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Grumpy Old Fan | Remembering the anticipatory Summer of ’86

by  in Comic News Comment

… And here we are, the day after DC’s ongoing superhero line put a period on an era. Next week brings just two titles, Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1, one sending off the old order and the other ushering in the new. Maybe you’re waiting for next week before starting (or coming back to) explore the superhero books. Maybe you’ve been reading since the start of Blackest Night or Infinite Crisis or even Identity Crisis.  Goodness knows DC has tried hard for several years to increase its audience.

For me, though, this week closes the book (make the metaphors stop!) on some twenty-five years of Post-Crisis storytelling. Although there have been a number of reboots and relaunches during this period, it all goes back to the changes which started in earnest in the summer of 1986. I remember that summer well, both in terms of comics milestones and personal memories, because each was bound up with the others to various degrees. For me, Summer 1986 ended in a parking lot on a Friday afternoon in early September, reading John Byrne and Terry Austin’s Superman #1.

Back then I read a lot of comics while parked in the car. 1986 was my first summer with a driver’s license, which meant I got to cart my little sister and her friends all around town, and wait patiently while they ran around the malls. If that happened to be on a Friday afternoon, when new comics came out, odds were good I’d have my meager stack to keep me company. I even had a bumper sticker, “Danger — Driver Is Reading Comics,” displayed proudly next to a Bat-symbol. One Friday I was reading either Watchmen #5 or the first Mike Barr/Alan Davis Detective in the Fayette Mall lot when an elderly woman walked up to the open driver’s-side window and said “Oh, I see you are!”

Anyway, the summer of 1986 was bracketed by “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” in May, and Superman Volume 2 in September. In between was Byrne’s reboot miniseries Man of Steel, naturally; but also the start of Watchmen, at least one issue of The Dark Knight, and the all-star Batman #400 and Denny O’Neil becoming Bat-editor in #401. DC’s superhero books were opening up to the post-Crisis status quo, and things were starting to get interesting, even with “Batman: Year One” and the new Flash, Wonder Woman, and Justice League still months away. It was a remarkable period which, fervent desires notwithstanding, I’m not sure the publisher will ever duplicate.

And yes, the comparison to Summer 2011 is inevitable. This has been the Summer of Flashpoint, a hit-or-miss big event whose varied tie-ins mostly shared a nihilistic attitude as crushing and oppressive as the triple-digit temperatures which have just begun to abate. As each series marched bravely toward the final issue of its current numbering, we have been reminded over and over of the change which is coming; and we are each, I gather, some combination of thrilled, terrified, and angry.

Needless to say, that was not my perspective twenty-five years ago. It had been eighteen months since I’d come back to comics — probably, in part, to augment a proto-hipster façade I thought ideal for a tenth-grader — and as my junior year wound down in the spring of ‘86 I was ready to make some significant commitments. Having just discovered the great independents American Flagg!, Cerebus, and Nexus, I was clearly discriminating enough for Watchmen; but the promise of a new-reader-friendly Superman and Wonder Woman was also hard to ignore.

None of it felt like a hard sell; and while part of that was probably my sixteen-year-old naïveté, part was the relatively low-key nature of DC marketing. Obviously there was no Internet, and comics journalism was represented mostly by in-depth essays in Fantagraphics’ monthly Comics Journal and biweekly Amazing Heroes. Even peering two and three months into the future via advance solicitations was still a few years away. For its part, DC put out a four-page flyer, black-and-white on colored paper with not a lot of art, which looked only at the next month’s worth of books. That, plus hints in letters pages and the aforementioned Amazing Heroes, was the extent of my advance knowledge.

Today’s comics culture seems so different that comparisons are almost impossible. The Internet instantly connects fans, pros, and the press, such that news streams steadily from many sources. On my more cynical days it seems like the (superhero) comics themselves aren’t enough, almost by design — as if readers need to be immersed in this roiling sea of data to understand the books fully.

Thankfully, I won’t dwell on those differences, except to say that twenty-five years is an awfully long time to keep up with anything. It was twenty-five years after his debut that Batman got a “New Look,” guided by a new editor (Julius Schwartz) who, by all accounts, saved the character from cancellation. Similarly, twenty-five years before the 1986 relaunch, Schwartz had taken over Superman (moving Clark to TV and destroying Earth’s Kryptonite stocks) and Jack Kirby started on Jimmy Olsen. In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, twenty-five years was a long time.

However, as our lives accelerate, our years vanish more quickly. Last summer we had Brightest Day, 2009 was Blackest Night, and before that Final Crisis, Countdown, 52, the runup to Infinite Crisis, etc. Indeed, if we measure our years by comics, we can go through whole decades in days. It threatens to leave us with a tremendous mass of stories which might never be digested — because each week the mass grows that much larger….

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. (Not most of the time, at least.) Still, the constancy of every-Wednesday superhero comics does make the unique voices stand out even more. Take William Messner-Loebs, whose career includes extended runs on The Flash (1988-92) and Wonder Woman (1992-95), as well as a thoughtful, bittersweet year-and-change on Doctor Fate (1991-92). Put simply, his work ages well. His contributions to the ‘80s Flash and ‘90s Wonder Woman Retro-Active specials were great examples of the character-driven approach he brought to each of those books. Sure, his Flash wasn’t quite mature and his Wonder Woman worked fast-food, but those elements made sense for the stories he wanted to tell — stories about people first, and super-action second. As I said over the weekend, his Retro-Active Wonder Woman story made me wonder why DC didn’t turn to him more often. In its way, his take on Diana is right up there with Greg Rucka’s and Gail Simone’s.

Indeed, as we try to make sense of dozens of new creative teams launching dozens of new titles, it’s worth noting that on each of the aforementioned titles, Messner-Loebs’ run as writer kicked off the “second phase” — the revamp of the relaunch, as it were. He followed Mike Baron on Flash, George Pérez on Wonder Woman, and J.M. DeMatteis on Doctor Fate, each time building to a certain extent on what his predecessors had done but eventually putting his own stamp on each book.

That’s the tension between a title you know is going to be there, month after month, and the need to keep refreshing that title month after month. There are countless personal, professional, and/or economic reasons why your favorite creative teams, good as they may be, aren’t working on your favorite books anymore. Nothing lasts forever, but nothing ever quite ends, either. The Retro-Active books themselves are evidence of that. As the previews in this week’s titles remind us, so is the New Teen Titans: Games graphic novel, which is perhaps the ultimate expression of the Retro-Active spirit. Besides, these days it may only be a matter of time before all our superhero-comics yesterdays are readily available, as either downloads or collections. We can rebuild our pasts to suit our needs, one issue at a time.

So here we are, then, at an ending which obviously isn’t the end, waiting for the explosion of color and grit and stylized fashion known as the New 52. It’s not the summer I would have chosen, and I’m not sure it’s the future DC entirely needs — but it’s here. Long ago my capacity for superhero-comics nostalgia took a backseat to a more impersonal sense of scholarship. If nothing else, that gets me through each week; and if nothing else, that’ll get me through these fifty-two first issues.

And again, I don’t think it’ll be as bad as that. As different as they are, the summers of 1986 and 2011 share a certain sense of anticipation. That anticipation — that need to know what’s next — keeps us reading, week after week, until the weeks stretch into years and the years into quarter-centuries. Sometimes it even demands we read the newest issue while parked in a beat-up station wagon on a September afternoon.

Now we are in one last week of looking into the unknown, of savoring a pause pregnant with possibility, of wondering whether the New 52 represents a new renaissance or just a failure waiting to happen. Remember this feeling, because it may be twenty-five years before it comes around again.