In part III, I talked about the conservative backlash in the mid-1950s against comics and the resulting comics industry’s self-regulatory standards — standards which were probably more stringent than the preempted regulations that would have been imposed by the U.S. government. And then I went on to explain how this facilitated a new rise of the superhero genre to mainstream market dominance. Well, a few years later, in the 1960s, a reactionary movement started to bubble under the mainstream surface — the underground comix scene. But, as I will make clear, though confined to the underground, its market innovations would challenge the mainstream status quo of publishers, distributors and readership, completely changing the face of the industry. This will give you an overview of the background leading up to where we are now.
The 1960s are known as a decade of upheaval, both politically and socially, marked by anti-war and anti-establishment protests and the emergence of civil rights, feminist, and black power movements. With all this going on in the background, a tidal wave of 1960s youngsters took to spiritualism, drugs, and free sex to deal with their sores — some real, but, frankly, most fancied. Thus, the counter-culture “hippie” movement was born. This was but a short-lived movement, because, of course, “sticking it to the man” didn’t provide any answers to any “social question” of the time. Nonetheless, it left an undelible mark on history, not so much in that it changed anything in the world — since there was still war, social inequality, and world pollution — as because it gave a boost to creativity. It’s easy to think here of the enrichment hippies and their sympathizers brought to the music industry at large — Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Pink Floyd, et al. continue to this day to influence recording artists and bands in all sorts of genres (including, e.g., Blues Pills, Enslaved, Joss Stone, Lenny Kravitz, and Nervecell). Less known, however, are the ways in which the hippie movement shook comics establishment and changed the rules of the game.
As early as 1962, but especially from the late-1960s on, writers, artists, writer-artists, and creative teams, who were either themselves involved, or had a connection with people who were involved, in a drug and sex underground counter-culture, started making comics — or, I should rather say, comix, so as to set them apart from mainstream fare — that run deliberately counter to what was dominant in the mainstream, so as to openly challenge the icy, tyrannical grip of the CMAA and the Comics Code. Often, especially initially, that simply came down to them churning out vulgar, tongue-in-cheek, cheerfully sketchy comix, featuring stories no doubt dreamed up while under influence of psychedelic drugs, propagating experimental sex and, of course, also experimental drug use, sometimes with some violence thrown in. In truth, quite a few of these comix puerile and paltry attempts at wit and humor, at best, or worse — nonsensical waste of paper and ink. But eventually, when all was said done, comix artists, who let their imagination fly in all directions and dimensions, contributed in a positive way to maturing the medium; in any case certainly more than their mainstream colleagues, who were dictated by a desire, not to to express themselves freely but to make competitive commercial products. The former’s ceaseless, curious desire for exploration and experimentation made them unafraid to challenge aesthetic-narrative conventions and push the boundaries of what was thought to be possible in comics, and this led them to explore new styles, genres, and themes. To give a concrete example, while, in the early 1970s, mainstream comics artists were still entrenched in superhero tropes, underground comix artists then experimented with autobiographical comic narratives; and in so doing, they helped liberate comic books from the deathhold that fantasy pulp fiction enjoyed over the medium for so long.
Also, what was uniquely revolutionary about the comix underground was its egalitarian, democratic approach to making and appreciating comix. Comix artists did their thing primarily for reasons other than to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities or taste in a market; and this no doubt was appreciated by readers, who, I can only assume, were charmed by the rawness and sincerity, and perhaps also the lack of artifice, of comix. Indeed, you didn’t need to have the illustration chops of Jack Kirby, the feel for characterization of Stan Lee, or the visual-narrative skills of Will Eisner (of The Spirit fame), so much is fact — you could be a lousy artist, but as long as you had some vision or imagination, anyone could develop an audience, to which, then, you could, and had to, appeal directly, without the intermediary of major publishers or distributors.
No more intermediaries
This last needs further emphasis and discussion. Initially, comix artists had to go out there and mingle, to make a little name for themselves in the scene; thus, as audience, you could meet the artists personally, and you could buy from them directly, like from their bus stand. Despite being fun, it wasn’t the most sustainable of income generation schemes. But then, in 1972, the market got shaken up for the better. Up until that point in time, comics were supplied to bookstores, newsstands, etc., on a sale-or-return basis, i.e., these comics retail outlets could return any unsold comics for credit. You may wonder what happened with all that excess unsold stock. The answer is nothing — it all went to waste! This, because until then, back-issue collectors had yet to enter the scene; so basically, there was no-one then who could, and who would, relieve retailers or publishers of old merchandise. Now, anyway, in the boom years of the early 1940s-mid 1950s, this wasn’t that big a deal, with comics stock selling in excess of 70 percent, which amounted still to decent profits; but in the years leading up to the 1970s, the return system became increasingly costly to comics publishers, with but one out of three comics sold, which was enough to hit break-even, but with but little, if any, profitability. And then, more than ever, the U.S. comics market became an market which favored only fresh high-impact, high-volume titles aimed at the broadest possible audience. But from 1972 on, following the idea of some Brooklyn convention organizer and comic book aficionado, named Phil Seuling, there emerged a direct sales market, whereby specialty comics shops could purchase comics directly from comics suppliers, be they major publishers, independent publishers, or artist-publishers, at enhanced discounts in exchange for taking the risk of ordering non-returnable merchandise. With this direct sales-and-delivery system, publishers had full control over time and volume — meaning they could now rationalize their efforts, synchronizing sales and print production. Indeed, with this system, it became possible to figure out almost exactly to the number how many copies of a given title needed to be printed and sent out. This, as you can surmise, greatly helped them minimize the cost and waste of returned merchandise — insofar there was any. That’s right; there hardly was any waste anymore, as the buy-through rate (i.e., the percentage of copies sold and not returned) went sky-high, hitting almost 100 percent and this, because, of course, there was little to no incentive to return merchandise for a refund. If something didn’t immediately fly of the shelves, it would sell some other time, and continually so, until, basically, every copy was sold through to the public. This, by the way, was likely to happen because of the then-current recent advent of back-issue collectors. And while speaking of back-issue collectors, comics stores could even retail old merchandise as back-issue collectibles at higher prices than normal, which, of course, only further suppressed the incentive to return merchandise. So anyway, what used to be a very fickle market, marked by scattershot successess and failures, and in which only the strongest survived to carry on business, now became a steady, reliable market to even low-key publishers; indeed, the playing field was leveled, in that the direct sales market gave limited-run and small-lot comics publications, even those aimed at specific audiences, a chance to gain traction in the longer term, thus possibly turning them eventually profitable. Needless to say, comix artists were the first to really embrace this solution of direct distribution — and to great effect!
Here, it’s obvious why comix artists opted in; but it might not be so obvious why they so benefited from it. Well, the thing is, specialty comics shops catered especially to older readers and collectors, ergo, people “in the know,” who were generally just as much, or even more, committed to their favorite artists and works as they were to characters and properties. So, say, you had these people going into a comics store — chances are they were there hoping to find, not the latest and coolest things in superhero comics, but some comix by Robert Crumb, which you could find nowhere else. Thus, it can be argued that these stores’ efforts made it possible for underground artists, like Crumb, to sell millions of copies of their comix, and become household names in their own right.
The Bronze Age of heroes
Now, back to the mainstream. By the late 1960s, early 1970s, the people at the Big Two saw the volume of sales beginning to drop off again. They then must have begun to notice that the sex and drug culture was both an undercurrent in society and impossible to ignore. So, both these publishers decided on publishing some edgy, offbeat issues and titles that run counter to the CCA’s guidelines. First, in 1970, a Green Lantern-Green Arrow miniseries featured a dramatic drug-related plot line throughout its entire run of thirteen issues, gaining success both critically and commercially among the comics reading public. This then inspired The Amazing Spider-Man‘s writers to the same a year later; but their efforts met with limited success. But in late 1973, Marvel struck gold again, when they introduced Howard the Duck, a satirical, anthropomorphic character that starred in an eponymous comic book series that could easily have been an underground comix hit, in terms of wit and personal style. So clearly, there was money to be made with flirtations with the underground.
Also, around that same time, the Big Two looked again to 1930s pulp fiction for inspiration. This timearound, though, it was the sword-and-sorcery fiction of the likes of Robert E. Howard, rather than hard-boiled detective fiction, that attracted attention. Perhaps, I assume, to have their artists and writers push the boundaries of contentious issues like, e.g., violence and power abuse openly in comics — just not in a realistic, contemporary setting. But then, between 1973-1974, Marvel dared to venture where DC feared to thread. They introduced a slew of so-called antiheroes (including, e.g., Wolverine and the Punisher), whose fictional worlds were contemporary, and more than anything else — bleak and violent. Now, these antiheroes are something else, alright. I’ve talked before of how Golden Age superheroes are altruistic and humanitarian to a fault, always ready to come to the rescue, and of how Silver Age multi-heroes are only heroes when push comes to shove — but these antiheroes are, seemingly, no heroes at all! You might suspect them of having given up on theworld and its citizens — apart from their want for redress. In any case, they certainly don’t throw their personal squabbles aside in the face of the enemy; they, rather, embrace the conflict and anger within. Bringing such dark, troubled characters into the otherwise always so bright, cheerful superhero genre entailed quite a risk, the risk of tarnishing the house image — but there was no outrage, not even from the conservative elements. These antiheroes were quite popular, however — and would remain so. Yet still, senior DC editors were hesitant to follow suit; though eventually, in later years, they would. However, as CCA guidelines were getting reformed and relaxed during these 1970s years, probably because they would be undermined anyway, to no consequence, DC did venture into the pulp-horror genre, with titles such as Swamp Thing and Demon, presumably so as to have dark heroes of their own.
Now, on a side note: Why did readers have such interest in dark, contentious themes? Well, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, western societies faced an economic and cultural crisis, due to a number of factors, including, e.g., two oil crises and the disillusionment of the 1960s. This made people, including audiences, see the world no longer in black-and-white terms, but only in shades of gray. And so, in the course of the 1970s, more and more professional artists and entrepeneurs in a variety of media began producing morally ambiguous fiction that reflected this new view — and comics publishers jumped on the bandwagon.
Of course, all above-mentioned examples reflect a growing indifference to the CCA and its seal of approval; but the CMAA still, due to their still existing relations with major distributors, had economic power over comics publishers at large. But that was soon to change. As sales still remained on the decline overall, even with the venture into comix and horror territory and the introduction of antiheroes, Marvel and DC now also had to find a market for their surpluses to keep the profits up; so an obvious thing to do was to opt for the underground solution of direct distribution — which they also did. In late 1973, DC was the first of the Big Two to announce their participation therein; Marvel were less in a hurry — and rightly, since by now they had ascended to the top spot of the industry, but eventually, in the early 1980s, they, too, finally made a serious push into the direct sales market. This wasn’t just good for sales volumes, but it also freed up new possibilities. No longer having to rely solely or exclusively on major distributors was indeed liberating, in that it meant that that the need for going through the CCA’s evaluation process was effectively completely eliminated, which, in turn, of course, meant that Marvel and DC could now freely release more contentious and explicit comics onto the market — in fact, indeed, they could print and publish whatever they wanted to put out there, much like in the 1950s. And thus, in effect, the CMAA became a hollow institution for the remainder of its existence.
The Iron Age of heroes
All this, everything I’ve talked about so far — the hard-boiledness of first-generation superheroes, the raw satirical stylings of the underground, the emergence of antiheroes, the change to a direct distribution system, and so on, creates the backdrop against which the emergence of a new, different breed of superhero comics is set. I’m talking of those that went beyond what the genre was thought capable of, demonstrating even that superhero comics, and comics in general, could actually be works of literary art! Here, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are two that come to mind easily. Well, obviously of course, because these keep popping up in every discussion and in every debate on comics and art — and this, not just because of their genre-novelty, but more so because they are the definitive apotheosis of the genre! Now, Watchmen is the more cerebral of the two, with complex and layered plot lines, and lots and lots of text, while The Dark Knight Returns is more of a visceral read; but both on their own terms, these two titles, like no other superhero comics before or after, offer insight into the gnarled psyches of the superheroes, and make us think of their position in their respective worlds, in terms of whether they bring advantage or harm. But what makes these two particular titles really great works of art is not what they explicitly communicate to the reader; more than anything else, they managed to capture the rebellious zeitgeist of the 1980s — self-reflectingly so. In a word, both comics are about superheroes and, or so I like to think, comics in general making a comeback in society — in the most in-your-face way possible, pushing the boundaries and possibilities of the comics medium to the extreme.
So yeah, if you ask me, they, comics publishers at large, should have stopped publishing superhero comics after Elvis had left the building. Admittedly, that is perhaps too cynical a view; in the wake of 1986 there have published some good and decent — even great superhero comics, like, e.g., Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Sam Kieth’s The Maxx. But, taken on a whole, most of the modern superhero comics are just derivatives of either Watchmen or The Dark Knight or of both together — and bad ones at that! Sure, there’s an argument to be made that even that is not without its merit. After all, Image Comics got to where it is now thanks to derivative superhero shlock, and I don’t know how, but they ended up filling in the vacuum left by the withering Vertigo, a publishing imprint of DC, specializing in adult-themed comic books — but now I digress. The point I was making is this: superhero-wise, comics hit a creative peak in the mid-1980s that they never have topped.
Let’s all go the movies
When it comes to movies, however, there was still progress to be made. As early as the 1940s, there had been various attempts of bringing the superhero to the screen, with overall little success. After all, how many of you can say you have seen or are familar with the the Shadow feature (1940), the 1966 Batman movie, or the television rendition of Spider-Man (1977)? Superman (1978) really launched the superhero genre in film, demonstrating what a good cast and a big budget could do with superhero properties. Though its production was somewhat shaky, its release was a safe effort by movie standards, because after all, a loving, nostalgic tribute to an all-American pop icon was pretty much a guaranteed, sure-fire hit. Then, ten years later, Batman (1989) hit the movie theaters. It shouldn’t surprise anyone why expectations were mixed — Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic, Michael Keaton in the lead role, an overall bleak script and portrayal of superheroics, but Warner Brothers went along with and well, it ended up opening the door for the current super hero movie boom! No surprise there. Batman just really nailed it on every account — taking inspiration from all the right comics, adding precisely the right amount of kitsch and grit to give logic and credibility to the cartoon-like continuum of happenings on the screen, and in so doing it set the template for basically all other superhero movies up to and including our current era. But perfect as it was and still is, in terms of special effects it left something to be desired — and I say this as a fan of old-school, practical effects. By now we have reached the point where special effects are about as good as they’re going to get right now — but I have yet to see a superhero movie, which brings something new to the table in terms of narrative, character, and action.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Blade II (2002), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Kick-Ass (2010), and I rank Batman Returns (1992) high on my list of all-time favorite films. Hell, I’ve even come to appreciate Batman & Robin (1997) — or, well, at least “those” scenes with Uma Thurman. So, yeah, let it be clear that I’m not a comics fanboy who wants comics material to stay exclusive to comics. Hell, I’d even dare say that some comics-to-movie translations are just as enjoyable as the original source material — and sometimes even more so! The Crow (1994) comes to mind here. And Barbarella (1968).
I just don’t get it, why movie producers and studios are keen on only churning out superhero movies while there are so many other characters and titles that lend themselves perfectly to be translated to the silver screen. Road to Perdition (2002) and A History of Violence (2005), to name but two examples, prove it could be done, and this at little cost — but with potentially relatively high returns!
Actually, I do get it. Disney and Time Warner didn’t acquire, respectively, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics just for fun, just because. They know there’s money to be made in producing superhero movies — millions and millions, even billions, of dollars. And so they keep on churning out these superhero movies that are all the same stylistically, narratively, and generally, endlessly, one after the other — that is, of course, as long as we keep going to the movie theaters to see them. And for reasons beyond me, people keep flocking to theatres to see these Hollywood movies, regardless of their quality. Spoiler: Most of them suck! Oh! to be sure, I know that some get reviewed favorably — some even very favorably. Nevertheless, let’s face it — if we don’t make a stand here, if we don’t say, “I don’t care how good that movie is!” it’s only a matter of time before all we get to see is superhero schlock.
And that is why I don’t give two shits about Deadpool.