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February 22, 2000

Comix

The Comic Book Millennium
Part The Third
The Eighties

by Chuck Miller

Okay, now, where were we? Oh, yes. The seventies. Well, the less said about that miserable decade, the better. I believe I covered just about everything of importance. Very superficially, yes, but I mentioned all the highlights. At least the ones I could think of. Anyhow, this is not by any means a comprehensive survey of the last 60 years of what some highfalutin' fans call 'sequential art.'

Let's talk about the 80s. We can skip the first five years of that decade, as nothing of any real significance took place. A lot of the same lackadaisical storytelling that characterized most of the 70s. But, beginning in 1985, DC comics delivered three blasts that would forever change the face of mainstream comics.

The first of these was called "Crisis on Infinite Earths." This 12-issue series, written by Marv Wolfman, dismantled the by-now-terribly-confusing DC "multiverse." As I mentioned in my last column, DC had not only revamped a number of heroes from the 1940s, they had also returned the originals to circulation. Thus, we had two Flashes, two Hawkmen, two Green Lanterns, etc. In order to make this work more smoothly (they thought), they introduced the multiverse concept. The modern heroes of the Justice league of America inhabited Earth-One. The older heroes of the Justice SOCIETY lived on Earth-Two-"a world much like our own, yet different-- separated from its sister Earth by a vibrational barrier."

Whether this is scientifically sound or not, I have no idea. But it worked for DC for years. In fact, in order to spice things up, they added more Earths to the mix. When they acquired the rights to Fawcett's Captain Marvel in the early 70s (yep, the very same Captain Marvel they had threatened to sue out of existence in the 40s), they put him and his friends on Earth-S. When they bought the old Quality Comics heroes (Uncle Sam, Plastic man, the Black Condor, etc.), they plunked them down on Earth-X, where, just to make things a little more interesting, they let the Nazis win World War II. And so on and so on.

Pretty soon, the multiverse was causing more continuity problems than it was solving. The decision was made to clean house. The multiverse had to go.

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"An older, grimmer Batman barely survives his final, deadly encounter with the Joker in Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns.'"
And so it did, in an often confusing and convoluted story, which took a year to tell, and claimed the lives of dozens of old-time favorite characters, including Supergirl and the Flash. When all the dust settled, we were left with one Earth and one Earth only. Since the evil machinations of the Anti-Monitor, an all-powerful villain with a horrible complexion and an attitude to match, reached back to the dawn of time, one Earth was all there ever HAD been. DC history had been retroactively altered. The JSA had lived on the same Earth that the JLA would later spring up on. No more "vibrational barriers."

While the Crisis itself was nothing to write home about as a story in and of itself, the changes it wrought deserved a couple of postcards. Barry (Flash) Allen was dead. The mantle of the Flash was taken over by his former protégé, Wally (Kid Flash) West. Superman was completely revamped.

However, the most significant changes in the way superhero stories would be told came not from the Crisis, but from a little four-issue mini-series called "The Dark Knight Returns," written and drawn by Frank Miller and inked by Klaus Janson. Though comic books aimed at an adult audience were nothing new, this was the first time an established superhero--a "kiddie" character--was given an adult treatment. It was a big success, and not just with comic book fans. Miller's noir portrait of the Caped Crusader proved popular with mainstream readers as well.

And then, less than a year after that, came my personal favorite. "The Watchmen."

It really doesn't seem like it's been 14 years since that series came out. And it holds up quite well, unlike other stuff I could name. I recently re-read the whole 12-issue saga, and, aside from my knowing how it was going to turn out, it seemed just as fresh as it did when first published.

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"The disturbed vigilante named Rorschach was a pivotal character in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 'The Watchmen,' a post-modern superhero fable for the post-Marvel and DC generation."
The "heroes" of the Watchmen are not only darker and more disturbed than any seen in mainstream comics, they even make Frank Miller's brooding, sinister Batman seem like Mister Sunshine by comparison. If "Dark Knight" changed the way most people looked at mainstream superheroes-- and it did -- "The Watchmen" changed the way most people viewed the very concept of the costumed hero. You think the Marvel heroes have personal problems? Well, check out the denizens of Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons' (artist) dark and disturbing world: Rorschach, a lone vigilante who has gotten a little crazier each year he's worn the mask; Dr. Manhattan, the super-powered product of one of those handy-dandy scientific accidents-- he is losing touch fast with what little remains of his humanity; Nite Owl, a sort of ordinary Joe in a fancy suit, when the going got tough for costumed heroes, he got going-- into early retirement-- a retirement which is abruptly shattered when-- no, I better not tell you. This one you need to read for yourself. Fortunately, it is still available as a trade paperback, with all 12 issues conveniently collected in one place.

The 1980s also saw a tremendous boom and a cataclysmic bust in the field of independent (i.e. not Marvel or DC) comics. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez' "Love and Rockets." Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor." What's-his-name and What's-his-name's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a concept which has at long last been surpassed in the field of ubiquitous annoyingness -- by a HUGE margin-- by Pokemon! Michael Gilbert's "Mister Monster." These were a few of our favorite things, back when Ronnie Reagan was in the White House. Publishers came and went on an almost weekly basis, most of them producing cheap black-and-white books of varying quality (most of it bad, of course). Eclipse Comics, at one point seemingly poised to take on the Big Boys, dissolved in a stew of accusations, malfeasance, non-payment and confusion. It was a time of great excess, of wild hopes and bitter disappointments.

So, anyhow, what happened next was...

EXCUSE ME, but I have to interrupt myself here, and take what's left of my space to to bring you some sad news. I have learned that another of the greats has left us. Gil Kane, one of the most prolific comic book artists of our time, passed away recently at the age of 74. Kane was perhaps best known for his work on "Green Lantern" and "The Atom" for DC in the early 60s. He was NOT "the artist who brought us Spider-Man," as I heard a couple of idiots on a local radio station call him. That was Steve Ditko, as they would have known if they'd been reading my informative columns, and Ditko is still very much alive. I'm sure Gil Kane drew Spidey at some point or other in his long, distinguished career, but he was never a regular on the book. Kane, who died of cancer, continued to work up until quite recently. One of his last assignments was an "Elseworlds" Superman story for DC. It is customary, actually pretty much cliche, in these cases to say, "He will be missed," and I'm not going to break with tradition. Kane WILL be missed, by just about everyone who has ever read a comic book.


NEXT: THE NINETIES AND BEYOND.....


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