The Dark Age of Comics, sometimes called the Iron or Tin Age1, is a term describing the period in comic book publishing beginning in the mid 1980’s running through the mid-late 90’s. It is characterized by several key elements covering story telling, business practice, and artistic freedom.
The main reason it is referred to as the “Dark Age” is because of the two books mostly commonly referenced as the inception of the period; Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987). These books changed how superheroes were written. No longer were the average cape-clad, awe-inspiring, crime-fighters paragons of virtue and good work. Now they were people; actual people with lives, textured motivations, and real personal issues. Where once you could look at Superman and see nothing but a brightly colored god among men, now you could see a battle-worn costume covering a man who’s good intentions bordered on fascism with a side-order of messiah complex. Heroes became questionable characters. The anti-hero was popularized. Some villains had admirable ethics. The multi-colored world of the superhero became clouded in increasing shades of grey.
Economically, the industry changed as well. Comics were brought “out of the basement” as it were. No longer were comics solely a medium for entertaining children. Adults openly bought comics, in large part due to the maturation in story telling, and the ones who had held onto their comics from years gone by found a lucrative market of customers searching for back issues. The old comics started selling like hot cakes. Both the publishers and economic speculators noticed this and managed to screw the whole thing up because they had overlooked the key factor in that these old issues were scarce. Many titles were restarted with “first issues”, variant and rare covers were created, numerous characters and titles were released in an attempt to manufacture value2. Speculators bought these issues and horded them, but they never appreciated in value because there were so many of them printed in high volume. Eventually the bubble burst resulting in a large amount of series with only a few issues, legions of trite, forgettable, characters, and several companies going out of business (almost including Marvel).
Fortunately, the marked stabilized. The lasting good things from the boom were comics going from being novelty items to having their own specialty stores (selling their own novelty merchandise) and the introduction of manga to western comic readers.
Thirdly, it used to be that all work done for a publisher was contractually owned by that publisher. Marvel’s Wolverine has become one of its most visible and marketable characters, yet the men who created Wolverine (Len Wein and Herb Trimpe) were only ever paid what they were contracted to for the issues and no royalties from the millions that Marvel has squeezed out of the character. Once a character or series was made, the publisher could decide what would be done with it, often to the creator’s chagrin.
Several writers and artists took umbrage with this practice. They fled to smaller publishers or formed their own (most notably Image or to a lesser extent Dark Horse) where they could do creator owned work.
In a bid to keep some of their top talent in-house, The Big Two started using imprint houses; Vertigo, Wildstorm, Crossgen, Max, etc.. These imprints were either newly formed or bought out independent publishers where creators, depending on their contract, could do creator owned work with the added bonus of having the major publisher’s advertising department and actually getting paid. Additionally, Elseworlds and What If?s allowed creators to do very interesting things with well established characters.
1The metal age term is meant to keep comic book chronology in line with the Gold, Silver, Bronze aesthetic.
2kozmund: The only thing I might expand a little bit is on all the ways they tried to manufacture value to the speculators. For instance, putting "collectable" cards in with the comic in sealed bags in an attempt to move 2 copies, one to read, one "mint in box." Something a bit ranty, maybe. Words like "cynical bastards that got exactly what they deserved." Not that I have any sort of strong feelings on the matter...