The 1980s were a great time for comics. It seemed a renewed energy was breathed into the industry as new artists began sky-rocketing to fame, and new comic companies popped up almost weekly. Comic fans had a huge array of heroes, genres, and publishers to choose from, and finding that new cool book, writer, or artist was a fun treasure hunt at the local comic shop or spinner rack at the drug store. It was also a time when the creative teams creating the comic books started to become more well known, and fans would follow a creator from book to book, and company to company.
Please notice, I didn’t title this post the Top 5 Great Things About 1980s-ish Comic Books. There were so many great things to love about 1980s-ish comic books, I couldn’t even fathom picking a top 5, or 10, or even 20. So instead I will share 5 personal favorites that, while they can still be found in modern comics, have largely gone out of style, and really should make a comeback.
Covers About the Story Inside
Finding a modern comic book cover that actually hints at or teases the story or a scene inside has become a hard thing to do. And as publishers have begun having different cover and interior artists, it may be that often the artist drawing the cover may never have even seen the script for the issue. As a result we often end up with a parade of character or team pinups, more like DVD covers than comic book covers, such as this run of boring New Avengers covers from Marvel.
In the 80s, it was common practice for the artist on the inside of the comic to also draw the cover. This meant that the cover would very often reflect the actual story, and in some cases would be used to tease a twist or even throw out a red herring. The Flash cover below is one of my very favorites. It so expertly draws you in to the book by giving you a taste for the story inside that you can’t resist.
Word balloons have also largely disappeared from comic book covers; one fewer tool available to help the reader understand what he’s in for if he buys the comic. The cover to Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spiderman #104 becomes a lot less compelling if you didn’t have Bounty Hunter’s thought balloons to let you know he has Rocket Racer in his sights and he’s ready to pull the trigger.
In the 1980s-ishes, artists began experimenting with their styles. And great artists with instantly recognizable styles grew big fan bases. John Byrne’s cartoony and expressive style got him a huge following on books like Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four. At DC, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez (who’s Batman is the greatest Batman) and George Perez were churning out iconic heroes. Artists with highly stylized renders like Frank Miller were also finding popularity.
There were so many different art styles, books stood out from one another on the newstand. Walt Simonson’s Thor looked nothing like Neal Adam’s Batman which looked nothing like Bob Layton’s Iron Man. The diversity created excitement. And it paved the way for the artists of the 90s, who came along with even more stylized drawings and created a fan base rabid for their art.
A Sense of Humor
Before big corporations owned the Big Two (Time Warner owns DC and Disney owns Marvel) the companies used to have a sense of humor, and even poke fun at themselves and one another. It’s hard to see the Disney lawyers nowadays being okay with Marvel potentially ridiculing their own characters in a book like What The…?!. Or the obvious jab at DC characters on the cover.
Some great humorous books were also put out with existing characters like She-Hulk and Justice League. Moments like One Punch from these funny books still come up in fan conversations. Marvel even had a whole month where assistant editors took over the books; the running gag all month being that the assistance editors couldn’t help but screw things up. This led to, what I believe is, David Letterman’s one and only official comic book appearance.
Further, if the fact that there even existed an Alf comic book series doesn’t prove that someone at Marvel used to have a sense of humor, I don’t know what does.
The Big Events
I feel pretty comfortable going out a limb and stating definitively that the 1980s is home to the greatest comic book events ever. Not only did big huge events happen that changed characters stories forever, but the writing in them were spectacular and the art was great.
At Marvel, stories like Days of Future Past (which still has a defining influence on the X-Men universe), Secret Wars, Mutant Massacre, Kraven’s Last Hunt, Inferno, and Acts of Vengeance were HUGE stories of immense quality, and all strove to tell new and different stories. Part of what Acts of Vengeance so great was that the whole premise was pitting villains up against heroes they had never before faced
Events like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Legends, Watchmen, Invasion, and War of the Gods not only looked to tell great stories with some of DC’s finest artists, but also looked to totally reshape their whole comic book universe). Much like Days of Future Past reshaped X-Men stories for decades to follow, Crisis on Infinite Earths reshaped all of DC Comics all the way up to present day.
These events created iconic moments, iconic images, and told iconic stories in a way that hasn’t been replicated since.
Independent comics really flourished in the 1980s. Small publishers were drawn to the direct market, and many smaller press books quickly found readers. Some, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, found a huge fan base and are still popular today! Dave Sim’s Cerebus was so popular it made it to issue #300! A record that still stands to today for an independent comic book. Well, it will stand for another month or two until Todd McFarlane’s Spawn reaches #301.
The bumbling barbarian Groo had more than 180 issues spread across a number of publishers (including Marvel), and still sells today.
These small press comics were free to mock the rest of the industry and tell stories to risky for the larger publishers. Megaton Man was a riot as issue after issue it ruthlessly satirized the big publisher superheroes. Cerebus and Journey told stories in ways and with characters that threw out the tried and true conventions and found something special.
The independent comic scene really epitomizes the creative energy and excitement of the comic book industry in the 1980s-ish decade.