Superman’s Bronze Age

When discussing comics with those who are less familiar with the medium, one potential point of confusion I’ve found is the terminology used for the “Ages” of comics. The Golden Age, Silver Age, and Bronze Age in particular sound like they should denote the quality of the comics, but are traditionally used as chronological distinctions instead. And just to complicate things further, the dividing lines of these eras are vague and generally differs between the many titles or characters being published. I’ve heard things like “The Silver Age began when the Barry Allen Flash first appeared” or “The Silver Age ended with Gwen Stacy’s death” and the like. In any case, those events aren’t even in Superman books, so who cares about them?

By the early 1970s, Superman was in what came to be known as his Bronze Age. Longtime editor Mort Weisinger was gone and the oncoming creators sought to bring new life into a franchise that had been slumping. To quote from Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, “Circulation of the Superman family of comic books had been plummeting since 1966 and by 1970 its most popular title, Superman, was selling barely half what it had five years before. Archrival Marvel was moving up fast; within two years it would, for the first time, wear the mantle of industry leader.”

Something had to be done, so in 1971, DC put out a survey to ask readers what they changes they’d like to see in the comics.

Hey, waitaminute:

Yeah, the survey is casually asking if it’s okay for stories to include “Black People” alongside “Space Flights” and “Astrology” or whatever. Now, obviously this survey is not the reason DC started putting out more politically-aware content, after all the “I Am Curious (Black)” story in Lois Lane that I covered last time predates this survey. (Incidentally, for more about the survey, Tom Brevoort has written about it on his website )

It was clearly in the minds of those at DC that one of the potential paths to relevance in the market was increasing the diversity of their products. This line of thinking certainly had an effect on the Superman family of books. To quote Tye again: “Mort’s successors took Superman places politically that he hadn’t been since Jerry’s early days.”

I don’t know if I’d say they got as overtly political as those ’30s issues, but the changes did result in an influx of non-white characters to the franchise for the first time. At least three different Black women were added to Lois’s book at different times in attempts to give her a Black friend, though none stuck around very long. A Black police officer became a recurring character in Jimmy’s book. And, spoilers, Dave Stevens who first appeared in that Lois story I covered last time will return to become a reporter at the Daily Planet.

Most of those will likely be fodder for future articles. Today I’m going to talk about one of the lesser, but still important, additions to Superman canon from the 1970s: Black Kryptonians.

This scene from the “World of Krypton” backup story in 1971’s Superman issue #234 depicts, among several nameless scientists in the story, the first Black Kryptonian seen in decades of the comic. Granted, Krypton is a dead planet only depicted in occasional flashback stories or during time-travel hijinks, but I think we can be pretty sure that even if there had been a monthly Krypton book, they wouldn’t have bothered showing more Black people there than they did in Metropolis. It’s actually impressive that they did this so subtly, by just having him there and not drawing attention to it. But five issues later in #239, they do draw more attention. The is a backup with a map of locations on the doomed planet and they include:

The inclusion of “highly-developed” there is a well-meant but clumsy gesture. They’re trying so hard to say that the people of Vathlo are not “savages” but it comes across as if it’s a clarification needed because it is so exceptional that people like this could be advanced. And I genuinely think they felt they needed to stick them all on an island to explain why we hadn’t seen them before when we could have just assumed that they had been around all along, but unseen (again, like in Metropolis). But clumsy or not, they did it. They introduced diversity to Krypton. It would take time for that seed to grow, but it’s now perfectly normal for depictions of the world to include Kryptonians of Colour.

I tried to look at for letters pages in later issues and, though I couldn’t find anything about it, I have no doubt that plenty of people in the era, the kind who would have selected “I am not interested” in “Black People” in the survey considered this sort of thing to be “pandering.” But those people lost. I don’t know that I really have a point beyond the obvious here: don’t be afraid of being accused of “pandering” or “going woke” or whatever. Changes like this have to start somewhere, so let’s get started.

Finally and unrelatedly, I have to announce that although the Bronze Age of Superman has plenty of stories I intend to cover in this series someday, having gone from the 30s to the 70s chronologically, I think I am now going to break tradition and start look at Superman stories from any and all periods and media in no particular order. It should keep things from growing stale, and hopefully to encourage me to do these article more often. I don’t know what I’ll bring next time, but it’ll be something completely different.