Was the Golden Age really that Golden?
A frequent debate I have often entertained with other history geeks goes something like this: If you could chose, would you rather live during the dawning of a great civilization such as Greece or Rome, or would you rather experience the final days that great civilization? It is an incredibly interesting question that can ignite many an argument. You see, being born during the formation of a great civilization or empire means a lot of hard work, but at the same time it means being a part of the creation of something fantastic. The men and women who undertake the creation of great empires and civilizations starve and die, but for a greater good. On the other hand, living in the twilight years of any civilization typically means decadence. Rome, Greece, England, and others have, in their downward spiral kept their people, especially their middle and upper classes, well entertained and well fed. As I said before, it is a conversation that is endlessly fascinating to get wrapped up in.
Lately, I have been applying this idea to other areas besides my academic field. Namely, comic books.
So let me rephrase the question: Would you rather experience comics in what so many readers have come to call the “Golden Age” of comics, the era that built the storied medium we all love, or would you rather experience the last years of comic books (as they exist in the current paradigm) where creators have the freedom to explore and take chances the industry at its zenith might not have allowed?
To entertain this idea, a few conceits have to be made. First, the 1930’s and 40’s represent the dawning of comic books as a medium. In this period young, tenacious writers took risks and built traditions that would be loved and remembered for decades. Secondly, the current modern era of comic books represents the end of comic books as a tangible, paper medium that sees month-to-month publication of serialized stories. Now, I understand that I am absolutely begging the question here. There is no concrete argument that proves we are all experiencing the final years of comic books as we know them, but I am asking, for the sake of discussion, to allow me to gloss over my evidence for the argument I am just expecting you to accept.
As a young comic book fan, I used to long for the days when comics cost a dime and super-heroes and pulpy stories were ubiquitous. I mean, how cool would it be to get your funny books from the newsstand on the corner? And of course, I was absolutely infatuated with the simplicity and wonder of those Golden Age stories. I dreamed of experiencing Superman and all his spinoffs as a new, innovate phenomena. I have to admit, I also used to play with the idea of being able to be on the ground floor, working with the greats.
However, a decade or so into reading comics fervently and almost religiously, I have noticed that my opinion has shifted. I am reading better books than anything I have ever come across from decades gone by. Comic fans follow and interact with writers and artists more than they ever could have when comics were produced in smoky cramped New York lofts by ghost writers and kids with pseudonyms. And the ingenuity and originality. I mean, have you read Manhattan Projects or Saga? Scalped or The Walking Dead? This creative burst extends even beyond independent publishers. DC and Marvel are both taking chances on projects they would have never risked when books sold over quadruple what they currently do. Face it: it is an absolutely amazing time to be a comic book enthusiast. There are more good, quality books coming out than any fan could ever hope to read every month.
But the interesting Catch-22 of this all is that it is failure and impending finality for the industry that is spurring this creative renaissance. Comic books, monthly floppy comic books that is, are just not selling. At least not in the way they used to sell. The comic and game shop that signs my weekly paychecks has sold more fifteen dollar trade paper back editions of Adventure Time, the frighteningly popular Cartoon Network phenomenon, than it has any of Marvel’s top titles for the last few months. And I would feel fairly comfortable in saying that the Adventure Time merchandise we carry is more responsible for keeping the lights on and the doors open than anything monthly pamphlet comic. The fact is, comic books just don’t make a successful business. On a micro or macro scale. Local comic shops are forced to focus on general merchandise, buttons and shirts, over pamphlet comics to survive in the market. Actual firms, Marvel and DC come to mind, are certainly not dependent upon monthly comic sales for their profits. Instead it is licensing and merchandising that makes them any sort of profitable income. I can almost guarantee you that Disney and Warner Bros (Marvel and DC’s respective parent companies) are infinitely more concerned with how well their film adaptations do during opening weekend than how Justice League or The Avengers sold in the month of November.
So, let’s return to my original question: would you be a part of those original glory days seeing the creation of Superman and the Fantastic Four, or would you rather go down with the ship and enjoy the spectacular light all of these dying stars are radiating?
As sad as it is to see masterful works of sequential art, like Chew, flounder around 10 or 15 thousand in monthly sales, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the experience for anything in the world. Because you have to ask yourself: if Chew had been pitched back in those famed Golden Age bullpens, would any publisher have (forgive the atrocious pun) taken a bite? I think not. I think, in fact, a book like Chew (or American Vampire or any of the countless wonderful off-the-beaten-path titles currently being published) could only exist in the twilight years of this wonderful industry. Even more so, could a four-issue mini-series that explores the medium and the genre of Super-hero stories exist in the beginning of the comics industry? No. Flex Mentallo (which if you have not read, please, please do so) could only exist as the comic books falter and begin their downward trajectory. It is, like so many other wonderful projects of the modern era, a product of the times.
So play on Nero, and let Rome burn. I for one will revel in every second I get to enjoy this medium. The artistry and level of craft that we all get to be party to as comic books cross the Rubicon and enter into its final form is worth the pain that will surely come when comic books fade into history.