|The Batman of The Dark Knight Returns ends an age-old argument.|
If you can remember 1986, and if you can remember buying comics at that time, then you no doubt have fond memories of that particular year.
1986 was the year that both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" appeared in comic book shops, and it was the year that Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Dave Gibbons effectively reinvented the genre.
|Watchmen: the old Charlton characters writ large.|
Up until the appearance of those two landmark comic books, the worlds inhabited by Superman, Spider-man, and co. were fairly predictable places, where muscled champions fought monthly battles against costumed foes. After the appearance of those two comics, everything was different, everything was possible, and everything was new.
In 1986 I was 11 going on 12, and this was the perfect age in which to experience the transformation of the comic book industry. Up until The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, I was an avid follower of The Flash, Daredevil, and the Justice League. Up until those two tiles appeared I was also, like most boys my age, a master of comic book trivia. I knew what artist pencilled Daredevil after Frank Miller left the book. I knew who wrote the good Flash comics. I even knew the names of a few inkers.
|Things get heavy in Watchmen.|
And then, almost all at once, that world came to an end.
There were hints of it in DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." There were rumblings in the direction of Swamp Thing. There were glimpses in the new line of graphic novels. Comics, all of the sudden, got more complex, and much more adult.
I freaking LOVED The Dark Knight Returns. But then I had already been a longtime fan of Frank Miller. I loved his idea of an older Batman. I loved his art. I loved his characters' internal monologues. I couldn't believe how cool that comic series was, and how lame my former favorites seemed after I had read it.
|"Marshal Law." Great, but sadly overlooked by most.|
Watchmen took longer to grow on me. It may have been because it was less "superheroic" than Frank Miller's creation. It may have been too deconstructionist for my liking. It might have simply been over my head. But my friends and I could all agree that the covers looked cool, and that the plot had a way of grabbing your attention. By the third issue of the series I was intrigued. By the sixth issue I was a fan. By the 12th issue I was wondering how any comic book team could top that series in terms of drama and intricacy.
I am still wondering.
|"Elektra Assassin." Quite possibly my favorite comic book ever.|
Watchmen, by the time it finally concluded (there were a lot of delays), had rocked my world to its very foundations. While I walked away from The Dark Knight Returns thinking that Frank Miller was The Man, Watchmen left me pondering the possibilities of the comic book as an art form. They were two very different comic books, that made two very different impressions.
Both of these comics were also great because they opened the door to a host of other, more adult creations. I have fond memories of Mills and O'Neill's "Marshal Law," Rick Veitch's "The One,"and other, similarly strange comics. The only exception was Neil Gaiman's work on Sandman, which never appealed to me. To this day, I fail to understand why he's so famous.
|Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1, with all its variant covers...|
But of course the comic book renaissance started by Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns was all too brief. As the 90s drew closer and closer, a more market-driven sort of comic book began to appear, and both creators and companies increasingly sought to cash-in on their creations. Suddenly every #1 came in three, four, or twenty different covers. Suddenly every other comic book came in its own sealed bag, so that you had to buy two - one to read, and one as an investment. Suddenly trading cards were included in each comic, or holographic covers, or special silver ink. It all got very ridiculous, and in their rush to cash-in, many companies failed to realize that it was the content of the comics that mattered, not the gimmicks attached to them.
|X-Men #1 with its gatefold cover. This was really the beginning of the end...|
Those more market-driven comic books almost killed the industry, and a few years later even Marvel and DC were in serious financial trouble. This financial trouble is one of the reasons that multiple film studios now hold the rights to Marvel characters, and why a lot of the guys (and girls) who wrote or drew comics in the late 80s no longer continue to do so.
But for a while there, between The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and the gatefold holographic trading card covers, it seemed like anything was possible. It seemed that what waited in the wings was probably better and more thoroughly imagined than anything we had seen before. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Dave Gibbons gave us that feeling, and each month we waited, with baited breath, for the next issue to hit the stands.
|Classic beat down.|