Friday, March 4, 2011

Kidnapping The Golden Age

Using metals as a designation for eras is a short hand for technological capability, i.e. Bronze Age, the Iron Age.  In the never ending deification of technology, the paradigm portrays a civilization’s progress through metalworking, amassing strength, power and momentum.  Somewhere along the way, the arts adopted a similar looking way of naming eras, except with the opposite implication, one of degradation: a weakening, a dilution and a loss of value.  We’re all familiar with the notion of the “golden age of cinema”, despite it having little meaning. 
Comic Books are categorized in a similar fashion: Golden Age – Silver Age – Bronze Age.  I really don’t care for era headings that suggest an inexorable decline in quality, an inevitable decay.  It’s pessimistic and inaccurate.  There’s almost a religious self-loathing in the notion of an ideal time followed by a continuous fall from grace leading to the very bottom in the present.  On a grand scale, time is most easily observed as the process of entropy, but that doesn’t translate culturally to the early days of an art form being wizardry, the Silver Age being vaudeville magic shows and the Bronze Age being an unshaven mug hustling card tricks on a street corner.

I suppose, part of the designation has literally to do with the antique collectible value of comic books and that has probably been the most destructive element for comics being part of the magic garden of childhood.

Something that really stands out about comics of yesteryear is a bold simplicity and earnest clarity of line and form; of character and story.  It is easy to perceive earlier incarnations of comics as wielding a kind of purity and innocence—a golden age by way of Dylan Thomas sensibility.  Those comics were definitely drawn for and priced for children, and yet, or maybe because of it, they are sort of timeless and ageless.

I hope children still read comic books, and read them with the intensity and immersion that I remember.  But comics have matured in ways I sometimes find marvelous, but also ways that make me feel sad for the children.  I sometimes feel like we loved our comics so much that we wanted to keep them for ourselves, making them more convoluted as we aged, bogging them down with an adult’s sense of continuity and complexity, not to mention an adult’s sense of interpersonal relationships. Along the way, we may have started to lose the idea that they were for children first.

If far darker and more sophisticated storytelling is not barrier enough to children, there is also the price.  Paper and printing cost more than they once did, and artists and writers are better paid than they once were, but there is an undeniable relationship between the price of comics and the audience.  Pricing of a commodity is always based on the very most the market will bear.  A ten year old cannot compete as a target market with a 45 year old middle manager whose life still revolves around the day of the week that the comics are shipped.  From a business standpoint, that adult market is several cohorts, all more numerous than the dwindling children market, at least two generations into shrinking family size.  Of course that neglects the great wisdom of churches and tobacco companies:  hook ‘em while they’re young.

When I was a kid, most stores had a comic book rack—corner stores, grocery stores, pharmacies.  A kid could independently go on his own quest for 4-colour magic and pay for it with allowance, couch scrounged change, or even by returning a few pop bottles pulled from the trash.  Getting lost in cosmic adventures and heroic glory could be part of a private autonomous universe.  In essence, children were pint sized hunters and gatherers.  Today, virtually the only place to buy a comic book is a comic book store, a specialty shop for collectors and the obsessed.

Today, rather than the subversive act making a pilgrimage on foot or bicycle to the comic rack—sometimes a literally transgressive act if the corner store was outside of a permitted radius from home—the kid has to petition a parent to bring them to the collector store.

There is more to it than just the loss of freedom.  When I was a kid, I had no conception of comics being collected, financially evaluated and sealed away in little plastic vaults.  It would never have occurred to me that an adult would read a comic book.  Sure, by adolescence, in my hunger to read comics from before my time, I had discovered comic book stores.  They were more of an oddity back then, seedier, kind of like the comic shop in the Simpsons.  Back then, it was still common to see kids in these shops. 

In fact, as I reflect on it, I am probably of the first generation that was transitioned into being collectors while still youth, into a world that rabidly followed something akin to the stock market.  I think if you were born ten years before me, the entire formative youth years could be enjoyed in a pristine state where comics were simply a pleasure and an escape.  If you carried on reading them as an adult, it might still simply be a love of the comics even if the layers of pleasure evolved.  The Overstreet Price Guide, a bible of the cape-and-tights financial market, dates back to my youngest years and no further.

Today, after a kid has convinced mom or dad to drive them to the place where comics are hoarded, and accessed a parental credit card--since the cover price on a single comic book ranges from $4-6 these days--there is still one more loss that subtracts from the riches of a child’s own space.  The kid walks into a brightly lit boutique of dense cross merchandising.  Expensive cross-merchandising.  Aimed at adults.  The kid knows it is aimed at adults, because there are no kids in the store.  There is a table in the back, and four men in their early thirties are arguing about Pokemon.  There are two men in expensive suits frantically looking for the newest issue of whatever.  There’s another man leaning on the counter placing an order for a recent anime box set that comes with a “for mature audiences” rating.  Three more guys in their late twenties are in the “toy” aisle drooling over comic hero figurines, which are the oversized, highly sculpted $60-and-up descendents of the $2 Star Wars action figures I grew up with.

The toys themselves shine a light on the intended market.  The action figures I played with as a child were cheaply made, and cheap to buy.  They didn’t have articulated joints, they were coloured poorly and tended to come from generic molds.  To be frank, they look like crap to an adult.  But that didn’t matter because no one was trying to sell them to adults.  You have to remember, to a kid, a blanket propped up on a broom can be a hidden fortress, a cardboard box can be the Batmobile, and a small copse of trees can be Middle Earth.  In comparison, action figures were pretty heady and intoxicating.  We used them to wage campaigns and tell stories.  We also used them to make rules and learn what rules were for.  We unwittingly used them to develop into proper human beings (I forget who said, ‘it is the work of children to play’).  Again, those toys were priced in a child’s budget, and available at any department store.

I stood in a comic store one day, with a friend, marveling at the artistry and detail of today’s toys, and we both got wistful thinking how amazing it must be to be a kid today.  It only took a moment to realize we were missing the point.  These toys were priced for adults, in a shop in the business district, and were meant to be left intact in the packaging and placed reverently on a shelf.  More pointedly, I saw a human interest piece on TV a while back, about a nerdy couple and their vast toy collection.  They gave the camera a loving tour of the climate controlled toy room and towards the end of the piece laughed that the only downside was their kid’s constant complaining that he wasn’t allowed to touch them.  I’ll repeat, the child is not allowed to play with the toys, and they were laughing about it.  It was ghoulish and frightening. These are the monsters of kid’s stories: the Grinches, Selfish Giants and the Hooded Fangs.  Except in those stories, this kind of characteristic is a defect rectified by the end of the story.  

It often seems the comics these toys are based on have gone the same way.  Adults, sequestering and hoarding childhood, simultaneously transforming it into something with no more child-like wonder and ironically, no longer intended for children.

I started off on this tangent thinking about a super hero television show called The Cape.  I’m surprised it hasn’t already been pulled from the air, considering the amount of vitriol, disdain and hate it’s getting.  It’s gloriously ham-fisted, bombastically over the top, and gleefully nonsensical.  It’s a bit stilted, a little bit purple and is filled with rogues on both sides of the good and evil equation.  It reminds me of everything wondrous about any comic book that comes from the golden age, or the early days of the silver age.  In this sense, it is very perfect and very precious.  Adults (who watch super hero shows) hate it.  I don’t mean it doesn’t take their fancy and so they watch something else; I mean they hate it and want it off the air.  These are the same people who want each and every comic book movie to be darker, grittier, edgier.  It doesn’t occur to them, that the hero--The Cape--fills an urgent need for the little boy character on the show.  The tales and the way the tales are depicted are for kids.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying childish things—have you ever watched adults in a Toys’R’Us store?  But there is something terribly tragic about clinging to childhood loves so desperately that they are warped out of any shape where they are still in fact for children.  The funny thing too, is that the broad strokes and simplistic stories and the private child spaces allowed a mythic-ness that is the very reason we retain an abiding love for the form.  It’s the reason those old comics can be read with innocent pleasure or with rich analysis.  Will today’s comic culture germinate an abiding love in today’s children?


  1. I don't think children read comics as often as they did when I was a kid. For my family, we were only allowed to read comic books in the summer (or if we were sick we got one as a treat)and even some comic books were completely verboten, like the True Romance ones.
    I remember when my older brother hit his teens and he switched from Mad to Heavy was a strange transition and marked the end of an era of Superman, Batman and Archie.
    I tried getting my son into comics when he resisted reading books, but I truly think this generation of young 'uns are all screen addicted. If it's not on some glowing LCD that they've got in their hands, it's not worth looking at.

  2. Did you see this:

    Also- I have to think Mad magazine was the absolte most influential reading material of my childhood. I wonder if there is a video game equivalent?