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Review of The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade

By Jackson Ayres

Costello, Brannon and Brian Cremins, eds. The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 2021.

Scholars and fans of US comics have long taken the year 1986 to symbolize a high-water mark, making it a pivotal moment for the medium; thus, 1986 acts as an axis on which narratives of US comics turn. 1986’s reputation as comics’ annus mirabelis centers on three landmark texts published, at least in part, that year: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. As Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo note in The Greatest Comic Book of All Time (2016), despite being “awkwardly grouped” together, those three comics were seized upon by “entertainment industry magazines seeking to establish a cultural trend”—namely, comics’ allegedly newfound artistic sophistication and cultural legitimacy (19). From this premise, “1986” acts as shorthand for a swath of transformative events from the decade: DC Comics’ revamp of its publication line to attract older, purportedly new readers; the emergent creator rights movement; an expanding direct market; proliferating independent publishers; pushback against the Comics Code Authority; and a robust, if ultimately unsustainable, collector’s market. Such upheavals to the medium and industry underpin the 1980s’ status as comics’ “crucial decade”—to borrow language from the subtitle of editors Brannon Costello and Brian Cremins’ The Other 1980s. Yet, as The Other 1980s confirms the decade’s status as a decisive period for US comics, it also rebuts the myth of 1986’s narrow story of auteurs, maturation, and cultural prestige.

The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics Crucial Decade features twenty essays, organized into five distinct sections, which provide fresh perspectives on comics in the 1980s. These sections do not together generate a singular counter-narrative to refute 1986 mythopoeia, but instead open up an abundance of new approaches and angles of vision for viewing comics in the 1980s, thereby enlarging our sense of the decade’s significance as well as complicating prevailing assessments of it.  Notably, Costello and Cremins are not alone in their revisionist project; indeed, the meaning of the 1980s for US comics seems to be ripe for reassessment. For instance, Paul Williams’ recent Dreaming the Graphic Novel (2020) relates a new narrative of the graphic novel’s ascendency that traces the seismic shifts of the 1980s backward to the underappreciated formal and publication model experiments of the 1970s. Even DC Comics, publisher of Dark Knight and Watchmen—and, therefore, a major financial beneficiary of the entrenched legends about 1986—has joined this reassessment wave, producing a three-volume series of anthologies entitled DC Through the 80s, curated by former DC writer and president Paul Levitz. Those collections rethink the significance of the decade, albeit from the limited perspective of one mainstream corporate comics company.

Into this discourse enters The Other 1980s, a set of compelling and thought-provoking essays—scholarly in substance and style, but generally accessible to non-academic audiences—that query dominant narratives and look anew at a key moment in US comics. By rebuking myths of 1986 and offering counter-narratives for that key decade, The Other 1980s tells new origin stories for how today’s comics field came to be and alternate histories for what might have been. 

Costello and Cremins assert their volume’s intended intervention unambiguously. In their Introduction, the editors write, “The goal of the essays collected in this book is to examine more closely works of comic art that have been dismissed or ignored outright in other histories and assessments of this pivotal, often misunderstood decade” (4). Their book, they continue, aims 

not only to introduce more objects of study into the critical discourse…but also to position at the center of the frame works that have long been seen as peripheral or even disposable, and in doing so to consider the ways in which centering these forgotten or neglected works might productively reorient our received understandings of this crucial era and its continuing influence on the present. (Costello and Cremins 4).

Across its five sections, The Other 1980s deftly follows through on these stated intentions. While, as is par for the course, some essays are more persuasive and revealing than others, all of the contributors offer productively heterodox readings, focused on overlooked trends and texts in the comics of the 1980s. In terms of the texts covered in the book, the essays give more or less even attention to, on one hand, comics from large, mainstream publishers and in popular genres as, on the other hand, to independent comics and the comix tradition. Preoccupations that crosscut the collection include structural developments to the comics industry, like the rapidly expanding direct market, as well as the roles of various comics reading communities and the significances of identity and representation. As for Costello and Cremins, along with their co-written Introduction that establishes the purpose and parameters of the book, the co-editors close The Other 1980s with an Epilogue that reflects upon its contributions. They also offer opening précis for all five sections, identifying key themes found within and across the sections, and each provides an original essay. 

First among the book’s sections is “The New Wave: Crucial Writers, Artists, and Titles,” consisting of four essays from, respectively, Isabelle Licari-Guillaume, Andrew J. Kunka, Maaheen Ahmed, and Shiamin Kwa. These scholars survey an eclectic set of comics creators: Wendy and Richard Pini, acclaimed for their independent fantasy series Elfquest; journeyman writer Doug Moench; Canadian cartoonist Katherine Collins, creator of the surreal animal comic Neil the Horse; and P. Craig Russell, a versatile writer and artist whose ambitious adaptations of operas receive attention here. Top to bottom, the readings in this section are lucid and insightful. Among the batch, Andrew Kunka’s reassessment of Doug Moench’s place within 1980s superhero comics is noteworthy for the directness with which it undertakes The Other 1980s’ mission to complicate established critical narratives for the decade. In his essay, Kunka identifies the ways in which the 1980s comics of Moench—such as Lords of the Ultra-Realm, Electric Warrior, and the incomplete Aztec Ace—appeared alongside Dark Knight and Watchmen, and in many ways share those texts’ revisionist and literary tendencies, even if Moench’s work is comparatively neglected.

Kunka identifies Moench’s position within a cohort of mainstream superhero comics writers—also including Don McGregor, Steve Englehart, and Steve Gerber—all of whom were blending genres, experimenting with longer-form and closed narratives, contending with relatively controversial subject matter, and advocating for greater creator autonomy and rights. By analyzing Moench’s attempts throughout the mid-1980s to rethink and stretch the conventional themes and tropes of the superhero genre, Kunka makes available a sharpened picture of the revisionist wave that remains credited, overwhelmingly, to Miller and Moore. Kunka’s readings of Moench’s comics are buttressed, and his overall argument enrichened, by his mindfulness to the various promotional strategies employed by DC throughout the decade, which he argues were instrumental for readers’ receptions of comics from Miller, Moore, Moench, and others, in turn shaping their respective legacies. If Kunka’s contribution to this section stands out for its direct rebuttals to and complications of entrenched critical narratives surrounding revisionist superhero comics in the 1980s, the other essays are no less perceptive or illuminating in their focuses on some of the many creators, genres, and publishing models that those established narratives ignore or misunderstand.

Following Part I’s initial look at overlooked creators and texts is a set of essays attending to matters of “publishers, property, and capitalism,” making up what is arguably the collection’s overall strongest and most timely section. Although on the shorter end of the book’s sections, consisting of three essays, the strength of all those selections—Paul Williams on graphic novels in the direct market, Brian Cremins on growth in black-and-white comics publishing, and Andrew Hoberek on comics based on licensed toy properties—derives from their shared investment in the structures and institutions of the comics industry. In this respect, Part II’s essays represent comics studies’ invigorating sociological turn, joining a body of scholarship that includes Hoberek’s own Considering Watchmen (2014), the aforementioned Dreaming the Graphic Novel, Shawna Kidman’s Comic Books Incorporated (2019), Bart Beaty’s Comics versus Art (2012), James Gilmore and Matthias Stork’s collection Superhero Synergies (2014), among others. This methodological shift toward the institutions and systems that constitute and organize the comics field adds valuable materialist understandings of comics, dialoguing with and enriching the historical and literary critical approaches that tend to prevail in comics studies. The essays from Williams, Cremins, and Hoberek all testify to the sociological turn’s salience. Especially pertinent is Hoberek’s essay on Marvel Comics’ embrace of comic books based on licensed properties in the 1980s and the synergistic strategies involved with such transmedia endeavors. From his analysis, focusing on Rom and Mircronauts, Hoberek develops a blueprint for a genre he deems “popular intellectual property narratives” (131). This emergent genre contains the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indebted to comic book properties, practices, as well as labor, these intellectual property narratives index trends in global capitalism.

The next two sections are more wide-ranging than the previous two. Part III is structured around questions of identity, specifically race, gender, and sexuality. The three articles in this section—Meg King on race and masculinity in 1980s war comics, James Ziegler on feminist underground comix, and Alex B. Smith on comics representations of the AIDS crisis—offer probing, intersectional analyses. A theme across these readings is the degree to which whiteness was hegemonic in the field, a fact that vexes many comics’ intended or ostensible subversions of sexuality and gender identities. All of the essays in this section deftly negotiate their examples’ representations of interconnected identity categories—even when those representations are absent presences—and treat with nuance the various significances of subject positionality to comics creation, representation, and reception. Part IV also revolves around issues of identity and politics, though more expansively—which does create some dissonance in the section. The title of Part IV, “A Real American Hero?”, signals a focus on national identity in superhero comics, yet its diffuse subtitle—“politics, comedy, and regionalism”—obscures the section’s coherences. Exemplifying this point, Blair Davis’s essay on DC’s wave of humorous superheroes is astute and notable, but it seems to be a faintly confusing fit with the other selections’ emphases on place and racial identities. 

Fortunately, while the stated organizational logic behind Part IV is somewhat shaky, the constitutive essays themselves are uniformly fascinating and valuable on their merits. The section features: Jeremy M. Carnes on Tim Truman’s Scout saga, José Alaniz on Neal Adams’ Ms. Mystic, Brannon Costello on the provocative series Southern Knights, and the aforementioned Davis piece on comedic superheroes. These comics, the authors show us, fill gaps in prevailing narratives about the 1980s’ turn to a so-called “grim-and-gritty” approach celebrating vicious, and often lethal, anti-heroes. While series like Scout, Ms. Mystic, and Southern Knights do engage, in various ways and extents, with grim-and-gritty aesthetics and themes, they also represent attempts—sometimes compromised or even largely unsuccessful—to grapple, respectively, with the politics of Indigeneity, environmentalism, and race and region. Unlike most 1980s prestige grim-and-gritty comics, whose politics center on urban crime and the Cold War—the eco-politics of Saga of the Swamp Thing being a notable exception from a canon otherwise built around Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Daredevil—Carnes, Alaniz, and Costello make visible underappreciated ways in which creators used the grim-and-gritty idiom to make varied political interventions. From a different angle, Davis identifies how DC’s slate of comedic superhero series, like Ambush Bug, ‘Mazing Man, Justice League International, on one hand, contravened trends toward violent and tonally bleak superheroes, but, on the other hand, engaged in experiments, like visual and narrative revisionism and cultural commentary, more commonly associated with the grim-and-gritty wave. 

The Other 1980s’ final section centers on reading communities. This section’s five lively essays are wide-ranging, attending to diverse trends and segments of the 1980s comics scene. We see clearly, across these essays, the innovations and impacts of various fan mobilizations, identity formations, and publishing experiments. Jonathan Alexandratos and Daniel Y. Yezbick write on the popularity of the Robotech franchise, set within the context of a wave of intercultural transmedia endeavors. Peter Cullen Bryan considers Another Rainbow, a publisher founded in 1981, which reprinted Disney comics from the 1940s to 1960s. Bryan refers to Another Rainbow as  “a bold experiment in the (re-)creation of comics, one that made fans almost entirely responsible for locating and curating the expansive history of these Disney comics, a development that presaged many modern aspects of comics publishing,” and as such links the company with the “professionalization of fandom” (274). Robert Hutton, in the essay “The Crusade of The Comics Journal,” unpacks the ideological commitments of the trend-setting venue for comics criticism founded by Gary Groth. While long recognized as an influential venue, Hutton clarifies exactly how, in the ‘80s, TCJ defined evaluative criteria for comics that appealed to the values of dominant cultural gatekeepers and institutions, plus the ways in which the journal’s confrontational postures set the terms for comics criticism in ways still felt today. Rachel R. Miller’s essay on the “second life” of Wimmen’s Comix deftly traces a lineage of feminist cultural production. Miller positions Wimmen’s Comix in the late-80s as a bridge connecting the anthology’s origins in the second-wave feminism of 1970s countercultures with emergent 1990s third-wave feminism, especially the third-wave’s investments in girls/grrls and girlhood as sources of power. Miller not only complicates narratives of modern US feminism’s development that rely on reductive periodization, but also productively dialogues with Zeigler’s essay on feminist comix from Part III of The Other 1980s. Together, these essays map the many ways in which comics communities and niches crafted identities, interacted with comics professionals, and drove comics discourses. This section’s essays demonstrate the myriad ways in which comics reading communities were instrumental to the development of US comics in real time during the 1980s, making them pivotal for the histories and critical narratives with which The Other 1980s as a whole confronts, engages, and reconsiders. 

Part V ends with Aaron Kashtan’s “Amethyst, Meet Misty, and Angel Love: Historical Footnotes or Paths Not Taken?”, an essay that perhaps exemplifies the overarching project of The Other 1980s. Kashtan’s recuperation of three 1980s series—DC’s Angel Love and Amethyst, and Marvel’s Meet Misty—is valuable for its perceptive look into three mostly forgotten comics experiments and the missed opportunities that they represent. The comics that Kashtan considers, all published amid the mid-1980s revisionist superhero and grim-and-gritty waves, stand far apart from those trends. None of them, first of all, are superhero comics. Angel Love and Meet Misty, respectively produced by auteurs Barbara Slate and Trina Robbins, were humorous series about the lives of young women, and if Amethyst—created by writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn and artist Ernie Colón—gestures toward superhero tropes, on the whole it is more indebted to fantasy. All three of the comics, importantly, were lighter in tone than the titles that dominate conventional narratives of 1980s US comics and, as Kashtan shows, emerged from coordinated efforts at DC and Marvel to reach younger and female readers. Along with its glosses of these comics, Kashtan’s essay considers why the wider publishing ambitions behind them failed to materialize—or, rather, why their appeals to new readerships were allowed to fail. In this way, the essay performs “a sort of media archaeology” that “examines some understudied comics in order to see how they represent a different trajectory for how the industry could have evolved” (319). By unearthing these comics and the histories behind them, Kashtan recalibrates our sense of what was happening in the comics field of the 1980s, and in turn what could have been and, from there, what might be.

Such an act of alternative history, we might say, is in fact the fundamental project of The Other 1980s. Alternative history, taken as a genre but also as a practice, revisits historical turning points to distinguish structural forces from agential choices—to identify, in other words, that which was inevitable and that which could have been done differently. In this spirit, the essays comprising The Other 1980s enable us to see the myriad ways in which dominant narratives of US comics in the 1980s—so often tethered to a myth around a tiny set of comics by a handful of creators, and isolated to one year from the decade—frequently obscure more than they clarify and explain. By spotlighting creators, comics, trends, and practices that prevailing narratives push to the margins or outside the frame altogether, The Other 1980s complicates and deepens our understanding of a pivotal moment for US comics. Costello, Cremins, and their contributors assembled a volume that, like all successful alternative histories, unsettles our perceptions of US comics’ development.

Although The Other 1980s is a book that will primarily be of interest to scholars working in US-based comics, it undoubtedly speaks to diverse foci in that field. The primary organizational principle for The Other 1980s, obviously, is historical, but the volume brings together critical conversations in comics with gender studies, critical race studies, fan studies, among others. Attesting to the collection’s significance and timeliness, though the essays differ in terms of focus, methodology, and style, they all nonetheless seem to share a certain verve, suggesting that the authors sensed that they were participating in an overdue and generative endeavor. This sense of breakthrough is likely to be felt by readers as well. Collectively, the essays that make up The Other 1980s represent a major critical intervention, and, overall, The Other 1980s makes very few missteps in its approaches to revising and re-contextualizing critical narratives of the comics field.

Since I am a scholar of modern British literature and culture as well as comics, I am tempted to compare The Other 1980s with Dan Rebellato’s momentous 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (1999). In his book, Reballato took on the received wisdom that 1956, the debut year of John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger and thus the arrival of the “Angry Young Men,” is a moment of radical rupture for British theatre. The Other 1980s brings a similar skepticism toward US comics’ myth of 1986 and all the exhausted critical narratives and loaded assumptions that come with that myth. Moreover, The Other 1980s seems poised to make an impact on comics studies comparable to Reballato’s felt disruption and reordering of his field. The Other 1980s will surely enliven its audience—primarily comics scholars, but perhaps also general readerships interested in US comics history and criticism—by its essays’ disruptions of longstanding assumptions and axiomatic narratives about comics in the 1980s, as well as their attention to unfamiliar texts. Engaging with the interventions made within The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade not only compels us to see the comics field’s history and development afresh, but also encourages scholars to fashion new futures upon those new pasts.

Works Cited

Beaty, Bart, Comics versus Art, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Beaty, Bart and Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Gilmore, James and Mattias Stork, Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

Hoberek, Andrew, Considering Watchmen, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Kidman, Shawna. Comic Books Incorporated: How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.

Levitz, Paul, ed. DC Through the ‘80s: The End of Eras, Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2020. 

—. DC Through the ‘80s: The Experiments, Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2021.

—. DC Through the ‘80s: The Heroes, Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2021.

Rebellato, Dan. 1956 and All That: The Making of British Drama. Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 1999.

Williams, Paul. Dreaming the Graphic Novel: The Novelization of Comics, New Brunswick, NJ: 2020.

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