19 May 2009

Comic Books: All Grown Up (Part 2)

Comics have had some big ups and downs. I became a fan as a kid during (for me, at least) the golden age of "kid comics," the 70s and early 80s. (Collectors call it the Bronze Age, the Golden Age being the 30s and 40s.) While most of today's best-known superheroes and franchises were created in the 1960s or even earlier, their popularity was huge in the 70s. Comics could still be purchased new in any corner store and used at any bookstore. I spent countless hours digging through old stacks at the local Bookworm paperback exchange (there were no comic shops then). It was cheap and easy to collect complete sets spanning years. They were our video games.

In the late 80s and 90s, three important things happened. First, comic collecting turned serious, driving up prices and spurring publishers to put out a lot more product, which bloated the franchises and inevitably lowered the quality. Comic collecting became expensive, pricing kids out.

This may have contributed to the second change: most readers came to be older teens or adults, and the content came to reflect that. While the majors (DC and Marvel) submitted to the Comics Code Authority (a censoring body), mature-content independents came out of the underground and started grabbing market share. So the majors started non-Code subsidiary imprints, which have become very popular. Marvel withdrew from the CCA entirely in 2001, starting their own code.

Finally, I think comic art became stylistically homogenized in the 90s under the influence of superstar artists Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Jim Lee, and other manga-influenced artists and works popularized by creator-owned Image Comics. This was after my time, but I hate the "Image look," and I think it turned off a lot of fans.

And then collector prices collapsed, after pricing younger readers out of collecting. Demand fell off a cliff. Marvel was pushed into bankruptcy. Comics entered the new millennium with greatly diminished fortunes.

Now, however, comics are bouncing back, changed and much improved. First, the writing is very good. Literary talents like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Alan Moore have pushed the writing to a new level. All three authors have had a number of their works made or optioned as movies.

At the same time, comic art has now greatly diversified in style and is of the highest quality. The introduction of computerized colorizing and much improved printing has eradicated those awful, coarse half-tone colors that only look good in a Lichtenstein painting. In fact, just in the last five or so years, the art quality of comics/graphic novels has become stunning. The art has caught up with the writing. When asked when the heyday of comics was, one collector recently replied, "Right now!"

Max Collins' gritty Road to Perdition is a 304 page graphic novel that was made into a major film starring Tom Hanks. Time Magazine praised the original: "[It] has more to recommend it than just the source material for the movie. It turns out to be a neglected work of smart, tense, hard-boiled crime comix."


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