Thursday, February 03, 2011

Michael vs. The Silver Age

Sadly, while DC has given its Golden Age comics its own Earth (and for a good while, integrated it into its sole Earth), it hasn't done the same with the Silver Age. I think they really should. The DCU needs a place where that kind of craziness can exist.

I was going to include this with last week's Quotes, but it ties in closely with something I've been thinking about, wrestling with, and want to talk about. Still trying to figure out what makes Aquaman tick, I've been reading my way through the three volumes (so far) of Showcase Presents Aquaman, which chronicle his Silver Age adventures up through Aquaman #39 (or, more accurately, his guest-appearance in Jimmy Olsen #115). I've found some interesting things.

As Siskoid observes above, there's a craziness to the Silver Age and I'd love to see more of it in comics today. I talked about it some on Robot 6. Anything could happen in those comics. Superman would build robots of himself to fool Lois Lane, Bat-Mite and Ace the Bathound would team up to help Batwoman become more popular than Batman (popularity was a huge deal in DC's Silver Age, just ask Superboy), and everyone was growing giant, fat, turning into babies, and changing the color of their skin.

For Aquaman, the Silver Age meant introducing characters like Quisp the Water Sprite (Aquaman's version of Bat-Mite), playing James Bond to fight the evil organization O.G.R.E., and fighting off evil versions of himself. And of course he and his pals weren't above the standard DC Silver Age tropes of turning giant and changing personalities.

Put that way, the Silver Age wasn't all that imaginative. They kept going back to a fairly standard list of gimmicks that seem madly inventive compared to the darker comics of today, but get repetitive when read together in big chunks. I've long advocated that Aquaman is best when he stays under the sea and interacts with the limitless possibilities that exist in that environment, but even though writer Bob Haney mostly followed that approach, the "possibilities" he explored were in fact quite limited. Most were variations on aliens or monsters or supervillains or forgotten aquatic demigods attacking Atlantis. People and monsters really hated Atlantis back in the day. The details were different enough to keep things interesting, but Haney kept coming back to that plot while adding standard Silver Age twists like "Aqualad's sure acting strangely" or "Aquaman's dead!"

What really bugs me though - as I said in the Robot 6 article - is the disregard for characterization. Changing characters' personalities as a gimmick (Is Aquaman a coward? Why is Aqualad evil? Does Mera really love someone else? Why is Aquababy trying to kill his daddy?) is one thing. It's something different to have Mera go from fun-loving, adventurous partner to a stay-at-home, pouty, nagging harpy between issues just because Aquaman married her. Not that he's any better. Even within the same issue he can be dotingly supportive of her in one scene and grumpily dismissive in the next.

Sleestak pointed out something interesting about the Golden Age as he's been posting Mysta comics:
It often becomes necessary for the reader, particularly with the format of the Golden Age comic book, to fill in the desired details that the compressed style of telling a story will skip or leave out. Politics and greed are fine plot devices but no one reading these stories really cared about the day-to-day details of running a large metropolitan city and government. Seven pages does not leave a lot of room for characterization when fighting deformed criminals and bug-eyed monsters is required to bring a reader back the following month. So the relationship between Mysta, the robot, and Bron is one that would be understandably complex and mature and if published today would require years to tell. Subtext of the Golden Age far outpaced even Silver Age DC or 1970s Marvel for allowing a reader to imagine their own deeper meanings to a tale.
It's true that the Golden Age was far more compressed than the Silver Age and allows the reader a lot of room at filling in subtext. That's one of the things I love about Golden Age stories. Silver Age stories are longer and attempt to fill in some of that subtext themselves. The problem is that they do it really badly.

When I'm reading a Silver Age story, I usually have to filter out most of the dialogue and characterization, distilling the story to its basic plot and then refilling it from my own imagination. That's not always unpleasant, but it is a lot of work.One of the reasons I love modern books like Atomic Robo and Agents of Atlas is that they showcase the anything-can-happenness of the Silver Age, but in a well-crafted way.

I spent a few days last week going through The Comics Journal's massive interview with the late Bob Haney [Parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five], one of the most prolific writers in DC's Silver Age as well as a major chronicler of Aquaman's adventures. My hope was to find some clue to his writing approach and why he made the choices he did. I did, but it was disappointing in it's obviousness.

Haney refers several times to what he was doing as "hacking." Here's an example:
[All the editors] were still doing that — where they said to the writer, “Come up with a new title. You’ll be the writer.” That was the way of getting an extra assignment, right? You got no extra money for creating — no ownership. You’re giving the company the property, right? With no legal rights whatsoever. Still, it meant an extra book. Therefore an extra check. Right? You know, we’re all hacking away, trying to make a living. All we were making was an ordinary living.
Quite simply, Haney and (to the extent that he can speak for them) the other Silver Age writers at DC were hammering out stories as quickly as possible with little passion and for less pay. He says at one point, "The PR research that they had done showed — this is still the early ’60s — the average reader was a 12-year-old boy living in Dayton, Ohio. Who was not that sophisticated. So a lot of my stuff I wrote in the ’60s was aimed at him. Generic little boy. It was simple stuff. It was not sophisticated."

This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone, but it's jolting to read. As a modern reader, I'm used to... well, if not "sophistication" exactly, than at least a passion for good storytelling. We expect our writers and artists to be creating comics because they love them as much as we do. To learn that that wasn't always the case - that the business was even more calculatingly cold-hearted than we think it is today - is disheartening.

What Haney points out is that DC's Silver Age comics weren't All-Ages literature; they were Children's literature. And again, that's not exactly news. It was the Silver Age that gave comics in general its reputation for childishness that stuck with it even into the new millennium. But growing up in the '70s, after Marvel revolutionized the way comics stories were told, I didn't experience the Silver Age first-hand. By the time I started reading, DC had already started to change and darken to match what Marvel was doing. It's not until now that I'm actually going back, reading DC's stuff from the early '60s, and struggling with it. And because of that struggle, I agree with Siskoid even more that there needs to be a place where DC's current storytellers can play with and improve upon the positive aspects of that time.


Siskoid said...

Another thing the Silver Age did really badly, and you hit upon it in your aliens/monsters/robots comment, is villains. While some heroes (like the Flash and Batman) had a large gallery, others (Aquaman for sure) were relegated to generic threat of the month. Which certainly tends to happen when you star in 3+ 8-pagers every issue. Superman's is particularly poor and silly.

Some of my favorite comics of recent years have included Silver Age spoofs like the Sentry's and so-called "all ages" children comics like Tiny Titans and the Marvel Adventures line. So while Haney et al. might have been pitching to the younger reader, there's something to that naive storytelling that is a great deal of fun (so long as there is no cynicism there).

And I do agree Silver Age comics can be trying, especially the over-exposition and yes, the uneven characterization. Fortunately, while there's no official "Earth" for it at DC, it still finds a way to shine through in such books as All-Star Superman, Dr. Thirteen or the recent Jimmy Olsen back-up in Action Comics.

Kal said...

This was interesting reading. I love Elseworld stories for this exact reason. I wish there was a place for such stories today, even if they were just in some quarterly publication or only appeared online.

Michael May said...

Thanks, Cal. I miss the Elseworlds stories too. I got tired of them towards the end there, but it's been long enough now that I'd love to see some again, whether they're Elseworlds or Multiverse Tales or whatever. DC and Morrison have been teasing that long enough, it's time for them to put out.

Siskoid, the Lex Luthor stuff in Action Comics sounds like another good example, though I've been trade-waiting on it. Knight and Squire, too. Heck, Batman Inc for that matter. I'd forgotten about Dr. Thirteen. Need to get that soon.


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