Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part Two
Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part Two by Jerry Whitworth
(see Part One here if you haven’t already)
Comic publishing continued on, but stories about colorful superheroes swooping down to save the day, which was already considered childish, seemed even more out of place during the end of the Golden Age and on with protests against the government, the growing recreational drug market, the war on segregation, the spread of venereal disease as soldiers from foreign countries return home to “free love,” the country coming to the end of the witch hunt led by the House Un-American Activities Committee to root out Communism, and a general change in what America was up to that point; about the only place this landscape largely went unnoticed was in comic books (due in no small part to the Comics Code Authority). In the early 1970s, companies DC Comics and Marvel Comics tackled the real world at almost virtually the same time (while within the next decade companies like Dell, Harvey, Gold Key, Warren, and Charlton faded away). Stan Lee and Gil Kane dropped CCA approval for several issues of Amazing Spider-Man when the hero’s best friend (and neglected son of the Green Goblin) Harry Osborn becomes addicted to an unnamed drug after Marvel was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to raise drug awareness. Spider-Man, dealing with his friend’s downward spiral while Green Goblin hunts him like an animal, forces his nemesis back into reality when he has him confront Harry who’s near-death which shocks him into becoming Norman Osborn again (the success of this arc actually inspired change in the CCA). At DC, the creative team Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams collaborated on Green Lantern/Green Arrow which had the heroes tackle virtually all the major controversies that divided the nation, beginning with racism and classism and culminating into the emerald duo discovering Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy addicted to heroin. These stories reflected a change in approach by both companies to storytelling as their worlds became more real and more dangerous.
The period proved to be a creative Renaissance for DC Comics due in part as the company began luring many of the young writers from their distinguished competition Marvel, who had drafted young people to give a more legitimate voice to their properties to maintain the momentum created by Stan Lee. In addition to working on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams took on the Dark Knight, reinvigorating the character in to a gothic champion of the night trotting the world, notably against the emerging threat of the eco-terrorist Ra’s al Ghul. One writer, Steve Englehart, would also tackle Batman, generally with artist Marshall Rogers, during a run on Detective Comics that introduced the fiery Doctor Phosphorus, brought back Hugo Strange and Deadshot, and returned the Joker to his roots as a homicidal killer. Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson reinvented Manhunter as a globe-trotting agent out to take down the Council. Roy Thomas would realize a childhood dream and take control of Earth-2 working on All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc. A new, youthful hero would be created with a major push in television and an action figure in Firestorm. Paul Levitz came onto Legion of Super-Heroes where he brought the team up from the rather juvenile stories of old into more angst-ridden while more mature themes accompanied the story, culminating into the team’s greatest story in The Great Darkness Saga where Darkseid returned for the 30th/31st Century. Duo Marv Wolfman and George Perez reintroduced the Teen Titans, adding to the cast characters Changeling (formerly Beast Boy), Cyborg, Starfire, and Raven, for the much lauded New Teen Titans. The Atom was transformed into a barbarian warrior stuck in a miniature alien environment for the popular series Sword of the Atom. DC Comics secured a license for Fawcett’s Captain Marvel franchise, bringing him back to comics and setting up two separate television series (live action and animated) with Filmation and placing him in the Justice League for the two TV specials for Hanna-Barbera called Legends of the Superheroes. They would also buy up most of the properties owned by Charlton when the publisher went out of business. The legendary Jack Kirby, after a falling out with Stan Lee, came to DC Comics with a multitude of projects, most notably the new franchise in the New Gods. Not everything went well for the publisher during this era, though. In an attempt to regain readers from Marvel who dominated the market’s audience, DC enacted a stunt called the Explosion that added over four dozen new titles to their line. A failure referred by insiders as the Implosion, almost three dozen books were canceled after they flooded the market.
The publisher would make a risky move in 1985, taking their multiverse concept and tearing it down to a single Earth during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, taking properties into new (yet familiar) directions. Some character revisions included John Byrne on Superman, George Perez on Wonder Woman, Frank Miller on Batman, and Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire on Justice League (with writer John Ostrander reinventing the Suicide Squad with a group of super-villains). DC adopted a new darker tone, driven partly by what is called their British Invasion (heralding back the term applied for the emergence of bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones in America). Popular creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Brian Bolland made the trek to America producing innovative, new works like Swamp Thing, Sandman, and Animal Man (with Moore’s dystopian work V for Vendetta republished in the US). America wasn’t without its own writers able to get grim as Frank Miller penned the widely-successful Batman: The Dark Knight Returns featuring a nihilistic future where Batman is a bitter, old man who saw his years of work reduced to a memory and the only remaining superhero, Superman, became a moronic puppet for the US president, forcing the Caped Crusader back into action. Later, comic readers would vote to see the Joker kill the then-Robin Jason Todd slain in Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s A Death in the Family. Moore would team with Bolland to produce Batman: The Killing Joke, often regarded as the greatest Batman story, as the Joker escalates his battle with Batman by kidnapping Commissioner Gordon and shooting his daughter Barbara (secretly Batgirl), crippling her. Moore also penned what is often regarded as Superman’s two greatest stories during this period: For the Man Who Has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? However, likely the work most identified with Moore would be his collaboration with Dave Gibbons on the mini-series Watchmen (using modified versions of the heroes DC acquired from Charlton). Set in a perilous time in America’s history when Democracy and Communism butted heads, the United States gave birth to the world’s first super-man in Doctor Manhattan, a godlike being capable of altering matter itself. While his presence virtually eliminated war, his growing disinterest in humanity threatened a nuclear backlash from Communist countries. All the while, some secret force appeared to be forming that threatened all of Earth’s nations and the world’s heroes. An after effect of the story is the perspective of what would be involved if real people became costumed heroes, of people with a thirst for adventure, violence, and perversion that their mask becomes a physical manifestation of indulging in their darker desires they likely wouldn’t dare to do otherwise.
The Avengers, Marvel Comics’ flagship title featuring several of their most prominent properties, would be taken over by Roy Thomas who moved the team to its news headquarters in New York’s Avengers Mansion. In a period where stories were traditionally done in a single issue, Thomas penned the multi-issue arc Kree-Skrull War that saw the Earth caught in an intergalactic conflict that featured the shape-shifting Skrull infiltrate their world and replace those in power and the powerful Kree soldiers beat back the Earth’s heroes. The Avengers, Inhumans, and Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) would join forces to repel the threat. Proving to be popular, it set the stage for more such stories such as Jim Shooter’s Avengers arc The Korvac Saga that saw a godlike being emerge on Earth and virtually every Avenger in the group’s history fight to the death to stop him. Roger Stern, not to be outdone, penned Under Siege featuring a virtual army of supervillains come together as the new Masters of Evil and came within a hair’s breadth of wiping out the Avengers. Stern would also pen the Hobgoblin Saga which introduced a new nemesis for Spider-Man after the death of Green Goblin that spanned over a year with an engaging mystery as to the identity of the calculating and ruthless Hobgoblin. This time period would prove to be a difficult one for Spider-Man, previously losing his close friend Captain George Stacy by Dr. Octopus and later the love of his life Gwen Stacy by the Green Goblin (leading to a battle between the nemeses that ended with the Green Goblin’s believed demise).
The Incredible Hulk would go through a tumultuous time, an arc written by famed Science Fiction author Harlan Ellison called Heart of the Atom saw the green behemoth transported to the sub-atomic world K’ai where he fell in love with and married green-skinned ruler Jarella but their love was shortlived when she died saving a child. Bill Mantlo would take on the Hulk immediately following this where Bruce Banner would finally be able to control the monster inside him. But, the change doesn’t last and the Hulk goes on a rampage battling Earth’s combined heroes and Dr. Strange is forced to send his former friend away. It was also Mantlo who explained Bruce Banner’s father abused his wife and son, which helped foster rage issues in Bruce, and the father experimented on himself which passed on to Bruce that activated when he was caught in a gamma blast, unleashing the Hulk on the world. Mantlo would also take on two licensed comics, Micronauts and Rom: Spaceknight, which become so popular they far exceeded the products the books were based upon. Under David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s pen, Iron Man became an alcoholic in Demon in a Bottle that placed him on a road to recovery fraught with potholes including the emerging Justin Hammer, going one-on-one with Dr. Doom, and his technology stolen during the Armor Wars and given to his enemies (leading Iron Man on a mad quest attacking every armor user bent on reclaiming his stolen property, regardless if he had proof of theft or not). The Squadron Supreme, an analogy to the Justice League of America introduced in the Avengers, received their own mini-series by Mark Gruenwald that took the next step in protecting Earth: conquering it. Virtually every ill to mankind was eliminated, but at the cost of personal freedom, even enemies of the heroes were brainwashed into becoming heroes themselves to help enforce order. A small band of freedom fighters carried on a secret battle with the Squadron, several infiltrating the organization in a bid to oust them and return the world into balance. Gruenwald would die due to a heart attack a decade later, he was cremated and his ashes mixed with the ink for a trade paperback collecting the mini-series. Other popular stories for the period was Jim Starlin building up Marvel’s cosmic mythology with Thanos, Captain Marvel, and Adam Warlock (in addition to his creator-owned Dreadstar), Roy Thomas and Barry Smith adapted Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Peter B. Gillis and Brent Anderson created Strikeforce: Morituri giving people the opportunity to have super powers but at a cost of a shorter life, Frank Miller introduced the assassin Elektra which took Daredevil’s heart only to lose her life to the hero’s nemesis Bullseye, Walter Simonson tackled Thor to critical-reception, and Jim Shooter penned the event Secret Wars seeing Earth’s heroes and villains fighting it out for a nigh-god’s amusement with an accompanying toyline.
The greatest success for Marvel during the Bronze Age was turning the canceled X-Men book into what is today the company’s most revered franchise. Spearheaded by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, the X-Men were given a shot in the arm when the original team was captured and Professor X assembled a new team from across the globe to rescue them (including today fan favorite Wolverine). The reins were handed off to Chris Claremont and John Byrne who composed what many today still consider the franchise’s greatest story the Dark Phoenix Saga where Jean Grey is possessed by the extremely powerful Phoenix Force entity capable of destroying countless galaxies. Forces on Earth and across space come to either control or destroy the Phoenix as Jean is driven mad from the experience, resulting in her believed demise. Claremont and Byrne continued with the critically acclaimed stories Days of Future Past and Proteus. Byrne would move on and Claremont remained to continue his meteoric run including God Loves, Man Kills, From the Ashes, Night Screams, Mutant Massacre, Fall of the Mutants, and Inferno. Claremont would team with Frank Miller to create a limited series for breakout star Wolverine before starting an ongoing series with John Buscema.
Just as in the Silver Age, while Marvel and DC dominated the industry, there emerged other publishers. New companies included Aardvark-Vanaheim, Antarctic, Atlas/Seaboard, Blackthorne, Comico, Continuity, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Fantagraphics, First, Gladstone, Innovation, Kitchen Sink, Malibu, Mirage, NBM, NOW, Pacific, Paragon/Americomics/AC, Renegade, Slave Labor, Vortex, and WaRP Graphics. Some notable indie series include Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s Arcade, Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot, Ben Edlund’s Tick, Hernandez Bros’ Love and Rockets, Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mage, Bill Willingham’s Elementals, Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, Mike Grell’s Starslayer and Jon Sable Freelance, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Larry Hama’s Bucky O’Hare, Steven Moncuse’s Fish Police, Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, John Ostrander and Timothy Truman’s Grimjack, Ben Dunn’s Ninja High School, Mike Baron’s Badger, AC Comics’ Femforce, Warrior’s Marvelman/Miracleman, Steve Stern and Dan Cote’s Zen the Intergalactic Ninja, Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, Scott McCloud’s Zot!,and James O’Barr’s the Crow. In 1978, visionary Will Eisner invented the graphic novel with his book A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories.