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The Iron Age: With the rejection of Silver Age optimism, the fall of the Comics Code Authority, and the Bronze Age’s focus on societal issues, the stage was set for a new era of comics to begin. As the 1980s dawned, comics began to evolve from simplistic superheroism into deep, nuanced literature.
At its core, the Iron Age of Comics began to apply a level of realism to the timeless archetypes established of the Silver Age, while maintaining the social consciousness of the Bronze Age. Frank Miller’s immortal Batman storyline, “The Dark Knight Returns” deals with the simple question of what would happen as Bruce Wayne ages and enters the modern era. Alan Moore’s masterpiece, “Watchmen” directly took elements and characters from DC-subsidiary Charlton Comics, dropping them wholesale into the Cold War-era paranoia of 1983. Mike Grell’s “Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters” re-established Green Arrow as a lethal vigilante who narrowly avoids costing partner/girlfriend Black Canary her life, as he uses morally questionable means to get to the bottom of a drug ring. Heroes, as such, became less black and white in nature, often taking on violent, even sociopathic methods for just aims. Rorschach, from “Watchmen” epitomized this tendency, following an absolutist view of morality, yet inflicting horrific violence against his foes, as he sought out the “cape-killer”.
As one can imagine, the foes for Iron Age storylines were not the gimmicky villains of the Silver Age. Rather, over the top plots for world domination were replaced by insidious smuggling rings, arms deals, and other true-to-life crimes. Iron Age villains only rarely showed overt super-powers, and were often simply mob bosses, corporate CEOs, and corrupt politicians. Iron Age villains with superhuman abilities, however, were forces to be reckoned with, wielding their powers ruthlessly and with incredible lethality. Venom, one of Spider-Man’s best known foes, was created during the Iron Age, becoming known for its utter brutality and hideous appearance. In several cases—most notably the maiming of Batman at the hands of Bane, a steroid-enhanced mercenary—these villains bested and even killed the heroes that attempted to bring them to justice. Other heroes, such as Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Iron Man, turned on their former comrades, in the “Parallax” and “Armor Wars” storylines, respectively.
One of the visual representations of the Iron Age’s move towards realism came through superheroes’ costumes. In previous eras of comics—particularly the Silver Age—superheroes’ costumes tended to be flashy, colorful affairs, usually with capes. In the Iron Age, this shifted dramatically. Costumes began to emphasize function over fashion, with armored black bodysuits replacing colorful spandex and capes going the way of the dodo.
Accompanying these cosmetic changes came weapons. While Silver and even Bronze Age heroes rarely used weapons against their foes, Iron Age heroes brought firepower to their crusade against crime. High caliber firearms became the norm, brought into vogue by Marvel’s Punisher and The Comedian from “Watchmen”. Even Frank Miller’s Batman, while still eschewing firearms, rolled a tank through Gotham City in an effort to take it back from The Mutants gang.
As the Iron Age focused more and more on realism and depth in technique, authors and artists began adding in additional themes and ideas usually reserved for discussions of classic literature. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” explored a surreal dreamscape, in which nearly every character represented a metaphysical force. Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” provided a harrowing spiritual journey into insanity, using symbolism and mythology in ways that echoed Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. Symbolic elements, which include mythic and spiritual references, also permeated Denny O’Neil’s run on “The Question”—a resurrected Charlton Comics character who served as the inspiration for Moore’s Rorschach, in “Watchmen”.
However, this symbolism and depth was not limited to Western cultural elements. Rather, the Iron Age saw a rise in interest in Eastern mysticism and martial arts. Ninja and yakuza became common adversaries, complete with esoteric martial arts and exotic weaponry. Even already established minor characters like Black Canary became known as masters of the martial arts, learning bizarre and deadly techniques to take down their foes.
The Iron Age of Comics also began to see the rise of superhero comics publishers outside of the DC/Marvel clutches. Many writers and artists grew frustrated with the “Big Two”, seeking out companies like Dark Horse and Image Comics. Both grew in popularity on their hit titles “Hellboy”, “Spawn” and “Witchblade”, among others, providing alternatives to the more mainstream titles.
All companies, though, saw the value in unifying their heroes through ‘crossover’ events. Marvel’s “Secret Wars”, DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and other events drew in readers in droves. Such events brought heroes together from all parts of their respective universes to face some massive cosmic threat. Readers ate these events up, and the “event model” dominates the comics industry to this day.
Unfortunately, the success and depth of the Iron Age proved to be its own undoing. As comics grew in depth, they grew in popularity. Comics companies began to establish an artificial scarcity in their comics, releasing numerous variant covers in the hopes to drive up sales. Unfortunately, while this led to increased sales and profits for both publishers and retailers through the early ‘90s, the speculators’ market crashed in 1996, driving Marvel Comics into bankruptcy.
Further, as the Iron Age rolled on, many authors and artists began to equate realism and depth with simple mindless violence. “Gritty” became an excuse for writers to settle for simplistic, violent storylines with no greater meaning, and artists to put out poorly drawn, rushed material simply to keep up with demand for additional covers.
With Marvel declaring bankruptcy and many of the classic Iron Age writers and artists creating their own companies, the Iron Age came crashing down. In its place, though, a new age began to rise.
Above all else, the Iron Age is marked by a move towards realism in terms of aesthetic, themes, and concepts. While marked as cynicism by detractors, the Iron Age marked a darker and more philosophical turn in comics, meant for a more mature, adult reader, rather than the child-targeted books of the past. Iron Age comics are marked by a depth and a complexity that had never been seen before in comics, but was inevitably undone by continual drive for profit and sales. Luckily for all of us, the comics industry wasn’t done yet…