In Marvel Comics in the 1980s, author Pierre Comtois presents the third in his series of Marvel history books by examining individual comics released through the decade. Comtois focuses on popular storylines, such as Uncanny X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga”, as well as books whose significance is a little harder to nail down. These entries are an opportunity to place the book’s creative team, character’s popularity, or Marvel’s fluid corporate state in context, but often the entries devolve into a capsule review or, at worst, summary.
From the beginning, Comtois asserts that “creeping negativity” brought on by comics like DC Comics’ Watchmen poisoned the all ages appeal of comic books, and that stain remains to this day. This sentiment finds its way into many of the book’s entries, from comments on the death of Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men to Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil.
There certainly is a nugget of truth in what Comtois says — many mainstream comics post-Watchmen (not to mention Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns) stripped away that book’s structure and ambition and kept the body count. Creators less capable than Alan Moore and Frank Miller (and sometimes Alan Moore and Frank Miller) took violence and darkness to extremes, but that was as much a reaction to fan demand as it was the reality of influence. The problem with comics today, if Comtois is looking for a diagnosis, is aligning titles with the big screen counterparts, the incessant release of “everything changes” crossovers, and a supposedly more realistic approach to superheroes, which only makes them seem more absurd.
There is a strong “get off my lawn tone” running throughout the book, not just in Comtois’ comments about comics’ negativity in the ’80s, but also in his approach to the Comics Code Authority. Created in 1954, this self-censorship organization was a reaction against accusations by a pop-psychologist that comic book caused juvenile delinquency. As a result, comics were stripped of anything considered offensive to an arbitrary review board and the audience shrank like Ant-Man. The Code’s restrictions were so lax by the time it was completely abandoned in the early part of the ’00s that many people failed to notice, but for nearly 50 years its symbol appeared on thousands of comics.
The Comics Code Authority may have saved comic books in the short term, but it stunted the form’s growth for decades. This is a fairly standard examination of the facts, yet Comtois writes, “With the abandonment of the Comics Code, the industry had turned its back on being a true mass medium and became satisfied as a niche phenomenon appealing to an ever-shrinking base for which only constantly increasing cover prices could make up for subsequent losses in earnings.”
Again, there is a nugget of truth in Comtois’ words. For years Marvel desperately catered to existing fans, rehashing storylines and concepts already beaten into the ground, all at the expense of creating work that might attract new and younger readers. Hollywood success certainly hasn’t lavished comics with the kind of spike in readership one might expect, but that’s a function of the fractured media landscape that faces consumers of all ages. The idea that the Comics Code might spur creators to make work “suitable” for kids ignores the fact that there are dozens of titles already available that fit this criteria, none of which feature the once ubiquitous seal of approval. You don’t even have to leave the house to buy them.
In his introduction he writes that he wanted to avoid a book on the ’80s because he thought there would be too much material to cover (Marvel produced more books in the ’80s than ever before), and he didn’t think much of it would be good. He found entertaining work, of course, but popular stories like Walter Simonson’s run on Thor are dismissed and the Elektra stories in Daredevil are called “overrated and unsuited for the DD strip.”
It’s almost as if Comtois is trolling the reader, treating the printed page as a message board on which to make fans go crazy. It might be funny, but Comtois also crosses the line from fan offense to actual offense by writing that creation of Phoenix character in Uncanny X-Men was a “burst of misguided feminism”. He fails to elaborate just what that means.
With its abundance of exclamation points and often cheery tone, this book at times reads like an extended Bullpen Bulletins page. It feels like an attempt to create an alternative critical history of Marvel Comics by shifting focus away from the success of Uncanny X-Men and the later rise of artists like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. It’s refreshing to see creators like Bill Mantlo and Roger Stern get the praise they deserve, but many of the book’s other claims call that praise into question.