What ‘Golden Age’ actually means


Do I need to emphasize to you that I am a fan of the Golden Age? I shouldn’t need to. After all, this office we’ve set up should provide all the proof you need of my devotion. The Golden Age is my age, the era that makes me smile the widest. With its bright colors and even brighter characters, it provides huge entertainment. And no-one has ever punched as hard as The Bat-Man.

So – having said all that, I’m going to turn it all on its head by saying:

The Golden Age is a bit rubbish.

“Woah!” you say, “What is this? What’s The Editor doing to our brain-pans here? I can’t take this confusion, man.”

Let The Editor explain; soothe your aching head. It all has to do with the true meaning of the term ‘Golden Age’, which I shall explain now.

We refer to comics in Ages. The time periods I give here are approximations and you should be aware that people disagree with the detail of exactly when they begin and end. But for our purposes that disagreement doesn’t matter too much. When people refer to the Golden Age they cite the late 1930s to end of the 1940s. The Silver Age covers 1950 to 1970 and then we get the Bronze Age from 1970-1985/6. I’ve even seen people refer to the post-85 age as the ‘Iron Age’ or even ‘The Dark Age’. What is the common theme here? Well, as time goes on, these metallic descriptions decrease in ‘preciousness’. Gold-silver-bronze-iron – the value of the material gets worse as time goes by. So, the non-comic reader would be forgiven for thinking that this means that the quality of the related comics must get worse as time goes by also.

But this is wrong. It is misleading. In fact, I would argue that in our so-called Iron Age of today or the Bronze Age of the mid-80s, the number of quality comics (in terms of story writing and art work) has never been higher. If we review Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One published in 1986 against Detective Comics #27 1939, the idea that there was anything ‘Golden’ about Kane and Finger’s Batman in comparison to Miller’s is a bit of a joke. The 1939 plot is ludicrous – Bruce Wayne just happens to get invited along to crime scenes by Commissioner Gordon, as though graceless socialites such as Wayne got to do those kind of things every day. And if the artist for Batman in 2013 – Greg Capullo –  offered up Bob Kane’s dome-headed lunk to DC editors Dan Didio and Jim Lee, I rather suspect that Mr Capullo would be asked to return to his drawing board to ‘have another go’.

So – the Golden Age overall, in terms of quality of art and writing, sucks. A more fitting description would be the Plastic Age – cheap, mass-produced, throw-away.

So – why do we refer to this age as Golden? Well, there are a host of things that set these eras apart, such as the instigation of the Comics Code, changes in art, subject matter, writers – lots of things. But one of the main features of the Golden Age was the sheer numbers of comics bought in the US. It was superhero boom-time. At a time before mass-access to the TV, comics were the main source of entertainment for children. They were cheap – just 10c – and plentiful. Here’s a few statistics:

  • By 1940, Superman comics were selling 1,250,000 per month.
  • In 1947, DC – or National Publications as it was then known – sold an average of 8,500,000 copies of its comics per month.
  • The best-selling DC line for October 2013 was Batman #24. It sold 124,584 copies, coming second in the comics league table.
  • Overall – the top 300 comics (all titles, all publishers) sold in October 2013 came to 7,760,000 copies.

The overall picture is that we buy far less comics today than we did in the Golden Age. And yet the comics to choose from are greater, the stories more varied, and the art on the pages is outstanding. We are blessed with a host of independent publishers who are raising the bar in terms of comic diversity. Hurrah! But we’re not purchasing as many in terms of comics made and published by people in the US.

Why is this? Certainly, in terms of a percentage of your income, comics are more expensive today. But we, especially children, have far more things to spend our money on. TV socked it to the Golden Age more than other commodity. Kids now had heroes visiting them at home, men and women who moved and came with sound and image, such as The Lone Ranger. Even more deadly to the comic book was animation – the cartoon that had been the feature before movies but now played out across TV sets.

So – the Golden Age is so because it glistened with gold of circulation numbers, of an American youth whose main preoccupation was reading Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (or Shazam! as he is known today). ‘Golden’ is a fair term to use for my enjoyment of them, but it isn’t fair to the creators of today who work hard, sometimes for no pay at all when they self-publish across the internet. And this gets to me. It makes me sad because there are stories out there that deserve recognition but aren’t getting the numbers.

My final comment is: BUY COMIC BOOKS. Don’t just read people’s reviews or sites such as mine; I’m not writing this blog as a substitute for you spending a few dollars or pounds on this stuff. It is easy to substitute unnecessary expenditure elsewhere to buy comics you like. Such as, I don’t buy fashion magazines anymore – they cost £4.00 a pop and merely seek to tell me that I must be a size zero and six-foot tall in order to enjoy any kind of quality of life. I’m not saying that Wonder Woman’s physique is any less attainable, but at least she punches hard; a talent that I am pretty sure I can aspire to.

Buy comics. Keep comics alive. Let’s recognize the potential of our time. Let us make our age The Platinum Age.

Notes and further reading

I am not the only person to take these Age criteria to task. People who research comic books create their own terms, descriptions and criteria to lend usefulness and some truth to the things they study. A good example of this is to be found in The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith.