Looking Back Already: Notes on Comics and Comic Trends in the Nineties
by Rupert Griffin
THE COOL ELITE
The nineties was the decade of the "cool." Like adolescents who are afraid to show their feelings, comic fans couldn't bear anything which was thought of as "uncool". This emphasis on "cool" was why hero and villain names became one word names (eg, a hero with a name like 'Ultra Man', 'Ultra Boy', or 'Ultra Lad' would become simply 'Ultra'), why characters appeared in slick new costumes (most often, streamlined, jump suits woven out of teflon), why characters would scowl, from the cover, at the reader.
(One of the most significant advances was the change in covers: the lurid, Bronze-Age style cover images, which are festooned with captions, were replaced by simple, slick graphics, of the likes of which you can find on any of the Batman covers today).
This cult of "cool" was brought about by a change in the marketing of comics. In the 1990s, the industry became more specialised and sophisticated - or perhaps more inbred. Previously, the distribution of comics was targeted at the newsstands, newspaper shops, and the spinning racks in convenience stores. Then the specialty shop sprang into being. Usually, unsold periodicals from the newsstands are sent back to the publisher. But the specialty shops weren't under that constraint, and so put all their back issues in the notorious back issue bins.
In the eighties, I loved the back issue bins - it seemed wonderful that one could buy, for instance, an issue of Spiderman from the early seventies or late sixties at a cheap price. But in the nineties, the leavings of the major (and minor) companies - eg, the ten duplicate issues of StormWitchBlade which no-one wanted the first time around - took over. The comic stores became crowded out by these back issues, which the owners (almost literally) couldn't give away.
Perhaps because of the marketing and distributing strategy, the fan base became increasingly specialised. It mostly consisted of males who were overweight, who wore shorts and backwards baseball caps and who read only Star Trek and Star Wars adaptations and Dragonlance novels, who only watched movies which were either part of the Star Trek and Star Wars series or were comic book adaptations. (Remember, this was the decade of Tarantino and Clerks ). The comic book shop staff, the comic book shop visitors, and the comic book audience at large were often the one and same people. It was a form of incest.
The comics, and the comic store, seemed to take on a video arcade feel. Comics became one long shoot-em-up or kickboxing game - with ugly, dissonant industrial music thumping in the background, and sweaty schoolboys blasting computer screens with toy pistols, racking up kill scores while slurping on milk shakes. Which issue would be the most violent this month? Would it be Wolverine , Judge Dredd , Lobo , The Punisher , the incredibly stupid (and useless) hunk of cyber-junk, Cable , Deadpool , Venom , Carnage , Batman with the new "hip and cool" armour-wearing Jean-Paul Valley? Usually the gimmick was to create a mean-looking character who wielded a big gun (it was a shame that, in this context, no-one thought of resurrecting the pistol-wielding incarnation Batman from one of the forgotten episodes in comics history). And if the hero (or rather, anti-hero, eg, Bullseye from Daredevil , or Deadshot from the Bronze Age Batman ) wore a jumpsuit and possessed ninja-like abilities, he was made.
THE TARGET AUDIENCE
All of this seemed to cater to a "teen" market. The Image books seemed at times to be cynical attempts by adults to exploit a captive audience of adolescent-minded boys. Take Gen-13 , a shameless rip-off of the X-Men and the New Mutants , the teen favourites in the eighties: it was almost as if the book was written by a computer. Naturally, it featured sensitive guys (who had names like 'Grunge' - well, it was the nineties). The sensitivity and hipness of these characters was shown by their wearing an earring in one ear or by their sporting a goatee beard growing under their jaw. This became the nineties male prototype - or one of the two, the other being the rough-and-tough bad boy anti-hero.
Comic books aimed at teenagers are no bad thing; the Chris Claremont X-books of the seventies and eighties - which are classics - were teen books. But comics aimed at overgrown teenagers (which is what we fans became in the nineties) - that's another thing entirely. I think it's fair to say that this pandering - to an audience which didn't want to grow up - cheapened the industry.
Take the cheesecake women heroines of the nineties. The mammaries were never larger, the jumpsuits never tighter. I was shocked to read snide accusations on the DC message boards to the effect that the eighties New Teen Titans superheroine, Starfire, was nothing but cheesecake aimed at lusty young male fans. On the contrary: Starfire had a detailed origin story - a lot of time and effort went into the creation of that character and her creators even devised a new galaxy, the Vegan star system, which gave rise to the spin-off Omega Men series and other tie-ins. Those who attack the likes of the Starfire character are silent when it comes to Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Lady Death, Vampirella, to the endless parade of swimsuit and pyjama special issues (some even featuring the lovely ladies of the X-Men!). All of it was soft porn of a kind - especially the painted covers of the latest issue of Indie Comic Gun-Totin' Bad Girl with Voluptuous Bod bursting out of a Red Bikini .
(But had comics grown up? Mainstream comics, at least, remained as insufferably prudish as ever. To read the American comic book of the nineties is to be transported into a world where sex does not exist, or at best, half-exists. It's as though the sixties courtroom trials which permitted the sale of Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover in America had never occurred.
This isn't to say that a good comic book needs to include lots of sex and gore. It's to say that the comic book in the nineties seemed unsure of what its audience was - children, teenagers or "adults". And who were the 'mature readers' books aimed at, really? If we were so grown-up and mature, why didn't the major companies publish a comic-book adaptation of Ulysses by James Joyce or some stories by the Marquis de Sade?).
THE BIG FIGHT
Despite the deluge of marketing and advertising, the industry seemed to lose touch with its commercial instincts; it no longer knew how to hustle, how to draw readers in.
A typical comics preview would read, 'Batman fights the Joker - will he survive?'. Of course we readers know that Batman will survive! We aren't interested in "fights", as such (especially with an overused Batman villain such as the Joker). We, even the most sophisticated of us, are interested in the traps and situations which function as the hook of the story. The Bronze, Silver and Golden Age books, even the hero ones, understood this: every comic cover had to announce that the hero was, in this issue, was caught up in a sticky situation which he couldn't possibly get out of. Look at the old Superman issues where Lois, Jimmy or the Braniac-Luthor team would discover that Superman was Clark Kent: the plot has been used dozens of times, but it's always fun to read the contrived, cockamie story in which the writer extricates Superman from this impossible quandary.
Nowadays, comics are about nothing except The Big Fight. Superman walks with Lois through the park, sees Mongol and his sister Mongola, slugs it out with them, and wins. No plot, no hook, nothing. I'm not against fights, of course - for example, I love to see John Byrne drawing a story where Terrax the Tamer punches the Thing and sends him flying through the walls of three (!) Manhattan skyscrapers - but a concentration on the fight, to the exclusion of the story and everything else, puts the comics on the same level as the wrestling. It makes you realise how mechanical (and dull) comics can be.
BOOM AND BUST, OR WHY COMICS ARE LIKE JAPAN
The nineties (and not the eighties, surprisingly) was the decade of boom and bust for comics. A relaunch of Spiderman , with wonderful pencils by MacFarlane, became the biggest-selling comic issue of all time. But, as eighties Marvel supremo Jim Shooter pointed out, the goal of comic book publishing is to sustain sales, not to break records. And the commercial performance of Marvel and DC was dreadful. Marvel went into bankruptcy several times and went from owner to owner; DC staggered on, leeching off money from profitable ventures in the Warner Brothers conglomerate.
(No economist has ever examined the workings of the comic industry. It would be interesting to learn how Warner Bros' sustaining of the DC franchise, in particular, the comic book publishing arm, is rational in economic terms - eg, profitable).
Youngsters, in the nineties, would spend fortunes on trading cards (which were sealed in plastic) and then sell them on at a higher price. Apparently the same speculation boom occurred in the second-hand comic book market in the early nineties. I missed the speculation boom entirely - I'm a person who buys comics to read, and not to sell them on - but even I couldn't fail to notice the increasing eccentricity of the comic book companies, or at least, the people in charge of their marketing departments. (The bigger promotion stunts - those involving DC flagship characters Superman and Batman - attracted media attention, which was unusual for comics).
What fuelled this speculative boom (and the subsequent fitful spurts in sales) ? The answer is, gimmicks. Here's a short list of them:
This speculative boom was short-lived, however. According to a 2001 LA Times article, sales at the peak of the boom - in 1991 - were 48 million a month; now, they're six or seven million a month. What had happened was that the nineties recession took some time to reach all sectors of the American economy; the speculative bubble in the comics world took a few months to burst. But after the bubble did burst, the comics industry, unlike the American economy, never recovered. As one comics dealer (quoted in the LA Times article) put it, "For the past seven years, it's been like living in a post-nuclear holocaust".
It seems incredible: the comics fan, in the wealthy countries, has never been better off; he has the Internet, which enables him to post on message boards, to gain easy access to fanzines, to put up web sites devoted to his favourite character, to keep up him up to date with daily comics news; he can buy beautiful reprinted editions of the best stories from the Marvel and DC catalogue; he can get his hands on, thanks to the distribution system, practically any new comic book he wants; but sales have never been worse - never. At the moment, the comics industry is looking a lot like the Japanese economy - something which lumbers on, in perpetual recession, and is unable to lift itself out of its rut, no matter what it does.
Yes, it was the decade of the cheap and chintzy - not only in marketing, but in artwork as well.
Image should have been the great success story of the nineties, and indeed, from a commercial vantage point, it was: until Todd MacFarlane formed Image, no-one had been able to break the Marvel/DC monopoly. But, thanks to Image's success, a certain style of artwork - the Image house style - became as dominant in the nineties as Marvel's had been in the sixties and seventies. Image art was an anonymous mish-mash of the worst of MacFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Whilce Portacio. Big, ugly, craggy characters didn't do anything; they just stood there, looking impossibly big and craggy, genuflecting in that X-Force way. (Some publisher, in the year 2030, should reprint Image titles in deluxe hardcover volumes - like publishers are doing with EC titles now - to give readers a taste of what the decade was like).
The other companies, unfortunately, followed Image's lead. Good comic book art revolves around storytelling; even the slickest superstars of the eighties, John Byrne and George Perez, had solid storytelling skills. But all companies in the nineties embraced the idea that comic art must consist of "cool" images. The result was that comics (by the new generation of young artists) had plenty of posturing heroes, but the stories, almost without exception, became a jumble. Read a Curt Swan Superman and any one of Superman titles from the stands today from back to back; you'll see the difference at once. Swan is a master of clarity, even if he is a little dull, but the merry-go-round roster of artists on Superman can't even approach his level. I imagine that it's very difficult for the reader who is new to comics to understand what is going on in Superman and other titles. Reading a comic book shouldn't be like putting a puzzle together.
NINETIES WRITING AND SUPERHERO GOOFINESS
A fellow contributor at Fanzing pointed out to me that while the first half of the nineties saw the rise of the star artist, the second half saw the rise of the star writer (eg, Moore, Ennis, Ellis, Gaiman and Busiek). This is true.
I have mixed feelings toward this phenomenon. Along with other fans, I thought that Kingdom Come and Astro City , for instance, were extraordinary. At the same time, I'm not certain that the superhero comic book calls for this sort of experimentation.
A comics writer only needs to follow the simple rules of story-telling to make a book work. We all know how a comic book will finish: the hero will trounce the villain, preferably at the last moment. The superhero genre is as rigid as the Japanese Nobe play. The trick is to conceal all traces of the journey from point A to point B in the story and to insert as much life and individuality as possible. As I said before, what matters to the reader is how the hero solves the problem presented at the start of the story, not if he will solve it (which is a foregone conclusion). All a writer needs to do is to exert the same amount of ingenuity (which is not much) which a TV writer puts into writing an episode of Colombo or the British police show, The Bill . It's not that difficult, really. A nameless, faceless hack could do it, and many have done it, and done it well, over the past seventy years. A writer doesn't have to play at being an intellectual (pseudo-intellectual?) in the way Moore and Gaiman do to succeed, artistically and commercially; he only needs to follow the simple rules and hand in his work on time every month.
Something else which has to be kept in mind is this: at bottom, superhero comics are stupid. Look at the Bronze-Age Flash's Rogues Gallery: Captain Cold, the Mirror Master, Heat Wave, the Pied Piper, the Top, the Trickster, the Weather Wizard - all of them the reverse of nineties cool! Were there really comics with these supervillains in them? Was there really an audience for these comics? You bet there was - and that audience was bigger than the audience for Flash today.
It's ironic that the vast tapestry of continuity in a masterwork like Kingdom Come was woven from literally thousands of lame Bronze Age stories like those Flash adventures. Flash wasn't serious and angst-ridden like those Kingdom Come characters: the Flash's main worry in the Bronze Age days was to escape from the Mirror Master's latest mirror death-trap and to be at home in time for dinner with Iris. The Flash stories, like most Bronze, Silver and Golden age stories, were essentially trivial - and stupid.
How did superhero comics flourish, with dumb characters like the Clock King, the Cluemaster, Major Disaster? The answer is, by taking the hook of the story - the life-or-death predicament the hero found himself in, the mystery he had to solve - very seriously. Former GI Joe writer Larry Hama once said that the key to comics-writing is the fantasy of super-drama, super-seriousness. The moment the writer starts poking fun at the characters and the stupidity of the superhero premise (in the way Kevin Maguire's Justice League International did), the spell is broken. The reader will think to himself, 'Oh God, I never realised how lame that New Gods character the Black Racer was, how childish those Shazam! characters - Mr Tawny the Talking Tiger, Sivana - were. I guess comics are for kids after all. That's what I am: a big, overgrown kid'. He then retreats into self-loathing (and maybe gives up buying comics altogether, which is what writers don't want).
Comic books give the writer great freedom. The reader's credulity is infinitely elastic, stretching as far as the writer wants. And the more stupidity in a comic book, eg, the more superheroes and villains dressed up as jungle animals (or having the power to control jungle animals), the better the comic is. This stupidity is what makes the comics so wild and wonderful.
The comic writers of today should inject the superhero genre with a fresh, and especially large, dose of solemn, superhero dumbness. That may just save the industry.
TO SUM UP
Aesthetic judgements, like most other judgements, are relative. Many people I speak to loved the comics of the nineties - Superman has never been better, Batman has never been better, the JLA has never been better, and so on. They may disagree with the opinions in this article. But largely negative assessments of comics in the nineties have been borne out by the awful sales: the traditional base of comics readers is shrinking; the new readers we need to replenish our ranks are staying away in droves.
Part of this is because of a spoiltness and complacency on our part and on the part of the industry. Many of those who worked in the industry for decades and kept it going - the old pros, the editors, the businessmen - have died or retired. The new breed of writers, editors and executives seem to want to cater to the worst instincts of a dwindling number of readers who will keep buying books with their favourite character, no matter how bad that book gets. Many fans, and many pros, I suspect, have become ashamed of comics. They don't want comics to start reconnecting with a mainstream audience; they want to live in the pop culture worlds of their own childhoods, to wallow in nostalgia (which may explain why collecting superhero toys and old cartoon merchandise has become so popular). Some of most gifted artists of our time, such as Frank Miller and John Byrne, have become the kings of self-indulgence, frittering away their time on pet projects which fail to reach outside a small circle of hardcore fans. (This can be attributed, paradoxically enough, to the debut of creator-owned comics and to the practice of giving creators new rights and privileges).
Part of a solution to the current crisis would be to market the comics to the three age-groups - children, teenagers and adults. A company could publish the three lines under three imprints (eg, in the way Marvel marketed its children's comics under the Star Comics imprint and DC markets its adult books under the Vertigo imprint). This, in tandem with some aggressive restructuring - especially of the distribution sector - would do the trick.
Quality, of course, comes first. Comics must be changed from top to bottom: the covers must change, the plotting, the art, the in-house advertisements - everything. Comic book publishers need to ditch anything which smacks of the nineties.
The twelve-part Fantastic Four limited anniversary series, The World's Greatest Comics Magazine , is a Lee-Kirby parody and not a good one at that. But in rare moments, the art in this book is reminiscent, not of Kirby but of the generic Marvel art of the seventies - which shows that artists haven't completely forgotten to draw art in the Marvel house style, with its simple, easy to follow layouts and strong sense of composition. In order to appeal to children, comic art needs to be kept simple and accessible. Comic books parodies which mimic the past, like The World's Greatest- , show how this can be done.
The storylines of the comics may need modification as well. A debate of sorts is going on in fandom as to whether DC should undo its post- Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity. I'm attracted to the idea, if only because so many of the pre-Bronze Age stories were so great to read. But a company can't keep recycling the same old characters and origin stories, updating and retconning them again and again, as Marvel does now. New characters, and some forceful innovation, are needed for the industry to survive in the long term.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2001 by Rupert Griffin.
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