Friday, July 11, 2014

Re-thinking the Copper Age of comics

Growing up reading comics in the 80’s, I have a very well rounded point of view of the comics of that time, so when I heard that people wanted to group early 70’s comics with comics from the early to mid 80’s in what would be called 'the Bronze Age of comics', something rang very false to me. It made me stop and consider the whole ‘Bronze Age of comics’ because to me 80's comics were a very different animal to comics of the 70's.

Copper Age of Comics

1978 to 1988

Some significant comics from the 80's from upper left to bottom right - Daredevil #181, Apr 82, Watchmen #1, Sep 86, American Flagg #1, Oct 83, Tales of the Teen Titans annual #3, July 84, Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, May 84, Amazing Spider-Man #250, Mar 84, Batman; the Dark Knight Returns #1, Feb 86, the Mighty Thor #237, Nov 83, Swamp Thing #34, Mar 85

What does the trend in horror comics or genera comics of the early 70's have to do with the superheroes of the 80's? We didn't have horror comics in the 80's. We had superheroes and anti-heroes. We had super teams and company wide crossovers. What did that have in common with the Tombs of Dracula, the Ghost Riders or the Masters of Kung Fu?

Comics of the horror trend of the early 70's from left to right and up to down, Marvel Spotlight #5, Apr 72, Tomb of Dracula #1, Apr 72, Swamp Thing #1, Dec 73, Phantom Stranger #6, Apr 70

Some great examples of popular genre comics of the 70's like Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, #1, June 72, Special  Marvel Edition featuring Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu #15, Dec 73, Richard Dragon, King Fu Fighter #1, May 75, Conan  the Barbarian #1, Oct 70
Some people say that Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, Apr 70 was the beginning of the Bronze Age while the Watchmen was the end. This rings so false for me. Why is this work from O'Neil/Adams considered the beginning of the Bronze Age and not their work on Brave and the Bold or Adams work on Strange Adventures or the Spectre? It was very different and new but it didn't really start any kind of trend or movement in comics. It didn't even sell that well.
For me the 80’s had a certain definite flavor different from anything that came before or after it. There was some kind of naïve optimism in the books of the 80’s that didn’t exist at any other time and a familiarity with the heroes or genre that was not there before. When I think of the 80’s comics, one comic that exemplifies it for me is West Coast Avengers vol. #1.

Marvel decided to expand the Avengers franchise with West Coast Avengers vol 1, #1, Sep 1984 by Roger Stern and Bob Hall. It features a second team of Avengers utilizing many less popular characters but equally interesting to the main team, members like War Machine (African/American Jim Rhodes in Iron Man armor), Wonder Man, Hawkeye, and his wife Mockingbird.
For me it exemplifies this familiarity with all of the heroes and who they are in and out of costume, and a willingness for the creators to mix things up and try new things. We all know who Clint Barton is or Natasha Romanoff or Simon Williams. We've been reading about them for years, so to read a comic about their personal life as well as their heroic exploits isn't such a stretch. You see the same thing in the Teen Titans and the X-Men. They would have a family of members Past and present who would pop in to visit regularly like old friends and relatives. This familiarity with the characters made events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths possible because they didn't have to spend so much time on defining who the characters were because we already knew them and they could go strait to the heart of the plot. You could fit many more characters in because you could skip the prerequisite introduction.

Two big company wide cross-overs happened in the early 80's that would influence the industry to this day. The Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) by Marv Wolfman and George Perez and Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars (1984) by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck. These company wide maxi series would become an annual event beginning in the mid to late 80's and continue to this day.
Alan Moore and Frank Miller took off from this point of familiarization and brought it one step further where they would push the boundaries of what was addressed in comics. Miller would kill off a major character and deconstruct the life of Matt Murdock in his work on Daredevil while Moore would dissect and expand on who and what the Swamp Thing, Superman and the Joker really were.

Two of the biggest names in 80's comics made hugely influential works that redefined how superheroes were portrayed. works like Daredevil; Born Again (1986) by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli and Superman; What Ever happened to the Man  of Tomorrow? By Alan Moore, George Perez and Curt Swan set a new standard for superhero comics that is still being felt.

When did the copper age begin?

Claremont’s writing on the X-men was probably the start of the 80’s style comics. He brought a very strong sense of character to his comics. No longer were you reading about the exploits of the costumed character named Wolverine. Now he was Logan, a guy who sometimes would don a code name and costume though they weren't always necessary.

People were so familiar with Logan and Kitty that they don't even feel the need to show them in their costumes on the cover of the Uncanny X-Men 141, Jan 1981, The first part of Days of Futures Past by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Chris Claremont started writing the X-Men in 1975 though John Byrne, Claremont’s famous co-creator, wouldn’t join him till Dec. 1977.
Another big early marker of the comics of the 80’s was Marv Wolfman/ George Perez' New Teen Titans, started in November of 1980.

The New Teen Titans had a super strong cast of characters exemplified by the ultra touching, "Who is Donna Troy?" story line of the New Teen Titans #38, Jan 84 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez where Donna Troy, Wonder Girl, looked for clues to her childhood and who she was.
What about the quintessential 80’s creator, Frank Miller? When did he start his run on Daredevil? He started drawing it in May 1979 but started his critically acclaimed run of writing Daredevil as well as drawing it in January 1981.

Frank Miller started out writing and penciling his run of Daredevil with Daredevil #168, Jan 81, by Miller/Janson, the super strong story of Electra, an unrequited love of Matt Murdock's, now a rival, told retroactively from his carefree college days. Electra would go on to become one of Marvel's most popular characters and have multiple series of her own.
So what we’re seeing is that much of what exemplifies the 80’s style comics started in the late 70’s or early 80’s while many of the most popular comics of the 70's were dying or dead, comics like Master of Kung Fu, Power Man, Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider.

So if we had to choose a marker that defined the beginning of the 80's, Copper Age comics, what would it be?

Surprisingly we don’t have to fabricate one because there are a few really good markers already in place. 1978 was a big upheaval for the comics industry. It was the year that DC Comics canceled dozens of it’s titles, which has been affectionately called the DC Implosion.

After DC canceled dozens of it's titles, it released a few black and white copies of what they called Canceled Comic Cavalcade containing the work of the canceled comics in order to keep the copy rights to the works. Some of those works were brand new, unpublished series like the Vixen, DC's first black shuperheroine to have her own title.
1978 is also the year that Jim Shooter became the editor and chief at Marvel and held the position throughout the 80's until 1987 helping to shape the comics of that era. In 1978 sales were down and the industry was going through a fundamental upheaval and Marvel was changing their tactics to compete by doing things like publishing intellectual properties like Star Wars which Shooter had claimed saved Marvel from going under. This trend to publish intellectual properties such as movies and toys continued on throughout the 80's. In fact Dark Horse Comics still uses it to this day.

By Marvel taking the initiative to publish a comic adaption of the movie Star Wars, Shooter has said that it saved Marvel Comics from going under. Star Wars #1, July 1977
Interestingly, 1978 also marks the very beginning of another great 80’s phenomenon, Independent Comics. This was the year that both Dave Sim of Cerebus the Aardvark fame and Wendy and Richard Pini of Elf Quest fame started regularly publishing their books. They were the forerunners of a booming movement of the 80's that would encompass hugely popular books like the Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtles and Love and Rockets and multiple independent comics companies like Pacific, Eclipse, Fantagraphics, First Comics and Dark Horse Comics.

Though not the first, Cerebus the Aardvark and Elf Quest were two of the very early and  most successful independent comics that came out regularly in the late 70's. Cerebus was so popular that it managed to be produced monthly for 300 issues and 26 years, finally ending in 2004!

So if I had to designate a beginning for the 80’s 'Copper Age' of comics it would be 1978, exactly 40 years after Action Comics #1, the comic that started it all. I would mark the end of the Copper Age with the end of Watchmen, basically the end of Moore’s involvement with DC Comics in Oct 1987. This is also the year that Jim Shooter left Marvel. This 10 year span of the age makes much more sense than the previously suggested 15 year span because in the 10 year span you can see a trend begin, grow and resolve itself in that time, while the 15 year span that is defined as the Bronze Age is much more arbitrary, not necessarily beginning any trend or ending any other trend.
Watchmen #12, Oct. 87, marks the end of Moore's involvement with DC. The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta were published later though it was the misleading deal that DC Comics made with Moore/Gibbons on the Watchmen that pushed Moore away from working with DC and into working for independent comics companies. Other big creators like Miller, John Byrne and Howard Chakin also caught the 'independent comics bug' of the time and moved over to independent comics companies like Dark Horse, Tundra and Image Comics.
If you imagine that a comic age lasts 10 years beginning with Action Comics #1, 1938 the comic ages seem to make much more sense. Though these things are very far from precise, there are some things are too obvious to ignore. If we use common sense and look at things with a very wide angle lens, we can discover trends that better reflect the spirit of their times and ages of their comics.


  1. Great article! (Technically Cerebus started December 1977 and not 1978, but close enough:))

  2. BTW: Superboy (1949) -> Superboy & LSH (Sept 1977) -> LSH (Jan 1980)

  3. comic books are great for today's generation. People like unique thing and creativity. So keep it up. Comic Books in Nigeria