Superheroes reborn in exhibit on comics’ Silver Age

Period in comics saw resurgence, more complexity

11/16/2012 12:00 AM

11/15/2012 10:45 AM

Michael Eury remembers the day he went with his mom to the corner drugstore. It was 1968. He was 10 years old, and the spin-rack full of comic books in the back couldn’t have kept him away even if it had been made of kryptonite and he had been Superman.

There, among all the other comic books, taunted The Creeper, the notorious yellow-skinned, red-caped villain who was still on the run from police.

So when Eury visited UNC Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Library last week to check out its new “Heroes and Villains: Silver Age Comics” exhibit, imagine his surprise when the first comic he slid from the stack was his old nemesis from DC Comic Title No. 2.

Eury lifted the cover to his face, glared into those shifty eyes, inhaled the scent of vintage pulp paper, turned the page and became that boy from 1968 again.

“Heroes and Villains: Silver Age Comics” is both an online and a material exhibit, available through the library’s Special Collections department.

Organized by Marcus Bess, the library’s usability director and a huge comic book fan himself, the online exhibit offers hundreds of panels, cover art visuals, history and trivia on nearly every one of the 700 comic books donated to the university by alumnus Charles K. Johnston just before he left for the Vietnam War in 1968.

While working on the massive exhibit, Bess, 27, tried to find Johnston but had no luck. He would have liked to thank him for the treasures he left behind.

The Silver Age – comics published between the mid-1950s and early 1970s – represents a sort of rebirth of the superhero.

The Golden Age – comics from the 1930s to the early 1950s –launched the superhero craze with wildly popular crime-fighters including Superman, Batman and Robin. But by the end of World War II, the public’s interest had worn thin.

The Silver Age breathed new life into the superhero by debuting new characters, such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, Ironman and The Avengers.

But these new heroes had to fight more than just the villains in the panels. The Silver Age was also a time when comic books were beginning to take the blame for a rise in juvenile delinquency, a theory fueled by psychologist Fredric Wertham.

In 1954 Wertham wrote “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book that created frenzy among parents, who began to worry that the violence, sex and drug use depicted in the comics was going to lead to the downfall of society.

The theory eventually led to a congressional inquiry and a subsequent decision to establish the Comics Code Authority, which publishers created in an attempt to self-censor the industry and avoid censorship by an outside group.

But comics didn’t always have such heavy matters weighing on them.

“One of the other cool things about comics from this era are the advertisements,” said Eury. “Some of them are absolutely absurd.”

During his research, Bess found an ad for a mail-order monkey in one. In the ad, readers who sent away for the live monkey would also receive a free gift.

“I think it was a clown costume,” said Bess.

The Silver Age eventually made way for the darker themes of the Bronze Age – 1970 to 1985 comics – and the even grimmer and grittier storylines of the Modern Age today.

Much has changed. New characters have chased old ones away. Prices have chased some fans away.

When Eury picked up his copy of The Creeper in 1958, it cost 12 cents. Today, when Bess picks up a comic book, it’s closer to $4.

But the lingering impression of Silver Age comics still remains behind.

“I think they are the embodiment of what we as a culture really aspire to be,” Bess said of the Silver Age. “Standing up for people, championing for good over evil – those are values that are really enduring.”

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