Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Look at Comics History: The Modern Age (Part 2)

Continuing from my last post, still rambling on about the so-called Modern Age of Comics.

One of the biggest things to happen in the early 90s was the rise of independent publishers. Yes, there have always been many comic book publishing companies out there through all of comics history, but in the 90s, things went fairly crazy. The real why and how is, of course, complicated, but as this is my blog, I'm going to attribute it to one major development: The idea of comic creators as celebrities...minor ones, but still.

In the late 80s and early 90s, a long fight finally came to a head. The creator's rights movement finally gained enough strength to actually get some fairly major things done. Jack Kirby, without a doubt the most influential creator in comics from the Golden Age on, got into a heated legal dispute with Marvel Comics over the return of his original artwork over the years, much of which had supposedly disappeared. Its important to realize that, for the majority of comics history, original pages meant nothing to most people. The companies kept the original pages in warehouses or anywhere, really, if they kept them at all, but it was never a concern that the artist get the pages back. As time went on, this changed and some publishers, Marvel in particular, were quite difficult when it came to returning original pages. Jack Kirby, an icon for comics creators for obvious reasons, became a rallying point for other creators and this legal fight fueled the fires of more creator-owned works.

At the same time, newer artists were gaining popularity to the point where they became huge names, not just in the industry, but some even in popular culture of the day. Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld are probably the biggest names among them, but there were quite a few others. After time working for the two major publishers, their growing starpower mixed with a desire to actually own the work they were doing led to the creation of Image Comics. Image was founded on very strong creator's rights ideals, mainly that the company itself did not own the characters that were being published.

Image was really just a publishing center that consisted of multiple studios, each led by the various founding members. When Image launched, it truly did rock the foundations of comics at the time. Books like Spawn, Youngblood, and Savage Dragon made huge waves, directly and easily competing with the biggest Marvel and DC books of the time. But, at the same time, Image tended to capitalize on the problems of comics as a whole in the 90s, and is seen by many as a perfect example of what went wrong: tons of variant covers, foil, stories that tended towards flash more than substance, etc. These things, of course, have their fans, so I don't want it thought that I'm throwing out summary judgements, but its important to note.

Also important is that Image was in no way the only independent publisher to see success in the 90s. Valiant Comics, headed by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, revived smaller books from the 60s and 70s such as Doctor Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter, along with creating its own line of superhero comics. Also of note is the publication of Art Spiegelman's Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and is a book that, to this day, has some of the strongest penetration into non-comic reading markets.

Now, most people tend to consider that we are, today, still in the same era of comics as all of this. I'm going to be different and say we are not. Comics from the mid 80s and through the 90s were a very specific thing, and as was mentioned in the last post, the entire industry barely survived the decade. But in 2000, subtle changes that were coming over a few years began to show themselves and, in my opinion, what comics had been in the 90s ended firmly.

In 2000, a still barely-surviving Marvel Comics launched a new line of comics, called Ultimate Marvel. This saw classic Marvel characters completely re-imagined in the modern world, starting over completely from the beginning, and in no way connected to the previous comics, which still ran side by side. The flagship book was, unsurprisingly, Ultimate Spider-Man, which brought Peter Parker very much back to his roots as a character.

Coupled with this new line of comics was an even more important development that happened at both Marvel and DC at roughly the same time. Throughout the 1990s, artist were king. Stories rarely mattered, and it was all about flashy art and big, explosive ideas that didn't necessarily come together well. Everything centered around the artists and trying to shock readers with supposedly "gritty" stories that just tended to mean they were ultraviolent and childishly full of blood. Some time right around the year 2000, both companies shifted towards a more writer focused aim. Story grew to be more important, though the art wasn't thrown to the side.

While I am an artist and truly love good comic book art, this is a decision that likely both saved the industry and will see it grow into something more as time goes on. Now, some older troubles in writing still continue, as I mentioned last time, both companies rely on yearly summer Event Comics that supposedly shake up the universe but rarely do. Its a cycle that will, hopefully, be moved away from in time, as it has the potential to just devolve into the same troubles stories had in the 90s, but that's a thing for me to talk about later.

The key point to make with all of this is that I think the so-called Modern Age of Comics only lasted from 1985 to 2000. And no, that doesn't mean we're in the Post-Modern Age now, or even the Digital Age, though things are heading that way. I don't know what to call where we are now, but its clearly something distinctly different from what happened in the 1990s.

Next post will be one more talking about this era as a whole, and I'm going to head back to a focus that really is important to me: Art. The good and the bad and thoughts on it all. Then, after that, just maybe, I'll finally get to thinking on the possibilities of what the future holds.