Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eighties August 8 part II: Best Titles Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

In the second part of Eighties August 8, we'll be counting down the eight best titles of the 1980s. Now, we can all agree that books like Simonson's Thor, Miller's Daredevil, Byrne's Fantastic Four and of course Claremont's Uncanny X-Men belong on that list by default. But that would make this entry far too predictable. Instead, let's focus on some of the lesser known gems of the decade.*

8) - Power Man & Iron Fist 

Not too many characters considered typical 70s creations were able to survive and thrive in the 80s... But somehow, Luke Cage and Daniel Rand beat the odds. One a relic of the blackploitation rage of the mid 1970s, the other Marvel's response to the Kung Fu craze of the same time period. Odds of them being able to support a monthly book after disco went out of style were unlikely. In fact, Marvel actually did cancel their solo titles, but decided to give the two another chance, bringing them together as Power Man & Iron Fist.

Somehow, an instant, almost effortless chemistry occured between the tough, street smart Power Man and the slightly naive, spiritual Iron Fist. Their adventures ran the gamut, ranging from mystical menaces like Master Khan to super powered mercenaries such as Constrictor and Sabretooth. The book effortlessly switched between complicated detective style stories in which barely a punch was thrown and broad, silly romps featuring characters like the unapologetically unbelievable Black Mariah.

Add to that a rich, varied supporting cast including the likes of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, and you were sitting pretty, storywise... Which is exactly what Power Man & Iron Fist did until September 1986's issue 125, the final issue of the series that ended with Iron Fist's death (don't worry, he got over it).

7) - Damage Control

So, what happens after your favorite heroes have defeated a villain, trashing half of New York in the process?

The late great Dwayne McDuffie and artist Ernie Colón finally answered that question with Damage Control, a 1989 four issue limited series about Ms. Hoag and her employees who specialized in clean up and reconstruction after super powered conflicts. Now, if you think corporate machinations, tons of paper work and construction crew banter sounds boring, think again... I'll bet the Punisher doesn't show up in your reception area, loaded for bear. And oh boy, was it fun.

But even though Damage Control was first and foremost a comedy, McDuffie did use it to add a whole new dimension to the Marvel Universe . Despite all the infectious silliness and the giddy oneliners, the book showed for the first time the very real, human impact of superhero conflicts. The Avengers, Fantastic Four and all the other New York based heroes may go home after a fight, but they don't exist in a vacuum. Their actions have consequences and Damage Control was on hand to help out (even if they did drop Avengers Mansion back in the drink after they tried to salvage it following Acts Of Vengeance).

6) - New Defenders

Like Power Man and Iron Fist, the original Defenders hail from the 1970s and were reinvented, albeit it far too briefly, for the new decade. By its very nature, membership of the Defenders was mostly fluid, the only constants being Doctor Strange who often acting as the team's leader, and Valkyrie who stayed at Strange's home which incidentally also served as the unofficial team's inofficial gathering place. By November 1983, writer J.M DeMatteis decided to shake things up. Defenders changed to New Defenders with issue 125.

Beast (Hank McCoy) had decided what the team needed was more structure and organization. Long serving members Gargoyle, Valkyrie and her unwilling ward Moondragon were game, joined by Beast's former X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel (who bankrolled the operation). And so, the Defenders 2.0 were born.

My love and affection for this colorful rag tag band of heroes is no secret, the formation and adventures of the New Defenders were covered on this blog some time ago. When DeMatteis left (ironically after realizing writing a 'real' team stymied his creativity), Peter B. Gillis took over and told some truly dark, creepy stories that took the former non team to places few mainstream books dared venture at the time. Don Perlin and Kim DeMulder provided solid and appropriately moody art for the book, but in the end it was cancelled so Angel, Beast and Iceman could appear in the new X-Factor series. Wotta sassafrassin' shame, really.

5) - Squadron Supreme

Don't call them the Justice League...

... Though, really, they are. Originally dreamed up by Roy Thomas in 1971 during his Avengers run in order to poke some gentle fun at DC's premiere superteam, these alternate reality heroes spent the next decade and a half popping up occasionally to cause random mischief until Mark Gruenwald took them under his wing. Starting in September of 1985, the 12 issue Squadron Supreme limited stories told the story of what would happen if Earth's mightiest decided to become benevolent dictators, taking over control of the world for a year in an attempt to fix its many woes.

Because of the very nature of the Squadron Supreme (i.e. not being household names), Mark Gruenwald was pretty much allowed free reign. He could let the Squadronners do and experience things very few if any mainstream superheroes had by then. When Lady Lark broke up with Golden Archer, the furious, spurned hero brainwashed his ex girlfriend, forcing her to love him unconditionally. The radioactive Squadron member Nuke accidentally caused the cancer that killed his parents. And, perhaps most tragic of all, the team's inventive genius Tom Thumb succumbed to cancer as well, but not before his desperation caused him to betray his personal code of honor by trying to steal a cure that in the end proved ineffective.

The series was a prime example of Gruenwald at his best: telling ground breaking stories that were always rooted in the inevitability of the human condition.Well before Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns revolutionalized and matured the genre, Squadron Supreme led the way.

4) - Sensational She-Hulk

"What if... She-Hulk knew she was in a comic book?"

John Byrne took a concept that might as well have been a throwaway, semi-funny What If? one pager and turned it into Sensational She-Hulk, Shulkie's second 80s solo title. The main gimmick was the fact Jennifer Walter was well aware she was a comic book character and she was absolutely fine with it. Byrne initially only wrote the first eight issues of the book, before he was unceremoniously discarded.

He'd eventually return in the 1990s, taking over with #31 and delivering some nice work until he quit again with #50. But his arguably best, most original work can be found in those first 8 issues, with She-Hulk gleefully indulging in breaking the fourth wall and what it meant to be in a comic. Not sure about the best way to defeat Stilt Man, she checked the villain's Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe entry. Threatened by a seemingly inescapable menace, she simply tore her way through the pages, crossing a mock double spread advertisment to get to safety.

All in all, it's goofy, silly fun that still holds up.

3) - Spider-Woman

Much like the She-Hulk, Marvel ordered the creation of Jessica Drew in 1977 simply to make sure other companies couldn't copyright the female counterpart of a popular character. Spider-Woman was launched in March of 1978, after her initial appearance in Marvel Spotlight I#32 sold surprisingly well. One little problem, though... No one really knew what to do with her.

Oh, sure... There were plenty of theories and most of them were either implemented or strongly hinted at. Writer Marv Wolfman gave Drew an origin that implied she wasn't a woman at all, but an actual arachnid given human form by the High Evolutionary. Eventually, it was revealed HYDRA had planted these false memories within Jessica, but that didn't help matters much. Drew was mostly rudderless, between writers Wolfman, Gruenwald (him again?) and Michael Fleisher who turned her into a bounty hunter. It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over the book with January 1981's issue #34 that the book finally found its bearings.

Claremont and his creative compatriot Steve Leiloha salvaged Spider-Woman, distilling the essence of the character as a fringe superheroine and taking it to the next level. Over the course of 13 issues, Jessica Drew quit the bounty hunting business, moved to San Francisco with her best friend Lindsay McCabe, started a new career as a private investigator and made the city by the bay her own. The change came with a completely new, distinctive supportive cast: Drew's landlord and love interest David Ishima, the tough as nails but secretive police lieutenant Sabrina Morrel and many more... Including old enemies like Morgana Le Fay, the elder god Ch'ton and Viper, who may or may not have been Jessica's mother Meriem.

Spider-Woman under Claremont and Leialoha had its very own, distinct look and feel which in itself is an achievement for a bi-monthly book. That alone makes it well worth remembering and checking out.

2) - Moon Knight

Ever since he made his debut back in 1975, Moon Knight has been unfavorably called "Marvel's Batman".

A rather unfair comparison... Sure, they're both caped crusaders who prefer to stalk criminals at night, travel by helicopter and wear their insignia on their chest that are like an ever so handy bullseye. But the comparison really stops there, as Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz proved with their run on Moon Knight.

In many ways, the book was far ahead of its time. Placed against the backdrop of a gritty, grimey pre-Giulliani urban renewal New York, Moon Knight told urban parabels and presented highly stylized pieces of comic book art that dangerously walked the highwire between the sublime and the ridiculous. Take for instance the striking cover of Moon Knight I#24, which features Moon Knight and Stained Glass Scarlet. She looks imposing and important, but is actually a former nun who killed her criminal son by becoming a crossbow wielding vigilante. As one does.

Suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment of comics, and Moon Knight is a prime example of that philosophy. Moench's stories were tremendously aided by Sienkiewicz's atmospheric art. Over the course of their run, Bill's prefered technique matured: slowly abandoning the Neal Adams style he had been emulating in the beginning to start experimenting with a far more abstract, expressionistic style. The fluent, ever changing mood and personality of the schizophrenic Moon Knight allowed Sienkiewicz to take a variety of truly fascinating approaches portraying what could otherwise have been fairly pedestrian crime stories. For proof of that statement, go check out "Hit It!", the first story in Moon Knight I#26.

Pure poetry in motion...

1) - Doctor Strange

The Doctor is in!

Strange to think he ever was out, if one reads Roger Stern's lengthy stint on the sorceror surpreme's second and bi montly solo book, aptly called Doctor Strange. Stern chronicled the adventures of the Doc for a fair chunk of the early 1980s, pitting him against a variety of foes both mystic and more down to earth. However, the quintessential 80s Strange didn't appear until Stern was joined by artist Paul Smith, who had been garnering quite a bit of attention at the time because of his work on Uncanny X-men.

For some borderline mystical reason, Smith's crispy, clear lined art proved to be a perfect match for the often arcane otherworldly messes Doctor Strange got himself involved with. The result was a comic that not only looked incredible, it also told particularly fascinating tales, often within the space of a single issue. Both webmaster Jason Shayer and yours truly happen to be unabashed fans of the Stern/Smith Strange, as we covered in times past (like say here & here).

What it boils down to, is the very root of the Marvel Universe. The one, defining aspect that sets it apart from its erm, shall we say, Distinguished Competitors: the only reason why the fantastical is so engrossing, is the fact that it is tempered with an undeniable sense of identifiable humanity.

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!


  1. Fun list, especially by omitting the obvious choices. I definitely second the Moon Knight pick, and have to add Alpha Flight, which was one of my three titles I bought every month for most of the decade (X-Men and Daredevil being the other two).

    Power Man and Iron Fist were characters I always liked, but for some reason almost never bought (budget constraints). Still glad to see them here.

    As for Defenders, they were also favourites, but not so much the "new" issues as the old six-fingered hand/Squadron Supreme-fighting line-up.

    Speaking of the Squadron, not sure they should count, being a limited series and all, but they definitely were a highlight of the Marvel 80s.

    Mind you, if we are extending "titles" to include limited runs, why not mention one of the greatest 80s titles of all: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe! Another great hallmark of the Marvel 80s (and another fine contribution by Mark Gruenwald, no less!) both volumes definitely provided something to look forward to every month, namely hours of perusing and some very cool discoveries of new characters.

    Good times! Thanks for the memories...
    david p.

  2. Nice list! The Doc volume that started in 1974 was a great one! I enjoyed the Englehart/Brunner/then Colan issues a lot more myself, but this era definitely had some good ideas as well!



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