Apr 24, 2017

The Pivotal Eighties

1980s: The Pivotal Decade
Ben Smith

The 1980s was a transformative decade for pop culture and entertainment, and nowhere was that more evident than in the field of comics.  It was a decade that witnessed the peak of everything that had come before it, before evolving into what would come after.  Most of the media that dominates our culture today has its roots in the ‘80s.  The continued expansion and availability of television meant that unlike any decade before it, instead of reading about the biggest events in the world, you could watch them as they happen.  The visuals for everything became as important as the art; from sports, to music, and even royal weddings.  While I may be biased (with the ‘80s being the decade that coincided with my formative years as a young human being) I’m going to attempt to prove just how transformative this decade really was, as always through the lens of television and comics.


Television had always been dominated by the big three networks.  You got all your entertainment, news, and sports within the limited framework of that established network format.  If you missed the big game, you had to hope for a few minutes of coverage on the local news that night, or read about it the next day in the newspaper.  Cable television brought with it a wider range of options, of specialization, that a general audience network could never hope to match.  CNN, MTV, and ESPN were all predicted to be colossal mistakes, but what nobody could predict is that people would prefer this level of customization.  The news had always been delivered after it had already happened, rigidly at 6:30 or 10 PM on your local station.  Now, you could experience the news live in real time, from around the world.  ESPN changed sports from a local event or an occasionally televised event, into full blown multi-media entertainment that could be consumed at any time.  Michael Jordan doesn’t become a brand without ESPN laying the foundation for sports as the greatest in reality entertainment.  MTV changed the entire landscape of marketing by accidentally discovering that the people with the most time and disposable income happen to be teenagers and young adults.  Our modern era of never-ending choice and on-demand entertainment capability absolutely has its roots in those early days of cable television.    

Comics had always been dominated by long-running franchises and established big-name characters.  In the earliest days of comics, first issues were considered less attractive from a business standpoint, as it (in the minds of publishers) represented the unknown.  A high issue number indicated quality, because surely if a book had been running for that long then it had to be good.  That’s why you see Captain America inheriting the issue numbering from Tales of Suspense, or the Hulk from Tales to Astonish.  In the ‘80s, with Marvel dominating the first part of the decade in sales, Jim Shooter and his editors began to test the market.  Comics like Dazzler and Micronauts were sold to the direct market only.  An untested character like Wolverine in the X-Men could get his own limited series, as a trial run to see if he could expand into his own title.  Mini-series that told a single epic storyline, such as Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths, were created and became instant smash hits.  New readers were created every day by licensing the top cartoons of the day (like Transformers and G.I. Joe) and turning them into brand new comic book series.  Independently owned non-superhero comics fare was continuing to grow.  Comics began to expand and specialize the way they would deliver stories and characters to the readers like never before.  The medium no longer had to rely on the unreliable newsstand for all of its sales.  Now first issues were considered the best way to get in on the ground floor of the newest superstar character.  Without this diversity of formats and delivery, we probably never get the diversity in title characters that we are seeing today.


For better or worse, MTV made music as much about image as it was the music.  Madonna pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be acceptable behavior from a musician, and kids loved her for it.  MTV was infamous in its early years for its refusal to allow black artists on the network, receiving a lot of criticism for such, until the popularity and brilliance of Michael Jackson could no longer be denied.  (With a little help via an ultimatum from CBS records.)  Prince would follow closely behind, with his combination of different musical styles defying easy categorization of any established musical genre.  His look was as groundbreaking as his sound, and changed the mindset of what could be successful to the theoretical “middle-America” that politicians and executives were so worried about scaring off.  A musical act could now become superstars based as much on a marketable image as their actual talent, or the content of their art.  Regardless of skill, the range of artistic expression that MTV provided a platform for is undeniable.  The impact MTV had on our culture is immeasurable.    

Comic books have always had their breakout talent, even if readers never intellectualized who that specific talent might be.  Carl Barks stands out as one of the earliest unnamed superstars, with his Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories clearly far better than the other duck comics of the time.  Stan Lee, love him or hate him, was instrumental in the identification and celebration of the comics talent working on every Marvel book.  Still, comics art from the big two still worked within an established “house style” which left the majority of books looking similar.  The ‘80s began to really see the invention of the superstar artist, with guys like John Byrne or George Perez developing a devoted fanbase that was just as interested in following them as they were in any single character.  However, Byrne and Perez could still be considered to be working within the framework of the established superhero house style.  It wasn’t until the end of the decade that artists like Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee really began to break the mold and establish artistic styles that looked unlike anything that had ever come before.  (Sienkiewicz never gets mentioned as a part of this movement, but he should, since he’s far better than any of the other artists.)

Comics art had never been this varied, or looked this flashy before.  Eventually, those same artists became so popular that they created their own publishing company in the ‘90s, where Image Comics was literally much more about flashy images than it was the content of the stories.  Yet, Image was absolutely essential in the continued advancement of comic books as an artistic medium, at least in terms of the industry recognizing the importance of its own talent, if not the content of those actual comics.    


With any invention there must come the identification and stabilization of what makes that invention most successful.  Since humans are fickle beings, that established standard must eventually lead to reinvention if it will continue to survive.  In the ‘80s, television had been around long enough to establish a format for its lineup as well as the content of the programming, but all that had began to change.  Late night television had reached its peak in the form of Johnny Carson, the ultimate continuation of an old Hollywood comedy style in a format that had become comfortable.  That was until young comedians like David Letterman came along and subverted that established framework to highlight their own cynical comedic style.  Shows like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere depicted a level of realism that had never been seen before in any cop or medical drama.  Miami Vice smartly incorporated a MTV look and sensibility with the tried and true police procedural genre.  Roseanne and Married with Children showed us that life as a family wasn’t always as perfect or easy as it might have been on a show like Leave it to Beaver.  All of these television programs built upon an established framework, but stood out by providing a different take on it.  

Superhero comics had seen reinvention before, going all the way back to the creation of the original superhero, Superman.  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman thrived as shining beacons of justice and the best of what humanity could aspire to be for many decades.  Then Stan, Jack, and Marvel came along and reinvented superheroes as flawed human beings compelled by trauma to make the world a better place.  By the ‘80s, comic book creators had decades of proven success to build upon and appropriate to create new and interesting twists on the same formulas.  Frank Miller vaulted a lower tier character like Daredevil into the limelight by using him as a vehicle to tell grittier (for the time) street-level crime stories.  Walt Simonson used Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary Thor work as a starting point, jettisoned the few things that didn’t work, and wound up creating the most beloved Thor run of all time.  Roger Stern wisely recognized that killing the original Green Goblin had been a mistake, and so he created a new take on that established Spider-Man villain in the Hobgoblin.  Over and over, all-time favorite comic book stories were being created across the industry.  This was the pinnacle of what superhero storytelling could achieve based on what had come before.  For comic books to continue, they would have to evolve.


With reinvention must also eventually come evolution.  The need to differentiate from what has come before usually comes by pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable by society.  This can come in the form of much needed diversity, where art reflects the world we see outside our window.  The Cosby Show was a landmark in network television because of its depiction of a suburban black family.  It made no specific statements about race or politics in its writing.  The Cosby Show made a statement by not making a statement at all.  Its genuine portrayal of a normal family resonated with all viewers, no matter the color.  That show, along with the popularity of musicians like Michael Jackson and Prince, and magnetic sports stars like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, helped break color barriers in this country.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go on this front.)  An entire generation of children, of all colors, were growing up with Jordan as a personal hero.  (I did!)  Similarly, television shows like Cagney and Lacey, or Murphy Brown, depicted women that could stand on their own as characters and as marketable TV stars.  Golden Girls alone proved that writing and acting, not gender, is all it takes to be a successful TV show.  (Regretfully, there’s still a long way to go in the perceived marketability of female-led entertainment.)

The (some would say) darker side of pushing the boundaries comes in the form of offensive or shocking material.  Talk show hosts like Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo defied convention, earning notoriety by catering to the lowest common denominator of human nature.  There’s a clear progression from Geraldo being hit in the face with a chair, to Jerry Springer, to the “reality” TV that dominates American television now.  Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop/Rap music would come under fire from politicians for its explicit depictions and descriptions of sex and violence.  Both combine artistic expression with a rebellious nature that is instantly appealing to youth.  It’s not my place to say if our society is better off having crossed these boundaries, I’m nowhere near smart enough to determine that.  However, it is clear that many individuals have learned the wrong lessons from the ‘80s, providing an ever worsening level of shocks without any of the artistic talent needed to make them the least bit worthwhile.  (Shots fired, Kardashians.)

The most obvious case of evolution in comics came from an old idea by Stan and Jack that had never really caught on, and that was literally the evolution of the human species in the form of super-powered mutants.  The X-Men had always been a team of, like the rest of comics, primarily white males with no personality.  The late ‘70s saw the team reinvented as a racially diverse group of heroes from all across the globe, a true international team.  But it took until the ‘80s for the X-Men to really begin to take over the industry, by capitalizing on that varied representation along with its soap opera storytelling as spearheaded by Chris Claremont.  The darker side of comic book evolution would come in the form of the grim and gritty era, as influenced by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Both books were considered watershed achievements in the genre, with their dark takes on established superhero norms.  Watchmen expanded upon Stan Lee’s idea of the flawed hero, by suggesting that only a truly psychologically damaged individual would feel compelled to fight crime.  The Dark Knight Returns shows a Bruce Wayne that needs to be Batman to truly feel alive.  Both comics were created with a level of skill that had arguably never been seen in the industry before.  Yet, other less talented comic professionals would take all the wrong lessons from these comics, focusing on the violence and psychosis, as heroes across the board began to become more and more unhinged.  There’s no question those books inspired a deeper level of sophistication and storytelling skill, but too often that comes with a “comics aren’t just for kids” mentality that usually only results in a higher level of sex and violence than necessary.  The comics of today are technically more proficient in writing and art than they’ve ever been, but does that make them better to read?  As always, I am not smart enough to say.      

I love the 1980s.  I will freely admit that most of that is fueled by childhood nostalgia, but I think it’s also clear it was a pivotal decade in the evolution of popular culture.  It wasn’t the first revolution, but it was the first revolution that was fully televised.

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