by KC Carlson
PREVIOUSLY ON NEVER-ENDING STORY: (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) The 1980s were a particularly fertile period for creativity in superhero comic books. A lot of outside factors — changes in distribution, new formats, creators wanting new outlets to express their creativity leading to new comics publishers, and an overriding feeling that comics as a medium was growing by quantum leaps — lead to this. 1986 was a particularly good year for comics, including Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, and many other memorable projects. It felt like a new Golden Age — but there was darkness brewing.
It is difficult to discuss in detail the so-called Modern Age (also occasionally referred to as the Iron or Copper Age, in keeping with the previously established metallic eras of Golden, Silver, and Bronze) from the mid-80s up, as there is no singular agreed-upon event to mark its beginning. In contrast, the Barry Allen Flash revival in 1956 generally defines the beginning of the Silver Age. Generally, this period is considered to begin about 1985-1986, encompassing both Marvel’s Secret Wars (superhero comics’ first big event) and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (first superhero event showing a clear transition/evolution from one thing to the next). Some of the key elements of this era of comics include the rise of independently published comics, comic creators becoming more involved in the advancement of the industry (as well as becoming more well-known both for their work and as personalities), and many characters — both new and well-established — that are more psychologically and emotionally complex.
It’s also the first era of comics where the stories of the characters, the histories of the creators, and myriad behind-the-scenes business and comics industry mechanics all combined in the minds of the everyday comics fan. That’s due to a vigorous fan press and exacerbated by the rapid development of technology past the point of some publishers to effectively control — or suppress — it. As the characters themselves got grimmer, and as industry rumors, lawsuits, creator feuds, and backstabbings became everyday fannish talking points, the era also colloquially became known by another name — The Dark Age.
Many of the darker elements first began to crop up in some of the best loved (and best-selling) comics of the era: Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen. Even the superhero wallpaper of Crisis on Infinite Earths couldn’t disguise the fact that hundreds of characters died, topped by two fan-favorites: The Flash and Supergirl, both well past their prime as effective top-tier characters and floundering in meandering storylines.
At first, the growing darkness was largely attributed to a new “realism” in comics and acclaimed as something that was long needed for the ongoing evolution of comics as an artform. Many of the earliest stories exploring these themes are still today considered classics in the field. But as lesser creative talents began to use the same themes in their stories — to much lesser effect — “realism” began to look just like another comic book trend, something to be copied and imitated because it was trendy, but mostly because it looked like it would sell like gangbusters. Few creators could handle adult themes as well as Alan Moore did, and without that underlying content, the result appeared as violence for its own sake, “grim and gritty” as a trend instead of something serious to say.
To be fair, the same things were also happening elsewhere in popular culture. Grittier films were growing away from their “cult” status into bona fide popular blockbusters. Television (another medium, much like comics, that largely took its lead from what was happening elsewhere) soon followed suit as well.
In superhero comics, what should have been the flowering of a wellspring of creative ideas — comics embracing other cultures, elements from ancient history, and genre-busting stories involving supernatural, horror, and gritty crime noir elements, largely became the norm. The anti-hero was king, and comics’ primary colors became black, gray, and red.
It was one thing for comics to add characters like The Punisher, and then much later The Vigilante, and Deathstroke the Terminator, as brutal characters like this were a natural outgrowth of the changing times. At first, most of these characters were portrayed as traditional villains, but as times changed, so did the way they operated. They went after bad guys who were badder than they were, so somehow that justified them using brutal force and deadly weapons to kill their enemies.
A fan who didn’t enjoy those type of stories, who didn’t care to see who could be more brutal than the next guy, could ignore them. They were always a bit off to the side of the mainstream. But then “grim and gritty” began to affect the traditional heroes — and ultimately change the way that they operated. For example, Batman was darkened, which makes sense for him as a “dark avenger” type. But some creators took that too far, losing the sense of his core motivations for doing what he did. Some characters should still exist to be inherently and unwaveringly good and heroic — just as there were now characters that were inherently dark and twisted and amoral.
Many fans drew the line at making every older character have some sort of hidden trauma or something that bent them into a psychological pretzel. For example, Superman was a shadow of what he should be, often traumatized by doubt (or awful haircuts). Most of the X-Men were unrecognizable from the heroes long-time fans grew up with. As were dozens more.
Plus, it was incredibly stupid for everyone to start wearing leather jackets to make them look tough back in the ‘90s. Now, that made me laugh! We just got a flashback to that era with Jim Lee’s redesign of Wonder Woman’s costume, a look that could easily have been dropped in the pages of any comic back then.
Even the Business of Comics Turns Dark
Grim and Gritty was everywhere, not just in the pages of the comics themselves. In our world, comics went through a huge public renaissance in the late 1980s, mostly due to the revolutionary evolution of comic books themselves. They began to be taken seriously as an artform, discussed frequently in magazines and newspapers, plus scholars were getting involved, suggesting that behind the juvenile trappings and origins of comics and their characters, it was now time to start taking them seriously.
Hollywood was certainly taking them seriously. But despite some early successes (the first couple of Superman films), it took a long time to get the comic book movie to where it would be a success not just to comic book fans, but with the general public as well. (Waiting for the proper technology to evolve to capture super-powered action on film was an obvious stumbling block). So there was lots of big money just waiting in the wings.
Not that comics were exactly lacking for money in the 80s and early 90s. The comic evolution certainly generated a bunch of artistic media praise, but it also spawned a raft of POW! ZAP! COMIC BOOKS WORTH BIG BUCKS! coverage. Newspaper and magazines reported that old comic books — especially first issues and origins of popular characters — were going for thousands and thousands of dollars! And approaching millions! This was the birth of the modern comic book speculator, buying comics for their monetary worth (which was bound to go up, right?) instead of their content.
Of course, the big bucks angle was just the headline and the lead of the story. You had to read deeper to discover that only certain comics were worth crazy money — and usually only because of their age, scarcity, and condition. But most folks just saw the dollar signs and didn’t bother to read onward. So, while publishers were happy to have the huge influx of sales during this period, it was very difficult for them to get a realistic accounting of whether these sales were brand-new readers attracted to the stories and creators, or what percentages of sales accounted for speculators (or retailers) buying multiple case quantities (either 200 or 300 copies, depending on a book’s page count and thickness). I suspect that even today, a good percentage of retailers from that time still have unsold cases of Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 in their backrooms or warehouses. (I personally know several.) Who knows how may individual comics “hoarders” are still sitting on theirs, waiting for the day their four-color horse finally comes in.
Enhancements? What Enhancements?
Bottom line, most publishers didn’t really care who was buying their comics, as long as they kept selling. Most of them greatly encouraged speculation by frequently canceling long-running comics series just so they could start them over with new big-selling #1 issues. Or adding special “enhancements” (“speculator bait” according to at least one comics executive of the day). These enhancements included multiple “variant” covers drawn by different artists, special fluorescent or “sparkly” inks, fold-out gatefold covers, foil or “holo-graphics” covers, polybagged books (usually with extras), holograms, die-cut or embossed covers, and even one-time only covers with “colorforms”-like plastic stickers or plastic jewels (which damaged a large percentage of the print run of the comics).
[Aside: Back in the day, while walking down the hall at DC Comics, a marketing executive pulled me into his office, looking for new ideas for cover enhancements, because they were running out. I sarcastically suggested that they might try a cover based on the old “Magic Screen” toy, where you draw a picture on a piece of plastic and then when you lift up the plastic, your picture disappears. Fans wouldn’t be able to resist pulling up the cover (and erasing the art), I suggested, so that they would have to go out and buy another copy if they wanted the cover. Damn if he didn’t actually think about it for a few seconds...]
By the mid-90s, most of the speculators finally wised up, realized that there wasn’t going to be much return on their investment, and bailed on the comics industry. With so many people buying the same “collector’s editions” in huge quantities, there was never going to be any scarcity to create the rise in value they were seeking. They left behind millions of unsold comics in comic shops (leading to the closing of thousands of comic and card shops) and forced the comics publishers to greatly reduce their operations (or go out of business). Around this time, Marvel was publishing over 200 comics a month — most of which disappeared practically overnight — and the company ended up declaring bankruptcy. Even today, most comics fans don’t fully realize how close the company came to disappearing completely, mostly due to a lot of behind-the-scenes business and stock market shenanigans.
Many other publishers either disappeared or scaled back greatly. The loss of so many comics publishers (and comics) started a domino effect in the Direct Market comics distribution system. When the dust finally settled, only Diamond Comic Distributors survived, because of many exclusive distribution deals with key publishers. All this greatly affected the comic book business at the time, and many industry watchers report that the industry has yet to fully recover — and may have actually settled into a new, albeit tentative, status quo.
But before all that industry badness happened, other factors made the 1990s a very interesting decade to watch.
Image of the 90s
Everybody knows the story by now. Several artists working for Marvel suddenly got white-hot and started feeling like there was something out there beyond working for the House that Stan and Jack Built, especially after watching what happened to Jack. Guys like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and their pals were moving millions of Marvel books every month based on their talents — and for only page rate and royalties. Who wouldn’t want a bigger piece of that? So, off they went and created Image Comics, an indy company where they were the bosses — and the creators owned what they created. (This only applied to the founders, since they quickly put into place the same kinds of work-for-hire contracts they had previously chafed under.) They created comics like Spawn, WildC.A.T.S., Youngblood, and Savage Dragon (the only one still running by its original creator, Name Withheld, er… Erik Larsen) and for a while, they were the new kings of comics.
Image sold a ton of comics — many of them multiples to speculators — and probably not quite as many comics as they were selling for Marvel, but since they were now getting a bigger percentage of the profit, that really didn’t matter much to them. Suddenly, there were new young fans just as rabid for the new Image books as the so-called “Marvel Zombies” were a fan-generation previous.
And here’s where something interesting happened. Many of the Image books were being written and drawn by artists, many of whom did not have much prior experience in writing comics. It was pretty obvious by looking at them that most Image comics favored art over writing. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that sort of approach, most folks that have read comics for a long while, including guys like me who look at them in a cultural/social/artistic, quasi-scholarly way, will tell you that most of the great comic book stories and series over the decades are considered great because they are a balanced synthesis of story and art. Great stories must be about something — not just collections of admittedly pretty artwork.
Ultimately, Image fans fell into two camps. There were those who really loved the artwork, and the stories didn’t matter to them that much. Another group of fans also enjoyed the art, but after a number of issues went by, they started to think “umm, this story/series really isn’t going anywhere” or “didn’t I just see something just like that a few issues ago?” or even “I’m really tired that _____________ can’t seem to get his book out on any kind of a regular schedule.” Those fans eventually drifted away to something else — or got tired of comics in general, and spent their money elsewhere.
Eventually, the original company itself started to break apart. Jim Lee famously sold his Wildstorm properties back to DC (with some of those titles still being published under the same Wildstorm imprint). Rob Liefield also left the company (under some controversy) and briefly attempted publishing comics under the Maximum and Awesome imprints. Few were successful, and both companies folded. Eventually he returned to freelancing, but he remains a controversial figure in the industry, mostly from his actions during the Image days.
Image itself continues to be one of the industry’s top publishers (although not at the level they once were), releasing top titles like Invincible and The Walking Dead, as well as publishing a large number of creator-owned projects.
It’s an Event!
One of the key components of the Dark Age of comics was the increased use of event-driven storytelling. As previously pointed out, this approach has its origins in the mid-80s comics renaissance starting with Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. These proved quite popular with fans, and so both Marvel and DC followed up with many subsequent events and crossovers — so many, in fact, that they were once almost annual events. Other superhero publishers joined in (Total Eclipse, First’s Crossroads, Valiant/Alliance twin Unity events, and Valiant/Image’s Deathmate) with various levels of success as well.
As the name implies, most comic book events feature some cataclysmic event that takes more than one hero or heroic team (the Avengers, the Justice League) to resolve. It usually involves a large portion of the entire fictional universe in which it is set, allowing for plenty of tie-ins and related issues.
Most events also include these elements:
• A huge cast of characters.
• Numerous subplots, many of which appear in…
• Special miniseries tie-ins.
• Numerous crossovers to existing series.
• Usually something cosmic or unfathomable, which requires much knowledge of the history of the entire fictional universe and all of its characters, no matter how many decades old.
• Introduction of new characters, or the re-introduction (reboot) of older characters.
• And death. Oh, so much death. And maybe a little destruction, too.
Death! Oh, Yoo Hoo, Death! Over Here!
This last element was another huge component of the Dark Age, where character after character dies a horrible death, only to most likely return in some subsequent future Event. Some of the more blatant Events were “checklist death” Events, where the entire premise of the series seemed to be to clear the decks of “useless” characters (aka: cannon fodder) so that new ones can take their place. Prime examples of Checklist Death include the original Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and House of M (although technically the aftermath of that series was where all the death and depowering of mutants took place).
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Events are well-done and a lot of fun to read (assuming all that death doesn’t get to you). The biggest problem in recent years is that both DC and Marvel have increasingly taken the Event methodology and extended it over almost all of the superhero books that they publish, often with an Event-like title to fool you into thinking that the books are all connected, even if they are not. Prime examples of this are Dark Reign, Brightest Day, and Age of Heroes.
Even when there’s a bonifide Event, where once there were a reasonably manageable number of tie-ins, nowadays it’s not surprising to find 50 or 60 different comics labeled as tie-ins to the main event. Sure, the publishers claim that you don’t have to get them all — and you don’t: many have no real connection to what’s going on. But there are always a few that are essential to reading comprehension, and no real mechanism (outside of internet fan discussions) in place to tell you what they are. For example, you can probably read Secret Invasion without all the tie-ins, but you won’t get any understanding of why this is all going on without reading most of the New Avengers and Mighty Avengers issues (as well as Secret Wars and the Illuminati stories).
The concept of shared universes in superhero comic books was meant to enhance the experience of reading and enjoying comics — not to become shackles that holds everyone as a captive audience. There’s some speculation that events have become a publisher addiction. As more books (at higher prices) are considered must-buys, fans get frustrated and back away from purchasing these comics that they can no longer afford and aren’t enjoying. So to entice them back, publishers make more comics seem essential to understanding the latest universe event. The vicious cycle repeats, and eventually, publishers can’t survive on the low sales they get if they aren’t having back-to-back-to-back crossovers to force more sales. Thank goodness that there are still some series out there that don’t connect (or connect much) to the cosmic overmind. But how do we step backwards from where we’ve overstepped? How can we ever survive the life-altering, devastating effects of Event Fatigue without dying ourselves? Only the future will tell.
Waiting for the Decompression
With the popularity of graphic novels at an all-time high during the 80s renaissance, publishers helped to confuse the definition of the term itself by determining that collections of previously published individual comic books were also graphic novels, even if most of them weren’t conceived as such. Before long, it was automatically assumed that great comics stories (especially already self-contained miniseries) would automatically be reprinted in trade paperback collections (or trades, for short). The trade following the story arc then became contractual, before the creators even began creating. In short order, it was assumed that every issue of the most popular comic book ongoing series would be collected into trades.
I’m not sure exactly how this happened — whether it was publishers standardizing the size, page count, and ideal number of issues collected into the typical trade paperback, or whether a hivemind of creators (specifically writers) decided that the ideal collection was six issues — but suddenly, almost every story in superhero comics was six issues long, whether or not the story actually had six issues’ worth of plot and story. Fans began complaining about stories feeling padded, as writers focused on the more permanent book format to come instead of the monthly serialized issue (aka floppy or pamphlet, terms that traditional fans rejected as dismissive of their long-term reading habits). “Writing for the trade” also came to be known as Decompressed Storytelling. Some say this was inspired by film (leading to a related comics form, widescreen), while others think it was largely inspired by the more deliberately paced storytelling of manga, which emphasized emotional reactions over who-hit-whom next.
Proponents of the form felt that decompression allowed the artist more flexibility to tell the story over a larger number of pages and opened up the story for added characterization or mood building. Opponents said that the writers were being lazy, stretching stories out past their natural length, and making more money for less work. It’s a kind of mutant-form of the Never-Ending Story. I say that it’s a shame that we only get two stories a year in a monthly comic book.
Decompressed storytelling has led to two other developments in the modern age. The first is that comics have largely shifted away from the writer-driven comics of the 80s back to an artist-driven comics industry (and that decompressed storytelling is a natural outgrowth of artists wanting more space and options to express themselves, forcing writers who want to work with them into altering their formerly rigid scripting styles). It also doesn’t hurt that writers frequently become superstars themselves by attaching themselves to superstar artists.
The second is a more fan-based movement, which is currently driving publishers and retailers nuts. Since it’s assumed that all the great comics stories are going to be eventually republished in collected form, many fans are now bucking traditional collector mentality by “waiting for the trade”. Instead of buying the original “floppy” comic books and re-buying the trade collection later, as publishers hope to double dip into their market, customers wait for the “final” version, the collected edition, especially if it’s likely to have book-only extras (such as sketches, background material, or additional story pages).
Direct market comic book stores are struggling to adapt to this relatively new phenomenon, as they’ve been doing business based on the floppies for well over 25 years now. Periodical sales are dropping rapidly, and comic stores now have to compete with traditional bookstores and internet stores for the trade business. Many of those competitors offer substantial discounts off the cover price, driving “their” customers to other venues and breaking the weekly buying habit these stores count on for survival. (There’s also increasing competition with the electronic downloading of comics — both legal and illegal — which bypass the need for actual product altogether. And is a topic far too complicated to cover here.) Comic publishers hate “waiting for the trade” because, for a short while, fans were buying everything twice. Few have the resources to do that any more, and if the book is seen as a superior product (sturdier, often cheaper per page, lasts longer, doesn’t require special storage), it’s understandable why they want to wait. The book market may also provide a source of new, non-traditional customers, which often challenge the old-school publishers, who are less familiar with their behavior and are more comfortable selling to a restricted but habitual buyer that more closely resembles themselves.
All of this is leading into ever-increasing discussions about ongoing survival of the standard “floppy” comic book format itself. I think all current comic books should include a fortune (like cookies) and that fortune should always read “May you live in interesting times.” At least until someone can come up with a better solution.
While this column has pretty much focused on the output of Marvel and DC, I’d be remiss in not mentioning some of the other things going on around the industry during this timeframe. Obviously, the growth of “second wave” independent publishers like Dark Horse Comics and Malibu (briefly the first “home” for Image Comics) should be noted. Both companies experimented with both indy-style comics and superhero lines, and both tried experimental, but short-lived, creator-owned lines. Dark Horse’s Legend was where the popular (but very dark) Sin City by Frank Miller and Hellboy by Mike Mignola first appeared, while Bravura (Malibu) was kind of a stepping stone for creators (Howard Chaykin, Norm Breyfogle) and creator-owned series (Nocturnals by Daniel Brereton, StarSlammers by Walter Simonson). Other companies ignored superheroes or put their own unique spin on that genre. Fantagraphics became known for more than just The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes by launching the well-known series Love and Rockets, Hate, and Eightball. Self-published comics like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bone, and Stray Bullets were also popular in the 90s.
Small publishers were also responsible for some of the darkest of Dark Age books (and the offshoot Bad Girl books) with releases like The Crow, Evil Ernie, Lady Death, and Shi. And no look at truly dark comics would be complete without at least mentioning Miracleman, which has bounced all over comics: first from Warrior in the UK, then Eclipse, then (almost) at Image, and now (maybe) at Marvel. Publishing rights and ownership issues have prevented this now-legendary material (produced by such greats as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Alan Davis, Rick Veitch, John Totleben, and Mark Buckingham) from being reprinted or collected. Maybe next year… And the beat goes on.
Special note should also be taken to mention Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s acclaimed Kingdom Come miniseries, published by DC. It is occasionally acknowledged as “the end of the Dark Age” for its attempt to portray a renaissance of old-fashioned heroism. The story itself satirizes some of the excesses of the previous years and characters, while Alex Ross’s larger-than life depictions of comic archetypes became a bright spot for many fans in a superhero world that had grown increasingly dark and grim. Looking at Ross’s work will make you believe a hero can smile.
Corporate Comics, Inc.
Another disturbing trend in the last twenty years (and this is everywhere — not just comics) is the proliferation of mega-conglomerate entertainment companies. The leading comics companies do not operate as independently as they did in the past, now that both are owned by big media groups: Marvel by Disney and DC by Time Warner. Corporate ownership is not necessarily a new thing. What is new, however, is the focus on the profits that come from successful comic book movies and all the associated merchandising. That money flows upward, not back into comics production. It’s not the comic books that bring in the profits — what’s made on comic books is a pittance to these major corporations. What’s important to them is the characters — and to a lesser extent, their existing stories and histories — who can be exploited for movies, TV shows, animation, and other major forms of merchandising. Comic book fans hate to hear this, but the comics themselves are largely loss leaders, valued mostly for developing new characters and stories that can be further developed into a more profitable medium. Put another way, much of corporate comics is a giant laboratory, forming the basic building blocks (or elements) that can be developed later into something else, to appeal to a mass audience far beyond the current comic book fanbase.
Way back in Part Two of this series of columns, I mentioned the DC Implosion of 1978, where DC suddenly canceled dozens of titles, with only their most popular characters surviving. Obviously, they eventually recovered, as today they’re publishing dozens of popular titles under many different imprints. When I started working at DC in 1989, several people told me what actually happened there, and just how close we came to there not being a DC comics at all.
Back then, the cooperate ownership of comics companies was still in its infancy and did not normally affect day-to-day office operations. But the first Superman movie pointed out that there was a lot more money to be made from Superman than just publishing comic books. From there, it wasn’t that long a reach of corporate thinking to believe that as long as characters like Superman and Batman existed as t-shirts or greeting cards or coloring books, there wasn’t a need for all this money and trouble being put into the effort of creating these comics that didn’t sell that much anyway. Which was one of the reasons I was told that Paul Levitz and others fought so hard to keep DC (at least in terms of the production of comics) as far away from the conventional corporate thinking as much as possible.
Times have changed, and Paul is no longer at the company or able to offer comic books that kind of protection. Times have changed — let’s hope that corporate thinking has changed as well.
The Real Never-Ending Story
Regular periodical comic book publishing has been going on for at least 70 years now. They’ve faced a tremendous number of obstacles and ups and downs over those years. While I’ve painted a unfortunately bleak picture in this particular column, there’s still plenty of great stuff out there waiting to be discovered. I believe there will always be talented artists and writers devoting their lives and careers to entertaining us with their stories. Corporate comics aren’t the be-all and end-all of comic books, as the independent comics movement has grown into a real business since the 80s. Exciting and popular stories are now available as stand-alone graphic novels sold in bookstores, with the traditional fan-based direct market as an afterthought, and long-standing book publishers have created or acquired graphic novel lines to bring out more diverse stories than ever. New fans of the medium are forming every day, even if some of them have never read a superhero, and that diverse audience creates ever more demand for wonderful comic stories. And there is still plenty of great corporate-produced stuff being created as well, if you know where to look.
Where the Never-Ending Stories of the characters of Marvel and DC may be occasionally infuriating for long-time readers, don’t let your occasional frustrations turn you away from the medium as a whole. There’s much goodness to be found. Comics is — and remains — largely a big wonderful place. That’s one of the main reasons why all of us at the Westfield blog are constantly here to point out the things that we’ve discovered that are great about comics (and not just new ones). There are also hundreds of places around the internet for comics fans to find a place where they belong, and new information about comics to be found.
The Never-Ending Story of comics itself still has many chapters left to tell! Here’s to the future!
For further detailed reading about The Dark Age, please check out The Dark Age by Mark Voger, published by TwoMorrows (2006), a detailed (and often humorous) look at the era, which provided some inspiration for this column.
KC CARLSON SEZ: If you haven’t already, please check out the last one-two punch-in-the-gut columns by the ever-amazing Beau Smith. Comics’ only “real man” covers some of the same themes that have woven in and around the big picture topics that have been recently mentioned here and elsewhere. Beau is a long-time observer of comics — from both sides of the desk — and his current comments about how things are (and how they should be) are DEAD ON! Ride ‘em, Beau!
Classic covers taken from the Grand Comics Database.