Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Eighties August 8 part V: Best Writers Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

Ask any actor: "it starts with the writing". If it ain't on the page it ain't erm... Well, you get the idea. So, on the fifth day of Eighties August 8 it's all about the writers that made the 1980s a decade to remember. And really, eight entries barely scratches the surface... Ever so sorry, Walt, Steve and John!*

8) - Bill Mantlo (Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, Micronauts, Rom)

Bill Mantlo was one of the most prolific writers of the late 1970s (he co-created Rocket Raccoon!). The fact he could write like the wind ensured his popularity well into the 1980s. Editors who needed a script done yesterday would regularly call on Mantlo, who'd get the job done overnight. Mantlo gradually graduated from being a pinch hitting editor to become a full fledged writer. He first made a mark for himself on Marvel's line of licensed books Micronauts and Rom.

To his credit, Bill never treated either property as "just a way to sell toys". He poured his heart and soul into whatever he wrote, creating tons of new characters for Micronauts and taking what would be another bland, bargain basement toy and turning it into Rom, premiere Space Knight, hero of Galador and vanquisher of the Dire Wraiths. Mantlo's infectious enthusiasm for the medium and the characters under his care were undeniable. Together with Sal Buscema, he was responsible for a staggering 68 issue run on Incredible Hulk (#245 through 313) which might arguably be one of the jolly green giant's most creative periods. He only left the book to take over Alpha Flight, a book he also brought his unique brand of storytelling to.

Of course, most us know of the terrible accident Bill was in back in 1992. While out rollerblading, he was hit by a car and suffered extensive head injuries that eventually left a brilliant man a ghost of his former self, stuck in a permanent care facility. That having said, the man was not without his detractors. Check out what Jim Shooter had to say on his blog about the way Mantlo would sometimes get his ideas.

7) - Ann Nocenti (Daredevil, Longshot, Spider-Woman, Web Of Spider-Man)  

Ann "Annie" Nocenti started out as one of Marvel's assistant editors in the early 1980s, taking over for Louise Simonson in the X-offices. Eventually, she tried her hand at writing. First, by taking on the bi-monthly Spider-Woman series in 1982 after Chris Claremont left. Immediately, Nocenti's penchant for the dark, strange and macabre became obvious. While Claremont's Jessica Drew engaged in semi-straightforward superheroics, Nocenti returned Jessica to her creepy roots, facing down frustrated, sometimes even downright weird villains like Daddy Longlegs, Gypsy Moth and others. In the end, she even killed Jessica Drew in #50.

Nocenti continued on as a writer, with memorable runs on Web Of Spider-Man that saw Peter Parker ending up in an insane asylum bankrolled by the Kingpin. Ann's true strength as a writer shone through, as she gave voice to the mental malady of the ward's patients. Somehow, she was able to zoom in on that undeniable spark of madness that defines the human condition, the one sideward step that can make the sanest one of us mad as a hatter... A good Nocenti forces you to take a good, long look at the darker aspects of ourselves. Ann knows where you live.

Perhaps the best possible way to mark her talent is the fact that in spite of all the doom and psychological gloom, Nocenti came up with *the* most happy go lucky character of the 1980s: Longshot.

6) - Frank Miller (Daredevil, Wolverine LS I#1)

Well, what can one say about Frank Miller that hasn't already been spelled out, regurgitated and blogged about again? Probably very little indeed. Suffice it to say Miller's early 80s contributions are varied and lasting. The man took Daredevil, a book even Stan Lee's trademark hyperbole couldn't convincingly call a bestseller and elevated it to a singular form of art.

Success in comics relies on the marriage between words and pictures, but Miller provided both during his turn at the helm of Daredevil. From the film noir style streetsof Hell's Kitchen, to the damp tunnels underneath the city where the Sewer King reigned, and from the courtroom to the Kingpin of crime's higher echelons of power... All of it sprang from the creative mind of this one man.

If nothing else, we have to thank Frank Miller for the creation of Elektra Nachios and Stick... Not to mention 1982's four issue Wolverine limited series, which Miller and Claremont all but mapped out when they just happened to be stuck in traffic together heading for a convention.

5) - Peter David (Incredible Hulk, Amazing/Web Of Spider-Man)

Jack of all trades, master of more than most of  'em...

Peter David started work at Marvel in the 80s as part of its sales division, before making the cut as a (freelance) writer. His talents are undeniable and his range is nothing short of breathtaking. He can do broad comedy, is capable of deft wordplay and provides gut wrenching, emotional drama as fast as you can name a deadline... And if you pay him enough, he'll mix all three of em together.

Best known in the 1980s for his lengthy run on Incredible Hulk, which pretty much lasted until a year shy of the century mark... David also provided a number of Spider-Man stories that were uniquely his own. Who else but Peter David could have come up with Amazing Spider-Man I#267's "The Commuter Cometh" which saw Spidey chasing a villain to the suburbs, only to find there wasn't too much to web sling from?

David to this day remains the total package, providing pathos, fun and excitement within 22 pages of colored funny pages. Who could ask for anything more?

4) - Mark Gruenwald (Captain America, Official Handbooks, Squadron Supreme, Quasar)

By the time Mark Gruenwald died of an undiagnosed heart condition in August of 1996, he had already made an indelible mark on the medium he loved so much, both as and a writer.

If "Gru" is to remembered for one thing, it was his devotion and love for continuity, which made him a stickler for all that had been established during his time as an editor, but also sparked the idea that in 1983 became the popular Official Handbook To The Marvel Universe series, which in great (some might say inane) detail outlined both the history and powers of the various characters running around the Marvel Universe.

As a writer, he helmed the groundbreaking 1985-1986 limited series Squadron Supreme that for the first time applied real world conventions to the superhuman lifestyle. Actions had consequences and no one escaped them. He also wrote memorable runs on the New Universe title D.P.7 and Quasar, but his singular writing credit has to be his tenure on Captain America, a book he took under his wing only a few months before it got rebooted in 1996's Heroes Reborn. Through it all, Gruenwald showed that continuity isn't some obstacle you have to clear, but rather an opportunity to enrich and ennoble whatever idea you might have.

3) - J.M. DeMatteis (Captain America, Defenders, Spider-Man)

Unless it's 1987 and you're the Justice League, chances are you won't be having too jolly a time when J.M. DeMatteis is your writer.

There's very little "BWAH-HA-HA!" funny about most of DeMatteis' work for Marvel in the 1980s. Starting out as a writer on Defenders, DeMatteis figured it might be fun to have the kooky team face the demon cabal called the Six Fingered Hand. He followed that up with a run on Captain America, which was symbolized by a deep rooted fascination with the psychological aspect of the heroic condition.

DeMatteis created Vermin during his run on Cap, a character he used to maximum effect during the brief, but legendary Kraven's Last Hunt storyline. A deeply atmospheric psychological thriller that showed just how intelligent, philosophic and artistic the funny pages could truly be.

2) - Chris Claremont (New Mutants, Spider-Woman, Uncanny X-Men)

The danger of lists like these is getting lost in the obvious... Yet, there's no mistaking and no denying Chris Claremont's contributions to Marvel all through the decade. He was already writing and co-plotting Uncanny X-Men with John Byrne when the 1980s started, guided by skilled editors like Jim Salicrup, Roger Stern and Louise Jones (the later Mrs. Walter Simonson, depicted on the right in the snapshot above). He continued as main X-scribe throughout the decade, finally quitting the book in 1991 after an astonishing and unequalled 16 year run.

During the 1980s, the X-Men became the X-Men we know today. And that is mostly thanks to Chris Claremont tapping away at his word processor. He married soap opera with superheroics, drafting intricately detailed storylines for most of the main characers, helped in no small part by artists like Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Mark Silvestri and Jim Lee who were all giants of the industry themselves.

He also helmed the X-pansion of the X-Men, turning the one little mutant book that could into a prosperous multi title franchise. Starting with New Mutants in 1982, he went on to write the first Wolverine limited series that inevitably led to an ongoing series... And, with Alan Davis, he also spearheaded the Britain based branch Excalibur. Chris Claremont may have his faults as a writer, but with the proper guidance and editorial support, he was an 80s powerhouse.

1) - Roger Stern (Avengers, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man)

... Is there anything Roger Stern can't improve?

Initially starting out as an editor, Stern brought a fan's eagle eye for detail to the work. And even as a writer, he actively incorporated continuity to inspire his current works. He did so on Doctor Strange, where he teamed with Paul Smith among others to mark a memorable run. Over on Spider-Man, he penned numerous classic adventures, proving for instance that yes, one *could* stop the Juggernaut (provided there was enough wet cement around, that is).

But Stern's magnum opus has to be his run on Avengers. Starting with January 1983's #227, Stern wrote the book for exactly five years, leaving with February 1988's #288 (he only missed #280, penned by future Avengers chronicler Bob Harras). Stern's Avengers are a showcase in how a teambook should work and evolve. Its membership flowing organically from adventure to adventure, while making sure the nature of the action was determined by the individual characters' personalities and the way they'd interact with one another. Stern had plans for the book leading up to #300, which according to him would resolve the death of Iron Fist, possibly even resulting in to him and his former partner Luke Cage becoming Avengers themselves well before Brian Michael Bendis came up with the idea to make Fist and Cage part of Earth's mightiest.

A few years back, Marvel published X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor Forever, all alternate reality series that allowed the original creators to continue whatever story they had in mind before they were booted out... I'd love for Roger Stern to continue his original 80s Avengers run. But then again, he already co-wrote a series called Avengers Forever which was amazing. But hey, what'd you expect? He's Roger Stern.
*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. Stern, Claremont, and Miller I agree with, but to not include Byrne in the top 5 of 80s Marvel writers is a crime. Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Avengers West Coast, Namor, She Hulk and starting out the decade co-plotting (or mostly plotting) Uncanny X-Men. Not to mention short but memorable stints on Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk!

  2. Just a quick correction - it was Mark Waid who took over Captain America just prior to Onslaught. Gruenwald had an almost decade-long run prior to Waid taking over.

  3. Anonymous 1) - For your Byrne fix, check back for the top 8 best artists of the decade ;-)
    Anonymous 2) - That's right, Gruenwald quit the book a few months before Onslaught, that Mark Waid took over didn't immediately seem relevant to Gru's entry ;-)

  4. Great list. I would switch out John Byrne for Peter David. I only read a couple of David's Hulks in the 80s, and thought they were great, but didn't really appreciate him till the 90s, whereas Byrne's Alpha Flight and FF were must-reading. And I'd probably switch out Nocenti, who was a bit too low-key for me as a teen (I appreciate her mature themes a bit more now) for my favourite non-Miller DD scribe Denny O'Neil (who also wrote a very cool throw-down between Iron Man and Obadiah Stane).

    Claremont and Miller would rule my list, as well as DeMatteis, whom I didn't collect consistently but who just kept popping up with really great stories (Six Fingered Hand, Kraven's Hunt, and some cool Cap stuff).

    And thanks for paying tribute to Mantlo. Not all of his stuff holds up today (he couldn't really follow Byrne's Alpha Flight) but he did so much fun stuff, especially the Hulk. In fact, I kind of wish I remembered U-Foes for best team AND debut in the 80s!

    Throw in Gru and Stern, and that's a great list of writers for a great decade in comics. Thanks again for the memories,
    david p.

  5. I enjoy the work of all of these very talented people. Between them, they've probably written nearly all of my favorite comic book stories from my childhood and teenage years, many of which I've spotlighted on my blog. For example, here's a link to the piece I did on Ann Nocenti's "Life In The Mad Dog Ward" from the Spider-Man books...



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