This is an excerpt from an interview I did several years ago for a European publication.
The American comics industry is going through a rough period right now; and deservedly so! I fear the comics have gone the way of the Hollywood action movie: Pursue the dollar until your product has been drained dry of all hope of creativity. In the movies if one explosion gets a good response, then the next movie will have ten explosions in it! If a man on a motorcycle jumps over two cars during a chase scene, you can bet the next movie will have a man on horseback jump between the World Trade Center Buildings. Copy and expand!
During the 1980’s, this is exactly what happened to the American comic book industry. With the explosion of popularity of the X-men, with Marvel making scads of money on these characters, the impossible happened! Each and every superhero character began to change. Some subtly, some blatantly. They began to incorporate the characteristics of Wolverine in particular: Angry, vengeful, frightening. Revenge became the only motivation for a superhero’s behavior. I refer to this as the Batman syndrome. The superhero’s actions can only be explained in terms of mental illness! There was a shift towards “realism” that spelled doom for the intrinsic persona of the character.
Little by little the major, time-tested heroes began to be retooled to cash in on the current readership that seemed to want violence, bloodshed and maybe just a little cathartic “power”. The heroes and villains became interchangeable. The characters would leap off the covers, grimacing, teeth and fists clenched in an explosion of action directed at the viewer instead of each other. Suddenly, all the books looked alike! All the characters acted alike. At one time, the readers of Thor may not have followed Spider-man; now it was irrelevant! Instead of having heroes for different tastes or values, all were the same.
During this period the alter-ego, the human persona or disguise of the super-hero began to be de-emphasized, sometimes disappearing for issues at a time! This trend also effected the art. Artists were encouraged to imitate the leaders of this movement and soon you couldn’t find a human being in the whole magazine! Everyone was over-sized, bulbously muscled and grimacing! Throughout the story! This ended up defeating the actual purpose of the drawings, leaving the heroes lost amidst equally impressive co-stars.
I nostalgically remember the great Jack Kirby’s renderings of the Thing or Thor standing among “regular” human beings. You knew who the superheros were! And so, many readers lost touch with their icons. The process tended to drive away readers whose needs were no longer being met. There were no more war books, westerns or romances (so much for the few female readers American comics ever had!). Without human beings in the plot, many sophisticated readers moved on. More insidiously, the plots began to include unsavory “realistic” devices. Pseudo-sophisticated story lines which included elements that could be better told in more adult publications.
Now parents had to examine the contents of books that had never needed it before, to see if they contained unacceptable elements for their children. Well, a few years ago, the inevitable decline began. Readers “grew-up” and moved on, leaving the twisted remains of once solid, long-lasting characters and plot lines that couldn’t be restored to the old threads.
The industry is now scrambling to find new readers, stability. Trying to reach new audiences. In many ways, this is good. It is leading to experimentation and creativity. Oddly, these are the qualities that they abandoned in their quest for the big money 15 years ago. Maybe it was a needed lesson, designed to keep the business honest. I hope so.