Friday, September 23, 2011

A Look at Comics History: The Modern Age (Part 1)

With my last post, I got into a very brief run through of the history of American comics from the Golden Age to the Bronze Age, roughly 1938 to 1985. So in one long post, I hit on about fifty years of comics. A great deal was skimmed over to keep things somewhat brief, and later I'll remedy that by making more detailed posts about the eras in particular to flesh things out. Right now, I'm going to focus on what is referred to as the Modern Age of comics, running from 1985 or so until we decide something significant has changed in the industry, which is likely coming soon with the advent of digital comics. Maybe then we'll name it something better than "Modern Age" because the last thing we need is a Post-Modern and Post-Post Modern Age. Art History classifies enough in ambiguous ways already.

This will be a fair bit more detailed than the last post, since I'm only focusing on one period of time, and also might come across as more negative in some places. I do my best to keep things positive and not start screaming about the end of comics and all that, but there will be some hyperbole coming that I likely just can't I apologize in advance. And anyone I end up saying negative things about, I feel the need to say that I'm not judging these people personally, but only the work.

It should also be noted that this is going to be divided up into multiple posts, as there are many points to get across. This time in comics has seen quite a lot happening, and many of the effects are still with the industry, for good and for ill, so I'm going to arbitrarily divide these up and try to hit as much as I can.

Okay, that out of the way, let's get into this.

As we're technically still in it, really setting a true start on the Modern Age of Comics is a bit hard to do. In some ways, it was much more of a general shifting of things instead of a very dramatic change, such as what occurred from the Golden Age to the Silver Age. Many things that started in the Bronze Age would carry on into the Modern Age, especially in the early years, and become a defining piece of what we consider comics today. The metric I tend to use to define the beginning of the Modern Age is the DC event, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis on Infinite Earths is a very important series when it comes to how comics have developed, so I'm going to spend a bit of time on it, specifically. The series was a 12-issue stand alone title, written by Marv Wolfman and pencilled by George Perez, that started in 1985, the goal of which was to simplify the DC universe. Until this point, DC had employed the idea of the Multiverse to explain different versions of the same character. This meant there were a handful of Earths with various numbers assigned to them on which different heroes lived. For obvious reasons, this created a bit of a quagmire when it came to story, and so the idea came to wipe it all away and start over. This series essentially ended the DC universe up until that point, killing a great deal of characters, most notably Supergirl and Barry Allen, the Flash that kicked off the Silver Age. The long-running comics Superman, The Flash, and Wonder Woman were all ended and, after the series, relaunched with new origin stories to fit into this new world.

What makes Crisis on Infinite Earths significant is the literal divide between the past and the present. DC removed the old to start over, as they've done just recently again. Almost more importantly, though, is that this series, combined with Marvel's Secret Wars in 1984, began the long running tradition of the so-called Event Comic. These are major stories that take all the heroes from the respective publishers and throw them together in one huge, supposedly game-changing story. Its a practice that has, in the past few years, become a near annual tradition for both Marvel and DC, and something that many decry as harming the industry as a whole.

But there is, obviously, more to the start of the Modern Age than literal breaks in history and events. The rise of anti-heroes and darker stories, something that started in the Bronze Age, came to a head in the mid-80s. There are two defining books for modern comics, especially when it comes to darker themes: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Batman: Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Both books were unlike anything that had come before.  

Watchmen took a very hard look at superheroes, turning from the usual positive portrayal and instead seeing the characters as mentally damaged in some way or another. There really are no heroes in the book, and the focus is entirely on a more realistic portrayal of the world and what kind of person would put on a costume to right wrongs. Rape, murder, extreme violence, and genocide are all there in the open, and while the book handles them well, many creators influenced by it would seemingly miss the point: These characters are not to be cheered for the horrible things they do. This is an important point, as many creators instead decided to embrace the violence and negativity, something that many fans of the time also happily accepted.

Dark Knight Returns is similar in some ways to Watchmen, but altogether different at the same time. The story is about Bruce Wayne coming back from retirement to fight crime again, now an old, bitter man. There is an air of negativity and distrust in the book that fuels the main themes and drive. Gotham City hates Batman and nearly all other heroes are no longer around, save for Superman who is just a pawn for the US Government. The violence here is, again, very heavy, and the themes of darkness and oppression really do reflect the time.

The reason I highlight these two titles, specifically, is the dramatic shift in tone of comics that they represent. Regardless of one's opinion on the books themselves, they were both monumental influences on everything that came after. It quickly became necessary to have dark, violent stories with anti-heroes in stories just to have them sell. Wolverine's rise to popularity is a testament to this, but he was not alone. Other characters were also created, or grew into, this need for darkness and harder themes: Spawn, Cable, Deadpool, and Venom to throw some names out there.

Along a similar vein, major characters were killed or replaced in the early 1990s. In 1992, DC killed Superman. Batman had his back broken and was replaced for a time. Captain America was fired. Long-time Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was turned into a villain and then replaced by Kyle Rayner. Stories seemed designed only to shake things up and get quick sales, with another even more dangerous trend evolving.

Specifically, I'm referring to the comic book speculator's market. Around the late 80s and early 90s, the idea began to go around that comics were really worth quite a lot of money. This was perpetuated by the sale of classic comics, Action Comics #1 and other major landmarks from decades ago, at extremely high prices. Now, the reason these old comics sold for so much was for the simple fact that they hadn't been in print for decades and were, and this is important, actually rare. Somehow, though, publishers and speculators missed this. People with no interest in the stories would buy comics hoping to send their kids to college by selling it. Publishers started to create gimmicks like foil covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, and other ridiculous ideas simple because they sold.

The problem here is simple, though. The reason the comics did sell was because all the people speculating expected them to be worth tons of money. But the publishers printed metric tons of them, meaning they weren't at all rare and weren't worth a damned thing. Unsurprisingly to anyone with any sense of how these things work, the comic market crashed. Everything tanked, with Marvel filing for bankruptcy in 1996 and the entire market for comic books nearly drying up entirely.

It has been around 15 years and the industry still hasn't completely recovered from this crash.