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"1993 was the year Superman died and Venom got his own series. Just keep that in mind."
—Marvel Year In Review, 1993.
The Dark Age of Comic Books was the culmination of a gradual move towards an older audience for Comic Books, particularly those featuring superheroes, that had started in The Bronze Age of Comic Books. It's sometimes also called The Iron Age of Comic Books, to follow the Gold/Silver/Bronze progression, but Dark Age is the much more common term. Usually characterized as a Darker and Edgier period featuring an increased focus on sex, violence and dark, gritty portrayals of the characters involved, much of the content produced during this era is very controversial amongst comic book fans and is usually (depending on who you ask) considered either a welcome breath of fresh air after the medium languishing so long in its own version of the Animation Age Ghetto, or a period of grotesque excess and immaturity...or both.
The Dark Age is generally agreed to have begun in 1986 -- a watershed year in comics, seeing the publication of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen. Whilst works both by these authors and others in the field had also displayed Dark Age sensibilities prior to these such as Moore's V for Vendetta (1982), and Miller's Ronin (1983), Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were the two works which provided much of the direct inspiration for what followed. Both were dark, gritty and complex works which took the superhero genre and deconstructed it, infusing it with greater political and psychological complexity and a greater amount of graphic sexual and violent content than had been seen previously. They also kick-started a trend for portraying superheroes not as the whiter-than-whitebread heroes of pure moral standing that had been the common default prior to these works, but as neurotic, tormented and at times borderline-fascistic Anti Heroes whose violent methods masked a whole range of psychological and sexual issues. They also achieved widespread mainstream attention, and acclaim within intellectual circles, something unheard in the industry before. This in effect briefly turned comics into the "hip" and "rebellious" medium.
1986 also saw the wholesale rewriting of The DCU following Crisis on Infinite Earths, which would itself be incredibly influential on what followed for numerous reasons. Firstly, it was the first Crisis Crossover (while Secret Wars was published first, it was only in response to Crisis which was already on the planning table, and lead Marvel to panic and rush it out before Crisis), and its success paved the way for more Big Events over the decade. Secondly, the reboot itself was important in setting the overall tone of the comics that would follow and as editors began to pick and choose what stayed and what was discarded; it seemed increasingly clear that more of the Lighter and Softer elements were being removed as comics were beginning to cater towards a more mature audience.
In order to draw in more adult readers whilst still keeping their main universes at least nominally family-friendly, the main publishers began to set up and use "imprints", sub-publications of a company that specialized in specific content for people with certain interests. One of the most successful imprints was DC's Vertigo Comics, which specialized in a re-imagining of obscure characters from The DCU in Darker and Edgier contexts.
Also around this time, creator-owned companies such as Dark Horse Comics (founded in 1986) and Valiant Comics (founded in 1989) began to gain prominence following disputes between creatives and executives over issues such as creators' rights and the restrictions of the Comics Code, the influence of which was steadily weakening. Like the imprints of the main publishers, these smaller companies often specialised in material aimed at more adult readers than previously, and which continued the process of deconstructing established tropes of the superhero genre. Dark Horse, founded in 1986 by Mike Richardson out of his chain of same named comic shops, still exists to this day, and is well known for being versatile. It published such critically acclaimed creator owned series as Hellboy and Sin City, as well as licensed works, such as comics set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and was even an early source for translated Manga (itself a growing cultural force) such as Akira. Valiant was founded in 1989 by former Marvel Comics Editor in chief Jim Shooter. In 1986, Shooter spearheaded the short lived New Universe imprint, with the idea of creating a new "more realistic" approach to traditional superhero tropes. Its failure inspired him to leave and try the same thing again with a new company. Valiant attempted to create a hard Sci Fi superhero universe without Comic Book Time, with events happening in the same time frame as the publication schedule. Valiant achieved a lot of early success, briefly becoming a legitimate competitor to the Big Two, and producing such critically acclaimed works as Harbinger and Solar Man of the Atom, and still has a small, but devoted following of fans.
Whilst the groundwork had been laid during the eighties, the Dark Age reached its peak in the early 90s, the same period that spawned Mortal Kombat and Grunge rock. No, this is not a coincidence; all had their roots in the same jaded, cynical, Gen X attitude that was common at the time. In fact a key figure of the Dark Age, Rob Liefeld, was even the same age as Kurt Cobain (both being born in 1967).
Liefeld, one of the most popular creators of the time, influenced the Age in three main ways. Firstly, the characters he devised acted as central Trope Codifiers for the Nineties Anti-Hero, the primary character archetype of the period. The character of Cable, introduced by Liefeld as leader of Marvel's X-Men Spin-Off The New Mutants, was a particularly important one; although initially a villain, his character was used to fill an editorial mandate calling for a "man of action" to act as a foil to Xavier's more gentle style of leadership. Secondly, Liefeld's artwork -- dark, gritty and angular -- was perfect for the darker tone of comic books of the day, and began to be widely imitated -- to the extent that even his flaws were emulated by other artists.
The third influence Liefeld had was through Image Comics, a key source of some of the Age's most influential content, founded in 1992 following a dispute between seven of Marvel's top artists (including Liefeld) over creator's rights. Image, founded on the principles that creators were entirely in control of their own product, were entirely free of the Comics Code and with some of the most popular creators of the time on board, they became known for two things: comics that relied heavily on sex and violence, and comics that sold like wildfire. Naturally, the success of Image prompted the other companies to sit up, take notice, and try their hardest to catch the same lightning.
Marvel was also actively trying out new concepts and characters, giving them their own series, including The New Warriors, Sleepwalker, Darkhawk and Thunderstrike. Sadly, all of these titles would eventually be canceled, although they all had their own merits and cult followings.
The resulting material has been hotly contested by fans with regards to its quality. Certainly, the age produced a lot of widely-acclaimed and notable works, both affiliated with the mainstream universes and the independents -- such as The Maxx, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Grant Morrison's runs on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Todd McFarlane's Spawn and Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon. At their best, creators were using the new lack of constraints to transcend the old limitations and develop stories that were interesting, imaginative, complex and mature, embracing the possibilities of the medium and going beyond the traditional literature in the process. Many genuine classics have their origins in the moods and tones of the era.
However, at the other end of the scale, a number of critics argue that in many cases "mature" content was actually closer to "adolescent"; while creators were taking inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, many had completely missed the point, focusing merely on the surface details in order to Follow the Leader without coupling them with the depth of narrative and the thematic and psychological complexity that had made these works unique and well received. Complaints centre around a crowd of deeply disturbed and unpleasant 'heroes' who were quite frequently little more than psychotic thugs cut from the same template.
The portrayal of women -- rarely at its most mature to begin with in this genre -- plunged to ever more absurd depths, at times bordering on outright misogyny (Except for Wonder Woman under George Perez who created one of the character's best ever periods). For example, during the Dark Age an entire sub-genre of "Bad Girls" comics started to appear, featuring female characters (usually Witches, Demons, Vampires, etc) in highly Stripperific outfits in Supernaturally themed, borderline pornographic storylines. An early Trope Codifier for this was Lady Death. There was a time when this kind of material made up 90% of the material produced by Avatar Press. The "Bad Girls" genre has more or less died out, however some series like this (most notably Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose) are still around.
An overly dark, cynical tone appeared even in works for which such a tone was unsuitable. While not always a Deconstruction of The Silver Age of Comic Books, it was certainly a deliberate opposition, and although touted as being more adult and mature, in too many cases the works produced during the age were no more sophisticated than or superior to earlier, 'immature' works -- merely nastier.
Big Events and Crisis Crossovers were also immensely common by this point, with events such as Superman dying and being replaced by feuding alternatives, Batman having his back broken and replaced by a considerably more psychotic individual, the Silver Age Green Lantern turning evil and Spider-Man being replaced by a clone. Even Wonder Woman and the Flash were briefly replaced by darker doppelgangers, and Aquaman lost a hand and grew a beard. However, many of these events were poorly received by fans, who didn't appreciate their favourite characters being altered beyond recognition, and the constant crossovers tended to interrupt the flow of stories in individual titles (thus making a jumbled mess of ongoing storylines), requiring readers to purchase numerous different books -- including titles they may not particularly like or usually read -- in order to follow the narrative.
Opinion is divided on when -- or even if -- the Dark Age ended. Earliest estimates put it in the mid-to-late 1990s. In 1995, the critically acclaimed Astro City, a love letter to super-heroes of the Silver Age Style debuted. 1996 saw the publishing of Kingdom Come, a brutal, barefisted Deconstruction of the direction comics had been going in for the past ten years. 1996 also saw the end of The Sandman, Valiant Comics being bought out, and The Great Comics Crash of 1996. It's also worth noting that DC's Crisis Crossover for 1996 was Final Night, which undid Hal Jordan's Face Heel Turn through his Heroic Sacrifice to re-ignite the sun. 1997 saw Grant Morrison's celebrated run on JLA, which did more to Reconstruct the main DCU than anything else. 1997 was also when Marvel filed for bankruptcy (See The Great Comics Crash of 1996 for more details). The late 90s saw Warren Ellis gaining prominence with works such as Transmetropolitan (1997) and Planetary (1999), as well as DC's acquisition of Wildstorm, and is thus often tied into The Modern Age of Comic Books. Later estimates put it at the turn of the millennium, with the introduction of Ultimate Marvel via Ultimate Spider-Man (2000), offering a fresh take on the Marvel Universe unfettered by decades of continuity and modernized takes on old stories and characters. Still others argue that whilst the excesses of the Dark Age have by-and-large disappeared, comics today are nevertheless still notably dominated by a Darker and Edgier mindset which indicates that it might be around for a while.
In at least one medium, the Dark Age is still going strong; superhero movies have been increasingly focusing on much darker takes on superheroes, primarily represented by the release of The Dark Knight in 2008 and The Movie of Watchmen in 2009. (Rather fitting, knowing what comics kicked off the original Dark Age.) Ironically, during the Dark Age in comics, superhero movies had actually been a lot Lighter and Softer than the material they were taking inspiration from. So far, however, the Hollywood Dark Age is taking a much more nuanced approach than the comic one. Whereas the comics, for the most part, crammed as much sex and gore as humanly possible into the pages they were given, the movies are taking a less bloody approach; The Dark Knight relies on Bloodless Carnage like no other, and Watchmen is gory but doesn't rely on the gore to tell a story (in fact, the climax is less gory in the movie than it was in the comic). For all we know, this could change in the future, just like how Alan Moore and Frank Miller gave way to Todd Mc Farlane and Rob Liefeld, although Hollywood's desire to attract wide audiences for their blockbusters will most likely keep things PG-13. But then, there's 2010's Kick Ass.
As for the men who arguably started it all, at least one later appeared less-than-impressed by what followed. Moore became one of the era's most outspoken critics, revamping Supreme -- originally a standard grimdark Superman clone -- into an in-depth exploration of the Superman myth and what made it work, and many of his works for his America's Best Comics line, such as Tom Strong, display a notable Lighter and Softer tone in order to balance the extremes of this era. The other, Miller, seems to be more on the fence, with his later works, including The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin either openly making fun of his own earlier work or providing a terrible example of its worst excesses, depending on who you talk to.
See also Nineties Anti-Hero and Dark Age of Supernames. Do not confuse with Dork Age (although, in the minds of some fans, a lot of material produced in this era belongs there as well). See The Great Comics Crash of 1996 for what was happening during this Age outside of the content.
Notable series of the Dark Age:
- Hellboy Debuted in 1994. A demon who is destined to bring about the apocalypse fights Nazis and Lovecraftian abominations with a huge gun and the title character himself is a huge mass of psychological issues. The premise itself is very Dark Age, but the series actually isn't supremely dark. Hellboy is shown to give very good advice, and enjoys pancakes.
- Venom went from being an evil version of Spider-man, to an Anti-Hero, to a Nineties Anti-Hero with his own book, before his symbiote split and bonded to an Axe Crazy Serial Killer, creating Carnage, an evil(er) version of Venom.
- Spawn (The scion of Image and the model for its many imitators)
- The Maxx came out of this era, and while the series was published by Image and the titular character may look the part, the series itself is far stranger, more metaphorical and a good deal smarter than the other stuff that came out around this time, and thus it receives a far better reputation than many of its contemporaries nowadays.
- Watchmen (Along with The Dark Knight Returns, one of the kickoff series of the Age)
- The Punisher (This pre-existing ultra-violent Anti-Hero Vigilante Man's stock went way, way up)
- Batman: Year One (Went hand-in-hand with The Dark Knight Returns in defining Frank Miller's vision of the Caped Crusader)
- Wolverine, like the Punisher and Batman, was a preexisting hero who attained new heights of popularity because he fit the grim and gritty trend; his regular series began in 1988, and Wolverine Publicity spread like Kudzu.
- The one-off Doom comic wasn't exactly notable, but it perfectly illustrates the excesses of the age.
- Lobo, though a character and not a series, was created as a parody of this kind of hero, and quickly gained popularity as one.
- Marshal Law was also a parody of this era's excesses.
- Witchblade, one of the few long-lasting books of that time period, which spawned a TV show, anime, and manga, with an upcoming movie.
- Judge Dredd was another example of Misaimed Fandom on a pre-existing character. Unfortunately, the US fans and Hollywood missed what was blatant to the original 2000 AD readers: that Dredd was a rare satirical character played straight instead of for humor.
- Supreme started out as a straight example about "What if Superman was a huge jerk", but when Alan Moore came on, this trend was parodied with "Grim 80s Supreme" as one of the previous incarnations living in the Supremacy. Later they would introduce his archenemy Grim 80s Demented Tittering Transvestite Serial Killer Darius Dax (Dax is normally Lex Luthor with hair, so you can tell how big a stretch that characterization is) and Grim 80s Traumatized Diana Dane.
- The Malibu Comics flagship title Prime was created with the same purpose in mind, and also ended up being a deconstruction of the era once that company folded and sold all their assets to DC.
- Death Mate, the crossover that is often blamed for the comics crash.
- Body Bags, Which, like the above mentioned Doom Comic is notable only because it perfectly illustrates the excesses of the age. An indie comic about an estranged father/daughter assassin team, and how they grow to tolerate one another. The story starts with people getting ventilated and Clownface (the father) sticking a knife into the abdomen of a pregnant crackhead and joking about it, and goes from there. Oh, and the daughter, Panda, is a fourteen year old with unusually large breasts, constantly wears a cheerleader uniform, and spends most of each issue bent over or spread-eagled.
- Zero Hour: A 1994 Crisis Crossover from DC Comics. Relatively tame by this page's standards, it was nonetheless about a Silver Age hero's descent into madness, forcing his friends to fight and apparently kill him. Also featured the deaths of many surviving Golden Age Justice Society of America characters in a brutally quick and dismissive fashion.
- The Sandman Began in 1989, ended in 1996. One of the most successful and critically acclaimed comic series of The Nineties.
- Transformers Generation 2 actually took this time in its stride, further deepening the series mythos and taking full advantage of Anyone Can Die. It mostly failed due to the unrealistic sales expectations being placed upon the series. (It actually sold better than some titles that are considered quite successful.)
- Starman, which started out as a spinoff of Zero Hour but surpassed its originator in terms of quality. A thorough exploration of the Legacy Character concept that delved into DC's rich history like few comics before it and helped lead the way to the Modern Age.
- Perhaps the best remembered Crisis Crossover of The Nineties, the Age of Apocalypse event which had all X-men comics put on hold for several months so as to explore a dystopian alternate timeline where the X-men never existed.
- The Crow, first published in 1989, is about a brooding pretty boy goth who comes back from the dead to take revenge on the gang that murdered him and his girlfriend by killing them in brutal and symbolic ways. It spawned a TV Show and a few movies, briefly becoming a Gothic icon.
- The Darkness, about a mafia hitman with demonic powers - it's in the name
- X-Force, the X-Men spin off that gave the world Cable, Deadpool, and, for better or worse, launched the career of Rob Liefeld.
- Death's Head II, a sequel In Name Only to Marvel UK's Deaths Head. At his peak, he was as popular in the UK as Wolverine was in the US.
- Darkhawk seemingly had his cake and ate it too. He looked dark and brooding and had a cool name that didn't really match the character (he had a dark costume but there was no hawk motiff). Despite that, he was a pretty normal teenager that wasn't very violent.
- Similar to the Incredible Hulk example above, The Power of Shazam subverted this, keeping an optimistic approach in the Dark Age.
Usually accepted as beginning with the publishing of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Alternatively described as lasting until either the publishing of Kingdom Come (1986-1996), the publishing of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (1986-2000), or not ending at all (1986-present).