Silver Age of Comic Books
In the mid-1950s, following the popularity of TV series The Adventures of Superman, publishers experimented with the superhero once more. Showcase #4 (National, 1956) introduced the rebooted hero The Flash, which began a second wave of superhero popularity known as the Silver Age of comic books. National expanded its line of superheroes over the next six years, introducing new versions of Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman and others.
In 1961 writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. In a landmark that changed the industry, The Fantastic Four #1 initiated a naturalistic style of superheroes with human failings, fears, and inner demons, who squabbled and worried about the likes of rent money. In contrast to the super heroic do-gooder archetypes of established superheroes at the time, this ushered a revolution. With dynamic artwork by Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and others complementing Lee's colorful, catchy prose, the new style found an audience among children (who loved the superheroes) and college students (who were entertained by the deeper themes). Marvel was initially restricted in the number of titles it could produce in that its books were distributed by rival National, a situation not alleviated until the late 1960s. This inhibited the introduction of a Lee/Ditko character, first to surpass Superman in sales since writer Bill Parker and artist Clarence "C.C." Beck's original Captain Marvel, Spider-Man.
National (colloquially called DC Comics by this time), Marvel, and Archie were the major players in the 1960s. Other notable companies included the American Comics Group (ACG), the low-budget Charlton, where many professionals such as Dick Giordano got their start; Dell; Gold Key; Harvey Comics, home of the Harvey cartoon characters (Casper the Friendly Ghost) and non-animated others (Richie Rich); and Tower, best-known for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a surge of underground comics occurred. These comics were published independently of the established comic book publishers and most reflected the youth counterculture and drug culture of the time. Many were notable for their uninhibited, irreverent style, which hadn't been seen in comics before. The movement is often considered to have been started by R. Crumb's publication of Zap Comix #1 in 1968, though there were antecedents such as pornographic "Tijuana bibles", dating to the 1920s, and Frank Stack's The Adventures of Jesus, published in 1962.
Although many of the underground artists continued to produce work, the underground comix movement is considered by most historians to have ended by 1980, to be replaced by a rise in independent, non-Comics Code compliant publishing companies in the 1980s and the resulting increase in acceptance of adult-oriented comic books.
Bronze Age of Comic Books
Historians and fans use the term Bronze Age to describe the period of American mainstream comics history that begins with a period of concentrated changes to comic books circa 1970. Unlike the Golden/Silver Age transition, the Silver/Bronze transition involved many continually published books, making the transition less sharp; not every book can be said to have entered the Bronze Age at the same time.
Changes commonly considered to mark the transition between Silver and Bronze ages include:
· A reshuffling of popular creators, including the retirement of Mort Weisinger, editor of the Superman books, and the movement of Jack Kirby to DC.
· A boom in non-superhero and borderline superhero comics such as Conan the Barbarian, Tomb of Dracula, Kamandi, Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, and the revived Doctor Strange.
· "Relevant" comics which attempted to address serious social issues, such as the Spider-Man drug abuse issues and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series.
· The Comics Code Authority's first update, in 1971.
· Revamping of several popular characters, including a "darker" Batman closer to the original 1930s conception, several changes to Superman such as the disappearance of Kryptonite, and a temporary non-powered era for Wonder Woman.
· The death of major characters such as Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy, the Doom Patrol, and several members of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
The Modern Age
The development of a non-returnable "direct market" distribution system in the 1970s coincided with the appearance of comic book specialty stores across North America. These specialty stores were a haven for more distinct voices and stories, but they also marginalized comics in the public eye. Serialized comic stories became longer and more complex, requiring readers to buy more issues to finish a story. Between 1970 and 1990, comic book prices rose sharply because of a combination of factors: a nationwide paper shortage, increasing production values, and the minimal profit incentive for stores to stock comic books (due to the small unit price of an individual comic book relative to a magazine). These factors are often pointed to when considering the decline in comic book popularity in America.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, two comic book series published by DC Comics (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) had a profound impact upon the American comic book industry. The phenomenal popularity of these series led both of the major publishers (DC and Marvel) to change the content of their titles to a more realistic, "darker" tone, often derisively termed "grim-and-gritty". This change was underscored by the growing popularity of anti-heroes such as the Punisher, and Wolverine, as well as the darker tone of some independent publishers such as First Comics and Dark Horse Comics. For a period of several years the pages of mainstream comics were filled with brooding mutants and "dark avengers". This tendency towards darkness and nihilism was also manifested in DC's production of heavily promoted comic book stories such as "A Death in the Family" in the Batman series (in which Batman's sidekick Robin was brutally murdered by The Joker), while at Marvel, the continuing popularity of the various X-Men books led to storylines such as "Mutant Massacre" and "Acts of Vengeance."
Though a speculator boom in the early 1990s temporarily increased specialty store sales—collectors "invested" in multiple copies of a single comic to sell at a profit later—these booms ended in a collectibles glut, and comic sales declined sharply in the mid-1990s, leading to the demise of many hundreds of stores. (See comic book collecting for a more detailed look at the speculator boom.) Today fewer comics sell in North America than at any time in their publishing history. Though the large superhero-oriented publishers like Marvel and DC are still often referred to as the "mainstream" of comics, they are no longer a mass medium in the same sense as in previous decades. In recent years, several movies based of Marvel and DC characters have been released and publishing of several cross over events in the DC and Marvel Universe, such as Identity Crisis and Civil War, and the death of Captain America, which receive widespread media coverage, comic books have receive more mainstream interest and attention.
Prestige format comic books are typically longer than standard comic books, typically being of between 48 and 72 pages, and printed on glossy paper with a spine and card stock cover. The format was first used by DC on Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The success of this work led to the establishment of the format, and it is now used generally to showcase works by big name creators or to spotlight significant storylines.
These storylines can be serialised over a limited number of issues, or can be standalone. Standalone works published in the form, such as Batman: The Killing Joke, are sometimes referred to either as graphic novels or novellas.
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