Marvel Comics In The 1980s by Pierre Comtois (book review).

Pierre Comtois is a big fan of Marvel Comics in the 1960s when they changed the way comics were done. In the first flush of the revolution, they were led by the Big Three: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

He’s not such a big fan of Marvel comics in the 1970’s where, as far as I can tell, he thinks they entered a period of stagnation, maintaining the Marvel Universe and doing okay but not really adding anything new.


On the other hand, when some new things were added in the 1980s, he didn’t like them much. The additions were violence and a generally darker atmosphere in which the seamy side of big city American life was shown: drug taking, prostitution and nasty criminal violence. Comtois calls this period the Dark Age and it’s not a compliment. This book, like its predecessors, has an overall commentary in the introduction followed by reviews of individual issues interspersed with caption boxes about the various creators. It’s a good format and works fine and his reviews of the individual issues are perceptive.

He states that because there were so many Marvel comics in this period of expansion he has opted to review some minor titles of interest. These include ‘Rom: Space Knight’, which was based on a toy but qualifies for entry because the scripts and art, some by Steve Ditko, were better than you might expect. Obviously, Marvel’s big hits like ‘Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘Fantastic Four’, ‘Avengers’, ‘X-Men’ and so forth get plenty of space. The best Marvel comics of the 1980’s were, in no particular order: Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s ‘X-Men’, Frank Miller’s ‘Daredevil’, John Byrne’s ‘Fantastic Four’ and ‘The Avengers’ run that featured the art of John Buscema, inked by Tom Palmer. Many of us like Walt Simonson’s classic run on ‘Mighty Thor’ but Comtois does not think much of it or Elektra, for that matter. He certainly doesn’t like ‘The Punisher’, who became an example of all the bad, dark stuff, the anti-hero who’s just as dirty as the bad guys.

There is some background information on editorial changes under Jim Shooter and reviews of the ‘New Universe’ which that worthy launched later in the decade, as well as the ‘Secret Wars’ thing. Shooter made the company money and also got better deals for writers and artists, while being attacked from management on high and the creative staff below him. His reign benefited everyone and they all hated him. A neat trick. In the 70s, the writers decided they didn’t need editors and took on the role themselves, which led to lots of missed deadlines. I don’t think there was ever a missed deadline and reprint fill in under Stan Lee. Shooter bought discipline and restored editors but lost some writers.

Then the editor/writers gave way to writer/artists like John Byrne and Frank Miller. Writers had decided they didn’t need editors and artists decided they didn’t need writers. This led to fewer words per issue and eventually to seventeen page comics you could read in a minute with lots of poster style splash pages as artists indulged themselves. I agree with Comtois that this was a bad thing. The cover prices rose and the distribution became more and more specialised. Children were left behind by the prices and the adult content. It’s worth mentioning that this was happening by the end of the 1980s but things were not so for the whole decade.

All life is change, as the Buddha said. Like Comtois, I don’t like all the changes. The odd thing about this book is that while his overview is gloomy, the reviews of several titles make you want to read them. Having deserted comics in the 1980s for more adult fun, even as they went ‘adult’, I am catching up with the Marvel ‘Essential’ and DC ‘Showcase’ editions, especially the former. Apart from ‘X-Men’, most of these have not yet reached the decade reviewed here and I’m looking forward to seeing them. For those in a similar position, this is an interesting book but there are lots of spoilers.

It struck me that while the comics have deserted the kiddies, the films have captured them. The economics of $200,000,000 blockbusters means that you want to maximise your audience, so most of the Marvel super-hero movies are suitable for older children. It would be great if this led them to read the classic, equally suitable comics but I guess that’s not going to happen much. In any case, Pierre Comtois has written an interesting guide to Marvel Comics in the 1980s and although you may disagree with some of the views expressed, it’s certainly food for thought and I recommend it. Thought, I mean, and food. Especially pizza.

Eamonn Murphy

August 2015

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 224 page illustrated softcover. Price: $27.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60549-059-5. Direct from them, you can get it for $23.76 (US).Digital version: $10.95 (US))

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