KC Column: Never-Ending Story, Part 3

KC Carlson

KC Carlson

by KC Carlson

PREVIOUSLY ON NEVER-ENDING STORY (part 1) (part 2): After intense creative experimentation in the early 1970s, superhero comic books largely stuck to the basics by the end of the decade. There were more creative surprises ahead, but for now, comics’ biggest conflicts were behind the scenes, as a failing distribution system, combined with a poor physical product, would force comics to come up with creative solutions to stay alive. Meanwhile, many comic creators were restless, especially the new, younger talent who had been entering the field over the last decade or so. They also wanted better physical presentation for their work, including ever-expanding formats to experiment with — as well as better working conditions and more return for their creativity. Plus, the effects of growing intelligent critique and criticism from a more vocal fanbase would help push creators into even bigger flights of fancy. All of these factors seemed to indicate that interesting times were around the corner as the 1980s began.

Long-Form Graphic Origins Become a Novel Idea

As we have seen, there have been many long-form stories in comics since its beginnings, mostly as serialized stories continued from one comic to the next. By the 1970s, more and more creators were thinking about long-form stories as a goal, as the ultimate form and format of their work. Artist Gil Kane and writer Archie Goodwin (writing under the pseudonym Robert Franklin) were early American pioneers in this endeavor. In 1968, the pair self-published (with many printing and distribution problems) His Name is… Savage, a 40-page, magazine-format comics novel. That same year, Marvel published two long-form (50 pages plus) Spider-Man stories by Stan Lee and John Romita in the magazine-format The Spectacular Spider-Man, the second story printed in color.

Blackmark

Blackmark

Kane and Goodwin returned to the long form in 1971 with Blackmark, a sword and sorcery tale, published this time by Bantam Books as a paperback with 119 pages of story and art. The project won a special Shazam Award for Kane for his “paperback comics novel”. When it was reprinted in 2001, Blackmark was cover-blurbed as “The very first American graphic novel”. It wasn’t — the term graphic novel hadn’t been coined when it was published, and there were many other illustrated stories produced outside of the comics field in earlier years, most notably a pair of 1950 digest-sized 128-page “picture novels” aimed at the adult market, published by St. Johns. The first, It Rhymes With Lust, was written by “Drake Waller” (Arnold Drake and Leslie Walker) with art by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin. It was reprinted in 2007 by Dark Horse Books with a new afterword by Drake. And, as mentioned in Part 1 of this column, European graphic albums (collecting serialized stories) were being published as early as the 1930s.

Early competitors for the first use of the term graphic novel — all published in 1976 — include Richard Corbin’s Bloodstar (a long-form story published as one, i.e., not previously serialized), George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again (a collection of previously serialized stories from underground comics), and Jim Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide. This digest-sized book should be more considered an illustrated novel, as it features typeset blocks of text rather than traditional word balloons. All of these formats would eventually be accepted as “graphic novels” as the term increasingly became more of a marketing buzzword than an actual description of form. Many creators who regularly work in the format are more than happy to call their works simply “comics”.

A Contract With God

A Contract With God

The term “graphic novel” gained its biggest traction in conjunction with the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories (1978), itself a collection of similarly-themed short stories rather than a long-form narrative. Since this was a mature, complex work, the term was partially coined to distinguish it from traditional comic books (at that time mostly superheroes). At first, “graphic novel” was perceived in some circles as “snooty” or “arty” — something remedied when Marvel and DC eventually started producing graphic novels featuring their superhero stars. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first produced a long-form Silver Surfer story in 1978, although it was published by Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books (not Marvel) and only distributed in bookstores, so casual Marvel comic fans may have initially missed it. It would be a few more years until Marvel and DC really made the leap into graphic novels.

Sabre

Sabre

In the meantime, fledgling independent publishers were making inroads with this new comics format. Two creators previously known for their work at Marvel, writer Don McGregor (Killraven) and artist Paul Gulacy (Master of Kung Fu), combined to create the popular Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, a swashbuckling science fiction graphic novel — the first project from new publisher Eclipse Comics. It was among the first graphic novels to be distributed in the then-new Direct Market of comic stores, and it was popular enough to require a second printing and a spin-off series. The storyline also incorporated elements from McGregor’s unfinished Killraven stories at Marvel — which would become somewhat of a trend as more and more of Marvel and DC’s creators moved to independents.

Independent Forerunners

The First Kingdom

The First Kingdom

Other indy creators were already designing their new series as long-form works — publishing first as chapter-sized chunks, but ultimately eyeing the collected format as the ultimate form that their work would take. Begun in 1974, as one of the first independently published comics, Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom was a sprawling and occasionally epic work that often reminded readers of classic myths with its long-range, civilization-building storytelling. It was truly a one-of-a-kind project, ultimately running to over 700 pages. The first collection of The First Kingdom was published in 1978, and like the comic series, was published by Bud Plant, one of the leading Direct Sales comic distributors of the era. Although historically significant, the series is a slog to read and has been largely forgotten.

Elfquest

Elfquest

1978 was also the year that Richard and Wendy Pini’s fantasy classic Elfquest began. Elfquest has one of the most interesting publication histories in comics, demonstrating how creative control can lead to huge success. First published in the underground comic Fantasy Quarterly in 1978, the Pinis were so disappointed in the reproduction of this first issue that they formed their own company  — WaRP Graphics (WaRP indicating Wendy and Richard Pini) — and began self-publishing with issue #2. (The Fantasy Quarterly material was later reprinted as Elfquest #1, in the same WaRP Graphics format.) What was interesting about the series, at the time, was that it was close-ended — it concluded with #20. A #21 was also published containing fan letters and behind-the-scenes material.

Eventually, the series was collected into handsome full-color collections, originally by Donning/Starblaze and later by WaRP Graphics themselves. There were also many follow-up miniseries and series — some by the Pinis, others by artists and writers under their supervision. The original saga has been in print now for over three decades and has the unique distinction of being republished by both Marvel Comics (under its Epic imprint) and DC Comics (as a part of their hardcover Archives series). At the time of its original publication, Elfquest was the unofficial entry-level book for male fans to present to their girlfriends to interest them in comics. Elfquest’s artist and primary creator Wendy Pini also became notable as a leading female creator in a male-dominated field.

Cerebus

Cerebus

Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark started life in 1977 as a funny animal parody of sword-and-sorcery comics, but in 1979, Sim announced that Cerebus was actually a 300-issue novel. Issue #300 was finally published in March 2004, 27 years later, the story ultimately running 6,000 pages. These have been subsequently collected into 16 collections, nicknamed “phonebooks” due to their size and format. Cerebus and all subsequent collections were self-published by Sim (at first with his girlfriend, then wife Deni Loubert; the two later divorced) under the company name Aardvark-Vanaheim.

The series was not without controversy, mostly over the outspokenness of its creator and his overt misogyny (which Sim calls “anti-feminism”). This, his views on religion, and public feuds with other creators and industry figures often put the spotlight on the man instead of his work. However, Sim was also outspoken in the areas of creator rights and self-publishing, was an early and huge supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and was very supportive of new talent, often printing the work of young creators as back-up features in Cerebus. The fact that he actually finished what he set out to do with Cerebus (assisted by background artist Gerhard) is still an amazing feat — especially when one considers the number of impressive, yet unfinished, similar projects that litter the comics landscape.

But Wait… Reaching for the Stars

Long before these long-form storytelling experiments began, there was another revolution in comics. (A couple actually, but the underground comics moment of the 60s and 70s is beyond the scope of this particular — and already too long — overview. Although I urge adult readers to seek out articles and histories of this fascinating era.)

Star*Reach

Star*Reach

In 1974, former DC and Marvel writer  Mike Friedrich (Justice League of America, Iron Man) self-published the first issue of Star*Reach, an amazingly influential science fiction and fantasy comics anthology. On the surface, Star*Reach seemed like just an  outlet for frustrated comics creators to present their work outside the restrictive confines of Marvel and DC, Star*Reach actually bridges a gap between the underground comics (with their more adult content) and traditional comic publishers (offering heroic fiction in genres not fully supported by the Big Two). At the time, the Star*Reach buzzword was “ground-level”.

Frequent contributors to Star*Reach included Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, and Barry Windsor-Smith, all contributing intelligent and mature work that was an important developmental step for what the medium could accomplish beyond superheroes. Stepping away from the restrictive conditions of Marvel and DC allowed their true talent — especially their artwork — to open up and to become something amazing. It also allowed these artists to show off their formable talents as writers, marking an important turning point in their careers.

Quack!

Quack!

Other significant contributors to Star*Reach included Neal Adams, Frank Brunner, Gene Day, Steve Englehart, Michael T. Gilbert, Dick Giordano, Steve Leialoha, Lee Marrs, Al Milgrom, Gray Morrow, Dean Motter, P. Craig Russell, Dave Sim, Walt Simonson, Steve Skeates, Mary Skrenes, Ken Stacey, Joe Staton, Mike Vosburg, Len Wein, John Workman, and SF author Roger Zelazny. Also published by Star*Reach was Quack!, an equally influential (although less appreciated) funny-animal anthology.

Star*Reach ceased publication in 1979, before everything it inspired got a serious foothold, but ultimately, it was an important link to the future of comics, along with the equally –but in other ways — influential Heavy Metal and the quirky one-shot Big Apple Comics, which was published by Flo Steinberg — Marvel’s “gal Friday” during their 60s heyday. Both Star*Reach and Heavy Metal were also important in developing the long-form graphic novel with their collected serialized features. And both Star*Reach and Big Apple were early examples of self-published independent comics. More of both were on the way.

Comic Book “Realism”

“Realism” became a big buzzword in mainstream superhero comics beginning in the 1980s. Building on Stan Lee’s (and later Roy Thomas’) rudimentary work in presenting more three-dimensional characterization in the 1960s-era Marvel comics, superheroes and their villains became increasingly complex over the decades. Anti-heroes (in the beginning, basically “good” characters who used questionable means to achieve their goals or those who have been “pushed too far”) like The Punisher and Deathlok (who both used guns) began to be introduced in the 1970s, reflecting similar characters that were becoming popular in movies (many of whom were portrayed by actors Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson). However, “realism” in comics was often anything but realism when applied to characters who occasionally played billiards with planets. However, the term did lead to some intense fan discussion in the 80s, especially centering on Marvel’s X-Men book and the popular Wolverine and Phoenix characters.

Around this time, Wolverine was being portrayed as a character who would routinely kill other minor characters, just because they were in his way. This led to intense discussions of whether such actions were appropriate in a character that was supposedly a hero. Down the road, many fans realized maybe he wasn’t. Thus, the debate. Comics quickly divided into two camps — those that thought this made him a “cooler” character and those who were appalled by his actions. This schism largely still stands today among comic fans.

Phoenix

Phoenix

The case of Phoenix was even more interesting. Having remade the old Jean Grey/Marvel Girl character into a new character (Phoenix) with seemingly out-of-control cosmic powers, the X-Men creators had her completely wipe out a race of alien beings (the D’Bari) in the kind of a throwaway, up-the ante, “see how powerful this new character is” scene that has now become a superhero cliché. This would come back to haunt them, as then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decided while reading the original conclusion to the Dark Phoenix saga that Phoenix’s punishment (de-powering) did not match her crime of killing billions of innocents. He demanded the creators re-do the end of the story and kill Phoenix.

This is how the story, one of the most significant of its generation, also became one of the most controversial. (And inadvertently brought a new innovation to comics — the alternate ending — which was published separately after the conclusion of the original.) That this was an example of “realism” in comics is now somewhat laughable. Subsequent alterations and reboots diffused much of the effect of the overall storyline — it turns out that this Phoenix wasn’t actually Jean Grey, who was still alive in a cocoon — which led to yet another superhero comics “innovation”. That being, comic book publishers, editors, and subsequent creators often don’t know when to leave stories the hell alone. Some are more interested in continually re-writing old stories than writing new ones.

Daredevil

Daredevil

Another auspicious beginning was occurring at Marvel around this time, yet it took everybody a few years to actually realize what was happening. New artist Frank Miller began drawing Daredevil, a Marvel title whose sales had slipped so low that it was on the verge of being canceled, leading to a “what the hell, we’re probably going to be canceled anyway — do whatever you want” editorial mindset. Within a year, Miller would be writing the book as well. History was being made, and very few people realized it at this time. In 1981, Miller introduced Elektra, Matt Murdock’s first love turned into a deadly assassin, as Miller added more and more noir and elements from Asian cinema into the series. Daredevil became quite violent, often pushing up against Comics Code guidelines. This would be another harbinger of the future of comics.

Titans Take the Lead

New Teen Titans

New Teen Titans

Meanwhile, at DC in 1980, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, and editor Len Wein were plotting to revive Teen Titans. The franchise was so hopelessly lost and muddled that most of DC’s higher-ups asked “why?” when the proposal to revive the series hit their desk. So, left to develop on their own without much interference from on high, Wolfman and Pérez took the three most popular (and identifiable) “old” Titans (Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl), created three all-new characters (Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven), and reinvented an old character (the Doom Patrol’s “mascot” Beast Boy) as Changeling. With this cast, they created something truly radical at DC (for the time) — a superhero comic starring characters with actual, individual personalities. Of course, it sold like gangbusters. It was the closest thing DC had to match Marvel’s dynamic storytelling and characterization, and it also owed a little something to Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Although the Titans took it one better (at least in my opinion) — all of the characters worked together as a team and as friends and avoided a lot of the stereotypical “my friend, my enemy” contrived conflicts that were becoming a well-trod hallmark at Marvel. Fans cared about the Titans as friends, not just characters.

It also helped that the creators expanded the Titans universe. The first brilliant thing that Wolfman and company did was to age them slightly into young adults (rather than the wisecracking kids they used to be). Next, the creators created excellent villains for the series, from the demon Trigon (Raven’s father!) to the incredibly complex Deathstroke the Terminator, a character so popular that he was ultimately spun out into his own relatively long-running series. The anti-hero Deathstroke was the antagonist in the most-talked-about Titans storyline “The Judas Contract”, which also introduced potential new Titan Terra. She turned the whole series on its head and ultimately broke hearts (none more severely than the readers’).

Finally, the complex storytelling of the series was also a key factor in its success. Most of the main characters had ongoing character subplots all going at once, some of which took months or years to resolve. Wolfman also played in the whole of the DC Universe, weaving the world of the Doom Patrol seamlessly into Titans history, crossing over with high-visibility characters (the JLA, the Outsiders), and using past Titans characters as effective guest-stars. It was here that we saw Robin become Nightwing as well as meeting the new Robin (Jason Todd) in a memorable Batman crossover. Plus, frequent “A Day in the Life…” storylines, where we followed one character through a day consisting of much more than just superhero action, made the characters feel real to fans. The new Titans were so instantly popular they starred with the X-Men in an 1982 crossover, just two years after their creation. It memorably featured Dark Phoenix, Deathstroke, and Darkseid and was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Walter Simonson.

[Plug: The long-awaited Titans graphic novel, Games, by Wolfman and Pérez is being solicited next month for November release.]

Elsewhere in superhero comics, things were rolling along as usual, although a few interesting things were bubbling under. In the 1980s, the Batman comic book began to link with Detective Comics, as ongoing storlyines would bounce back and forth between the two titles. Gerry Conway was writing both, and on Conway’s departure, new writer Doug Moench would follow suit with linked storylines. At Marvel, similar books like Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants and Avengers and Avengers West Coast would occasionally share story elements and continuity, but largely kept the actual stories self-contained within their respective books.

Direct Only: Publishers React

Dazzler

Dazzler

Also in the early 1980s, DC and Marvel begin paying more attention to several industry changes: the Direct Market distributors, the rapidly growing independent comics publishers, and the increasing concerns of their freelancers, who were starting to look elsewhere for work, over creative rights. First, in 1981, Marvel published its first Direct Sales comic book — Dazzler #1. This comic wasn’t available on newsstands, only through retailers who purchased direct from the new distributors. Initial sales figures were 400,000, all non-returnable. The book was so monstrously over-ordered that you can probably still find copies for a quarter (or less) today.

Madame Xanadu

Madame Xanadu

DC’s first Direct Sales book was a more cautious launch — Madame Xanadu #1 by Englehart and Rogers — and ended up selling in the 100,000-copy range, not bad for a non-superhero book. Marvel responded the following year with their first Direct Sales series — Marvel Fanfare — printed on slick paper with a killer Spider-Man/X-Men story by Chris Claremont, Michael Golden, Dave Cockrum. and Paul Smith in the first four issues. Although originally designed to showcase the work of the industry’s best creators (initially, contributing creators were paid better rates), the title eventually became known as an “inventory” book. It was a place to burn off previously unpublished inventory stories from years past, albeit mostly from first-rate artists and writers. The quality remained high enough for it to run for 10 years and 60 issues, even at a cover price that was higher than regular comic book titles.

Marvel Goes Graphic — and Epic

Death of Captain Marvel

Death of Captain Marvel

In 1982, Marvel also began its Marvel Graphic Novel line. The first entry was the well-received (and now classic) Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin. Over 75 volumes were published in this format. (The exact number is hard to determine because Marvel stopped numbering them after a while, and many were published under different Marvel imprints.) Interestingly, the early years of the series featured far more creator-owned characters and projects (many of them subsequently published by Marvel’s Epic imprint) than actual Marvel-owned properties. The exceptions (besides Captain Marvel) included the first adventure of the New Mutants, the classic X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (much of which was the basis for the second X-Men movie), and graphic novels starring Dazzler, She-Hulk, and Killraven. In later years, the balance shifted to Marvel characters and properties as the company became less interested in creator-owned projects.

Among those creator-owned projects, many of them had lives beyond Marvel (and Epic), including Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, Walter Simonson’s Star Slammers, Dave Cockrum’s Futurians, Michael Kaluta and Elaine Lee’s Starstruck, and Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier’s Groo the Wanderer. Many of these volumes have been reprinted in recent years by other publishers, a choice that comes with creator ownership. There were also many Conan volumes and at least one King Kull story, as well as other characters better known from other media, including Michael Moorcocks’s Elric and pulp and radio fave The Shadow. Marvel also used the format for extensive collections of the works of Moebius.

Epic Illustrated

Epic Illustrated

1982 was also the birth year of Marvel’s Epic Comics line of creator owned-comics, spun out of Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine, which began in 1980. Both projects were headed up by legendary editor and writer Archie Goodwin, who knew virtually everybody in the industry (many of whom probably crashed on the Goodwin sofa at one time or another) and managed to get most of them to contribute something to either project. Goodwin also got fantasy artists such as Frank Frazetta, Richard Corbin, Boris Vallejo, and the The Brothers Hildebrant to contribute covers to Epic Illustrated. Some of the best known Epic projects (besides the ones listed above) included Steve Englehart’s Coyote, Six From Sirius by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neil, several projects by Rick Vietch including Heartburst and The One, and Moonshadow by J.M DeMatteis, Jon J. Muth, and Kent Williams. Epic also did a few projects with established Marvel characters (Elektra: Assassin, Silver Surfer: Parable), but the imprint is much better known for the many international projects they brought to America, including the work of Moebius and Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga classic Akira. As previously mentioned, Epic also reprinted Elfquest for a larger audience, and Dave Sim provided new stories starring Young Cerebus for Epic Illustrated.

The Epic imprint was a curious bastion of creativity at Marvel during a time when much of the regular line was more concerned with selling toys and toy-related comics, including the very popular G.I. Joe, Transformers, Rom, and Micronauts. Several of these actually rose above their dubious origins to become popular cult classic comics.

New Formats: Mini and Maxi

Untold Legend

Untold Legend

Another interesting development in the early 80s was the stand-alone series. Often called miniseries or maxiseries (depending on their length), they were a way to tell a self-contained story, with beginning, middle, and ending, as opposed to the ongoing continuity of regular monthly series. Technically, the first superhero miniseries was DC’s World of Krypton, published in 1979, although its three issues were originally intended for the canceled Showcase series. The first miniseries created especially for the format was 1980’s The Untold Legend of the Batman. DC published a number of miniseries in its wake, including stories about the Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Super-Heroes, and Green Arrow.

Contest of Champions

Contest of Champions

Marvel quickly jumped on the miniseries wagon with the publication of the first Wolverine mini in 1982 (in retrospect, a try-out of sorts for his future ongoing solo series). Also that year was Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions (technically, their first limited series), a team-up story featuring many of Marvel’s biggest characters (and introducing many new international characters). It was also comics’ first event-style book, with its giant cast of characters.

It has been suggested that Marvel ruined the miniseries format for writers. DC’s minis were three issues, which nicely map to the traditional three-act storytelling model. Your first issue establishes your premise. The second issue complicates it, and the third issue is the satisfying resolution. Marvel’s miniseries were four issues, which require more complication or padding between the first-issue introduction and the final conclusion. The standard today is still four issues, because four parts means more comics to sell.

Camelot 3000

Camelot 3000

Before event books achieved their foothold (or stranglehold?), comics continued to experiment with long-form storytelling. In 1982, Camelot 3000, a futuristic tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland, was published as comics’ first 12-part finite series. The following year, Frank Miller’s Ronin was published by DC in six oversized issues, presented without advertising. Both series were among the first comic book collected editions (now frequently called graphic novels), and readers today may not realize they were originally serialized. The 12-issue format proved to be popular in the 1980s with such titles as Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld and later with Batman: The Long Halloween and series-within-series like Batman: Hush.

Moore Is More

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing

In 1982, DC revived the Swamp Thing character, mostly to capitalize on the Wes Craven film based on the character. Initially, Saga of the Swamp Thing was a bizarre mix of elements, but mostly a conspiracy book involving a multinational corporation doing bad things while a young girl (who might be the Antichrist) was attempting to destroy the world. It was written by Martin Pasko and was mildly interesting, although Swamp Thing often felt lost in his own book. By 1983, Pasko was getting more screenwriting work, so editor Len Wein assigned then-unknown in America British writer Alan Moore to the series, beginning with issue #20. Moore spent most of that issue wrapping up all the previous story threads. With the following issue, entitled The Anatomy Lesson, Moore rolled up his sleeves, completely reinvented the Swamp Thing character and series, and quietly began changing the face of American comics.

Skizz

Skizz

By this time, Moore had already made a huge impact on British comics with his work for Marvel UK, 2000 A.D., and Warrior, including the series Captain Britain (with artist Alan Davis), Skizz (with artist Jim Baikie), D.R. and Quinch (again with Davis), Ballad of Halo Jones (co-created with artist Ian Gibson), Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman, with Garry Leach and Alan Davis), V for Vendetta (with David Lloyd), and The Bojeffries Saga (with Steve Parkhouse). All of these projects were eventually collected and either imported into America (the 2000 A.D. material) or reprinted by American publishers (DC for V for Vendetta, Eclipse for Miracleman). Most of these series were immensely popular in America in the wake of Moore’s success with Swamp Thing. Moore was the initial focal point for comics’ version of the “British Invasion” of “new” artists and writers — all of the above plus Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Dave McKean, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Paul Jenkins, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, and many more.

Many of these creators first worked with DC editor Karen Berger (who “inherited” both Swamp Thing and Moore after Len Wein left staff). DC even had a UK office for a time to coordinate with this huge influx of British talent. (Marvel also had offices in the UK, although they often seemed to work as independently run entities, without many cross-productions). Berger’s work with these talented Brits — many of whom were not interested in superhero material — directly led to the development of DC’s Vertigo line in 1993. This dark fantasy/horror imprint evolved out of what was being unofficially referred to as the “Bergerverse” of titles, including Swamp Thing, Hellblazer (starring the character John Constantine from Swamp Thing), Animal Man, Black Orchid, Shade the Changing Man, and Sandman. Most of these titles shared an older-reader sensibility — many were published with a controversial Mature Readers label — and opened up a huge new audience for readers who were interested in graphic storytelling, but not so much superheroes.

But this was a ways down the road. Back in the 80s, and with Swamp Thing’s success, Alan Moore was being offered all the DC work he could handle. Somewhat surprisingly, Moore wrote a handful of superhero characters for DC, helping to evolve him as well, in small ways. In a memorable Superman Annual, he teamed the Man of Steel with Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman in The Man Who Has Everything (which was later adapted into an episode of the popular Justice League Unlimited animated TV show). He also wrote  a Green Lantern Corps story introducing the very cosmic (and trippy) concept of Mogo, the Green Lantern that was an entire planet, that made all the GL fanboys go “Ooooooooooo…”

Superman

Superman

Moore’s somewhat surprising love for “old school” superhero concepts led him to the assignment (actually, he demanded it) of the last Superman story before the infamous 1986 Superman revamp by John Byrne. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? was a more than fitting farewell to all the kid-friendly concepts of Superman (the Super-Pets, the Fortress, bow-tie Jimmy Olsen, etc.) which was movingly sad and occasionally brutal, all at the same time. It captured the “end of an era” moment perfectly, like a butterfly in amber. A large part of Moore’s subsequent comics career would be devoted to lovingly nostalgic deconstructions of old-style comics in 1963, Supreme, and much of his ABC (America’s Best Comics) work. But first would come another major project, one initially based on old-school superheroes, that quickly became something completely different. And that’s a story for later…

NEXT ON NEVER-ENDING STORY (in a couple of weeks): More build-up to 1986 — Comics’ Greatest Year. More Indy stuff. More innovation. Reboots. Revivals. Denials. More Moore and Miller. Plus, things blow up and things get dark.

KC Carlson: Testing the limits of his ever-fading memory. In public yet. Really scary, eh kids?! Thanks again to BG.

Classic covers in this article come from the Grand Comics Database.

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