1986, The Year That Changed Comics:


In discussions of graphic novels, three works that are regularly cited as landmarks of the medium are Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s highly acclaimed Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, generally credited as influencing the highly successful Batman motion pictures that followed. Each of these works recently reached its silver anniversary; Spiegelman even marked the occasion by releasing a new book, MetaMaus, about the making of Maus. It has repeatedly been noticed that all three works began appearing in the same year, 1986, which has been called the annus miribilis of comics.

What might these three works have in common besides the year of their creation? Maus, a biographical series dealing with the Holocaust, seems far different from Dark Knight and Watchmen, both reinterpretations of the super-hero genre. Moreover, these three are typically discussed as if they were isolated from the rest of the comics published in 1986, as if the miracle of that miracle year was that three great classics emerged from amidst otherwise unmemorable products.

But 1986 was a particularly rich year in American comics. Watchmen, Maus, and Dark Knight may represent the peaks of achievement for that year, but there is a whole mountain range of other significant work in comics that surrounds them. Moreover, Dark Knight, Maus, and Watchmen reflect themes and concerns that not only unite these three works but which can also be seen in other important comics stories of that same year.

Watchmen, Dark Knight, and especially Maus have been the subjects of considerable critical writing. In this book I intend to examine them in the context of the spectrum of American comic books in the year 1986. Furthermore, I intend to examine many other comics from that same year, each of them important and memorable, to depict the creative ferment in the comics, both mainstream and alternative, in that year, and to identify the themes and approaches that run through the major works of the year 1986.

This phenomenon of a burst of creative achievement in one specific year is not unique to American comics. For example, 1939 is often called the greatest year in the history of classic Hollywood. Among the many memorable films that debuted in that year were director Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz; John Ford’s Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk; Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka; William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights; George Stevens’s Gunga Din; Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings; and the list of celebrated titles goes on and on; one could even add foreign classics from 1939, notably Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.

Why was 1939 so rich in great films? Is this abundance merely a coincidence? Or were there reasons why the film industry reached this creative peak in that particular year?That is a subject for a book on film, but one might observe that 1939 came a decade after the film industry shifted over from silent films to “talkies.” It took a few years for Hollywood to cope with the new demands that sound films presented, but the film industry rapidly adjusted, and within ten years had achieved such a high level that 1939 seems to present an endless list of classics and masterpieces.

So too the outpouring of innovative and important work in comics in 1986 did not happen by mere chance. There must be reasons why 1986 proved to be such a watershed year.

1986 was thirty years after editor Julius Schwartz introduced the new version of the Flash in Showcase #4 (October 1956) and twenty-five years after the publication of Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961), with which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started Marvel’s revolution of the super-hero genre. These two classic issues mark the beginning of the “Silver Age of Comics” (1956-1970) at DC Comics and Marvel Comics, respectively, which not only revived the super-hero genre but also brought super-hero comics to a new, higher level of sophistication creatively. This was especially true of Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel, who pioneered multidimensional characterizations and a greater realism in the genre. By the start of the 1970s, DC Comics was beginning to do the same and to take this revolution even further through works such as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s collaboration on Green Lantern / Green Arrow, which dealt with social and political issues.  Whereas comic books had generally been regarded as a medium for children, Marvel and, later, DC were publishing material that would attract older readers, even adults. Moreover, creators such as Lee, Kirby, O’Neil, and Adams were demonstrating that comic books, including those in the super-hero genre, could be used as a medium of personal expression.

Inspired by the great comics of the Silver Age, a new wave of young writers and artists, mostly Baby Boomers, began working for Marvel and DC, intent on becoming part of this comics revolution and taking it further.

There was also another revolution in American comics during the 1960s: the rise of the underground comix movement. The creators of the undergrounds were greatly influenced by the EC Comics line of the 1950s, which could deal with serious themes in an adult manner, as in editor Harvey Kurtzman’s war series, or satirically critique society, as in Kurtzman’s anarchic early issues of Mad.  The underground cartoonists were intent on producing comic books for adults that dealt, seriously or comedically, with adult topics such as sex, religion, politics, and the drug culture, free from the restrictions that the mainstream comics industry had imposed on itself through the Comics Code Authority. Whereas mainstream comic book writers had begun putting their individual stamps on genre material, the underground cartoonists were much more openly using their work as vehicles of personal expression. Underground comics, or “comix,” began appearing as early as 1964, but the key event in the beginning of the movement was Robert Crumb’s self-publication of Zap Comix #1 in 1968. Underground comix flourished from then until 1975. By then, the first generation of underground comix was in creative decline; perhaps more importantly, the head shops that sold the comix alongside drug paraphernalia were disappearing due to legal pressure. Nonetheless, just as EC had inspired them, the underground cartoonists of the late 1960s and early 1970s would inspire a new generation of artists who would emerge in the 1980s.

The 1970s also saw the beginning of the direct sales market for comics, pioneered by distributor Phil Seuling. Comics had traditionally been sold at newsstands and at small “mom and pop” stores; these venues were rapidly disappearing. Indeed, writers and artists who entered the comics business in the early 1970s may tell you that they thought that the comics industry might well collapse within a few years.

Instead, comic book specialty stores arose to sell comics. This new way of selling comics meant that comics companies could profitably sell comics that were aimed at the fans of particular writers and artists, or that dealt with subjects that did not have the kind of wide, mass market appeal that the newsstand market required.  By the early 1980s, Marvel and DC had begun producing comics aimed specifically at the direct market, and independent publishers were arising to sell to the fan audience that patronized the direct market.

This change did not merely affect the “mainstream” super-hero titles. Independent companies produced comics that dealt in other genres than super-heroes. Even individual creators engaged in self-publishing their work: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird began self-publishing their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984, and it rapidly became a tremendous success.  Now alternative comics, the successors to the undergrounds, dealing in autobiography and other personal subjects, could be sold through the direct market.

Moreover, the modern graphic novel movement began in the late 1970s with such works as Richard Corben’s Bloodstar (1976), Jim Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide (1976), Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre (published by one of the new independents, Eclipse, in 1978), and even a Silver Surfer graphic novel by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1978). The work that had the most impact as a forebear of the graphic novels to follow was Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), which was actually a collection of short stories in comics form that included fictionalized autobiographical elements.  By 1982 Marvel was publishing graphic novels, mostly featuring its super-hero characters.

Whereas in the 1960s Marvel was a small company competing with the giant DC, by the 1980s Marvel dominated the American comics market. DC Comics had been trying to compete by imitating the Marvel style of characterization and storytelling in various series but with mixed results. However, DC, then headed by publisher Jenette Kahn and executive editor Dick Giordano, were willing to take creative chances to revitalize the DC line.

In 1983, DC editor Len Wein hired British comics writer Alan Moore to write Swamp Thing, a series that Wein had co-created in the 1970s. Brilliantly imaginative, masterful in his use of language, and possessing a far more literary sensibility than most American comics writers, Moore quickly turned Swamp Thing into DC’s most sophisticated series. This was the beginning of a “British invasion” of the American comics industry that would considerably raise its literary standards.

Furthermore, Kahn, Giordano, and others at DC were moving towards a decision to take radical action to make the entire “DC Universe” line of comics more relevant to the comic book audience of the 1980s, which was increasingly composed of adults, not children.

In the 1980s, the new generation of comics professionals was editing, writing, and drawing comics for DC and Marvel as well as for the new independent companies.  The direct market was quickly growing and would eventually supplant the newsstand market as the principal outlet for comics sales.  Writers and artists with sufficiently large fan followings became genuine stars, whom the major companies sought to hire and to whom they would give considerable creative freedom. Among them were Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore; Frank Miller, who had made his name as the writer and artist who transformed Marvel’s Daredevil super-hero series into a contemporary film noir in comics form; writer Chris Claremont, who had turned Marvel’s X-Men into the company’s top-selling title, which was now spawning a family of related series; and John Byrne, Claremont’s former collaborator on X-Men, then at the height of his popularity as writer / artist on Marvel’s Fantastic Four. (Except for Miller, all of them were British-born, though only Moore grew up and still lived in Britain.)

By the mid-1980s the stage was set. There was a large, adult audience that took comics seriously and wanted more sophisticated material. There was a system of stores for selling such comics to that audience. There was a new generation of comics professionals who had mastered their craft in the 1970s and early 1980s. There were major comics writers and artists with ambitions to produce work with personal meaning and who had achieved enough clout in the industry to be able to get such work published. There was a newly popular format for this sort of comics: the graphic novel. And amidst the competition between Marvel and DC and the independents and alternatives, many comics professionals felt the desire to do work that would advance the artform and seize the readers’ imagination.

In 1986, all these factors combined to produce an explosion of great and memorable comics that revolutionized the medium in America, as much as or more than the revolution of the Silver Age had, with effects that have continued into the 21st century.

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Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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Also by Peter Sanderson:

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


1 Comment

  1. Are youy planning/writing a volume on the subject? Nice idea! I’ve often argued in discussions that the 80′s are a rich context to understand the value attributed to those three books you mention, and that other publications have had so much a great/greater impact on the comics, like Chaykin’s “American Flagg” and Veitch’s “The One” and “Brat Pack”.

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