Light v Dark, Grim v Grin: The Cyclical Nature of Comic Books

I first came across the idea of the cycles or phases of Comics from Grant Morrison‘s book SuperGods: Our Age in the World of the Superhero.

In it he references the work of Iain Spence, particularly his published work Sekhmet Hypothesis: The Signals of the Beginning of a New Identity, which discusses the idea of human tastes and attitudes shifting or even spinning on their axis, based on the shifting magnetic poles of the Earth.

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You could really fall down the rabbit hole with this stuff so bear with me for a bit. From Supergods, Morrison explains that

Sunspot activity follows a 22 year cyclical pattern, building to a period of furious activity known as the solar maximum, then calming down for the solar minimum. Every eleven years, the solar magnetic field also undergoes a polarity reversal. It’s like a huge switch that toggles on or off, or the volume slider on a mixing desk, with loud at one end and silent at the other, and each period is given an identifying number. Cycle 23, for instance, had its maximum in 1999.

Spence (via Morrison) goes on to explain that this cycle affects the human brain which in turn results in cycles of human culture, characterised as phases known as ‘hippie’ and ‘punk’.

Look, take this with as many pinches of salt as you require, but there’s no denying that popular culture, like fashion, shifts through its own seasons. Whether you’d class them as Punk and Hippie or something else entirely is up to you, but comics totally get caught up in these cycles too; something that Morrison notes in his book.

Silver Age comic books, Morrison tells us, were the embodiment of ‘Cycle 19’ Punk energy (which apparently doesn’t contain the anarchy that you’d imagine). It’s defined by ‘short hair, fast songs, and widespread use of stimulant drugs…tight suits, establishment men, and emphasis on science and rationality are all typical”, so books like The Flash, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were born as a result.

Then, as the ‘hippie’ cycle emerged 11 years later:

…hair had become longer, clothes were looser and more flamboyant, music became more involved and sophisticated, and the drugs were mind expanders like LSD.

This led to the cosmic side of superheroes like Thor and supervillains like the Anti-Matter Man, and the anti-establishment tone of the ‘cycle’ led to the birth of “freaks and mutants”.

The next cycle in 1977 saw a return to the punk era, and as far as comics go, Frank Miller emerged with his “gritty noir”, and characters like Judge Dredd and the work of Alan Moore entered the fray.

Again, following that came another cycle of mind expansion and psychedelia, and, much like before, comics followed suit, with books like Doom Patrol, Shade and Sandman.

It’s certainly a fascinating theory, and even Morrison himself admits that it’s a hell of a conversation starter at parties; for the most part I entertain the theory. There’s no denying that comics have different phases, the examples that Morrison gives fit that mold pretty perfectly and prove his point. However, the cynical side of me feels that there could probably be just as many comics out there that could prove the opposite as well.

I like the idea though, and in its broadest sense I believe it.

It loses me slightly when it links it all to solar flares and magnetic fields, although I’d happily be proven wrong. To me though the most interesting take-away is this concept of comic book ‘fashion’; and even casual comic fans can name a few of these phases. They’re loosely referred to as Ages.

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Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age. After that it starts to differ depending on what source you reference, but some speak of the Modern Age. My favourite was the podcast Comic Geek Speak talking about the 90s as the Chromium Age, a reference to the limited edition metallic covers that were popular at the time.

But it’s the same as anything: music, art, fashion, film, they all go through cycles, and the whole reason I bring this up is because I feel like we’re entering a whole new phase in comic books. I mean I don’t have the ‘evidence’ of the solar cycles as my guide, but just look at the way the books you read are changing.

It doesn’t feel that long ago that books were striving to be ‘real’.

Comics like The Ultimates and Kick Ass looked at an askew version of our own world, while movies like X-Men and Unbreakable did away with the brightly coloured spandex and showed us that our superheroes could be serious and grounded. It never quite sat right with me. I grew up with the fantastic and the magical, and besides all this talk of ‘look at how grown up these characters can be!’ almost felt like we were apologising for the childlike wonder of comics.

I guess Watchmen started us down this road. Even Alan Moore saw his work as being the definitive, logical conclusion to the superhero genre. In Grant Morrison’s book, he discusses the atmosphere among writers at that time, and how Moore’s declaration of the death of superhero comics caused a change in two ways. Firstly that yes, superheroes were dead, and writers instead moved away from it as a genre. Those who remained molded the genre to adapt to this changing climate, making books like Batman and Superman grittier, darker, more ‘real’. The 90’s and most of the 00’s were defined by this gritty realism. Even the Avengers were reduced to fighting not gods and cosmic abstracts, but street level villains and even themselves. Superheroes were forced to face the consequences of their actions in books like Civil War, and fight very real life battles like Daredevil’s Karen Page contracting aids.

In the last few years though, I feel like there’s been a change.

Marvel’s cinematic movies have been getting bigger and bolder and most importantly brighter. The public are starting to accept that superheroes wear brightly coloured clothes and deal with the fantastic. There’s no longer an need for movies to be gritty and ‘serious’ – just look at Batman v Superman. Even as recently as Deadpool, cinema is leading the charge and proving that the public can handle a break from reality.

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The big thing this week is DC’s Rebirth, the first issue of which is out this Wednesday. The latest in DC’s long history of reboots, Rebirth makes a lot of promises. Not least among them is the idea of reclaiming what was lost: hope. DC Comics have been derided for many years for being too dark and grim when, of both the Big Two superhero companies (DC and Marvel), it was traditionally DC that had the mythical legends and almost deific pantheon of Super Humans.

Marvel prided itself on being relatable; Spider-Man actually being awkward teen Peter Parker behind the mask; the Fantastic Four being a normal, if slightly dysfunctional, family unit. DC meanwhile had alien orphan Kal-El with his God-like alter ego Superman; daughter of the Amazonians and actual demigoddess Wonder Woman, and Bruce Wayne, a man driven by tragedy to become the ultimate symbol of vengeance and justice in Batman.

These were near mythic beings, and somewhere along the way they’ve gotten lost and mired in gritty reboots, murder, death and disease.

The Flash TV show, and to a lesser extent Supergirl are going a long way to reinvigorate my love for the Silver Age sense of fantasy and wonder on the small screen, and movies like Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy prove that you can have fun with your superheroes. In the comics, Multiversity (by the aforementioned Grant Morrison) reintroduced Shazam as a nostalgic tour de force, and just last week DC/Hanna Barbera’s Future Quest showed us that you can have big, sweeping adventure and still be fun and relevant.

I’m seriously hoping that DC’s Rebirth brings that element of the fantastic along with it, and who knows, this could be a new cycle starting us all over again and we could be returning to the glory days of psychedelic, cosmic adventure and sweeping, brightly coloured trips around the limits of our imagination. I seriously hope so.

Matt

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