6 Thoughts I Had While Revisiting a Month’s Worth of DC Comics Published Forty Years Ago
1. I don’t think anyone at DC really knew what to do with Superman in 1979.
So last month I tried something a little different. To celebrate the start of a new decade, I thought it might be a fun writing exercise to go back in time and review a whole month’s worth of titles from either DC or Marvel. I chose 1980 because 40 years felt like a long enough time for there to be some interesting changes to talk about, and I chose DC because they put out fewer books than Marvel with a January 1980 cover date (suggesting DC still hadn’t fully recovered from that “DC Implosion” from two years before). While it’s no big revelation to find that, yup, a lot of things were different in comics from 40 years ago, I was a little surprised to find out some things never change.
Case in point: Superman’s caretakers in late 1979 seemed just as baffled by the job of getting at the heart of what Superman represents as his caretakers do today. Back then, Superman was the biggest superhero in movies (mainly by being the only superhero in movies); his debut picture was the second-highest grossing film of 1978 and filming was underway for 1980’s Superman II. Between the boffo box office and the mountains of merchandising revenue, it was a great time to be in the Superman business… except no one at DC seemed to notice. While Christopher Reeve and company were redefining the Man of Steel for a new generation, Reeve’s comic-book counterpart was muddling through the same stodgy stories starring aliens and time-surfing sorcerers that he had been pushing at that point for several decades (that is, when he wasn’t dealing with yet another how’s-he-going-to-get-out-of-this-one mess involving his secret identity).
Inertia is a hell of a drug to kick, sure, but it seems odd that DC’s response to the revived stardom of their flagship character was a hearty “¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “. The Superman comics would see a major overhaul a few years later, true, but in that moment when a new decade was dawning, I can understand how Superman fans might have felt a little underwhelmed by what was happening in his books.
2. I kind of miss having a Batman who was allowed to be human once in a while.
Confession time: I’m getting older. Aren’t we all, you’re probably saying. My comic-reading heyday was the mid- to late 1980s, when a lot of changes happened to most of our favorite DC characters. It was especially a good time to be a Batman fan because of the wide variety of Batman stories that came out in those days, from his more light-hearted appearances in the “BWHA HA HA!” era of Justice League books to Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. For me, though, “my” Batman appeared in comics that were slightly older, books from the late ’70s and early ’80s with art by guys like Irv Novick, Don Newton, Gene Colan, Tom Mandrake — guys who put the dark in Dark Knight. But while those stories were more atmospheric than most of what followed, they also featured a Batman who was, well, a man — someone who trained himself to perfection, sure, but also someone who was capable of making mistakes, and who had connections to the people around him.
I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis floating around on the topic of Batman’s evolution over the decades and how it relates to shifting ideals of masculinity in North American culture, so I won’t go on a rant here. All I’ll say is this: at some point over the past 40 years, Batman went from being a smart rich guy fighting crime in a costume to becoming basically an omnipresent god, an elemental force whose level of sanity is often hard to differentiate from the Arkham residents he regularly pummels. And if there’s a market for the constant grimacing and teeth-gnashing, then that’s fine, I guess… but I feel like today’s comic fans are missing out by not having a Batman who’s a mite more human than what current editorial diktats appear to allow.
3. Same deal with Wonder Woman, too.
1979 was a sad year for Wonder Woman fans, as that was when Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman ended its run. Produced during the heyday of “women’s lib” in the 1970s, the TV show couldn’t help but have a message of empowerment for its viewers, and that message carried over into Wonder Woman’s concurrent comic adventures. After decades of (mostly) male writers basically giving up and sending our Amazon out to follow whichever trends were trending at the time, the book was starting to get back to its roots with Diana working at the United Nations and opening readers’ eyes up to some of the real-world, bigger picture issues they should be aware of (like the erosion of privacy in a security-crazed society, as seen above).
Things are… a little different these days. Wonder Woman’s writers ditched the secret identity in the late 1980s, and more recently her adventures have involved a lot more Greek gods and other otherworldly figures than the underwhelming assortment of super-villains she used to tangle with. And that’s great… in theory. But pick up a dozen or so random issues of Wonder Woman comics today and what you see is a long string of what you see in a lot of other superhero comics: lots of poses, lots of battle cries, lots of fighting, lots of leaping into the fray, lots of stories where Everything in Existence hangs in the balance… it’s great that Wonder Woman has achieved equality with male superheroes in some respects (no more Mouse-Man antics for this gal!), but I wonder what we’ve lost with the near-constant sturm und drang of modern-day comics.
Maybe it was a little hokey for a Greek demi-goddess to put her hair up and get a job at the United Nations… but on the other hand, no one seems to have a problem with that Clark guy hiding behind glasses. Or using his day job to make an occasional comment on social issues. So why can’t we have a little more of that with a character who was literally created to make us challenge our assumptions about the world?
4. There’s a lot less diversity of genres at the major publishers than there used to be.
For the record, here’s how the numbers looked for DC’s different genres in books cover dated January and February 1980: superhero (16), war (6). horror/suspense (5), Western (2), science fiction (1), sword-and-sorcery fantasy (1). (I counted books over two months because of the bimonthly shipping for a lot of them.)
Over at Marvel, the numbers looked more like this: superhero (28), science fiction (5), horror/suspense (2), humor (2), sword-and-sorcery fantasy (2). Not as diversified as DC, but still not bad.
Fast forward to DC’s January 2020 line-up. Of the three dozen or so monthly books put out that month, all but four fall in the “superhero” camp (and those four outliers are “Black Label” books that fit neatly in the “spooky scary” category). On top of those regular titles, you can find the 15th anniversary of DC: The New Frontier, the “deluxe edition” hardcover of DC’s 1989 adaptation of the first Batman movie, and a series of “Dollar Comics” reprinting the No. 1 issues of Flashpoint and Infinite Crisis. (Things aren’t looking much better over at Marvel, where pretty much every title not starring Conan the Barbarian or a Star Wars character is tied into the MCU.)
There is a long and exhausting conversation to be had over how the North American comics business got to where it is today — a place where books that once sold in the millions are seeing sales numbers in the low five figures — and what could be done to get the sales numbers back to what they once were (if that’s even possible in these paper-averse modern times). I’m not suggesting there’s any one quick fix that will make everything better. But it does seem like the phasing out of certain genres in 1980s and the increased focus on shared-universe superhero titles ever since might have had something to do with those numbers going south.
5. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and people have been pushing it for longer than you think.
Go see any superhero movie or read any of the books currently coming out from Marvel or DC and you’ll notice something: there’s a lot of money to be made in nostalgia. Knowing that a huge chunk of the current fan base are longtime fans, comic companies are happy to play to their nostalgia by re-introducing old fan favorites, producing sequels to beloved older stories, bringing back artists and writers from “classic” eras to work on the characters their fans loved, you name it.
And silly me, I thought this was a recent thing. But nope — a quick scan of the letters pages from books published in 1980 shows that (1) a lot of the fans back then who were writing in were also longtime fans of their favorite characters and (2) they were thrilled to see things in the books that reminded them of “the good old days.”
For instance, when DC launched its new Superboy title in 1980 — a book that was clearly meant to remind readers the story and art styles of years past — letter writers wrote in to thank DC for the title’s nostalgic tone; noted letter hack T.M. Maple commended them for hiring artist Kurt Schaffenberger: “His lack of modernity is a detriment to his work in Action and The Private Life of Clark Kent, but a definite asset in this book, since it helps evoke a feeling of the past.”
I’m not saying nostalgia is a good thing or a bad thing — a guy with all childhood action figures on a shelf is in no position to tut-tut the concept of nostalgia. I just thought it was kind of neat that the older fans wishing for more of the “good old days” aren’t that different from the older fans from 40 years wishing for the same.
6. Someone needs to make the world forget about that Jonah Hex movie and get back to the business of marketing this bounty hunter.
Totally not kidding over here. DC’s biggest assets at the moment are Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn, with characters like Flash, Aquaman and Shazam gaining ground on the B-list. There’s no reason at all why Jonah Hex shouldn’t be a part of that elite club of money-makers.
First, he’s got a distinctive look that can’t be replicated. That’s key. More importantly, he’s got an attitude and a moral code that sets him apart from other DC heroes, and he’s perfectly situated as an Old West bounty hunter with a past to provide a lot of juicy storytelling possibilities. (And if people who happen to be fans of The Mandalorian drift our way in between seasons of that Disney+ show, well, so much the better.)
Just promise me, guys, no more of that “talks to dead people” nonsense, all right?