Superheroes were in their infancy during comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), experienced growing pains during the Silver Age (1956–1969), and reached adolescence during the Bronze Age (1970–1979).
During the 1960s, Marvel Comics snuck up on DC Comics and usurped the industry's number-one spot. DC's editorial director Carmine Infantino started the 1970s with both guns blazing, vowing to regain DC's market share. The biggest bullet in Infantino's holster was the illustrious Jack Kirby, the veteran artist who co-created most of Marvel's major superheroes, including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the X-Men.
After a series of teaser ads announcing that
Kirby is Coming, in 1970 Kirby began working exclusively for DC and introduced a mythic tapestry into the company's universe, a series of four interlocking series—three new books of his own design, The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle, plus a revamp of DC's long-running Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen—under the umbrella title
The Fourth World. Among its gaggle of gods, both good and evil, stood Darkseid, DC's first utterly malevolent villain. Kirby's vigorous artwork and concepts recharged DC with an energy never before seen at the company, as did his hyperbolic cover blurbs like
An Epic for Our Times and
Don't Ask—Just Buy It! But not enough people are buying it, thought DC, and Kirby's Fourth World died after two years, although the characters have continued to exist for decades. After follow-ups including The Demon, OMAC, Sandman, and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, Kirby returned to Marvel.
Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1970) was a revolutionary step forward for DC Comics. It borrowed from Marvel Comics' propensity toward argumentative superheroes, but with
GA, their struggles were ideological debates. GL, a power-ring-wielding intergalactic cop, represented the conservative right, while
GA was the voice of the streets, of the left, writer Denny O'Neil declared on the 2003 History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked. With artist Neal Adams, O'Neil took this groundbreaking series into realms political, radical, and racial, but the market was unprepared for its level of sophistication and Green Lantern/Green Arrow was canceled with issue #89 (1972). Green Lantern/Green Arrow put the industry on notice, however, proving that superheroes' exploits could involve matters beyond skirmishes with supervillains.
For the first few years of the 1970s, contemporary thematic material—dubbed
relevance by those in the biz—became common in many DC books: Robin the Teen (formerly
Boy) Wonder left Batman for college and took on campus unrest, Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon went to Washington, D.C., to tackle crime as a congresswoman, and the Justice League of America battled polluters. Even the stilted Man of Steel got hip. Superman #233 (1971) started a new era for DC's flagship hero, updating his alter ego Clark Kent to a television reporter and eliminating his weakness kryptonite, but those changes were short-lived. Batman's tales, in his own series and in Detective Comics, shied away from this relevance trend and veered more into gothic terrain, returning the hero to his original, baleful nature.
Batman is a loner who never shows his face in the light, stated O'Neil, the chief Batman writer of the 1970s, on the Comic Book Heroes: Unmasked program.
A three-issue anti-drug story Stan Lee penned for The Amazing Spider-Man #96 through #98 (1971) was rejected by the industry's censorship board, the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Lee lobbied Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to resist the CCA and print the issues, which Marvel did—without the Code's seal of approval, the first time a major comic-book publisher had exercised such defiance. The CCA, in response, relaxed some of its requirements to more adequately address societal changes.
One of those liberalizations permitted the depiction of the undead, which had been taboo since the implementation of the CCA in the mid-1950s. Marvel took full advantage of this, fostering a 1970s horror-comics fad with titles including Ghost Rider, The Son of Satan, Man-Thing, The Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night—series that occurred inside the workings of the Marvel superhero continuity (DC published its applauded Swamp Thing series during this period). Marvel steered two other Bronze Age industry movements:
sword and sorcery, beginning in 1970 with its adaptations and continuations of Robert E. Howard's fantasy hero Conan the Barbarian; and kung fu, through Master of Kung Fu, Iron Fist and others. And a cinema trend—
blaxploitation, low-budget action films starring black actors—inspired Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972), the first comic book to headline an African-American superhero.
Marvel continued to build upon its Silver Age foundation of human heroes with
real problems. Mr. Fantastic and his wife Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four suffered marital strains. In the controversial The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973), the hero did not save the day, as Gwen Stacy, girlfriend of Spidey's alter ego Peter Parker, died at the hands of the villainous Green Goblin. Just eight issues later, in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (1974), the beleaguered wall-crawler was targeted by the assassin-for-hire called the Punisher, and later that year, in The Incredible Hulk #181, the Green Goliath battled the feral Canadian superhero Wolverine. The Punisher and Wolverine were anti-heroes for a cynical generation, and would grow into superstardom.
Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man © 1976 DC/Marvel. COVER ART BY ROSS ANDRU AND DICK GIORDANO.
The Bronze Age re-popularized heroes of yesterday. DC's critically acclaimed Tarzan comic, written, drawn, and edited by Joe Kubert for most of its run, was a minor hit, as was DC's noir interpretation of The Shadow. DC also obtained publishing rights for superheroes previously under the jurisdiction of Fawcett Publications and Quality Comics, the results being its Shazam! series (starring the original Captain Marvel) and its superteam title, The Freedom Fighters (with Uncle Sam, the Phantom Lady, and others). Marvel published Doc Savage and ultimately picked up the Tarzan license after DC.
One 1975 Marvel Comics revival produced unparalleled results. Giant-Size X-Men #1 introduced a new team of offbeat superheroes—multicultural mutants including Storm (African), Colossus (Russian), Nightcrawler (German), Sunfire (Japanese), and Wolverine (Canadian)—and began its trek toward becoming Marvel's number-one series.
Lackluster sales did not encourage many publishers to attempt superhero comics during the Bronze Age, but a few gave it the old college try: Atlas Comics produced a diverse but short-lived comics line in the mid-1970s, including superheroes Tiger-Man and the Destructor, as well as Howard Chaykin's pulpish Scorpion; and longtime player Charlton Comics published King Features' jungle hero The Phantom and introduced a wry superhero parody, E-Man.
DC's Infantino-steered accomplishments narrowed the sales gap between his company and its competitor. Still, Marvel largely dominated the entire decade, although a 1976 project would unite the publishers on equal ground. Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, a one-hundred-page, tabloid-sized special edition by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and Dick Giordano, mixed up DC's and Marvel's top superheroes in a momentous clash followed by
the greatest team-up of all time. Infantino worked with Marvel's Lee to nurture the bestseller, but before a sequel could be brokered, Infantino and DC parted company. Children's magazine publisher Jenette Kahn replaced him as DC's head, but her long, impressive tenure would begin on a bumpy path. The quality of DC's titles suffered later in the decade, and the company's content expansion—the highly promoted
DC Explosion in 1977—led to a market glut and a devastating
DC Implosion in 1978.
Both DC and Marvel benefited from multimedia visibility of their superheroes during the Bronze Age. Mego Toys'
World's Greatest Super-Heroes eight-inch action figures funneled icons as diverse as Superman, Spider-Man, Conan, Wonder Girl, and Tarzan into a shared commercial line. Hostess Twinkies sponsored a popular series of one-page comics that appeared as house ads in Marvel and DC comics, featuring famous superheroes as product pitchmen. The Justice League ventured to animated television in ABC's Super Friends, and live-action superheroes Captain Marvel (in Shazam!), Isis, and ElectraWoman and DynaGirl starred on Saturday-morning TV. The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and The Amazing Spider-Man were weekly CBS dramatic series (CBS's telemovies starring Captain America and Doctor Strange did not warrant ongoing shows), and the multi-million-dollar theatrical blockbuster Superman: The Movie (1978) set box-office records (for the time). Spider-Man and Superman both appeared in newspaper comic strips, and paperback novels and comics reprint editions starring DC and Marvel superheroes saw print. The merchandising of superheroes became big business, though readership of the comic books themselves continued a gradual decline.
By the end of the 1970s, most traditional outlets for comics like newsstands and drug stores stopped carrying comic books, since their low profit margin offered little incentive for shelf display. Print runs of individual titles, in many cases exceeding 1 million copies per issue during the 1940s, had slipped to several hundred thousand, at best. Television (broadcast and cable), special effects–laden movies, and the emerging video game and computer technologies now competed with comics for the young consumer's interest. Yet this most persistent of art forms, comics, stood poised to begin a path of rediscovery as the new decade dawned.