ASK AN EXPERT: Ricky Sprague (Getting to Know the World of Comic Books)

Ricky Sprague is a prolific writer, cartoonist, and animator, whose short films have appeared at festivals all over the world. He’s the author of the novels Whimsical Doctor Shoe, Arsole Fantüme: Gentleman Immoralist, and the webcomic Senator Surprise. He gives us the low-down on the world of comic books.

Q: Can you explain the difference between the Bronze Age of Comics and the Silver Age and all the different Ages?

A: The different ages are basically just measurements of time during which comics were published. I’ll try to give an overview that will reflect some consensus thinking and my own maybe idiosyncratic ideas (haha).

There were a couple of newspaper insert collections of comics that appeared in the late 1920s /early 1930s, but the first “comic book” was a newspaper comics reprint magazine called FAMOUS FUNNIES: A CARNIVAL OF COMICS, which appeared in 1933. The following year, a FAMOUS FUNNIES ongoing series appeared, featuring material reprinted from newspaper comics.

But FAMOUS FUNNIES and its imitators were just the precursor—it’s generally accepted that the Golden Age actually began with the publication of ACTION COMICS #1, which of course was the first appearance of Superman. There was only so much newspaper comic material to go around, and so publishers started looking for “original” stuff from studios, offering really low page rates for what was considered to be ephemera aimed at children.

In the previous paragraph I put the word “original” in sneer quotes, which is kind of unfair, but: The comics that were produced in these early days of the industry were basically rehashes and reboots and outright plagiarism of stuff that had been appearing in pulp magazines beginning in the 1890s (which themselves borrowed heavily from penny dreadfuls and so on back to cave drawings I guess). For instance, Superman was cobbled together from pieces of Doc Savage (who was billed as “The Man of Bronze” as opposed to “The Man of Steel”) and a novel called GLADIATOR by author Philip Wylie. The creation of Batman borders on scandalous: when you get into all of the various characters and concepts that Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and the rest of Kane’s studio plundered, you begin to understand just how much the creators were taking from others.

Golden Age stories were driven very much by plot, as opposed to characterization. The need to churn out material as quickly as possible led to a lot of “one-damn- thing-after- another” stories, in which concepts are introduced and discarded in a few panels just to keep the story moving. Generally, stories would run around 10-12 pages, with 8 or 9 panels a page, and were usually self-contained, because there was no conception of a collector’s market or fandom. Most readers were kids who outgrew the comics after a few years. When America became involved in WWII, comics were sent off to soldiers and circulation of many comics exploded. During WWII there were also government-sponsored paper recycling drives, which led to those somewhat depressing ads within the comics themselves—encouraging readers to take their comics in to be pulped!

The one-damn- thing-after- another storytelling style meant that the comics closely reflected the attitudes of the creators. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America were all New Deal Democrats who often openly advocated for Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. In his autobiographical book THE COMIC BOOK MAKERS, Joe Simon says that he and Jack Kirby were inspired to create Captain America in part because they wanted to cash in on FDR’s pro-war propaganda, and make fun of Hitler.

The popularity of comics in America probably peaked during WWII, at least in terms of sales. There were multiple comics selling over a million copies each, and some comics sold as many as 5 million copies. But after WWII there was a bit of a crash as sales dropped off, and comics were again seen as primarily a children’s art form. Superhero comics sales really fell, while other genres like westerns, romance and perhaps most famously horror and crime, tried to pick up the slack.

National Publications, which is now DC, continued publishing Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, and sales of those comics were fairly healthy but not nearly what they wanted. So and editor called Julius Schwartz decided to reboot or reimagine several Golden Age heroes,including Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, and most notably, the Flash. SHOWCASE issue 4, cover dated October 1956, is generally considered the start of the Silver Age of comics.

You’ll probably note that the beginnings of the first two comics “Ages” are marked by plundering material that came before, and the Silver Age actually started by rebooting material that was itself heavily influenced by concepts and characters from the pulps. There’s really nothing new under the sun!

Schwartz had started his career co-publishing a SF fanzine in the early 1930s. From there he started a literary agency in which he represented SF, fantasy, and horror writers, an eventually became an editor. Another co-publisher of Schwartz’s fanzine, Mort Weisinger, would also become an editor at National Publications, and was in charge of the Superman line throughout most of the Silver Age. These two went a long way toward shaping the comics field, and both were heavily influenced by the pulps.

They were also heavily influenced by the publication of and reaction to a book called SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, by a psychiatrist called Fredric Wertham. We know now that a lot of Wertham’s research was at best highly questionable and at worst outright faked, but at the time (1954), his connecting of comic books to juvenile delinquency caused a major upheaval in the comics industry and led to televised hearings during which federal lawmakers attacked comic books and their creators. Publishers, fearing government censorship, created something called The Comics Code Authority, which instituted a lot of strange limitations on what subjects comics could cover, and how they could cover them.

(Another reason for it’s creation was to neuter EC Comics, which had achieved a great deal of success in publishing horror titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and crime titles like CRIME SUSPENSTORIES, the cover of issue 22 of which showed a woman’s severed head and a hatchet dripping blood. Other publishers were threatened by EC’s success and wanted to create a set of rules designed to eliminate its most popular titles. EC eventually dropped its comics line but turned its humor comic MAD into a magazine which meant it could bypass the Comics Code and is happily still being published to this day.)

With the Comics Code in place, a much more innocuous and “innocent” storytelling style reigned. Those stories were also downright surreal—and in retrospect were actually among the most intriguing mainstream comics ever published. This was the era of Jimmy Olsen switching bodies with apes, for instance.

Then in 1961 Atlas Comics became Marvel, and started their shift from giant monster books to superheroes, beginning with FANTASTIC FOUR #1. These comics reflected the attitude of Stan Lee, who wanted his characters to be less aspirational and more relatable. Compared to the Justice League, the members of the Fantastic Four were argumentative, moody, and even abrasive. Marvel characters didn’t necessarily view their super powers as gifts, but rather as burdens that created all new responsibilities they didn’t want. For instance, Spider-Man’s moodiness and self-doubt occasionally bordered on absurd self-parody. Then there was the Hulk, who turned into an uncontrollable monster who occasionally and often accidentally turned out to be a hero.

Another of Lee’s innovations was introducing continuity to mainstream comics. Schwartz and Weisinger maintained the attitude that comics readers probably hadn’t read any previous issues of any given title—or if they had, they’d forgotten what had happened and had thrown the issues away. At Marvel, storylines might go on for multiple issues, and even if they didn’t, events in previous issues impacted what would come later. There was an illusion of character development in them.

It was in the later years of the Silver Age that fans of Golden and Bronze Age comics began getting jobs writing and illustrating the comics. And what do you think these fans wanted to do
with these characters? Celebrate the stories and concepts they’d enjoyed as children. So the Bronze Age started around 1970 or so. This was around the time that Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC to start his Fourth World series. Mort Weisinger retired and Julius Schwartz had a lot more power at DC, and he saw what was happening at Marvel and decided to try to mimic what they were doing. DC started publishing the GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW comics written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams. These stories, which are horribly dated now, directly addressed serious social issues from a liberal/progressive perspective.

In the early 1960s, Stan Lee had introduced a sort of soft liberal/tolerance/let’s-all- get-along- we’re-all- the-same attitude that was ultimately non-controversial. This laid a foundation for the more overt politics of the Bronze Age, where Captain America took on Richard Nixon and the Justice League took on environmental causes, for example. But as we’ve already noted—this stuff was already done in the Golden Age. The Bronze Age just revived/rebooted another aspect of the Golden Age.

So, another comic book era starts with a rebooting/reimagining of what’s come before!

Some of these more overtly political/personal stories and concepts work better than others. O’Neil’s GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW stuff is pretty hit and miss I think. His and Adams’s Batman, which returned the character to his darker conception, is a lot of fun. His and Mike Sekowsky’s rebooting of Wonder Woman as a de-powered Emma Peel-type character with a Chinese mentor called I Ching is downright embarrassing. Mike Friedrich’s run on JUSTICE LEAGUE is preachy and strange—and it led to what might be the most unintentionally hilarious comic ever published by a mainstream publisher, JUSTICE LEAGUE #89, which is basically a mash note to Harlan Ellison.

Then there’s stuff like Steve Gerber’s intensely personal HOWARD THE DUCK series. Howard was essentially Gerber’s Mary Sue, pontificating on current events and pop culture with Gerber’s jaundiced attitude.

Perhaps the biggest event in the Bronze Age was the beginning of the movement toward greater recognition of the creators and more equitable pay arrangements. Neal Adams was one of the most instrumental figures in getting DC to begin paying a stipend to Superman’s original creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. At that time the two men were living in very diminished circumstances. Shuster, the artist, was actually going blind.

It’s astonishing to think of this now, but original comic art was purchased outright by publishers, and would be stored in very questionable conditions. Often it was just given away to kids who came to visit the publisher’s offices. But in the mid-70s the art really came to be recognized as the property of the artists involved in its creation, and the pay rates that the artists received entitled the publishers to its use in the publication of the comics—after which, the artwork would be returned to the creators.

Happening concurrently with this was the creation and passage of the Copyright Act of 1976. This helped creators of original conceptions of Superman and other Golden Age creations to gain greater control over their work, but it also helped to weaponize Intellectual Property laws in ways that we’re still dealing with and this is a rabbit hole that I probably don’t want to go down.

The attitude toward greater creator control helped feed the rise of independent publishers, and was the beginning of what became the direct market (comic book shops). Spirit creator Will Eisner published A CONTRACT WITH GOD, which was maybe the first official, self-contained original “graphic novel.” Wendy and Richard Pini published a very successful comics series called ELFQUEST, trade paperback collections of which were among the first to appear in bookstores. Dave Sim started CERBERUS, which began as a parody of Conan-style comics and stories but evolved into something much more personal and obscure. Jack Katz published a post-apocalyptic SF comic called THE FIRST KINGDOM.

THE FIRST KINGDOM sort of straddled the line between “mainstream” direct sales comics and underground comix, which was a general term applied to works created as a response to Comics Code restrictions, by artists who wanted to express highly personal visions that included a lot of references to sex, drugs, and violence. Some of those titles and creators managed to achieve widespread success, like Gilbert Shelton and his FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS, and Robert Crumb with ZAP COMIX, among others.

The popularity of underground comix was definitely noticed by the mainstream publishers. Marvel actually attempted to co-opt their success and notoriety, getting a handful of underground creators to contribute to a magazine that it published called COMIX BOOK. It didn’t last very long, but it was maybe the first book that Marvel published in which creators were contractually entitled to the return of their original artwork.

Toward the end of the 1970s, DC and Marvel started the process of shifting their focus away from newsstand sales of comics and toward the direct market. They would sell titles to comic book shops for about half the cover price; in exchange, the comic shops couldn’t return unsold copies.

This was radically different from the deals that distributors to newsstands, grocery stores, etc. received. They could return unsold copies, which meant that to sell 200,000 copies, DC and Marvel might print 300,000 copies.

This was probably around the beginning of the end of the Bronze Age of comics. What came next? Well, some call the next age the Modern Age, some call it the Copper Age… I don’t know that there’s any generally accepted name or start date for what came next. It seems that a lot of people think that whatever it was (let’s call it the Copper Age), it started either around the time of the publication of what I consider to be the worst comic book series of all time, DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (1985), or around the time of the publication of DC’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN (both 1986).

First, I’ll talk a little about CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, because I think it reflects so much of what’s wrong with modern comics. The author of that series, the immensely talented Marv Wolfman (who was one of seven people to serve as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief during the Bronze Age), pitched it as a way to “unify” DC’s seemingly disparate continuity. In the introduction that was published inside the front and back covers of the first issue, Wolfman explains that he was bothered by the fact that Aquaman’s Atlantis wasn’t the same as Lori Lemaris’s Atlantis (Lori Lemaris was Superman’s mermaid girlfriend, seriously). Wolfman wanted to discard all of DC’s alternate histories and parallel universes and create a single “reality” in which all of its stories would occur.

In other words, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was an attempt by creative people to limit creativity. This is an unfortunate hallmark of modern mainstream comics storytelling, which is set on unifying everything in one single universe while at the same time winking at the reader that this is all just a goof, that these stories and the superhero characters are inherently absurd and we have to recognize that fact.

CRISIS also failed miserably at creating a unified DC universe. It created so many problems that DC has been forced to “reboot” itself several times in order to fix continuity tangles that could have easily been explained away by alternate/”imaginary” history/stories. Let creators create—don’t put shackles on them! Don’t create comics self-consciously!

Self-consciousness was a hallmark of both WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. As well-done and interesting and rewarding as both these works are, they are also deconstructions of superhero tropes. It’s very difficult to present superheroes today with that deflating attitude creeping in, especially in comics that fall outside the “main continuity.”

So here we have a new age starting that wasn’t instigated a reboot of previous concepts—it was a DECONSTRUCTION of previous concepts! That is progress for the industry!

Another possible starting point for the Copper Age could be 1982, specifically the point at which Marvel moved two of its comics away from newsstand sales to exclusively direct market: MOON KNIGHT and KA-ZAR THE SAVAGE. This represented a serious shift in the industry, by focusing away from more casual readers who might pick up an issue here and there on a trip to the grocery store or newsstand, and focusing on more dedicated collectors who were willing to make a trip to a specific shop for the sole purpose of buying comics.

This meant that creators could—and did!—craft stories that were much more continuity-heavy, and relied on the readers’ knowledge of past events, as well as knowledge of what was happening in other titles that a company produced.

Marvel’s last EiC of the Bronze Age, a man called Jim Shooter (whose efficient approach would put an end to what was called “Dreaded Deadline Doom!”) had maintained the attitude that “every issue of every comic was someone’s first.” This meant that each issue, even if it was part of a larger ongoing story, would offer a means for a new reader to “catch up” on the storyline while they were reading. The rise of the direct market, along with the packaging of storylines in trade paperback collections (for instance, Marvel collected the X-MEN issues 129-137 as THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA in 1984), meant that this axiom was becoming less and less true.

Another advantage that the direct market had over newsstands was that the business model allowed publishers to print only the number of issues they needed based on preorders. The rise in the direct market also helped independent publishers, and several publishers popped up during this time, including First, Comico, and Dark Horse.

But there were storm clouds on the horizon!

What era comes after the Copper Age, and when did it start? Some people call it the Tin Age, and I guess that’s as good a name as any. The founding of Image Comics and/or the publication of its first comic book titles, SPAWN, SAVAGE DRAGON, YOUNGBLOOD, and WILDCATS might be as good a place as any to mark.

The company was founded a group of creators who were primarily known for their distinctive and personal illustration styles that were extremely popular with fans. These creators had been working on a work-for-hire basis at Marvel and decided—based on a lot of evidence!—that they were popular enough to start their own imprint. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, and Wilce Portacio left Marvel in 1991 and joined with a small independent publisher called Malibu, and began publishing their own comics in 1992. This roughly corresponded with a huge explosion in the speculator market.

Another major comics event occurred in 1992: THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN! This storyline ended up making national news, and millions of copies of these issues were produced. And sold.
And double-bagged by collectors, who for whatever reason thought that these comics might be worth a lot of money someday. During this time, Marvel and DC were producing hundreds of titles, with print runs in the hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions (the first issue of Todd McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN title sold at least 5 million copies). Many of these issues were sold to people who had little interest in actually READING them—they just wanted to invest in something they’d read about in mainstream newspapers. And they’d heard that copies of ACTION COMICS #1, featuring the debut of Superman, were selling for, like, $5,000 in some cases.

What could go wrong?

In the 1980s, there were a lot of small, regional distributors. But two distributors in particular—Diamond and Capital City—started expansion efforts that bought out and eliminated the smaller distributors. By the early 1990s, Diamond and Capital City were essentially the only “mainstream” distributors remaining (for DC and Marvel at least). Thanks to the speculation explosion, by 1993 there were at least 10,000 comic book shops in America. These distributors solicited books three months ahead of publication, and comic book shops ordered what they thought they could sell. And they thought, based on trends, that they could sell a lot. So they ordered. And ordered.

But by 1993, the bubble crashed, or the market popped, or however you want to phrase it. And the crash actually started before market signals reached the publishers themselves. Comic book shops had dozens of copies of books that they’d ordered that suddenly no one wanted. The speculators came to realize that they were investing in products that were not exactly rare. Millions of copies of some of these issues were produced! So they got out, and only the true comic book fans remained. And many of them felt alienated thanks to publishers’ behavior (Marvel’s demented foil cover sales stunts, for example). Thousands of comic book shops closed. Capital City was acquired by Diamond in 1996, which means that today there is a single distributor controlling about 90% of the comics distribution market.

Also in 1996, Marvel Comics went bankrupt.

Astonishingly, Warner Bros, which owns DC, was on the verge of buying Marvel—which would have meant that Superman and Spider-Man and the Justice League and the X-Men—would have been published by the same company. There were rumors around Marvel that DC’s acquisition was imminent, so they needed to get ready to move their offices! Then in 1997, a company called Toy Biz (owned by Isaac Perlmutter) bought Marvel. Slowly, Marvel started to turn things around.

The effects of the end of the speculation implosion are still being felt in comics. Sales have mostly declined but at a far less precipitous rate than in the 1990s. Today, there’s actually very little money to be made in comic book publication. The real money is in Intellectual Property!

What “age” are we in now? I’ll argue that we’re in the Intellectual Property Age (or maybe the Recycled Age), and I’ll say that it started in 2008. Marvel Studios was founded in 1996 with Avi Arad in charge (he’d been the head of Toy Biz). But it wasn’t until 2000, when Arad hired Kevin Feige (an Associate Producer on the 2000 X-MEN film) to help him run Marvel Studios. In 2004, Marvel Studios made a deal with Merrill Lynch which allowed them to finance their own movies based on the Intellectual Property that Marvel hadn’t already sold the rights to. In 2008, Marvel Studios had a massive success with the first IRON MAN film.

As for the comics themselves—publishers began actively looking for concepts that could be sold to other media, as opposed to actual comics stories. It’s a not-so- well-hidden secret that even the most famous writers and artists have trouble pitching ideas to publishers if the publishers can’t see themselves being able to turn around and sell them to movie, TV, and video game producers.

At Marvel and DC, characters and concepts were endlessly recycled, rebooted, and reimagined (sometimes even in the same year!), and the comics really became nothing more than a form of trademark maintenance. The comic book market continued to decline, in part because the films and TV shows based on decades of stories and concepts were so engaging. Today you can be a superhero fan without ever opening a comic book. Independent publishers licensed pre-existing movie and toy properties to supplement the movie and TV pitches they were publishing.

We’re starting to come out of that now. Over the last couple of years there have been a number of positive changes in the comic book industry. Most especially has been the revitalization of DC—they’re publishing some really interesting comics right now, comics that don’t just feel like movie pitches or trademark maintenance. Hopefully the next “age” will be more comics-focused than Intellectual Property-focused.

Q:  For someone who has never picked up a graphic novel, which two or three titles would you suggest they dive into first?

A: Oh boy! There are so many comics for every taste that’s a difficult question to answer. What are you into? There’s probably a comic for you! My own personal favorite graphic narratives of all time are: LONE WOLF AND CUB, a manga series written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki Kojima and his studio. This is an immense, sprawling epic story that takes place in feudal Japan and runs to almost 9,000 pages. Not only are the stories filled with dynamic illustrations and violence and emotion, but you also learn a lot about Japanese history and culture. It’s a really incredible artistic achievement.

Then there’s THE METABARONS, written by filmmaker and author Alejandro Jodorowsky and drawn by Juan Gimenez. This is a spin-off of the classic THE INCAL by Jodorowsky and Moebius, featuring the family history of the greatest and deadliest warrior in the universe. The book is overflowing with creativity and imagination. Jodorowsky isn’t a writer who censors himself (he has famously said that “Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles!” and in fact there’s a scene in THE METABARONS in which a character hooks his spaceship up directly to his mechanical genitals for navigation) and every page has a new and exciting idea. WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the best superhero comic of all time. Using facsimiles of the Charlton Action Heroes characters, it deconstructs the concepts surrounding superheroes, but does it in a creative and loving way. It’s elegantly constructed and frustrating and wonderful.

Q:  What causes our collective cultural fascination with super-heroes? Particularly the darker ones like Batman? Do they satisfy our need for mythology?

A:  Yes they do! Superhero stories are probably modern mythology. The really dangerous and scary thing, however, is that our modern mythology (if that’s what it is) is owned by corporations. Imagine if “Zeus” and “Hercules” had been owned by someone who could control how and in what form the stories were told about those characters. It would do real damage to our culture! Artists throughout history have used and re-used concepts and characters that have come before. Today artists have to be careful they don’t run afoul of Intellectual Property laws, which has a chilling effect on creativity.

There’s also something mildly distasteful about a culture that is so focused on stories that were originally invented as ephemera aimed at 10 year-old boys in the 1940s. (I think Alan Moore said something similar to this once.) I think that, especially in the western world, we have so many comforts and luxuries that we have the time to indulge our darker fantasies. Maybe that explains why “darker” concepts are so popular—although the Marvel Studios movies tend to be fairly light, and they’ve been very successful. For its movies, DC has tried to darken Superman, to generally unpopular results.

Q: What are some notable non-super- hero comic-book titles you might recommend?

A: See my recommendations above: LONE WOLF AND CUB and THE METABARONS.

I’d also encourage people to look at ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. It’s a crazy hodgepodge that rewards re-reading because it’s a great example of a writer and artist challenging each other to be more creative and push more boundaries.

Also, I wish that Hans Rickheit had a wider audience. His work is like what would happen if David Lynch and Todd Solondz made comics—which I guess is why he doesn’t have a wider audience! Check out his CHLOE and THE SQUIRREL MACHINE.

Q: Who are some of your all-time favorite writers and artists in the comic-book world?

A: My all-time favorite writer is Alejandro Jodorowsky, author of THE INCAL, THE METABARONS, SON OF THE GUN, and MADWOMAN OF THE SACRED HEART, among many others. He’s also the director of movies like EL TOPO and (my favorite of his films and one of my favorite movies of all time) SANTA SANGRE. He is a creator who genuinely tries to push himself and his stories in ways that really very few people do.

Alan Moore is another great. WATCHMEN and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN in particular, but his run on SWAMP THING is still amazing, and FROM HELL is the best work about Jack the Ripper that I’ve ever read (I went through a phase in college).

You can’t say enough about Stan Lee’s contributions to comics. His voice was one of the most influential in all of pop culture. MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was also a major influence on the world, and his work is immensely entertaining and creative. Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man, deserves a lot of attention. His work is whimsical and has a high level of draftsmanship. Steve Ditko is also unique. His run on SPIDER-MAN has never been topped, and his work for Charlton, in particular his rebooting of Blue Beetle and his creation of the Question are remarkable achievements.

My favorite comics illustrator of all time is the French artist Philipe Druillet. It’s really difficult to describe his visionary work. He would famously work for months on a single page, with some of his original artwork being several feet high. Unfortunately I don’t think his stories ever matched the power of his artwork, but I recommend that you at least look at the illustrations for YRAGAEL, LONE SLOANE, and LA NUIT.

The greatest American comic book artist of all time is Neal Adams. The main reason why those GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW comics are so fondly remembered is because of the way Adams illustrated them. He combines Jack Kirby’s dynamism with John Buscema’s anatomical skill. His SUPERMAN VS MUHAMMAD ALI might be the greatest mainstream comics achievement of the Bronze Age.

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