By Kevin M. Brettauer
Love it or loathe it, the dark, deconstructionist superhero comic of the 1980s set the genre on a path it’s never steered too far from (or far enough away from, depending on your point of view).
Perennial classics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen paved the way for such earth-shattering masterpieces as Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing run, Grant Morrison’s seminal take on Animal Man, Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s timeless take on The Question, Miller’s work on Daredevil, Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme maxi-series with Paul Ryan. Cerebus continued strong into this era, having started in 1977, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a satirical take on teenage mutants (like those found in the pages of X-Men), ninjas (as seen in Miller’s Daredevil) and funny animal books (perhaps most popularly epitomized by Steve Gerber’s glorious creation, Howard the Duck) found their way to prominence then. John Constantine, a creation of Moore’s in the pages of Swamp Thing, found his way into his own series, Hellblazer, helping editor Karen Berger birth the mature-readers Vertigo line, which would over time include such classics as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and, well into 2016, has produced such beloved stories as Fables, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, The Invisibles, The Unwritten, Clean Room and, of course, Grant Morrison’s classic reinvention of The Doom Patrol.
Eventually, though, superhero comics moved away from the weird, the deconstructionist, the thoughtful, and, as Moore himself remarked, learned the wrong lessons from the era. Characters who in the 80s were damned by their creators – The Comedian and Rorschach in Watchmen, John Constantine, Hyperion and Nighthawk of the Squadron Supreme – became the inspiration for a new generation of protagonist in the “extreme” 90s. Heroes like the gun-toting future messiah Cable and Spawn, the brutally murdered mercenary who made a pact with the Devil to come back to life, were the order of the day. They weren’t a commentary on what was going on around them, not like Miller’s Batman. They were what was going on. Suddenly, Wolverine was the face of the X-Men franchise, and he was everywhere; a franchise built on the concept of love, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence was now seemingly represented by a brutal living weapon with rage issues who murdered with impunity.
Yes, the 90s were “extreme” – the rise of early Image Comics series like Youngblood and Witchblade proved that, as did the success of X-Force, a Cable-led reinvention of The New Mutants, once future X-Men-in-training, now a take-no-prisoners murder squad. The term “women in refrigerators” was coined because of a 90s issue of Green Lantern. Hell, the 90s even managed to kill off Superman! 1940s hero Black Marvel made a pact with a demon that consumed his soul. And the less said about the horrors inflicted upon longtime Daredevil supporting character Karen Page and that era’s Green Lantern Corps, the better. Even Spider-Man wasn’t spared: he was tricked into thinking he was his own clone and, during a psychotic break, hit a pregnant Mary Jane Watson so hard that she miscarried.
But that’s not to say that the 90s were entirely devoid of the movement begun in the mid-80s. Thoughtful deconstructions of the genre still existed – Planetary, of course, Shade the Changing Man, Kingdom Come and Thunderbolts played with perceptions and preconceived notions in sly, crafty ways, as did Stormwatch. Mostly, though, superhero comics were dominated by roided-up murders, and “the real work” was being done everywhere else, in non-hero books like Ghost World, Bone, Maus, Black Hole and Preacher.
But now is an interesting time. With the advent of a new wave of intelligent, subversive superhero books – Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s Black Hammer, the last few years of Moon Knight, Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s The Vision, King and Barnaby Bagenda’s The Omega Men…all brilliant, fascinating new takes on old concepts, characters and archetypes that dare to say something new not just about our superheroes, but about the world that has created them, and what’s happened to it.
Even Doom Patrol has returned, in a Morrison-esque way, written by rock star Gerard Way as the first launch in a new line of DC books Way will oversee, which include Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Mother Panic and a brand-new Shade series, this time entitled Shade the Changing Girl. Whether Lemire, King, Way or the others are offering fresh takes on old ideas, offering their own meta insight on the history and archetypes of the genre, commenting on current world events or (as King and Bagenda successfully pulled off in The Omega Men) all of the above, it’s probably not too early to say that while it may have taken thirty years, the industry has finally learned the lessons of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
And if you doubt that – in any way, shape or form – just look at Marvel’s resident “funny animal” series. As Doom Patrol launches this week, reminding us of the early days of Grant Morrison in comics, Howard the Duck is echoing the denoument of Morrison’s run on Animal Man in a savage, uncompromising way.
And you know what? I can finally say that comics are better off for that kind of approach.