Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Last time, we discussed the Silver and Bronze Ages of Superhero Comics. Now we’ll talk about Superhero comics over the last thirty years, leading to what’s happening today.
Like the beginning of the Bronze Age over the course of 1970, the shift to the Dark Age—so named both because of the tone of the material and because of what happened to the industry during this time—is also a gradual one, which took place over the course of the mid-1980s.
One event that ushered in the Dark Age was the elimination of the DC Multiverse. As the Silver Age concept of parallel worlds and multiple versions of characters became too unwieldy for DC’s beleaguered editorial staff to keep straight, they decided to eliminate the concept altogether by publishing a 12-issue epic that destroyed the Multiverse. In a nod to the old Crisis events that would bring the Justice League and the Justice Society together, this event was called Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it was published from 1985 and 1986. By the end of the series, which involved time travel, warping of reality, and the heroic deaths of a few prominent heroes like Supergirl and The Flash (Barry Allen), there existed one DC Universe. In this streamlined world, the Golden Age heroes of the Justice Society had been active in the 40s and then vanished after World War II, the heroes of the Justice League had been inspired by (and sometimes trained by) the Justice Society. Characters DC had acquired from other publishers, like Captain Marvel or The Question or Plastic Man were now contemporaries of the Justice League. History had been rewritten, continuity had been changed.
By this time, the Comics Code Authority had loosened its restrictions, and with the advent of direct market comics sales (comics being sold in specialty stores rather than on newsstands) it had lost much of its power. This meant that comics could get grittier, that elements of horror and true crime that had largely been absent from superhero comics since the 1950s began to creep back in. At Marvel, characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, Elektra—all initially introduced as villains for The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil respectively—became increasingly popular as heroes throughout the 1980s. These anti-heroes were much more morally gray than their predecessors, willing to kill criminals for the sake of the greater good.
This led to the rise of the two writers who defined superhero comics post-Bronze age: Alan Moore and Frank Miller.
British writer Alan Moore had taken over DC’s Swamp Thing title in the early 1980s, gradually turning it from a fringier superhero comic to a weird horror comic. His first issue featured the hero discovering that his entire existence was a lie and brutally murdering the villain responsible. Moore also deconstructed Superman in his farewell to the Silver Age, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow with classic Silver Age Superman artist Curt Swan, and then Batman in The Killing Joke with gorgeous, detailed art by Brian Bolland. Moore’s magnum opus Watchmen with Dave Gibbons, considered by many to be the greatest superhero comic of all time, deconstructs the entire idea of a superhero, shining a light on the absurdity of the tropes of the genre. At the same time, Frank Miller brought Batman back to his roots with his dystopian The Dark Knight Returns and his hardboiled crime thriller Batman Year One. Miller had also had some major influence at Marvel, with seminal runs on Daredevil and Wolverine. Moore and Miller spawned many imitators, and the mid-80s through late 90s were full of angry heroes with clenched teeth and gray morality.
Moore’s work on Swamp Thing, as well as fellow Brit Neil Gaiman’s unprecedented top-down reimagining of the Golden Age hero Sandman, led to a major diversification at DC Comics. While both stories ostensibly existed within the DC Universe—The Justice League appeared in issues of Swamp Thing, Martian Manhunter and several more obscure DC figures like Hector and Lyta Hall and Dr. Destiny appeared in Sandman—neither comic was really a superhero story anymore, and the events in those series were primarily ignored in the more mainstream superhero fare. In 1993, these comics, along with Swamp Thing spinoff Hellblazer, two superhero comics (Animal Man and Doom Patrol) written by young Scottish author Grant Morrison, and a few other similarly edgy titles, became DC’s new Vertigo imprint. The Vertigo line was labeled “Suggested For Mature Readers” and did not seek approval from the Comics Code Authority.
In 1991, Marvel expanded their most successful franchise, the X-Men. Alongside the longstanding Uncanny X-Men series, they launched X-Men, by longtime writer Chris Claremont and young superstar artist Jim Lee, and X-Force by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. Throughout the 1990s Marvel produced more and more X-Men spinoffs: Cable, Excalibur, Generation X, Deadpool, New Mutants, and on and on. The success of this approach was imitated throughout DC and Marvel’s lines, creating expanding franchises out of their more popular properties like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Punisher.
The success of Crisis on Infinite Earths led to more and more “Event” crossovers from both Marvel and DC, such as Secret Wars and Armageddon 2001 and Age of Apocalypse and Invasion! and Maximum Carnage and so on and so forth. Throughout the 1990s, DC Comics killed Superman, broke Batman’s back, and turned Green Lantern into a villain (they all got better).
During this time, Jack Kirby had had a legal dispute with Marvel Comics, shining a light on the relationship between the publishers and the creators. This led a handful of superstar Marvel Comics artists and writers—Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen and Chris Claremont—to leave Marvel and form their own publishing company, Image Comics. Image was founded on the principle that the publisher did not own the intellectual properties, the creators did. Image was immediately very successful, with slickly illustrated new superhero titles like Spawn, WildCATS and Youngblood selling as well as or better than their counterparts at the Big Two. The heroes of Image comics were bold and angry, distillations of Frank Miller’s Batman and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine, all gritted teeth and flexed muscles and crosshatching and pouches.
During the 1990s, comic book collecting had become a business, with older comics selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars. Comic book publishers took note and tried to take advantage of the trend, introducing gimmick covers (Holograms! Chromium! Vinyl stickers! Fold-out posters! Polybags!) and playing up the fact that every first issue could someday be a collectors’ item. Between the ever-expanding X-Men line and its imitators, the success of Image Comics, and the increasing frequency of “event” comics, there were suddenly too many possible “collectors’ items” for collectors to handle, and the focus on collectability led to a marked downfall in quality, and suddenly they all became worthless. The collector market crashed, and in 1996 Marvel Comics—the largest and most popular publisher of them all—declared bankruptcy. Marvel and DC scaled back their publishing output and refocused their lines.
The thing that truly spelled the end of the Dark Age was actually something that happened outside the pages of the comics. In 1998, New Line Cinema released a film adaptation of a little known Marvel Comics character Blade. The film, directed by Stephen Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes, was a surprise success. It wasn’t a smash, it didn’t come close to that year’s hits, but this was an obscure character that was part superhero flick and part vampire movie directed by a relative newcomer with only one other film under his belt, coming out a year after the execrable Batman and Robin had effectively killed DC’s biggest film franchise. Hollywood took notice—comic books were a breeding ground for potentially successful and lucrative film franchises.
As a result of the success of Blade, Marvel found itself with some cachet in Hollywood. In 2000, 20th Century Fox released Bryan Singer’s X-Men, earning almost $54 million in its opening weekend and propelling unknown Australian musical theatre actor Hugh Jackman to superstardom. Two years later, Sony Pictures would repeat that success with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
To capitalize on the impending release of X-Men, Marvel introduced the Ultimate imprint, which consisted of retellings of their more popular heroes’ stories outside of the mainstream Marvel Universe, with a more modern sensibility and without ties to Marvel Comics’ convoluted history. They paired veteran artist Mark Bagley with relative newcomer writer Brian Michael Bendis to retell Peter Parker’s beginnings in Ultimate Spider-Man, launching in 2000 as buzz for the Sam Raimi film was building. Ultimate X-Men would launch the same year, and Ultimate Fantastic Four the next. In 2002, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch created the Ultimate Comics answer to the Avengers, called simply The Ultimates. This ushered in a style referred to in the comics community as “widescreen,” with highly detailed artwork, huge scope, and cinematic bombast. Perhaps in the hopes of enhancing that cinematic feel, Hitch drew the traditionally Caucasian Nick Fury as a photorealistic Samuel L. Jackson, who had given Marvel permission to use his likeness.
As comics reached the new millennium, comics creators who had grown up with the superheroes of the 1960s and 1970s began to use that nostalgia to fuel their work. At DC, writers like Mark Waid and Geoff Johns tried to escape the cynicism and nihilism of the 80s and 90s and return to the optimism and hope that icons like Superman and The Flash and the Justice League had inspired in them in their youth. The TV show Smallville, retelling the early days of Superman, debuted to great success in 2001 and ran for ten seasons. Johns quickly returned the previously evil and dead and undead Hal Jordan to his place as the DC Universe’s prominent Green Lantern. In 2004, Warner Brothers, by now the corporate owners of DC Comics, released Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. DC started experimenting with form, releasing comics experiments like the newspaper comics page pastiche Wednesday Comics and the weekly epic 52.
In 2008, Marvel released its biggest gamble yet. After the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films, Marvel decided that its film division, Marvel Studios, would try its hand at production. Previous to 2007, Marvel Studios had only handled licensing of its intellectual properties to other studios—X-Men and Fantastic Four at 20th Century Fox, Spider-Man and Daredevil at Sony, and so on—so producing their own film was an undertaking. They contracted Jon Favreau, whose biggest previous directorial effort was the Will Farrell comedy Elf, to direct a new adaptation of Iron Man, a superhero who had been considered a B-List member of the Marvel pantheon at best. Instead of casting Tom Cruise as Tony Stark, who had been angling for the role for quite some time, he cast the almost uninsurable rehab case Robert Downey Jr. in the role. There was no way that this film could be a success.
And of course it was a revelation. Not since Richard Donner’s Superman in 1979 had the exhilaration of the superhero finally made it onscreen. “You’ll believe a man can fly” was the slogan of the Donner film, but applied even more here. Iron Man grossed over $98 million in its first weekend, the third highest of 2008 (the highest of that year was another comic adaptation, The Dark Knight, which was a revelation of its own kind). Even more ambitious, Marvel Studios immediately began planting the seeds of a shared continuity, similar to their comics line. In a twist of art imitating life (or life imitating art, or maybe art imitating art?), none other than Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a cameo as Nick Fury at the end of the film, hinting at the formation of the Avengers. Downey then reprised his role as Iron Man in that year’s The Incredible Hulk. Marvel Studios immediately started pressing forward with adaptations of other properties—Thor, Captain America, and so on—with the goal of putting them all together in one mega-franchise Avengers film.
Due to the success of Iron Man, the Walt Disney Company, whose intellectual properties were primarily marketed to girls, saw an opportunity to gain the hearts and minds of boys as well and quickly purchased Marvel Entertainment. Much like their treatment of computer animation studio Pixar, Marvel was relatively hands-off, providing financial support but leaving the creative direction of Marvel’s comics and films alone and reaping the financial rewards.
In 2011, DC Comics, still a mess of continuity with its Multiverse (which had returned, since the remnants of it had always remained and were threads ripe for pulling over the previous 25+ years), took a radical step and rebooted its entire line, scrapping previous continuity and starting its titles over with new #1 issues. Even Action Comics and Detective Comics, which had both been published continuously since 1938—Action had recently reached its 900th issue, and Detective was close—were restarted. In keeping with tradition, this change was effected in-continuity due to time travel shenanigans, with Barry Allen once again at the center of it, with the miniseries event Flashpoint. The new initiative was called the New 52 (52 referring specifically to the number of monthly titles they would be releasing and a reference to the very successful weekly 52 miniseries that had run a few years prior).
DC had thus far failed to reach Marvel’s heights on film, but in 2012 they released their own equivalent to Iron Man—an obscure comics property becoming wildly successful in other media—with the debut of the TV show Arrow.
Today, both DC and Marvel—and Image, and Dark Horse and other publishers, but DC and Marvel are still the top dogs—continue to publish. A major emphasis in today’s superhero comics is diversity—Marvel’s notable recent successes have arguably been Ms. Marvel, starring a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager in Jersey named Kamala Khan, and Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, starring a biracial African-American and Latino kid following in Peter Parker’s footsteps; DC has been working hard to appeal to teenage girls and young women with their YA-inspired Batgirl and Gotham Academy. Comics are increasingly being sold digitally—both major publishers and many of the smaller ones offer their comics on the ComiXology digital platform, which has been highly successful. Superhero comics reflect 2015 just as well as they reflected 1938.
With all of this change, though, history repeats. Marvel Comics is about to merge its own Multiverse, folding the Ultimate Universe into its main line this summer in a storyline eerily similar to that of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC will once again retell the origin of the Justice League, this time on film in next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Peter Parker still has trouble getting to work on time because of his exploits as Spider-Man.
Minute Zero may have been, as Michael Chabon claimed, the explosion of Krypton. But just as Lex Luthor continues to find new stores of kryptonite, the shattered stuff of Krypton that have traversed the universe to plague the Man of Steel, seemingly without exhaust, 77 years later we still believe a man can fly, we still know that criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, that with great power must come great responsibility. Minute Zero was 77 years ago, and we’re hurtling toward minute 700,000, with no end in sight.
That’s it, Believers. The whole ball of wax. Next time, I’ll discuss some of the specific characters and storylines that served as inspirations for Dr. Impossible, Fatale, and the rest of the Champions of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Until then, Make Mine Lifeline!