1986, The Year That Changed Comics:

Introduction, Part 2

Over the course of the coming months, Sequart will be serializing chapters from my forthcoming book, currently titled 1986: The Year That Changed Comics, here on their website.

This book originated as a year-long monthly series of lectures on “1986: The Year That Changed Comics” at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City from 2006 (the 20th anniversary year of these comics) into early 2007. The original subjects of these talks were Alan Moore’s Miracleman, Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, Moore and Curt Swan’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin, Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme, Will Eisner’s The Dreamer, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (the subject of two lectures), and Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Violent Cases.

This is an impressive collection of works, but this book will cover still more comics from the remarkably rich year of 1986.

As some of you surely realize, comic books in 1986 bore cover dates that were three months ahead of their actual publication dates. So you may wonder if I am defining 1986 comics in terms of their cover dates or their actual dates of publication. Rather than bother making such a distinction, I am including comics from both categories.

The comics industry does not wait until January to start the great majority of its storylines. Hence, some comics stories from 1986 with which I deal in this book started in 1985, or continued into 1987. For example, according to its cover dates, Crisis on Infinite Earths ran from April 1985 to March 1986. (Since the gap between the cover date and publication date was three months, that means that Crisis was actually published from January through December of 1985.)

If less than a majority of the issues of a particular story have cover or publication dates in 1986, then I decided whether or not to include them in this book based on my judgment of their significance to the evolution of American comics. Crisis on Infinite Earths is a highly significant work in the history of DC Comics, and so I have included it. But if only a few issues of a series appeared in 1986, then I feel less obligation to discuss it at length in this book. The first issue of Marvel’s war series The ‘Nam, for example, was cover-dated December 1986; since it ran for seven years, it seems to me to more of a late 1980s title than a 1986 series. Marvel’s Secret Wars II was cover-dated from July 1985 to March 1986, running simultaneously with most of Crisis. Both series were pioneering examples of the “event” comics limited series with multiple tie-ins to other comics series. But whereas Crisis had long-lasting effects on DC Comics continuity, Secret Wars II did not do the same at Marvel, so I intend to make only passing references to it.

In the case of a limited series like Crisis, I will critique the entire series in this book. However, in the cases of long-running comics series, I will deal only with specific story arcs from 1986. For example, though The Uncanny X-Men was being published in 1986, I am not going to analyze every storyline through its decades-long history. Instead, I will deal specifically with the “Mutant Massacre” arc that appeared in Uncanny X-Men in 1986, although of course that will entail commenting on the X-Men concept and Chris Claremont’s work on the series overall.

In this book, I am also dealing with certain comics stories and storylines that were originally published before 1986, but which were repackaged and republished in new formats in 1986 that brought them to the attention of new audiences. Examples are Marvelman, Maus, and American Splendor.

Alan Moore wrote the Marvelman series for the United Kingdom’s Warrior comic book from 1982 into 1984. These stories were first published in the United States by Eclipse Comics under the new title Miracleman (to avoid legal problems with Marvel Comics) in 1985; new Miracleman stories by Moore began appearing with issue 7 in 1986.

Art Spiegelman began serializing Maus in his and Francoise Mouly’s comics magazine Raw with issue 2 in 1980; the series continued to run in Raw until the magazine ceased publication in 1991. Pantheon Books published the first six chapters in book form in 1986. The remaining chapters were published in a second volume in 1991. So 1986 is a key date in Maus‘s publication history, but the original publication dates for Maus ran from 1980 to 1991. In this book, I am not confining myself to dealing with only the chapters of Maus that had appeared by 1986; I am writing about the entire series.

Harvey Pekar published his first issue of American Splendor in 1976. However, it is in 1986 that Doubleday published the first collection of American Splendor in book form. Since Pekar continued doing American Splendor into 2008, there are far too many stories to deal within the limited space; so, in this case, I will confine myself to discussing the stories in the 1986 Doubleday collection.

The “Church and State” arc in Dave Sim’s Cerebus ran from 1983 to 1988. I will deal with the entire storyline, though I will concentrate on the latter half, which began in late 1985. Of course, writing about the entire Cerebus series, which ran for 300 issues, is beyond the scope of this book.

Considering the extraordinary success of comics-based movies in the early 21st century, I am even including a brief essay on the comic book film that came out in 1986: the infamous Howard the Duck movie, which gives me an opportunity to mention Howard’s creator, the late Steve Gerber, who did little comics work in 1986.

As I did with my original 1986 lecture series, I am bookending the 1986 works under discussion with essays on some key comics that came out just before and just after that landmark year. As noted, most issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths are cover-dated 1985, but Crisis was intended to serve as a dividing line between the DC Comics canon up to 1985 and the DC Comics that followed from 1986 onward. I am also including Jack Kirby’s graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, his conclusion to his own “Fourth World” comics saga of the 1970s. Crisis is a series in which younger creators—Marv Wolfman and George Perez—bring to an end the DC Comics continuity from the 1930s to 1985. In The Hunger Dogs, the man who was arguably the greatest creator in American comic books during that half century brings his own saga to a conclusion and lays the groundwork for a new generation of creators to take over.

On the other end, I am including two key works from 1987 that presumably were being created during 1986 and which point to directions that comics would take following 1986. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One continue Miller’s redefinition of the Batman character and mythos as well as continuing his creative collaboration with Mazzucchelli following their work on 1986′s Daredevil: Born Again. Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One have influenced most treatments of Batman in comics and other media since then. Director Christopher Nolan’s 21th century trilogy of Batman films unmistakably adapt elements from both Miller series, even adopting the title “The Dark Knight” which Miller had popularized as a name for Batman. The other work from 1987 that I am including in this book is Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Violent Cases, the first important work in comics from these men, and hence the start of their brilliant and innovative subsequent careers in the medium.

I am dealing only with comic books published in the United States; comics from the United Kingdom (unless they were reprinted in the United States, like Miracleman), Europe, and Japan are beyond the scope of this book.

Obviously, there were hundreds of comic books that were published in the United States in 1986, and I am not attempting to do in-depth analysis of all of them in this book. Instead, I have chosen comics that I believe have enduring significance. I may not like all of them, but I consider them to be important. To put it another way, I am writing about the comics of 1986 that most interest me. This means that inevitably, many comics from 1986 and comics creators who were active in that year will be mentioned only in passing, or not at all. For instance, 1986 was the year that Marvel launched its “New Universe” line of comics, but the line did not survive into the 1990s. (A revised revival of the New Universe in 2007 has also proved to be short-lived.) The only one of these titles that I plan to examine in depth is Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan’s D.P. 7, which I will compare to their work on the Squadron Supreme maxi-series. As for the comics of 1986 that I do not cover in detail, I will leave those to a possible sequel to this book. I also expect that other scholars will delve into the riches of the year 1986, and will inevitably choose to emphasize different comics than I have.

The comics that I’ve chosen to cover range from the famous to the relatively obscure. For instance, I will be writing about Peter B. Gillis and Sal Buscema’s The Eternals maxi-series for Marvel, which has so far never been reprinted and has been unjustly forgotten.

In contrast, there has been a great deal of writing, scholarly and otherwise, about the Big Three comics landmarks of 1986: Dark Knight, Maus, and Watchmen. I hope to take a different approach to these works by examining them in the context of the other comics of the year 1986. I believe that there are themes that these works share with other significant comics of that year.

1986 was a transitional year for comics, and many of the important comics of that year appear to me to show their creators consciously addressing how to make this transition. The comics of the Silver Age of the 1960s were aimed primarily for children, but by the 1980s the audience has grown older, and most of the writers and artists had themselves grown up as fans of these comics. How can comics, and the super-hero genre in particular, evolve to appeal to this older, more sophisticated readership? How can characters and series that originated in the 1960s, or even in the 1930s and 1940s, be adapted to suit a new decade and a new generation of readers? In Frank Miller’s Batman and John Byrne’s Superman, we see archetypal characters being redefined for a new period in comics history. Crisis on Infinite Earths sought to remake the entire “DC Universe.”

It is not just a matter of reworking classic series for the future, but also of reexamining what they meant in the past. For example, Alan Moore celebrates the Silver Age Superman mythos in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, while John Byrne takes Superman “back to the basics” in The Man of Steel, stripping away what he considers to be nonessential or even mistaken. Going yet further, series such as Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Watchmen and Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme reevaluate the entire super-hero genre; these postmodernist super-hero series deconstruct genre conventions that readers and creators had not formerly questioned.

Even the imagery of “funny animal” comics for children was being used in 1986 to address older readers and, in some cases, adult concerns, whether in Howard the Duck, or Walter Simonson’s storyline that turned Thor into a frog, or Dave Sim’s Cerebus, or most famously and astonishingly, Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

So one of the principal aesthetic questions in the comics of 1986 is this: how does one make the comics of the past relevant to the present and the future?

Similarly, in many of the important comics of 1986, their creators are looking back at their personal pasts in order to reinterpret them for the present. Will Eisner presented a semi-fictionalized recounting of his early days in the new comics industry in his 1986 graphic novel The Dreamer. Most famously, Art Spiegelman’s Maus begins as a story within a story: Spiegelman depicts himself interviewing his father about the latter’s experiences in Europe before and during the Holocaust. The father’s autobiographical narrative, set in the 1930s and 1940s, is contained within Art Spiegelman’s own autobiographical account, set in the 1980s, about his relationship with his father. The second volume of Maus adds a third level, as Art Spiegelman portrays his reactions to the public reception to the first volume, while continuing to depict his interviews with his father, who continues recounting his own story. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is effectively his own ongoing autobiography, as he continually recounted and interpreted the events of his own life, both those long past and those close in time to his writing the stories. Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, in which he appears as narrator, blends fiction with seemingly autobiographical elements, in an adult’s attempt to remember and reinterpret events from his childhood that he could not fully comprehend at the time.

The reinterpretation of the past in order to transform it into the present is an overarching theme in the comics of 1986. But there are others, as well, which continue to crop up. One is the specter of death on a massive, even apocalyptic scale. Maus, of course, is about the actual Holocaust. Watchmen is haunted by the memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. These are mass slaughters in real life that are echoed by fictional mass murders in the comics of 1986. Watchmen ends with the massacre of much of Manhattan’s population. The main story arc in X-Men in 1986 is the “Mutant Massacre,” a sort of ethnic cleansing directed against a mutant population that literally lives underground in Manhattan. In The Dark Knight Returns the Joker murders everyone in a television studio where he was appearing on a talk show. Crisis on Infinite Earths conjures the image of the obliteration of an infinite number of universes with their infinite numbers of sentient inhabitants. Why do these images of mass murder keep recurring in the comics of this year?

In the course of writing this book, I hope to identify various recurring themes and motifs in the comics of 1986 in an effort to better understand what was on the minds of the leading members of comics’ creative community during that year when they produced so many memorable contributions to the medium, including some of its enduring masterpieces.

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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. A good portion of the later part of my dissertation will be address many of these issues, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing where you take this discussion!

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