From greater representation and accessibility to beautiful art and interconnected stories, there’s a lot to love about the Modern Age of Comics.
Many comic books from the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages are fun to read, even forty-plus years after their publication. Some of these comics are striking for their timelessness, and others for how they reflect their publication date. If nothing else, it's enlightening to read the classic stories that launched beloved comic characters to their present-day statuses as icons.
However, lines from the Modern Age of Comics can be as delightful as — and sometimes even more delightful than — early comic books. From the way the medium's visual language has progressed, to the incorporated humor, to the representation they provide, modern comic books can be and often are "classic" in their own right.
For a long time, virtually all comic book writers and artists were white men. While there are still some ways to go, comic book creators in the Modern Age more closely resemble the audiences who enjoy their work (i.e. they are diverse).
Such diversity manifests across multiple aspects of identity, such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religious practice. An increase in creators from historically marginalized backgrounds within the industry means readers can rest assured that the stories in comics are less likely to repeat tired tropes and stereotypes. It also means that readers can more easily support creators from such backgrounds.
Thanks to increasing diversity among creators in the industry, comic books today are slowly but surely beginning to reflect the world's population more accurately and give voice to historically marginalized groups of people. DC and many independent publishing companies are more up-to-speed with this than Marvel, but Modern Age comic books as a whole are far better for representation than Gold, Silver or Bronze Age ones.
Representation in comics is important for several reasons: It can showcase the full scope of a person's humanity, and thus foster empathy for people from all backgrounds. It also helps people feel seen and validated, especially when comics address issues unique to certain identities.
Comic books have long incorporated humor, but comedy is reliant on context. This is why the "jokes" in Gold, Silver and Bronze Age comics don't often land as well for modern readers as more recent works do.
On the flip side, modern comics can have readers in stitches when written and drawn well.
Up-to-date cultural references, combined with decades of preexisting characterization, offer readers the background to fully understand the tensions that give rise to laughter. Be it Buffy's clever quips in battle, the Bat Family's knowing banter, or Iron Man's preoccupation with making Doctor Strange like him, comics today can be downright hilarious.
Most comic fans today can attest to the Golden Age's heavy-handedness. The writing often bangs readers over the head with plot points. Modern comics, on the other hand, are more aware of their capacity to communicate by other means.
Like other storytelling media, comic books today are more willing to use literary devices, like symbolism and indirect characterization, in the same way film and literature do. Plus, modern comic book artists really get to shine because so much of the storytelling relies on the details of their art, rather than a text box with a step-by-step walkthrough of ongoing events.
Comic books and superheroes are still somewhat synonymous, but while they were once written off as "kids' stuff," today, comics are acknowledged as an art form. Where they used to be exclusively reliant on the hero/villain dynamic, modern comics — particularly graphic novels — now span genres. Certainly, works like Black Hole (2005) by Charles Burns are important examples of non-superhero fiction in graphic novels.
Interestingly, however, the graphic novel is a favorite medium for creators to share biographies and autobiographies. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006), Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2000) and Art Spiegelman's Maus (1991) are just the tip of the iceberg for the sprawling list of biographical comics that now inform the medium as a whole.
The idea of having a "Good Guy" and a "Bad Guy" in comics is practically passé. Anti-hero/Anti-villain characters are a given in most of the Modern Age's superhero comics, and this is a contributing factor to the medium's continued cultural significance. Many formerly evil characters (particularly female villains) undergo redemption arcs, and others prove to have sympathetic backstories or honor codes.
Some so-called "heroes" seek noble ends via questionable means. Stories of "Discreet Good vs. Discreet Evil" have their place, but they tend to be simplistic. When superhero comics came on the scene, the World War II was ongoing, and comic books provided a black-and-white way for readers to think about the War. Today, comics acknowledge the limitations of this worldview and better reflect shades of gray.
There are some truly beautiful panels throughout earlier comic books. They still don't hold a candle to today's detailed, highly pigmented comic book imagery. The high artistic quality in modern comics is a combined product of advancing technologies and shifting conventions in the medium. Nowadays, alternate covers are standard practice for most comic books.
This allows multiple artists to showcase their creative takes on a given issue, but it also generates images that more closely resemble fine art than cartoons. It is also far easier and less expensive to publish in color today, even in print, than it was through the Bronze Age. This means vivid colors and detailed renderings appear on lustrous pages of physical comics, or in high dpi on computer screens.
There's something special about holding a comic book in one's own hands, be it a graphic novel, an omnibus, or a single issue in a given line. Nevertheless, it's much easier to find and enjoy obscure comics today than it was just twenty years ago.
Databases like Amazon's comiXology, for example, allow readers to buy virtual comic books of all stripes. So while it's unlikely one will own a physical copy of Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol 1) #1 — by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Stan Goldberg, and Jon D'Agostino — reading it is just a Google search away.
Today, the concept of a Multiverse (or, the fictionalized version of the scientific Multiverse Hypothesis) is taken for granted, especially among comic book fans. This wasn't always the case. Previous generations of comic books certainly used crossovers between a given publisher's characters to generate buzz and encourage cross-readership, but these sorts of stories also made timelines messy and hard to follow.
Thanks to Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and many other talented people, 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths essentially set the Modern Age of Comics up for success. It's now commonplace across media for all of a company's properties to share a main continuity. These shared universes are still complicated, but the idea that all the different versions of Spider-Man can coexist within a Multiverse is pretty neat.
When Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the first Superman comics, they couldn't have pictured Clark Kent and Lois Lane's son one day traveling into and spending time in his future, coming out as bisexual and dating a Japanese-American man, or becoming Earth's Superman while his father battled intergalactic, multidimensional space monsters. Yet, all of these things have happened in Superman's comics. The Golden Age Superman's evolution into the Modern Age Superman is proof of comic books' continued relevance in culture.
Of course, sequential art as a concept significantly predates Superman. However, since his introduction in the 1930s, comics have occupied a particular niche in the American and global consciousness, both influencing and being influenced by real-world events and attitudes. This means that every time someone picks up a newly published comic book, that person gets to be a part of a complicated, fascinating, ongoing history, and that is a very cool legacy to be a part of.
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Jenna is a writer and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She is a DC nerd (and a regular nerd) with a soft spot for sitcoms. She lives in the Boston area with her family and cat.