Pouches Were Cool: Brief Reflections on the Iron Age of Comics
Probably my favorite of the "ages" of comic books was the Bronze Age - it's not a rigidly defined time, but generally considered to span from 1970 to the mid-80s - often with The Dark Knight Returns as being considered the dawn of the Iron Age. Though the Bronze Age is my favorite, I started reading comics as it was ending - Crisis on Infinite Earths was just about to appear on the shelves.
So most of my initial collecting was in the Iron Age. I'm pretty sure in my parent's house in a box are multiple copies of X-Men #1 and Superman #75, just waiting to be cracked open to fund my kids' attending Harvard, MIT, and Yale. And maybe Columbia for good measure too...
Joking aside, I enjoyed the early efforts of the Iron Age. Though I don't particularly care for Frank Miller's more recent works, The Dark Knight Returns was an interesting examination at Batman, suggesting there was something very seriously wrong with him. In all honesty though, I believe his best run in the Iron Age was his second run on Daredevil, in his Born Again story. In it, Daredevil, or perhaps more precisely, Matt Murdock, has his life destroyed as the Kingpin discovers his secret identity. Losing everything, he builds himself back up and redefines himself. Entire issues pass without him suiting up as Daredevil, something I don't believe was really done back then, to the point when he did reappear as Daredevil, it felt like a major event. Unlike many Iron Age stories, it dares to end on a hopeful note with Murdock having redefined his life and managing to find happiness. He accomplishes something Bruce Wayne could never really hope to - finding a balance in his life. Being a monthly comic book, of course that couldn't last - he'd of course have to face new challenges. But unlike most deconstructions in comic books, this one was done for the purpose of putting him back together.
I think as the 80s came to an end and the 90s began, many of the more unfortunate tropes of the Iron Age began appearing. Guns everywhere. Pouches everywhere. Rob Liefeld everywhere. Female superheroes portrayed for maximum titillation. Giant guns everywhere. Chromium special covers. Variant cover art. Green Lantern going on a crazy rampage. Some of the art being downright horrible (I'm looking at you Deadpool with your horrible body proportions, giant crotch, and bizarre pouches around your oddly narrow waist.) The Dark Knight Returns and Born Again took a more realistic look at our heroes but the later examples of the Iron Age had a very odd view of realism.
That's not to say everything was horrible. Even deep in the Iron Age there were some gems. I was definitely a fan of the early Valiant Comics and still have a stash in a comics box in my closet. Neil Gaiman's Sandman made his debut in the Iron Age and John Constantine's comic Hellblazer spanned the entire Iron Age. Hellboy made his debut.
It had to come to an end and usually the main event heralding its end was DC Comics' Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come had a very dark DC Universe with heroes barely distinguishable from villains. In the end our heroes rediscover their heroism and the comic brings back the pure joy so often found in the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books.
Listen to me, Clark. Of all the things you can do…all your powers…the greatest has always been your instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. It was a gift of your own humanity. You never had to question your choices. In any situation…any crisis…you knew what to do. But the minute you made the SUPER more important than the MAN. The day you decided to turn your back on mankind…that completely cost you your instinct. That took your judgment away.