By the advent of comics' Modern Age (1980–present), American society in the real world had responded to escalating crime, violence, and ethical deterioration with cynicism, and could no longer relate to the traditional, altruistic do-gooder.
Superheroes needed a reason to be superheroes, stated television screenwriter James Grant Goldin in the 2003 History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked, when referring to post-1980 costumed crime fighters. And thus was born the
new superhero, motivated into action by stimuli other than
saving the day.
As the writer/artist of Marvel Comics' Daredevil during the early 1980s, Frank Miller transformed what was once a second-banana comic book into a compelling study of one man's struggle against a vast and seemingly unstoppable network of crime. In late 1980, Miller introduced Elektra as Daredevil's former lover turned assassin-for-hire. Like many comic-book characters, Elektra had survived the murder of a parent, but instead of focusing her emotions into benevolence, she mastered martial arts and sold her services as a professional killer. While her marks usually represented the scum of the earth, Elektra executed them efficiently, without compunction—and readers applauded her bluntness. Elektra joined the Punisher and Wolverine, both of which were introduced in 1974, as Marvel's anti-heroes. Yet in the early Modern Age their brutal methods were toned down due to the censorship of the industry's watchdog board, the Comics Code Authority (CCA).
The art form of superhero comic books matured through its Golden (1938–1954), Silver (1956–1969), and Bronze (1970–1979) Ages, but its presentation remained essentially the same: a 64- or 32-page periodical published on inexpensive newsprint paper. That format began a metamorphosis in 1981. Comics venues were dwindling, as newsstands, drug stores, and other outlets stopped selling them due to their low profit margin. Specialty shops—described in Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked as
private clubs catering to a hardcore base of comic-book fans—began carrying new titles, offering comic-book publishers a fresh lease on life.
direct sales market, where retailers ordered a finite number of copies of each series, offered three benefits: it helped the industry distribute its product straight to the consumer, it eliminated the return of unsold copies, and it sidestepped the approval of the CCA. DC Comics was the first major publisher to explore the direct market with
direct only one-shots including Madame Xanadu (1981). DC experimented with offset printing, which offered richer, more vibrant colors on a brighter paper stock. Graphic novels—epic stories in one longer, and sometimes larger, package—were introduced to help the medium nurture storylines too complex for monthly serialized periodicals.
Independent publishers that catered to the direct market entered the business. San Diego, California–based Pacific Comics opened shop in December 1981 with Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers #1, written and illustrated by the legendary Jack
King Kirby (co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and countless other superheroes), the first
creator-owned comic book, allowing Kirby to retain copyright of the characters. Despite this distinction, the majority of Pacific's subsequent content shied away from superheroes, favoring horror and science fiction instead.
Creator ownership, the absence of Comics Code restrictions, and upscale printing created an alluring scent that attracted visionary and reactionary comic-book writers and artists to deeply invest themselves into their work. More independents arose—like Capital Comics, Eclipse Comics, Comico the Comic Company, First Comics, and Dark Horse Comics—and creator-driven, cutting-edge superheroes premiered from these houses, including Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, Matt Wagner's Grendel and Mage, Bill Willingham's Elementals, Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle's Crossfire, Evanier and Will Meugniot's DNAgents, Dave Stevens' Rocketeer (in the Pacific [Comics] Presents anthology), Neal Adams' Ms. Mystic, John Ostrander and Tim Truman's Grimjack, Mark Verheiden and Chris Warner's The American, and Mike Grell's Jon Sable, Freelance. Many of these new superheroes scoffed at historic mores and pushed the medium into grittier, sexier, and more thought-provoking terrain.
Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! (1983–1989), published by First, illustrates this superheroic shift. Set in the near future, where mega-corporations and the United States government have escaped Earth's civil and moral collapse by relocating to Mars, American Flagg! starred a washed-up actor named Reuben Flagg, who trades on his media image to gain employment as a security agent. Fans related to the storyline, having recently witnessed the election of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who parlayed his former movie and television career into a public persona that appealed to a disgruntled, post-Carter America. Flagg's ego-driven motivation was only one pioneering element of this series: Its language and sexual content skirted R-rated territory in a marketplace traditionally accustomed to Disney-esque values, making American Flagg! unusually controversial. Chaykin's American Flagg! stands firm as a benchmark of the new superhero.
By the mid-1980s, the Comics Code became more relaxed, and Marvel published Wolverine and The Punisher titles, and examined racial prejudice in X-Men. DC revamped its old-guard superhero line in its continuity-altering twelve-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986), which included the deaths of two major characters, Supergirl and the Flash. Readers discovered in the pages of The New Teen Titans that team member Speedy had a child out of wedlock, and over at Marvel, author Bill Mantlo pinpointed child abuse as the root of the Incredible Hulk's uncontrollable anger (a theme appropriated in director Ang Lee's 2003 blockbuster film, The Hulk). Frank Miller returned to superheroes with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), in which a surly Batman takes up arms to save Gotham City from rampant crime. These were not your father's superheroes: No longer men in capes who flew around saving the day, the superhero had become a reflection of the world around him: dark, determined, and no-nonsense.
Superhero subject matter could no longer be neatly resolved in one 22-page story. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in DC's Watchmen (1986–1987), a densely plotted and rendered twelve-issue series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, two of a contingent of British creators who entered American comics in the 1980s. Watchmen portrays the personal struggles of a discordant superteam and their foibles—which include sexual impotence and strategic genocide—and stripped superheroes of any innocence they may have still held in the eyes of a comic-buying public.
Superhero titles like Watchmen and Dark Knight created a more literary climate in the comics business. Writer Neil Gaiman, another Brit, entered the field in the late 1980s and rose to acclaim with his award-winning DC title The Sandman (1989–1996), featuring the dream lord Morpheus. While the events of Sandman transpired within the so-called DC universe, uniformed superheroes (beyond robed deities) were absent:
I don't know any people who wear costumes, Gaiman remarked in 2003 on Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked. The lyrical Sandman series fascinated a cult audience, and issue #19 of the series was the first—and only—comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award for
Best Short Story. Gaiman's series was the cornerstone of DC's imprint, Vertigo, which has featured avant-garde anti-heroes like Hellblazer and Preacher. Pioneering protagonists like James O'Barr's disturbing Crow, who rose from the dead to become a crime fighter, and Concrete, an Earthman whose brain was grafted into a rock-hard alien body, surfaced from independent companies and continued the reinvention of the superhero. At this point it was clear that there were no
rules to be followed, no set of criteria that determined whether a character really was or was not a hero.
By the early 1990s, comic-book sales were shrinking. Literary kudos aside, comics did not appeal to most kids, who by this time were distracted by a cornucopia of entertainment options. Additionally, the era of the provocative superhero had created a level of sophistication beyond the interest of most children—hyperactive computer games and violent movies offered more eye candy.
Comics received a temporary financial booster shot from a speculation frenzy, predicated upon the revelation that rare Golden Age comic books were, in the 1990s, commanding prices of thousands of dollars. There's money in collecting comic books, the thinking went, and kids of all ages poured into comics shops buying and hoarding comics. Variant covers and cover enhancements lured consumers into buying multiples of the same book, and sales of special issues climbed into the millions, making some royalty-earning or rights-holding artists deliriously wealthy. Heavily armed counterterrorists, disenfranchised street fighters, and demonic entities became the norm in the world of superheroes.
Events shook up the status quo for longtime superheroes, like the (temporary) death of Superman in 1992.
During this period of explosive growth, superhero universes sprouted from a variety of companies: Dark Horse revealed its
Comics' Greatest World, with Barb Wire, X, The Machine, and Ghost; Malibu Comics'
Ultraverse introduced Prime, Prototype, and Hardcase; and Valiant (later Acclaim) Comics published Solar, Rai, Magnus Robot Fighter, and Bloodshot. The major newsmaker of the era was Image Comics, founded when Marvel's best-selling artists (including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld) left the company to create their own company and publish their own material (Spawn, WildC.A.T.S, and Youngblood). Two other hot Marvel artists soon defected to Image, the results being Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon and While Portacio's Wetworks.
Speculators finally got wise and defected from the fold in the mid-1990s, causing an abrupt collapse that so depressed the marketplace, Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Comic books are dead, the skeptics cried.
But superheroes lived. Beginning with director Tim Burton's blockbuster movie Batman (1989), superheroes have maintained constant visibility in film, on television, in video games, on apparel, as toys, and on Internet sites. To the public at large, the concept of the superhero is universally known, but its source material, the comics, are not. The line dividing the
action hero—the imperfect but determined non-costumed protagonist of movies and games—and the superhero has blurred, though the latter name is not usually applied to some of its most obvious heirs. Due to their larger-than-life acrobatics and cultural symbolism, action heroes like Lara Croft, the Terminator, Charlie's Angels (of the movies), and even the alien-busting Men in Black could clearly be called superheroes, although none of these characters adhere to conventional superhero trappings likes masks, costumes, or secret identities.
This media awareness has hindered and helped superhero comic books. Negatively, superheroes in mass media feed the entertainment options that have lured consumers away from comics reading. Positively, the income generated by the licensing of comics characters has allowed the comic-book business to stay alive; Marvel paid off its creditors and emerged from bankruptcy after reaping huge profits from the blockbuster film Spider-Man (2002).
In the 2000s, the audience for superhero comic books is small but remarkably loyal. Sales of collected editions have been encouragingly healthy, however, with the public's familiarity with superheroes helping sell trade paperbacks to the bookstore market. The path of Future Comics, a 2002 startup company, typifies this: After a difficult first year of trying to find an audience for its comics Freemind, Deathmask, and Metallix, in 2003 Future abandoned the production of monthly titles and moved exclusively to releasing trade paperbacks and pursuing movie development.
The look, shape, and content of comic books will undoubtedly continue to evolve in the years to come, to match the changing tastes of consumers. But, given its mass-media popularity, regardless of the naysayers, the superhero—and, no doubt, the superhero comic book—will continue to endure.