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Golden Age and Silver Age


Scott Anderson
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In order to help myself better understand how to give my games and other product the appropriate tone, I've begun to make a list of the differences between a typically Golden Age setting and a typically Silver Age one.  

 

Here are the lists I've made so far.

 

Typically Golden Age:
powers gained through magic, religious reincarnation, or (mainly) no powers except the virtues of manliness.
An un-self-consciousness and mostly unwarranted ease and confidence in the face of adversity.  
Lurid, horrible, and ghastly ends for Bad Guys.  Bad guys normally gangsters, spies, saboteurs, and mad scientists. Occasionally wizards or devils.
Relatability is often achieved chiefly through the device of a Kid (or otherwise mundane) sidekick.
Continuity loosely adhered to, if at all. Costumes designed to be easy to draw and print with the primitive four-color processes of the day. 
 
Typically Silver Age:
powers derived from elaborately science-fiction-dressed sources like radiation, advanced chemistry, time travel, and aliens.  
More human-scale interpersonal relations and the problems of Real Life.
Villains retained moral reprehensibility but developed powers and wore costumes. (For instance, The Melter wasn't a military saboteur, but rather an industrial one.)  
A different strain of adversaries, derived from Monster comics of the 50's, hang around to confound the wits of heroes both street-level and godlike.
Stories became interconnected both within the title and between company's titles, and continuity becomes a strong hand guiding future development, for good and ill.  
Due both to better color separation and  to avoid repetition, costumes become more garish and more intricate. 
 
 
What are some of your own ideas about the differences?
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Generally speaking, Golden Age had two strains: brutal vigilantes and totally noble do-gooders.  You had Captain Marvel/Shazam right next to The Shadow on the shelves.  Cap never killed anyone, his villains were bad guys, but didn't have truly evil plans so much as nasty and mean, and nobody died.  Shadow gunned people down and would strike from surprise.  But both had a very strong, stark division between good and bad: bad guys were always bad and good guys were always good.  The kid sidekick thing was actually more common in silver age than golden, but there were some in gold (Robin showed up in 1940, for example).

 

Silver Age was super toned down from gold because of the comics code authority.  Now nobody was killed off or allowed to die, even as a direct result of their misdeeds.  Plots were more around highjinks than wicked criminal viciousness.

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CT has already pointed out a lot of what I was going to mention.

 

But one thing that had, IMO, a major impact on Golden Age stories versus pretty much everything that came after, Silver through today, in ever increasing intensity.  Is our current institutional paranoia.   

 

Back in the Golden Age, an organization was not inherently evil.  There were evil people in an organization.  Now an organization could become evil if the majority of people in it were evil, and when that happened it was time to band together and take them out.

 

A couple examples drawn from not just comics, but pulp/action novels I read from the 40-50’s:

 

The police, FBI and other organizations are generally good and trusted.  They are not evil.  Anytime you meet a police officer, detective or agent, they are good and will do their best to protect you.  Any bad cops or agents that harm, commit crimes or work against the country are exceptions and acting on their own. 

 

The government is generally good.  There may be individuals that are corrupt and commit crimes, but the overall organization is good.

 

People have and adhere to an ethical and moral code to do well and help their fellows.

 

It wasn’t until the end of the Silver and on to the present that people started assigning sentient abilities to organizations and calling them evil or corrupt just by existence. 

 

In the GA comics I remember, I could easily pick out the traitor/corrupt cop/spy, but the other characters in the story were oblivious.  Until the dramatic reveal/cliff hanger.   

“What!  Johnny’s a spy?  Never!”

 

When I run GA influenced games (my favorite) I pick and choose tropes as I feel like it, but overall the world, NPC’s and organizations are good and straight arrows.  Including the press ;)

 

The villains are the shadow on the world.  Not the common Citizen or Policeman on the beat.   

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To get less meta a big difference between gold and silver is the use of goons. Golden age tended to not have villains who could go toe to toe with the hero so they compensated with lots and lots of goons. If the villain was somewhat close to the hero he'd attack him last, but the usual confrtation was main villlian throws goons, at the hero then attempts to escape or set a trap. While you did see hero verus hoards of goons in the silver age, there were a lot more one on one fights. 

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Silver Age was super toned down from gold because of the comics code authority.  Now nobody was killed off or allowed to die, even as a direct result of their misdeeds.  Plots were more around highjinks than wicked criminal viciousness.

 

Overstated. There were plenty of deaths in the Silver Age. Yes, more frequently "accidental" compared to the Golden Age, and less explicitly portrayed, but they happened. Some notable cases: Alfred and Lightning Lad. Both eventually got better, but the deaths were real at the time.

 

Street level crimes tended towards robbery rather than drug dealing/illegal gambling/prostitution etc, but that was true in the Golden Age too.

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Kid sidekicks were actually more common in the Golden Age, although there were some introduced in both.

 

To complicate matters, some "sidekicks" actually appeared in their own stories as much as with their mentors.

 

Some kid/teen sidekicks introduced in the Silver Age: Aqualad, Kid Flash, Bat-Girl (Betty Kane). Kid Flash tended to be in his own stories. Supergirl and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) were basically solo acts. Wonder Girl was originally Wonder Woman as a girl.

 

Some Golden Age kid sidekicks: Robin, Bucky, Sandy (Sandman), Toro (Human Torch), Speedy (Green Arrow)... and a zillion more obscure ones.

 

Not all sidekicks were kids, of course.

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But when were those?  Because the "ages" are pretty vague in definition at the ends.

 

Alfred: Detective Comics #328 (June 1964). Brought back in Detective Comics #356 (October 1966). Supposedly he hadn't really been dead...

Lightning Lad: Adventure Comics #304 (January 1963). Resurrected in Adventure Comics #312 (September 1963).

 

And another:

Professor Xavier: X-Men #42 (March 1968). Brought back in X-Men #65 (February 1970).

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I can't believe we mention Lightning Lad, but not Ferro Lad, who stayed dead (so did Proty, who went out to resurrect Lightning Lad).

 

Characters like Uncle Ben and Bucky in the Silver Age are "death as backstory", so I would not count them. Similarly, the 1968 death of the Doom Patrol was a series-ending innovation, so probably should not count. In any case "main character deaths" were pretty rare. Baron Zemo died in an early Avengers and stayed dead.

 

That's not counting how frequently the villain appeared to die, with a later explanation of how he survived when a writer wanted to use him again, of course. Technically, that could cover Alfred and Prof X.

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(October 1966) 


(January 1963)


(February 1970)


 


So, debatable if they're really silver age or not.  My point isn't trying to defend "people never died in silver age" so much as that this is at least transition into another age of comics if not in another age entirely.  Many people claim the bronze age started in the 70s with the Speedy heroin issue but some argue it started back with the Marvel Comics such as Spider-Man.  The point being, things were changing in comics by that point, they were moving away from the light and breezy Superman with his pet dog stories and silly stuff.


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The "Big Storylines" I see associated with the transition from Silver to Bronze are Speedy hooked on heroin (GL/GA #85-86, early 1971), Harry Osborn on drugs (Spidey #96-98, a bit later in 1971, which broke the Comics Code) and the much later Death of Gwen Stacy (Spidey #121-122 in 1973). I think the '60s all fall within "Silver Age". I don't see any question on 1963 and 1966. The FF was barely being published by that time/

 

But different comics always had different feels and different target audiences. Most of Silver Age Marvel was written at a much more mature, and much less silly, level than much of Silver Age DC. Marvel pioneered characters with more rounded, humanized lives and personalities, but the Doom Patrol was similar, and the Legion had romances and deaths that many other books lacked at the time. I don't think there has ever been a homogenous comics publishing industry in any Age of comics. The Justice Society did a story on juvenile delinquency, but we don't suggest that started the Bronze Age of Comics.

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That's why the ages and any question over what definitively rules what is in them or not are always hazy.  You have to go with the general trend and overall patterns, rather than minor examples and exceptions.  For example, Superman was pretty mean to people in his first couple of issues, he terrified bad guys, ignored the laws, etc.  It was after a few issues his character began to become more set in stone.  Or take Bucky's death: sidekicks didn't die in comics, except that one time.  So you go with the overall "sidekicks get out of the death traps" rule, not the "but Bucky died" exception.

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One area is that Golden Age super heroes were all over the map regarding power levels while Silver Age supers are lot more comparable to one another.

 

As far as what time periods represent Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and such, I think you would have to look at it like Renaissance, Baroque, and such in art, philosophy, and literature movements where elements tend to overlap without a clear cutoff point of when one ends and the other begins.

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In order to help myself better understand how to give my games and other product the appropriate tone, I've begun to make a list of the differences between a typically Golden Age setting and a typically Silver Age one.  

 

What are some of your own ideas about the differences?

 

How many Golden Age and Silver Age comics have you read? This is an important starting point for discussion.

 

Dean Shomshak

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I think Golden Age is pretty easy - start of Supers (ie the very beginning) until the comics trail off - Showcase #4 (FLash) is generally considered the start of the Silver Age, although some early '50s Superman, Batman, WW books could be precursors rather than Golden Age.

 

Silver Age - 1970 or so makes sense with two seminal storylines, GL/GA and Spidey's Harry Osborne on Drugs storylines both coming out in 1971.

 

Bronze Age starts when Silver ends, but what storyline(s) demarcate the Iron Age? Maybe the start of Image Comic?

 

Similarly, what stories or series demarcate the transition to the modern age (which, based on a 15 year cycle, should we wrapping up)?

 

Maybe the Modern Age enters the Reboot Age with DC New 52/Marvel Now?

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Iron Age could go all the way back to Miracleman in 1982. But I don't think that stuff really caught on in mainstream comics until Image.

 

The Golden Age had much heavier pulp influences than later books. Women were portrayed more sexually. Monsters like vampires, ghouls, and werewolves appeared. It was wartime, and so racist depictions of America's enemies were common. Combine Indiana Jones with the Universal monster movies, add in some men's magazines with buxom women-in-peril on the covers, a couple of gangster and detective movies, and a touch of Buck Rogers and War of the Worlds. That will give you the Golden Age world that your heroes are running around in.

 

The Silver Age sanitized it a lot, but not totally. It's a lot more 50s and 60s sitcoms, plus giant monster movies (like Tarantula, not just Godzilla stuff). Add in a heavy dose of romantic comedy, and the occasional celebrity appearance or reference to any other cultural phenomenon (surf movies, Jimmy Olsen hanging out with the Beatles, etc). Keep a few traces of the Golden Age, and add in a big wave of powered and costumed villains. That's your Silver Age.

 

The Bronze Age stays with the Silver Age formula, but updates the TV references. Instead of being based on shows like Leave it to Beaver, Gilligan's Island, and The Andy Griffith Show, it changed to reflect more modern tastes. So All in the Family, Maide, MASH, and the Jeffersons. These were much more topical and risky shows than the ones in the 50s and 60s, and so comics reflected that as well. Still relatively tame by today's standards, though. Add in movies like Dirty Harry and Star Wars as you get into the later 70s.

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I have been reading a Golden Age comic series online, some insights I have obtained is that Golden Age heroes can frequently get away with rather simplistic origins and secret IDs.  They are also surprisingly nonchalant about taking non-adventuring women and children into dangerous circumstances, and they frequently employ interrogation techniques that would get them arrested if done today.  They are also surprisingly easy to contact by troubled citizens needing their help but not by criminals trying to hunt them down.

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Some of those GA tropes are artifacts of 8 page stories (or chapters for JSA/7 Soldiers type books). Silver Age often tended to have two features in a book. With Bronze and later going book-length for all characters, as well as a much greater tendency to continue stories over multiple issues, plots could be more lengthy and complex, and feature stuff that would previously have been off-panel.

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Typically Golden Age:
powers gained through magic, religious reincarnation, or (mainly) no powers except the virtues of manliness.

 

There were as many science-based origins and powers in the Golden Age as there were magic-based.  My avatar, The American Crusader received his powers by being exposed to the energies of an atom smasher.  Jay Garrick, The Golden Age Flash, became The Fastest Man Alive after prolonged exposure to the fumes of "hard water."  (I didn't say it was good science.)  Then there's the man himself--the one with the big red cape and the big red "S."  A strange visitor from another world--doesn't get much more science-oriented that that.

 

Hope that helps.

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