Comics Direct Market 50th Anniversary.”
Even from a distance of nearly four decades, 1986 still stands out as a landmark year for the comics business. At the highest level, it was the year of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus, the “big three” that put comics on the cultural radar for the first time. But it was also the year when the Direct Market model proved that creating comics for the most devoted and discerning readers was the future of the business.
Beyond the big three. The glow of year’s top titles tends to outshine what else was going on in comics that year, which is a shame because there was an embarrassment of riches. First, consider the year’s three most celebrated auteurs, Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman.
Moore was also recruited to write a special two-part Superman story, bidding farewell to the Silver Age version of the character. The story Moore uncorked for the occasion, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (drawn by Curt Swan with Murphy Anderson and George Perez), at once captures, comments on and memorializes the storytelling style that millions associated with the iconic hero, and remains one of the single greatest superhero stories ever done. In his spare time, Moore continued to grind away on Marvelman (known as Miracleman in the editions that Eclipse Comics brought out in the US). He also wrote and even drew several other strips in the UK.
Rise of the indies. Pull the lens out further on 1986 and you’ll spot a bunch of other work drawing notice from fans and critics.
Fantagraphics Books’ Love and Rockets hit a stellar high point in 1986 with the “Death of Speedy” storyline, written and drawn by Jaime Hernandez, whose cartooning had rounded into classic form. For fans who had little use for superheroes or genre material, that was the major story of the year right there.
Further down the racks, you might have been tempted by Samurai Penguin #1, the first offering from Slave Labor Graphics, a new publisher from San Jose, California. Or maybe you’d take a flier on Boris the Bear by James Dean Smith, Randy Stradley and Mike Richardson, published under the imprint Richardson had just spun up, Dark Horse Comics. Later that year, a second title, Dark Horse Presents, would introduce Paul Chadwick’s Concrete.
Oh, and DC Comics gave us a preview of the innovations of TDKR with Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow miniseries, rebooted Superman under the creative direction of John Byrne, and set the stage for George Perez’s reinvented Wonder Woman. Marvel Comics, which lacked some of these creative highlights, cried all the way to the bank with 70% of the market on the back of its burgeoning X-Men franchise.
Everyone was young and ambitious. There were a lot of reasons that 1986 was such a landmark year, but one of the less remarked-on ones has to do with demographics. The late 70s and early 80s saw a generational change in industry management, as founding publishers and veteran editors gave way to much younger leadership.
In 1986, DC publisher Jenette Kahn, who’d been on the job since 1976, was not yet 40; her lieutenant, then-vice president Paul Levitz, turned 30 in October, and one of the company’s more important editors, Karen Berger, was still in her 20s. Marvel was under the firm control of Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, 35, and staffed by his contemporaries. Most of the independent publishers were even younger; so were the distributors and retailers. This cohort reflected the tastes and values of their customers because they came out of the same culture, with the same ambitions to expand comics beyond their previous limits – and were at a stage of their careers where they were willing to take chances.
Today, a lot of the industry has aged in place, or the new crop of unruly risk-takers has been hemmed in by corporate management. If you want to look for the next 1986 in comics, look for the younger faces, if you can find them.
Looking back with envy. The Direct Market created a cozy circle of production, distribution and consumption that eventually closed around the throat of the industry, creating severe problems that linger on to the present day. But in 1986, it was an exciting and unprecedented convergence of talent, interests, passion and money. The resulting explosion of creative energy was almost inevitable.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and an Eisner-Award nominee.
Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on November 20, 2023 @ 5:57 pm CT