Silver and Bronze Age Comic Books: putting the Human back in Superhuman

My foray into comic books started with the modern science fiction series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra “Y: The Last Man”. It is an exploration of a post-apocalyptic world in which every creature with a Y Chromosome has suddenly and simultaneously died of an inexplicable plague—all except a young amateur escape artist, Yorik Brown, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Yorik and the surviving global population of females are forced to make their way through the dangers of a world unmanned and confront the realities of a doomed human race.

The comic series posed some pretty hefty questions: Would civilization collapse if a society that favors men suddenly lost the majority of its airplane pilots, law enforcement, military, doctors, and religious and political leaders?... and, ultimately: Would a female-only world eventually become a feminist utopia or a matriarchal dystopia?

From the first issue, I was hooked. And because I started reading when the story arc was already complete, I finished the series within the week.

From “Y: The Last Man”, I moved on to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staple’s “Saga”. The galactic love story of the star-crossed Alana and Marco-- new parents, from warring extraterrestrial races, fighting to keep their family safe while being prosecuted by their respective home worlds for their love and the product thereof.

I was initially attracted to the series by the cover art of the first issue which depicts a fierce, winged Alana openly breastfeeding her newborn daughter. I was nursing an infant myself at the time and the strength of that imagery resonated with me in a powerful way. Who knew a comic book cover could be so empowering?

The comic’s pervasive sexiness, imaginative science fiction, themes of parenthood, and the realness and diversity of its characters quickly drew me into fandom.

Sadly, "Saga" is currently on hiatus. The series is halted indefinitely at issue 54 of what is promised to eventually be a 108 issue run. This reader is left pondering the possible consequences of a devastating plot twist and anxiously awaiting word on future installments.

The relatability of the modern comic characters that I love was made possible by the humanization of superheroes during the Silver Age of comic books. Spanning from 1956 to 1970, the Silver Age of comic books was characterized by a resurrection of superhero storylines with naturalistic, idiosyncratic characters that often struggled with their own fallibility. During the Silver Age, superheroes started bickering amongst themselves, worrying about making the rent, and were often misunderstood and mistrusted by the public—many never got the girl. These ploys held great appeal to readers coming of age during the counterculture movement of the 1960's.

Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” was one of the first (and longest running) comic series to portray a team of superheroes as a squabbling, dysfunctional family. The first issue, released in November of 1961, introduced its members: Dr. Reed Richards, an arrogant scientific genius, his fiancé Sue Storm, her younger brother Johnny Storm, and Richards' friend and renowned pilot, Ben Grimm. In an effort to beat the Soviets into space, the foursome commandeer a prototype spacecraft of Richards' own design, unknowingly subjecting themselves to genetically altering cosmic rays. Upon returning to the earth's surface, the quartet must grapple with the fact that they have been forever changed. Richards became the elastic "Mister Fantastic", Sue realized she could project force fields as the "Invisible Woman", Johnny went up in flame as the "Human Torch", and Ben had been mutated into the grotesque, rock-skinned "Thing". As the series progressed, Ben’s persistent grumpiness on account of being permanently disfigured, Johnny’s annoying teenage tendencies, and Sue and Richards lover’s quarrels would endear a loyal readership.

As I was perusing the attic-found collection of Fantastic Four comics that recently arrived at the auction house, I stumbled on issue 141. On the cover, Sue is holding her young son, his eyes shining with an unnatural light. The speech bubble above her head exclaims, "Little Franklin is GLOWING like and ATOMIC BOMB!". I couldn't help but read through the issue to find out why... Long time enemy of the Fantastic Four, Annihilus, has harnessed the latent (and as of yet, undiscovered) power of Sue and Richards' son, Franklin, in a plan for world domination. In doing so, however, Annihilus unwittingly unleashes Franklin's full potential in which the boy radiates a strange energy and can manipulate entire galaxies like playthings with his mind. Richards sees the threat of Franklin's rapidly growing power. He is forced to use an untested device on his son to shut down the child's mind before the universe implodes. Sue is devastated by what her husband has done—seeing only that her son is now brain dead at the hands of his own father.

Although Franklin eventually wakes from his coma (a whole nine issues later), this event understandably affects the relationship dynamic between Sue and Richards in a very real way. Marriage can be difficult, but one can argue that a marriage between superheroes is far more challenging.

As the Silver Age turned to Bronze (a time period stretching from 1970 through 1985), comic books and characters continued to evolve. Censoring influences such as the Comics Code Authority began to