Ever since the earliest comic books appeared on newsstands in 1933 they followed many of the precepts laid down by comic strips: square bordered panels arranged in a left to right pattern, use of onomatopoeia for sound effects, different shaped borders dialogue balloons indicating thoughts or words spoken aloud or whispered, captions to set a scene, and a down to earth realism even for such fantastic characters as Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.
With minor exceptions, comic book publishers kept to these tropes for many decades making an exception early on for the newly invented super-heroes whose outsized antics needed bigger and bolder presentations. Enter such figures as Jack Kirby who used tricks of foreshortening, full and half page panels, and breaking panel borders to convey a sense of furious action.
For almost thirty years, little changed until the advent of artists Neal Adams and Jim Steranko both of whom entered comics from outside the field bringing with them new ideas about how to tell stories visually. In the 1970s, though many of Adams and Steranko’s tricks were abandoned, the idea of breaking open the comics page remained with artists like Gene Colan, Rich Buckler, and Frank Brunner who continued to experiment with page layout.
In the 1980s, artist Frank Miller did the same with his work on Daredevil but now adding a new attitude to the storytelling to match the radical inclinations of his art. Influenced by film noir and later Japanese manga, he built an atmosphere of oppression and brutality to DD that only grew more intense issue by issue. No one realized it at the time, but Miller was leading the industry into uncharted territory, one that in time would become completely divorced from the strictures of the Comics Code Authority.
At the same time, across town at the offices of Marvel competitor DC, a British writer named Alan Moore was also doing his part to shake up the status quo. There, taking over the Swamp Thing comic, Moore immediately began to explore the dark side of the human psyche with tales that were increasingly unsuitable for young readers. Other writers from across the water would soon follow Moore’s example including Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. Together with Miller at Marvel, they would succeed in transforming ground level comics into an adult oriented playground where children were not welcome.
It was a transformation that the comics industry perhaps needed as prices climbed and readership shrunk with children abandoning comics (and reading in general) for other pursuits. With a fan base now comprised mostly of adolescents and young adults, the industry could proceed full speed ahead with a program of increasing violence, sex, and darkness. The line between heroes and villains became blurred so that by the end of the 1980s when Marvel and DC found themselves challenged by a host of upstart companies with no allegiance to the Comics Code, they were forced to adapt to the new sensibilities or continue to lose ground.
The following is a list of the top 10 most influential comics or series that acted as sign posts in this transitory period between the last years when comics were accessible to readers of every age and their current form appealing to an extremely narrow band of young adult fans who often require stories that feature the extremes of human behavior in order to be entertained.
10) Punisher Limited Series
Created by writer Gerry Conway in 1974, the Punisher was inspired by similar characters that had been appearing regularly in paperback for years including the Executioner, the Destroyer, and the Avenger. All derived their popularity in part from the Dirty Harry films of the early to mid-70s which capitalized on the frustrations of Americans with the apparent inadequacy of the law in dealing with criminals. By the 80s, such sentiments had trickled down to the younger set who soon took a shine to the Punisher who really began to take off after writer/artist Frank Miller featured him in one of his Daredevil stories. A limited series by writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck followed which proved to be a huge sales success. In succeeding years, the Punisher would star in numerous series, each more violent than the last helping to redefine what it meant to be a comic book hero all the while pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in comics.
Little known to most Americans, Lone Wolf and Cub was a Japanese comic book created by Kazuo Koike who drew in what is called the manga style. (A sense of which was had by American children of the 1960s who first saw examples of its anime version on such television shows as Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy). Immensely popular in Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub was finally reprinted in the United States by First Comics in 1987. Though its story about a disgraced samurai traveling the countryside with his three year old son was virtually unknown in the United States, writer/artist Frank Miller acknowledged its influence on his own work on Daredevil, Ronin, and the Dark Knight Returns, all of which in turn cast a huge shadow over the entire decade of the 1980s.
Influenced greatly by the Japanese comics art which he discovered while researching different forms of martial arts for his Daredevil stories, Frank Miller brought manga to mainstream readers in the United States via Ronin, a six part comics series he produced for DC. Independent publishers such as First and Viz and then Marvel followed, reprinting original manga comics like Akira, Area 88, and Mai the Psychic Girl. Though Miller’s work was influential in its own right (soon ninjas and samurai were popping up all over American comics), it was the manga style that caught on with a cohort of young up and coming artists such as Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and others whose huge success with Image in the 1990s would wipe out the influence of such American comic strip artists as Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond that had held sway over generations of comic book artists.
7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984, the unlikely named Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was initially a response to a number of fads then sweeping the comics world including teenaged super-heroes (Teen Titans), mutants (X-Men), ninjas (Daredevil), and funny animals (Howard the Duck). Produced on the cheap and taking advantage of a new direct distribution system servicing comics specialty stores, the black and white comic became an unexpected hit eventually becoming a multi-media juggernaut inspiring imitators and leading the charge for the many independent comics that would emerge in the 1980s.
At DC, writer/artist Frank Miller continued to dwell on the dark themes he first explored while doing Daredevil for Marvel now carrying on with a much anticipated take on Batman. Moving the action to a future time after the darknight detective has retired, Miller imagines in The Dark Knight Returns a Gotham City steeped in corruption and overrun by violent street gangs. Meanwhile, super-heroes have long since been outlawed by the federal government with Superman as enforcer. In a characterization that would remain with Batman for decades after, the caped crusader is positioned as the last remaining freeman with a mind and will of his own refusing to compromise or conform. The combination of a radical shift in Miller’s art style as well as the depiction of Batman as extreme individualist made the four part series a sensation and was even noticed by the mainstream media.
Together with Moore’s Watchmen, the two projects started fans buzzing that comics were finally going to be taken seriously by the wider public and indeed they did take comics to that brink. Unfortunately, the industry would end up suffering a double reversal: Watchmen and Dark Knight would not only represent the high point of the acceptance of comics by the public, but would also lead the industry over the edge into an abyss of violence, perversion, and outright nihilism that has cost it sales, readership, and recognition — a situation from which it has yet to recover.
The same year Miller came out with The Dark Knight Returns, fellow DC scribe Alan Moore released what has since been recognized as his masterpiece: Watchmen. In twelve parts, Moore detailed the story of a group of super-heroes suffering from all the foibles and weaknesses ordinary people are plagued with only ten times worse.
Like Miller’s Gotham City, Moore’s world is also corrupt and steeped in decadence and as the story progresses, we learn that one of the heroes has a plan to reverse that course by contriving a menace that will force the peoples of the world to forget their differences and unite against the common threat. Overall a depressing read, the series nevertheless struck a nerve with comics readers and eventually some non-comics readers who identified somehow with the story’s pessimistic world view. It was a view to be shared by many other creators in the comics industry born from their mostly left-leaning politics who saw any attempt by those holding more traditional values as reason for fear and loathing.
Convinced that Moore was on to something, they quickly followed in his footsteps with a train of new comics series focusing on destroying long running characters and revealing them as cowards, perverts, or creeps. By the 1990s the process would have advanced enough that it seemed the industry preferred to devour its own rather than to preserve their legacies. Meanwhile, perhaps reflecting the state of mind to be found in America’s schools, Watchmen was being assigned as serious reading material alongside the classics of English lit.
4) Daredevil: Born Again
Miller returned to Marvel and Daredevil in 1986 where he produced a mini-series within the book’s regular numbering sub-titled “Born Again.” Like he did with The Dark Knight Returns, Miller finds New York City ruled under the thumb of the Kingpin who turns his sights on Daredevil, determined to destroy him by ruining him financially and tearing down his reputation. He succeeds, but in a final act of faith, Miller brings DD back from the brink allowing readers some hope that no matter how bad things might get (even in the current state of the comics industry) there’s always a chance for salvation. Following the nose dive into despair taken by Watchmen and his own Dark Knight Returns, Miller offered a path out of the abyss if anyone cared to take it. Few have.
Hope, it seemed, was also the theme of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Ostensibly a retelling albeit in far more detail, of Batman’s origin, the story actually reinterprets the origin in a more down to earth, realistic manner more fitting of the industry’s rapidly changing attitudes. Heroes were now far from perfect paragons of goodness. They were darker, moodier, filled with personal failings and constantly struggling to discern good from evil. Luckily, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne manages that by the end of Year One while the series itself went on to vast influence on the Batman character in the comics, in movies, and soon with a new television series titled Gotham.
Invented by Avengers scribe Roy Thomas, the Squadron Supreme only came into its own with a 12 issue maxi-series written by Mark Gruenwald. Actually beginning a year before Watchmen and Dark Knight, it covers many of the same topics raised by those more famous series. Mainly, however, it posited the question of what super-heroes would do if they actually lived in the real world.
In the case of this series, they would get tired of the super-villain merry go round and just take over running the world themselves. That action reveals problems of its own while the single holdout to the move is Nighthawk, fittingly, this dimension’s answer to Batman. Not well served in the art department, the Squadron Supreme series was ahead of its time in the themes covered (if only by a few months) even as the media spotlight failed to shine on Gruenwald the way it would on Miller and Moore.
1) Image Comics
No one knew it at the time but as the first book to be officially released by Image Comics in April of 1992, Youngblood #1 signaled an event that would change everything. Admittedly this entry might be considered a slight cheat, but the influence of the Image boys, who were all top artists at Marvel in the 1980s, was virtually impossible to ignore in a list like this. Image was formed earlier that year when a group of disaffected artists left Marvel to form their own company. Not just any artists, most of them were among the hottest creators in the field; rock stars if you will. Thus their leavetaking and whatever they chose to do afterward would hold instant credibility with fans crazy about their manga-influenced styles. As word leaked out through the fan press, excitement grew about the awesome nature of the new comics these young artists would create but no one could possibly have anticipated the feeding frenzy that followed. Despite the fact that all of the initial comics released by the company, including Youngblood #1 written and drawn by Rob Liefeld, were derivative of what the artists had been doing at Marvel and that most of the artists couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, all of Image’s releases became monster hits selling in the millions of copies to fans all dreaming of making a killing on the secondary market. Overnight, not only did Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larson, Jim Valentino, and Mark Silvestri become millionaires, but the style of comics production they employed became the new default setting for any comics company that wanted to compete with them.
For years afterward, practically any new artist seeking to break into the field was influenced by their manga-based style and preference for poster art over panel to panel story progression, an attitude that persists today, nearly 25 years later. Even less palatable was the downgrading of writers. Because the Image boys wrote their own material and that material was selling in the millions of copies, it was logically assumed that writers were not needed to sell comics. Thus, scripting became less important across the entire industry until today, most comics are still highly underwritten and stories often confusing. Produced without the Comics Code seal of approval, Image Comics also promoted a no-holds-barred approach to comics: more violence, sex, and crude language was the order of the day. Because of all this, Image Comics, with its roots in the late 1980s, must be considered by far, the most influential event of the era.