DC’s Late-80’s Comics Did Everything Right That The ‘New 52’ Did Wrong

Posted: July 19, 2012 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

Like a lot of long-time comic readers, I tend to wax and wane on whether I’m a DC guy or a Marvel guy. As a kid in the 80’s, Spider-Man, X-Men and Captain America held my attention. But in the 90’s, during my formative comic buying years, it’s clear I was more in the DC camp – looking through my collection I see some long, uninterrupted runs on JLA, Flash, Impulse, Robin, Nightwing, (though not a lot of Batman runs, oddly enough) – and James Robinson’s Starman had a huge impact on me.

It was only in the 2000s that my buying habits returned to Marvel as they started employing all the writers I like and essentially let them do what they wanted (Bendis’s Daredevil, Morrison’s X-Men, Ennis on Punisher, Ellis and then Fraction on Iron Man, Brubaker’s Captain America, etc ).

And DC at this point had become so mired in death and grimness that around this time last year, I was actually (cautiously) looking forward to the upcoming reboot/New 52 rebranding, in hopes that maybe I could get back onboard with a few titles here and there.

Of course, I hadn’t counted on the fact that the DC editorial staff had no fucking clue what they were doing, resulting in rebranded properties that were even less appealing to me than before.

And with little rhyme or reason. Part of the reboot was to state that the DC universe was only 5 years old, not the 10-15 sliding timeline. Which actually ended up wreaking havoc on the previous continuity, as writers and editors had to attempt to explain which previous books “counted” now – and just how Batman had gone through five Robins and three Batgirls (one of whom was previously a Robin!) in five years.

The answer: arbitrary subtractions and reassignments.

Which is why in the current DC universe, Green Arrow’s old sidekick Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow is only about five years younger than him – and his biological son Connor has winked out of existence entirely; the Flash for a generation of readers, Wally West (who was in the costume for over 20 years) was also erased in favor of the previous generation’s Barry Allen; and now the latest news, that Tim Drake was never an “official” Robin, having gone by the moniker “Red Robin” this whole time. 

Now, I’m on record as being a pretty big Tim Drake fan, so you can imagine my annoyance that he’s been retroactively repositioned. And there is an argument to be made that Batman wouldn’t want him to use the “Robin” name in deference to the last kid who called himself that being beaten with a crowbar and blown up.

But the whole point of “A Lonely Place of Dying” was Tim’s insistence that BATMAN NEEDS ROBIN – the type of non-grim partner he once had – or he will go off the deep end. So to downgrade that emotional hook to “Batman needs some partner who dresses in a Robin costume that even has an R on it but is still prickly on the subject of the name itself so if Tim could just call himself RED Robin that would make everything better” … look, that’s just dumb as hell.

I’m not really someone who gets bent out of shape about what “counts” in continuity – I mean, I CAN be and sometimes I enjoy the intellectual exercise, but I recognize that at the end of the day none of it really means anything, and go enjoy what you enjoy. I have years of Tim-Drake-as-Robin comics I can always go back to whenever I please.

And this isn’t to say that the new output is altogether bad. Animal Man is trying some very interesting things; Snyder’s Batman is pretty relentlessly paced (though in service of a “centuries-old secret society that’s been behind the scenes this whole time” retcon I’m not really wild about), and while I continue to not really give a crap about Barry Allen, The Flash is still a visually stunning book.

But none of them are good enough to ignore the fact that as the year has gone by, more and more lousy mid-90’s Marvel/Image guys are getting hired (seriously – Tom DeFalco?!) while the characters I like have been retroactively dismissed. DC has made it very clear that I am not the audience for its current material.

It turns out, though, that I am the 100% exact audience for DC’s output in the mid-to-late 80’s.

This isn’t a bold statement to say DC had some pretty good books out during that period. Everyone remembers DC in the 80’s for Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Sandman. But go down the list and you’ll see that’s just the start:

Sandman by Neil Gaiman (1989)
Animal Man by Grant Morrison (1988)
Doom Patrol by Morrison (1987)
The Question by Dennis O’Neil (1987)
Green Arrow by Mike Grell (1987)
Batman by Jim Starlin (1988)
Detective Comics by Alan Grant (1987)
Justice League International by JM DeMatteis and Keith Giffen (1987)
Dr. Fate by DeMatteis (1987)
The Flash by Mike Baron, then William Messner-Loebs (1987)
Superman/Action by John Byrne and Roger Stern (1986)
Hawkworld by John Ostrander (1989)
Suicide Squad by John Ostrander(1987)

(Wonder Woman is not on this list because I have not gotten around to it yet, but people also speak very highly of George Perez’s run; Green Lantern is not on this list because there is not a power in the universe that could get me to not want to punch Hal Jordan in the neck.)

If you want solid, one-to-two-part Batman stories, the long Detective run by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle is your place to go (and if you didn’t want to deal with the fallout from the death of Jason Todd, you could still go there – Detective was the “non-Robin” book and didn’t even address it for MONTHS after that event!).

You want Justice League done in a new way? JLI. Straight, character-based superhero action? Flash and Action are your stop.

Getting a little older, and want to see comics that examine vigilante superheroes in a more mature fashion? Green Arrow has recast the character as an urban hunter, The Question is a book that meditates on zen Buddhism and how it affects the lead character’s deep-seated anger, Suicide Squad is examining the relative morality of criminals, and Hawkman’s a tough-as-nails space-cop.

Want to read something a little weirder and challenging? Dr. Fate, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Sandman are all the precursors to the Vertigo line that formed in 1993.

All these books came out in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and they were all dealing with the remolding of the DC Multiverse. And by a huge majority, the way they did it was to simply restate the premise (using mini-series like Man of Steel to let readers know of any changes made to the characters up front), and then offer readers new jumping-on points for readers to follow new stories not beholden to past continuity while also (mostly) not directly contradicting it.

For instance – nobody would confuse the boxing-glove arrow incarnation of Green Arrow from the JLA with the guy who shows up in Grell’s run. But it’s still the same person, with all of those experiences, just at a different point in his life where he’s reassessing how he goes about his vigilantism.

Same with The Question, written by O’Neill as a complete reversal of Steve Ditko’s hardline objectivist mouthpiece. He in fact works that philosophical shift INTO the character, establishing The Question as a character who’s constantly reassessing his beliefs based on each new experience.

That’s because O’Neill had things he wanted to say with the book, and I think that’s what’s most impressive about so many of these books – they have very specific points of view because the writers gathered are all very talented and were given free rein to voice their ideas. Each book feels like the reader is going on a journey with the creative teams.

As a result, some aesthetic dating aside (The Question’s mullet flows thicker and longer each issue, it seems), all these books hold up remarkably well 20-odd years later.

And there’s a lot to dig into here. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man represents the SHORTEST run in the list. Most of these writers got anywhere from three to seven years – into the 90’s, when things began to shift once again and crossovers and new legacy characters* became more and more common.

So let’s review. In 1986, DC pulled off a stunt designed to clean up its continuity, and then followed that up by:

  • Reintroducing comics, with new #1 issues only where necessary (for characters that hadn’t starred in a book for many years), or origin/try-out mini-series, while leaving longer runs to their own numbering because there’s no reason to change that
  • Starting with fresh stories that didn’t contradict old continuity (for the most part**) but required little to no knowledge of it to enjoy the book
  • Staggering new releases so as not to overwhelm the audience or flood the market, and
  • Putting talented writers on books where they were allowed to write what they wanted.

In other words … the exact opposite of what DC did with its New 52 reboot.

On the downside, knowing this bums me out even more about the current, Rob-Liefeld-Gets-To-Write-Three-Books-Even-Though-Hawk-And-Dove-Got-Canned attitude of the DC editorial regime.

But on the upside, there’s years’ worth of great material just sitting there waiting for me to catch up to it. Who knows, by the time I’m finished up with the Messner-Loebs run on Flash, another line-wide revamp will have brought Wally West back.

*And hey, some of these were great – Connor Hawke was a fantastic character! – but some of those were The Man Called Fate and he can go screw.

**Granted, there were a few continuity hiccups that could’ve been solved with a simple “A few years ago…” caption box at the start of certain comics. This would be known as The Hawkman Problem, wherein some characters – the Hawks and Wonder Woman, in particular – were introduced as “new” characters despite evidence to the contrary (by the way, this doesn’t make Hawkworld any less good). Which makes it even more remarkable that DC wouldn’t take this into consideration when rebooting its universe for a second time.

  1. Moff says:

    How annoyed am I going to be that my library only has the first four O’Neil Question trade paperbacks in stock? Going on a trip next week and bringing them all now, and I just want to know in advance if Welcome to Oz is gonna end on a cliffhanger that drives me up the wall.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Remembering certain events at that point in the book (ending its second year)…that is a possibility. I’ll check my copies later and let you know.

  3. Jefferson Robbins says:

    Man, O’Neil’s Question was SO great. Its cancellation amputated a small part of my soul.

  4. Moff says:

    I am very excited about reading it, and very, very excited that I learned about it in time for my trip. EXCELLENT TIMING, HOLLAND.

  5. braak says:

    Doom Patrol was so great. Just the peak of the late-80s, “Yeah, let’s just do whatever weird shit we can think of. Remember Heavy Metal, and 2000AD? It’ll be like that, only weirder. Fuck this shit, man.”

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    And fun! As weird and occasionally unsettling as it gets, it’s not really oppressive or dark. I mean, a beret-wearing monkey and a brain in a robot suit make out. I think after writing out that issue, Morrison probably sat back and had a nice, hearty chuckle about this thing called life.

    I just realized that when people complain about the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight landscape being “faux-grim and gritty,” they’re not really talking about this era – which can be SERIOUS, but isn’t really all that grim or gritty.

    Even The Question, which has a LOT of “Angry vigilante beats up street punks in a failing city,” is very thoughtful (and Hub City’s decay is almost comically over the top at times) and occasionally quite funny.

  7. braak says:

    Oh, no, the “grim” era of comics is definitely the mid-nineties, correspondent with the “grunge” era of music, I think.

  8. Tim Worden says:

    I enjoyed reading this (I recently got into comic books and have only read a few old stuff)

  9. dcinthe80s says:

    Reblogged this on dcinthe80s and commented:
    The author makes a lot of great points and I agree with more or less everything he states in this article.

  10. Big Ulf says:

    5 years late in replying here, but you’ve totally nailed it. Dick Giordano and Jeanette Kahn (with a splash of Paul Levitz) were the braintrust here, with Karen Berger coming up in the editorial department too…great variety, great material.
    Only thing you got wrong was on Hal Jordan – great character and watered down and underwritten for years until he got the reboot!

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