Oh, and I quit working at the library because working at the comic shop was a pay raise.

§ September 14th, 2020 § Filed under does mike ever shut up § 12 Comments

Twitter pal Tim Byrne (who has kicked off many a previous ProgRuin post) asks:

“I know you weren’t (yet) in retail at the time, but can you do a post about how the comics world felt in 1986-88 in the midst of Maus / Dark Knight Returns / Watchmen etc?”

I started my path to comics retail fortune and glory in September of 1988, working afternoons at the comic shop after college classes were done for the day, and before my evening shifts at the library. This was after working during the summer at a medical parts factory (tubes and machinery and stuff, not, like, limbs and organs), somehow being put in charge of the stockroom after the regular stock guy quit and I, the temp guy who was just there to do an inventory count for a couple of days, was given the keys to the wire-cage castle.

Well, that job sucked and when summer was over, I was glad to have the excuse of resuming classes to bail myself out…but still had need to maintain income to pay for that ol’ college thing. As it turned out, the comic shop I frequented was losing one of its regular employees, and I half-facetiously suggested “hey, how ’bout hiring me?” and thus here I am, 32 years later, trying to puzzle out how many copies of all these Marvel variant covers I need to order for my own shop.

Okay, Tim, you didn’t ask for that, but you did ask me to talk about me and I’m my favorite subject, as anyone who reads this blog, or my Twitter, or ever mistakenly engages me in conversation, quickly discovers to their despair. But that does give you a little bit of context of where I was in that period…’86-’87 I was a senior in high school, and in the autumn of ’87 I started college, so those were the things occupying most of my headspace.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was definitely reading comics, and buying the Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journals, so I was trying to keep up with stuff at the time, but after all these years I feel like my specific memories of that period are an amalgam of what I’ve actually experienced mixed with what I’ve learned elsewhere. I do have a vague memory of seeing a two-page advertisement for Dark Knight Returns in the Rolling Stone-esque SPIN…you know, that sort of thing.

Other than that, I don’t really recall witnessing the specific cultural impact of Dark Knight, Watchmen and/or Maus around me at the time. I knew they were special…I mean, Dark Knight had better be special, that comic was $2.95 a throw, for Pete’s sake. But I knew they were special because 1) the fan press was all abuzz about them, 2) just plain reading them told me “hey, this is a sea change of some sort, isn’t it,” and 3) they…well, mostly Dark Knight, were getting parodied up the wazoo by other comics. They were A Thing just within the comics world itself, and that’s what I primarily saw from my not-yet-in-comics-retail perspective.

The biggest industry impact, I think, was the idea that “at last, comics will be taken seriously as an art form,” a thing perhaps we can mildly suggest was jumping the gun a little. But they were making inroads in trade editions into bookstores, which didn’t know what to do with them so Maus was racked with Garfield.

And there was real world media coverage, primarily variations of “POW! BAM! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!” with lurid descriptions of whatever violent activity they could pull out of context. And that of course brought folks to worrying about a new Frederic Wertham and a comics witch-hunt, as Dark Knight and Watchmen paved the way for a “mainstreaming” of more mature (or “mature”) comics material.

It wasn’t all negative…I think there was a real excitement within the comics realm for new, interesting material that pushed the boundaries and shook things up. There was some bemoaning of publishers taking the wrong lessons from Dark Knight and Watchmen in the “dark and gritty” trend in superhero books, but looking back I don’t think things were necessarily as bad as people were saying. Well, I mean, sure, there was that Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, trying to catch that Dark Knight-lightning by using the same format and upping the violence.

But “excitement” I think is the right world for that 1986-8 period. A lot of good, interesting, and just plain weird stuff was coming out, and lots of material outside the usual Marvel and DC pipelines were getting attention and sales. Not that Marvel and DC were slouches…Marvel’s Epic line was still going strong, DC had Swamp Thing (its vanguard for more adult storytelling), and Crisis on Infinite Earths, which inspired revampings/retoolings of much of its line and grabbed a lot of attention from fans.

Look, I know I’m leaving a lot of specific stuff out. But the general sense I have of this period, admittedly possibly clouded by some nostalgia, is that this was a fun if strange time for comics. Real world media coverage, already trickling in, was about to storm the gates as the 1989 Batman film approached, it seemed like readers were a little more willing to experiment with what they were picking up at the shops, and a wide variety of material, traditional and offbeat, was being produced. And the coverage of the industry and reviews of the product, as in the aforementioned Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal, was informative and occasionally a bit snarky, back before we were all sick of snark.

I’m sure there’s space for a more granular examination of what was happening during this specific period, but this is how I remember it. Hope that answers your question, Tim!

12 Responses to “Oh, and I quit working at the library because working at the comic shop was a pay raise.”

  • Tim says:

    Thanks for writing / replying!

    This idea that something that questions the genre conventions will ‘kill’ the genre comes up from time to time, and is rarely accurate.

    I remember when everyone thought that ‘Scream’ would mean that no-one would take traditional horror movies seriously ever again…

  • Daniel says:

    Comics in the mid- to late-1980s was my favorite period for the medium. I had just gotten into comics in the summer of ’84 as an 11-year-old. Those early ’80s comics were fine (Superman 400 is still the single greatest Superman issue ever), but once 1986 came around and all the DC post-Crisis reboots started happening, there was a sudden and palpable excitement at the comics shop every week that hadn’t existed before. I keep telling people, that unless you were there, it’s kind of hard to understand just how exciting a time it was. With DC in particular, it really did feel like they were raising the bar, taking chances, pushing the envelope.

    But it wasn’t just DC. It was Maus, Nexus, Rocketeer, Lloyd Llewellyn, Neat Stuff, Grendel, The Silent Invasion, Love and Rockets, the stuff that Will Eisner was putting out, Time2, American Flagg. People take indie and alternative publishers for granted these days, but it all really began in earnest during this period.

    For me, the excitement lasted until about 1990. As exciting as 1986 was, 1989 was exponentially more so with all the hype around the Tim Burton Batman film. But after that film came out, DC seemed to have learned all the wrong lessons. The market was suddenly over-saturated with everything Batman, and a hangover effect took hold (at least for me). The last two series that I remember buying were Tim Truman’s Hawkworld (still amazing) and Gibbons’ and Rude’s World’s Finest. After that, I cancelled my pull list at my comics shop and moved on. To be fair, a lot of that also likely had to do with the fact that I now had a car and was preparing to go to college, so other interests were taking priority in my life. Aside from an occasional foray to the comics shop every year or two, I didn’t really get back into the medium until around 1999 or 2000.

    One obviously has to weigh the nostalgia effect with all of this. They say that the best music ever created was released the year that you turned 13-years-old. And I was literally 13-years-old in 1986 when this explosion of comics greatness was happening. So it’s entirely possible that there’s an emotional bias coloring my view of all of this. But looking back (which I’ve been doing the past few weeks with the release of the Byrne and Grell Superman and Green Arrow collections), a lot of this stuff still holds up remarkably well.

  • Chris G says:

    Even as a kid just old enough to buy comics regularly and with his own money, that 1986-1991ish period felt special. DC was relaunching book after book and for a young fan it was like being around for the start of the Silver Age or something, and some of the connections between books – I remember Hal Jordan test-flying the Suicide Squad’s helicopter, for instance – had a very early-Marvel vibe.

  • Daniel says:

    “…had a very early-Marvel vibe.”

    My feeling for awhile now has been that the 1980s were for DC what the 1960s were for Marvel. Just an incredible explosion of talent, ideas, and inventiveness.

    It’s no surprise to me that WB keeps dipping into the DC in the ’80s well for most of their recent film adaptations (The Dark Knight Trilogy, MoS, BvS, and WW, Joker, and now (apparently) the new Suicide Squad film which James Gunn has said is directly inspired by the Ostrander run). It wouldn’t surprise me to see them do films that were based at least in part on The Longbow Hunters and Hawkworld, or even a futuristic film based on Chaykin’s and Garcia-Lopez’s Twilight. And I’d be shocked if Zack Snyder doesn’t adapt Ronin as a mashup of Blade Runner and Kurosawa.

  • @misterjayem says:

    I’m still peeved about the deliberate awfulness of Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters.

    “Those dummies will buy this bloody, overpriced mess for sure.”

    And I did.

    — MrJM

  • Chris says:

    I don’t understand the Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters hate.
    Was it the equivalent of Watchmen or DKR? Of course not.’
    Was Grell’s Green Arrow run at times annoying? Sure, but there were some good issues too.
    I thought The Longbow Hunters was, overall, above average. The only part that bothered me was the treatment of Black Canary.

    I agree about DC Comics in the mid-to-late 1980s. It seemed like they could do no wrong, and it was the first time I considered DC’s comics to be creatively superior to Marvel.
    I always found Marvel’s books so much better than DC in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then, all of a sudden, around 1985, DC was publishing comics that were far ahead of almost everything Marvel was publishing.
    It was a very fun time in comic books.

  • Bryan says:

    I have that issue of Clint, but no recollection at all of how I obtained it (“underground“ b&w comix weren’t really my thing at 10 years old). I was actually disappointed when I found out about 15 years ago that there was a second issue; I liked it better when I thought it was just some strange animal comic that made one issue and disappeared into the ether.

  • Mikester says:

    Chris – I think it’s *mostly* the treatment of Black Canary that sours people on that series. Yes, overall it’s maybe not a bad comic, but think of it like The Killing Joke, where while the basic idea of the book is interesting and worth discussing, the treatment of Barbara Gordon has poisoned it for many people.

  • Daniel says:

    “I don’t understand the Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters hate. Was it the equivalent of Watchmen or DKR? Of course not.”

    I agree. My first-tier DC books (regardless of when they were published) would be:

    Ronin
    The Dark Knight Returns
    Watchmen
    Batman: Year One
    Hawkworld (mini-series only)
    World’s Finest (Gibbons and Rude)
    Kingdom Come
    Selina’s Big Score
    DC: The New Frontier
    The Winter Men

    I’d put The Longbow Hunters (the mini-series, not the regular series (which was good, but not as good)) in DC’s second-tier (along with Byrne’s Superman, Perez’s Wonder Woman, The Killing Joke, Cosmic Odyssey, and Chaykin’s Blackhawk). Good, solid, well-crafted comics, but not necessarily the first thing you would hand to a “civilian” who is new to comics.

  • Snark Shark says:

    “back before we were all sick of snark.”

    HEY!!!!!

    Oh, different snark.

  • Snark Shark says:

    “Ronin”

    Man, Ronin did absolutely NOTHING for me. I didn’t hate it, so much as have ZERO reaction to it.

    “Green Arrow The Longbow Hunters”

    More violent than necessary, but I DO like Grell’s art.

    “Hawkworld”

    GREAT. And so was the series! Until it WASN’T.

  • MIkeyWayne says:

    I am aware of the idea that all the stuff you think is best was released when you were a teenager, but I had never heard that idea tied to the specific age of 13, as indicated by Daniel above.
    Immediately, I looked up the release dates of two comics runs and three albums I considered my favorites from my teen years, and, I’ll be damned – every one of them was released when I was 13 years old.

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