As anyone who has been paying even slight attention to comic books can tell you, the last two years have been periods of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval. Marvel and DC in particular have been challenging the limits of their universes, not to mention the wallets of their fans, with epic and world-altering storylines. With a massive buildup and supporting title list, these events culminated in DC’s Infinite Crisis and Marvel’s Civil War. While the narrative landscape of these two companies has been forever altered for the fan on the suspension-of-disbelief-level, there has been an even more shocking development on the meta-level when examining comics as a medium and superhero storylines as a genre.
These recent events and their thematic implications certainly indicate a break with the previously established paradigm, and the resulting discontinuity represents the beginning of a new age in the comic book medium. By examining the changes in the superhero mythos resulting primarily from Infinite Crisis, Civil War, and their tie-ins, it’s clear that the Modern Age has ended. It has been replaced by what can for now be generically dubbed the Postmodern Age. A new era in superhero comics has begun.
The comic book world is divided into many ages, whose delineations represent changes in the way comics stories are told and what they represent. So we have the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Modern Age. We have to be careful when examining these periods and what they mean for a couple of reasons. First, they are generalizations that are useful guideposts to talking about comic history, but they have exceptions which often blur their borders. Second is the point argued by Dr. Peter Coogan in his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, noting that the Golden Age is really the only age that applies to comics as a medium; the rest refer specifically to the superhero genre. The terms “Modern Age” and subsequently “Postmodern Age” have problems that need to be addressed as well. For the sake of clarity, I will continue using these terms with the caveat that I use them generically until a more accurate label is accepted.
With those clarifications, my argument focuses the way these sweeping changes in superhero comics have altered the way we talk about those comics. While my focus is on DC and Marvel specifically, I feel that they constitute the largest and most influential work currently being produced in the genre, and therefore continue to drive the discussion.
Before we can understand the thematic changes indicating the Postmodern Age, we must first look at the Modern Age and some of its defining minutia. While there are many characteristics that define this period—such as the increase of adult-oriented content, the rise of the X-Men to the status of dominant intellectual property, and the reorganization of the industry’s distribution system—two comics are generally accepted as encapsulating the spirit of the Modern Age: The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These books represented a fundamental shift from the Silver and Bronze Ages that came before. Their deconstructive and dystopian re-envisioning of iconic characters and the worlds that they live in represented a break with the previously established mythos.
In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is forced to make a place for himself in a world where conservative politics and liberal social values are taken to their opposing extremes and the resulting chaos has brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Simultaneously, the social order is unable to sustain itself against the forces of anarchy. While the book isn’t necessarily a deconstruction of the Batman character, it does significantly alter the environment in which Batman lives, forcing him to change in order to continue his war on crime. In one of the most important moments in comics’ history, the book climaxes with a brutal fight between Batman and his former friend and sometimes competitor Superman, who has now become a symbol of the decadent and corrupted status quo. This book challenged the way comics could be told, and showed the massive potential in altering the 40-year continuity of these major characters.
While Miller’s work has secured a place not just in comics but in popular fiction as well, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen went even further in its explorations of the superhero realm. Moore’s 13-issue series placed superheroes into a “real world” context. The characters were not motivated by noble ideals and cartoonish platitudes, but instead were driven by darker and more sinister forces. Nihilism, egotism, family pressures, lack of personal actualization, sexual dysfunction, and outright insanity are some of the prevailing issues at work in this complex morality play. One of the most powerful moments in the entire series comes when the character Rorschach reveals to his prison psychologist the true source of his war on crime. He explains that after seeing evidence of humanity’s depravation, he realized that there is no underlying truth or morality to the world; there is no god, there is just flawed mankind. All meanings are analogues to the Rorschach inkblot test: definitions imposed upon random shapes that have no inherent truth. While this is just one example of the book’s brilliant character innovations within the genre, all of the characters are defined by traits that stand in complete contrast to the more traditional superheroes of the Golden and Silver Age template.
While there are other aspects associated with the Modern Age, the contributions of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen are the two most significant with regards to the epistemological grouping that delineates the old age from the new. While these ages only reflect a portion of the comic world, albeit a significant one, and are generalizations at best, they are significant to the history of comics because they represent fundamental changes in the way comic characters, in this case superheroes, are created and defined. Miller and Moore’s works, while not the first to necessarily redefine or deconstruct superheroes and their world, altered the way people understood what a superhero was. Put simply, we read superhero comics differently after these books achieved their success.
With the Modern Age defined, we can see how recent events in the world of superheroes have changed everything yet again, thereby requiring a new age of superhero comics. In truth, this has actually stemmed from the themes that originated with Miller and Moore. For despite the commercial success of both Dark Knight and Watchmen, they were never accepted or presented as being part of the mainstream comic universe. Dark Knight is not the inevitable future of Batman and the other characters Miller used; it is instead an alternate future, later dubbed Elseworld by DC brass. The same is true of Moore’s work. When he originally began working on his bold story, he’d wanted to use characters from the defunct Charleston line that DC had acquired. DC wouldn’t agree, so new characters based on the old templates were used. The Question became Rorschach, Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, etc. Both of these books, despite their influence and success, were aberrations related to, but wholly separate from, the mainstream of superhero comic continuity. It’s strange to think that the most defining aspects of the Modern Age are books whose stories represent a fringe of the superhero mythology that was kept distinct from the work being produced on the longstanding monthly books, but it’s true nonetheless.
Of course, Dark Knight and Watchmen certainly influenced the other books being produced. One clearly sees the fingerprints of the two creator’s work in the darker shift the Modern Age took. What it means to be a superhero became an increasing focus of writers, and the internal realities that drove these characters became a new facet of the monthly titles. The fifth week event Zero Hour, for example, shares these deconstructive tendencies. But the relative security of the larger mythos and continuity was not substantively changed by these new explorations. It was refined and expanded, yes, but the core remained secure. The monthly books still told superhero stories in relatively the same way as had been done in previous eras. It was not until Civil War and Infinite Crisis that the threshold was finally crossed, and we can now see where that core has at last come under fire.
For the record, when referring to Infinite Crisis and Civil War I am also including the preludes, spin-offs, crossovers, and other extra works included in these massive storylines published by the two titans of comics, DC and Marvel. The two stories represent some of the most impressive and dynamic work done in mainstream comics history. Using some of the greatest creators in the medium, the two companies have created storylines with spectacular ramifications that have influenced the majority of their books in significant ways. While the stories and issues dealt with are different, the two are linked in that they both thematically rest on the failing of the mainstream superheroes to live up to the requirements established by the previous paradigms. This theme, coupled with the fact that it takes place in the primary continuity of mainstream comics, represents the linguistic and epistemological shift that has ushered in this new age of superhero comics.
Looking at Infinite Crisis, it’s clear that one of the key themes in DC’s epic is the failing of modern heroes to live up to the legacies and duties left to them by their forbearers. It’s essentially a generational argument that represents the continued deconstruction of the superhero template. The story’s early chapters rest on the moral failings of many of DC’s characters—Batman’s suspicion and fear have prompted him to create a machine so dangerous that when it falls into the wrong hands it threatens the lives of every superhero on the planet; Superman is unable to be the symbol of hope that people need; Wonder Woman murders Maxwell Lord in cold blood. This prompts the Superman from Earth 2, Alexander Luthor, and Superboy Prime—heroes from alternate realities destroyed in Crisis on Infinite Earths—to return from their exile and be the heroes that the world needs.
As Infinite Crisis progresses, it not only critiques the traditional heroes whose failings prompted the story, it also attacks the classic superhero image presented by the survivors of the first Crisis. The Golden Age Superman is revealed to be too one-dimensional and too reliant on black and white definitions of good and evil to become the proper symbol the world needs. In fact, it is revealed in Superman: Inifinite Crisis that the Golden Age Superman would eventually become a totalitarian overlord who imposes his simplistic morality on the world if allowed to succeed with his goals. Superboy Prime, a hero with a long history dating back decades, becomes one of the main antagonists, whose murderous rampage is sure to go down in comic book history. Finally, Alexander Luthor, the only hero on his earth and one of the champions who saved the universe from the Antimonitor in the original Crisis, is revealed to be the true villain who seeks to recreate the universe in his own image, regardless of the costs.
There are other examples of character deconstruction throughout Infinite Crisis, such as the return of Jason Todd as villain and the Specter’s attempt to murder all the magical beings in the universe, but the alterations to the Big Three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) stand as proof enough of DC’s bold new direction. Furthermore, the story’s use of the Golden Age Superman, Superboy Prime, and Alexander Luthor show that even the iconic superhero of the past, manifested in these three characters, is not exempt from the deconstructionist bent of the overall story. While the implications for the characters and their world are massive, the series is equally impressive and significant when examined on the level of superhero mythology and the history of comics.
On Marvel’s side, Civil War challenges the traditional construction of the term superhero in a direct and clear way: by splitting them over a difficult moral and social issue and then making them fight over it. The story begins with a team of b-grade heroes on a reality show accidently causing the destruction of a city. This plot device itself represents a discontinuity with the traditional superhero mode, but it is hardly revolutionary—b-hero plotlines are often the way these types of stories are told, without fear of their implications spilling over to the main continuity. This catastrophe subsequently results in a debate over questions of freedom versus national security. Whether superheroes, without government oversight and whose identities remain unknown, should be allowed to operate freely becomes an issue that divides Marvel’s most renowned heroes. The lines are divided with Captain America and his freedom-supporting associates on one side, and Iron Man and his pro-national security allies on the other. Soon enough, the tension explodes into violence that pulls the rest of the Marvel world down with it. Civil War and its aftermath have forever altered the landscape of Marvel; its characters, continuity, and its understanding of what defines a superhero were torn asunder when hero fought hero.
When the two stories are examined it becomes clear where the discontinuity with the Modern Age lies. Where previously the deconstructions and expansions of the superhero mythos were left for alternate realities and what-if scenarios, Infinite Crisisand Civil War brought these peripheral fringe elements into the very heart of their respective continuities. The very nature of postmodern deconstruction, especially in literary theory, stems from the challenge of traditional methods and characteristics and their subsequent reinvention. DC and Marvel do this by challenging the very definition of their primary contribution to comics: the superhero. Where the superheroes of the Golden and Silver Age were moral icons whose existence was symbolic of higher principles beyond that of the average flawed human, the new breed of hero is subject to the same doubts, fears, and moralistic ambiguities that the average person is forced to confront. They are no longer gods who live above us; they are now that much more real. While the Modern Age issued the first challenges to these previously established archetypes, these elements were kept from altering the core of the storytelling. Infinite Crisis and Civil War have broken with that past by challenging the very heart of their respective universes and completely reshaping them. The outsider becomes insider, the fringe thematic elements are now mainstream. A new era, the Postmodern Age of superhero comics, has begun.
While the centrality of deconstructive elements is the primary reason I claim this as a new era, it is possible to predict some of the additional characteristics that will define the Postmodern Age. For one, the return of the weekly comic as illustrated by DC’s 52 and Countdown may be a recurring trait. The re-emphasis on the significance of the B and C characters may be another. I, for one, hope that this new age will continue developing those traditions that have decided to forgo formula and convention, and instead encourage originality and new explorations into the possibilities of superheroes, specifically, and the comic book medium as a whole, generally.
Ultimately, terms like Modern Age and Postmodern Age are just labels and generalizations that may not be completely accurate. However, they do provide context and perspective, reference points necessary for examining the massive body of work that are comics. From these large-scale observations, one is able to spot trends, chronicle past characteristics, and make future predictions over the ebb and flow of this dynamic genre and the medium it inhabits. With this as the goal, when examining the thematic flow of mainstream superhero stories it is now clear that there has been a true break with what has been called the Modern Age. The deconstruction and reinterpretation of superheroes has now moved from the fringe into the primary mechanisms of comic storytelling. Where this new era will take comics and fans is not yet clear. There is, however, one certainty: that whether as moralistic icons living above and beyond us, or three-dimensional figures who suffer from the same flaws and weaknesses as we do but struggle on nonetheless, the superhero continues to boldly lead the way into this, pardon the cliché, brave new world.