I routinely get asked what’s so fascinating about reading stories of spandex-clad super-heroes in the comics. I’ll get remarks that it’s just “nerd” material, just for kids, or that I need to get outside more. Granted, I do question at times why Superman wears red underwear outside his costume, but hey, he’s still fully clothed and that’s all that matters…
There’s a lot to be said about the comic book itself and what it brought to the table throughout history. When people were first introduced to Captain America in the 40’s, it was a response to our fears about how the U.S. will fare in WWII. When the X-Men were introduced in the 60’s, it spoke volumes about the racial prejudice prominent to that period. Then there were the stories that brought things down to a more personal scale. Spider-Man brought us a character that not only fought crime, but dealt with real-life issues most high school and college students could relate to. The Fantastic Four showed us that even super-hero families have relational issues and can still work them out. Combine these with the sci-fi aspects that comes with being super heroes and you can see why comics have outlasted economic turmoil and critic bashing over the years.
Of course, being that comics have been a visual medium for the longest time, there comes a time when the emphasis on art is stronger than emphasis on writing. Enter the early 90’s. Artists became superstars. Publishers produced hundreds of covers for almost every single issue. It was the “in” thing to collect and sell at later times. Storytelling took a back seat while artwork helped rack in the dough.
Then the market became saturated with thousands of useless issues that weren’t being collected. Consumers realized the deteriorating value behind these issues. Retailers and publishers lost millions. Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996. The bare-bones storytelling became more noticeable and many fan-favorite characters suffered via cancellations. The industry started to re-think the direction behind its heroes as well as other areas they can explore.
The mid 90’s started to show the potential of the medium through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which Mike touched upon in our first podcast.
It was a different approach, delving into and re-inventing the mythologies Gaiman wanted to play with. It went away from the conventional super hero books and showed that comics could be as just a respected reading medium as any novel on the bookshelves. DC took notice and created its “Vertigo” line to accommodate creator-owned lines and new universes.
Fables, Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and more would help in grabbing old readers disenchanted by the old superhero stories and new readers looking for innovative storytelling. The superhero books would follow after DC and Marvel discovered a new crop of writers that could re-invent their images. And while today’s sales numbers may not reach the numbers the 80’s and early 90’s brought, comics are getting a new kind of respect that has resulted in writers being offered TV gigs and comic properties becoming high-grossing movies.
My next few posts will highlight the books I feel are helping to realize the medium’s potential. Feel free to suggest any you feel deserve to be up on that list. Enjoy!