11 Trend-Setting Comic-Book Pioneers Who Defined Their Decades
1. Max Gaines (1930s)
The word “hardscrabble” comes to mind when you think of the 1930s — but out of tough times comes the kind of innovative thinking that, say, creates an entirely new art medium. Maxwell Charles Gaines was a salesman at Connecticut’s Easter Color Printing, which supplied full-color Sunday comics to newspapers all along the eastern seaboard. As the legend goes, one day in 1933 he looked at a few freshly printed sheets of comics and figured the company could make money selling “comic books” — saddle-stitched, four-color pamphlets printed on folded newsprint — as promotional items for their clients. The idea was such a hit that Gaines slapped a 10-cent price tag on some issues to see what would happen, making him the first person to distribute comic books through newsstands. After trying his hand at reprint titles Funnies on Parade and Famous Funnies, Gaines started producing original content in 1939 with All-American Publications (home of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Hawkman and many others). Then, when National Allied (later known as DC Comics) bought him out, Gaines started up Educational Comics, where his Picture Stories from American History and Picture Stories from the Bible existed alongside humor and funny-animal books. The comics business in the ’30s was all about seizing opportunity and getting in there first before the other guy did — two things that Gaines did in spades.
2. Jack Kirby (1940s)
Gaines gave life to the comic book; Jack Kirby gave it soul. Following Superman’s debut in 1938, thousands of publishers, writers and artists jumped into the fray, each one of them looking to be the one who found the next big thing. Problem was, a lot of the early comic books looked too much like their newspaper predecessors: static figures, small panels, action shots constrained by rules of what the images “should” look like. Drawing from his rough-and-tumble childhood in New York City’s Lower East Side, Kirby infused his art — superheroes, Westerns, crime books, romance, he did them all — with a level of tension and frenetic energy that would become the standard by which all other artists were measured. As New York Times writer Brent Staples noted in 2007, “He created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another — or even from page to page — threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident.” The ’40s, comicdom’s “Golden Age,” was a time when thousands of new ideas hit the stands every month, and the comics were filled with an explosive, upbeat energy in which nothing seemed too impossible for the four-color heroes to overcome. Small wonder Kirby felt right at home setting the pace.
3. Bill Gaines (1950s)
If the ’40s were all about action, then the ’50s were about reaction. American prosperity and global dominance led to the search for enemies within and without, and anything that seemed subversive or threatening to “American values” was an easy target for America’s newly self-appointed guardians. The irony of attacking the freedoms of others in the name of freedom was not lost on some people; if anything, it strengthened their resolve to tell the censors to go to hell. Bill Gaines didn’t want to join the comics business — he had studied to become a science teacher — but his father’s accidental death in 1947 meant he had to take over his family’s failing comic business. Making the best of it, Gaines changed the company’s name from Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics and had one goal: to produce the kinds of comics that he wanted to read, boundary-pushing horror, science-fiction and war titles unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before. EC’s successful horror line spawned dozens of inferior imitators (and one memorable exchange during a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearing in 1954) before a backlash against horror and crime comics effectively put EC out of business. No matter; Gaines turned his Mad comic into a magazine outside the new Comics Code Authority’s jurisdiction, and introduced the thrill of subversion to millions of young Baby Boomers. His unorthodox publishing practices, especially the many ways in which he commanded immense loyalty from fans and staff, would not go unnoticed by other comic publishers (including a small outfit poised to own the following decade; see below), but the greatest gift Gaines gave other comic pros was his individuality — and the conviction that fighting to preserve it in a hostile world is worth the battle.
4-5. Stan Lee/Jack Kirby (1960s)
Yes, I’m counting Kirby twice on this list. Because he’s Kirby, dammit. And because only a crazy person would not acknowledge the seismic shift that occurred when Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 hit newsstands. The ’60s was a time of experimentation — politically, socially, chemically, you name it. And a lot of that experimentation happened because of an exploding youth culture that, ironically, took some of its cues from two middle-aged guys just trying to pay the mortgage. The details differ depending on who’s telling the story, but what is clear is that either Lee or Kirby decided “superhumans with human problems” was the way to go in a landscape quickly filling up with bland, upstanding superhero types. Consciously or not, the two had tapped into something bigger than anyone expected, and their readers were more than ready to embrace Marvel’s flawed and angst-ridden heroes. Kirby’s godlike creations and boundary-pushing special effects found a receptive audience among readers eager to have their minds blown, while Lee’s mock irreverence spoke directly to the kids in a way that no other comic publisher had ever dared to try. But just as the ’60s were a turbulent time for America, theirs was a turbulent relationship, and by the end of the decade Kirby and Lee had parted ways. Didn’t matter; by that point they had shaken things up more than anyone could have imagined, and the comics industry would never be the same again.
6-7. Phil Seuling/Bob Overstreet (1970s)
The standard line is that the ’70s was the “me decade,” the decade of disco, Watergate, gas shortages, horrific fashions and presidents using words like “malaise” in their pep talks. Not, in other words, the most fun decade to live through. That was especially true for the comics business; after the dizzying highs of the ’60s, the ’70s felt like a time when nothing was working, and a lot of people even started to wonder if comics would be around for much longer. One of the biggest problems the industry faced was distribution; with shrinking profit margins, the number of newsstands and retail outlets willing to distribute comics was shrinking fast. Enter Phil Seuling, a fan and convention organizer who approached the publishers with a simple idea: sell me your comics, let me take on the distribution risks, and I’ll sell them directly to the stores who place orders, with no returns allowed. Direct market distribution saved the comics industry, and the focus on delivering what the fans wanted (as opposed to the scattershot approach of retail distribution) made it possible for new, independent publishers to enter the field in the ’80s and beyond. Focusing on what fans wanted was something Bob Overstreet was trying to do as well; a longtime comic collector, the career statistician grew frustrated with the lack of reliable information about collectible comic books. His self-published Comic Book Price Guide first appeared in 1970, but it didn’t really take off until mid-decade, when fans discovered they could earn a credit in his book by contributing data to the growing lists. Soon, it wasn’t just Overstreet’s guide to comics; it was everyone’s guide to comics, and by the ’80s there was no higher authority on what old back issues were worth. In their separate ways, Seuling and Overstreet represented a huge shift during the ’70s that favored the growing number of organized comic fans — and those fans were just getting started.
8. Frank Miller (1980s)
The ’80s were the decade of the Hollywood blockbuster, and a time when bigger was always — always — better (Exhibit A: shoulder pads). In those more optimistic times when anything seemed possible, a freshly revitalized comics industry took a lesson from its film studio colleagues and started to market the hell out of its biggest stars; namely, the writers and artists behind the blockbuster titles of the day. This new approach to marketing worked out quite nicely for a young artist with a thing for noir and ninjas. Just as the decade was dawning, Frank Miller had a regular gig as artist on Marvel’s Daredevil; within a few years, he was writing and drawing the title, creating what would become Marvel’s best and most talked-about comic in years. After that? Hired by DC to publish a ground-breaking series (Ronin) that introduced Japanese-influenced techniques to Western readers. Wrote the definitive Batman story, giving hundreds of newspaper writers reason to write “BIFF! POW! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore” stories. Became a major supporter of creative rights for artists and a huge critic of comic-book censorship. Led the move away from the “studio system” and encouraged younger artists with his forays into creator-owned properties. Branched out into other media and showed the world that working in comics didn’t have to be a creative ghetto. The ’80s was a decade in which money talked and the artists who made money for the publishers could and did demand better terms for themselves and other artists. And demands by artists like Miller made things a lot easier for the next generation of artists, including…
9. Todd McFarlane (1990s)
Sigh. Okay, I’ll be straight — I’m not a huge fan of the guy, and in a lot of his interviews McFarlane comes across as a bit of a jerk who puts making money and settling scores ahead of creating a better comic book. And he’ll be the first to admit he can be a (bleep)hole who does what does because he’s a businessman first and an artist second. But this list isn’t a congeniality contest, and it’s hard to find another person who had a bigger influence on the comics business in the ’90s. Let’s look at the scoreboard. Shot to fame in the late ’80s by breathing new life into the Spider-Man franchise. Struck out on his own and started his own company (Image) with other artists when they decided they had had enough of drawing someone else’s characters and reaping little benefit from doing so. Created his own highly popular character (Spawn) that went from first appearance to motion picture adaptation in less than five years. Inspired legions of artists in the ’90s who were thrilled to learn that years of paying dues, a working knowledge of human anatomy and the ability to tell a story were not prerequisites for success. A driving force in encouraging creator-owned comic properties and better deals for the people who do the creating. Expanded his empire into film and animation, providing the template future artists-slash-moguls. Helped encourage a speculator boom that made a lot of people rich and nearly took down the entire industry when it burst. No matter where you land in the debate over McFarlane’s artistic merits, it’s hard to deny the impact he had on the industry during that roller coaster of a decade.
10-11. Avi Arad/Christopher Nolan (2000s)
And finally we come to the 2000s, a decade that officially began for many people when two office towers collapsed on live television. While the world hunted for bin Laden and political terror gave way to economic fears, many people turned to popular entertainment just to take their minds off the grim news out there, and there were plenty of reality shows and CGI blockbusters to do the job. Marvel, Dark Horse and DC did their part by releasing films based on their characters — a lot of films based on their characters. And why not? The public couldn’t get enough of straight-up heroics with a dash of moral ambiguity in those morally ambiguous times. The rise of the superhero film coincided with the decline of the actual comic books themselves, which were by this decade almost an afterthought down at the offices of “DC Entertainment” (created in 2009, with DC Comics as a subsidiary) and “Marvel Entertainment” (founded 1998 by the merger of Marvel and Toy Biz). Encouraging this new attitude towards how fans experienced their heroes were dozens of new players, but Avi Arad and Christopher Nolan stand out; Arad, for his role in founding Marvel Studios and acting as producer for just about every Marvel film and cartoon produced since the mid-’90s, and Nolan, for his work as director of the Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), the latter two films each grossing more than US$1 billion at the box office. If nothing else, guys like these two proved that, while old-fashioned comic books may be on their way out in this new digital age, the same couldn’t be said for the characters and stories that sprang from them over the decades.