Through the Ages: Transition in Comics – Part Three
by Jerry Whitworth
(see Part One and Part Two here if you haven’t already)
During the Bronze Age, comic books began to make the transition from being sold at newsstands, convenience stores, and supermarkets to a direct market in comic book shops. As people began to stumble upon these stores, they would also discover that comics could be worth quite a profit as some books could be found selling for thousands of dollars. Word would spread and people began seeing comic books as savings bonds, buying and storing them like rare collectibles. Unfortunately, they failed to realize that those books going for thousands got that way because of managing to survive fifty years of being treated as disposable entertainment that was often thrown away or burned (with issues that survived generally being horribly mangled). Still, the industry took advantage, printing issues with multiple covers, sometimes with different cover art, other times with gimmicks like hologram stickers, glow-in-the-dark images, 3-D plastic pop-out items, foldout covers, and more. People were compelled to form “complete sets”, one book notorious for this was Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 (1991) which to this day remains the highest grossing single comic of all time making nearly seven million dollars and selling over 8.1 million units (and printed with five unique covers four of which had different versions such as newsstand and direct market editions). The phenomenon was a boon for the industry, with new publishers popping up all over the place and comic companies in many ways couldn’t print enough books. However, as with roller coasters, this success was bound to crash when the people who became collectors realized not only were the conditions not right to make the huge payoff for their investment they believed they would get, but with so much product overproduced, the books they did buy were virtually useless as a collectible because everyone had it. To this day, you can still find comic shops with dozens of copies of X-Men #1 they can’t give away. The comic book industry nearly went out of business again roughly four decades after Wertham and Congress left it crippled.
The success of writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore and the popularity of Wolverine, a Dirty Harry-like member of the X-Men that at times acted more like an animal than a person, gave a message to the industry what their audience desired from them. Costumes became darker, criminals more bloodthirsty, heroes grimmer, and the comic book world became darker. Referring to this period as the Dark Age is accurate in two ways: heroes became anti-heroes (or would skirt it) and the future of comic books were uncertain. And yet, amidst this dark time, it provided new freedom to comic writers with significantly less restrictions not had since the Comics Code Authority (which was generally abandoned by this time). One sign of this was Vertigo, an imprint at DC Comics founded in 1993 where creators were allowed to tell adult stories through comic books. Titles like Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Sandman, Doom Patrol, and Animal Man made the move to Vertigo joined by Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, Garth Ennis’ Preacher, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, Mike Carey’s Lucifer, Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, Bill Willingham’s Fables, and Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man. DC also formed the imprint Paradox Press featuring original graphic novels like John Wagner and Vince Locke’s A History of Violence and Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s Road to Perdition.
Over at Marvel Comics, a new breed of artists emerged drawing using a style never seen before. Todd McFarlane on Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man, Jim Lee on X-Men, Rob Liefeld on New Mutants and X-Force, Marc Silvestri on Wolverine, Erik Larsen on Amazing Spider-Man, Jim Valentino on Guardians of the Galaxy, and Whilce Portacio on Uncanny X-Men added an intensity and energy to comics that were new and vibrant, not necessarily better or worse than what came before but different, and fans loved it. Marvel began taking the art and slapping it on all kinds of merchandise and the company made millions. However, the artists saw this prosperity and felt cheated that they made nothing from these profits, only making money from providing work for the comics they initially drew their art for. When they came together and approached their bosses about their concerns, they were not satisfied with the response they received. So, along with longtime X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, they left the company in what some called the “X-odus” (playing on the fact most worked in the X-Men franchise) and Marvel saw their stock share drop in response. All but Claremont and Portacio came together and formed Image Comics, an umbrella publisher with each creator having their own imprint with complete creative freedom and owned the characters they created completely. Liefeld made Extreme Studios, Larsen created Highbrow Entertainment, Valentino founded ShadowLine, McFarlane was Todd McFarlane Productions, Silvestri formed Top Cow Productions, and Lee produced WildStorm Productions.
Image Comics would prove to be quite popular (for a time, even a direct competitor of DC and Marvel). Liefeld’s Extreme Studios produced Youngblood (based on a pitch for a Teen Titans spin-off he worked on with Marv Wolfman) whose first issue was the highest selling independent of the time and the first time an independent title ever became a number one bestseller, beating out Marvel and DC. The imprint’s other books included Bloodstrike, Brigade, Glory, New Men, and Supreme. Alan Moore would take over writing duties on Youngblood, Glory, and a critically-received run on Supreme. Liefeld would also purchase the rights to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Fighting American, a similar character to Captain America, and revive it for its own series. Highbrow produced Freak Force, Vanguard, Deadly Duo, Superpatriot, and, its star title, Savage Dragon. Created by Larsen as a child, the Dragon is an amnesiac with super-strength and regenerative abilities that becomes a police officer to battle Chicago’s supervillains. The Savage Dragon is only one of two founding Image series to still be in print today and the only series to still be written and drawn by its creator. The series also has the honor of having been animated into a television series. ShadowLine was named after Valentino’s original character ShadowHawk who was the imprint’s star. Top Cow published Silvestri’s Cyberforce, Codename: Strykeforce, and his extremely-popular Witchblade, Silvestri, Garth Ennis, and David Wohl’s the Darkness, Wohl and Joe Benitez’s Magdalena, Wohl and David Finch’s Aphrodite IX, and Michael Turner’s Fathom. Top Cow provided an imprint for J. Michael Straczynski, known for co-creating the popular Science Fiction television series Babylon 5, called Joe’s Comics publishing Rising Stars and Midnight Nation.
Todd McFarlane Productions enjoyed a great deal of success, not only in comics, but in providing work towards action figures and animation. McFarlane’s cash cow was Spawn, a wildly popular comic book that is only one of two founding comics for Image still in publication today. The series would have an action figure line, animated television series, and live action film. Renowned creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller would be brought in to work on the series and its various spin-offs. The short-lived imprint Gorilla Comics produced Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s Empire and Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo’s Tellos. Some titles that came out of Image Comics directly were Mike Allred’s Madman, Sam Kieth’s Maxx, Dale Keown’s Pitt, Jae Lee’s Hellshock, Rob Schrab’s Scud: The Disposable Assassin, Dreamwave’s Darkminds, Michael Avon Oeming’s Bulletproof Monk, Jimmie Robinson’s Amanda and Gunn, and Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers. Jim Lee’s Image imprint WildStorm would became a juggernaut all its own.
Jim Lee helped co-create titles like WildC.A.T.s., Stormwatch, Deathblow, and Gen¹³ while Whilce Portacio and Brandon Choi created Wetworks, Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch created the Authority (spinning out of Stormwatch), Warren Ellis and John Cassaday created Planetary, and J. Scott Campbell, Brandon Choi, Warren Ellis, and Humberto Ramos created DV8. Even more, it was an umbrella for various imprints including Homage, Cliffhanger, and Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics (ABC). Homage hosted books like James Robinson and Paul Smith’s Leave it to Chance, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Warren Ellis’ Red (made into a feature film), and Kurt Busiek’s long-running Astro City. Cliffhanger hosted such hits as J. Scott Campbell’s Danger Girl, Joe Madureira’s Battle Chasers, Humberto Ramos and Brian Augustyn’s Crimson, and Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco’s Arrowsmith. Alan Moore, always a top-seller and revered scribe, produced the likes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, Tomorrow Stories, Tom Strong, and Top 10 for his ABC line. In 1998, DC Comics acquired WildStorm and made it an imprint under the company (integrating the imprint into their universe in 2007). This caused contention with Moore who had a falling out with the company.
When Moore gave the rights of V for Vendetta and Watchmen to DC, it was under an agreement that when either book goes out of print for a year, they would revert back to him and his partner Dave Gibbons. However, both titles proved to be quite successful and have yet to go out of print even thirty years later (with renewed interest for both properties as they were adapted into feature films). Upon acquiring WildStorm, DC would soon after adapt Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen into a live action film against his wishes (as well as having their legal department begin criticizing the comics Moore was producing). Moore would eventually break ties with WildStorm bringing his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Top Shelf Productions (who had previously published his works Lost Girls and From Hell). Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ popular series Sleeper and Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris’ critically-acclaimed Ex Machina would be printed by WildStorm. Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys would be published at WildStorm but when Warner Bros (who merged with DC Comics in 1969 and now controls the company) was concerned with the adult nature of the series, the title moved to Dynamite Entertainment.
The conflict with Alan Moore wouldn’t be DC Comics’ first battle with its creators. When Siegel and Shuster created Superman, the pair gave away their rights to the character for reportedly $130 in 1938, three months before the character appeared. Without any stake in their monstrously successful character, they would go through life barely making ends meet (especially when comic work dried up). Joe Shuster at one point had to resort to drawing fetish art of bondage and torture to pay the bills. After repeatedly approaching the courts, the case would go back and forth. Many times, DC would win judgment. Other times, Siegel and Shuster would earn small victories such as regaining the rights to Superboy only to sell it back to DC. Neal Adams petitioned a stipend be afforded the aging creators around the release of the 1978 Superman film which proved successful (but the money, which was adequate for its time, held no provision for inflation). Today, both men have passed but their estate continues to fight for reparations. Bob Kane, credited with creating Batman, had a history of employing ghost writers and artists for his work (recent evidence emerging he may have traced pulps, strips, and comics to produce the first few Batman stories). An ongoing debate has arisen that writer Bill Finger should receive co-creator credit for Batman when it came to light Finger may have been equally or even more involved in the initial development of the character than Kane. A similar debate emerged with Batman’s nemesis the Joker where Jerry Robinson claims he and Finger created the character with Kane taking credit (Robinson would also claim to have created the Dark Knight’s sidekick Robin). While it was no secret Kane employed ghost workers, due in part to Kane’s contract for Batman and the accompanying franchise, only Kane’s name has been applied as sole creator of its properties even today.
Along with Image Comics, other publishers with successful runs emerged (likely due in part to the rise of comic collecting as an investment). One such company would be Malibu Comics and its Ultraverse. Malibu, having printed Image’s titles for its first few years of operation, branched out to produce books like Prime, Ultraforce, Hardcase, Mantra, Night Man, and Prototype. They would prove so successful, Marvel would purchase the company (however, as Marvel needs to pay a royalty to its creators to use them, it’s perceived for this reason the company has yet to take advantage of the acquisition since the initial purchase). Malibu would also have two imprints while it was its own company in Aircel and Eternity. Aircel’s main claim to fame would be producing the series Men in Black, which was adopted into an animated series and very successful film series. Eternity would be home to Brian Pulido’s Evil Ernie and Ben Dunn’s Ninja High School. Pulido would take Evil Ernie and create his own comic company, Chaos! Comics. Along with creators Steven Hughes, Al Rio, and Justiniano, Chaos! Comics published titles, in addition to Evil Ernie, like Lady Death, Purgatori, Chastity, and Jade. Lady Death would move on to emerging publisher CrossGen before ending up at Avatar Press. Chaos’ other properties would be bought up by Dynamite Entertainment. The popularity of Lady Death and characters like her brought about the phenomenon called “Bad Girl comics” offering popularity to properties like London Night Studios’ Razor, Jim Balent and BroadSword Comics’ Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, Billy Tucci’s Shi, Dark Horse Comics’ Ghost and Barb Wire, Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl, Randy Queen’s Darkchylde, Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada’s Painkiller Jane, Joseph Michael Linsner’s Dawn, Warren Publishing’s Vampirella (then under Harris Comics), Rob Liefeld and Cathy Christian’s Avengelyne, Topps’ Lady Rawhide, Penthouse’s Hericane, David Mack’s Kabuki, and Bill Maus’ Nira-X. Ben Dunn would, like Pulido, take Ninja High School to help form his own company in Antarctic Press generally featuring American comics with a manga-like art style and create Warrior Nun Areala as well as publishing other titles like Genus and Fred Perry’s Gold Digger.
Dark Horse Comics, while found in the 1980s, came into its own in the 1990s and remains today one of the industry’s top publishers. Some of the titles that came out of Dark Horse include Frank Miller’s Sin City, Martha Washington, and 300, Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke’s Mask, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, John Byrne’s Next Men, Art Adams’ Monkeyman and O’Brien, Eric Powell’s Goon, Ron Marz and Luke Ross’ Samurai: Heaven and Earth, Todd Dezago and Craig Rousseau’s Perhapanauts, Gerard Way and and Gabriel Ba’s Umbrella Academy, Adam Warren’s Empowered, Michael Chabon’s Escapist, and Peter David and Pop Mhan’s SpyBoy. Another publisher that was popular in the 1990s was Valiant Comics. Founded by Jim Shooter, who began work at DC Comics at age fourteen notably on the Legion of Super-Heroes before becoming editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics (arguably only comparable in this position to Stan Lee for success and innovation despite his reputation for harshly treating staff), Valiant drafted several of Marvel’s elder, legendary talent such as Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton, and Steve Englehart to create franchises like Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Rai, Shadowman, Bloodshot, Eternal Warrior, Ninjak, H.A.R.D. Corps, and Archer & Armstrong. The company would also license the franchises Doctor Solar, Turok, and Magnus, Robot Hunter formerly of Gold Key. Valiant would be bought by the video game developer Acclaim around the time the comic industry’s bubble burst and remained in limbo until recently. In 1993, Bongo Comics was founded by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Bill Morrison, and Steve and Cindy Vance generally printing comics for Groening’s Simpsons and Futarama franchises, offering early work to talented writer Gail Simone. Some other indie books that emerged during the 1990s include Jeff Smith’s Bone, Evan Dorkin’s Milk and Cheese, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Ash, Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man, Drew Hayes’ Poison Elves, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales/Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows (originally a comic strip), David Quinn and Tim Vigil’s Faust, Kevin J. Taylor’s Model by Day and Fang, Beau Smith’s Wynonna Earp, Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother, and David Lapham’s Stray Bullets.
Likely the biggest event of the Dark Age was the Death of Superman. After over fifty years of courting each other, the writers for the Superman group of titles decided to marry the hero with Lois Lane (though this did happen before, but on Earth-Two). However, the television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on air at the time also had plans to marry the pair but not for another year. Wanting to coordinate the two, the creative forces behind the comics agreed to push their plans back. Now left with a huge hole in the schedule and little time to fill it, an offhand comment to simply kill the Man of Steel become an idea they explored. Creating a Hulk-like character named Doomsday, they had the monster plow through Earth’s heroes and fight Superman until both fell down dead. What the editors didn’t anticipate would be the media getting a hold of the story and running it across airwaves, under the assumption Superman was dead and would never return. People appeared at comic shops around the nation in droves wanting to pay respect to the hero and pick up Superman #75 to read about how he fell. The event brought millions of people to comic shops, with the issue of Superman’s death selling almost three million copies but sales of the story leading up to his demise selling in very high numbers as well. A trend began with superheroes being killed or removed from their position with Batman’s back broken in Knightfall, Hal Jordan turning evil and is replaced in Emerald Twilight, Diana is replaced as Wonder Woman in The Challenge, Aquaman’s hand is eaten by piranha becoming a grizzly berserker, Green Arrow is tragically dies and is replaced by his long lost son, the Atom is de-aged and forms a new Teen Titans, a new Hawkman and Hawkwoman arrive on Earth to fight crime in Chicago, the Legion of Super-Heroes were rebooted as youths again, members of the Justice Society were killed off after recently coming out of retirement, and a new Starman emerged to critical-response by James Robinson (Mark Waid would tease replacing the Flash during his critically-acclaimed eight year run on the title but kept Wally West as the Flash). Marvel would also take part in some fashion with a clone of Spider-Man from a past story emerge as the Scarlet Spider for the Clone Saga in a storyline that spanned four titles monthly for two years.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when the Dark Age ended and the Modern Age started. I would say part of what led to this transition was the introduction of illustrator/painter Alex Ross. Able to take the farfetched and fantastic world of comics and lend realistic presentation to it with brush strokes heralding back to classical presentation of heroes in paint on canvas, Ross stylistically approached comics in a new, mythological style. It was likely for this reason the mini-series Marvels Ross collaborated with Kurt Busiek on worked so well. In the story, a photographer captures the emergence of costumed heroes on film so combining realism with this mythological feel made a perfect fit for the necessary effect. The series was a huge success and Alex Ross became a sought after commodity (Busiek would go on for a memorable five-year Avengers run featuring the team take on familiar opponents including Kang and Ultron and penned the successful JLA/Avengers crossover). Ross’ next project in many ways metaphorically tells the story of the end of the Dark Age into the Modern Age of comics. Working with Mark Waid, Kingdom Come from DC Comics tells the story of a world where Earth’s heroes retired as a new breed of hero emerged that was darker, grimmer and cared more about indulging their desire for wanton violence than helping people. Superman was forced to return to duty and save the world again, leading retired heroes back to duty while sorting true heroes from the anti-heroes/villains of the time. Ross admitted modeling the anti-hero Magog who led the new charge of superheroes after characters created by Rob Liefeld with Kingdom Come very much a love letter to the legacy of DC Comics featuring the children of many characters and new characters who carry on the mantle of other heroes. Soon after the success of Kingdom Come, another step towards the Modern Age came with the monster hit in JLA.
Grant Morrison made his career at DC Comics writing for titles like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Invisibles which were undoubtedly well-written, they were often times fairly weird. When the publisher was looking to update their ailing Justice League franchise, Morrison presented a pitch for a change that hadn’t been seen in thirteen years: reuniting the modern versions of its founding members. Further, update and reintroduce several of the threats the group faced in the Silver and Bronze Ages. The result was fans ate it up and showed they wanted to see those familiar images again. During one storyline in JLA, Morrison featured an updated Justice Society that would be picked up for its own series in JSA. This new series would be written by James Robinson, who became known for being able to inject new life into Golden Age concepts in his series Starman, and David S. Goyer, who would be better known as a screenwriter for the Blade film series and the Batman film series beginning with Batman Begins. With another hit in tow, the industry began a new trend.
During the "Death Of Superman" I worked at a Comic Book store. It brought people from all walks of life into a comic store to see what was going on. It was a great marketing move by DC IMHO.
I always watched superhero shows growing up. When I was in first grade, I was failing English and my mom got me comics and it raised my reading comprehension. I mostly got DC books in the 80s because my corner candy store sold them three for a dollar in these presorted packs. I got Marvel comics for a while in the 90s (when I discovered comic shops and conventions, I'd have my parents buy me bronze age books from Marvel and DC). But, I mostly just picked up Wizard, I preferred it to comics. I read about everything surrounding the Death in the mag, even getting the Wizard special on Superman's life. Picked up the trade collecting the story (World Without a Superman). Great read.
I remember the craze of the beginning of the dark times. The commercialization of comics to bring new blood to the fold. Comics should have stayed with true believers as Stan would say and the fall wouldn't have been that great. I enjoyed all the stories and concepts. Image comics to me was a need to challenge and grow the industry with new iconic characters. But alas the loss of so many comic shops made it hard to get the books we all loved. I am glad now we have reached back and grasped what comics should be and making them right again. Even though powers that control them aren't in total regards to the medium just the bottom line. I congratulate Dan Didio and Jim Lee and Joe Q for directing and maintaining a bold and true direction under the bottom line. May comics live on and the stories we love.
Just read through all 3 parts… very well-written and incisive. Thanks for explaining so many of the ages and referential expressions Live heard.
… I'd HEARD over the years as a casual comics lover (is there such a thing?) but never quite understood.
Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 You can check out some of my other pieces here: https://www.facebook.com/JerryDWhitworth
The only comics I read today are Image. They're doing some really good stuff there.
Thanks, Jerry Whitworth. I'll be sure to check those out.