Mostly when I write a genre police story, I begin by picking the genre and then discussing the issues around the context and creation of the genre. But today we’re going to have to approach this article from a different perspective. We’re about to talk about the Bronze age of comics, a style and era so tied into the zeitgeist of the time that it’s impossible to talk about one without the other. More than any other period, the ‘Bronze age’ of superhero comics was a time when a genre defined as ‘for the kids’ became about something and in these earnest and sometimes ham-fisted attempts to use the medium for a message is an idea relevant to our games. As RPG’s become more popular, there’s a temptation to dumb the concept down the lowest common denominator. But if Bronze age comics have taught us nothing, it’s to trust your audience. Maybe trust your players to jump to the next level.
So, with that serious message out of the way, let’s remember that this period of Supers comics also featured a roller-skating X-Man that had a power that functioned best in a disco environment. Join the love train and jump into our article.
No More Fear & Loathing
As the comics readers of the silver age grew up, they refused to stop reading comics. In order to retain this readerships interest, comics began to try to make their storylines more engaging for and teen/adult audience and increasingly butted heads with the comic’s code authority patronising stipulations. While some comics continued to try and jump on teen fads (hence the aforementioned roller-skating Dazzler) other comics tried to understand and talk to their readership, engaging in counter-culture ideology and forming new ideas. For example, when the Vietnam war started, Spider-man’s friend Flash Thompson went to war and everybody is thrilled, having a patriotic party. By the time Flash comes home, the comics have changed: he is a damaged man who has seen too much. As the cultural ground of America’s youth shifted, so did the comics.
Then in 1971, Stan Lee did the unthinkable.
Lee was working on a Spider-man story called ‘Green Goblin Reborn!” which featured a storyline involving drug use. As it was a cautionary tale that he thought would benefit young people and he’d been asked by the government to write an anti-drugs story, Lee assumed he’d be on safe ground. The comics code authority rejected the issues. Lee thanked them and then ran the stories anyway without the CCA stamp. This simple but unthinkable act changed the way people thought about the CCA overnight and forced them to change parts of the code in order to stay relevant to the issues faced by the readership. Comics creators took the open door and ran with a fifteen year long desire to create stories about things that mattered to them: Green Arrow’s sidekick struggled with drug addiction, Captain America found out his government was corrupt, Green Lantern was asked “you’ve done plenty for the green and purple people, but what have you done for the black man?”. In short order, comics got woke.
It’s not to say there weren’t major fails in this period either, most black heroes ended up having ‘Black’ in their name, like it was the only interesting feature. The X-Men may have diversified but when you look at the representation, a dour strong Russian, hard-drinking Irishman, self-hating German, Native American tracker, Japanese hothead and an African tribal queen may all been a little stereotypical. At least Wolverine was a rude Canadian. And women….they may have had real dialogue but costume issues were a long way from being fixed.
But the thing is… they tried. They had no idea what they were doing, they were ill-informed. But they wanted to do good, to balance the scales, to represent. And we can only love them for that.
Examples in RPG
Bronze age comics RPGs are the rarest of beasts. A lot of this is due to the lack of consensus on exactly when the era begins and ends but also because some of the genre conventions of a Bronze Age comic can seem too earnest for some gamers. A quick shout out to Mutants and Masterminds because it again covers this topic in better depth that I have in it’s Silver Age and Iron Age books.
Black Knights, White Hearts: Wild Talents is another generic engine for Supers but with a much more real-world twist and is a game any Supers game fan has to check out. Buried in their core rulebook or available online is an adventure/setting called ‘Black Knights, White hearts which really sets the scene of the bronze age.
Spirit of ’77: While not technically a supers game, Spirit of ’77 is a high action game that can easily be adapted to involve vigilantes. The game is gear by the PbtA system which is very successful at aping the genre it is aiming for. The artwork at one point has a Luchador fighting Bigfoot so it’s up in the ‘Street Level Supers’ action that I often associate with this era.
Superworld: Actually released during the time period of the Bronze Age, Superworld technically therefore fits into the definition. But it’s not the game itself that wins the award – but what it generated. George R.R. Martin and his friends got hold of this game and created a campaign that almost took over their lives. All of them being writers, they turned this game into the long-running WILD CARDS series of novels, which is very dark but owes a lot of its ideals and original composition to the late Bronze Age comics. So if you want to play the game that spawned an entire universe, that’s this game.
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While it’s a niche genre, Bronze age comics actually have a massive bag of Specific tricks they can pull from.
Clear and Represented…
They might have dealt in ham-fisted stereotypes but the message of the bronze age was clear – representation is important. You want to make sure any NPC’s you have are a collection of differing sexes, races and creeds. While any good DM is doing this anyway a Bronze Age DM should be making sure those figures are in every scene.
…But under fire
The struggle for acceptance is real. Those who don’t fit with societies definition in a bronze age world are pushed aside and hated. Be they mutant superheroes in new york state or half-orc warrior in a village, make sure that they are misunderstood at every possible turn.
Embracing youth culture meant adding in things that might not fit but cramming them in awkwardly anyway. Roller-skating villains, disco powered corrupters, lightsaber-wielding star-knights and kung fu warriors completely have a place in a bronze age style game.
Consequences at cost
While heroes in earlier comics tended to have adventures that didn’t affect those around them, the bronze age cut through their supporting casts and lives. Speedy became addicted to drugs, Gwen Stacy took a fatal dive and Captain America lost his country. Bronze age games test the resolve of heroes, asking them if the fight is worth fighting, if the costs are too high. You need to look into backstories of players and work out where that fulcrum is – an NPC? A location held dear? Or an ideal you can taint? Put those things as focal points in an adventure and let the players deal with the fallout. If you are playing D&D, now is the time to look at those ‘ideals’ section on the character sheet and push buttons or challenge beliefs.
Next time, we’ll be wrapping up our discussion of super sub-genres which I will start by picking a fight with a Wikipedia entry.