The Iron Age of Comic Books is a different interpretation of comic history that sees The Dark Age of Comic Books and The Modern Age of Comic Books as one period. This age can be defined with its Retcons, Reboots, Retools and Alternate Universes that were deemed necessary after about fifty years of accumulated continuity threatening to create a Continuity Lock-Out to new readers.
The DCU released Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, a Crisis Crossover that created the Post-Crisis universe that removed the Silver Age's excesses, in an attempt to make the stories more serious and plausible now given the opportunity to do so. Jim Shooter tried to mirror a move to realistic seriousness in Marvel Comics with The New Universe imprint, but this did not have good critical reaction at the time and thus Marvel would have to try again later. They did put in their effort, the New Mutants, as a part of the cultural atmosphere of the time, but this was not nearly as ground breaking of an effort as The New Universe was.
This zeitgeist of attempted plausibility and new found seriousness in superhero comic books is reflected in Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, both released in 1986. As well, the DC imprint Vertigo Comics also followed suit in tone, coming to its zenith with The Sandman (1989) in 1989. The turn to seriousness, especially in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns also inspired the efforts of the Batman film in 1989 and Batman: The Animated Series in 1992.
Perhaps because of the new blank slate attitude that prevailed Post-Crisis, new comic book companies remerged, like Dark Horse Comics in 1986 and Valiant Comics in 1989. They published such acclaimed works as Hellboy and Sin City, as well as releasing works like AKIRA, perhaps because this tone of serious and plausible now matched Japan's similar sense of serious and plausible, not to mention the economic success of Japan at the time as well. Other new companies include Image Comics founded in 1992, which was a major Trope Codifier for the '90s Anti-Hero, in Spawn and most of Rob Liefeld's work. However these excesses quickly collapsed somewhere around 1996 due in part to the The Great Comics Crash of 1996.
Also cutting down on the excesses from inside the pages of a comic book was Kingdom Come in 1996, which reminded writers and artists of the time that the goal was to be seriously realistic, not cynically gritty. Afterwards, Transmetropolitan was published in 1997, a celebrated work of plausible scientific rigor as well as reflecting the general tone of the period without dipping too far into the grittiness so as to be ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, Marvel Comics was beginning to struggle majorly with its properties, especially Spider-Man, who was knee deep in the Continuity Snarl that was The Clone Saga. Perhaps trying to find wiggle room continuity-wise and to provide sources of much needed revenue, Marvel created such shows as Spider-Man: The Animated Series, X-Men: The Animated Series, The Incredible Hulk animated series, Fantastic Four: The Animated Series and Iron Man: The Animated Series. Perhaps encouraged with the success of these works set in a alternate continuity and the potential new audience that was fostered by it, they gave the new universe thing a try again in 2000 with Ultimate Marvel, and sales returned once again.
This effort with animation from both DC and Marvel helped spawn the new flow of superhero blockbusters, including the Spider-Man Trilogy, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Watchmen, among others. The Iron Age carries probably some of the greatest public awareness of superheroes than any other age due to the nice fresh starts, many an animated series, and successful blockbusters all getting the word out about this medium, fostering a new generation of Comic Book fans.
Notable series of the Iron Age:
- Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Crisis Crossover that started them all, and helped kick start the Iron Age.
- Watchmen: Though not affecting continuity, it definitely influenced the tone of comic books for years to come.
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Not only did this affect comic books, but helped to shape a new, serious, plausible Batman that was the basis of many film series and animated series.
- Hellboy: Debuted in 1994. A half-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 sounds very Dark Age, but actually isn't at all, instead being a brainy and sincere Love Letter to Weird Fiction, Jack Kirby and other things the writer loves that has gone on to become one of the most successful and acclaimed creator-owned comics.
- Venom went from being an evil version of Spider-Man, to an Anti-Hero, to a '90s 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 Punisher (This pre-existing ultra-violent Anti-Hero Vigilante Man's stock went way, way up)
- Batman: Year One (Went hand-in-hand with Batman: 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.
- 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, although it actually anticipated many of them.
- 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 Marvel.
- Deathmate, the crossover that is often blamed for the comics crash.
- Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!: 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 '90s.
- 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: Crisis in Time! 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 '90s, 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.
- X-Force, the X-Men spin off that gave the world Cable, Deadpool, and, for better or worse, launched the career of Rob Liefeld.
- Thunderbolts: Marvel's team of villains trying to go good, this was considered by many to be the answer to DC's own Suicide Squad, yet is more optimistic in that the villains willingly become good guys instead.
- Kingdom Come: a harsh Deconstruction of the Dark Age and the '90s Anti-Hero archetype. As good a starting point for the modern age as any other, set into motion many of trends such as Reconstruction, Lighter and Softer, and Genre Throwback, to earlier ages, and comics that you need to purchase entire companion books in order to understand every reference. It was also a key factor in the declining popularity of the '90s Anti-Hero in favor of more traditional Silver Age archetypes.
- Grant Morrison's JLA, which brought back the bright, shiny heroes in huge, epic plots. Began in 1997, one year after Kingdom Come, and helped to Codify many of the concepts and trends introduced by Kingdom Come, and did more to Reconstruct the Main DCU than any other series.
- Ultimate Marvel, featuring updated versions of all the various Marvel characters without years of continuity, and with artists and writers being given free rein to change the characters in any way they wanted, or retell classic storylines in new ways (such as Carnage being responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy for example).
- Invincible, probably the most successful indie hero of recent years. It starts with Silver Age four-color heroics, subverts them with Plot Twist reveals, reconstructs them in a post-modern setting, as well as having a great deal of incredibly graphic violence showing the effects of superheroes not holding back against their opponents.
- Civil War, which combined a long-term change to the status quo of the Marvel Universe with an attempt at large-scale political commentary.
- The entire Marvel Comics Siege macro crisis was a Deconstructor Fleet of the entire Marvel Comics universe, the Reed Richards Is Useless trope, and the idea of the superhero in general:
- It starts with Avengers Dissembled showing what happens when you entrust the world to a set few ultra powerful humans, followed by House of M showing what happens when the super humans take over.
- Civil War addressed the stupidity of having the government let walking A-bombs blow themselves up in New York every day, while simultaneously showing how said government control plans would fail. This is shown in the deliberate Flanderization of Captain America and Iron Man showing how both sides are pretty stupid. This was also exposited in the what-if story arc when both sides find a balance and thus achieve peace.
- Dark Reign then deconstructed the entire "Lone Cop saves the world and gets promoted" genre by showing exactly what would happen if said psychopaths were really appointed to such positions of power, whilst Thor, Reed Richards and Iron Man's tenures as God, Guardian and Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in each of their individual story arcs show how each quest to "fix" the world leads to disaster.
- Then the New Captain America saga had a deconstruction of the Sidekick.
- The idea of power and potential is again brought up in The Hood's recent story, showing what happens if all the D-listers in the universe eventually got together and actually applied their powers, while the Current Mighty Avengers show how these super teams affect the political climate.
- The Illuminati is in itself a deconstruction of large hero collaborations (and how they lead to failure i.e. the Secret invasion) and its counterpart "The Cabal" showed just how incapable a society of villains would be at functioning. All this is paralleled by the Annihilation series depicting exactly what kind of galaxy is filled with empires that invade and blow stuff up on a daily basis and exactly how disillusioned it makes characters. Seeing Black Bolt turn to insanity was just further reconfirmation of what a world Cosmic Marvel is.
- The Nova Corps pretty much deconstructed all Space Cop tropes with its nigh-omnipotent band of non-sanctioned super soldiers and exactly how that would affect any political situation.
- The Decimation arcs in X-Men show exactly how humans would react to mutants if the odds were evened.
- The Secret arcs show what exactly being a real spy means and all the details it entails.
- And finally, Siege shows the reconstruction, revealing that after all this, heroes are still heroes no matter what.
- Then there's the Ultimates and Ultimatum storylines in the Marvel Ulimates series, whose most memorable moment was the Blob chowing down on Wasp.
- 52 from DC Comics, which was the first full-length narrative comic to ship on a weekly basis for Exactly What It Says on the Tin.