today, but in reaction to the age which preceded it. The question of the role of the superpowered in the world has no satisfactory response, because power in inherently corrupting. It either invites destruction through never-ending conflict or internal decay.
The question for this era then seems to be one of more inward reflection: “What is a superhero?” But perhaps in a larger sense we might say that it is, “How can a superhero save/interact with the world without fundamentally changing it?” The directions that Marvel and DC have gone in the past 3-4 years have both been reactions to this question. Although the paths they have chosen to walk are very different, I have the sense that both are arriving at the same conclusion: you can’t.
On the DC side, it seems to be the conclusion that if a superhero cannot help but alter the world by the nature of their existence, then the only reasonable course of action is to retreat from the world into escapism. Since the New-52 reboot they have been aggressively seeking refuge in the glories of the past, reverting to an Iron Age style of storytelling. On the widest scale the new DCU has been predominantly focused on the fantastic and otherworldly in their event books: extra-dimensional invaders, existential threats to reality, and the ongoing conflict of super against super. Tonally, as well, there seems to be a retreat towards the 90s with superhero costumes that look more like battle armor and an emphasis on grimness and violence.
Marvel, on the other hand, has taken the opposing path. If the superhero cannot help but change the world, than the world must change. Along with that we have seen a more experimental approach, actively questioning the nature and form of their heroes, and trying to figure out how they could mesh organically with the world around them.
In Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, Marvel directly confronted the question of supers acting like paramilitary black ops squads, actively eliminating threats with lethal force before they could fully materialize, ultimately rejecting it as a solution. In Hickman’s Avengers we have seen the concept of a superhero team evolved, from a group that reacts to threats into an engine for changing the world. In the X-books we saw a philosophic schism over whether having a superpower automatically makes you a combatant.
We’ve also seen similar explorations on the level of individual characters. In Hawkeye, we see a superhero living in an apartment building, becoming a part of the community there. In the Superior Spider-Man arc, we saw what would happen if someone other than Peter Parker—his arch-foe, no less—took up the mantle of the Spider. In Thor: God of Thunder, we see an increased emphasis on Thor not just as a hero, but as a god who hears prayers. Each of these stories in some way transmutes the superhero into something a little different, to question what the fundamental nature of the superhero is and see how far and in how many ways you can change it without it breaking as a concept.
Beyond this, Marvel also seems to be playing with the role of the superhero not just in-universe, but on a meta-level in terms of the superhero genre. They are putting forth a lot of effort to bring in writers and artists with many different styles—compare the look of Ghost Rider, Hawkeye, Avengers, Ms. Marvel, Rocket Raccoon, and Iron Fist—and cover as many different tones and interest groups as possible.
A book like Hawkeye occupies a very different headspace compared to Black Widow or Captain Marvel. Each book feels like it stands alone, with its own style and flavor. Collectively, there is a clear effort to engage as many different types of readers as possible, and to offer something of value to each of them. This is especially clear when you compare these books with those at DC, where a very strong house-style is enforced to keep all of their titles very homogeneous across their entire line. Collectively, the philosophy at Marvel seems to be very much a case of, “let’s try everything and see what works. Let’s see how many different directions we can push the label of superhero and have it still feel like a superhero.”
To put a tl;dr on this whole thing, I believe the sum vision of this most modernist of modern ages in comics is that of the superhero as not above or separate from the system, hidden away at the edges of reality in secret places and fighting secret wars. In terms of the era as an era, the emerging vision of the superhero seems to focus on the idea of a superhero as someone who actively makes the world a better place through their actions. It is a vision of the superhero as an inalienable part of society who cannot exist in isolation simply to combat their villainous opposite number. Rather, they must be engaged in the wider reality beyond that of other superheroes, and to be affected by it as much as they affect it.
If we are to continue to believe in superheroes in this newest Modern Age, it will be because they have been reborn not as protectors of the eternal status quo, but rather as agents of change and renewal.