13 Seminal ’80s Comic-Book Stories That Writers Are Still Mining for Gold, Lo These Many Years After the Fact
1. Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985)
Yeah, I know. This one is kind of a gimme, since the whole point of this 12-part mini-series — released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of DC Comics — was to tear apart the entire DC universe and re-order all its titles and characters within a single, more linear timeline. The official story: after decades of adding more and more characters to its stable, DC decided its multiverse approach (where different families of characters lived on Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-X, etc.) was getting too convoluted; also, the accumulated years of history behind such characters as Superman and Wonder Woman made it difficult for writers to come up with fresh angles. COIE is where the whole “Worlds live! Worlds die! Nothing will ever be the same!” thing started, leading to many more “event” storylines in which the End of Everything is nigh. As well, its conclusion (in which the whole universe was rebooted with a new, “official” timeline) kicked off many years of writers re-interpreting classic characters and attempting to explain the many paradoxes that arose from events in the series. Even well into the 21st century, writers were using characters and events in Crisis as springboards for their own plots (Barry Allen is back! No he isn’t! Yes he is!) and “event” storylines: Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Identity Crisis… after a while, you begin to see a pattern.
2. “Invasion,” Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #8 (1984)
Note that this is not a list of the quote-unquote “best” stories and story arcs from the ’80s; rather, it’s a sample list of DC/Marvel stories that, whether intended at the time or not, continue to have an impact within their respective universes far beyond what the original writers could ever have imagined. For instance, when Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter scripted this issue in the 12-part Secret Wars saga, it’s highly unlikely he imagined Topher Grace getting covered with black goo in a disappointing movie sequel. But this story, in which Spider-Man uses a machine on an alien planet to fashion himself a replacement for his tattered red-and-blue suit, is the first appearance of the now-infamous black costume, which fans would later learn was actually a living organism — a “symbiote,” if you will — with designs of bonding with its unsuspecting host. Add in a climactic church tower confrontation and an ex-journalist with a bug up his butt about Spider-Man, and you have the makings of a villain that actually inspired a couple of pretty good stories over the years, despite massive overexposure and unsatisfying film roles.
3. “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Uncanny X-Men #129-137 (1980)
Ask most fans to identify the moment when the X-Men made the leap from B-list super-team to the top of the Marvel food chain, and they’ll likely cite this story arc for one simple reason: it’s just that good. X-Men scribe Chris Claremont and co-plotter/artist John Byrne were both at the top of their games here, turning in a cosmos-spanning tale about Jean Grey’s gradual transformation into the Dark Phoenix, which led to her casual slaughter of a planet’s inhabitants and her tragic suicide once she regained control of herself (the latter being an editorial decision imposed by Shooter, who felt Grey shouldn’t get off lightly for a blatant act of genocide, however not-in-control she may have been at the time). Since then, both Grey and the Phoenix entity have come and gone and come again, and this story arc is practically required reading for anyone hoping to make sense of Marvel’s mini-empire of X-titles…
4. “Days of Future Past,” Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (1981)
…as is this two-issue story, again by Messrs. Claremont and Byrne. Apparently not content to rest on their laurels, the two quickly followed up the death of Jean Grey with another story that has provided much grist for the Marvel mutant mill over the years. The short version: An adult Kitty Pryde from an alternate future timeline where mutants are hunted down comes back to the present to warn the X-Men about events that could, if they come to pass, lead directly to her own dystopian timeline. It was a neatly packaged tale about destiny and the consequences of our choices, but Claremont and later X-Men writers found the concept too good to leave alone. Pretty soon, the X-Men and their supporting characters were travelling back and forth in time and shifting between alternate timelines with the ease that you or I might pass through a revolving door. To say the least, it made things mighty confusing for the casual fan to follow (particularly when the likes of Cable and Bishop were introduced into the mix), but there were a few good examples of writers returning to the basic concept — take 2008’s Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, in which Professor Xavier awoke from a decades-long coma to find himself a mutant on the run in a future Sentinel-ruled world. (Hey, at least he could run.)
5. “The Judas Contract,” Tales of the Teen Titans #42-44, Annual #4 (1984)
Arguably, this storyline — in which a member of the Teen Titans betrays the team to one of their biggest arch-enemies, then dies in a suitably dramatic fashion without exactly repenting her crimes (a nice touch, that) — represents the title’s swan song, as later Titans tales never quite managed to reach those lofty heights of angst and suspense (two words: “baby Wildebeest”). Actually, you have to go all the way back to issue #28 for the full story, which introduced little-girl-lost Terra as the newest candidate for team membership; as the issues went by, we saw little snippets of characterization here and there until (gasp!) she was shown wearing make-up and smoking and canoodling with a guy brushing the outer edges of “old enough to be her grandfather.” This story is still held up as the Titans’ finest moment by many an aging fanboy, and its influence was felt for years in the Titans corner of the DC universe (including a smashing second season of the Teen Titans animated series).
6. “The Great Darkness Saga,” The Legion of Super-Heroes (Vol. 1) #290-294 (1982)
Did Crisis erase this saga from Legion continuity? Did the events of Zero Hour reverse the whole “never-happened” status imposed on the Legion’s earlier adventures? What about the “Lightning Saga” storyline that re-introduced the Legion into the post-Infinite Crisis universe? Good grief, who cares? This story, a 1982 Keith Giffen/Paul Levitz tale that first pitted the dread Lord of Apokolips against our plucky future-heroes, is notable not for whether it’s still “in continuity,” but for elevating Darkseid to the level of Major-League Badass within the DC universe. Prior to “Darkness,” Darkseid was the main villain in Kirby’s Fourth World titles, with a few side appearances in assorted Superman or Justice League books to establish his cred as a planetary despot. This story, which made it clear he was still alive and scheming in the 30th century, emphasized his godliness by depicting his followers’ zealot-like fervor, his vast stores of cosmic power, and his determination to remake the entire universe in his image (literally, in the case of one planet he had decimated and reshaped to create a floating bust of himself). By raising the stakes and giving the DC universe its first truly memorable cosmic-level threat to deal with, this story deserves credit (or blame, if you’re so inclined) for Darkseid’s pivotal appearances in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Legends, Genesis, Final Crisis, and other DC tales in need of a villain with a little more heft than your average world conqueror.
7. “Armor Wars,” Iron Man (Vol. 1) #225-231 (1988)
Prior to this storyline, Tony Stark’s main claims to fame were bankrolling the Avengers and being known as “the drunk one” — i.e., the celebrated late-’70s storyline about his descent into alcoholism (a theme revisited in an early-’80s storyline featuring Stark’s relapse and the takeover of his company by the odious Obadiah Stane). And while that storyline was key in distinguishing Tony Stark’s character, the “Armor Wars” story arc is arguably what set Iron Man on the road to Major Mover & Shaker within the Marvel universe. The short version: Iron Man is aghast to learn his stolen armor technology is in the hands of various and sundry operatives on both the “hero” and “villain” side of the ledger. Acting without any official sanction, he tracks down these armored fellows one by one, using specially designed “negator packs” to render their armor circuitry useless… but his actions earn him a stern tut-tut (and, eventually, a missile aimed at his head) when he goes after armor-clad government agents (his fight with Captain America is especially prescient, given future events). Prior to this story arc, Stark’s battles against corporate spies and Cold War-era villains chiefly took place within his own title, and no one really thought much about the implications of introducing Iron Man technology — or Stark’s unique brand of ruthlessness — to the rest of the Marvel universe. By the time 2006’s Civil War rolled around, though, it was pretty clear to one and all just how manipulative Howard Stark’s boy could be.
8. “A Death in the Family,” Batman #426-429 (1988)
The first attempt at bringing forth Jason Todd as a replacement Robin suggested a lack of faith on DC’s part in the concept; introduced in Batman #357, his origin story was basically a carbon copy of Dick Grayson’s own tale. In the post-Crisis reboot, Todd was recast as a homeless street punk whose moxie impressed the Dark Knight (he was caught stealing the hubcaps off the Batmobile), but this version was even less popular among fans. In 1988, DC used recently introduced 900-number technology to allow fans a voice in whether Robin lived or died at the hands of the Joker; by a narrow margin (and not without some controversy about the validity of the results), the “nays” had it. Batman’s feelings of guilt over Todd’s death played greatly into his stories over the following years, never more so than when Tim Drake showed up uninvited to claim the Robin mantle as his own. In 2003’s “Hush” storyline, a shape-shifting villain appears as Todd to rattle Batman; later still, the real Todd showed up in one of those only-in-the-comics resurrection deals that left him a little bitter about how his death was never avenged by his mentor. Opinion was mixed about this latest example of how comic book resurrections cheapen the dramatic impact of stories like “Death in the Family” or the one where Captain America’s Bucky plummets to his death only to come back to life decades later… but at least good Parker’s Uncle Ben is still rotting in his grave (but just to be on the safe side, can somebody go and check?).
9. The Killing Joke (1988)
Speaking of everyone’s favorite psychopath. Alan Moore himself said this story (Brian Bolland handled the art chores) starring the Joker was “clumsy” and “not saying anything very interesting,” but he may be in the minority with that opinion. Certainly, this one-shot (in which the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and attempts to drive him insane just to prove a point) may not have been on par with, say, Moore’s Watchmen or V for Vendetta, but there’s no denying the impact its footprint has left on the Batman universe. This is the book, after all, in which Barbara Gordon began her journey from Batgirl to Oracle, adding a much-needed information broker and cyber-sleuth to the DC roster and setting the stage for the highly acclaimed Birds of Prey series (the book, not the TV show — though the short-lived show borrowed much of its backstory from TKJ, as well). And those of you impressed with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight — particularly the way in which he recounts multiple tales about his upbringing — can thank this book for first suggesting that even the Joker isn’t terribly interested in how he came to be the way he is; as he put it, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
10. “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294 and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 (1987)
This choice may not be an obvious one on par with, say, “A Death in the Family” or “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” but I submit that this six-issue storyline left an indelible impression on the tone of Spider-Man’s stories for years afterward. Consider: Since the beginning, Spider-Man stories followed the Lee/Ditko template (light banter, garish villains, concurrent romance/family crisis subplots), with the occasional lapse into tragedy, like the death of Gwen Stacy. But even during his darker moments, the threats to Spider-Man’s health were always more physical than mental in nature and issued by villains as two-dimensional as the pages that contained them. “Last Hunt” features an act that was, at the time, the furthest that Peter Parker had ever been violated by a villain (he was drugged and buried alive in a coffin while Kraven usurped his costumed identity), and his “death” is made no less disturbing by the arc’s rather final conclusion. This storyline, much buzzed about among Spidey fans at the time, opened the door to other stories emphasizing a new breed of super-villains out to psychologically torment our young hero, not ceasing until he is utterly broken body and soul. Out went the bank-robbing Rhinos and Shockers of yore, and in came the Jackals and Norman Osborns with their long-term eeeee-vil plots for breaking the wall-crawler’s will. To take just one example, a later storyline starring the identity-stealing Chameleon — one in which his insidious (if dopey) scheme involved robot duplicates of Parker’s long-lost parents — is one that may never have seen the light of day if “Last Hunt” hadn’t set the bar regarding just how far the writers could drag Spidey through hell and back. To say the least, the results have been decidedly mixed (coughOne More Daycough).
11. “Monster,” The Incredible Hulk #312 (1985)
He was big, green and dumb for most of his existence, and then writer Bill Mantlo brought in the notion of Banner retaining his intelligence while in Hulk mode. That worked for a while, but another editorial shake-up saw the Hulk reduced to a mindless, rampaging engine of destruction, forcing Dr. Strange to send him on a cross-dimensional odyssey in search of a place where he couldn’t send Earth’s insurance rates skyrocketing with every tantrum. At one point during his journey, the Hulk relives the circumstances of his childhood, including a scene in which his father physically abused his mother because he was convinced she had given birth to a monster. Time proved Papa Banner right, but the significance of this story is that it’s the first time readers witnessed Banner’s younger years, and it’s the first time that anyone suggested the Hulk’s rage was a manifestation of Banner’s repressed anger over his lost childhood, adding a psychological layer to what had previously been a one-note character. Peter David would later build on that by presenting a Hulk in therapy, and the 2003 Hulk movie drew much of its plot from the damaged-child angle that has powered the Hulk mythos ever since.
12. “The Kingpin Must Die,” Daredevil #170 (1981)
Lord, which superhero comics haven’t been affected by Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil? Miller came on board as DD’s artist with #158 and took over the writing chores with #168, a book in which readers were introduced to the long-lost DD love and lethal assassin known as Elektra (a character that would die during Miller’s run but nonetheless come back and inspire many more stories over the years, despite Miller’s clear objections). But it was in this two-part story, in which Miller’s Daredevil first confronts the Kingpin, that we get a sense of where Miller really wanted to go with the book. Up until this issue, the Kingpin (introduced as a member of Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues) was a cartoonish gangster who employed gimmicks like sleeping gas in his tie-pin; under Miller’s watch, he was transformed into truly dangerous man who craved nothing more than complete control of New York City… and would think nothing of crushing anyone who got in his way. But readers would also learn there was more to the man than a naked lust for power, and over the years Miller et al. would derive much storytelling mileage out of a character who fits all too well within the noir settings of such characters as Daredevil and the Punisher.
13. “Batman: Year One,” Batman #404-407 (1987)
The story of Batman’s origin has been told so many times that fans in 1987 may have wondered if there was any need for Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli to go down that well-trod road. “Definitive” is an often-abused word in this business, but no other word really fits here; while the first Batman stories in the 1940s laid out the essentials (murdered parents, oath of vengeance, bat through window), “Year One” introduced essential elements that have been a part of the “official” story ever since. Wayne’s fitful return to Wayne Manor after spending years abroad… his first attempts as a non-masked vigilante in Gotham’s east end… the impact Batman’s arrival has on the life of Gothamites, particularly one Selina Kyle… the idea of Gordon as the lone good cop in a savagely corrupt police department… all these ideas and more have given writers plenty of material to play with over the years. Heck, even the final scene of the story, in which a newly promoted Gordon and Batman stand atop police headquarters and discuss a new threat calling himself “the Joker,” was almost note-for-note reproduced by director Christopher Nolan for the final scene of Batman Begins (a movie that more or less covers the same years of Batman’s life as “Year One”). Now that’s staying power.