Monday, May 6, 2013

American Comic Book Chronicles - The 1980s

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the author, Keith Dallas, and designer, Bill Walko, of American Comic Book Chronicles - The 1980s, published by the folks over at TwoMorrows Publishing.

You can grab a copy of this fine book here:

Jason: What’s was the main inspiration for this book?
Part nostalgia, part “write what you know”.  After TwoMorrows published The Flash Companion in 2008 (a book which I co-wrote and edited and Bill designed), John Morrow (the publisher) enjoyed it so much that he asked me to pitch him some other book ideas.  I began to think how most comic book history books focus on a single publisher or a single character or a single creator.  No doubt, they’re all illuminating in their own right, but ultimately the very narrow focus can cause a reader to lose sight of the greater context.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a book that tried to encompass the entire comic book landscape of a single decade, like say, the 1980s?  And that’s what I pitched to John: a year-by-year account of the comic book industry that didn’t just tackle Marvel and DC but as many of the independent publishers as well (First, Comico, Eclipse, Dark Horse, Pacific, etc., etc.).  I chose the 1980s because it’s the decade I grew up in.  Of any decade, I’m most familiar with comic books from the 1980s.

John loved the idea but he didn’t just want to publish a book on the 1980s; he wanted to publish a series of books on every decade in comic book history.  Since I’m only qualified to write about the 1980s, John appointed me series editor and then we went ahead and hired other writers to handle the other volumes (Roy Thomas is writing on the 1940s, Bill Schelly the 1950s, John Wells the 1960s, et al.). All that was left was for me to rope Bill into the project, which I knew wouldn’t be too difficult since he’s just as much a fan of 1980s comic books as I am.

Jason: How did you approach covering this decade? There are a lot of different angles you could have used to come at this material.
I started out doing months and months and months of research: reading 1980s comic books, and reading articles about 1980s comic books.  Particularly helpful were issues of The Comics Journal, Comics Interview, The Comics Buyer’s Guide and Amazing Heroes from the 1980s. The research was one challenge; the actual writing of the book was a completely different challenge.  I didn’t want American Comic Book Chronicles to read like an encyclopedia.  I wanted it to read like a narrative.  I wanted it to read like a history novel where you learn about the players of the comic book industry as if they were characters in a real story.  Publishers succeeded and failed.  Creators experienced triumph and frustration (and sometimes even tragedy). So I’m hoping American Comic Book Chronicles doesn’t read like a detailed list of creators and publications. I’m hoping it reads like an entertaining story with a beginning, middle and end.

Jason: What do you think made this decade so memorable?
Certainly, many of the comic books that we now consider some of the finest ever published came out during the 1980s: The Dark Knight, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, Maus, etc.  What must be remembered, though, is that it was the growth of the Direct Market (i.e. the specialty comic book stores) that enabled the publication of these seminal works.  In 1980, the comic book industry was still dependent on the newsstand to sell its product.  By 1989, the industry had shifted over completely to the Direct Market (i.e. the specialty comic book stores).  The Direct Market allowed the comic book companies to publish more mature (or edgy or whatever term you want to use) material than they would have if they remained beholden to the newsstands.  Without the Direct Market, DC would never have published Watchmen, The Dark Knight, etc.

Jason: What creators/editors/publishers really stood out for you in terms of changing comics?
The obvious creators to point to are Alan Moore and Frank Miller who both paved the way for a more serious presentation of super-hero stories.  But someone who shouldn’t be overlooked, in my opinion, is writer Mike Baron whose unorthodox work (starting with Nexus and Badger) showed that comic books didn’t have to be presented in a relatively “cookie cutter” fashion.  Before Alan Moore arrived on the American comic book scene, Baron showed how innovative and creative comic book narrative can be.

Jason: What was the inspiration for your design approach? What were you trying to achieve in the layout?
I'd have to say Chip Kidd was a big inspiration. He's designed so many beautiful looking books based on comics. I love the way he utilizes the images, with splashy comic pages and characters over-enlarged to where you see the bleed of the ink. But for our book, it needed to be "one for the ages." I want these books to stand on peoples' shelves for years to come, so I purposely avoided any "trendy" typefaces or design tricks. Plus, I needed the design to work with the other decades as well.  I went very classic and clean, but then I let large comic characters and pages "invade" the pages and disrupt the layouts. So you have that push-pull of order and chaos in the design. I really wanted to celebrate the art form in that way. Comics are, after all, so much about the art. And the drama of that art. So I wanted people to flip through the book and have the pictures tell the story, too.

Jason: You must have spent hours looking through reference images. How did you pick and choose?
It was both very easy and very difficult. Easy, in that it was the decade of the X-Men, New Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, Crisis On Infinite Earths, Secret Wars, Frank Miller's Dark Knight, Love & Rockets, Zot!, the Elementals, Jose Garcia-Lopez' DC Comics style guides, John Bryne's X-men and Fantastic Four, Walt Simonson's Thor... and the list goes on. So much to choose from. Difficult, in finding a place for it all. You want the images to go alongside the text that tells the story, so I worked extra hard to find a proper place for all the milestones and game changers. Keith and I talked about that a lot. "Is this a game changer? Is that enough of a game changer?" That became our litmus test. I fought hard for a couple of inclusions I felt were very important, and Keith obliged. Or, eventually gave in to shut me up. ; )

Jason: Looking back, was there any pieces of art or particular creator’s work that still stays with you?
So many. I am a huge, huge fan of George Pérez and his work so that has really stayed with me. John Byrne was brilliant and very prolific in the 1980s as well. A lot of the emerging indie artists like the Hernandez brothers, Scott McCloud, and Bill Willingham made a big impact with me. Frank Miller's work was so bold and raw. Paul Smith was the guy to get me invested in the X-Men. And Art Adams' Longshot was a revelation. And there's probably twenty or so more I'm forgetting right now.

Jason: What was your favourite year of the 1980s and why?
Hmmm… let’s go with 1987.  DC put out some wonderful revivals (like Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire’sJustice League, Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow, among many others) while Marvel launched a new Punisher on-going series.  Oh, and Spider-Man got married!

Bill: I'm going to go with 1984, because so many brilliant things were happening. New Teen Titans was hitting it's highest point with "The Judas Contract," as Robin graduated to his Nightwing persona. Uncanny X-Men was riding high with Paul Smith on pencils, and the New Mutants was freshly launched as a spin-off title. (Remember when Marvel wasn't sure if readers would support a second mutant title? Ha!) Legion of Super-heroes was in full swing. Walt Simonson's Thor was happening. John Byrne gave us Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight monthly. Secret Wars hit. Spider-Man got a sleek new costume. And so many indie titles – including the Elementals, Zot! and Love & Rockets – completely opened up the market. That's a ton of awesome comics all happening in the same year!

Jason: What is that one book, that hidden gem, from the 1980s that everyone should read?
I’d actually recommend something that I didn’t mention in my book because I couldn’t figure out a way to work it into the narrative: Peter Gross’s Empire Lanes.  It’s about a group of medieval Dungeons & Dragons-like adventurers who get transported to modern day Chicago.  Wonderful work that still holds up today.  You might have to scour eBay for it, though, as I don’t believe Empire Lanes has ever been collected into a trade paperback.

Bill: I'm going to go with Scott McCloud's wonderful (and under-rated) Zot!, a whimsical series with a lot of heart. The entire run is less than 40 issues and has an endpoint, so it's worth checking out. I'm also going to recommend Bill Willingham's Elementals, which was so ahead of its time. It was sort of the "HBO series" of comics, diving into some risque subject matters with wild abandon. The first run of the series is also meticulously plotted, with some great payoffs and surprises – stuff Marvel and DC wouldn't dare to do at the time.

Jason: Favourite 1980s creator?
Keith: Hands down, my favorite 1980s creator is Keith Giffen.  Truly, one of the most prolific creators of the era.  His output during the decade was tremendous and ran the thematic gamut.  He produced straight-up super-hero stories (like Invasion!), brooding, violent work (like the 1989 relaunch of Legion of Super-Heroes) as well as goofy slapstick (like the BWAA-HA-HA version of Justice League).
Bill: I have to go with my main man, George Pérez. As an artist, he was just a huge influence.

Jason: Favourite DC Comics series?
Because of my appreciation for the aforementioned Keith Giffen, Legion of Super-Heroes was a particular favorite of mine.  I also have to mention Watchmen as that story truly blew my mind when I read it in 1987.  No comic book like it had been published up to that point.
Bill: That would be New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. But I'm also going to give shout outs to Blue Devil and Amethyst, for daring to be different. And also Crisis on Infinite Earths for the sheer audacity of it – the grand-daddy of all crossover events.

Jason: Favourite DC Comics single issue?
I’ll go with Killing Joke.  Riveting story and a chilling ending.
Bill: Tough choice, but I'll go with New Teen Titans #38: "Who Is Donna Troy?" It was such a human story, without a single punch thrown.

Jason: Favourite Marvel Comics series?

Keith: Tie between Peter Gillis/Brent Anderson’s Strikeforce Morituri and Doug Murray/Michael Golden’s The ’Nam.
Bill: I'm gonna give it to Uncanny X-Men, which was at the top of its game in the 80s. Plus, a list of artists that included John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr. and Marc Silvestri. Additionally, John Byrne's Fantastic Four is such a great run, and his Alpha Flight was a take on super-teams that was way ahead of its time.

Jason: Favourite Marvel Comics single issue?
Uncanny X-Men #137, the death of Jean Grey. An unforgettable end to the Dark Phoenix saga.

Jason: Favourite Indy series?
Bill Willingham’s Elementals.  Fabulous artwork that supported stories that pushed the envelope.
Bill: Ditto on Bill Willingham’s Elementals.  Also, Scott McCloud's Zot! for its charm and artistic experimentation.

Jason: Favourite Indy single issue?
Elementals #12 is pretty amazing. Monolith has a dream which includes hints at a number of far-reaching plot points. It was fun to see what came true and how it came true. (when we got to Elementals (second series) #6, years later, I was blown away by the shocking way one of those elements played out.) I also really liked each of the "Earth Stories" in Zot! #28-36. With Zot stranded on earth, each issue was a done-in-one spotlighting one of the cast members. One issue including a Zot/Jenny "sex talk." Fans of Manga and relationship-focused comics should check it out!

Thanks so much to Keith and Bill for the interview.

You can grab a PDF preview here:


  1. Just waiting for my copy to arrive. The early '60s volume is so good and so packed with info I'm barely midway thru affer a month! I was disappointed some of my favorites didn't get much attention, but there's no way they can include everything without the books being twice as long. They are also beautifully designed and will look great as a set on the shelf for years to come.

  2. Thanks for the tip. Definitely a book I want to check out.

  3. Hey Michael, you're more than welcome. These guys know their stuff.



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