Friday, March 13, 2015

The Silicon Age Theory

Has time sped up?

In the previous century there developed a fairly stable pattern to the DCU.  It wasn’t pre-planned but occurred as a natural outgrowth to the rhythms of society.  Roughly every 15 years, as generation of childhood readers “aged out” of comics’ readership, the DCU would be rebooted.

It wasn’t ever put that way, and there were always other ostensible reasons for the change.  The Silver Age started “when it was time to bring superheroes back” after their popularity fell during the post-War/Wertham  years. The Bronze Age started when “a more serious world needed less frivolous superheroes, ones more quote unquote relevant”.  The Iron Age started when “the DCU became too complicated for new readers”.  The subsequent Age (more on that later) started when “people wanted a brighter, larger universe”.  

Perhaps.  But more generally, DC comics move from one “Age” to another when:

  • the initial readership for the current Age has suffered enough attrition  to make a change a worthwhile or necessary risk; and/or
  • the zeitgeist has changed sufficiently that it demands a change in tone that’s difficult to accomplish in the current age.

In the Golden Age, heroes and villains shot and maimed and killed in Dick Tracy world of bright colored and wide-eyed corpses. Corpses EVERYWHERE, stinking up the streets like ginko fruit in the District of Columbia.  The Depression/War years were not for the squeamish, either in the real life or the comics.

Remember, kids; Captain Marvel fought zombies before your parents were born.

In the Silver Age, people had had enough of all that unpleasantness, and DC’s heroes and villains obligingly put down their guns and engaged in elaborate games of wits, one-up-manship, and thematic tomfoolery with an expanded cast of pets, pals, and gadgetry.  

Green Arrow and Speedy collect their wits? Jeez, how long IS this story?!

In the Bronze Age, faced with social unrest and societal self-doubt, readers found that all that ridiculous, so heroes and villains became relevant, disagreeable, and fallible.  Green Arrow’s heyday, for obvious reasons.

All sympathy, Bronze Age Batman lets you stay unconscious on the first date.

As a result, readers headed toward the Iron Age with a bunch of crabby, crappy heroes (I’m looking at you, Stupid Bronze Age Batman) who lived in a bizarre Silver Age wonderland of weirdness, and the tension between the two had grown laughable.  The time had come to clear the board completely, and the Iron Age eliminated all the previous piled up continuity for a total restart.  Except for Batman, really. Because he’s Batman.

But since then, readers have been hit with repeated reboots of the DCU. In DC’s first 47 years, it had, essentially two reboots; in the last 30 years it’s had at least five (depending on how you count them).  

Is time –and our comic book media cycle--speeding up?  Are reboots coming more frequently because readership is smaller and more volatile? Are attention spans shorter?  Has DC simply become addicted to reboots because, like a rat pushing a lever, they get the delicious cheese of a sales bump each time they do it? Are they just screwing up reboots because they've lost the ancient art of doing so correctly and comprehensively?

Well… all of those are true to at least some degree, no question.  And it does look bad if you look at it this way, assuming that each reboot heralds a new age:

But I currently look at it a different way.  One that is enabled by no longer equating a ‘reboot’ with a change of Age.  The shift from the Silver to the Bronze Age was dramatic; very dramatic.  But, technically, there was no ‘reboot’ (as they are now called) between the two.  In fact, though this will defy the expectations of many, I would make the case that, despite the huge change between the Golden and Silver Ages, there was no reboot between them either.  Yes, we got a new Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman; but they had all been discontinued for some time.  The characters that were still in print (Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow) pretty much continued their adventures without much of a hiccough. Were there a lot more gorillas and aliens on their dance cards? Of course.  But there was no clear break or repudiation with the past.  

If you think of it that way then the only changes of Age that really coincide with a reboot is pre/post-Crisis (from multiverse to universe) and pre/post-Infinite Crisis (from universe to multiverse).  The other ‘reboots’ are just continuity jiggering. And a lot of that is of the kind that used to be done without renumbering and fanfare (a new costume, a new status quo, a new city or supporting cast, or casually just forgetting stories that don’t fit any more).  This used to be done all the time (either out of necessity or apathy) and during the Hypertime period DC came out and said as much.  The DCU, they posited, was a Heraclitean river; you can’t step into the same version of it twice.  

I submit that the ‘real’ history of the DCU looks like this:

We are now approaching the second furniture-shuffling-style 'reboot' of what I now call the Silicon Age (characterized by the return of the multiverse and the rise of digital comics and superhero cinema) ... pretty much right on schedule.  I predict it will last for another 7 years, when the next real change of Age will come and comics will start to be written by and for people who don't remember a time before the internet.


John said...

A couple of monkey-wrenches to throw into your works...just for the heck of it!

First, a lot of the reboots also track changes in regulation. The Comics Code was launched in 1954, revised in 1970, and I believe almost completely abandoned around 2000. I don't think it's a coincidence that the tone of comics shifted around those years.

Second, don't forget the pre-Bronze mini-Age, the couple years of blueprint material that got discarded or sloughed off onto minor characters. You've mentioned Liberal-Batman, who I suspect would have "absorbed" Man-Bat and worked with Batgirl. There's obviously urban-avenging Green Lantern, no-more-kryptonite Superman, depowered Wonder Woman, the Man(hunter) from UNCLE, and exiled, power-losing Aquaman whose abandoned status quo was teased in non-DC books. And...nothing ever really happened in the Flash. I suspect that's what the Bronze Age was "supposed to be," eventually retconned to have always been that way, had creative teams not returned to business-as-usual soon after.

Likewise, the Iron Age never really finished rebooting. Green Lantern, Wonder Girl, Power Girl, Nightwing, the Titans, and Hawkman all realized years later that they didn't fit the universe as conceived. Every fix pulled another thread in the tapestry, until the likes of Jurgens, Waid, and Morrison each tried pretending it was intentional all along.

And lastly, there's another way I like to look at comic book Ages: Thematic tone. In fifteen-ish year cycles, you have the celebration of anti-corruption, the status quo, humanism, self-centeredness, and family. The seating charts often change approximately in time with those beats, but not always, and never for the books that are selling. The tension between sales and continuity explains Superman and Batman coasting into the Silver Age, the Titans riding out Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Green Lantern and Batman opting out of Flashpoint changes. And as mentioned, they're usually the excuse for the next round of Musical Chairs.

In fact, I can't find the issue, but in the early '80s, Marv Wolfman took an opportunity to rant like a Marv Wolfman supervillain about "canon" in the DCU and how someone should sit down and fix it all, because some letter-writer asked why Hal introduced himself to Binky and His Buddies when they met in some earlier issue. Wolfman was adamant that Binky shouldn't be a part of the DCU at all, because he was too unrealistic.

Seriously. Teenagers cracking lame jokes are less realistic than space-cops with magic rings, therefore we reboot the universe without non-costumed teenagers...

I think that's all to say that I mostly agree, especially about Green Arrow and Speedy collecting their wits.

Scipio said...


"a lot of the reboots also track changes in regulation. The Comics Code was launched in 1954, revised in 1970, and I believe almost completely abandoned around 2000. I don't think it's a coincidence that the tone of comics shifted around those years."

I would lump that in with "changing zeitgeist".

r duncan said...

I'm thinking Osmium Age. Or maybe Bromine.

Anonymous said...

Heh, I'm thinking of the ancient Jewish custom of Jubilee, where every seven years, all debts are wiped clean. Comics need something similar to shake out bad continuity. Everyone agrees that (for example) Wonder Woman's bicycle shorts era was a bad idea? Then we agree never to speak of it again. Every single version of Green Arrow in the nu52? Gone, in favor of grumpy ol' big-hearted Ollie Queen. How about mixed-race criminally-inclined Wally West? No idea what you're talking about, here's Wally with the big shock of red hair that is his distinguishing feature.

Just quietly prune the missteps and move forward with what seems to work. Don't get crushed under continuity; use continuity for constructive purposes.

Scipio said...

I LIKED her biker shorts.

Bryan L said...

I've always liked the idea of selective continuity, Anonymous. If something doesn't work, just forget it. However, we can never all agree on what doesn't work, much like you and Scipio on Wonder Woman's bicycle shorts.

The other thing that intrigues me is John's comment about non-rebooted characters providing the excuse for the next reboot. It's almost like continuities don't want to fade away, so they hide little timebombs in their successor continuities, ensuring that they'll eventually be blown up, too. Or maybe they're eggs that finally hatch into a new continuity, eating the old husk from the inside like an alien facehugger. Or messages hidden away for comic readers to draw them back into the Lovecraftian embrace of the old continuity ...

Oh, God, I think I'm starting to understand Grant Morrison.

Anonymous said...

Good points.

FWIW, I can live with the biker shorts; they were the only part of the costume that wasn't terrible. I was mostly using synecdoche to speak of the entire costume. The bicycle shorts could work just fine with a different ensemble.

John said...

Fair enough, zeitgeist-wise, Scipio. I just find it interesting that it's so close and Marvel was busily trying to reboot their major heroes at the same time.

Anonymous, the way I always dealt with it was to treat continuity as personal. Used to be, stories would mostly fall off the radar, anyway. Today, that's harder, because writers have turned collector, carding and polybagging every lame idea in hopes that it'll be worth something, some day, so it's impossible to ignore OMAC or Seven Soldiers or Harley Quinn's every last bowel movement.

Bryan, I always liked the idea that the DCU just hates being continuous after spending so many years with the likes of Bob Haney, so it hangs on to a few characters to spring when the writers get pushy. "Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah? Donna Troy is older than Diana Prince!" Then there's a collective gasp from the writers and Roy Thomas stands in the background getting the vapors.

I may have put too much thought into that, however. I do like the egg idea, each continuity using its remaining market share to spite the next. Maybe the reboots are accelerating, because the continuities are learning how to do this more effectively...

SallyP said...

Is there an "All of the above" button? Let's face it, Comics have always been...weird, but they seem to be getting weirder.

I think the thing that annoys me the most is that they are getting so damned serious, as in taking themselves too seriously. There is no wit, enthusiasm, or tongue-in-cheekery least not much.

When the "heroes" have become more violent and bloodthirsty than the villains, then something is wrong.

John said...

Sally, that's something that's been worrying me since the '80s, when I first started hearing "comics aren't just for kids" and the hand-wringing over people not taking "the art form" seriously.

That gave us Frank Miller and then Image everything from the big companies is so obsessively self-conscious and adolescently "deep," even when it's supposed to be comedic.

It's a shame, especially considering that comics sold far better before they started taking themselves so seriously.

Nathan Hall said...

See, if you live in a universe where characters constantly die and come back to life, doesn't it make sense that the universe, itself, can die and come back?

The result: There's really no consequence to anything in the DC Universe. Lose a friend? He'll be back in a year or so. Fail to save the world? Wait for the next reboot and everything will be fixed.

When you think about it, the whole thing renders superheroes irrelevant. What's so great about being super-strong when the fabric of time and space is so flexible?

Bryan L said...

Huh. That's a different perspective, Nathan. Maybe instead of evolving, comic continuities revert to status quo, resisting changes like organisms fighting infections. Or rather, continuity is inertia, and tends to reassert itself when the "reboots" run out of energy. The continuity comes back to rest in the same "rut," as it were.

Which really implies that instead of fighting it and trying to force change on a system that's inherently resistant to change, publishers should find ways to embrace it.

Nathan Hall said...

Exactly, Brian L. Consider how many times Hercules has been rebooted. He had his team adventures with the Argonauts, his dark period when he threw Megara into the fire and redemption cycle with the labors. He got rebooted many times in Ancient Greece, then rebooted again with Roman values, rebooted as a Christian allegory in Medieval times, rebooted as a return to his roots in the Renaissance, and last year there were two movies about him (let's skip the "Arnold Strong" and Kevin Sorbo series). Each time he reappeared he had the new values of a different time and different values, yet the name, powers, parents, and back stories remained the same.

If the son of a god can't fight reboots, what hope do the mere mortals in charge of comic book companies have?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
CobraMisfit said...

"I think the thing that annoys me the most is that they are getting so damned serious, as in taking themselves too seriously. There is no wit, enthusiasm, or tongue-in-cheekery least not much."

Sally for the win.

Seriously, out of all the comics that show up in the pull-box each month, it seems Rocket Racoon is the only one that seems to be having any fun.

And that's Marvel.


Daniel P said...

I think it's appropo to link the current era of comics to the movies... because today's comics are basically made FOR the movies.

It's clear by the actions of publishers that comics today pretty much exist as a tryout for a movie pitch. Fewer and fewer comics are being made AS comics FOR the comic readers. Marvel and DC no longer care about the comic reader at all--except as fools who willingly pay to be guinea pigs for all the crap being slung against the walls ("let's keep revamping Ms. Marvel until some movie studio takes an interest...")

I think Marvel's handling of the FF alone proves my point.

While it's the publishers' prerogative to run their business as they wish, the current publishing climate has all but turned me off of new comics. I want a comic that wants to BE a comic. I'm not paying for anymore pitches...

Daniel P said...

The Silver-to-Bronze change was not a reboot of any kind. It was a change in tone, but the continuity remained a single linear thread from one to the other.

Batman didn't "become" liberal. Schwartz was putting compassion into the character (I hope compassion isn't a partisan issue). "Victims, Inc" was an extension of Batman's mission--from merely enforcing laws/stopping crime to helping innocent victims after their trauma. I very much enjoyed that era of Batman because he CARED. (I don't think Miller's Batman cares about anything but getting revenge for his childhood trauma by using today's criminals as proxies. I don't have much sympathy for Miller's Batman; he just needs a shrink.)

More than that, I loved Robin becoming the "Teen Wonder" (the only version I can stand) and moving out. Batman should be a solo hero most of the time. Endangering children isn't exactly heroic---not once writers and artists tried making the stories 'realistic.'

I like the Superman change the most. It didn't break continuity because the changes were done in-story. Plus, all I want to read was Superman doing super-stuff. I was sick to death of all the "Superman Family" drama eating up those 60s stories. Don't care about the 60s Lois or Jimmy or the rest. Schwartz disentangled Supes from 90% of the lameness of the 50s/60s. (Sadly, these changes faded, and a lot of the 70s stories were lame themselves, utterly forgettable. But I still appreciate the change in focus.)

The DC Bronze Age should honestly be called the O'Neil-Adams Age. It's O'Neil's 'relevance' stories and Adams' realistic art that pushed DC to 'grow up' their comics a la Marvel-style.