Ask Chris #310: Starting The Silver Age
Q: Since the Silver Age is now defined mostly by aesthetics, not superhero popularity, is Showcase #4 still a good starting point? -- @morganwick
A: Dividing the history of comic books into a series of ages is a pretty easy thing to do, but picking out one single issue that serves as the hard, immutable dividing line can be a tricky proposition. Even for the most well-defined breaking point, there's always going to be some kind of blend, whether it's stragglers holding onto the old ideas and aesthetics, or that rare comic that's just a year or two ahead of its time, laying down a foundation that's usually not appreciated until later.
But Showcase #4, the first appearance of Barry Allen as the Flash, is the one that everyone seems to have always agreed on as the "Official Start Date of the Silver Age." And honestly, while pinning fifteen years of aesthetics to a single story can be a pretty futile goal, it's about as good a dividing line as you're likely to find outside of Action Comics #1.
What's really interesting to me about your questions is that I've never really thought of the Silver Age as being defined by anything other than aesthetics. That said, I can certainly see how the overwhelming popularity of superheroes and the abandonment of other genres are probably the most notable features of the era in terms of the medium. After the explosion of new titles, new ideas, and new genres that marked the Golden Age and the rise of comics in popular culture, the rise of horror and crime comics has always been regarded as the most prominent feature of comics in the '40s and '50s.
I'm definitely not equipped to dispute that --- I don't think anyone is, to be honest --- but there is a part of me that wonders if we don't look back at those comics with a skewed perception because of how superheroes edged them out to become the comic book's defining genre.
Don't get me wrong, there's no way to get around the fact that horror comics got a massive number of readers, a huge number of headlines, and a trial in front of Congress, and that the eventual institution of the Comics Code was explicitly designed to keep them from getting any more popular than they already were. At the same time, if the Comics Code hadn't happened, I wonder if horror and crime comics would've really taken over, as some comics historians have suggested, or if their status as some kind of literary invading army led on a mission of conquest by Bill Gaines waving around a severed head has been skewed by decades of superhero dominance casting them as an anomaly.
But then, there's not much of a point to in heading to the could-bes when we have actual history to work with.
The Comics Code did happen, with the stated goal of strangling horror and crime comics to death with a string of very specific rules, and because it happened, the superhero genre was made to thrive in a very specific way. Superheroes became the dominant genre, sure, but they also became a genre that had to abide by a list of rules and tropes that, while made to form a cage around Tales from the Crypt, also ended up as a pretty detailed list of what Superman could and couldn't do.
I'm guessing that the prohibition against cannibalism and "smut" probably weren't going to be a problem for Superman anyway, but there's a whole list of the kind of crimes that crimefighters couldn't fight. It's one of the reasons that Batman took a solid ten years of goofing around in space and dealing with monsters, trying to find his footing as a character in a genre that was being molded to take away his primary enemies, and why Superman stories are structured as these weird puzzles for the reader to figure out. So in the end, the popularity of superheroes and the aesthetics of the time are all interconnected.
With that in mind, it's tempting to mark the start of the Silver Age with the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954 as the inciting incident, I don't think that's quite right, either. It feels more like the death throes of the Golden Age than the start of something new. So let's see here, what are the other candidates?
Casting around for other places to mark the start of the Silver Age --- with a focus on the aesthetics that defined the era and the creators responsible for them --- I thought about looking at when Otto Binder arrived at DC. He is, after all, the writer who defined the era for its most prominent character, synthesizing a new Superman from the original Golden Age version and the modifications he'd already done with Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, his tenure at DC begins in 1948, and that feels way too early to kick off the Silver Age.
The unofficial starting point for Silver Age Superman comes in Jerry Coleman and Wayne Boring's "The Super-Key To Fort Superman" in Action Comics #241. That's a pretty good place to look, especially in terms of Superman as a character and the changes that come immediately after, like the introduction of Kandor, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Supergirl --- but 1958 seems a little too late. That's the Silver Age at a height, with the rules already in place to be built upon.
Going back to Binder for a little bit, I think you could make a pretty strong case for putting the pin in 1954 and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #1, if only because it's very difficult to imagine Jimmy Olsen as a Golden Age character rather than the standard-bearer of the Silver Age.
But I don't think that's quite right, either. Even with Binder at the helm, those early Jimmy Olsen stories aren't what the bizarre adventures would eventually become. And, you know, if we have to put a dividing line between Golden Age Jimmy and Silver Age Jimmy, I think we can safely drop any story that involves Jumbo Jones, the pilot of the Daily Planet's flying newsroom, into the former.
Yes: There was a time when Superman's sidekick had his own sidekick, in the form of a rotund helicopter pilot. If that's not Golden Age, then I don't know what is.
Anyway, Jimmy Olsen feels like more of an outlier, something that would become a true product of the Silver Age once everything else was in place, and it's another example of how pinning it down to a single issue rather than a broad, sweeping, irregular change of ideas can be maddeningly difficult. But the more I think about it, the more issues I look at and then discard, the more I feel like Showcase #4 and October of 1956 is still the best place to look.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Barry Allen looks like a Silver Age character. His costume feels far more modern, a refinement of the initial superhero design sensibility that takes them away from the carnival strongmen in sweatshirts and belts and into color-blocked body-suits that emphasize the form underneath the suits. And considering that he's directly contrasted against his Golden Age predecessor right there on the page, readers could see it right from the start.
Which, in turn, points to the bigger reason: Flash is a reboot. For all the thematic ties to that postwar era of fiction --- the constant but tenuous connection with science that manifests into the stories and the "Flash Facts" that are pulled straight from the educational films of the Atomic Age --- the biggest one comes from the idea that Barry Allen doesn't happen without Jay Garrick. He's the new iteration of a superheroic concept --- the first new iteration at DC.
That, even more than all the other trappings of the era, like kid sidekicks and colorful villains that rob banks with boomerangs or absolute control over the destructive power of nature itself (because those are basically equivalent, right?), is what makes that comic the start of the Silver Age. Just by virtue of existing, it proves that superheroes as a concept are mutable, that they can be tailored to fit times.
It's one of the reasons that the Silver Age is defined by legacy characters. For all the aesthetics of the era that come directly from Superman and the complicated rules that he was operating under in the '50s and '60s, it's also the era of Hal Jordan, Ray Palmer, and Katar Hol, of the Justice League of America. Marking it with Barry Allen shows where all of that starts, taking old ideas and polishing them up, or twisting them into something new to see what works. That was the spirit of the times, and the enduring legacy of what the Silver Age gave to us, an element of comic book storytelling that far outlasted lion heads and elastic serums.