The late 1970s and 1980s were a seminal time period for comic books: Crisis On Infinite Earths, the ascension of the X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the birth of the direct market. Some look fondly back at those times with nostalgia, and comic book historian George Khoury is doing that – while also as a documentarian – in his new book Comic Book Fever.
This 240-page hardcover looks back at that pivotal period, using old articles, images, and interviews from the major movers of the period such as Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Jim Starlin, the Hernandez Brothers, Kevin Eastman, and more.
Newsarama talked with Khoury about his latest non-fiction book and balancing nostalgia with a modern critical appraisal.
Newsarama: George, why'd you decide to do a book covering the late 1970s and early 1980s?
George Khoury: After 19 years of covering comics, I wanted to come back home to the era that made me love this medium. It's also the period that pretty much the defined the industry as we see before us today. Not only did the direct market emerge, but the medium went away from being perceived as something just for children into one with much more mass appeal for kids of all ages.
Nrama: Why was this period the golden age for you?
Khoury: It's the age when I discovered the infinite possibilities inside of comics. It seemed like there was always some exciting new book at the local spinner rack back then. And you didn't need a ton of money to buy these books, all you needed were a few coins and an open mind to experience an unbelievable experience.
By the way, I've always thought that a "golden age" is a period when there's a multitude of exciting books happening at the same time. I remember enjoying the excitement of early 1990s books by the Image founders, the ABC Books (1999-2006) by Alan Moore and company, and, even, NuMarvel (2001-2004). In our lifetime, there can be several golden ages.
Nrama: You came of age in this time covered in the story, but was there any facet of comic books from that period that you didn't come to learn or enjoy about until later? If so, can you talk about examples?
Khoury: When you’re a kid, subtly goes right over your head. Re-reading all these comic books after so many years was enlightening because the best of them have many rich layers that I could appreciate as an adult.
For example, I remember enjoying Jim Starlin’s great cosmic saga solely for its slugfest climax (Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2) as a child. Now reading it as an adult, I found myself being more intrigued by the relationship of Thanos and Death. In the case of Thanos, it’s more of a one-way relationship because his oversized ego doesn’t let him see that Death’s affection are unattainable. If I had taken Starlin’s books to heart earlier, it would have made my life a whole lot easier in high school and college to understand that some things aren’t meant to be.
Nrama: So what do you write about in this book?
Khoury: I write about the pivotal comics era of 1976-1986. I write about the people, comics, and artifacts that made our childhood larger than life, and shaped the comics industry into pop culture giant that it is today.
Nrama: Who do you think was a pivotal figure that'd overlooked, compared to the likes of Alan Moore, John Byrne, and others from that era?
Khoury: I think John Buscema is overlooked today. He was Marvel’s top artist in the 1970s, and his decades of influence at Marvel still cast a shadow over there. While savvy fans know his powerful artwork and his achievements in our industry, I feel there’s a new generation out there that needs to discover his work for themselves. He’s one of our great icons.
Dave Cockrum is another one. Without his art, character designs, and costumes, today’s Marvel would have been a lot less thrilling. The X-Men would never have been the X-Men that we know today without Cockrum.
Those are the first two that come to mind.
Nrama: Whom do you have interviews with? And are these modern interviews, or older ones from that time period?
Khoury: Over the last five years, I did more than seventy interviews for this book. These were the people that I needed for this story. Inside the book are John Romita, Neal Adams, José Luis García-López, Chris Claremont, Kevin Eastman, and so many more influential people.
Nrama: This is during the time period that Uncanny X-Men became Marvel's top book. Do you delve into that passing of the torch?
Khoury: Of course. We examine the rise of the X-Men. We also examine their undeniable connection with comic book readers in this era.
Nrama: As an example of how in-depth you go, can you talk about why you think the Uncanny X-Men title was able to capture the zeitgeist like it did then?
Khoury: During this era, the X-Men was about acceptance and tolerance – and anyone can relate to that. No one wants to live in fear; no one wants to be despised because of their appearance and talents. Everyone has experienced periods where they’ve felt like outsiders, lonely and misunderstood. We all seek to fit in and connect with someone, somehow. And we all long for somewhere that feels like home, a place where our individuality is welcomed. Readers warmed up to the X-Men because they understood the characters and became emotionally invested in their pursuit of happiness.
Nrama: What about the B&W comix boom, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Khoury: The Turtles are here!
In Comic Book Fever, the TMNT chapter appears near the end of the book because I wanted to show how far comics had traveled from 1976 to 1986. In '76, something creator-owned like the Turtles could have never succeeded or happened. By 1986, there was a market, scores of comic book stores, and a sophisticated audience open to reading independent titles such as TMNT.
Also, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are the epitomes of what Jack Kirby desired for all comic book creators. Kirby didn't want people to draw just like him and work at the Big Two for the rest of their lives drawing his old characters. He wanted future artists to use his influence to push themselves by making their way with their own characters. Eastman and Laird did all of that. Like Kirby, they showed us all that the future of comics is in our own hands.
Nrama: For this book, you're diving deep into the comic books of that era, from creators to stories and even the ads. Let's talk about that later part -- what made those ads unique and memorable?
Khoury: To me, comics were never disposable entertainment. Back in the day, we often reread comics and would look closely at those wonderful ads for all types of fascinating goodies. The stories, the editorial page, the letters page, and the ads were all a part of the comics reading experience. My favorite ones were the comic book strip advertisements such as the Hostess ones and "Street Ball" by Jack Davis for Spalding because they felt like an extra page of content - I wanted all the comics content that my money could get me.
Nrama: Looking back on it all now 30+ years ago, does it hold up past the nostalgia?
Khoury: Yes. Pretty much everything covered in Comic Book Fever is still relevant today. They are the people, places, and things that left an indelible impression.
All of the comics in the book have been collected again and again by their respective publishers. We still see and feel their influence in popular culture today.