The Golden Age of Comics was a magnificent, and often insane, time in comic book history. It was the birth of the industry that we know and love, a time when publishers and creators were establishing traditions that carry on today, and a time that birthed some of our most beloved superheroes.
But like all things, it grows stale with time. Seriously, we’ve been doing this blog for over three years, and while there is still plenty of material to cover and poke fun at, it’s been getting pretty stale.
Thankfully, the 1940’s weren’t the only time in comic book history that saw a tremendous output of creativity and insane storytelling, and I think it’s time to move on to a more recent, but no less crazy time period.
Today marks a new era in this blog. Today we’re going to start looking at obscure comic book characters from a more modern time in comic books: the 1980’s
Now, I want to make something perfectly clear, I am not doing this to show how much better things were back in the day. The entire reason I do this blog is to show that failure and obscurity are just as important to the creative process as fame and success. After all, for every Batman,
there were at least a dozen other superheroes that didn’t make the cut.
So what made the 1980’s such a fantastic time for creativity in comics? Well…
1. Relaxed censorship standards and rules
Most historians place the Golden Age of Comics from 1938 to the early 1950’s. It’s actually a pretty easy period to date since most people agree that it began with the publishing of Action Comics #1,
to the pronounced and violent push back against comics in the early 1950’s, leading to a Senate subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency where comic books were the focus and target.
The anti comic book crusade was led by child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham,
which led to the creation of the infamous Comic Code Authority by the comic book industry in order to placate the people who were literally burning their product.
The Comics Code made their will known through a very prominent sticker that you’ve probably seen on older comic books.
Basically, before a comic could be shipped off to distributors it had to be submitted to a board of inspectors and editors for approval. If the comic didn’t meet the incredibly strict standards of the code, the comic didn’t get the stamp and couldn’t be distributed to the masses. It was an unfair, but incredibly effective, tactic that neutered the comic book industry from evolving for decades.
Granted, the new world order wasn’t a total wasteland. The comic book industry did recover and launched into the Silver Age, a time that gave us a lot of modern reinventions of classic characters,
a new focus on science fiction to reflect the modern American-Soviet space race,
and the birth of the comic book juggernaut known as Marvel Comics, headed by superstar artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee, who reinvented the entire concept of superheroes by giving them human problems and human flaws.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Silver Age was great, but I think it was still severely limited by the Comics Code. It didn’t matter how many characters were created, or how human they were, the types of stories that could be told were hampered by the oppressive shadow of censorship.
All of that began to change in 1971 when the U.S government approached Marvel and asked them to publish a story about drug abuse in order to reach out to children about the dangers of drugs. This would come to a head in May of 1971 with the publishing of Amazing Spider-Man #96
Of course this was a breach of the rules the Comics Code had in place, but since the comic was written and drawn with the blessings of the United States government, Stan Lee and company could’ve cared less.
The comic triggered a review of the established Comics Code rules and it was eventually decided that the rules should be relaxed in order to accommodate the changing times and allow for a wider range of stories to be told. While the code would remain in effect for several decades (DC wouldn’t stop publishing stories with the seal until 2011) the writing was on the wall and the Comics Code began its slow and inexorable decline, which led to…
2. The rise of the indie scene into mainstream popularity
Just because the big publishers were limited by the Comics Code didn’t mean that all comic books were hobbled by restrictions and censorship, it just meant that the adult stuff didn’t reach a massive audience.
The 1970’s saw the rise of the underground “comix” scene, a sub set of the comic book industry where there were no limits on things like sex or drugs, no subject was taboo, and creators would often sell their work themselves in small batches.
It wasn’t the most profitable venture, but then again the comic book industry has rarely been kind to the people making comic books. The underground comix scene quickly developed its own style and superstars and two of the most famous names of this time period were Robert Crumb,
and Art Spiegelman.
Side note: it’s worth mentioning that these were not the only big names in the comix scene and that studying underground comics of the 1970’s could fill a book on its own. I highly recommend that you check it out and do your own research, there is some fantastic stuff.
Both of these artists would find mainstream success in the 1980’s due to changing audiences and relaxed restrictions. Crumb would watch one of his first and most famous creations get turned into an insanely vulgar, and insanely successful, animated film Fritz the Cat,
While Art Spiegelman would go on to bring the underground into the light of day with the publication of his smash hit comic book Maus,
which was serialized in the underground magazine Raw from 1980-1991. It is a fantastic book and is considered to be one of the greatest accounts of the Holocaust ever published.
While all this was going on creators like Jim Starlin, the man who helped develop the Marvel super villain Thanos, began publishing and editing an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories called Star Reach.
This anthology ran from 1974-1979 and helped the independent comic book scene by publishing indie stories by some of the biggest names in comics at the time.
The influx of talent into the independent comic scene, coupled with the rise and recognition of established indie creators brought on by the relaxing of censorship rules, changed the comic book landscape forever. Now, there were new stories that could be told, new subject matter to be explored, and new issues that could be discussed.
All of this led to…
3. The birth of mature and dark storytelling in mainstream comics
Small timers and indie publishers weren’t the only ones who suffered under the restrictions of the Comics Code, the creators and editors working for the big two of Marvel and DC were chafing as well.
After Stan Lee and Marvel weakened the Comics Code with Amazing Spiderman #96 the floodgates were open for a time period known as the “Bronze Age of Comics”.
The Bronze Age was a time where comics began to shift away from the fantastical science fiction of the Silver Age to more grounded stories that focused on social commentary and modern, relevant issues such as inner city problems and drug use.
Case in point: this was the era that gave us Luke Cage,
reintroduced the idea that superheroes could kill with the introduction of the Punisher,
and turned Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy into a junkie.
But to highlight the true impact the 1980’s had on comic books I’d like to bring up two of the biggest names to break into the comic book scene in the 1980’s: Frank Miller,
and Alan Moore.
Frank Miller got his start in Gold Key Comics, but really broke into the comic book scene in 1979 drawing Daredevil #158.
Miller would eventually become the writer for the series as well and built the character into what he is today. Have you noticed that Daredevil is a devout Catholic?
That was Miller.
He created the characters of Stick and Elektra,
and helped drag the character out from the doldrums of mediocrity and into the spotlight as one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Miller is the reason why Daredevil is so popular today.
Now, it’s fair to say that Frank Miller has not aged well. It would be fair to say that the quality of his writing and storytelling has dropped off a bit and some of his more recent work,
has been justifiably panned as bad. Seriously, the above book is so bad and offensive I’m loathe to even admit that it even exists. Don’t bother reading it, it doesn’t deserve the publicity.
But Frank Miller didn’t get to this point by being bad all the time. In fact, for most of the 1980’s he was considered to be one of the better writers and artists out there and it would all come to a head in 1986 with the publication of what many consider one of the greatest Batman stories ever written: The Dark Knight Returns.
Before this, most people knew Batman as the campy Adam West character from the tv show.
After Miller was done with him, he was known as the brooding, borderline psychotic thug that audiences have known and love since the Christopher Nolan movies.
Alan Moore, the other person we’re going to talk about today, had a similar career path.
Like Miller he got his start in obscure, small time writing gigs, although most of Moore’s early work was in underground comic magazines and small presses.
Moore’s break came when he started writing for some of the big names in British comics, namely 2000AD, the publisher that owns Judge Dredd.
His work caught the attention of DC comics, who hired him to revitalize one of their lesser known characters: the Swamp Thing.
And revitalize it he did, adding some of the strangest, trippiest, and creepy imagery I’ve ever seen in comics.
But that’s not what you’re here for. Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you know what Moore’s most famous work is.
Like Miller’s take on Batman, Watchmen was published in 1986 and was a huge hit. It’s legacy of fantastic storytelling, complex characters, and flexible approach to morality turned this comic into one of the best comic books ever written and a story that many consider to be one of the best ever written in the 20th century.
Thankfully, Moore’s future work was also just as enjoyable and just as readable, and Moore has gone on to become one of the greatest comic book authors in history and most likely the winner of “most intimidating glare in comics”.
So there you have it, a horrifyingly short explanation as to why the 1980’s were a fantastic time for comic books and why it’s a decade worth remembering and exploring. There were hundreds of independent comic book publishers, creators, and artists out there that took advantage of the relaxed rules over censorship and the rise of a new generation of talent that weren’t afraid to tell mature adult stories in order to advance the medium they loved, and we’re going to look at as many of the as we can.
Here’s to another three years.