1986 gets a lot of credit for being the best year in comic books ever. That’s when Alan Moore’s Watchmen appeared, Frank Millar’s Dark Knight Returns showed up and the black and white boom reached it’s apex with the publication of Dark Horse’s first comic books Boris the Bear and Dark Horse Presents. Oh, and there was some little event thing known as Crisis on Infinite Earths that wrapped up. But is it the Best Year Ever?
The reason I’m contemplating this is because I just read an article by Chris Roberson about the Squadron Supreme mini series (one of my favorite comics) at RevolutionSF. They’re doing a series of web-essays counting down the best comic books of the best year in comics, 1986. They’re now moving into the top ten.
When it comes to looking at trends historically, I tend to feel somewhat apprehensive about making grand sweeping statements. It would be like saying WWII was best war ever! Well, maybe not that sweeping but you get my point. Many of the RevolutionSF essays bring up earlier 80’s comics just to get the “best year” into context. I mean no comic is an island, right? (OK, maybe “Reagan’s Raiders” is, but that’s it.) Plus, there’s an article on the awful Secret Wars II. So what’s going on?
I think what the RevolutionSF crew is really getting at is that 1986 is an important turning point. The black and white comic wave crested, “grim and gritty” took off, and traditional (i.e. Silver Age) superheroes storytelling was out. They “killed off” the old style Superman in "What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," and replaced him with John Byrne’s less powerful “Man of Steel.” Heroes had to have real problems and still be relatable. It wasn’t only Superman either; DC took the opportunity to refurbish many characters as Crisis on Infinite Earths concluded. I’ve heard this trend at the distinguished competition called the Marvelizing of DC comics.
There was some negative fallout from 1986 as well. In regards to Crisis on Infinite Earths, there was no editorial control over the comics published. This series was meant to clean up the DC Universe but in the end it made things worse as stories immediately began to contradict the new earth created at the end of the mini-series. That’s why nowadays these big company wide crossovers have a producer-type, who manages the whole event and ensures that discrepancies and errors aren’t allowed. Secret Wars II is another example of just how bad company wide crossovers can get. With this event playing out in a bazillion different titles, it was really a 30+ issue miniseries and since it made money it became the new crossover event standard. Just look at House of M and you’ll see it’s still haunting us today. I could go on and on randomly here, but read the essays at RevolutionSF and form your own opinions.
I was there as a teenage fan back in 1986. I was there for Watchmen, Dark Knight, Squadron Supreme, and the rest. I knew something exciting was going on and it was a fantastic time to be a reader. Comics even received positive attention in the media. But sadly, I believe what really made 1986 the best year in comics is that nothing really came after it except Sandman. Once the memorable ’86 titles came and went, comics seemed to creatively flounder. Plus, we still had to get through the speculator boom “argh.”