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1986: A Guide To Comics’ Most Important Year, Ever

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
1986: A Guide To Comics’ Most Important Year, Ever

With every all-new, all-different rebirth, universe-shattering upheavals become more and more passé. However, as 2016 draws to a close, we remember that thirty years ago, all of comics seemed to take a look around and decide that indeed, nothing was going to be the same. Ten years ago, the MoCCA festival presented a look back at 1986, and today we consider it as well. 1986 was a remarkable year, not just for the comics it produced, but for how those comics changed the industry going forward.

PROLOGUE: 1985

Speaking of universe-shattering, the previous year had been big in superhero comics for one reason: “Crisis On Infinite Earths.” Spanning all of 1985, the miniseries touched just about every DC Comics character, and facilitated as much or as little reinvention as a particular property might have wanted. Before “Crisis,” DC was puttering along acceptably well, with books like “New Teen Titans,” “Amethyst,” “Blue Devil” and “Atari Force” among its highlights. Still, they were small potatoes next to Marvel’s murderers’ row. The crosstown competition boasted John Byrne’s “Fantastic Four” and “Alpha Flight,” Walt Simonson’s “Thor,” Chris Claremont writing “Uncanny X-Men” and Denny O’Neil writing “Daredevil” (following Frank Miller’s early-’80s run).

By shaking up DC, “Crisis” helped shake up superhero comics generally. It prodded Marvel to produce 1984-85’s “Secret Wars,” which appeared first because DC delayed “Crisis” to coincide with its 50th anniversary. More to the point, though, “Crisis'” time-twisting plot opened the door for creators to propose various relaunches for DC’s biggest characters. Headlining this would be the proposed “Metropolis” line of comics, with new series called “Man of Steel,” “Dark Knight” and “Amazon.” For example, Steve Gerber and Frank Miller presented DC with a pitch for all three, but the publisher was going to pick and choose its favorite proposal for each individual character. (Apparently Gerber and Miller wanted ownership in their new version of Supergirl, which would have been a nonstarter anyway.) There’s also this Howard Chaykin story involving a Superman pitch which touches on the Metropolis line, but probably wouldn’t have been part of it. Otherwise, DC was looking for a new Flash in the wake of Barry Allen’s “Crisis” death; and was ready generally to move on after “Crisis.” I mean, it’s not like DC could have such a big event every year….

MAN OF TOMORROW, OLD AND NEW

"Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?" by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson

Detail from the cover of the “Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” collection, by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson

The eventual Superman relaunch featured a peaceful transition. In May of 1986, DC published “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow,” an end-of-an-era coda to the Superman of the Silver and Bronze Ages. Written by Alan Moore, pencilled by longtime Superman artist Curt Swan and inked by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger, it was editor Julius Schwartz’s last Superman story and appeared in “Superman” #423 and “Action Comics” #583. “WHTTMOT” featured a number of characters’ final fates, from Pete Ross and Krypto to Superman himself; and it cleared the decks for June’s “Man of Steel” #1.

That 6-issue biweekly miniseries, written and pencilled by John Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano and edited by Andy Helfer and Mike Carlin, retold Superman’s origin for what DC hoped would be a whole new set of readers. However, even as it laid out all the new details and relationships, “Man of Steel” seemed noticeably preoccupied with distinguishing itself from the minutiae of the Silver and Bronze Ages and pointing out what wasn’t true anymore.

Also telling were the two stories’ creative-team combinations. Curt Swan had been pencilling Superman for decades, as had Kurt Schaffenberger; but “Superman” #423 was the first time he’d been inked by Pérez. Likewise, Alan Moore had written Superman stories — including a cameo with the Justice League in “Swamp Thing,” a Swampy team-up in “DC Comics Presents” and 1985’s “Superman Annual” #11 — but this was the first time Swan was drawing one of his scripts. For that matter, while the Superman titles had spent the last several months telling offbeat standalone stories, clearly “WHTTMOT” had carte blanche to go anywhere it wanted; and Moore took it there. It’s as if a Curt Swan Superman literally couldn’t survive the Alan Moore treatment.

By the same token, Swan’s pencils drove home the point that “his” classic Superman — not Dave Gibbons’, or Gil Kane’s, or José Luis Garcia-Lopéz’s — was getting the big sendoff. That might have been the biggest indication that the old days weren’t coming back (although Swan would pencil Superman again here and there). Indeed, Byrne drew Superman as bigger, more muscular and even younger-looking than Swan did; and his character redesigns extended into the supporting cast. This wasn’t Byrne trying to replicate Swan’s work, or anyone else’s (although there might have been some Wayne Boring touches in there). It was Byrne putting his stamp on DC’s flagship character, and thereby implicitly allowing others to do the same.

RADICAL RELAUNCHES

"The Shadow: Blood and Judgment," by Howard Chaykin

Detail of a double-page spread from 1986’s “The Shadow” #2, by Howard Chaykin

Indeed, a few months prior to the Superman relaunch, Howard Chaykin produced a four-issue “Shadow” miniseries (collected as “Blood & Judgment,” and reprinted currently by Dynamite Press) which purported to be a sequel to the classic “Shadow” stories. Because it brought the character into the modern day, though, it began with the Shadow’s original group of now-elderly agents being murdered in brutal, mature-readers-only ways. Naturally, the Shadow himself hadn’t aged all that much, although Chaykin revealed that he’d upgraded his weaponry for the 1980s. While “Blood & Judgment” was as violent as the title implied, it tried to mitigate that violence with a healthy dose of Chaykin-style black humor. Chaykin himself had just left his signature series “American Flagg!,” and his “Shadow” work was perhaps even more cheerfully profane. Reuben Flagg was an optimist at heart, but the Shadow wasn’t. In fact, to address the perceived difficulties in relaunching the character, Chaykin brought the Shadow out of retirement with a healthy dollop of behind-the-times attitudes. Harlan Ellison was first in line to criticize Chaykin’s “Shadow,” calling it a “bastardization of a much-beloved fictional character” and describing Chaykin’s take on the main character as a “sexist, calloused, clearly psychopathic obscenity.” Nevertheless, “Blood & Judgment” sold well enough to warrant a short-lived ongoing series, written by Andy Helfer and drawn by the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz, Marshall Rogers and Kyle Baker. In the next few years, Chaykin undertook similar reinventions of “Blackhawk” (also leading to an ongoing series by a different creative team) and DC’s Silver Age sci-fi characters in the Elseworlds miniseries “Twilight” (with José Luis Garcia-Lopéz drawing). Harlan Ellison might not have liked it, but readers were apparently more forgiving.

Back in the more mainstream superhero realm, the year closed out with another high-profile reboot. Together with writer Greg Potter, George Pérez had pitched a Wonder Woman proposal as part of the Metropolis-line submissions. While DC had accepted it, Potter left the book after two issues, replaced as scripter and co-plotter by Len Wein. Like Byrne’s Superman, Pérez’s Wonder Woman discarded a number of details and minor elements the character had accumulated during the Silver and Bronze Ages. However, he also dropped Wonder Woman’s secret identity, making her simply Diana of Themyscira, the Amazons’ ambassador to Patriarch’s World; and he restarted her series in the present day, so that she was meeting Superman, et al., about seven years into their costumed careers.

Wonder Woman, by George Perez

Detail from the cover of 1986’s “Wonder Woman” #1, by George Perez

This made Wonder Woman’s November 1986 relaunch both more comprehensive and more radical than Superman’s. It also started a conversation about the character’s true nature which continues to this day. The Wonder Woman of the Silver and Bronze Ages was in many ways a reaction to William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter’s original socially-conscious stories. Although the character had never really abandoned her mission of peace and justice, certainly the more fantastic features of, say, the Bob Kanigher/Ross Andru years tended to overshadow it. By making Diana an ambassador with mythological origins, Pérez and company downplayed her superhero side in order to focus on characters; and they surrounded Diana with women who would bring out different aspects of her mission.

Now, before we get too much farther, don’t think this post is all about relaunched superheroes. There are a good deal of ’em in here, but it’s not so much about the relaunching as it is the effects thereof. Take the Superman relaunch, which also featured the creative team of Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway on the “Adventures of Superman” title. From a certain point of view, we can see how it was designed to tell the kinds of “Superman stories” readers expected — stories which, to put it bluntly, the creative teams of the mid-1980s apparently weren’t producing. By contrast, the Wonder Woman relaunch felt more personal, in that it reflected the stories its creative team — Pérez, Potter, Wein and editor Karen Berger — wanted to tell with Wonder Woman.

REALISM

1986 ad for the New Universe

1986 teaser ad for Marvel’s New Universe

1986 wasn’t all about DC. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Marvel Universe, Marvel commissioned the “New Universe,” an eight-series line of comics, separate from and ostensibly more realistic than its older sibling. Today, the New Universe gets some good-natured ribbing because of concepts like “Kickers Inc.” (a super-team of football players) and “Star Brand” (Jim Shooter’s version of Green Lantern), but enough time has passed for it to be remembered with some fondness. The characters have since appeared in books ranging from the original “Spider-Man 2099” to Jonathan Hickman’s “Avengers” titles.

More significantly, though, the New Universe (which launched in the summer of 1986) reflected a mid-’80s trend of doing superheroes and superhero-adjacent characters “realistically.” Although the New U.’s defining moment was the superpower-bestowing “White Event,” Star Brand’s powers came from an extraterrestrial, the eponymous Justice was an alien and “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters” featured an armored battlesuit. While this wasn’t entirely new — in the 1960s, Tower Comics’ THUNDER Agents were superheroes sponsored by the United Nations and empowered by super-suits — it really got going in the ’80s with books like Eclipse’s “DNAgents” and First Comics’ “Jon Sable, Freelance.” Heck, Marvel’s own “Squadron Supreme” miniseries involved its Justice League parodies taking over their (parallel) world.

Indeed, a month after the New Universe launched, DC rolled out “Legends,” its first post-“Crisis” crossover. Although the story involved a Darkseid plot to turn the people of Earth against superheroes, it manifested as a piece of emergency legislation outlawing super-people; and not even Superman’s visit to the White House could dissuade special guest star Ronald Reagan. As the miniseries unfolded, Captain Marvel went into hiding, convinced he’d killed a supervillain; an angry mob overturned the Batmobile and put Jason “Robin” Todd in the hospital; and the Justice League (Detroit edition) had been defeated by a giant fire-monster. It wasn’t quite the no-frills realism the New Universe sought to portray — in fact, “Legends” featured a Star Brand-esque figure humiliated by Green Lantern Guy Gardner — but it was more than the average DC comic had been including.

Before long publishers big and small were rolling out government-sponsored and/or corporately-controlled super-people. “Legends” itself introduced a new version of the Suicide Squad, which answered to the feds; and a new Justice League, which would eventually become part of the United Nations. One of those new Leaguers was the rookie superhero Booster Gold, a petty thief from the far future who became a 20th Century corporate shill — because, after all, a superhero’s gotta eat.

BLACK AND WHITE AND DARK

Black-and-white best-sellers of 1986

Covers of 1986’s “Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters” #2, “Dark Horse Presents” #2 (featuring Concrete), and “Boris The Bear” #1

Many of the books which aspired to “realism” came from smaller publishers who wanted some of Marvel and DC’s superhero action but needed a hook to draw readers. If they weren’t doing realistic superheroes, odds are they were putting out parodies of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (which, of course, was itself a parody of Frank Miller’s early-’80s “Daredevil” work). The first of these, and perhaps the most successful, was Eclipse’s “Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters.” It begat any number of “adjective-energy-martial art-creature” wannabes, including “Pre-Teen Dirty Gene Kung Fu Kangaroos” and “Colossal Nuclear Bambino Samurai Snails,” but it also helped fuel the so-called “black and white explosion” of independent publishers. Among those parodies was Boris the Bear (created by James Dean Smith and written by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley), who kicked off his series by killing a group of “Teenage Radioactive Black Belt Mutant Ninja Critters.” Boris’ title lasted some 35 issues over a 5-year period (August 1986 to November 1991); but its real place in comics history is as one of the early successes of Dark Horse Comics. Both “Boris the Bear” and “Dark Horse Presents” sold well enough for Dark Horse Comics to make a name for itself.

July 1986’s “DHP” #1 also introduced a more (ahem) durable character. Concrete (created by Paul Chadwick) was just an ordinary guy whose brain was transplanted by aliens into a big, super-strong, rock-monster body; and who went on to have a wide range of adventures. The anthology went on to debut several other successful Dark Horse series, including Mike Richardson and Mark Badger’s “The Mask,” John Byrne’s “Next Men” and Frank Miller’s “Sin City”; while Concrete’s adventures have continued into this decade.

To be sure, it’s not like 1986’s comics industry lacked critically-acclaimed series from independent publishers. Classics like “Love & Rockets,” “Cerebus,” “Zot!” and “Nexus” were still going strong before, during and after 1986. However, where other publishers have come and gone, Dark Horse’s has carved out a significant chunk of the market; and it all goes back to a funny-animal parody and a well-received anthology.

UNIQUE TAKES

Batman and Robin, by Alan Davis and Paul Neary

Detail from the splash page of “Detective Comics” #569, written by Mike Barr, pencilled by Alan Davis and inked by Paul Neary

In the fall of 1986, “Detective Comics” welcomed its new creative team, writer Mike W. Barr and the art team of Alan Davis and Paul Neary. They had come over from “Adventures of the Outsiders,” which featured Batman and his handpicked super-team, so they were hardly new to the Caped Crusader. (In particular, Barr had been writing Batman for years, with and without the Outsiders.) What was unexpected, though, was the team’s take on Batman and Robin. Over the summer, editor Len Wein had left the Bat-books in favor of Denny O’Neil — who, you’ll remember, had been writing “Daredevil.” Since Wein had gone out on the oversized “Batman” #400, which rededicated the character as a spooky creature-of-the-night, one might have expected Barr, Davis and Neary to follow suit.

Instead, they went entirely the other direction, making “Detective” into a Golden and Silver Age homage. Even the first story in “‘Tec” issues #569-70 (cover-dated December 1986-January 1987), which involved the Joker kidnapping Catwoman (who’d reformed) in order to turn her back to the bad side, started out with a jokey fight sequence. While the creative team kept Batman dark and brooding (for the most part), they told stories with a light touch and an eye for the humor in a particular situation. It was a difficult needle to thread, and they weren’t on the book for long (only 7 issues, through #575); but they produced some tremendous Batman stories. Issue #571’s “Fear For Sale” had the Scarecrow take away people’s fears, making them (including Batman) more reckless. Issue #572 celebrated the series’ 50th anniversary by teaming Batman and Robin with everyone from the Elongated Man to Sherlock Holmes; and issue #574 supplemented Batman’s revised origins with “My Beginning … And My Probable End.” If 1986’s various relaunches had big-name creators leaving their marks on well-known characters, the Barr/Davis/Neary “Detective” showed how the right creative team could use homage and pastiche to great effect.

Daredevil, by David Mazzucchelli

Detail from the cover of the “Daredevil: Born Again” collection, by David Mazzucchelli

Meanwhile, Frank Miller had returned to “Daredevil” for a couple of projects: “Born Again” (issues #227-233, cover-dated February-August 1986), drawn by David Mazzucchelli; and the 8-issue “Elektra: Assassin” miniseries (cover-dated August 1986-March 1987). The devastating “Born Again” storyline had the Kingpin learn Daredevil’s secret identity, only to push the crimefighter too far and reclaim just enough of his life to start over. By contrast, “Elektra” was a fever-dream fantasy involving a rogue SHIELD agent and an evil presidential candidate. “Born Again” made Matt Murdock homeless and destitute; “Elektra” had killer cyborgs and psychic ninjas — which also demonstrated that a work could be gritty without being realistic. Their differences notwithstanding, a sort of cynical perseverance was at the heart of both stories, whether it was Matt’s refusal to succumb to the Kingpin or Garrett’s desire to stop the Beast. Together they demonstrated some of comics’ wide range in the mid-1980s.

BLOCKBUSTERS

Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley

Batman and Robin from “The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley

That brings us, at long last, to 1986’s biggest Frank Miller comic, “The Dark Knight Returns” (written and pencilled by Miller, inked by Klaus Janson and colored by Lynn Varley). The first of four issues debuted in February, and the final two were each delayed, keeping readers guessing about Batman, Robin and Superman’s fates until late August.

So much ink, and so many pixels, have been devoted to discussing “DKR” that too much more would be redundant. I will say, though, that the epic miniseries encapsulates a lot of what made 1986 distinctive. It featured a strong dose of “realism,” with Batman and Robin outlawed, Superman turned into a government-sponsored functionary, the Joker and Two-Face supposedly rehabilitated and everything discussed ad nauseam on talking-head newscasts. (Even the Bat-Signal was projected onto the side of a building, which struck Young Tom as more practical than shining it on the clouds.)

It was also something of a Batman relaunch — not in the sense that “DKR” would lead directly into an ongoing series, but because it took away the character’s Bronze Age veneer of respectability which even the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams stories — innovative for their time, and still influential — had preserved. “Dark Knight Returns” was the ultimate back-to-basics Batman story, emphasizing the character’s gothic aesthetic and unflinching brutality over the duly-deputized law-enforcement officer who’d driven around in sharp-finned sportscars and solved wordplay puzzles. Miller adapted “DKR” from his Metropolis-line proposal; but as with “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow,” setting the story at the end of Batman’s career instead of the beginning seems to have produced a wilder, more apocalyptic adventure.

Almost immediately “Dark Knight Returns” made its mark on the character. Towards the end of 1986 the main “Batman” title serialized “Batman: Year One” (issues #404-407, cover-dated February-May 1987), which reunited Miller and Mazzucchelli and was colored by Richmond Lewis. Thanks to the combined effects of “DKR” and “Year One,” Miller’s influence would dominate Batman for most of the next 20 years. “Batman’s” 1988 “Death in the Family” storyline (written by Jim Starlin and drawn by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo) seemed to confirm “DKR’s” dark prediction about Jason Todd’s death, even if it didn’t lead immediately to Batman’s retirement. Miller returned to Batman several times, including “DKR’s” two sequels (2001 and 2016), 1994’s “Spawn/Batman” (drawn by Todd McFarlane) and 2005-08’s “All Star Batman & Robin” (drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams). Moreover, “DKR” and “Year One” were each adapted for direct-to-video animated features; and each has been referenced in various live-action Batman projects from Tim Burton’s Batman movies to “Batman v. Superman.”

Rorschach, by Dave Gibbons

Rorschach, from “Watchmen” #1, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons and colored by John Higgins

Reinforcing the turn towards gritty realism was another dystopian DC miniseries, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen.” The first issue debuted in May 1986, a week before the first part of “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” As noted above, Moore and Gibbons had produced “For The Man Who Has Everything” in the previous year’s “Superman Annual”; and the pair had worked, separately and together, on various DC projects including a series of “Green Lantern Corps” backup stories. Naturally, Moore was already a superstar for his revitalizations of “Swamp Thing” and “Miracleman”; and since “Watchmen” took place outside the confines of the newly-unified DC superhero line, it represented even more of an opportunity for Moore to cut loose.

As with “Dark Knight Returns,” I’m not going to spend too much space analyzing “Watchmen,” except to note how it fits into 1986’s general trends. Even moreso than “DKR,” which acknowledged Batman’s history with the Justice League, “Watchmen” was grounded in a world which would have been identical to our own if not for its lone super-being. As such, it was practically a blueprint for “realistic” comics: the middling-to-tragic results of ordinary folks becoming vigilantes; a failed experiment producing a godlike being in the middle of the Cold War; and a nationwide crackdown on masked adventurism in the mid-1970s. Almost from the moment it was published, “Watchmen” was acclaimed for its demystification of superhero comics. I like to think of it as an example of the “would” school, as in “this is how superheroes ‘would’ work.”

“Watchmen’s” sober attitude even extended to its storytelling form, which omitted sound effects and thought balloons (and any internal monologues, except those presented as part of another story); and clung almost unfailingly to a nine-panel grid. Ironically, although this made the series feel like something which could translate easily to film, “Watchmen’s” form was really a structure upon which Moore and Gibbons could embed background details and hang all kinds of visual tricks. Its critique of superhero comics didn’t stop at the characters or tropes, but extended into the way the comics themselves worked.

Regardless, for a long time “Watchmen” was most influential in terms of superhero comics’ tone, as if Rorschach and the Comedian had set the standards for mainstream super-people (as opposed to the impotent Nite-Owl or the indifferent Dr. Manhattan). Just think: even as today’s DC readers wonder how the world of “Watchmen” will affect the Rebirth titles, they’re talking mostly about Doctor M. and Ozymandias, and ignoring the two legacy characters (Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre) who might bring the most level-headed perspectives to the whole enterprise. “Watchmen” deserves its reputation as a comics classic, but there’s so much to unpack it’s a disservice to the work to focus on just one thing.

"Maus," by Art Spiegelman

Detail from the cover of a “Maus” collection, by Art Spiegelman

Finally, 1986 saw the publication of Art Spiegelman’s unforgettable “Maus” Volume One, collecting the “Maus” comics which Spiegelman had been serializing since 1980. Since “Maus” depicted the horrors of the Holocaust using anthropomorphic mice for the Jews, and cats for the Nazis, its subject matter was unquestionably dark; but it stands out in this survey for being one of the purest expressions of the power of comics. It wasn’t deconstructing, relaunching, or revisiting a previous work; just telling a story that needed to be told, using the limitless tools of cartooning and sequential art.

Technically “Maus” wasn’t really part of the trends discussed herein, since it had begun several years earlier. Still, in a year dominated by superheroes, “Maus” reminded readers that comics could be deceptively simple. A 1986 New York Times review of the first six chapters led to their collection later that year. Because the collection was available in bookstores (as opposed to comics shops), “Maus” found a much wider audience. Indeed, “Maus” may have paved the way for bookstores generally to have a “graphic novel” section.

Therefore, it’s fitting to close with a work which doesn’t tie into the endless mega-narratives of superhero serials, but presents the true story of one family’s struggle to survive against the unthinkable. 1986 is remembered justly for the giant strides taken by comics of all genres. DC’s relaunches left Superman and Wonder Woman more streamlined and (ostensibly) more accessible. “The Shadow” and “The Dark Knight Returns” aimed for maturity through unflinching explorations of their characters’ implications, even as “Elektra: Assassin” and the Batman of “Detective Comics” explored the wilder ends of the superhero genre. Marvel’s New Universe sought to replicate a different “world outside your window,” while “Watchmen” summed up the year in superheroes with its own multifaceted take. Independent publishers tried even harder to break through to the mainstream; but the success of “Maus” showed that great comics will always have plenty of readers.

We remember 1986 for the comics discussed above, and for many other memorable series and events we didn’t have room to mention. Here’s hoping there are more years like it in comics’ future.

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