Thursday, June 23, 2011

1986 - The Year Marvel Comics Forced Me To Grow Up

I wrote this article as a submission for this year's SDCC souvenir book. However, "Due to the vast number of submissions we receive and the lead-time involved in creating the Souvenir Book, we regret that we are unable to confirm whether a submission has been accepted for the book." So, I thought I wouldn't let this article go to waste and share it with you!

 

1986 - The Year Marvel Comics Forced Me To Grow Up
     Marvel Comics’ 25th anniversary was a year of births, rebirths, a New Universe, and defining moments for characters and creative teams. It also marked an end to the magic of comics for one particular 15 year-old boy.
    Before 1986, I had been blissfully ignorant of the commercialism of comic books, although the wallet-destroying ability of the Secret Wars II crossovers almost undid that single-handedly. It wasn’t one single event that opened my eyes, but rather a wave of them: the breaking up of my “classic” version of the X-Men, the return of Jean Grey, and John Byrne’s sudden departure from The Incredible Hulk.
    But, 1986 wasn’t all negative. While The Watchman and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are universally praised as the definite 1980s stories, Marvel Comics published several significant comic books that year.    The following Marvel Comics milestones from 1986, whether good, bad or somewhere in between, played a part in shaping how a maturing 15 year old approached and appreciated the medium of comic books.

Uncanny X-Men: Mutant Massacre
    The Uncanny X-Men was never the same after the Mutant Massacre crossover event. The Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr. version of the Uncanny X-Men, running from 1984-1986, will always be my classic version of the mutant superhero team. Why? The characters. Claremont brought the X-Men together in that run and created a family bond between them. He tapped into that family synergy, but also showed the dysfunction and conflict between them, like in every family, but they worked it out together and that made them stronger and more sympathetic. Romita Jr.’s clean, sharp art style and his vivid storytelling ability neatly complimented Claremont’s work.
    In 1986, their run lost its momentum as company-wide crossovers continued to impede on Chris Claremont’s trademark character work. The Mutant Massacre storyline came to a dramatic end in the winter of 1986 and had several core members removed from the team’s roster: Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Shadowcat. Claremont then called in reserve X-Men, but the book was never the same. Nightcrawler and Shadowcat were shipped overseas to help launch the tie-in X-book, Excalibur.
    I recall the change being abrupt and that it made me realize how stories are not always neatly tied up, making them more like real life. Over the next few years, the X-Universe dramatically increased in size with new titles and miniseries and turned off a loyal X-Men reader who would spend years trying to find that magic again.

X-Factor and the return of Jean Grey
    In late 1985, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter approved a new X-Factor title, reuniting the original X-Men and resurrecting Jean Grey. The blame for Jean’s return had passed between John Byrne, Chris Claremont, and Jim Shooter like a hot potato, and has recently fallen into the lap of Kurt Busiek who now officially takes the blame or credit for her resurrection1.
    Was bringing Jean Grey back a mistake? In the mind of that 15 year old, absolutely. The death of the Phoenix had forever changed the Marvel Comics landscape in 1980. Reading the story, as I picked up the back-issues piece-meal, I was blown away by how it leveraged carefully established character depth and delivered a powerful emotional impact.
    With X-Factor, the Dark Phoenix storyline was forever tainted because it wasn’t Jean Grey that had sacrificed herself, but a facsimile spawned by the Phoenix force. Financially, it was a simple decision as Marvel Comics couldn't pass up the opportunity to cash in on the idea. The idea that you compromised one of Marvel Comics' greatest stories to make money devastated that 15 year old and still makes me shake my head today.
    The biggest casualty in Jean Grey’s return wasn't Jean, but rather Cyclops. Scott Summers, the leader of the X-Men and protégé of Professor X, suddenly took a 180 degree turn in terms of his character as he abandoned his wife and child to join X-Factor and his resurrected former lover.
    Claremont’s original story line had Scott move to Alaska with his new bride2. There they would have worked for Scott’s grandparents and had a few children. Occasionally, Scott could be called to on as a reserve X-Man, but would be retired.
    There’s a part of me that wished that would have been the way things had unfolded. What this storyline did was make me realize that there were no real happy endings for my heroes and that they’d always be in a state of flux. Little did I realize back then that real life worked in a similar manner.

Byrne’s The Incredible Hulk
    John Byrne took the reins of The Incredible Hulk in late 1985 in the first ever creative team cross-over, The Incredible Hulk #313 and Alpha Flight #28. I didn’t follow the Hulk then, so the crossover idea had worked.
    I was blown away by what Byrne had done in a handful of issues. He had returned the Hulk to his basics while at the same time taking a new direction, physically splitting up the Hulk and Bruce Banner. Byrne shifted the story from the typical internal Banner-Hulk conflict to a physical one.
    However, with The Incredible Hulk #320, there was a sudden change in the creative teams with Al Milgrom taking over. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter didn’t like what Byrne was doing, despite having given Byrne the green light on his original ideas3.
    A frustrated John Byrne left the title. Al Milgrom did what he could, but his story and art didn’t have Byrne’s energy and intensity. It wasn’t hard to see the direction that Milgrom was told to take, which was to quickly undo what Byrne had done.
    To that 15 year old, it was devastating that there was no explanation as to what was going on. At first it seemed like a fill-in issue, but after Milgrom’s second issue when the ongoing storylines were being altered, I knew Byrne wasn’t coming back.
    I dropped the title and was left wondering what might have been if Byrne had been allowed to continue.

The New Mutants
    1986 was another solid year for The New Mutants title and continued to prove itself as much more than an X-Men spin-off. The New Mutants hit home for a sympathetic 15 year old who understood and easily saw himself along side of these teenage heroes. And that connection was tapped in The New Mutants #45.
    This rich, emotional stand-alone Chris Claremont issue captured everything that was wonderful about the mutant phenomena. It blended the awkwardness of puberty and fitting in with the fear and anxiety of having to deal with mutant powers in a world that hated mutants. Kitty Pryde, the geek love of any 1980s boy, provided a great vantage point into the tragedy that occurred in this story and her bold speech still echoes in my mind today.


Daredevil: Born Again
    Frank Miller returned to the pages of the title he defined. Joining him on Daredevil was artist David Mazzuchelli and the strength of their collaboration bore great fruit. In fact, without Daredevil: Born Again, there wouldn’t have been a Batman: Year One or a Batman Begins film.
    Through this story arc, you can see Mazzuchelli's artistic development and how it followed into Miller’s storytelling. Miller’s dialog was spot-on with its sharp, tough edge. Together they provided a textbook example of how to properly control the rate of revelation, using narration and panel construction and organization. Their storytelling was flawless; the dialog and the artwork were fluid.
    Miller and Mazzuchelli pulled you down with Murdock as they dragged him down to his lowest point, seemingly a pale imitation of his heroic self. From there, they rebuild Daredevil and you were there with him, struggling, and ultimately feeling his triumph and its cost.
    And that amazing ride appealed to that 15 year old kid on a different level than he was used to and opened his eyes forever to a different kind of storytelling. It also marked a shift in how I collected comic books: following creators rather than characters.

    Growing up isn’t always a pleasant thing, but it’s necessary. You can try to avoid it, but eventually, you’ll be forced to. What amazed both that 15 year old and myself now were the people and the office politics behind those stories. I had only seen the stories for the characters and for the first time in my life, I got to pull back the curtain and see the real people that were creating the magic. So, while the magic of comics was never the same, it did create a relationship that has kept me reading comics twenty five years later with no end in sight.


Footnotes:
  1. Busiek, Kurt. Introduction. X-Men: Pheonix Rising. By Roger Stern, John Byrne, Bob Layton and John Buscema. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2009. [4-5].
  2. Kristiansen, Ulrik and Tue Sørensen. “An interview with Chris Claremont.” Serie Journalen, May 1, 1996.
  3. Byrne, John. "Questions about Aborted Storylines." Byrne Robotics.

10 comments:

  1. Great essay, Jason. I, too, was deeply disappointed at Byrne's sudden departure from The Incredible Hulk (and his replacement being Al Milgrom). As for Jean Grey, I just ignore that whole retcon when reading the old issues.

    1986 was a great year for comics. For me, maybe the last great year.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is exactly why I love your blog!

    I love the old comics from the Eighties, even though back then I was just a kid. Some of them I bought at 4, before I could even read.

    Over the years, I got more issues from that time. They are the ones I like the most. It felt like there was a real story on their pages. Now, with 4 events at the same time, with the same characters, it does not feel as if they really matter.

    Like when Gambit, Polaris and Sunfire were turned into Horsemen of Apocalypse during the last decade. There were so many different things going on in the X-Men books, that this was just one more of them. Conversely, Angel's change back then was a big event (even if it happened after 1986).

    It is amazing to see how those books touched the lives of so many people, in this case, yours.

    Thanks for sharing all of this.

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  3. Great article Jason - fun and incisive.

    Thanks for sharing, Chris

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  4. Nice piece. I was ten in 1986 and never realized the stuff that was going on behind the scenes with the comics I loved. When an artist or writer left, I never really noticed. Then the story changed and I would lose interest, but I never made the connection to a specific creative team. I was just a kid. Now reading back on the history of the industry it's fascinating. Jim Shooters blog is really enlightening.

    I stopped reading comics when I was about 16, shortly after the exodus of talent to Image, although punk rock and girls probably had a larger role in it then the state of the industry. I returned a few years back and now follow creators rather than characters.

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  5. Thanks Slentz, and thanks for sharing.

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  6. Well, I'll look in this year's souvenir book; are you coming to San Diego? It's home sweet home. I'm just a bit younger but I share a good many of these '86 memories. I had about one year left as a voracious reader, though I'd be back many times (and kept reading HULK till I was too broke, my first year of college).

    I did write stories of the Stern-era Avengers and the Claremont/Byrne X-Men. They're on my blog, ceaseill.blogspot.com if you wanna check it out!

    Look forward to perusing the archives!

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  7. Hey cease ill, welcome. I am heading to SDCC next week, really looking forward to it. First timer. And suggestions or tips for the con? Thanks, Jason

    ReplyDelete

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