Class Meets Wednesday Nights at 630pm in the Emerson Online Classroom


Designed to introduce you to a thorough understanding and appreciation of comic book art from the Golden Age up until today's best work. We will examine a wide variety of works by the founding artists of the medium and explore the techniques used and developed to successfully tell a story in comic book form.

This blog will be the source of our online classroom discussions. We will meet for an online "Live" classroom section on Wednesday nights from 630 - 730pm BOSTON TIME. Check your time or use World Clock to ensure you are on time. Please click the link in the column to the right to get there.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Class #4 - The Silver Age

From last week's reading (see some of the comments in that post from the class) there are a few things I want you to notice;


1. Eisner's use of body language and movement in THE SPIRIT.

Equal parts animation and ballet as he choreographs the movements of each figure from panel to panel, giving the entire work a cinematic feel.

Many of the movements are exaggerated but that helps to emphasize them.  Eisner is extremely effective in his use of lighting too:


Which heightens the drama and helps guide the readers eye through the panel by spotting large black areas.

On to this week's discussion:  THE SILVER AGE!



1956 found the comics industry floundering.  Horror Comics had been stripped down to innocuous stories that hardly frightened even the youngest reader.   Superheroes had gone from being avenging symbols of justice to goofy strangely dressed characters.

DC Comics was the lone wolf superhero publisher, still offering the adventures of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.  Other companies continued to try superheroes but none had any staying power.

Julie Schwartz was a new editor at DC Comics and he had come from his duties of editing sci fi pulps like Amazing Stories to working for America's biggest comics publisher.  He was tasked with the mission of bringing back their superhero line to it's former glory.  He looked at characters like The Flash and Green Lantern who had gained their powers from magic and brought them back with a twist-- science fiction.

Comics have long shared a kinship with movies and if we look at the genre films of the time we see that classic gothic horror had given way to horror films with creatures born from the Atomic age.  Science fiction had overtaken America so Julie was a natural choice to bring that sensibility to DC's line of comics.

His first relaunch was The Flash-- no longer a bucket wearing speedster, this new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who through a freak science accident gained the power of super speed.

The Flash was a big hit and Julie followed it up with a sleeker more modern version of Green Lantern, which also struck a cord with new readers.

Julie not only put a new sci fi emphasis on the writing, he brought in "better" artists who were able to give the books a level of quality not seen during the Golden Age.  Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Gil Kane on Green Lantern both infused style and substance into their respective books.

More relaunches included Aquaman now by Ramona Fradon, a young woman whose work on the title was perfectly matched and new character Martian Manhunter who made his debut in the backup story in Detective Comics #225 (which many cite as the start of the Silver Age).


It wasn't long before Julie hit on the idea to bring back the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team book of record from the Golden Age, but this time the characters would work together as a team to face a bigger menace than any one of them could handle-- although realistically Superman could probably handle anything that faced them on his own.

The team first assembled in the pages of Brave and the Bold 28 and after a few successful stories they were given their own title.  Interestingly, Superman and Batman were members of the team in the story but they didn't appear on the cover.

The revamped heroes and the Justice League were big hits for DC Comics, meanwhile Marvel Comics, formerly known as Atlas Comics, was still slugging it out with low selling monster comics.






Editor Stan Lee was tasked with trying to find work for the stable of artists who had faithfully been with Marvel and was finding himself with less and less work for them to handle.  The innocent monster comics they were producing were not exactly setting sales records.

It was an innocent golf game between the publisher of DC Comics and the publisher of Marvel Comics that changed all that.  The DC Publisher remarked to his rival that they were having tremendous success with their new superhero comics and especially with their superhero team book THE JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The Marvel publisher took this bit of info back to Stan and told him to come up with a superhero team book ASAP.



Legend has it that Stan almost passed.  He was familiar with the goofy superhero comics DC had been publishing, possibly unaware of the more "adult" comics under Julie's editorial duties.  He'd long wanted to be a "legitimate" novelist and he told his wife Joan that he was no longer interested in going back to producing mindless dopey superhero comics.  She suggested he try writing a superhero book that he himself would like to read.  Something that was unlike any other superhero comic that had ever come before.




Stan did just that introducing THE FANTASTIC FOUR with artwork by Jack Kirby.  They were completely different than any other superhero team that had come before in comics.

1. They were a combination of family and friends, but like REAL family and friends they didn't always get along.  The stress of the space accident that lead to their gaining fantastic powers took it's toll on them.

2. They existed in the "real world".  The Baxter building was in midtown Manhattan.  Their adventures took place in real neighborhoods on real streets.

3. They didn't wear costumes, at least not right away.

4. The world knew their true identities, they were full time superheroes.  No trying to work 40 hours a week as a reporter during the day and saving the world at night.





Contrast these more grounded stories with what DC Comics was doing-- while Reed Richards was struggling to keep his girlfriend from being swept away by the more dashing Sub Mariner

(and what comic fan didn't feel a sense of not being as "cool" as the jocks in school)

Batman was struggling with a gimmicky story about wearing different colored costumes in his books.

Marvel Comics dealt with characters, DC Comics dealt with plots-- some more ridiculous than others, with characters who felt more like cardboard cutouts then real people.




Many of the DC Comics characters had lost their way, most notably Batman.  No longer was he a grim avenger of the night-- now he often found himself dealing with friendly space aliens who had lost their way in the galaxy.

In an effort to bolster lagging sales in the late 50s and early 60s Batman was given the Superman makeover- essentially following everything that worked in Superman and applying it to Batman.  So Superman had a dog, Batman got a dog.  Superman had a nagging reporter girlfriend trying to figure out his secret identity, Batman got a nagging reporter girlfriend-- and so on.

Comics (at least at DC) were being squarely aimed at nine year olds.




Marvel on the other hand, was dealing with drama-- drama in relationships, drama in conflict.  Villains who were not just bad guys for the sake of being bad guys, sometimes, like the Hulk, they were misunderstood.

Stan also began the groundwork for a bigger, grander picture at Marvel Comics.  Not only were these new heroes more "real"-- he would creative a vibrant and active Marvel Comics Fanbase



starting with it's letter columns that awarded "No Prizes" for readers who wrote in pointing out mistakes or stumping Stan.  He created an actual fan club called the Merry Marvel Marching Society, something that was not new to comics-- the Justice Society and the Superman Radio show had it's own clubs too-- but this had a new sense of fun to it.



Stan followed up his success with the Fantastic Four with a more traditional superhero, SPIDER-MAN!

Like the FF-- there were some big differences in Spider-Man than any other hero of the day:

1. After gaining his powers his primary motivation was to make money with them.

2. He eventually fought crime due to guilt.  He'd caused the death of his beloved Uncle Ben after failing to stop a burglar in the act of a crime.

3. He was the first superhero who was a "real" teenager-- Peter Parker had bad skin, a tough homelife, a struggle to fit in, grades to maintain, a part time job to contend with.  In other words the same problems his readers did, making him instantly identifiable.

4.  His very first issue featured a story that had him crossing over with the Fantastic Four, turning to them for a job and learning that they were a not for profit organization.  This crossover set the stage for one of the keys to Marvel's success-- the shared universe.

It was only natural that he turn to his co-creator on the FF and assigned Spiderman to Jack Kirby-- but Kirby's big heroic characters didn't fit the style Stan had envisioned.




Stan turned the assignment over to Steve Ditko who had also been working on Marvel's Monster Comics.

Ditko's more "everyman" style fit Spiderman (now called Spider-Man) perfectly-- and a hit was born!  Spider-Man was originally done as a test in Amazing Fantasy Comics, but once the sales numbers came in he was quickly given his own title.




MARVEL'S SHARED UNIVERSE

All of Marvel's titles related to each other, but in a soft crossover.  The reader didn't have to read all of the titles Marvel Published, but if Spider-Man had a battle in Times Square in his comic, The Fantastic Four might encounter the cleanup in their issue, which often led to readers seeking out the other titles after having learned about such events.

He even poked fun at Marvel and often wrote himself and his artists into his stories.

This was due in part to Stan being the writer for the entire line-- a element of necessity at the time,   Marvel simply couldn't afford to hire more writers so Stan wrote them all.

And they owed part of that to DC Comics, who distributed Marvel Comics with the stipulation that they have no more than eight titles a month.  At 12c each this made collecting EVERY monthly issue from Marvel possible, creating the Marvel Zombie-- a reader who read everything Marvel did.

Back at DC Comics, they paid little attention to Stan Lee and his band of artists, who they felt were inferior to DC's.

Julie Schwartz had revamped Flash, Green Lantern and The Justice Society, but now he was given the task of fixing Batman.  Created originally as a dark avenger and later evolving into a detective character, Batman had fallen on hard times.





Schwartz introduced changes to Batman-- as we can see in the two covers here.  On the left is one of the final issues before Julie took over-- to the right is one his first.



The trouble was Batman was never designed for Sci-Fi-- Julie didn't want the assignment.  He didn't like Batman or the contract that DC Comics had signed with Bob Kane which stipulated he would provide the artwork (in reality one of his ghosts).  This was rectified when Kane was bought out of his contract and Julie was able to bring in his own stable of artists-- most notably Carmine Infantino who had been responsible for The Flash's success.





Infantino didn't want to give up Flash for Batman, but he had no choice.  Schwartz, his writers and Carmine gave Batman a more serious edge, and bought back his detective roots.  Gone was the outright silliness of the alien invasions every issue, and back was crime.



The changes were short of huge successes, but they breathed a bit of life into a dying character.


It was Hollywood that saved Batman-- although it's unlikely his comics would ever have been cancelled, there are rumors which indicate it.

DC Comics hoped to do a serious Batman TV series for Saturday mornings like the old Superman TV Show or The Lone Ranger.  They had current Tarzan Mike Henry in mind for Batman and they began shopping the idea around.

Meanwhile, ABC-TV was looking for a new show to capitalize on the color TV craze and comic books seemed a likely source material.  They ran a poll among focus groups to see which comic book heroes viewers would like to see brought to TV and the top 3 came out like this:

1. Superman
2. Dick Tracy
3. Batman

Superman was tied up rights wise with a new musical on Broadway (It's a Bird!), Dick Tracy's rights were too expensive so Batman was it.

The show debuted in January 1966 and it was a monster hit-- the resulting sales of the comics meant Batman comics sold over a million copies for the first time in twenty five years.



The resulting attention to comic books was a boost to everyone including Marvel Comics who sought to capitalize on the show with cartoons of their own.

The Batman TV show ushered in a new era of Superheroes including some who remain popular to this day including

SPACE GHOST!
Virtually a Batman-clone in outer space.  Space Ghost had TWO teenage sidekicks and traveled the galaxy fighting a roster of villains.

Space Ghost would eventually inspire Bruce Timm to create the 1992 BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES so it becomes a cycle of inspiration.

Batman's popularity ushered in a demand for superheroes and even Marvel Capitalized on it with it's own animated cartoon series.



Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four also got their own Cartoon TV Series in the late 1960s and all this TV exposure made Marvel Comics even more popular than it was before.


Comics gained new life as Pop Art when Artist Andy Warhol embraced them in some of his New York Gallery shows creating silk screens and photo shoots that encompassed the broad colors and outlandish styles of comic books.



Marvel began pushing the envelope in terms of it's story content, writing to it's more advanced and more literate fanbase with stories like THE FANTASTIC FOUR's THIS MAN THIS MONSTER, which is a classic in every sense of the word and head and shoulders above what DC was doing at the time.

Comics were becoming relevant, and branching out to places they had never gone before.
Stan was telling bigger stories, more challenging stories, more advanced stories.

His artists were stepping up too-- Kirby's work on FF51 featured a lot of experimental techniques and new artists were coming along to really expand the pop feel of Marvel Comics.

Introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four, The SILVER SURFER swept through the galaxy with inner monologues worthy of any Shakespeare play and his philosophy and curiosity appealed to college students and scholars everywhere.



Marvel had some amazing artists working for them during this period.

Chief among them was Jim Steranko.

Magician, Escape Artist and visionary comic book creator-- his work exploded when it hit the stands pushing storytelling and graphic design to places it had never been.



Steranko often fought with the production department-- as in the case of Nick Fury #1 which started with a three page sequence in total silence, Marvel's production guys wanted words, Steranko felt they weren't needed, but that was not done in comics of the time-- but he stood his ground, and the landmark issue was a big hit among the more literate fans.

NO QUESTIONS THIS WEEK-- instead, choose a panel or image from any of the reading so far that has struck you and draw it-- then explain why you chose this particular image.

Next Week-  COMICS GET RELEVANT BIG TIME in the BRONZE AGE!
The reading is being mailed out right now.