Welcome back to part two! If you haven’t read part one of this long-winded editorial, you can find it here. Otherwise, if you are primarily just interested in the more modern end of comic historical awesomeness, this will be a fine beginning point.
Alright, so where was I? Oh yes, moving through the metallic ages of comics…
The Bronze Age
With the assumed importance of the Comics Code Authority flattened against the pavement (in the stead of that nice kid on drugs that was mentioned last installment), comics in the 1970s began to get darker. For example, suddenly characters actually died … as people tend to do in real life. This shift from comics for kids to comics for a genre-interested group of fans shifted the entire medium into a different beast all together.
The 1970s general awareness of relevant social issues, and the popularized movement to make commentary about these issues within art, made comics a perfect paradigm for metaphorical and visual representation Suddenly comic book heroes were becoming more diversified. The 1970s saw the birth of several non-white superheroes like Storm, Luke Cage, Sunspot, John Stewart, and Cyborg (there were others, those are just some of my favorites from the list).
As for the 1980s, they were a time of comic book gold in my unassuming opinion. For example, God Loves, Man Kills (also known as Marvel Graphic Novel #5) sets the bar of intelligence and poignancy which very few comics have ever reached. Where the X-men of the 60s and 70s might have hinted at the issues of intolerance and racism, 1982’s God Loves, Man Kills slaps you in the face with the depth of these societal problems.
“Comics by their very nature do not age well. Like most pop culture, they reflect the age in which they are written, but God Loves, Man Kills has genuinely stood the test of time. Mutants are the perfect metaphor for intolerance, prejudice and injustice and sadly, those issues are still as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.” (A very good review by Jamie Hailstone from Den of Geek)
The plot of this graphic novel should be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie X2. So take that movie and multiply it by about a million awesome points and you might scratch the surface of the graphic novel from which it was based. The story centers around Reverend William Stryker, a religious anti-mutant zelot. Stryker kidnaps Professor X in an attempt to commit genocide against all mutants. The metaphor slams the general American tendency for prejudice as well as the growing voice of racism within religious televangelist groups. Just like in the movie, Magneto joins with the X-men against Stryker, marking a point of unity for the polarized mutant society.
I think more than anything it was the imagery that really struck me about this graphic novel. Brent Anderson’s art at first glance makes eyes widen. Appreciation of how just much of the story is told through his art soon follows this initial impression.
But Marvel wasn’t the only company making profound statements in the 80s. A few years later in 1986 DC began the 12 issue serialization of a story that single handedly made reading comics cool. Watchmen was dark and gritty. The kind of dark and gritty that hadn’t been done before. Perhaps you have seen the movie. This time around I will admit that the movie was an extremely well portrayed rendition (though the ending varied from the book significantly).
In 2005 TIME composed a list of All Time 100 Novels. Watchmen, though a graphic novel, made this list. This is what TIME had to say about it:
“Watchmen is a graphic novel … starring a ragbag of bizarre, damaged, retired superheroes: the paunchy, melancholic Nite Owl; the raving doomsayer Rorschach; the blue, glowing, near-omnipotent, no-longer-human Doctor Manhattan. Though their heyday is past, these former crime-fighters are drawn back into action by the murder of a former teammate, The Comedian, which turns out to be the leading edge of a much wider, more disturbing conspiracy. Told with ruthless psychological realism, in fugal, overlapping plotlines and gorgeous, cinematic panels rich with repeating motifs, Watchmen is a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read and a watershed in the evolution of a young medium.” (TIME)
*Cough cough* Well. If time says it ain’t trash reading, perhaps it’s true, eh? (This jab isn’t meant to you, dear reader. I’m still a little bitter over the aforementioned incident in Half Price Books).
Author Alan Moore skillfully wove the story of Watchmen to be a commentary on the concept of superheroes, history, and human nature. In Moore’s version of the world, “superheroes” debuted in the 1940s and changed the course of history as we know it. In the 1960s the presence of superheroes, especially that of Dr. Manhattan, tips the balance in the strained relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Watchmen, being a dark and gritty kind of comic, was one of the flagships to issue in the next, more psychologically intense, stage of comic history.
The Copper (Modern) Age
The coolness of 1980s DC comics didn’t end with Watchmen. Characters suddenly were about more than the big wins in the big fights. It was much more interesting for a hero to be psychologically complex. Just as the decade was about to switch over to the 90s, DC hired author Neil Gaiman to write a whole new kind of comic series:
“New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s transcendent series SANDMAN is often hailed as the definitive Vertigo title and one of the finest achievements in graphic storytelling. Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death by weaving ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision.” (DC’s Vertigo website)
Perhaps you’ve heard Gaiman’s name before due to his enormously popular fantasy genre hits such as American Gods, Stardust and Coraline. Along with Watchmen, Sandman was one of very few graphic novels to make it to the New York Times Best Seller list. It was also the only graphic novel to win the World Fantasy Award.
The Sandman’s main character is Morpheus. Basically Morpheus is the personification of dreams. He rules over the dream realm. Most of the series, therefore takes place within the dream state. After being imprisoned for over 70s years, Morpheus escapes into a new, modern society. His once cold, cruel way of being somehow doesn’t fit anymore. Morpheus begins to change as he takes on the long task of atoning for his sins.
So why all the acclaim? Gaiman plays with his main character, Morpheus, in the role of the tragic hero. Morpheus has incredible power, yet unlike other superheroes his focus is not in battling giant monsters or mad scientists. Morpheus is battling his own ego and his own capacity for humanity. Really, Sandman is just plain well written. The profound nature of the comic comes in the small corners of the story, through lines here and there that just make a reader stop and go ‘whoa.’
“What power would hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of heaven?” (Preludes and Nocturnes).
… or just huff a small chuckle
“I think the whole world’s gone mad.”
“Uh-Uh. It’s always been like this. You probably just don’t get out enough.” (Death: The High Cost of Living)
“Considering the damage he must have done to that body — thirty years of every drug a man could snort, sniff or shoot, and the last ten years as a practicing health-freak and gourmand… it’s a blessing he got as long as he did. Probably how he would have wanted to go. Me, i want to be squashed by a bull elephant at the moment of orgasm while sandwiched ecstatically between two or three agile greased nubian virgins.” (Death: The Time of Your Life)
Sandman lasted through the mid 90s. That means quite a few issues built up through the years. Probably the easiest way for you to start to tackle the Sandman series is to begin picking up some of the 10 trade paperbacks that were created to collect all the stories.
So, in looking at the beginnings of comic heroes with Superman up to the new, dark heroes like the Watchmen and Sandman, it is obvious that the human need for a hero has evolved over the past 75 years. But, what about modern comics since the turn of the century? What do comics say about us today? I’d like to answer that. But not right now.
Did I say that this will be a 2 part editorial? Hmmm… seems I fibbed a bit. In writing part two I decided that to give full diligence to the past decade or so of comics there should probably be an entire editorial installment dedicated just to that. But the format will be a little different and less like a stuffy-pants history lesson.
So this is where I implore you to stay tuned once again for the conclusion next week where I will present a Top Ten most significant comics of this century! Anyone who would like to cast a vote or make a suggestion as to what should be included in this list, please do so!