Comics in the 1980s: Transcending Genre

As a long-time comics reader and creator—let’s just say it, lover—when I look upon the art form now in North America, I see elements familiar and banal, refreshing and revolutionary. I also see the results of a process that began in the 1980s.

On one side of the equation, you have the familiar tropes and market share of comics about super-heroes, bolstered by the spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (Need I give examples here?)  On the other, what can only be described as non-genre comics are finding their readership thanks to a combination of book store distribution, greater cultural awareness of seminal works, and, um, a spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (e.g. American Splendor, Art School Confidential, V for Vendetta)

Both sides can be found in various formats, primarily what is now called “pamphlet” (or ‘comic book’ form back in the day), graphic novel, art book or electronic. With the exception of super-hero comics and some other genre work (e.g. The Walking Dead) the pamphlet format has largely been supplanted by the graphic novel or art book for non-genre works. The latter formats better serve the logistical interests of traditional book stores and the largely self-contained nature of non-genre comics story-telling; whereas, the primarily serial nature of super-hero and other genre works can be served by the monthly offerings in the four-colour pamphlets. Cannily, publishers of the genre pamphlets have been eager to adopt the graphic novel format as it allows an opportunity to reach non-traditional audiences with their works. Within the serial story-lines of super-hero comics, the gradual adoption of “story arcs” within the continuity has made the packaging of the genre graphic novels easier and more satisfying for the new or casual reader.

So that is where we are today. But how did we get here? Was it a “natural” evolution of the form and market? I would argue it was not; that this state of affairs can largely be credited to four cartoonists: Wendy Pini, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez and Dave Sim, all of whom were prominent figures in comics in the 1980s.

It was in the eighties that comic books underwent a significant transformation and, by the nineties, began their long trek to social-artistic acceptance by the general public. Some scholars would claim the process dates back to the underground works of the sixties by the likes of Robert Crumb and the artists associated with Zap! Comix.  While this work was largely non-genre (I don’t think “drug-induced” or “psychedelic” constitute genres), its impact was limited to a particular cultural milieu and geography, that of the hippie counter-culture of northern California and upstate New York. It did have its particular distribution (through head shops) but once the hippie zeitgeist blew itself out in 1972, with it went the underground comics. Revival attempts of the undergrounds were made by Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead fame) and Art Spiegelman (Maus)1, but none would take hold until, you guessed it, the 1980s. And the eighties return of some of these underground artists wasn’t paved by other ex-hippies, but a generation of artists following, who came out of the fandom of mainstream comics.

These eighties titles that were the vanguard of a movement towards non-genre comics in fact began as genre comics. The three most influential were Cerebus by Dave Sim, ElfQuest by Wendy Pini, and Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (with occasional contributions by another brother, Mario). The transformation occurred on many fronts, however, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention also Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin), Will Eisner (A Contract With God), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), and Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) as significant contributors.

Love & Rockets began in 1981, a year that marks the creative nadir of the mainstream comics industry in its entire 100+ year history. The industry then, as now, was dominated by Marvel Comics and Warner Brother’s DC Comics, both of whom were churning out superheroes of unparalleled vacuousness. Stan Lee, the publisher of Marvel Comics in 1981, was starting to dabble in Hollywood for some movie deals based on Marvel characters. He was frustrated because his contacts would not commit due to the changeability of the characters (insurmountable obstacles such as costume redesign and new superhero team rosters. Horrors!)2 Finally, at one point, Lee ordered all innovation and change to stop. This is true. This from a company whose nickname was “The House of Ideas”!

Meanwhile, DC, as it had since being overtaken by Marvel in clout and sales in the sixties, followed suit. At the same time, the underground cartoonists were more marginalized than ever, and other innovative creators such as Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine) had either withdrawn from such a restrictive industry or could not get publishing houses and distributors to take their work and still retain ownership over it. The result was a black-hole of stagnation, plummeting sales, and general despair and malaise in the industry. New cartoonists were no longer being hired. Established cartoonists were clinging onto whatever viable titles left. There was serious talk about how much longer comic books would survive.

The crumbling of the comics industry monoliths inadvertently sparked the revolution. Fan creators, confident they could produce something better than the dreck of the time, started small, independent companies run by themselves. Or perhaps their love of the medium was such that they wanted comics to exist in whatever form possible. Regardless, the first of these to gain prominence were Wendy Pini’s WaRP comics (the odd name was an acronym for Wendy and Richard Pini, her husband) and her lone title, Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim title, Cerebus.

Elfquest began as a magazine format, black and white comic published quarterly and was a fantasy story of elves finding their homeland. A comic whose story was in another genre than superhero was startling enough at the time, let alone the unconventional format and distribution.  The art was also a departure, deviating from the Jack KirbySteve Ditko super-hero aesthetics and leaning towards a cutesy wide-eyed manga style only just beginning to be known in North America.

Pini was also the sole creator on the book and a woman, which had not been seen even in the sixties underground comix (which were almost always anthologies and by men primarily). The story evolved along themes such as love and family and gradually the fantasy elements became so secondary as to be unnoticed. It was the cast of characters and their interlocking personalities that became the narrative thrust, not the rigours and conventions the genre required. The characters lived and breathed, loved, lost and had a sexuality. Subjects were dealt with maturely, with no black or white answers, and a controversial but tasteful hetero- and homosexual orgy was once depicted. Pini also declared at the outset that her story was finite, to last twenty issues, and would not be some super-hero title dinosaur wrung of every last element of life then left to slip into the mire.

With Elfquest, Pini had single-handedly initiated and prophesized many of the new trends in eighties comics—the limited series (to be taken up by Marvel in 1983), the graphic novel3, the independent mainstream comics publisher, deviation from the Comics Code4, “direct sales only” title (meaning only sold in comics stores, a relatively new form of retail in the early eighties), the creator as writer, publisher, artist, and owner of her own work, and finally, the use of genre as a readership “hook”, only to later shuck almost all vestiges of the genre by story’s end. With Pini’s success, she paved the way for other creators such as the Hernandezes.

At the same time in Kitchener, Ontario, unbeknownst to one another, fan-boy Dave Sim was doing something similar by self-publishing his parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Marvel comic, Conan the Barbarian, titled Cerebus the Aardvark, a black and white pamphlet comic with a colour cover. Like Pini, Sim soon declared the Cerebus story finite (three hundred issues), totally wrote and drew the book5, and it was only to be sold in comics stores, freeing it from the Comics Code. Also like Pini, Sim’s Cerebus was entrenched in a genre, a funny animal parody, but by the twenty-fifth issue, he had branched out into politics, religion, mature love, feminist critique and the genre elements still retained had taken on a non-genre life of their own.

As stated, both of these books’ successes relied upon capturing an audience with the familiarity of genre fiction but then transmogrifying the stories to more closely and  align with the creators’ idiosyncratic concerns and whimsy. Both Sim and Pini were influenced creatively by genre comics (with the exception of some undergrounds and Mad Magazine, there was no other kind in North America) and did their own take on them when they self-published. This changing of these comics into works dealing with more individual preoccupations could only have occurred at the time in the alternative press where formulas and editorial board standards did not exist and where creators owned, hence cared more, about the work they were creating.6

The Hernandezes’ story is similar. Raised on what they describe as “junk culture” (super-hero comics, pro wrestling, b-movies), they did their own genre stories when Love & Rockets first began. These stories were at times a pastiche of genre, sci-fi meets pro wrestling super-heroes for example, but set apart even from the start by a cast predominantly made up of Latin Americans. The Hernandez brothers soon realised the freedom that was to be had in the alternative press and shucked many of their genre elements to focus on the concerns of their characters. These stories were from time to time sprinkled with genre conventions (the book was called Love & Rockets, after all…) but over the span of a couple years, the readership had expanded beyond the hardcore fan of genre fiction.

Love & Rockets was first created as a “mini-comic” (or “zine”7), a photocopied, smaller format, b&w pamphlet that was sold on the street by the creators themselves. To get some publicity for their book, the Hernandezes sent their first issue to Fantagraphics Book‘s The Comics Journal, the industry’s most prestigious trade magazine.8 Fantagraphics liked the book and wanted to publish it.

L&R was published in a format virtually identical to Elfquest, magazine format, colour cover and b&w interiors. The comics material itself was divided into two sections: those stories created by Jaime and those created by Gilbert. Each cartoonist did his own work and wrote about themes relevant and interesting to himself; Jaime the everyday, if sometimes extraordinary, lives of a multicultural group in a Los Angeles barrio; Gilbert the fictional and highly political Latin American town of Palomar. (The two rarely collaborated.) Like Sim and Pini before them, the Hernandez brothers emphasized characterization in their stories, but unlike them, their central characters were mostly women. Their explanation for this rather radical approach to a male-dominated male-consumed medium was their love of drawing beautiful (but individual) women and from a story point of view, women generally dealt with their feelings more, therefore had more dramatic possibilities.

Love & Rockets was slow to catch on in the mainstream due to the radical approach the title had almost right from the outset.

Meanwhile back in the industry, other publishing houses for alternative comics were being born due to the obvious market for alternatives discovered by Pini and Sim. The difference between these new companies and their underground predecessors (like Rip Off Press of San Francisco) was their distribution would be through mainstream comics stores. One of these new publishers, Vortex Comics of Toronto, lured the Hernandezes away from Love & Rockets for four months in 1985 to do a comic book called Mister X. The character, Mister X, was company-owned  and was a sci-fi dystopian tale of an architect who designs a city using “psychetecture” but has to return and live in his creation because something has gone “wrong”. Gilbert wrote the story based on Dean Motter’s premise and Jaime drew it and their work was coloured. The book was a great success, but the two soon returned to their own Love. Their brilliant work was noticed and soon Love & Rockets began to be discovered and bought. Soon the title was dubbed “the only comic worth killing trees for.”

During this same time, the influence of Sim was growing in the industry. Taking their cue from Sim, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird did their own funny animal parody, this one of Frank Miller’s popular Marvel comic Daredevil, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the rest is history, this immensely popular b&w book caused a black and white comics speculation “boom” in 1985, where all the fan-boys were buying up anything small press and in black and white. Many b&w comics publishers soon flooded the market, all through the comics stores or “direct retail outlets”. As with the undergrounds in the late sixties-early seventies, most of these new comics were of poor quality and none proved to be the next “big thing”. Speculators had been fleeced again and in 1987 the boom went bust.

Sim and the Hernandezes both benefited from the boom and survived quite handily after the bust due to high standards of quality, a regular publishing schedule and the loyal, mature audiences they had cultivated.

One of the side effects of the boom-bust was the emergence of a new genre, the rock & roll comic. The boom had been influenced by what was called “the musical attitude”9 of Cerebus and Love & Rockets. One element in Love & Rockets was extrapolated into punk comics, heavy metal comics (not to be confused with Heavy Metal the comics magazine) and eventually into copyright-infringing rock biographies of real artists.10 The eclectic attitude of L&R and Cerebus was now the “standard” in the direct-sale press, influencing such titles as Bernie Mireault‘s The Jam and Mackenzie Queen, Alan Moore’s Watchman and V for Vendetta, and Scott McCloud’s Zot! In fact, the influence went both ways: a British pop band, friends of Alan Moore who introduced them to the book, named themselves “Love & Rockets” (to the chagrin of the Hernandezes who now had to endlessly explain that they were the original L&R and not a derivative medium of the band); another less popular band named themselves Zot! Dave Sim, an increasingly outspoken proponent of comics creators’ rights, was beginning to take on legendary status amongst fans due to his outrageous behaviour during comic book conventions. He soon earned the title, “comics’ first rock star”.

In 1983, the first solid steps into producing a “graphic novel” had been taken by Sim, Pini and a few others.11 In 1987, Love & Rockets was collected into eight volumes and sold in bookstores to moderate success. Later that year, Mister X was compiled as well. Sim had begun a second reprinting and compilation of his Cerebus work, this time into massive volumes structured around complete story arcs within the ongoing series.

Another side effect of the b&w bust was, as the market collapsed and unrestrained by the Comics Code,  creators turned to more and more sensationalist themes to attract or retain readership: sex, extreme violence and racism. DC Comics, always looking for an edge over its rival Marvel, was the first to adopt a softer version of this “aesthetic” and apply it to its super-hero titles. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a public backlash unseen since the 1950s. Comic shop owners were arrested; books were burned; there was local legislative censorship and import barring of American comics by Canada and the United Kingdom. One of the titles pointed to as corrupting the nation’s youth was Love & Rockets. Obviously the censors had only glanced at the book which, at times, did depict nudity, hetero- and homosexual activity and used naturalistic language including those swear words, but did so to no greater extent than Hollywood did. The focus soon shifted to more extreme examples at DC Comics and to porn or “erotic” comics.

It was phenomenon tirelessly repeated since demonstrating that the two things that will raise a fuss in North American culture are sex and politics. Put those together in a medium still perceived as being exclusively for children and you invite trouble. Worse, add those elements to the super-hero genre and you’ve blurred more lines than Robin Thicke. That Cerebus, Elfquest and Love & Rockets weathered that storm was another testament to their quality and adult approach to the material. They did not fall into the porn genre. Or the rock genre. Or fantasy. Or sci-fi. They were unique books, beyond pigeon-holing, and they had each attracted a readership which had stopped following a genre, but were now following an artist and his or her creative journey.

This was new to comics in the 1980s. In fact, it was a revolution.

——

1. most notably Arcade, the Comics Revue.
2. to give the Hollywood Powers-that-be their due, they were clearly just waiting for CGI to be invented to do the characters justice…
3. although Will Eisner had created a few by this time, their readership was low, the books hard to find, and inspired only the most dogged of cartoonist-collectors.
4. a self-imposed comics industry-controlled standards council dating back to the 1950s. Restrictions included no depictions of sex, bad guys must lose and no decapitations.
5. he would later bring a local artist, Gerhard, in to help with background illustration and cover colouring
6. not that work-for-hire cartoonists didn’t necessarily care about what they did, but the best often went through an early-career enthusiastic stage then ended on sour, bitter notes as the fruits of their labour (beyond their page rate) benefited solely their employer.
7. zine comics were another innovation in the medium that took place in the 80s mainly brought about by the accessibility and affordability of xeroxing. The zine subculture would crest in popularity in the mid-nineties thanks to review magazines like Factsheet 5 but collapse shortly thereafter with the advent of the internet. The zine culture did introduce some notable creators though: Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Louis Riel), Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve) among many others.
8. the influence of The Comics Journal is an article unto itself. Started by two frustrated fans, Gary Groth and Kim Thomson, the journal was a tireless champion of good comics over mediocre and followed and exposed cartoonists that pushed the envelope in terms of story-telling. While never turning its back completely on genre comics, the editorial was consistently disparaging of creators wasting time reinventing super-heroes and urged them to explore different themes and do more personal work.
9.  on a superficial level this referred to Sim’s taste in classic rock influencing things like titles of chapters. It primarily meant Sim’s lyrical use of sequential images, his pacing and timing. His narrow, vertical panels, especially in his graphic novel Church & State are as close a graphic representation of musical beat you will find in any medium. In Los Bros Hernandez’s case, one of the main protagonists in Jaime’s stories was the singer in a punk band and many stories centred around that lifestyle.
10. admittedly, the genre didn’t start in the b&w boom. A licensed comic book rock biography of KISS was published by Marvel in the late seventies as they threw any comics concept at the wall to see what would stick. The sales must not have met expectations as the experiment was never repeated.
11. Jim Starlin was also a pioneer in the mainstream press with his Metamorphosis Odyssey series of graphic novels; Don McGregor with his Sabre graphic novel; and Will Eisner with his A Contract With God.

About Michael Hind

Michael Hind has been a very occasional cartoonist for 23 years. His latest graphic novel The Undertaking is available from Conundrum Press.
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