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1/08/2013

I grew up in the Dark Age of Superhero Comics

My formative years as a comic book reader came during the early 1990s, when I was at the verge of awkward junior high schooler and still a few years off from big pimply high schooler.

Youngblood1Unfortunately this was an era when mainstream comics (i.e. superhero books) had dropped off from the creative heights of the 80s and fallen into a state of hyper-muscular style and weak storylines, probably best exemplified in the art of Rob Liefeld.

I was a dedicated reader of Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, New  Mutants and bits of other Marvel titles. DC – with the exception of Batman – was considered untouchable by my friend-circle, and so I can’t speak much about the state of their books other than to say that their covers were often laughably cheesy. In fact they seemed to cultivate a brand of cheesy-ness that ran against the grain of what I thought Marvel had achieved during the 70s and early 80s. Namely, a coherent and internally consistent universe where super-powers were usually (but not always) technological or naturalistic.

Composition of backgrounds and the dynamism and drama of Kirbian Marvel’s graphic standards had given way to flat-looking panels, an (IMHO) over-emphasis on musculature that was often anatomically questionable, and characters with perpetually scowly expressions.

Storylines had always waxed and waned in terms of inventiveness and originality. Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars – sadly the format for many future mega-crossover events – had somehow sucked the wind out of Marvel’s sails, creatively speaking. The sea was changing, getting ready for the arrival of guys like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Liefeld and other new blood to Marvel’s artistic crew.

Soon the art and “look” of superheroes became the focus and story became secondary or non-existent. Frank Miller’s take on the Dark Knight, 80s Wolverine and the Punisher – all dark and mentally unstable anti-heroes – became the flavor-to-emulate because their books sold like hotcakes.

Add to this the new obsession with “collector’s item” die-cut covers and holograms and trading cards – often containing bland and formulaic material – and it becomes pretty clear that the 90s were a crap age for super books.

I stopped collecting a few years after Image and its creator-owned titles began to cut into Marvel’s lion’s share of the comic book market. I was bored with the way the genre was developing. Comics had really started to look like the “kid’s stuff” they had consistently been accused of being.

These days a lot of interesting material is being published. We seem to have crossed a chasm-like rut. The Big 2 continue to put out a lot of dreck, but they seem less important to the genre and the trends that push it along.

10 comments:

  1. What's really odd is that so much of the interesting stuff now seems to be coming out from Image. If you'd told me that back in 1993 I would have laughed you out of town.

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    1. Oh, absolutely. The first and second wave of Image books were essentially Marvel books under a new banner.

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  2. Having grown up at the same time, I have to agree with your assessment, although I think there were gems scattered among the trash piles (and I don't mean gold foil covers).

    Speaking strictly about Marvel comics, Epic put out several good comics (such as Ted McKeever's Metropol, Mignola's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, Akira, Blueberry, Groo, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), Marvel UK had Warheads, Conan was still going strong, and even in their traditional fare there was a good run or two: Ann Nocenti's Daredevil, Dwayne MacDuffie's Damage Control, and PAD's Hulk were all noteworthy.

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    1. Epic was great, agreed! I would love to see a new take on Damage Control -- such an excellent concept. It added a new dimension to the Marvel Universe, and not in the Dr. Strange-y sense.

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    2. Looking over what was published in those years, it appears that things completely went to pot in 1993. Outside of the (dramatically reduced) Epic line, there really wouldn't be anything good from Marvel until Joe Q launches Marvel Knights in 1998, with a few rare exceptions like Hellstorm by Ellis.

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  3. In the nineties I was overwhelmingly a Vertigo reader, with a few other titles mixed in (like Starman). Most of Marvel's foil-covered output and the majority of DC's mainstream supers left me cold.

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    1. It took me a while to get to the Vertigo stuff (and DC in general), but I devoured Sandman and Hellblazer in college.

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  4. I enjoyed your summary of 90s comics. Most of my comic reading was done in the mid-80s, with a focus on material by Arthur Adams or Bill Sienkiewicz. Due to the bulging muscles and high prices I stopped reading most new comics by the early 90s, instead turning my attention to bargain bin 70s and early 80s comics (ROM, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, etc.), and the manga translations that were just starting to come out (Nausicaa, Lone Wolf and Cub, etc.)

    Whatever happened to ROM Spaceknight, by the way? I thought it was pretty cool, but it doesn't seem to be on the radar anymore.

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    1. According to Wikipedia: "Marvel Comics no longer possesses the licensing rights to Rom from Parker Brothers, the character is not allowed to appear in his armored form."

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  5. Regarding ROM, ahem. Also, yeah, the 90s man. A TOUGH time for comic book fans. But like you said, happy days are here again!

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