Comic-book writer and editor Roy Thomas is always fond of saying “The Golden Age of comics is eight,” meaning that was the age at which he (and many others) discovered and fell in love with the funnybooks.
In essence, the Golden and Silver Ages are somewhat arbitrary divisions in the history of mainstream American comic-book publishing, divisions first fostered and defined by the folks who began publishing comic-book price guides. Most comics folk are in agreement as to where the divisions begin and end, at least early on, anyway.
The Golden Age of comics begins, for most, in June 1938, with National Comics’ (the progenitor of today’s DC Comics) publication of ACTION COMICS #1, the first appearance of Superman. While comics were being published before then, the arrival of Superman set off a superhero craze, and to a larger extent, a comic-book craze, that went on for over two decades. At its height, there were numerous mainstream comic-book publishers, all doing extremely good business. When compared to today’s market, in which a circulation of 100,000 copies is considered wildly successful, it’s staggering to look back at a time when Fawcett’s Captain Marvel comics (you know, SHAZAM!) were regularly seeing sales numbers in the millions. That, my friends, is the Golden Age. Even after superheroes fell out of fashion in the late 40s, the comic-book machine stayed in full gear, with romance, western, horror, crime and “funny-animal” comics all seeing varying levels of success at the newsstands.
Most people set the beginning of the Silver Age at October 1956, with DC’s publication of SHOWCASE #4, which featured the debut of the Flash, a revamp of one of National’s more popular superheroes from the 1940s. The success of the Flash led to similar resurrections of such characters as Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom. Once these characters were teamed up with superhero perennials Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (who had never gone away) in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, a full superhero renaissance was in bloom, with a spike in sales that caught the eye of National’s downtown rivals at Atlas Comics, who would soon take on the much more familiar moniker of Marvel.
Inspired by the success of the Justice League, Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee turned his attention to superheroes in a big way. In partnership with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, two of the most creative artists and storytellers ever to work in comics, Lee, Kirby and Ditko produced nearly every character that Marvel would come to be famous for: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Avengers — the list seems endless. Moreover, aside from the characters and stories, Stan, Jack and Steve created a house style, combining realism and an almost soap-opera-like emphasis on the personal lives of their heroes with an editorial voice that respected the reader and refused to condescend. Throw in Lee’s insistence on frequent guest appearances throughout the publishing line, and the reader had a genuine sense that anything could happen in this new Marvel Universe, and it made missing out on issues unthinkable. The Marvel style soon revolutionized comics. DC’s Flash may have kicked off the Silver Age, but Marvel owned it.
However, here’s where it gets tricky. No one is really in agreement as to when the Silver Age ended, nor what to call the time period that follows. Some comic historians (and mock if you must, but there are those who consider themselves such) like to peg the ending at AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 in 1973, with the murder of longtime supporting character and Spidey’s love interest Gwen Stacy, citing it as the moment they lost their innocence regarding comic books. A bit sappy, true, but as good a definition as any, as it also is a good marker for the time period when Stan Lee quit writing, and even editing, most of the Marvel titles. (In fact, to this day, Stan swears he wasn’t even in town when the decision to off poor Gwen was made, and only found out when he saw the published book for the first time.) Others like to place the end of the Silver Age at 1978, when the “DC Implosion” resulted in the cancellation of an armload of DC titles. Still others stretch the Silver Age all the way until the 1980s, when Marvel was revitalized by Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL work, Chris Claremont’s X-MEN was firing on all cylinders, and John Byrne was doing the best work of his career on FANTASTIC FOUR.
Some comics-types call the 1970s and ’80s the Bronze Age, slavishly following the Gold-Silver pattern. I’ve heard some people refer to the ’80s as the “Mylar Age,” since that was when bagging your comics in Mylar plastic bags to protect them first became wildly popular among collectors. For a while in the ’90s, some zealous fans even started declaring it the “Image Age,” when comics like Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN and Jim Lee’s WILDC.A.T.S. were breaking sales records left and right.
If you ask me, there’s the Golden Age and the Silver Age, and then there’s everything else.