Saturday, September 25, 2010

It Came From 1986!!!

I don't know if we're actually at the 25 year anniversary mark of 1986, because I'm an English major. We don't do the mathy. It's close, though, probably. What I do know is that 1986 was a bad ass year for comics.

For better or worse, most recognize 86' as the year that comics fully broke free of the halcyon silver/gold age and straight into postmodern, "grim and gritty", comics-aren't-for-kids-any-more territory.

It was the year Alan Moore dropped The Watchmen on us. It was the year Frank Miller took the Batman and returned him as The Dark Knight. No more "gosh golly" language, and there was no guarantee the good guys were going to win any more. Matter of fact, who the hell are the good guys, any way? Do we have any left? Optimism, get the fuck out of here. 1986 didn't need you any more.

And after way too many years of the Comics Code Authority and the ghost of Wertham choking the shit out of creative expression, the shackles are starting to come off. We can talk about drugs, rape, and the darker slices of life now. We're starting to grow up a little bit.

Here's a trio of other gifts that 1986 gave us. They may not be as revered or canonized, but they were damn good, important, and worthy of recognition

Squadron Supreme
Marvel Comics
Scripts: Mark Gruenwald

This 12 issue mini-series actually first appeared in 1985, but a piece of it ran into 1986, so it counts because this is my blog and I say so.

Remember Kingdom Come, where a futuristic set of Justice Leaguers have to come to grips with other supers and how best to run the world? Remember Identity Crisis, and all the ethical snarls that came with mind-wiping folks for the "greater good"? Remember when Warren Ellis showed us what real super power would behave like in The Authority?

Well Mark Gruenwald did it first in Squadron Supreme. It was a story so ballsy he couldn't use established characters. There was no way the House of Ideas was going to let him use Reed Richards to build a mind control device and wipe out crime in a totalitarian utopia!

So Gruenwald built a team of very obvious Justice League analogues and let them do the dirty work. It was exceptionally fresh and powerful. It was a story so good, Mark Gruenwald had his ashes added to the ink for the first Squadron Supreme collected edition. He was that proud of the work. He had every right to be.

Strikeforce Morituri
Marvel Comics
Scripts: Peter B. Gillis

What do you do when a technologically advanced alien race invades your planet? Even the score by giving a handful of compatible citizens experimental super powers, that's what! The catch is that the hyper metabolism is guaranteed to be fatal to its recipient.

Thus, Morituri, which comes from the latin gladiatorial cry "Morituri te salutamus." (We who are about to die salute you) It's one of the greatest hooks in the history of comics, right up there with Y The Last Man. The ticking clock on all the protagonists made every issue dramatic.

Again, this comic had more balls than established commercial properties would allow. This was not set in the Marvel Universe proper, and characters did die routinely. Many credit the "anything can happen" formula as part of Walking Dead's success. That applied equally to Morituri.

The book was so much more raw than your average Marvel fare. Morituri candidates were not a set of supermodels with wholesome personalities and strictly advantageous combat abilities. These were regular people with the same kind of fears and inadequacies we all would face if we were engaged with an alien enemy under a death sentence.

Sometimes the powers were bizarre and not terribly useful. Sometimes they would tweak the formula and turn people into monsters. Not everybody was a hero. There was a lot of pressure with the world on these characters shoulders, and some of them couldn't hack it. It felt a lot more like life than most comics of its day, and I don't believe it's ever been collected. A damn shame.

After about two years James Hudnall came on to script and tore much of the balls out of the book. He cured the instability of the Morituri effect, and he got rid of the Horde threat. But if you can find those old Gillis/Anderson issues, they are well worth it.

Comico Comics
Scripts: Matt Wagner

Grendel existed prior to 1986, but that's when the truly unique ongoing series started. Grendel is not an alter ego, a title for a Johnny Q. Public character who dresses up in a stylized mask and fights crime.

It's actually difficult to pin down exactly what "Grendel" is, although it was a delight to watch readers try and define it in the much-smarter-than-average letters page each month. I suppose it's easiest to describe it as a kind of possessing spirit, although that sounds a bit off when I type it. And sometimes Grendel fights crime. Sometimes Grendel is crime.

The book bounces around time and space, making an account of the various lost souls corrupted by Grendel and the lives it affects. Think of it as a history of a singular violent phenomenon, manifesting itself with a symbolic mask.

Some characters would welcome Grendel, others would (in vain) try and reject it. Grendel would pop up in surprising places and people, often interacting with descendants of characters met in previous arcs.

Wagner's scripts were always sophisticated, whip-smart, and surprising. There were no sacred cows, either. Wagner's stories tackled all the icons: sex, politics, religion. He created strong characters of both genders and he never preached. He simply showed us many of our least comfortable truths and made them palatable by placing them in worlds not quite or own.

Wagner also had a knack for choosing artistic talent that complemented the stories he was telling. New era for Grendel? Time for a new artist. That might be irritating in most other comics - for Grendel it was natural. Grendel may not fit in a convenient box, but I know this for sure - it was damn compelling comics for 40 issues.

I'm sure I'm missing other great stuff from 1986 that's been under appreciated, and if you have any additions, feel free to comment. There's one more thing I wanted to talk about regarding 1986, an idea that was knocking around that threatened to change everything:

Yeah. I'm talking about the New Universe. Listen- I know it failed miserably, and I know it failed because it sucked the balls of a giant Yak. But there are things we can learn from it, powerful things that might actually save us. And we desperately need saving right now as comics fans. More on that in my next post!

- Ryan


Irish Mike said...

1986 - The year of Slippery When Wet!

It's tough...!

Chronic Insomnia said...

Tough, but medicinal. And Lord knows I give love a bad name, so it's the least I can do...