Friday Flashback: 1986 - The Biggest Year in Comics

Word Balloon: Dave Gibbons

It’s been called the most important year in the history of the industry (of course, 1938 and 1961 had some things going on).  It’s been called the year that the industry grew up (forgetting, of course, Harry and Speedy’s problems with drugs, among other things).  It’s been called the year that the mainstream started paying attention to comics as an art form (that has more merit).  Whatever the case, it’s inescapable that 1986 had a mammoth impact on the field of comics in general.  So, before we get into some of the things that rocked 1986 in comic manner of speaking, let’s look at the rest of the world  . . .

1986 in general: 1986 was actually a big year for space; Russian space station Mir launched, Voyager II reached Uranus,  Halley’s Comet passed by, and, sadly, Space Shuttle Challenger met its fate on January 28th.  Global tensions escalated as the United States undertook military action against Libya and got embroiled in the day-to-day discussion of the Iran-Contra Affair.  The Soviet Union had to confront the Chernobyl meltdown.   Mike Tyson (who, incidentally, loves the drum breakdown from “In The Air Tonight”) wins his first world title.  Bill Buckner commits one of the most grievous errors in baseball history during game six of the World Series. Fox Broadcasting Company took off, “The Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway, Eric Thomas came up with LISTSERV, the “Brain” PC virus begins a long tradition of computer intrusion, and Pixar was acquired from Lucasfilm by Steve Jobs (we call that a “good move”).

1986 at the movies: Interestingly enough, the “Siskel & Ebert” version of the pairs’ movie review show went into syndication in 1986; though they’d been on TV (including PBS) since they ‘70s, this would be their longest running show, only closing down this year.  Best Picture at the Oscars went to “Platoon”, but the biggest moneymaker was “Top Gun”.  Other hits were “Crocodile Dundee”,  “Back to School”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and sequels “Aliens”, “The Karate Kid, Part II” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”.  Other significant films included “Blue Velvet”, “An American Tail”, “The Fly”, “Highlander”, “Hoosiers”,  “Labyrinth”, “Sid and Nancy”, “Transfomers: The Movie”,  John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” (released in Hong Kong that year),  Tsui Hark’s “Peking Opera Blues” (ditto), “Asterix in Britain” (from France), and “Jean de Florette” (ditto).

1986 in music: 1986 conducted a massacre as a number of important bands ceased to exist; among them were The Clash, Dead Kennedys (though they’d return in 2001), Black Flag (there have been Rollins-less reunions), Wham!, The Revolution (as in “Prince and”), Madness, (reunited in the ‘90s), and Culture Club (perpetually reuniting).  The biggest singles were, well, very ‘80s: Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”, Maddona’s “Papa Don’t Preach”, Europe’s “The Final Countdown”, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” (the success of which actually killed the band), and Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”.  Other significant songs included “Master of Puppets” by Metallica, “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, “Your Love” by The Outfield, and the other singles released by Madonna, Janet Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Van Halen (of which there were many).  The indisputably most important videos of the year were “Walk This Way” by Run DMC and Aerosmith, and “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel.  Gabriel pushed the possibility of the form, and Run-DMC and Aerosmith literally broke down the wall between rock and rap (a process begun on 1985’s “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid).

And now, the comics:  Where the hell do you even begin with 1986?  The companies that launched?  The big Big Two books?  Maus collected for the first time?  Seriously, it’s insane.

Let’s go with companies.  Two that launched in 1986 that still thrive today are Dark Horse Comics and Slave Labor Graphics.  To say that they’ve done some important things would be an understatement along the lines of “that Hendrix guy played guitar okay”.  Gladstone debuted in 1986, and produced licensed Disney titles and reprints for many years. Malibu and its imprint Eternity also launched.  Eternity would be initial home of “Evil Ernie”, leading eventually to the separate Chaos! Comics; Malibu were the publishers of record for Image until 1993, and also launched the Ultraverse before being purchased and absorbed into Marvel Comics.    

Though it first began life as far back as 1972 as three-page strip in “Funny Animals” from Apex, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” generated enormous popular attention when the serial strips were collected in 1986.  The story up to that point “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I: My Father Bleeds History” earned a 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award; the second volume, published in 1992, would also earn that award, and go on to win a Harvey, an Eisner, and the Pulitzer Prize (Special Awards and Citations – Letters) that year.  All serious fans of this field already know what “Maus” is and what it’s about, but it’s worth noting that many outside “our community” weren’t aware of the kind of storytelling that was possible in comics.  These days, “Maus” is rightly acknowledged as a classic; when “Entertainment Weekly” compiled their list of “New Classics: Books – The 100 Best Reads from 1983 to 2008”, they placed “Maus” at number seven on the list, in the company of such important works as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, “Into Thin Air”, “Cold Mountain”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Love in the Time of Cholera”,  and, incidentally, “Watchmen”.

Ah, “Watchmen”.  You’d think that we’d all almost be tired of talking about it at this point.  Nevertheless, in terms of style, approach, thought, and sheer literary merit, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created the kind of work that isn’t easily left out of any serious comics conversation.  It’s acclaim is widespread and well-known, including its winning of a Hugo Award and its inclusion on Time’s list of “The 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to the Present” (Those wondering about 1923 as a starting point?  That’s the year that Time Magazine started).  Regardless, the arrival of “Watchmen” was a Big Deal.  I remember the house ads and the news bits that appeared in free, brightly colored comic shop handout “Direct Currents”.  Somehow, you knew things would be different after this.  And you were right.

As Moore and Gibbons deconstructed the genre in the above limited series, Frank Miller (along with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley) had more than a little to say.  His “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” revitalized the Caped Crusader with a look at a future Batman returning from retirement to reclaim Gotham from a tide of crime.  This approach, appearing alongside the dystopian “Watchmen”, forged the “grim and gritty” era that would pervade the late ‘80s and ‘90s.  Really, it’s a classic tale (as Alan Moore would note in his introduction), echoing the notion of one last ride, the idea that no hero’s tale is complete until you witness his final battle (like Robin Hood or King Arthur).  Miller would be invited the next year to recharge actual Batman continuity, which he did as writer of the “Batman: Year One” arc.  That take still lingers over the character, and certainly paved the way for Batman’s domination of Hollywood in 1989.

Going back to the final battle, Moore got to write the last days of the Silver Age Superman in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow”?  That storyline closed out that continuity as part of the companion endgame to “Crisis on Infinite Earths”.  Begun in 1985, that series consolidated the multiverse and history of the DCU to one, new Earth.  Moore’s tale put away all of the toys of the previous decades, and set the table for John Byrne’s “The Man of Steel”, the six-issue mini that rebooted Superman for a new continuity and new age.  From those points on, all of DC history would come to be referred to as “Pre-Crisis” and “Post-Crisis”.

Miller reinvigorated another hero, this one at Marvel, and this one, ironically, for a second time.  Miller had made Daredevil into a heavy hitter at Marvel in the early ‘80s, but the “Born Again” story, drawn by David Mazzucchelli from #227 to #233, expanded the parameters for the Man Without Fear.  It’s not coincidence that Mazzucchelli would be the artist on “Batman: Year One” the following year.

Not everything in 1986 went well.  Marvel’s New Universe launched with high hopes, but didn’t prove to be the booming success that the company hoped for.  Four of the titles only lasted a year, and the most popular didn’t quite make three.  Characters and concepts have appeared in the Marvel line over time, but in many ways, New Universe is a cautionary tale about launching a new and separate line of super-heroes.  It’s extremely hard to do, and many subsequent efforts (from the Dark Horse World’s Greatest to Malibu’s Ultraverse and others) have failed to stick past a few years.

From an individual issue story perspective, there were many character events.  Apart from the many casualties and reboots born from “Crisis”, Bruce Banner married Betty Ross (“Incredible Hulk” #319), “Green Lantern” became “Green Lantern Corps”,  Concrete appears in “Dark Horse Presents”, Marvel conducts the Mutant Massacre (which includes the first confrontation between Wolverine and Sabretooth),  DC continued their big crossovers with “Legends”, Alan Moore was still writing “Swamp Thing”, Marvel would launch “The ‘Nam”,  Booster Gold debuted, X-Factor spun out a story in “Avengers” and “Fantastic Four” that brought back Jean Grey, The Punisher got a mini, “Dylan Dog” made its way out here, as did “Omaha the Cat Dancer”.  Other first appearances of note were Amanda Waller, Kilowog, Apocalypse, Eddie Brock, and the U.S. Agent.

So, in the end, what was it about 1986?  Was it a group of creators hitting their stride?  Was it a prevailing editorial culture that allowed more risks?  Was it the determination of a man to tell his father’s story in the medium that hadn’t yet embraced dramatic personal narrative?  Was it societal unease the fed the rise of pessimistic dystopian visions of the effect of super-heroes?  Was it everything?  One could argue that 1986 never really stopped, given that moves made and works created at the time never stopped influencing and shaping comics.  That was 1986, and that’s your Friday Flashback.

So, was 1986 the biggest year in comics? So, was 1986 the biggest year in comics?

Twitter activity