Having recently been called out for proposing that the Silver Age of comics ended the minute Jack Kirby put his Fourth World series into motion, I thought I'd explain my point a bit more. Doing a little research beforehand, I find that my thought it not altogether an original one: Wikipedia, for example, gives the Fourth World as one of a handful of possible end points for the Silver Age, though without further commentary.
The end of an era can hardly be discussed without understanding its beginning, and for the Silver Age, that's usually considered to be the first appearance of Barry Allen the Flash in Showcase #4 (1956). Why? Because these Ages refer to superhero comics in particular. Though DC's big three were published uninterrupted through the 1950s, the multitude of superheroes spawned in the '40s had pretty much gone away in the wake of horror and crime comics' popularity. After EC was effectively shut down by the new Comics Code Authority, publishers resurrected the superhero action comic to fill the void. But the superhero comic hardly comes to an end in 1970 (despite the return of the horror genre through the '70s).
If we look to a DC comic to establish a Golden-Silver-Bronze Age timeline, it may be because it is the company has been around longest, spawning more surviving characters (in name if not in body) than any other, as well as being first to revive the superhero genre in the pages of Showcase. Jack Kirby too has been around that long. He came out of the Golden Age of comics to become indisputably the most influential artist of the Silver Age (and of the entire American comics tradition).
So while we're looking at DC for the overall timeline, Marvel Comics may well be the most important element in the superhero revival's longevity. While DC resurrected old names and kept old properties alive, Marvel created a mostly new stable of characters. Though it sometimes sounds like Stan Lee created it all single-handedly, the very fact of the Marvel Method - with artists pretty much plotting out issues based on outlines with images alone, then a scripter adding relevant dialogue to those pictures - means the artist's input was as great as the writer's, and it becomes difficult to ascribe certain inventions to a lone writer. Setting character ownership aside, Kirby defined a style of storytelling that was more energetic, grander, more epic than what was being done elsewhere. His pages have a momentum all their own, probably developed by virtue of not working from a set script. They don't need the words.
Bridging the Golden and Silver Ages as he does, Kirby is one to watch, just as DC is, in establishing the superhero comics timeline. If we need a historical point to mark the end of an Age, Kirby provides us one by switching sides, as it were, at the end of the '60s, leaving the company (and shared world) he helped create for the opportunity to start something new. But I'm less interested in history than in symbolism. After all, superhero iconography is incredibly symbolic. It is a genre full of tropes, archetypes and chest emblems.
So when I chart the end of the Silver Age to the very second Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 was published, it is a symbolic changing of the guard I seek. First, there's the chosen champion to carry out such a change. Kirby, a man of all eras, is it. I find this both historically and creatively appropriate. Then, there is the story's content, wholly different from what that particular series had been doing before.
And this is where I must pause to talk about what we've come to associate with the Silver Age style at DC (still our timeline holder). The stories were frequently high concept one-offs, silly and disposable, usually not issue-length. Today we celebrate the creative zaniness of such writers as Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher, their ideas at once bold and ridiculous. No franchise was more Silver Agey than Superman's, with spin-offs like the Legion of Super-Heroes, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen being particularly insane. Any given month, Jimmy might take Superman in as his roommate, find a caveman in a block of ice, and turn into a giant turtle, each story resolved in the space of 8 pages.
Enter Kirby. Suddenly, Jimmy is an action hero thrown into the beginnings of Kirby's Fourth World. The story is action-packed and always to be continued in the next (it isn't even really isolated from his other three titles). Jimmy, who was always subservient to Superman, now rejects him as a mother hen, and ultimately absorbs him into his supporting cast. Either on the cover or the splash page, the comic calls itself Superman's Ex-Pal, or boldly proclaims Superman "Jimmy Olsen's Pal". It is a reversal of everything that had gone before, and done in the pages of a comic that TO THIS DAY is held up as representative of that particular Silver Age lunacy.
And what comes next? Kirby brings to life an entire pantheon of characters using (as we'll discover in later articles) the purest possible comic book tropes. Granted, he's imported a lot of that from Marvel - a hyperbolic narrator, a more tightly bound shared universe, and the energy of his art style - but he's distilled what's worked for him and for other comics creators into something akin to PURE genre.
Did it stick though? Did he usher in a new era of comic book making? That is debatable. I can't look at the 1970s and see a change in that direction (pure comics) unless it's a Kirby book. Notoriously, the Fourth World books weren't even well received. And yet, the New Gods have been a mainstay of the DC Universe since. Far from forgotten, creators invariably try to bring them back, for good or ill, and that includes Bruce Timm's WB cartoons. Superhero comics creators cannot get away from Kirby's influence or creations. In any case, I doubt that Kirby tells us to be like him. Rather, he wants us to be like ourselves, to go our own way, and that's something that IS evident in comics today.
Look at my description of DC's Silver Age again. It doesn't read like Marvel's. Marvel had its share of lunacy (Ant-Man's catapult anyone?), but its characters were a lot more psychologically human, there was more soap opera weaved into the stories, a more continuous narrative, no isolated characters, etc. But Marvel still had a house style, different from DC's, but still very coherent (Stan intimately running the show is responsible for it, surely). After Kirby's Fourth World, there is a sense that there is no set way of doing comics, even within the same universe. It may account for the renewed multiplicity of genres (horror, fantasy, etc.) and certainly gave birth to true originals like Steve Gerber, to name but one example, and eventually, the rise of the independents.
In any case, if we're looking for a symbolic clean break with the previous decade's tradition, Jimmy Olsen #133 provides it. The title best known (and derided) for its rampant Silver Ageism becomes a new vehicle for action and originality, with its starring character vocally rejecting the old order and discovering a new mythology (and methodology) along with the reader.