The Silver Age of Comic Book Art
By Arlen Schumer
In the Silver Age of Comics (circa 1956-1970), superheroes started out as champions, but wound up as chumps. They went from being self-confident heroes in exalted gratitude to the science and technology that gave them their powers, to fallen idols who doubted and questioned the very authorities that had made them de facto deputies in the fight against evil - an evil no longer delineated in the same black and white terms that had previously defined their four-color existences, but now limned in shades of grey. They went through the same transformation the rest of America's heroes went through in the 60's, when racial strife, political assassinations and the Vietnam War exacted their toll on the country's spirit and vision of itself. Particularly of its heroes, which had been, before the superhero took a place in the American Heroic pantheon, the kind of cowboys and soldiers John Wayne played in the movies; those archetypes all but vanished by the end of the decade, replaced by antiheroes in films like Bonnie & Clyde and Midnight Cowboy, the motorcycle jockeys of Easy Rider, the diffident docs of M.A.S.H. - all soldiers of a sort fighting their own wars against the establishment.
Similarly, superheroes in comic books, establishment conservatives like Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern, were displaced by super-antiheroes, counterculture liberals like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Green Arrow. Even the look of comic book art reflected this changing of the guard, as the early '60s futuristic idealism of artists Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane gave way first to the pop explosion of Jack Kirby, then to the late '60s psychedelia of Jim Steranko and the photorealism of Neal Adams.
Like the American youth counterculture that reached its apogee in the 1960s from germinations in the '50s Beat generation, the superhero comic-counterculture of the '60s also flowered from seeds planted in the previous decade, at the dawn of the Silver Age, when events in both the real and comic book worlds coincided: the Soviets' surprise launching of Sputnik in 1957 shocked America out of its Eisenhower-era complacency and into scientific action, centered around speed (with which to beat the Russians), space (the target) and technology (the means to get there), and, just as in the old "hot" war, when superheroes like Captain America aided the war effort at home by hawking war bonds and striking patriotic cover poses, this new Cold War would call for its own superheroic standard bearers. It is no wonder, then, that DC Comics, which had been trolling for new genres to exploit after most of their World War II-spawned superheroes had died out years before for lack of popularity, ignited a second superhero boom when it began its new foray into the superhero field with remodeled, higher-tech versions of their mothballed war heroes: super-speedster The Flash (who doubled as police scientist Barry Allen), power ring-wielding outer space adventurer Green Lantern (alias Hal Jordan, test pilot with the right stuff), and The Atom (research scientist Ray Palmer), who had the ability to shrink to microscopic size (in stark contrast to his '40s counterpart, who was merely a diminutive strongman). The U.S. government, through newly-formed agencies like NASA, wanted to promote their Mercury astronauts as real-life costumed heroes for the Space Age; DC coincidentally responded with Adam Strange, billed as "Earth's First Spaceman."
The artist who drew both The Flash and Adam Strange, Carmine Infantino, visually embodied the new ideals of this new age. The cities The Flash ran through were stylized compositions of futuristically-slanted spires; suburban homes all came out of advanced California moderne motifs of the era. Infantino's trademark long, low panels filled with trim, lithe figures were as sleek and streamlined as the fins Detroit was sporting on all its cars of the era. Everything Infantino drew reflected the crystal-clean images of America promulgated then by Hollywood and Madison Avenue in its entertainment and advertising. As the country headed into an unprecedented era of wealth and prosperity with eyes toward the future, Infantino's style mirrored these ethereal notions more accurately than his DC contemporaries, Curt Swan, Joe Kubert and Gil Kane, and perhaps better than any other comic book artist of his time.
But over at Marvel Comics, where Kirby and writer/editor Stan Lee were beginning to challenge DC's hegemony in the superhero field with offbeat creations like The Fantastic Four and The Hulk, artist Steve Ditko's pages were bleak and grey, peopled by equally drab characters of plain, everyman appearance. As co-created by Ditko and Lee in 1962, Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, was a shy, weak, laughed-at and pushed-around egghead. More importantly, though, he was a teenager, unlike all of DC's new techno-heroes, who were over thirty years old, the "parents" to Marvel's super-youth. Spider-Man also exhibited other differences - like initially wanting to make money from his new powers instead of fighting crime. These characteristics set him apart from the DC pantheon, anticipating the generation gap that was to split America apart later in the decade, qualifying him as comicdom's breakout super-antihero. (Indeed, the title of one of the very first mainstream media reports on Spider-Man and the Marvel Comics revolution was "Super-Anti-Hero in Forest Hills" by Sally Kempton in the April 1, 1965 Village Voice, in which she noted that Marvel's were "…the first (superhero) comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World," and that Spider-Man particularly was one of the first in which "…a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved.")
The other feature Ditko co-created with Lee in 1963, Dr. Strange, was as prescient in forecasting what was to become another major touchstone of the decade. Woven throughout the saga of a washed-up American surgeon who becomes an enlightened super-sorcerer were bizarre, surrealistic visualizations never before seen in comic books, all uniquely Ditko's own, that had a wide-ranging influence on the proto-counterculture that was beginning to use LSD to open new doors of perception into fantasy worlds that were distinctively Ditko-like. "He sits for hours on end reading comic books," Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, who, while traveling on his Magic Bus spreading the LSD gospel across America in 1964, was "absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange…" Those shadows foreshadowed the psychedelic graphics of the late-'60s San Francisco rock music poster school; the very first posters for shows at Bill Graham's famous Fillmore West ballroom in 1967 specifically featured homages and pastiches of Doctor Strange - and many other Marvel superheroes, all of whom were crafted in similar degrees of antiheroism.
As DC writer Arnold Drake observed about Marvel's growing popularity in a memo to DC's publisher in 1966, "The antihero was lifted from the hardcover books and slick magazines and brought to the kids…(Marvel) succeeded for two reasons primarily. First, they were more in tune with what was happening in the country than we were. And perhaps more important, they aimed their stuff at an age level that had never read comics before in any impressive number - the college level." Esquire magazine evidently agreed, noting this burgeoning college infatuation in a September 1966 feature article that opined, "…Marvel's super-heroes, in spite of their super-powers, have super problems. And that's why your college buddies are flipping over them." Like the anonymous Ivy Leaguer who was quoted at one of Lee's growing number of college lecture circuit stops, "We think of Marvel Comics as the twentieth-century mythology and you as this generation's Homer." The art wasn't overlooked either (the article itself snappily illustrated by none other than Kirby himself) when a Cornell University student, shown in silhouetted photo next to a Kirby Dr. Strange, gushed that Marvels were "beautifully illustrated, to a nearly hallucinogenic extent. Even the simple mortal-hero stories are illustrated with every panel as dramatically composed as anything Orson Welles ever put on film." Knowing what we know now about their careers and Marvel's eventual dominance, the '60s juggernaut team of Lee & Kirby can be seen as the Lennon & McCartney of comics, just as prolific, their work similarly developing in scope and profundity, at an exponential rate just as startling; by 1967, they too were in the midst of the most creatively psychedelic phase of their work, having just unleashed a slew of cosmic characters and concepts, including The Silver Surfer, Galactus, and The Black Panther, in dizzying, dazzling succession.
DC never quite knew how to respond to Marvel, but did "answer" Dr. Strange in the fall of '67 with its own quasi-mystical character, Deadman, in the pages of the coincidentally-titled Strange Adventures. Created by writer Drake and illustrated by the ubiquitous Infantino, Deadman was a daredevil trapeze artist shot dead in mid-swing, only to miraculously revive as a ghost with the power to inhabit the bodies of the living, thus enabling him to search for his killer. Within this premise, Drake was able to intertwine his take on the newly-fashionable (thanks largely to the Beatles) Eastern theories of reincarnation (Deadman's spiritual benefactor went by the Hindu-sounding name of Rama Kushna) with a lift from the recently concluded TV series The Fugitive, in which the series star searched episode after episode for his wife's killer, a one-armed man (Deadman's killer instead had a hook in place of a missing hand).
Deadman might have remained little more than a footnote in comic book history had it not been for the abrupt change in art styles that occurred when Infantino left the series after one issue (to become DC's new Editorial Director, then Publisher) and was replaced by a relative newcomer to comic books (though a wunderkind in both the advertising art and newspaper strip fields prior), 26-year old Neal Adams. Adams settled on the Deadman character and proceeded to, in his words, "strut his stuff," setting the comic book world on its ear with freewheeling, cinematically-influenced panel sequences and page compositions. But it was his photorealistic mastery of anatomy and human emotion that, above his other meretricious achievements, made Deadman's angst-ridden, angry antihero posturing ring truer than any in the Marvel stable of "realistic" characters; Deadman, under Adams' masterful rendering, seemed, ironically, more alive than any superhero to date.
Midway though Deadman's brief run (1967-69), the character was paired with Batman and illustrated not by the latter's regular artists, but by Adams. By this time (April '68), the Batman TV series (an overnight sensation two years prior that resulted in a superhero sales boom not seen since World War II) had just been canceled, but not before reducing the actual comic book version of the character into a two-dimensional caricature of its TV counterpart (which was itself an exaggerated blow-up of the campiest, cartooniest elements of the Batman milieu of the 1950s). Adams instinctively grasped that this team-up with Deadman would be a chance to undo years of shabby treatment and restore the character's tarnished integrity to that of its original conception as a Shadow-like creature of the night. In one fell swoop, Adams accomplished this task (and went on to illustrate Batman scripts for the next six years, becoming, arguably, the definitive Batman artist).
Exactly a year later, in the same Batman team-up title, Adams revamped a second-string DC character, Green Arrow, a trick-archer who had degenerated, over the years, into a cheap copy of Batman, replete with Arrow Car, Arrow Cave, Arrow signal, ad nauseum. Adams threw out all of the character's excess baggage, redesigned his costume to emphasize a more modern-day Robin Hood resemblance, and added a mustache and goatee - which, in retrospect, was a bold gesture, for not only did it mark Green Arrow as the first superhero with facial hair, but its late-'60s timeliness hinted at a hipper personality that begged to be exploited.
That exploitation came soon enough, in 1970, when DC decided to partner Green Arrow with Green Lantern in an effort to stave off cancellation of the latter's title. By this time, in the wake of not only upstart Marvel Comics' overwhelming popularity, but of the declining fortunes in American pop culture of the stock heroic models their characters were based on, most of DC's techno-heroes had too fallen by the wayside, their sales eroding, their books cancelled, just as the ideals they embodied were also crumbling in real-life America. Of all these righteously naïve superheroes, who had seen the world in black and white absolutes, fought cliched supervillains and mad scientists, and flew off into space pell mell for adventures on other worlds, Green Lantern was the most typical, the virtual personification of the American power establishment responsible for the country's presence in both Vietnam and outer space.
Adams and new scripter Denny O'Neil, the verbal counterpart to Adams' visual hyperrealism, made good on the political potential inherent in Green Arrow's new Robin Hood appearance by injecting him with a blatant left-wing worldview. "Robin Hood was the perfect antihero-rebel-fight-for-the-underdog hero model for the time," Adams said. "By making Green Arrow into a cool Robin Hood, I had served him up as an anti-establishment foil to counter Green Lantern's conforming, status quo-worshipping, white do-gooder, blind, kind of 1950's creep attitide. Social consciousness was the name of the particular game, then, and Green Arrow became the focus of that surge."
Green Arrow became Green Lantern's conscience, exposing him, over the course of a remarkable thirteen-issue run that extended into 1972, to the darker sides of Sixties America that Green Lantern - and by extension, his readers - had never directly experienced nor imagined: injustice, bigotry, poverty, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, greed and gross materialism. O'Neil's words rang true because Adams' art was truer to life than any comic book art had been before.
No matter that the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series was canceled prematurely, or that, after a brief flurry of knocked-off "relevant" stories, superhero life in comic books reverted back to its fantasy shell for the remainder of the decade--the damage had been done. A chink had been exposed in the Silver Age armor. Adams and O'Neil had debunked the sterile sanctimonium of the DC superheroes' universe and brought them all down to earth, from an open-armed acceptance of the benevolence of science and technology to a begrudging awareness of the corrupting consequences of power. In comic book terms, The Sixties were over - the Silver Age of Comics had ended.
- Arlen Schumer, 2003