Comics 101 – What is the Post-Modern Age of Comics?

Most comic book historians and fans consider the era we’re currently in as modern. But there is no doubt that something in the comic book industry has created a fundamental shift in the foundation of both the business and entertainment sides of the medium sometime in the early part of the new millennium. Soon, I think the pundits will announce that comic book publishing has entered a new age, and the previous one-the one now known as the “Modern Age” will be reclassified as something else (the most likely candidates will probably be the Platinum or Iron Ages). However, since that era has not been labeled, the only thing we can accurately call the current era of comic book publishing is the “Post-Modern” era. 

In the Golden Age of comic books, any one adventure in an issue would last more than 8 pages or so, and most titles were anthologies featuring several characters in short adventures. By the Silver Age, many titles had a 12-16 page lead and a 6-8 page back up. In the Bronze Age, most comic books featured just one character or concept, often in short two- or three-part stories, with subplots that might last a year or longer.

Today it is the norm in most super-hero comics to write in “story arcs,” a four- to eight-part story, with each issue serving as a “chapter” to that story, that may crossover into the title’s larger family of books, or into other titles completely.

The storytelling technique in these comic books is referred to as “decompressed,” because scenes are “allowed to breathe.” Instead of rushing from one scene to the next at a breakneck pace, the writer can linger on a scene or even a specific moment, in order to allow it to develop more fully.

The style may be typified (or even stereotyped) by a sequence of images that do not change and have no text, to indicate that a character is thinking, or the writer wants to indicate a pregnant, awkward pause in the dialogue. It may also be used in a series of text-less images to bring heightened awareness to some element in those images.

Two of the first American comic books to use the style were Warren Ellis’ The Authority and Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man. In The Authority, it was usually referred to as “cinematic style” or “widescreen style,” because Ellis often used the device to “slow time down,” as popularized in movies like The Matrix. In Ultimate Spider-Man, the decompression was more often used in dialogues, where two characters would talk with each other for pages.

Both titles were smash hits, and many other writers tried to emulate Ellis’ and Bendis’ styles, with varying degrees of success.

Even when done correctly, there are costs and benefits to decompressed storytelling. On one hand, it gives the writer an opportunity to really develop his or her thoughts (characters, action sequences, etc) more fully and really bring them into tight focus for the reader. On the other hand, with less text to read, it can shorten the reading time of an issue, leading to dissatisfaction for the reader.

One common complaint among readers is that decompression is “padding,” the book, expanding a storyline in order to sell more copies of each issue, or to fill out a contract on a trade paperback collection of the series, which typically sell best when collecting 5-8 issues of a title. This is called “writing for the trade,” even though both DC Comics and Marvel Comics are publishing more of their more recent collections in the hardback format first. 

Manga is such a broad term and experience that it would be impossible to examine the history and cultural impact of manga and anime with within the context of this article. For the purposes of our discussion here, we’ll be focusing primarily on the impact manga has had on the US comic book market.

“Manga,” on its most fundamental level, is just another term for a comic book created in one of the southeast Asian countries, or one influenced by the work coming out of those countries.

Manga has had an influence on western culture for decades, from Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets/G-Force, through the live-action Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and its sequels in the 80s and 90s, to Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z today.

However, it was mostly an underground hobby in the United States, one for high school and college students. What finally pushed the popularity of manga over the top may have been the debut of Shonen Jump Magazine.

Shonen Jump, an English, monthly edition of Japan’s Weekly Shonen Jump, debuted in late 2002. Among the seven stories serialized in the first issues were Naruto, One Piece, Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! All have become major, cross-platform successes. Shonen Jump tapped into a huge underserved market for younger boys who wanted action-packed comics.

Viz, Tokyopop and other publishers capitalized on the manga explosion by making deals with Asian manga publishers to translate their original titles for an American audience and sell them in digest-sized collections. If you visit the “Graphic Novel” section of your local bookstore, chances are the shelf space for manga is 4-5 times that of American-style comics.

It’s uncertain what the ultimate impact on the sales of western-style comic books will ultimately be, but they are dealing with resistance within the American comic book community. Some fans and retailers have both rebelled against the idea of carrying manga in US comic book stores. It’s unclear what the reasoning behind these feelings is. 

Identity Crisis was a mini-series written by best-selling Author Brad Metlzer and illustrated by Rags Morales, published by DC Comics in 2004. The seeds first planted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in The Watchmen in 1986 finally reach their full fruition here.

Identity Crisis deals with subjects such as rape, murder, human rights violations, madness, corruption and deception in a very frank, adult manner. The Watchmen dealt with all of those themes as well, but Identity Crisis was the first time they were the focus in a title set firmly in the DC Universe. These were not some characters who were created for the sake of the story, they were icons of DC Comics’ Silver Age, they were the Justice League of America.

Whether you thought Identity Crisis was a good miniseries or not (and it was a very polarizing story), you have to acknowledge that it is at least an intellectual descendent of The Watchmen. The morally ambiguous quality of the story has set the general tone in the DC Universe. Since Identity Crisis, we’ve seen:

  • A Justice League administrator shoot Blue Beetle in the head, killing him instantly
  • Wonder Woman break a man’s neck on live TV around the world
  • Batman use (and lose control of) a computer satellite in an attempt to spy on literally everyone in the world
  • Even DC’s current crossover event, “Blackest Night,” has at its core the mistakes heroes made in their past literally coming back to haunt them

(A personal note: I am not passing judgment on either Identity Crisis or what’s happened since. But it is impossible to argue that the DC Universe isn’t a much darker place than it was even 10 years ago).

It’s true that it may seem that super-hero comics are entering their sunset, as sales continue to drift lower each year. But on the other hand, it’s possible that we’re just around the corner from another Golden Age. It’s obvious that super-hero stories on the big screen have been embraced by the masses. Perhaps, with new models of distribution like the iPhone or Longbox platforms, super-hero comics will regain their prominence in the national consciousness.

So whether we were in the modern age or the post-modern age, it is very possible that we just turned the corner into another era of comics publishing.



. by R. Wesley Smith