What is the “Dark Age” of Comics?

Comic books have been around for nearly 80 years. There’s so much that can happen within eight decades, and comics have (more or less) stuck around through it all! There’s a certain draw that superheroes have, especially in times of hardship, as they represent the best things we want to see in ourselves and our fellow man. Yet, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, many of these hereoes were deconstructed, as they were placed in some of their darkest comic book stories to date. This time period is becoming more and more commonly known as the “Dark Age” of comics.

If you’ve been following along with our Podcast series on the History of DC Comics, we’ve been talking about the different “Ages” in comics. Each “Age” usually begins and ends with a tonal shift in the way comics are being written as well as the way they are perceived. As time separates us further and further from story arcs, we’re able to see certain themes that help to differentiate one Age from another. In 1986, a few key stories were introduced that were clear indicators of such a tonal shift: The Dark Knight ReturnsWatchmen, and Batman: Year One. These stories weren’t your typical “Bronze Age” comics; they represented something darker and edgier. The success of these stories led to more comic books trying to duplicate this dark tone, and thus we have the beginning of the Dark Age. If you want a date range, it’s widely accepted that the Dark Age lasted for just one decade, spanning from 1986 – 1996.

The Dark Age had it’s good qualities and it’s not-so-good qualities. At it’s best, it placed characters like Batman into edgy storylines that complimented the character’s mythos and made some of the most memorable and compelling stories to date (e.g. A Death in the Family, The Killing Joke, Knightfall ). At it’s worst, it tried to apply the same gritty deconstruction to characters it simply didn’t work for. Take for example the Green Lantern story arc, Emerald Twilight. Emerald Twilight took Hal Jordan, who is known as arguably one of the most light-hearted characters in the DC universe, and turned him completely villainous and crazy. Fans were divided over this change to such an iconic character, and while it was ultimately explained away a full decade later, it’s still known as a very polarizing storyline.

Ultimately, in 1996, a mini series called Kingdom Come was introduced, which could be seen as representative of the rejection of Dark Age elements that were flooding the comic book world. In this story, Superman goes into retirement after the public rejects him in favor of new heroes who are willing to use lethal force. At it’s core, this storyline is about how these characters each stand for more than whatever the world wants them to be at that current moment. With the end of Kingdom Come, there seemed to be yet another tonal shift across comic books, which would puts us in the Modern Age.

Whether you loved it or hated it, The Dark Age was incredibly important to superhero mythology. It showed that comic books could include more mature themes and it made the struggles of these superheroes seem more personal and realistic.

In fact, we even have the Dark Age to thank for a lot of the elements and tones we see in modern comic book movies!

What do you guys think of the Dark Age? Would you want to see more elements of the Dark Age continue to exist in comic book movies? Let us know in the comments!