Adult Comics And Graphic Novels

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George S. McCue and Clive Bloom

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SOURCE: "The Moderns," in Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context, Pluto Press, 1993, pp. 55-66.

[In the following essay, McCue and Bloom trace the development of comic books during the 1970s and 1980s, in terms of both their subject matter and marketing strategies.]

Comic books in the early 1970s looked surprisingly like those of the early 1950s. The medium was dominated by heroic action books and sales were dropping rapidly. Social relevance had failed as a direction for the medium. Other sources of comic book art were beginning to find a market and underground comic books began making real inroads into the readership, further contributing to the mainstream industry's economic woes. DC was hit harder than Marvel during this time because of personnel problems and the lack of the fiercely loyal readership that Marvel's discursive style had earned them. Nonetheless, both companies were in trouble and they scrambled to bring out a cavalcade of new characters: 'vigilantes and barbarians, gods and jungle lords, monsters and pulp heroes, every stripe of hero and anti-hero, both original and adapted, in a mad scramble to find something that would keep comics alive' [Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, The Comic Book Heroes].

Comic book companies knew they had a devoted core audience from the letters, conventions, fanzines and comic-book speciality shops that began springing into existence. The problem was that such a core was too small to support the industry. Companies had to find a format or genre they could use to expand the readership. This 'try anything' approach led to a chaotic atmosphere in which it was difficult to hold on to creative people or standards or, subsequently, a public and a market.

Moreover, the books aimed at the existing market suffered from a similar malaise. As more and more fans-turned-pros entered the medium, they developed a kind of artistic inbreeding. The advantages were obvious: for the first time creators were no longer working under the impression that their craft was throwaway literature, and they approached comic books as legitimate art. [In a 1990 interview, Dennis O'Neil of DC Comics] points out:

The big difference today with the young guys, say under 30, is they make no apologies about it. They see it as a 'Capital A' art form. In their minds it is very much on a par with cinema or anything else. They regard it as an art form in which they express themselves and reach out and touch their world. We regarded it as a job, hopefully the best job we could do, but it was basically not a lot different than journalism.

The drawback was that these were fans writing for fans and the stories and techniques became repetitive and even absurd caricatures of the best of the Silver Age. Stan Lee's characterization was copied and standardized. Every hero got a stock personality profile to go with his powers and union suit.

All heroes had to be either hot-headed, alienated, bitter, frivolous, hard as nails (if female), or slow and genial. Between any two given heroes, a conflict had to be contrived where there had formerly been no reason for any to exist.

[Jacobs and Jones]

A typical example was the feud between Green Arrow and his new space-cop foil, the Thangarian Hawkman, to inject 'characterization' into The Justice League of America. Marvel had lost the lustre of newness from the ploy but DC had lost the quality scripting that had been its hallmark in its own attempt to ape Marvel.

This is not to say that there were absolutely no worthwhile comic books, but most of the ones worth reading weren't about superheroes. Barry Smith's Conan and Mike Grell's Warlord were barbarian swordsmen of the first order. Joe Kubert...

(The entire section contains 13706 words.)

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