In the beginning, there was Superman.
The history of superhero comics is divided into generally accepted “Ages”, and it all began with Superman. The Golden Age was kicked off by Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman, and superheroes proliferated like weeds following the first appearance of the Man of Steel. The institution of the draconian Comics Code Authority in 1954 heralded the end of the Golden Age. It was followed by the Silver Age which began with Barry Allen in Showcase #4, and it ended in 1973. ‘The Death of Gwen Stacy’ in Amazing Spider-Man #133 was the death of the Silver Age, and the birth of the Dark Age.
For the most part, the duration of these ages is generally agreed upon, give or take a few years. Many people would argue that a “Modern Age” began in 1985 with Watchmen and continues up to present day. However, I recently stumbled on an essay from an excellent comics blog “Mindless Ones” that convinced me otherwise. Duncan Falconer, the author of the essay titled, “A Hall of Mirrors II: The Prismatic Age“, puts forward the idea that the Dark Age ended in 1993, and the “Prismatic Age” began. Falconer says about the Prismatic Age,
It’s proliferation, within the native comics medium, and without, particularly – but not exclusively – onto cinema screens. The metaphysics of brand penetration. It’s a multiplicity squeezed out through a few specific lenses: the manifold reflection.
The ideology of the Prismatic Age, what it insistently moves toward, is that all parts are active, all of the time.
Falconer builds an extremely compelling case for the notion that the latest era of comics has been prismatic in nature. He asserts that the Dark Age ended in 1993, and the Prismatic Age began with Reign of the Supermen.
In the early 90’s, The Dark Age culminated with a series of storylines that brought the superhero idea to the darkest possible conclusions. Grim and gritty anti-heroes were the vigilantes of choice. Batman’s back was snapped like a twig by Bane. Hal Jordan’s home town, Coast City, was nuked into oblivion. Hal Jordan, the greatest Green Lantern in the universe, went completely crazy and not only killed dozens of his fellow Green Lanterns, but he also killed the Guardians, destroyed the Central Battery, and effectively wiped out the entire Green Lantern Corps. Superman, the first superhero and that indomitable force for truth, justice, and the American way, died a brutal and bloody death at the hands of Doomsday. Things were looking pretty bleak in the superhero narrative, and as if that symbolic darkness wasn’t enough, the industry experienced a literal Dark Age in the form of a catastrophic speculator bust.
In 1993, The Death of Superman, the apogee of the Dark Age of superhero comics, was followed by Reign of the Supermen. Falconer’s description of this story as “Prismatic” couldn’t be more appropriate. Reign of the Supermen featured four new characters that appeared in the absence of the deceased Superman, and three of them claimed to literally be Superman. For clarity’s sake, I’ll list these characters as they later came to be known or were later revealed to be; there was Superboy, the Eradicator, Steel, and Cyborg Superman, and all of them except for Steel were insisting that they were the original, resurrected Superman.
Reign of the Supermen was a refraction of the Superman character into four separate identities. Like passing light through a prism, elements of the Superman idea were split up into distinct characters, and the concepts that constituted the Man of Steel were explored as four unique individuals. You had The Last Son of Krypton (who was later revealed to be the personification of the ancient kryptonian device “The Eradicator”) who represented Superman’s alien nature. He was Superman’s cold, inhuman, Kryptonian inheritance. This was a lonely and isolated survivor of an extinct species who looked human but had no human kindness or mercy to offer those that would commit injustices. Then there was The Metropolis Kid (who later was revealed to be an attempt to clone Superman and he became Superboy) who was Superman’s superpowered arrogance. He was the cockiness of a being that’s so powerful that he must feel like he’s living in a world made out of paper mache. The Man of Steel (who later became Steel) was Superman’s human side. And finally, there was The Man of Tomorow (also known as Cyborg Superman, and later revealed to be the supervillainous Hank Henshaw), who was the hyper-advanced technological legacy of Krypton.
What these four versions of Superman represent is obviously open to interpretation, and I’m sure many people will disagree with my assessment of what they represent. However, I find the idea that these four characters are refractions of the Superman idea highly convincing. More than that, I agree with Falconer’s proposition that the entire era of superhero comics following Reign of the Supermen is characterized by this prismatic quality.
Let’s look at just a few examples of the refraction that followed Reign of the Supermen. There was the Marvel 2099 line of comics which imagined the Marvel characters of nearly 100 years in the future. To be fair, Marvel 2099 began in 1992, a year before Reign of the Supermen, and it ended in 1996. There might be an argument to be made that Marvel 2099 is a contender for the beginning of the Prismatic Age.
The 90’s is riddled with examples of refraction of the superhero idea. Batman, after his back was broken in the aforementioned incident with Bane, was replaced by Azrael. Azrael took up the mantle of Batman, and his colorful costume could be seen as an indication of this refraction in the actual pigmentation of his outfit. Kyle Rayner became the new Green Lantern, and rather than being selected for having the most willpower and the least fear, he was chosen practically at random to continue the legacy of the Green Lanterns. In 1996, Spider-Man was replaced by Ben Reilly. In 1998, Superman lost his original powers, gained a set of electromagnetic abilities, and donned a new neon blue costume.
Spider-Man went through an “Identity Crisis” in 1998, and because Norman Osborn framed Spider-Man for murder, Peter Parker was forced to adopt four separate superhero identities. The Spider-Man idea was refracted into Prodigy, the mythic superhero, Dusk, the dark superhero of the shadows, Hornet, the technological superhero, and Ricochet, the trickster superhero (and again, these interpretations are my own, and you can draw your own conclusions). In 1999, Wally West was replaced by an alternate reality version of the character named “Walter West” who was “The Dark Flash”. 1999 also saw John Byrne’s Superman and Batman: Generations, which depicted the major players of the DC Universe in a timeline that began in 1938 and eschewed the idea of comic book time. That series played with the idea of these DC characters beginning their careers in 1938, aging up to the present day, and into the far future.
This Prismatic Age continued into the 21st century (and I’m sure there are many more examples of this refraction idea in the 90’s that I missed). There was the advent of the highly successful Ultimate Universe from Marvel Comics which reintroduced characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, The Avengers, and the Fantastic Four in a modern setting. This was a remixing of characters and concepts in a way that was divorced from decades of cumbersome continuity. It was a refraction of the Marvel stable of characters through a modern prism, and it’s important to note that it coexisted with the “616” or mainstream Marvel Universe. The Ultimate Universe’s parallel existence with the 616 universe is a clear example of Falconer’s assertion about the Prismatic Age, that “all parts are active, all of the time”, rather than a consolidation and streamlining of narratives into a singular world.
There was the return and redemption of Hal Jordan in Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern: Rebirth, and instead of erasing all of Jordan’s murderous deeds with a tabula rasa reboot, “all parts are active, all of the time”. His sordid past as Parallax is explained by way of a cosmic fear entity that infected his psyche in favor of discarding these elements of his continuity. Following Green Lantern: Rebirth, there were four (there’s that number again) human Green Lanterns operating on Earth; there was Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner, and John Stewart. This quadrupling of Sector 2814’s Green Lantern coverage is proliferation of the Green Lantern idea, it’s refraction of the Green Lantern concept into multiple personalities so that all aspects of the idea are expressed. More than that, “all parts are active, all of the time”; every human who has ever been a member of the Green Lantern Corps is a Green Lantern simultaneously and the manifold nature of continuity is embraced instead of consolidating the idea into just one ring bearer.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the prismatic nature of this age of superhero comics is the “emotional spectrum” concept that Johns introduced in Green Lantern. The Green Lantern concept was refracted into an entire “Rainbow Corps”; the refraction idea is taken to it’s most literal conclusion with Red, Yellow, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Orange, and Black Lantern Corps.
This idea of superhero multiplicity doesn’t end with Green Lantern. Following Final Crisis, there were two Flashes running around. Both Wally West and Barry Allen were active in the same universe at the same point in time. Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and even Jason Todd were all present in the DC Universe. When Dick Grayson became Batman, Bruce Wayne’s son Damian Wayne became Robin. Damian Wayne himself is another clear example of this principle of “all parts are active, all of the time”; the character is a result of the 1987 story Son of the Demon in which Batman had an illegitimate child with Talia al Ghul. Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison’s series that saw Bruce Wayne franchising the Batman identity across the globe, is yet another perfect example of the multiplicity of the Prismatic Age. The Batman idea is proliferated across the entire world in Batman Incorporated.
Bucky Barnes took on the mantle of Captain America. After Steve Rogers return, Barnes continued to be Captain America for sometime, and there were two super soldiers running around in the same universe. In Fear Itself, we actually saw two people wearing the Captain America uniform. There was a Red Hulk, a Red She Hulk, She Hulk (Lyra), She Hulk (Jennifer Walters), and Skaar, the son of the Hulk, all coexisting simultaneously. There was X-23, a female clone of Wolverine, and Daken, Wolverine’s son. You had New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Mighty Avengers, and Dark Avengers, a dark reflection of the Avengers idea.
I’m sure there are innumerable examples that I have failed to list here of the refraction of the superhero idea, the remixing, the repurposing, and redesigning of characters that has dominated the Prismatic Age. Let’s skip ahead to a series of events that I think constitute the culmination of the Prismatic Age. There was Spider-Island, which saw Spider-Man’s powers spread across all of New York City and threatening to engulf the world. In that series, we saw hordes of spider-powered criminals in all the variations of the Spider-Man costume that we’ve seen over the years…”all parts are active, all of the time.”
There was War of the Supermen, which involved an entire planet of Kryptonians with Superman’s power set engaged in a “100 minute war”. The Kryptonians on New Krypton wore clothes that represented all the different depictions of Kryptonians through DC’s publishing history, from John Byrne’s version of Kryptonian style to the Silver Age threads, and yet again, “all parts are active, all of the time.”
There was the War of the Light storyline in the Green Lantern books which pitted the Lantern Corps of the Emotional Spectrum against each other. Finally, there was Fear Itself, which handed out 8 variations on Thor’s uru hammer.
These events, all taking place in the concentrated period of approximately 2008 to 2011, were the climax of the Prismatic Age. Like the concentration of exceedingly “dark” stories in the early nineties that ended the Dark Age, these storylines took the refraction idea to its most proliferated and manifold conclusion. Thousands of people with spider-powers, uru hammers falling out of the sky and handed off to people like party favors, a planet full of people with Superman’s powers, and in the clearest example of refraction possible, a war between all the hues of the color spectrum in the War of Light.
I think I know what you’re asking yourself at this point in my apparently endless diatribe: “What does any of this inane rambling have to do with digital comics?” I’m getting there, if you’ll bear with me for a few more sentences. I think that after that intense concentration of storylines that took superhero refraction as far as it could go, the Prismatic Age is over. I think that we are currently in the process of beginning a new age in superhero comics. I think that the Digital Age is dawning.
In 1993, when Reign of the Supermen hit the stands, the internet was essentially nonexistent. Now, in 2012, there is an online 24 hour news cycle…devoted entirely to comic books. Just think about that notion for a second. What sort of news, criticism, and feedback network was there in 1993 for comic books? Wizard Magazine? Now, there’s Comic Book Resources, Newsarama, Comics Alliance, iFanboy, The Beat, The Comics Journal, and of course this site, Comic Booked, in addition to other less popular comic news websites, and countless comic book blogs. Nothing even remotely approaching that comprehensive coverage of comic book news existed when Reign of the Supermen was published, and no one can deny that the internet has had and continues to have a profound effect on the comic book industry.
Beyond just the 24 hour comic book news cycle which hasn’t existed in any “Age” prior to this one, there is also direct customer feedback in the form of message boards and comment sections. In 1993, the only barometer publishers had for a comic book’s success and popularity was how many copies of the book they were moving, and the letters that people mailed in to them. Now, there’s endless online commentary on forums, comment sections, and social media that provide comic book companies with immediate and world wide reactions to the books they’re putting out.
The creation and meteoric rise of Twitter added a further wrinkle to the internet’s effect on the comic book industry. Now, fans and professionals can communicate directly with each other in a global conversation. In 1993, you had to sit down and write a letter if you wanted to communicate your thoughts to a comic book publisher. Now, in 2012, you can tweet directly to the writers and artists behind your favorite (or most hated) titles. It’s a concept that would be nearly unimaginable in 1993, and because of that, I believe that we must define our current “Age” as completely distinct from the Prismatic Age.
None of this is even mentioning the fact that digital comics are poised to revolutionize the industry. Joe Quesada, the Chief Creative Officer and former Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics, said at C2E2 only a few days ago, “Within two years almost everyone will be creating or reading comics off a tablet/iPad.” At another panel at C2E2, Quesada said, “Originally comics were Sunday strips, and were not made for that comic book shape. They had to be chopped up and put into the comic book form. This is no different. Taking paper comics and chopping them up for digital. Soon we will be making comics for digital and putting them together for print.”
These statements, that comics will soon be created for tablet computers, that comics will one day be created for digital and reverse engineered for print, are, for lack of a better term, mindblowing. Add that to the fact that digital comics have never been more readily available than they are now, and it becomes apparent just how radically things have changed from the previous “Age” of superhero comics. comiXology alone boasts “over 16,000” digital titles which can be downloaded almost anywhere, at any time, to phones, computers, and tablets. Marvel Comics offers a Digital Comics Unlimited program which offers access to a vast archive of digital comics for 4.99 per month, a business model that is strikingly similar to Netflix.
Mark Waid, one of the more prolific, commercially and critically successful writers currently working in the comic book industry, sold his entire collection of comic books to fund his digital comics work. He started his own digital imprint, “Thrillbent“, to produce comics to be read on screens. When people like Joe Quesada are making huge statements about the promise of digital comics, when writers like Mark Waid are going all in on digital comics, when you can legally download most comics the day they hit the stands straight to your phone in seconds, it’s undeniable that something big is happening.
The idea of a “technological singularity” is one which has gained a lot of attention in recent years. The basic concept is that technology will exponentially advance to a point in time when things like artificial intelligence will revolutionize the world in ways that are practically impossible for modern people to even imagine. The term “singularity” comes from the “gravitational singularity”, a term used in physics to describe black holes, and while I’m not a physicist and I’m most likely over simplifying the idea, that concept is that there is a breakdown in our ability to say what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole.
Different people have different ideas about the technological singularity. Some people think it will be here in a few years, others think that we won’t see it for decades. Like I said, I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know about that. What I’m proposing is that the comic book industry is approaching a singularity of its own. The proliferation of tablet computers, like the iPad, like the Kindle Fire, is fundamentally changing the way that we read comics and the way that they are distributed. What happens when tablet computers get much better than they are now, which is practically an inevitable fact of life? What happens when tablet computers are roughly the dimensions of a double page spread, and approaching the thickness of paper? What happens when the promise of digital comics is fulfilled, and some mad scientist of a comic book writer or artist finally figures out how to create digital comics in a way that utilizes the full potential of the screen rather than the printed page?
We are approaching a comic book singularity. We’re reaching a point in time when the comic book industry will be revolutionized beyond recognition by digital comics, and our ability to predict what the industry will look like post-comic book singularity is breaking down more and more every day. The Prismatic Age is over, and the Digital Age is beginning. It’s an exciting time to be a comic book reader, and I can’t wait to see what the Digital Age has in store for us.