KC COLUMN: The Never-Ending Story, Part 4: 1986

Grendel

Grendel collection

by KC Carlson

PREVIOUSLY ON NEVER-ENDING STORY: (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)

The early 1980s were a tremendously exciting time for comic books, as comic creators were making bold new leaps in presenting their stories to an increasingly sophisticated audience. Superhero comics began to mature, introducing more and more elements of “realism” into the four-color pages. Long-dormant genres of comics — as well as brand new ones — appeared. Things were changing so rapidly that old publishers — pushed by their writers and artists — scrambled to invent new ways to present comic material, such as mini- and maxi-series and graphic novels. There was more emphasis on the self-contained story (with beginning, middle, and end), another mature industry development that the media and readers traditionally outside of superhero comic books began to embrace in a big way. And if the old-school publishers weren’t willing to try something new, there were dozens of young independent publishers anxious to experiment.

THE ADVENT OF EVENT

After experimenting with finite storytelling, contained in the new formats of graphic novels and limited series, both Marvel and DC began planning another major storytelling revolution — although not one based on purely creative principles. The megastory was loosely designed to be similar to the 12-part maxi-series while telling a story that was much bigger — that would potentially involve the entire fictional worlds of both publishers, featuring plot elements that would spill over into the regular ongoing titles. In typical comic hype-speak, these would not just be stories — they would be Events!

Secret Wars

Secret Wars

Marvel’s was called Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars and DC’s was titled Crisis on Infinite Earths. The event origins are just as interesting as the actual stories themselves, as the two come from completely different places, with controversy and fan debate over the history (which was first?) and which one was “better”.

Secret Wars was published first. Cover-dated May 1984, it probably hit the stands in January or February of that year. Prior to its launch, several Marvel characters, most notably Professor X and Spider-Man, began to sense something dangerous. This ultimately led to many of the biggest Marvel characters assembling in Manhattan’s Central Park, where they encountered a mysterious alien structure, entered it, and disappeared! When next seen in the pages of Secret Wars #1, we discovered that the heroes had been transported to another universe by a powerful and mysterious character known as The Beyonder. And we quickly found out that The Beyonder had also transported many big-name Marvel villains to this world (with the imaginative name of “Battleworld”), with the intent of having the heroes fight the villains in a “secret war”.

While there were a few dramatic moments to be had, and a few interesting developments among the characters, Secret Wars rapidly evolved into a 12-issue fight book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Marvel was widely known for their often-bombastic battles, and much of their fan base loved them for it. But the epic setup (involving many of Marvel’s biggest characters) and the big format (a 12-issue maxiseries, plus lots of crossovers into other books) indicated to the fans that big things were going to happen, although ultimately, all the changes were either cosmetic or temporary. Spider-Man got a new, black, alien costume (which would be developed into something more interesting later). The Thing decided to stay in space for a while, and She-Hulk replaced him in the Fantastic Four. The Wasp died, temporarily. Colossus broke up with Kitty Pryde. And shock of shocks, the Hulk broke his leg! Three new characters were introduced in the series — the villains Titania and Volcana and a new Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter) — but none of them developed into major characters. There was some nice artwork here and there by Mike Zeck and Bob Layton.

At the time, some fans felt that the plot of Secret Wars was not much more evolved than kids playing with toys of the characters and making up crazy adventures on the fly. Ironically, this was not far from the actual truth of its development. Secret Wars was first conceived, not as a comic book series, but as a new line of Marvel action figures developed by Mattel. Marvel was then tasked with creating a comic book series to support the new toy line, explaining why these particular characters had come together. Not only had “event” comics been invented with Secret Wars, corporate synergy had officially reared its omnipresent head in comic books.

CRISIS IN INFINITE COMIC BOOKS!

Crisis collection

Crisis collection

Crisis on Infinite Earths had a little corporate in its origins as well. It was loosely conceived to celebrate DC’s 50th Anniversary as a comic company, but writers Marv Wolfman and Len Wein had other ideas.

After the shared-universe concept was applied to the Golden Age DC characters (The Justice Society coming together, Superman and Batman team-ups), fans realized that almost all of the heroes published by the company co-existed in the same fictional universe. As this happened more-or-less organically over decades, a lot of inconsistencies popped up, some caused by the passage of time itself. (For example, how could Batman still be a young man in the 1960s when it was obvious that he had adventures in the 1930s and 40s?) Much of these discrepancies were resolved when writer Gardner Fox and editor Julius Schwartz applied the concepts of parallel earths to explain that we were actually seeing multiple versions of similar characters. The heroes of the Golden Age (the Justice Society) lived on Earth-2, and the modern-day heroes (the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, the JLA) lived on Earth-1. (Yes, they got the numbering backwards, chronologically, Schwartz later admitted.)

That explanation helped, but still there were inconsistencies: There were no finite points of separation for the characters that had been continuously published from the late 1930s on — including Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman. Plus, different editorial “fiefdoms” (which existed into the 1970s) did not always coordinate story elements, leading to different versions of Atlantis, or different pantheons of gods. Further, DC kinda went crazy with the parallel universe concept, as they created a new earth each time they acquired older characters from defunct publishers. Fawcett characters came from Earth-S (for Shazam, as they had lost the trademark for Captain Marvel to Marvel Comics). Earth-X held characters previously published by Quality comics — except for the previously established Plastic Man and Blackhawks, who caused their own problems. Earth-4 was for the Charlton characters, such as Captain Atom and Blue Beetle. Plus, there were other parallel universes, like Earth-3, where supervillains ruled.

While hardcore DC fans loved the concepts, and certain writers loved trying to figure out how to solve all the various inconsistencies, the parallel earth concept was eventually deemed by DC too confusing to outsiders. (In comics folklore, fans amended this to say that the concepts were probably too confusing for many of DC’s executives who came from a non-comics background.) Enter Wolfman and Wein, two young DC writers who loved to play with the parallel earths concepts and were also bothered by the inconsistencies in continuity. At least enough to use that as a basis for the upcoming Anniversary event.

Initial plans for the proposed event were made public in a Dick Giordano-penned “Meanwhile…” column that appeared in DC books in late 1982. (Which meant that Crisis was probably conceived before Secret Wars, but the latter made it to market first –- even after the toy deal collapsed — and Crisis was likely, in part, inspired by it — at least in “what not to do” ways. Some industry speculation at the time suspected that Marvel had caught wind of DC‘s plans and rushed Secret Wars into print first.)  Then called “The History of the DC Universe” and described as an “attempt to more neatly define the DC Universe in an exciting adventure yarn that will span 12 issues”, Giordano offered the readers the chance to submit “a murky detail or two you’d like explained or something.” History does not record what fandom’s response was, but it was over a year before DC brought up the subject in public again, when they announced that Who’s Who in the DC Universe (inspired in part by Marvel’s popular 1982 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, developed by Mark Gruenwald) would be part of the mix. Eventually, Wein would take responsibility for producing Who’s Who (along with recent DC hire Bob Greenberger), while Wolfman would concentrate on scripting The History of the DC Universe, which would ultimately be re-titled Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was an inspired choice, as it evoked all of the classic JLA/JSA stories that developed and expanded the parallel worlds concept, as well as hammering home the use of “Crisis” as a uniquely DC thing.

After a year-long, well orchestrated “tease” for Crisis where the mysterious Monitor would appear in virtually all of DC’s regular continuity books — even Jonah Hex — and classic house ads which claimed “Earths will live! Earths will Die! And the DC Universe will never be the same!”, Crisis on Infinite Earths debuted in 1985. And they weren’t kidding with the tagline that claimed “the DC Universe will never be the same!” It started off relatively quietly, with the destruction of Earth-3 and the deaths of the Crime Syndicate characters, and escalated issue by issue, claiming numerous DC minor (or forgotten) characters and other, mostly unseen universes. There was a minor shock as the instigator of the whole thing — The Monitor — was killed in an early issue by his evil opposite, the Anti-Monitor. Then some “Big Guns” fell, Supergirl in #7 and the Barry Allen Flash in #8. By then, fans knew that DC wasn’t kidding around. By the end of the series, the five remaining universes (Earths 1, 2, 4, S, and X), were collapsed into one, but not without the deaths of dozens of other characters — many of whom were alternate versions of existing characters.

Not everything about Crisis was perfect. While a lot of the many, many Crisis crossover issues published as part of the regular DC titles were quite good (especially Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc., where astute fans suspected that we were viewing the end of the classic Justice Society), others had little or nothing to do with the Crisis storylines other than displaying the “red skies” side effect of the Event. “Red Skies” eventually became a derogatory term for any useless tie-in or crossover, regardless of publisher or story. And confusedly, the war hero Losers actually died in two completely different ways — once in Crisis #2 and again later in Losers Special #1. (It was later revealed that this was done intentionally, although still confusing to some readers).

The wholesale nature of many of the deaths in Crisis (not everyone got as much heroic “screen time” as Supergirl or The Flash) has led some comics historians to point to Crisis as one of the first examples of the growing darkness in comics, which came to a head several years later, in the 90s. And, comics being comics, many (some would say all) of the deaths and events of Crisis have since been undone or altered by subsequent creators. That’s the long-standing nature of superhero comics. Ironically, Crisis (or at least the many subsequent relaunches and “reboots” of the characters) possibly did more damage to DC continuity and its chronology than it actually solved. Now that’s a thesis paper in the making…

Ultimately, publishers came away with one major lesson learned from both Secret Wars and Crisis — Events, especially when they cross over into established titles, sell a boatload! They were here to stay. For a while, they even appeared annually.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO 1986

Dark Knight collection

Dark Knight collection

In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, 1986 was DC’s year to shine. The double-barreled blast of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was just the beginning, as DC also re-launched some of their icons and created a couple of “wild cards”.

That year, DC published its most famous and popular miniseries ever: Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. For this project, a new comic format was created — the so-called Prestige Format, a 48- or 64-page comic book, printed on exceptional paper with cardboard covers. I’m gonna assume that most everyone is already familiar with the story, so let’s focus on everything else that sprang out of the series. At the time, it wasn’t considered part of the actual Batman continuity (although apparently it is now assigned to the Earth-31 multiverse continuity). So it again popularized “non-canon” storylines, paving the way for alterna-verses, Elseworlds, and what-have-you. That’s probably something Miller never intended, especially since what he was really reviving were the “imaginary stories” of the Silver Age — with obvious modern and mature twists — something the now-cool comics fanboys would be horrified to admit.

Individual issues of the four-part series were priced at $2.95, at the time considered an outrageous price for a comic book. I recall some very serious discussions back in the day at Westfield on how we would handle the book, ultimately recommending to owner Sherill that the series was something worth speculating on. However, there were some nervous days as we waited for orders to come in. Luckily, we were correct in our ordering, and all of our then-subscribers who ordered on time got first printings of the first issue. Other retailers were more conservative in their orders, selling out in record time, as did DC. (The early issues went through multiple printings.) I also recall Westfield having to field calls from other retailers — and distributors — looking for copies to buy for their customers.

The quick sales of the series led to another innovative development — the instant collected edition. The hardcover was first published on October 23, 1986. The trade paperback was published just two weeks later, on November 6. The two collections would soon become a major publishing push for all comic book companies, as they were the gateway into bookstores and into the hands of a potentially huge customer base that were not reading comic material on a regular basis.

Watchmen collection

Watchmen collection

The other major early collection for DC was Watchmen, reprinting the 12-issue series by Moore and Gibbons. Initially, like The Dark Knight Returns, the now-classic series was only available in shops that were serviced by direct market distributors — meaning that the initial wave of success for these projects was with hardcore comic book fans only. Once collected, Watchmen exploded in the world outside comic books, garnering critical praise in outside media, including Time magazine and receiving a Hugo Award (from the field of science fiction and fantasy) in the Other Forms category. Watchmen has since become one of the most talked-about stories in comics history.

It’s been said that due to the graphic novel versions (book collections) of Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and one other 1986 collection (which I’ll get to towards the end of this column), bookstores and libraries began to create special areas for them. In the future, contracts for potentially big comic book stories would have back-end deals for the eventual collection or graphic novel presentation, again profoundly affecting the ways in which comic stories are told.

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

In the wake of Crisis and the new status quo of the DC Universe, DC revamped several of their major characters and series. Ideally, there should have been an overall plan to relaunch everything at once, but instead — largely because of the way that DC had structured some of the revamps (or were waiting for key talent to be available) — the actual rollout of new projects in the wake of Crisis went sort of haphazardly.

The Superman reboot was pretty smooth and had a built-in splashiness to it, as John Byrne was relaunching the character in a big way. First, DC did a classy thing well by saying goodbye to both the previous version of Superman and to his long-time shepherd Julius Schwartz, who was retiring from full-time editing. The farewell in question was the Alan Moore/Curt Swan/George Perez/Kurt Schaffenberger “Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow” which appeared in the “last” issues of Superman and Action Comics, and was another great 1986 story.

Man of Steel collection

Man of Steel collection

Byrne wrote and penciled a radical but reverent re-start, the six-part bi-weekly The Man of Steel, inked by Dick Giordano. Byrne borrowed bits and pieces of Superman from various previous interpretations (including those outside of comic books). Many elements of Superman’s origin were changed, most notably that his powers now developed slowly over time, which meant that he never had a career as Superboy in the new DCU. Which also meant that he never served as the inspiration (nor became a member of) the Legion of Super-Heroes, something that profoundly affected the Legion book (which wasn’t rebooted). Byrne later said that removing Superboy from continuity was a mistake, and he later participated in the infamous Pocket Universe storyline that ‘fixed’ the problem, albeit in a convoluted way. That led to a whole sub-history of retcons and reboots for the group of teen heroes over the next several decades, which unfortunately became the thing that most comics fans know about the Legion — the impenetrable backstory.

Later in 1986, following The Man of Steel, the two regular Superman titles (Superman and Action Comics) were relaunched, albeit slightly confusedly. Superman started over with a new #1 issue, and a new title was added — Adventures of Superman, which kept the historical numbering from the previous Superman comic going. Byrne wrote and penciled Superman and Action while Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway produced Adventures of Superman. Byrne left the Superman titles in 1988 and from this point on, the three books began to feature a tighter ongoing, shared continuity, with stories and subplots often flowing freely between all three titles, despite the fact that different creative teams were producing them. In 1991, the infamous “Superman triangles” were added to the covers of the Superman comics, as an aid to fans to determine the exact reading order of the titles. This proved to be a savvy move as later that year, a fourth Superman title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel.

In 1996, realizing that the Superman titles were effectively being published as a weekly continuity, DC made it official by adding a new title, Superman: The Man of Tomorrow (S:MoT), a compromise of sorts between editorial and marketing as the latter wanted top-selling books twice-monthly during the summer months, which would have wreaked havoc with the ongoing Superman production of titles. Officially appearing only four times a year, during “skip weeks” (months with five scheduled shipping dates for comics, as opposed to the usual four), S:MoT allowed DC to claim that Superman was published weekly, and around this time, “Never-Ending Story” (based on “Never-Ending Battle”) became a tagline for the Superman titles.

SHE’S A WONDER

Wonder Woman collection

Wonder Woman collection

Wonder Woman was in a unique position at the end of Crisis — neither version of her existed any more! The Golden Age (Earth-2) version, along with her husband Steve Trevor and all of their exploits were erased from DC history. The Earth-1 version appeared to be killed by the Anti-Monitor in the final issue of Crisis, but she was actually thrown backwards in time and devolved into the clay from which she was originally formed. Thus, no Wonder Woman. Whoever would relaunch the character would have a clean slate.

Writer Greg Potter was originally hired to work on the relaunch, working out new concepts with editor Janice Race for several months before he was joined by writer/artist George Pérez. Potter dropped out as scripter by issue #2, and Pérez became the sole plotter, either writing the finished issues himself or with collaborators Len Wein or Mindy Newell. The new Wonder Woman origin remained reasonably faithful to the original while it differed slightly in many of the details. Most obvious was the new emphasis on the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses who were worshiped by the inhabitants of Paradise Island (now called Themyscira). After Diana’s “birth” (sculpted by her mother Hippolyta — now a brunette, more in keeping with the Greek setting), she was given life and her powers as gifts from the gods.

Pérez’s relaunch was heralded as one of the very best versions of Wonder Woman, with Pérez staying with the title for 62 issues. One of the things that caused some trouble at the time was the timeframe. As re-introduced, Diana is just now coming to America for the first time, meaning that she had never been a member of the historical Justice League, causing much continuity confusion. For a while, her place (as token female) was taken by Black Canary, but that was changed again during Infinite Crisis (restoring her historical role as a founding member), which caused even more confusion — all of which may be moot now that new writer J. Michael Straczynski has (maybe) radically altered her history once again, beginning in the recent Wonder Woman #600.

BATS, SHADOWS, AND DEMONS

Batman: Year One collection

Batman: Year One collection

Interestingly, DC did not completely reboot Batman following Crisis, instead choosing to gradually re-introduce characters and concepts in a more organic (some might say more confusing) way. Most fans were quite happy with Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s gritty Batman: Year One — an origin curiously published as Batman #404-407 rather than its own stand-alone story. This more realistic and detailed interpretation of Batman’s early cases developed Commissioner Gordon and Catwoman/Selina Kyle’s tragic backgrounds and captured the interest of both long-time Bat-fans as well as the new readers that Miller’s Dark Knight brought to the character. This was followed with an updated origin for the Jason Todd Robin (now introduced as a juvenile delinquent stealing the tires off the Batmobile, rather than the goody-good Dick Grayson clone he previously was), which only confused many readers, since the story was presented as if happening now, rather than a flashback. Many readers were dismayed that Batman would have anything to do with this now unsavory and obnoxious character. Jason Todd’s future looked pretty grim.

Shadow

Shadow

Also in 1986, Howard Chaykin introduced a controversial version of the classic Shadow character, originally developed as a mysterious narrator of the Detective Story Hour radio show in 1930. He was developed as an actual pulp hero by writer Walter B. Gibson and then made famous all over again in his own radio show. Chaykin’s Shadow was updated to a more contemporary setting, steeped in Chaykin’s ultra-violent style with underpinnings of black humor. The series was immediately collected as a very successful graphic novel (Shadow: Blood and Judgment), and the Shadow won his own ongoing series, now written by Andy Helfer with art by Bill Sienkiewicz and later, Kyle Baker. This new series was even more… everything than Chaykin’s version (more violence, more black humor, and more weirdness), and it remains one of comics’ great unfinished series, stopping abruptly in the middle of the story (with the Shadow decapitated, yet still alive) at issue #19. This series really irritated the Shadow’s more traditional fans (and reportedly, the property owners), and when DC next developed a new Shadow series in 1989, it was based on the traditional pulp/radio version of the character.

The Demon

The Demon

Another surprising DC miniseries that year was Matt Wagner’s take on Jack Kirby’s The Demon character. After stunning the comics industry with his slow-burning but unpredictable Grendel series, first launched by Comico in the 1982 Comic Primer, Wagner found his comic quickly canceled due to Comico’s early financial problems. No matter. Wagner would continue Grendel’s adventures as the back-up feature in his new, equally unpredictable Mage series (also published by Comico) beginning in 1984. Mage is the story of Kevin Matchstick (visually based on Wagner) who meets a wizard called Mirth and finds a magic baseball bat after discovering that he has superhuman powers.  He also realizes that he may be King Arthur, making Mirth Merlin and the bat Excalibur. Later, in the second of a trilogy of stories (the third as yet unpublished), he comes to realize that he may have misunderstood his mission, as he meets his future wife, as well as many new characters. Mage is a very involved storyline featuring many literary allusions. Meanwhile, Grendel has evolved (under new publisher Dark Horse) into a twisted form of generational saga, with the mantle of Grendel being passed along (or inherited) from character to character, becoming a study of the nature of aggression according to Wagner. Wagner’s take on The Demon, while not considered a major portion of the character’s history, is noteworthy mostly for the fact that Wagner’s indy work was being noticed by the larger publishers, as also happened with other creators.

Legends collection

Legends collection

As mentioned earlier, Legends was the DC Event crossover of the year, and really the first opportunity for fans to see how the new DCU worked in practice. Writers John Ostrander and Len Wein teamed as artists John Byrne and Karl Kesel paired up as artists. The core story was just 6 issues this time, supported by 22 separate crossover titles and the series was designed so that if you just wanted the main 6-issue story you could just read that without dealing with all the crossovers. New concepts that were introduced in Legends included Wally West stepping in to the super-speed boots of the Flash, the introduction of the new, lighthearted take on the Justice League, as well as the first appearance of the villain based Suicide Squad quasi-black ops team. The series also featured the first post-Crisis appearances of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (as a member of the new Justice League). Also appearing are Firestorm and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ Cosmic Boy (whose 4-part miniseries also ties into to Legends). And the origin of the original Suicide Squad is told in a memorable Secret Origins tie-in. The villains are Darkseid and the villainous New Gods characters. While not one of DC’s major events, it was fun to read at the time, as it featured so many surprising first post-Crisis appearances, as well as great story and art!

MEANWHILE… OVER AT MARVEL

X-Factor collection

X-Factor collection

Marvel Comics pretty much missed out on all the revolution that was going on in comics around 1986. It wasn’t a good year at all for the company, as their much-ballyhooed re-launch of the original X-Men (as X-Factor) was a difficult birth both behind the scenes and in gaining fan acceptance. The book itself was supposed to reunite the original five X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Iceman) and show them breaking away from the rest of the mutants during a period where Magneto was leading the X-Men in Charles Xavier’s absence. There was no problem with getting Angel, Iceman, and Beast — the Defenders had recently broken up, leaving them free. The other two were a huge challenge.

Cyclops had married a Jean Gray lookalike named Madelyne Pryor after Jean/Marvel Girl/Phoenix had died in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #138 several years prior. So getting Jean for the team would be a problem — or would it? Writer Kurt Busiek offered a solution. What if Phoenix wasn’t actually Jean Grey? Although Jean’s resurrection was cleverly done (and set up in the pages of both Fantastic Four and Avengers), fans were incensed that the classic “Death of Phoenix” story was being undermined by her return. There was worse to come: Scott, discovering that Jean was still alive, actually walked out on his wife and their newborn son to be with her, further angering fans convinced that this was totally out of character.

Writer/artist Bob Layton ended up leaving the book after the fifth issue, opening the door for the husband-and-wife team of Walter and Louise Simonson to have a long, interesting run on the title. The Simonsons’ work at Marvel was one of the few high points there during the 80s, with Walter famously revitalizing Thor beginning in 1983, and Weezie both writing an acclaimed run on New Mutants and co-creating the unique Power Pack with artist June Brigman in 1984.

More Marvel high points of the era included John Byrne’s lengthy run as writer/artist of Fantastic Four; Roger Stern’s writing on Amazing Spider-Man (the Hobgoblin storyline and “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man”), Captain America (with Byrne), Dr. Strange, and both Avengers (especially the Siege of Avengers Mansion storyline) and West Coast Avengers; the quirky Longshot (1985) by Ann Nocenti and Art Adams; Peter David’s “Death of Jean DeWolff” story in Spectacular Spider-Man; and Frank Miller’s “Born Again” Daredevil storyline with artist David Mazzucchelli and the bizarre mature readers Epic mini Elektra: Assassin with artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

The 'Nam

The 'Nam

One of the outstanding releases for Marvel in 1986 was The ‘Nam, an ambitious series that realistically followed the events of the Vietnam War, told from an average soldier’s point of view in real time. Loosely spinning out of ‘Nam-based stories in Savage Tales #1 and #4, the series was written by ‘Nam vet Doug Murray and beautifully illustrated by Michael Golden (at least initially). While the original plan was to run for 12 years — the length of the original war — the series lasted 84 issues, a remarkable run for a modern war story.

Marvel also discovered a unique way of repurposing (i.e. reprinting) old material in 1986. Fans were just now getting into the ongoing saga of the X-Men in a big way, and they wanted to read the new series from the beginning. Marvel obliged with Classic X-Men, which reprinted the original comics as well as adding something a little extra in each issue — a new story, written by Chris Claremont, adding some detail to what was going on in the lead (reprinted) story. They also weren’t adverse to adding a new page or two to the actual reprint to highlight or better explain a story point that may have been overlooked in the original. Fans loved it, and the series sold well, running for several years.

IT’S NEW! IT’S A UNIVERSE! IT’S…

DP7 collection

DP7 collection

1986 was also Marvel Comics’ 25th Anniversary, and then Marvel Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter decided (somewhat perversely, in retrospect), that the best way to celebrate that milestone would be to create a new universe — literally, with that name. Originally planned to be entirely separate from the Marvel Universe (MU), the New Universe would feature a new cast in a more realistic setting than the fantastic MU. Unlike the MU, the New Universe would not include magic, aliens, or fictional technology. Time would flow normally, and characters would age in real time. Sell copy for the concept featured the tagline “the world outside your window”, and the basic concept for the line was “what would happen if normal people became superhuman overnight?”

Initially launched, and heavily advertised, with eight monthly titles — D.P. 7; Psi-Force; Justice; Star-Brand; Mark Hazzard: Merc; Kickers, Inc.; Nightmask; and Spitfire and the Troubleshooters — The New Universe was a massive failure, heavily mocked by the fan press and parodied in other comics of the time. With comics starring super-powered construction workers and pro football players, this wasn’t too surprising, considering the more mature fare available elsewhere. By the end of the first year, the latter four titles had been canceled, and within three years, the entire New Universe was gone.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever fully understand all the reasons for the collapse of the New Universe, as its fate is wrapped up in the saga of its principal creator, Jim Shooter and his controversial career at Marvel. Shooter has claimed that Marvel itself scuttled the launch, as higher-ups withheld promised development money, forcing the bulk of the New Universe titles to be written by Marvel staffers rather than the hoped-for big-name creators. However, this doesn’t explain why much of Marvel’s ongoing line at the time was also written by Marvel insiders, an approach highly criticized in the fan press. Some of the New Universe titles attempted to tap into the growing maturity of the industry, but this was largely done in a ham-fisted way with crude sexual double entendres and alleged racism and sadism, and most fans weren’t having any, thank you.

A year later, Shooter was gone from Marvel, and the fate of the New Universe was sealed, as it became a metextual playground for fans looking for clues. (“Gasp! Pittsburgh was destroyed!! Wasn’t that Shooter’s hometown?”) Twenty years later, fan-favorite writer Warren Ellis found something interesting among all the rubble and recast the New Universe as newuniversal, a title that gained a cult-sized following (and sold out its early issues). Its ongoing development was temporarily scuttled due to a massive computer crash, leaving Ellis to prioritize the re-writing of other scripts and projects. Both Ellis and Marvel claim it will be back, as soon as more issues are in the can.

In other bad news for Marvel in 1986, the movie version of Howard the Duck debuted as a major critical and financial flop, an event that led to yet another Marvel lawsuit, this time with Howard creator Steve Gerber.

THE MAUS THAT ROARED

Maus collection

Maus collection

Another animal character won top honors in 1986. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, begun embryonically in 1972, further developed starting in 1977, and mostly serialized in RAW magazine, was first collected that year as Maus: Volume I: “My Father Bleeds History”. That book gave the world outside comics its first major look at this amazing work. It’s largely autobiographical, with Spiegelman alternating stories about wartime Poland as told by his father (with the Jews portrayed by mice and the Germans by cats) and Spiegelman’s own life with his family and loved ones in present day New York City, focusing on his troubled relationship with his difficult father Vladek. The graphic novel garnered huge sales, incredible reviews from both literary and popular media, and was one of the major books that (as previously noted) caused libraries and bookstores to begin setting aside space for the anticipated wave of graphic novels soon to come. On the publication of the conclusion of the story in Maus: Volume II: “And Here My Troubles Began” in 1991, another tidal wave of glowing reviews — and now awards — followed, including a 1992 Pulitzer Prize and multiple awards from comic festivals and conventions around the world. Maus is one of the most studied graphic novels in history, including university courses in modern English literature, European history, and Jewish culture. It has been translated into 18 languages.

THE WRAP-UP

For many of us older readers, 1986 and the years immediately surrounding were a Golden Age of comic books for those of us who weren’t around to witness the first one. It seemed that the superhero comics we loved were growing up with us, getting ever so much more sophisticated (and occasionally “adult”). Conversely, this same period was probably horrifying to those even older fans who actually witnessed the original nicer, kinder, sweeter Golden Age and were dismayed by what they were seeing. (As I often am now, while reading some current superhero fare. As someone wiser than me once said “The more things change…”)

When you add what was going on in much of the revolutionary area of independent publishing, for at least a brief moment, it truly felt that comics as a whole were not only coming of age but actually gaining more and more respect from the outside world. Experiments were tried, with a higher percentage of them successful. New audiences — most of whom were not interested in superheroes — could now once again find something of value to read. Graphic storytelling had reached new heights, as well as becoming commercially viable. It was truly a Golden Age.

Unfortunately, history records that most Golden Ages are followed by a period of darkness.

NEXT TIME: (after a 10 Things column): The real wrap-up. Where are we now? More commentary than history, I promise. Some key words: Decompressed. Fatigue. Artist-driven. Trade-waiting. Grim. Gritty. Sporfunkle. (I made that last one up.)

KC CARLSON would like to acknowledge the many obvious omissions in this already lengthy piece about comics in the 1980s. In my desire to focus on the superhero storytelling end of things, I have left out dozens of things — including many personal favorites. A massive study/history of the early independent comics publishing scene of the 70s and 80s is much needed, especially the non-superhero work produced by such publishers as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Kitchen Sink, and Slave Labor –  as well as the more mainstream work coming from First, Eclipse, Comico, Dark Horse, Malibu, Pacific, Blackthorne, and others of the period. An entire book could be devoted to comics in 1986.

This column is just the tip of the iceberg as to what went on during that wondrous year — much of it not even in comic books, but in courtrooms, back rooms, conventions, radio studios, pretty much anywhere that comic books were talked about. Here’s just a few 1986 things I didn’t have the room to talk about — Jack Kirby, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles parody backlash, Zot!, Usagi Yojimbo, Dark Horse Presents, Concrete, Beanworld, Xenozoic Tales, The Tick, Silent Invasion, Destroy!, Stig’s Inferno, It’s Science with Dr. Radium, Fish Police, Critters, Omaha the Cat Dancer, comics labeling, and the year the Kirby Awards became both the Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards. Somebody needs to write a book!

Thanks to BG, RA, and JDC!

(Editor’s note: If you want to learn more about comics of the 70s and 80s, I highly recommend Back Issue magazine from TwoMorrows. – Roger)

Classic comic covers courtesy of the Grand Comics Database.

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  1. All Roads Lead to 1986 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] history of comic storytelling, he tackles the magic year of 1986, which was so important it got a column of its own. Find out more about how Event comics started with Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths and [...]

  2. El Santo Says:

    Great article, KC. I enjoyed taking the trip down memory lane. I wasn’t into comics in 1896, but all the huge milestones from my comic reading experience in the 1990′s seem to lead back to that year. Even New Universe, which I got into for cheap when they all ended up in the 25 cent bins!

  3. Westfield Comics Blog » KC Column: Is It Worth It? Says:

    [...] feel that it was a contributing factor to declining readership in this era. As I pointed out in my recent examination of 80s comics, eventually, creators fought for better production quality and space to create their magic (as well [...]

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