25 Reasons Why 1986 Can Lay Claim to Be the Greatest Year Ever for Comic Fans
OK, so between contras, Challenger and Chernobyl, it wasn’t the greatest of years in human history (and don’t even get me started on the cancellation of Knight Rider), but there is one thing we all can and should agree on: 1986 was, by far, one of the best times to be a comic fan. Exhibit A: Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Long before the overly faithful film, the accolades (it was the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s 2005 All-Time 100 Greatest Novels list), and the army of imitators that followed in its wake, Watchmen was a revelation: a murder mystery set in a world where superheroes have profoundly influenced the course of human events, to the point where Richard Nixon is still in power in 1985 and the existence of a near-omnipotent super-being almost triggers a nuclear war. These were, to use a cliché, not your father’s comic-book heroes, and the popularity of the story was evident in the decision to re-release the entire 12-issue series in trade paperback format just a year later, a rare marketing decision at the time. As Robert Harvey put it in his Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History, Moore and Gibbons “had demonstrated as never before the capacity of the medium to tell a sophisticated story that could be engineered only in comics.” Damn straight.
2. The Dark Knight Returns
Disregard, if you can, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Frank Miller’s heinous 2001 follow-up to his magnum opus. Instead, focus on the original four-issue series and remember (or try to imagine, if you weren’t around back then) the excitement it caused among fans who saw it for the first time. To begin with, it was physically different from just about anything else on the stands; as one of the first titles to be released in the new “prestige” format, its very heft and price (a scandalous-at-the-time $2.95) screamed “blockbuster event,” as did the new printing techniques that literally made it look like nothing else on the stands. Beyond the production specs, though, Miller’s story was a revelation, bringing Batman back closer to his gothic roots than he had been in decades and (along with Watchmen) paving the way for other artists to explore more serious themes within the superhero genre. The storyline is simple enough: now in his 50s, Bruce Wayne has been out of action for 10 years, a decade in which Gotham City has slipped even further into lawlessness and decay. An old enemy’s return prompts him to don the mantle once again, a decision that is hotly debated by Gotham’s denizens (many of whom show up in the art as talking heads on a television screen, a recurring visual throughout the series). This being a Frank Miller project, “visceral” doesn’t even begin to describe his approach to the subject matter — but judging by fan reaction, it was an approach many had waited a long time to see (that, and the most awesome Superman vs. Batman battle ever).
When the New York Times reported on the 1992 Pulitzer prizes, it had this to say about Maus: “The Pulitzer board members… found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.” No kidding. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which appeared as an ongoing strip in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1991, recounts the struggle of Spiegelman’s father, a Polish Jew, to survive the Holocaust. In Spiegelman’s depiction of the story, Jews are seen as mice and German Nazis as cats, with other nationalities represented by other animals. It was a move that drew some criticism (Poles were especially annoyed about being portrayed as pigs), but Spiegelman said he used animals as a way of demonstrating how ridiculous it is to classify human beings based on nationality or religion. The complete run was collected and published in two volumes, My Father Bleeds History in 1986 and And Here My Troubles Began in 1991. For many comic fans, My Father Bleeds History was their first introduction to Spiegelman’s work, and for many inside and outside the comic world it was their first exposure to the idea that even something as horrific as the Holocaust could be captured in comic form.
4-5. “Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”/The Man of Steel
“This is an Imaginary Story… aren’t they all?” Looking back, 1986 can be seen as a year of turning points. DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series, in which DC “rebooted” its entire fictional universe, gave writers and artists the perfect excuse to overhaul the company’s flagship characters. Superman was no exception; despite a resurgence of fan interest generated by his movies in the ’70s and early ’80s, the Man of Steel was still viewed as a character weighed down by decades of Silver Age silliness. So out with the old, in with the new: within a span of months, fans got their chance to say goodbye to the “classic” Superman in the two-parter “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (Action Comics #583 and Superman #423, both 09/86) and hello to the “new” Superman in The Man of Steel, a six-part mini-series that appeared bi-weekly during the summer of ’86. Much debate ensued about whether the new Superman, originally scripted and drawn by John Byrne, really was an improvement over the Silver Age version, but almost everyone agreed the old Superman was given the best possible farewell in a tale created by a dream team of old and new talent: Alan Moore on the typewriter, with pencils by Superman artist Curt Swan and inks by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger.
6. “Assault on Avengers Mansion”
When people think of pivotal or essential Avengers stories, they tend to focus on story arcs that took place either early in the team’s career (“The Kree/Skrull War”) or much later (“Disassembled”). The ’80s, by contrast, were a decade when The Avengers tended to play it safe, functioning more as a home for homeless heroes and villains in search of a little trademark renewal action than a book with any real desire to shake things up (“Into the Lair of the Brain Leeches!” was one of the more groan-inducing titles that Avengers fans might remember from those days). The “Vision takes over the world” storyline was pretty interesting, though… but it had nothing on “Assault on Avengers Mansion,” a story arc that appeared just a few issues later (#273-277, 11/86-03/87). just a few issues later. The lowdown: A group of Avengers villains, led by the eeeee-vil Baron Zemo, team up to storm Avengers Mansion… and then actually do it. Hercules is pummeled to within an inch of his life, Captain America’s mementoes are destroyed before his very eyes, the mansion is pretty much trashed from all the fighting, and loyal manservant Jarvis is brutally beaten and tortured by one of the Masters of Evil’s more brutal members (see image). Writer Roger Stern churned out a story that, while taking the Avengers concept to a logical extreme (i.e., you have to expect enemies to come calling if you’re a superhero group with a known street address), did not allow the heroes to forget the rules just because they were playing for higher stakes, and good on him for that.
7-8. “Born Again”/Love and War
Just as The Avengers struggled to find its footing through most of the ’80s, Daredevil spent the back half of the decade coasting on past glories. Frank Miller arrived on the scene in 1979 and blew everyone away with his noir take on the Man Without Fear (and comics in general); by the time the writer/artist left the book in 1983, there was nowhere to go but down. Despite the best efforts of talented artists , readers simply wanted more Miller… and lucky for them, Miller wasn’t quite finished with the character, either. “Born Again” (Daredevil #227-233, 02/86-08/86) saw Miller return to the hero that put him on the map, this time with unforgettable pencils by David Mazzuchelli. The deal: Kingpin learns who Daredevil really is, and he uses every means at his disposal to utterly destroy Matt Murdock’s life. Meanwhile, in the graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War, Miller and artist Bill Sienkiewicz again pit Daredevil and Kingpin against each other, though this time Kingpin’s motives for his criminal actions are more personal than usual. Miller’s fascination with corruption (and the value in standing up to it) is avidly explored in both works, the artists behind both stories turn in some of the best work of their careers, and one of Marvel’s greatest villains moves further away from his cartoonish origins. Really, what more could you want?
9. The Punisher limited series
The Punisher is one of those characters who you could argue works better as a character brought into other superhero titles and used as a way to comment on the morality of vigilantism, rather than the star of his own book. After all, this is a highly trained military man who deals with the loss of his family by stalking and murdering people — bad people, sure, but the criteria he used to determine whether someone was a “criminal” during his early years was, shall we say, a little broad. But perhaps sensing a hardening of attitudes towards crime in Reagan’s America, Marvel took a chance on their in-house executioner with a five-part mini-series (01-05/86) that saw him sprung from prison by like-minded folk who want him to do what he does best. Mike Zeck’s gorgeous covers were just the beginning; inside, Frank Castle was re-imagined as a sane man who simply saw himself as a soldier in a war against those criminals who considered themselves untouchable (though he certainly made time for street-level thugs and drug pushers when he needed a pick-me-up). It was a title perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of the time, and no one was surprised when an ongoing series was launched the following year.
Mike Richardson was just another successful comic shop owner in the Pacific Northwest when he decided to invest his profits in Dark Horse Comics, an independent publisher that would go on to publish hundreds of titles, including several licensed books based on popular film and TV franchises (Star Wars, Terminator, Predator, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and several more that would later become the basis for top-grossing films (Hellboy, The Mask, Sin City, 300). But before all that, Dark Horse presented us with, well, Dark Horse Presents #1 (07/86), an anthology title that first introduced Paul Chadwick’s Concrete to the world. The story of a normal man whose brain is transplanted into a large, stone body by aliens, Concrete was unlike anything else on the comic landscape, and its gentle approach to exploring this unique character’s day-to-day life made it an instant cult favorite.
11-12. Batman #400/Green Lantern #200
Anniversaries are always cause for celebration, but it was only in the ’80s when the comic publishers (with a little help from their marketing departments) started to really harness the power of an anniversary issue. We’re creatures that like round numbers, after all, and books with round numbers on the front cover always feel a little more momentous. The anniversary issues came fast and furious during the ’80s, but two of my personal favorites came out in ’86: Batman #400 (10/86) and Green Lantern #200 (05/86). The Batman issue saw long-time foe Ra’s al-Ghul engineer mass breakouts at Arkham and Gotham State Pen; Green Lantern #200 marked a major turning point in the evolution of the Green Lantern Corps. Both were great reads, but I have to give the nod to Batman’s book because: (1) it sported a classic Bill Sienkiewicz painting on the cover; (2) pretty much every big-time Batman baddie gets a cameo; (3) it was the last pre-Crisis Batman story, with #401 the first to chronicle the “new Earth” Batman’s adventures; and (4) Stephen King, the horrormeister himself, contributed a two-page essay titled “Why I Chose Batman.” I don’t think he was ever in danger of being pegged as a Superman supporter, but good on him for declaring his allegiances.
13-14. Blue Beetle/ Booster Gold
Blue Beetle was a defunct Charlton Comics character that DC picked up on the cheap when Charlton folded; Booster Gold was a character pitched by writer Dan Jurgens as a time-travelling con artist using 25th-century tech to find fame and fortune in the 20th century. Neither of their solo books had the odds in its favor, and sure enough neither got past the 25th issue in its original run. But both were refreshing in their retro approach to the superhero genre; at a time when most superhero comics were veering towards “grim’n’gritty” in search of some of the attention that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (among others) were getting, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle stayed true to the Silver Age Marvel formula for success by splicing the superhero action with the soap-opera lives of the main characters and a boatload of new villains (that were more often miss than hit, but fun to watch regardless). Both characters have since gone on to play key roles in the DC universe, but at the time all readers knew was that these two titles were a little different just by bucking current trends… and that’s OK, because not everything in a publisher’s stable has to look the same just because some fans want it that way (we’ll pause for a moment to allow that statement to sink in among some current-day fans).
15. ‘Mazing Man
Speaking of different. Between Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, The Punisher and the rest, there wasn’t much room for whimsy in most fans’ literary diets, but for the rest of us there was ‘Mazing Man. Born Sigfried Horatio Hunch III, ‘Mazing Man is a little person who patrols a New York neighbourhood in a homemade costume, always on the lookout for clogged drains or unsupervised children. He doesn’t have to work because he won a magazine subscription company’s sweepstakes, and most people in the neighbourhood consider him just another harmless eccentric (though they were mighty glad he was on patrol that one time a child was almost hit by a truck). Oh, and his best friend is a comic book writer with the head of a dog. Of course. Created by DC editor Bob Rozakis and artist Stephen DeStefano, ‘Mazing Man only lasted 12 issues (with a few one-shot specials in ’87, ’88, and ’90) and hasn’t been referenced much in the DC universe since, so it’s a stretch to say it changed the face of comics forever. But as Zander Cannon at Big Time Attic put it so well, “[T]he stories were basically just charming little vignettes, but the ease with which the comic created complex, likable, infuriating, imperfect characters made me think about writing in a way that wasn’t, for once, cribbing from Frank Miller.”
16. The ‘Nam
Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, China Beach… By the late ’80s, the American public was ready to watch movies and TV shows about the Vietnam War, a devastating conflict that had only ended a decade earlier. War comics weren’t so lucky — despite the jingoism of Reagan’s America, there didn’t seem to be much appetite for them in the ’80s, and so most war titles faded away like the good soldiers they were. But Marvel, ever aware of marketable trends, wanted a book that looked at the war from a realistic vantage point, and Vietnam vet Doug Murray was tapped to put together a proposal. The result: The ‘Nam, a monthly book that followed PFC Edward Marks as he experienced the war in real time (i.e., every issue was set one month after the previous issue). Actual historical events were interwoven with the personal stories of fictional soldiers, many of whom (in keeping with the realism of the book) weren’t destined to see the end of the series. A few concerns were raised about how the war might become trivialized by the medium, while others were disappointed that a Code-approved comic couldn’t depict the full range of language or violence that were part of a soldier’s life. Still, in the spirit of the movies and TV shows of the time, The ‘Nam demonstrated the power of pop culture in helping Americans come to terms with the darker chapters in their history.
17. Secret Origins
I’ll admit it: I am a huge history geek. It’s probably a big part of the reason why I got into comics, this sense that generations of readers are sharing in the same experience every time they discover a new hero for the first time. This DC series came out just around the time I was discovering comics in a big way, and there was simply no way, back when Wikipedia and a million fan sites weren’t just a click away, that I could not pick it up. The idea of a whole series devoted to filling me in on the origin stories of the characters I was just starting to discover was just too good to pass up. As a bonus, the series alternated between the then-current all-stars (Firestorm! Blue Beetle! Suicide Squad!) and the Golden Age greats (Crimson Avenger! Johnny Thunder! Doll Man… wait a sec, Doll Man???), and a variety of industry veterans and up-and-comers were brought on board to create the stories. Plus, at a time when continuity was just starting to become more of an obsession among fans and comic writers, it was nice to have a series where you didn’t need to pick up every single issue to keep up. In a word: bliss.
18. Amanda Waller
Strong supporting characters in superhero comics are rare. Strong female supporting characters are rarer still. Strong, female and black? Don’t ask. Strong, female, black, plus-sized and capable of reducing anyone who crosses her path into a quivering heap? So far, there’s only been one: Amanda Waller, known as “the Wall” to her subordinates (which is to say, almost everybody else). Originally appearing in the 1986 Legends mini-series, Waller is a character unlike any other: a strong woman who uses sheer force of will to get her way — no easy task when your job involves ordering around demigods or corralling super-villains to undertake suicide missions. Since her debut, she’s been involved in pretty much every covert operation in the DC universe, and her appearance in any issue guarantees a major headache for someone else.
19. Strikeforce: Morituri
“Morituri te salutamus!” is what Roman gladiators said to the emperor before doing battle in the arena (for you non-Latin speakers, it means “We who are about to die salute you!”). In the year 2069, aliens have invaded Earth to strip it of its resources, but a group of scientists succeed in creating a super-powered army of heroes to repel the invaders. The only catch is that the same process that grants super powers also kills the recipients within one year. With that intriguing premise in place, Peter Gillis and Brent Anderson told a tale of heroism in the face of certain doom, with an ever-changing cast of characters. The title lasted only 31 issues (and spawned a mini-series set some 10 years after the final issue), but it’s still fondly remembered by Marvel fans as another example of the company experimenting outside the “official” Marvel universe (and as a far better executed experiment than Marvel’s other big project in ’86…).
20. The price of a good read
This one isn’t unique to 1986, but it must be mentioned. Fact: the cover price of Amazing Spider-Man #272 (01/86) was 65 cents (75 cents Canadian and 30p in the UK). Twelve months later, that price rose to 75 cents (95 cents Canadian, UK 40p) — a 15% increase, but still manageable for fans on a budget. Regular-sized Spidey issues hit the $1 mark in 1988, $1.25 in 1992, $1.50 in 1994, $1.95 in 1997, $2.25 in 2000, $2.99 in 2005… the pattern is the same on DC’s side, with a typical Batman issue going for 75 cents in 1986 and $2.99 in 2010. Everything costs more these days, sure, and no one begrudges artists and writers getting compensated fairly for their efforts… but honestly, it hurts to look at a wall of books at $3-$5 a pop (or a shelf of collections and hardcovers priced into the triple digits) these days and not think wistfully of those days when a fellow could buy every book on the spinner rack with a paperboy’s salary. (Says some younger reader: “What’s a paperboy?”)
21. History of the DC Universe
DC spent most of 1985 putting its characters through hell in the groundbreaking Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series. When it was all over, the “parallel universe” concept that allowed, say, a group of heroes on a Nazi-ruled Earth to team up with heroes from the “real” Earth for dimension-spanning adventures was ditched in favor of a new continuity in which there was only ever just one Earth serving as home to all of DC’s characters. For years, writers would be busy explaining the many incongruities caused by the “new” history of the DC universe… but before they could get around to doing that, someone had to agree on what that new history was. Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, the driving forces behind Crisis, followed that series with this two-issue “prestige format” series that laid out the “correct” order of events in the updated DC universe. There’s no plot as such (a character from Crisis dictates the new history’s highlights for posterity, ho hum) but no matter — the real beauty lies in Pérez’s gorgeously lush art depicting, well, everything, from the DC universe’s dawn of time to Krypton’s cataclysm to the cosmic wonders of the 30th century and beyond. Pérez has always shown a fondness for grand vistas and detailed images heavy on the crowd scenes, and this is clearly his kind of project. DC could do a lot worse by re-issuing these pages as full-sized posters and/or screensavers for today’s aging ’80s fans (and if they’ve already done that — someone, for the love of God, e-mail me).
22. Greenberg the Vampire
All together now: “Greenberg the what…?” Long before the likes of Buffy and Sookie Stackhouse made vampires part of Must See TV, Marvel released this almost-forgotten gem as part of its Marvel Graphic Novel series. Creators J.M. DeMatteis and Steve Leialoha introduced Oscar Greenberg to the world in a Marvel anthology series in 1981, and this book was his first (and so far only) stab at greater stardom. Though don’t say “stab” too loudly — he’s a vampire, after all, with all the traditional powers and weaknesses that comes with the gig. Despite his condition, he’s able to live a fairly average existence as a horror writer with a stereotypically Jewish family that constantly frets about his, well, being a little “different.” (Think Portnoy’s Complaint meets Twilight, and you get the idea.) Given the times, it was impossible not to see Greenberg the Vampire as an analogy for the challenges that gay and/or HIV-positive people faced in terms of public acceptance… and still face, to one degree or another. But on another, non-metaphorical level, it was just a fun read, and certainly a sign that Marvel was open to experimenting with genres outside the typical superhero fare.
23. The cover to Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #112
All right, I’m cheating a bit by including this item on the list: while this issue’s date is March 1986, it actually came out in late 1985, since comics tend to come out three to four months ahead of their actual cover date to ensure a longer shelf life (this explains why most Christmas-themed issues tend to have March or April cover dates). But c’mon — how cool is that image? First off, good luck finding any Marvel cover character with a cigarette in his mouth these days, especially in these “brought to you by Disney” times. Second: it’s Santa Claus with a handgun, for crying out loud. “You’d better watch out…” — that’s just damn funny. This issue also reminds me of the Three’s Company era of Peter Parker’s career, when the biggest challenges in his civilian life were avoiding his perpetually cranky landlord and trying to drop through his apartment skylight unnoticed by his next-door neighbours, a trio of models who enjoyed sunbathing on his building’s rooftop. Yes, he was once living next to three gorgeous women before dating and marrying another fashion model — the original hard-luck hero, that one.
24. “The Chasm”
Captain America is one of those characters that one sometimes suspect Marvel keeps publishing books about because, hey, someone has to. Since his World War II heyday, he’s struggled to find his place in modern America, and most writers play it safe, treating him as just another costumed do-gooder fighting a plethora of oddball super-villains and terrorist organizations with vaguely defined goals. In short, once you get past the Red Skull the list of truly compelling Captain America archenemies is a mighty short one… until you come to fellows like Flag-Smasher. Introduced in Captain America #312 (12/85), his finest moment arguably happened during “The Chasm,” a story in Captain America #322 (10/86) that explored the political philosophies guiding both hero and villain. Flag-Smasher, as his name implies, is a terrorist with no national affiliation; he fights the very idea of nationalism, committing acts of terrorism designed to further anti-nationalist sentiment — and a hero wearing a national flag as a costume would be a natural target for his anger. Who wins? The smart money is on the guy wearing Old Glory, but the real winners were readers who got a Captain America story that offered a little political discourse on top of the usual shield-flinging and fisticuffs.
25. Marvel’s 25th anniversary
Throughout 1986, Marvel titles sported a special “Marvel 25th anniversary” logo in the upper left corner to honor the publication of Fantastic Four #1 (11/61), the book that gave birth to the Marvel universe we all know and love/hate today. And each Marvel book with a November 1986 cover date, from West Coast Avengers to Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham, honored that landmark issue with a special portrait cover. The portrait art ranged from passable to iconic, but the real treat was the art surrounding each portrait; designed by the great John Romita, the frame depicted a group shot of all the major Marvel characters with their then-current looks and team rosters (Storm with a Mohawk! Rogue with a mullet! She-Hulk in the FF! Iron Man in the worst armor design ever!). Untypically for Marvel, it was a wonderfully subtle way of reminding readers just how rich the Marvel universe had become over the previous quarter-century, and Marvel reprised the idea in 2009 to celebrate 70 years since the publishing of Marvel Comics #1. I think I speak for everyone when I say I’m glad they didn’t go the 3-D holographic embossed die-cast route instead.