Nostalgia, and no little measure of it, seems to engulf comics readers of a certain age whenever the mid-80s come to mind. But was it really such a great time to be a fan of the medium, and if it was, when precisely in the period was the Golden Age? Is it true that the weekly shipments of action-adventure comic books in this mythical age were especially rich in fine and groundbreaking titles, or is memory swayed by the memory of a small number of epochal titles?
I thought I’d take a single example of comicbook excellence that pretty much everyone would agree was innovative and influential and see what else was released at the very same time. And so, whether we agree or not that Miller & Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One was an enjoyable and admirable example of storytelling or not, I think we’re all forced to concede that it’s been both widely lauded and emulated. (Cards on the table: I still love it. Very much so.) So what else what out was out in November 1986, when the first chapter of Year One appeared? Can the revolution be found there, at that one moment?
It takes a very fine comics tale indeed to retain its appeal after it’s been so frequently strip-mined for its style and content over thirty six years. But for me, Year One is still as fresh and engaging as it was when it first emerged. Even as I type that, I recognise that it sounds improbable. But there are a precious few examples of popular culture that resist the apparent inevitability of tarnishing. In its day, it beguiled with the noir beauty of its craftmanship and the manner in which it seamlessly fused the superhero with crime thrillers. Brilliant in itself, it also raised the question, “Why can’t all super-people books be reinvented with such ambition and skill?”. It was never going to happen, for any number of reasons. But for a moment, Year One, in concert with a small number of seemingly allied titles, appeared to point forwards to an amazingly inventive and fulfilling future for what we then took for granted as “comics”.
When many of us recall the mid-80s, I suspect, we remember that absurd degree of promise associated with a relatively narrow selection of characters and genres. By contrast, in 2022, there’s an astonishing range of fine work that’s available in the medium. Most of us in the mid-80s could never have imagined such a future, for all its strengths and drawbacks. From the indy small press to mainstream publishers, from YA to Manga and all points around, today really is a Golden Age. It isn’t the one that many of us dreamed of back in 1986, mind you, but I suspect that’s in many ways, if not quite all, a very good thing.
As we’re talking about comics that are magnificent in their own terms and, accordingly, redolent of a better future for the medium, it’d be madness to ignore the release of Los Bros Hernandez’s Love & Rockets #19 in the same month as chapter one of Batman: Year One. The two books don’t sit together in my memory as titles that I picked up at the same time, so I’ve no visions of walking out from London’s Forbidden Planet with the two in the same carrier bag. I wish I had, mind you: what a rush that would be to remember! But just to note the coincidence of the shared publication date is to feel the electricity of the period. Two such different titles, two such fabulous examples of storytelling, two such very singular examples of style and content: even if nothing else of especial note had appeared in the same month, the sense of revolution in the air would still have been palpable. After all, many of us could remember months, and a great many of them, when nothing that was comparable in quality to these two had seen print at all.
No matter how strange Love & Rockets could seem at the time, in a marketplace still profoundly denuded of variety, it still came complete with fantastical elements. (As Jaime Hernandez’s cover above will testify.) It could be, therefore, less of an impossible leap from the so-called mainstream super-books to L&R than it might seem, although that was still offputting enough for some. But whatever common ground there was, the differences were not inconsiderable. As Love & Rockets veered further and further from its early-days flirtations with SF, it, more than any other book that was feted at the time, pointed towards a tomorrow in which super-heroics could be left far, far behind. Plenty of other creators were also pioneering the journey away from the action/adventure model. (In the UK, the influence and achievement of a vibrant small-press movement, for example, was considerable.) But Love & Rockets, by virtues of its quality, commercial tenacity and relative prominence, was a standard bearer without equal. Every issue was an event, and every such event promised more to come.
Sales stats suggest that most of the folks who devoured Batman:Year One never went near a copy of Love And Rockets. But they both felt as if they were part and parcel of the change that everyone agreed was underway. (And everyone I heard and read really did feel that something remarkable was happening.) Both were both seen on the same shelves and discussed in the same fanzines. Neither had to be read for the sense to be transmitted that things weren’t quite as they had been. Opinions on what exactly that transformation might actually be were two a penny. But the feeling that big things were happening remained, its charge increasing with every passing month.
Or at least, it did so for awhile.
If a month in which Year One and Love & Rockets both came out was exciting enough, then the presence Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen #6 made it impossible not to feel both immensely excited and extraordinarily optimistic. If this was all possible in 1986, then what would 1990 see, or the impossibly distant first decade of the 21st decade? As with Year One and Love & Rockets, Watchmen is a triumph of craft and ambition, a great expert fusion of a range of influences from within and beyond comics, and, as such, an exemplar of hybridisation of form and content reinvigorating a genre that had all too often seemed exhausted, unsavable.
It was also self-evidently smart and welcoming and, accordingly, accessible to readers who wouldn’t ever be caught thumbing through a 20-page copy of, say, DC Presents or Sensational Spider-Man. When collected in a single volume, it would be even more approachable for civilians. Maybe one day, and soon, everybody would read comics and nobody would have to feel, at the very best, a touch awkward about reading them in public.
Comics still were, in the eyes of many, a medium that anybody other than children should be ashamed to enjoy. In general, comic readers were held in such contempt that it was difficult for most of their critics to raise the energy to actively despise them. (Such is still often true today, but things have, overall, changed beyond recognition.) The perceived promise of comics in the mid-80s wasn’t simply about the quality of the work in the medium. For many readers, to this degree or that, it was also about their beloved medium being accepted as valid and worthwhile. The endlessly-repeated question “Are comics art?” was absolutely central to social and personal ambitions as well as to aesthetic matters.
And of course, Alan Moore wasn’t just at work in the then-unfamiliar context of the limited series. He was also, with the likes of the fine artistic team of Rick Veitch and Alfredo, producing landmark issue after landmark issue of the monthly Swamp Thing comic. If any of the great comics of the period most led we hopeful believers astray during the age, it was this, because it appeared to insist that the grind of monthly schedules and established continuity were no barrier to individual expression and profoundly innovative work. Or perhaps it was just me. But I do recall wishing, and wishing hard, that the characters and universes I’d grown up loving could be shaped according to far less formulaic constraints. It is the curse of the fannish acolyte, of course, to want to remain involved in a beloved franchise while expecting it to develop in harmony with our own changing tastes and needs. I wanted the monthly books that I’d grown up loving, but I wanted them all to be new and fresh and brilliant too. Such, at least, was the hope. I can only offer a sincere mea culpa. But Moore and his collaborators did make it feel as if it really was possible. In the above tale, for example, he cast a fresh and invigorating eye over Adam Strange and the Hawk-Police, over Rann and Thanagar, over intergalactic politics and human potential in the DCU. In doing so, he changed much of what we’d already been told while making the overall structure of established continuity seem refreshed and stronger rather than contradicted and undermined. And if he could do it, well ….
I would never deny the achievements of many other ambitious and able creative teams working in established comics franchises in the years since the mid-80s. I’m not suggesting in any way that such fine work was only been produced at one time in the industry. It’s merely that, in the context of the mid-80s, one kind of revolution appeared to be underway, and in the years since, the revolutions have taken different forms. To recall the zestful mindset of the fan in the period isn’t to suggest that other times have lacked their own barricade-shattering moments. Of course they have!
So yes, perhaps Moore’s work only seemed so singular and outstanding because he was bringing a fresh perspective and exceptional skills to an audience used to very different fare. That in itself would explain why his work during the period helped ignite the excitement and anticipation of the moment.
(Although I suspect, and strongly too, that Moore was, and still is, regardless of the medium he’s working within, just really amazingly gifted.)
To ratchet up the sense of the times being transformed, there was also the mainstream-friendly collection of The Dark Knight Returns on sale in November 1986. To see a series collected so quickly and in such an impressively lasting form felt very new indeed. The hardback and paperback collections of The Dark Knight Returns were brilliantly designed to reach beyond diehard comics fans and appeal to the more general reader. These were examples of comics – no, graphic novels – that you could buy for adults at Christmas, that you could chance reading on a train, that you could place in the bookshelf in your front room where – shock! – visitors might cast eyes upon them. It could be a credible conversation starter, and even a tool of conversion. One day, such things might be nothing less or more than a part of the everyday, as invisible and accepted a medium as, say, the TV or the papers.
Comics might be stacked in libraries. Universities might run degree courses in comics. The big and little screens could be filled with adaptations that were unashamably true to their source material. What a wonderful world that could be!
Finally, as if the above weren’t enough, the month’s more colourfully radical and inspiring comics also included Miller and Sienkiewicz’s Elektra Assassin #5. In contrast to the admirable and highly effective formulism of the above titles, EA felt like a wildfire of a reading experience. The sense was of a creative team pretty much making things up as they went, secure in their mutual brilliance and able to leap from one audacious set-piece to another without worrying too much at all about restraint or, indeed, a consistent tone. Clearly, this was not an accident, but an intention. Miller and Sienkiewicz weren’t making it up as they went at all: what could that even mean in practical terms? But they had laid down a route map for the book that permitted all manner of experimentation. Again, the sense was clear: the franchise characters and the pamphlet form could be approached with fierce degrees of innovation and ambition. If this could be done with Elektra, a long-dead supporting character with no discernable track record as a solo headliner, then what might be achieved with, well, any other character in existence?
To be continued. If not immediately.