If The Golden Age of Comic Books and The Silver Age of Comic Books were the childhood of Super Heroes, The Bronze Age of Comic Books was their adolescence, and The Dark Age of Comic Books was their angst-ridden teenage years, then The Modern Age of Comic Books is surely the college years: all the work gets turned in late, people come up to you with crazy-awesome ideas all the time (most of which don't really pan out), and there's still some adolescent attitude about, but it's growing into something more mature. In the process, some things that are eschewed as childish in adolescence return because we're old enough to realize a little of that is not a bad thing.
If you want a start date for the Modern Age, then the publication of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 in 2000 is as good a signpost as any: definitely a sharp turn back towards lighter and happier comics, harbinger of a lot of Modern Age tropes like Writing for the Trade (something of a side-effect of the Decompressed Comic) and habitual lateness, the beginning of Marvel's Ultimate universe, and hey — it's a great big obvious #1 issue. Of course 1996 is just as good, since it's the year that Kingdom Come came out, and the year that The Sandman ended, and the year of The Great Comics Crash of 1996. Or even 1995, when Astro City came out. Hindsight is always clearer, though, so this is another thing we'll probably have to change in five or ten years, when we can look at the Age as a whole.
Depending on your viewpoint, we may still be in The Dark Age of Comic Books; or at least, there's still some lingering elements of the Dark Age hanging around. This generally seems to refer to tone and atmosphere more than actual content, since the extremes of that era have long-faded, and could be more of a sarcastic insult as much as actual criticism. Some consider the extended "Dark Age" to be The Iron Age of Comic Books.
The Modern Age is the era in which Running the Asylum became overt, as creative teams often went to great lengths to restore the elements of their own favorite childhood comics — frequently to the point of completely discarding the contributions of the ''last'' creative team. With an unusually high rate of turnover in the 2000s, this would occasionally result in a character experiencing several All New Directions in the space of two or three years.
Both Dark Age and Modern Age influences can be seen in recent superhero movies. If The Dark Knight Trilogy is comprised of Dark Age movies, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies can be considered Modern Age movies.
Another feature of the era is while the decline of the comic book as a regularly published periodical is real, the rise of the graphic novel as respectable reading material in mainstream North American culture has been dramatic. For instance, public libraries, which for generations had largely treated comic books like a hospital does with medical waste, have embraced the format in their acquisitions.
Non-superhero comics are becoming more mainstream, with books like Logicomix (which is about Bertrand Russel and the foundations of math) and Pride of Baghdad (which is about some lions who escape from the zoo during the Iraq War.) This trend is partly thanks to the influence of Japanese and European pop culture, which have always held the position that there can be as much variety in comic books as there is in any other medium. For independent creators, there are now online publishing alternatives like Patreon.com, which enables subscription arrangements to patrons to allow for new comics to be funded.
Some suggested that, following the "metallic" scheme of Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron, the current age may be known as "Aluminum", since so much of it is recycled. Another possible name is the "Diamond Age" or Prismatic Age because the medium has become multifaceted (or because Diamond has an effective monopoly on distribution, take your pick). Another suggested name is "The Post-Modern Age", due to the growing number of post modern books that have been coming out. The name "Neo-Silver Age" has also been used, considering the common values of the two. Grant Morrison recently referred to the current age as the "Renaissance", to contrast it with the Dark Age that had just come before. Some consider this and the Dark Age to be a single era, The Iron Age of Comic Books.
It's too early to say for sure, but if an "age" of comic books lasts fifteen or so years, and the Modern Age began in the mid-90s, then it is likely to be reaching its end point now. Certainly, the September 2011 reboot of The DCU following Flashpoint appears to be a significant change, similar to how some consider Crisis on Infinite Earths to mark the end of the Bronze Age. Also, Archie Comics and DC finally officially dropped The Comics Code in 2011. The fact that the reboot also marks the beginning of DC's major digital publishing initiative is also a sign that times are changing. On the Marvel side of things, September is also the month that Ultimate Spider-Man, one of the launchers of the Modern Age, officially passes the torch from Peter Parker to new character Miles Morales; Marvel also experimented with their own relaunch in 2012, beginning Marvel NOW. 2014 has seen a wave of Lighter and Softer titles with more cartoony artwork, as publishers attempt to capture audiences outside of traditional markets, particularly those buying digital comics. Examples include Matt Fraction's Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel (2014), and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from Marvel, and Gotham Academy and the Cameron Stewart/Brenden Fletcher/Babs Tarr Batgirl (2011) from DC.
With the rise of indie comics, creator-owned publishers like Image Comics (The Walking Dead, Saga) and their heavy influence on mainstream titles at the Big Two like some of the examples above, not to mention an increased emphasis on diversity and broadening demographics (e.g. Ms. Marvel, a book with a teenage Pakistani-American heroine which saw seven printings of its #1 issue and boasts incredible digital sales), it's very possible that 2014 —in general— was the official beginning for a new comic book age.
As well, 2015 saw the realization of a long-gestating Crisis Crossover at Marvel, a new Secret Wars, that sought to alter the Marvel universe — or more appropriately to its plot, the Marvel multiverse. 2016 saw the end of the New 52 era and the beginning of the DC Rebirth initiative, which heavily altered the DC Universe to be much more similar to its pre-Flashpoint counterpart, both in terms of history and tone.
Unfortunately, the physical comic book medium is undergoing perhaps its most existential crisis with the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In an even more severe version of the theatrical film medium's business situation of being paralysed by the mass temporary closure of the theatrical chains, Diamond Distributing, the major comic distributing business in North America, announced that it would accept no more material from publishers starting April 1 until further notice. Given that Diamond has a virtual monopoly supplying comic book stores since the 1990s since Marvel Comics' botched attempt to bring distribution in-house, this could devastate the business viability of the North America comic book medium depending on how long the situation lasts and if things can return to normal in time. However, outside the general book retail sector, that could leave digital publishing, either through commercial sites like Amazon.com's Comixology for the commercial publishers or crowd-funding sites like Patreon for independent creators, as the future of the art.
Series of the Modern Age which may or may not be notable in the future:
- 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 character art and likable 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.
- Heroes Return, Marvel's brand for several of its big name titles in 1998 such as Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Iron Man which restored their heroes to the main universe after being sent to the Heroes Reborn universe one year prior, which featured brighter artwork and a more optimistic tone for its heroes. The biggest title to come out of this was Kurt Busiek's run on the The Avengers, a grand, epic saga Reconstructing the Marvel Universe and featuring key stories like "Ultron Unlimited" and "The Kang War."
- David S. Goyer and, later, Geoff Johns' run on JSA not only followed JLA's example of shiny, colorful art, clearly heroic characters, and large-scale plots, but brought back classic Golden and Silver Age heroes that hadn't seen the light of day in years.
- A related early example was Johns' Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., his first DC work which also was the debut of Courtney Whitmore, the Stargirl, a character that would feature prominently in JSA.
- Ultimate Marvel, featuring updated versions of all the various Marvel characters without years of continuity, and with artists and writers being give 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). As time went on, the focus eventually shifted from retreading old stories and characters to doing things that would never be allowed to happen in the regular Marvel universe; like wiping out most of the X-Men, disbanding the Fantastic Four with Reed Richards becoming the next Dr. Doom, and killing off Peter Parker.
- 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; whether or not it was successful...
- Runaways is a modern representation of the more hip and deconstructing elements of this era. Combining a diverse amount of influences from old school comics, to manga, and modern day nerd culture and pop cultural references. As well as featuring more well known heroes in vastly different circumstances.
- 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 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 what kind of galaxy is filled with empires that invade and blow stuff up planets on a daily basis and how disillusioned it makes charters. 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 Police tropes with its nigh-omnipotent run band of non-sanctioned super soldiers and how that would affect any political situation.
- The Decimation arcs in X-Men show how humans would react to mutants if the odds were evened.
- The Secret arcs show what 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.
- Young Avengers was made as Marvel's more official answer to DC's Teen Titans or Young Justice, as compared to the other teen team Runaways being much less traditional. Featuring a team that combined elements of mutants, aliens, time travelers, and Legacy Characters that weren't quite legacies, this was the beginning of Marvel's attempt to aim for young adult readers, while still having enough Darker and Edgier material to keep older audiences interested.
- 52 from DC Comics, which was the first full-length narrative comic to ship on a weekly basis for 52 consecutive weeks. Appropriately enough, it dealt with the reconstruction of The DCU after yet another Crisis Crossover, with the various heroes trusting each other much more afterward and The Multiverse being restored for the first time in 20 years. Written by a Dream Team of four authors (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid), each of whom contributed something to each issue.
- Identity Crisis, which was critically both a success and a failure, often in the same review. The series and accompanying crossover is noteworthy for the fact that the nominal murder plot takes a backseat to everyone's reaction, essentially creating a Crisis Crossover that was primarily about the personal affairs of the characters in their own books.
- Infinite Crisis: The twentieth anniversary of the original crisis saw Geoff Johns being given the task of coming up with a "sequel". What he came up with was that the survivors of the original crisis have been watching the DCU all along. And that they've grown so disgusted with how dark it's become, that they're willing to kill everyone in the existing universe to create a newer, "better" one. A continuity reset and a meta commentary on the evolution of comics at the same time.
- Astro City, The first major Reconstruction of superhero comics.
- Top 10, taking the Mundane Fantastic to the streets— or flying over them, as the case may be.
- Supreme, the Alan Moore version; what started as Rob Liefeld's infamously violent '90s Anti-Hero Shallow Parody of Superman, was turned by Moore into a loving look at Superman and comics in general, especially the Silver Age.
- Justice, a Genre Throwback to the Silver and Bronze Ages that manages to distill the optimism and heroism of those eras.
- The Geoff Johns run on Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, brought us the "war of light" Meta Plot, including the following major storylines:
- Green Lantern: Rebirth, which undoes the Dark Age fall of Hal Jordan with a spectacularly Silver Age rationale.
- The Sinestro Corps War which deals with epic battles between the Green Lanterns and the newly founded "Sinestro Corps" whose goal is to spread fear through out the universe. Featuring epic battles almost on the scale of a Space Opera. This story specifically brought attention to Johns' work on the franchise and helped make Green Lantern a Breakout Character of the Modern Age.
- Blackest Night, a Crisis Crossover Zombie Apocalypse encompassing the rest of The DCU. It uses a Dark Age GL tale penned by Alan Moore as a springboard for a commentary on the role of Death in Comic Books. It also introduces a number of other emotion-based "color corps".
- Annihilation, Annihilation: Conquest, and the revival of Marvel's cosmic line by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning through Nova, Guardians of the Galaxy, and War of Kings.
- Greg Rucka's Batwoman, wildly popular, and with much critical acclaim, due to its psychological storyline and surreal artwork.
- Irredeemable, Mark Waid's deconstruction of The Cape with Superman's Captain Ersatz the Plutonian shows what would happen if the former had a FaceHeel Turn.
- In a similar vein, Supreme Power does this with an entire team of superheroes.
- Warren Ellis' superhero trilogy: three independent mini-series, deconstructing the superhero genre. Black Summer shows us what if heroes were too human, No Hero if they were crazy, and Supergod if they didn't have humanity at all.
- DC's Crisis Crossover for 1996 was Final Night, in which Hal Jordan as Parallax redeems himself with his Heroic Sacrifice to re-ignite the sun, thus saving the planet Earth.
- The Video Game version of The Darkness successfully Reconstructed the '90s Anti-Hero (after over a decade of Deconstruction and ridicule), and revitalized the forgotten Image character. By copying many aspects of the game, the comic had new life injected into it. This, along with the success of Batman: Arkham Asylum, are examples of how comics and video games can interact in a more positive way than the shallow adaptations of the past.
- Star Wars Legacy: An epic Deconstructor Fleet of Star Wars Legends.
- Gotham Central: Took the radical approach of focusing on the Gotham City Police Department as they try to solve crimes amidst Batman and his villains. Several of its characters have gone on to be Legacy Characters for DC heroes.
- DC Comics buying Wildstorm studios from ImageComics in 1999 may well be one of the biggest events of the Modern Age.
- The Spider-Man storyline One More Day. The dark side of the era's trends towards reconstruction, as the story attempts to bring aspects of the Silver Age back to Spidey comics but does so in the worst way possible, alienating readers in droves.
- Rising Stars exemplifies the trend of portraying the effect of superheroes on the world (and of the world on them) more realistically than in earlier ages.
- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (IDW) is noteworthy for being as significant a crossover success as the Girl-Show Ghetto busting Western Animation TV series, reaching out as a Gateway Series to not only its unusual fandom, but also to the badly neglected child readership, a demographic the comic book market needs to connect with to survive.
- Rick Remender and Colin Bunn's Run on Venom shows us what comics can do when it comes to Character Development, The Bus Came Back, playing with the '90s Anti-Hero, and Continuity Porn.
- The Sandman, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and other Vertigo Comics titles start a trend towards comics meant for older readers that were less "dark" but rather "mature". Current titles like Fables move away from the superhero format but use the comic medium for stories that blend themes from the Silver Age with modern sensibilities including homages to many genres once popular in comics before the introduction of the Comics Code.
- Archie Comics could definitely be said to have gone through its Renaissance. Having finally shed the constraints of the CCA, it proved capable of making more mature stories with genuine cliffhangers. A precursor in 2006 involved Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog shedding its old guard of writers in favor of new blood and utilising an Infinite Crisis style reboot to clean up a cast that had become bloated by Ken Penders' increasingly smothering cast of Creator's Pets and a truly convoluted continuity due to writers in constant disagreement over what counted as Canon, so that Sonic could return to his roots. This would eventually end in 2017, with SEGA of America taking the rights away from Archie after years of problematic scenarios.
- 2010 saw the addition of their first homosexual character, Kevin Keller. The later additions including Life with Archie: The Married Life, which showed possible futures with Archie marrying Betty or Veronica, and Afterlife with Archie, their first Mature-based comic, gave rise to the idea of Archie finally moving away from its constant kid-friendly outlook.
- DC Rebirth proved to DC Comics that the third time is always a charm when it comes to revitalizing their heroes as the mistakes made with The New 52 and the DC YOU brandings were fixed, bringing back the brightness and adventure to the constant darkness that permeated the titles since the rebootnote especially as a lot of hints in some of their books seem to lean towards the idea of fighting the thing that got them there in the first place: Watchmen
- IDW got the opportunity to produce their own post-war Transformers comics. While not dark in the conventional sense, the plots became much deeper and started addressing both political and emotional issues. Perhaps their most notable trait, though, is taking advantage of the Loads and Loads of Characters in Hasbro's toyline, using lesser-known names to create new versions of characters.
- Hasbro took advantage of this to make new versions of long-forgotten characters such as Whirl, Brainstorm and Roadcutter, instead of the 700th retool of Optimus Prime (although they did anyway).
- In 2017, two days after the Archie Comics version would be formally cancelled, it was announced that SEGA would give the rights of a Sonic the Hedgehog comic to IDW; a fresh start for the Blue Blur, and an Ace up the sleeve for IDW.
- After years of fumbling, Marvel decided to come back swinging with the Marvel: A Fresh Start initiative, which saw a number of changes with the end of the intercompany turmoil. This saw the return of the Fantastic Four, the rise of the X-Men and the fall of the Inhumans in prominence, and a back-to-basics approach to Spider-Man.