American Thesis #5:

The Revisionary Superhero and a New Breed of Comics

After the industry’s expansion, through the use of direct distribution, comic books matured into a more intelligent and enjoyable entertainment. As readership of independent and underground comics increased, new characters emerged with dark and complicated behaviors, further blurring the guidelines of a typical superhero. Fan-favorite artists and writers began to create significant works that would set milestones in comic book creation. Even major publishers like DC would create dozens of titles targeted for a more mature and sophisticated audience.

With specialty shops, “…a market developed that could support small press runs of comicbooks,” (Bongco, 131). Fans soon saw independently published comics on store shelves next to mainstream titles, and a new market for underground comics was created. In 1980, Art Spiegelman released the first issue of his anthology, Raw, with examples of non-superhero comic book styles from all across North America and Europe, as well as classics like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. It is because of people like Spiegelman that the underground was brought to attention, so publishing companies like Kitchen Sink Press or Fantagraphics offered more alternative comic books and graphic novels. It was important for the underground community to reprint classics like Will Eisner’s The Spirit for new audiences to enjoy, because of their timelessness. Independent and alternative titles attracted large numbers of female readers, where strong-willed and more realistic female characters were featured, as opposed to mainstream books, where big-breasted women were treated as objects.

Marvel recognized the evolution of the underground comic and eventually regained much of its popularity by producing darker and grittier characters like the razor-clawed mutant Wolverine; the Punisher, a war-crazed merciless vigilante; and the Ghost Rider, a leather clad biker demon from hell, with a fiery skull for a head. These new characters were not your red-white-and-blue, “truth, justice, and the American way” superheroes; they came with an attitude and their own brand of justice. In the early 1980s, Frank Miller began to illustrate and write Daredevil. His writing style was heavily influenced by film noir, and his illustrations were rougher than what most Marvel fans were used to. Miller began writing dark storylines like his story arc entitled “Born Again,” which runs from issue #227 in February 1986 until issue #233. The story starts with Matt Murdock’s ex-girlfriend, Karen Page, selling his secret identity to the Kingpin for one last hit of heroine. Murdock’s public and private life is torn apart.

In the mid 1980s, both DC and Marvel began to reinvent many of their popular characters to appeal to a new generation of intelligent readers. Miller would eventually move to DC and produce a milestone in comic book history in 1986 with his Dark Knight Returns. This ground-breaking Batman story set the foundation for the “Revisionary Superhero Narrative.” The revisionary superhero is the idea of a superhero being revised, refreshed, or reinvented to be like his contemporaries. Miller’s work was immediately a popular sensation that sparked a major interest in comic books. It would be credited as the main influence behind Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman, which also generated much interest in comic books and led to the airing of re-runs of the 1960s Batman television show. “Batmania” swept the nation; Batman merchandise could be purchased at a variety of different stores and indirectly helped the comic book industry for a period of time.

1986 is considered to be one of the most important years in comic book history. After celebrating its 25th anniversary, Marvel published many new universe titles along with an Official Handbook for the Marvel Universe, an encyclopedia of characters and significant stories. While DC chose to release Crisis on Infinite Earths, a story that greatly simplified and reorganized its entire Universe of characters and stories. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published Watchmen, another essential revisionary superhero narrative, which placed a group of struggling superheroes in a realistic setting with realistic issues like impotence, alcoholism, and insanity (Bongco, 136). Art Spiegelman released Maus in book format in 1986, previously available only as a serial work in his Raw anthology. This story of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust, along with Spiegelman’s somewhat troubled father-son relationship, won him the esteemed Pulitzer Prize.

DC took advantage of this newly sparked interest in the intelligent comic by creating the Vertigo line of comics which featured more mature titles like Swamp Thing, Sandman, Hellblazer, and Preacher. Much of the Vertigo line was written by authors from Europe, like Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell), Warren Ellis (Planetary, The Authority), Grant Morrison (JLA, Animal Man), Mark Millar (The Ultimates), and Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hellblazer).  Vertigo was an immediate success with stories that catered to a more intellectual audience and advertisements that emphasized Vertigo’s unique products with slogans saying Vertigo comics were “for people ‘on the edge’ who collected experiences (rather than comics),” or for readers who “stand apart from the crowd,” (Pustz, 84). Vertigo trade paperbacks often feature introductions by respected writers and artists like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delaney, Clive Barker, and Tori Amos, proving the legitimacy of the works as literature. Works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman required readers to be familiar with obscure DC characters, ancient myths, European folktales, world history, and Shakespeare. Gaiman’s work was viewed by many as respectable literature, again reflecting Vertigo’s intellectual attitude. This was reinforced by an advertisement placed in the December 1994 issue (#4) of Gaiman’s Black Orchid which read, “Collect experiences. Speculate on Ideas. Vertigo. Suggested for readers.” Even articles about significant works sometimes appear in Time or Newsweek magazine and reviews are written often in newspapers like The New York Times.

As the 1980′s came to an end, sales figures seemed to show that comicbooks had re-established themselves as a vital and growing medium that continued to appeal to an ever-widening and expanding audience. The new form of marketing and distribution, which gave more recognition and publicity to individual artists, inspired more creators to form their own publishing companies, make creator-owned lines of titles to be published and finally abandon the ‘sweatshop atmosphere’ of the two dominant comics publishers. (Bongco, 136)

The late 1980s and early 90s saw a major increase in comic book popularity. Large numbers of new artists and writers began making names for themselves, and their styles became fan-favorites. The “West Coast” style of art became popular in the early 1990s with bright, flashy, colorful, dynamic and elaborately designed art of fan-favorites like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Todd McFarlane. Issues with these artist’s works began to sell quite well, appealing to a young audience that Bongco classifies as being “bombarded” by bright, flashy, colorful MTV images (Bongco, 181). With the help of this “West Coast Style,” Marvel was able to cater to the desires of young readers who sought lavish art, beautiful women, and violent fight scenes. Todd McFarlane was given his very own line of Spider-Man comics to write and illustrate after his work on Amazing Spider-Man had sold well. Meanwhile Jim Lee worked with fan-favorite writer Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men) to illustrate the new title, X-Men. Both titles feature large poster-like illustrations, lavish splash pages, and several variant covers because Marvel knew both books would be an immediate success.

When there was a dispute at Marvel over owning character licensing rights, a group of fan-favorites including Jim Lee, Sam Keith, Dale Keown, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, and Todd McFarlane left to form Image Studios in the early 1990s. The release of the first issue of the Image Comics line was hyped up to a media event, so speculators predicted each first issue would be an extremely valuable investment. Alone, McFarlane’s “Spawn #1 sold 1.7 million copies in May 1992,” (192). The initial success of Image meant more competition for Marvel and DC. Marvel still remained the most successful publisher, “…taking full advantage of the speculation boom…publishing 150 issues per month…done in holograms, glow-in-the-dark, multiple colours, and so on until all marketing tricks were used up,” (Bongco, 193). Dark Horse comics, another less known competitor of DC and Marvel, found success by releasing comics based on popular movies like Aliens, Predator, The Terminator, and Robocop, in addition to releasing popular Frank Miller titles like Give Me Liberty and Sin City. This competition between Marvel, Image, DC, and Dark Horse generated an explosion of new styles and titles.

The speculation boom that followed the formation of Image did not last nearly as long as the industry had expected. The sales fever began to drop when older comic book fans and speculators alike began to realize the exploitation of comics. The older generation thought that there was too much emphasis in the commercialization of comics, rather than the quality and meaning, while collectors were made fools of. Predictions of high values for the first Image issues were wrong – none of them increased in value because so many had been printed – millions of people had just wasted money on a non-existent collector’s item. While “[t]he manipulated speculation market had not yet totally burst by 1993… the symptoms for its collapse increased,” (Bongo, 194) and what seemed to be a new comic revival came to an end, as sales decreased.

In 1998, Marvel went bankrupt as a result of declining sales and readership. The speculator boom left fans disenfranchised, and many potential readers did not bother exploring the medium. In an effort to gain more money, Marvel began to sell the licensing of their characters over for merchandising like toys, games, and most importantly, movies. With immediate box office smashes like 2000′s X-Men and 2002′s Spider-Man, Marvel generated an immense amount of capital that they were able to divert back into making better quality comic books. In addition, the movies sparked a new interest in the characters, and curious new fans began to read adventures starring characters from the movies they enjoyed. Marvel Comics is now quoted as being a “…$513 million-a-year entertainment enterprise,” (Grover, 92). DC also experienced an increase in readership as a new general interest in comics lead to the return of old fans and the introduction of new fans.

The Golden Age is the initial birth of the superhero genre, while the Silver Age coincides with the rebirth of the superhero genre in the 60s. Geoff Klock writes that popular writer Warren Ellis “suggests the birth of a third movement ‘somewhere between Frank Miller on Daredevil [May 1979—February 1983] and Alan Moore on Marvelman [March 1982—August1984]‘ and claims that as of 1997 the comic book world stood at the close of the third movement. He then hints at the coming fourth movement,” (Klock, 2). The many works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore have in fact had an enormous impact in the world of comic books, setting milestones in comic book history and constantly being the basis of comparison for creators since. But this movement was not totally triumphant. The early 1990s saw a fall in comic book popularity coinciding with Ellis’s idea of the third movement ending around 1997. It is a distinct possibility that comics are currently in the middle of the fourth movement, with comic book production and popularity reaching new heights.

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