Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nerd Rage #14: The Dark Age of Comics

"I'M NOT GAY!!!"
This is blog entry #250 for Beta is Dead. Now I honestly don’t think that 250 is a milestone to throw a party over but I still decided to do something a little more personal and a little bigger than my usual entries. Over the years I’ve take a lot of pit shots at what is known as The Dark Age of Comic Books, or to more specific the 90s. This is also referred to as The Iron Age of Comic Books by people who remember this period a little more fondly than I do. Anyway I’ve decided that, if I’m going to crack the jokes, I should explain why I have a problem with this particular era of comics.

For more info on the other Ages of Comics click here.

We should probably start by talking about the era itself. The range of this period is heavily contested however most would agree it began in 1986. This as the year that two masterpieces came out: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Both were dark, gritty deconstruction of the classic (i.e. “campy”, “corny”) idea of what it is to be a superhero. They were also both really good, especially Watchmen which is a contender for the greatest superhero story ever told. This was also the year that DC Comic’s mega crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, another beloved classic, was released. The series rebooted the entire DC Universe, cut all ties to the Silver Age and Golden Age and, while not starting from scratch, was supposed to be a more modern interpretation of their world. This was really what this era was shooting for in the following years: a fond farewell to the days where comics were for kids and embrace a more mature, more complex and above all edgier style.

Yeah, that sounds good on paper.

The end of this era is probably the most debated of any other era in comic books. For one many, many people firmly believe that the Dark Age never ended and we’re still there today. However others believe that it ended between 1995 and 1996 as those years saw the debut of Astro City, which was a reconstruction of the good aspects of superhero comics from the Silver Age, and Kingdom Come, which was itself a deconstruction of the Dark Age and the antiheroes that populated it. 1996 was also the year of the Comic Book Crash, which we’ll talk about today. Still others point at 2000, the debut of Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate” line. Either way the idea is that by the late 90s the industry had gotten tired of the antiheroes and the dark and grittiness of the times and were moving back towards a more lighthearted vision of what it means to be a superhero. So now that we know the "when" we should look at the “why”.

Guns, tits, and pouches after the jump.

And then this bullshit happened
It seems that the Dark Age of Comics really came about because of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (and others throughout the 80s). These were great stories but they were also stories with something to say. The problem is that is seems a lot of people (writers, artists, editors) saw these books not as simply deconstructions for the sake of deconstructing but rather a changing of the guard. This certainly wasn’t the intent of Alan Moore, who wrote Watchmen. He wasn’t trying to inspire a generation of creators who romanticized the sociopathic Rorschach and The Comedian (two major characters from Watchmen). But that’s exactly what happened and the fans loved it. It made sense; characters like Wolverine and The Punisher, created in the previous Age, were rising in popularity and the notions of using lethal force, being super tough and cool and being anti-authoritative was striking a chord with the buyers.

Of course things go wrong when things were taken too far with this. Not to mention that by the time the 90s got really rolling were knees deep in that “EXTREME” bullshit that was just everywhere. So now I’d like to discuss exactly what my issues of this Age was but since I don’t want to write a 5,000 word essay I will simplify things by breaking things down in parts.
The Characters and The Tone 
Who could forget such classic and memorable comic book characters?
Purple Tights Man. Poorly Drawn Lass. Black Dude in Armor.
If you read my blog you’ll note that I’m not a huge fan of antiheroes in superhero comics, or at least not in a world that isn’t inherently designed for that sort of thing. For example how The Punisher hasn’t been arrested by any number of heroes in the Marvel Universe makes zero sense to me. But The Dark Age of comics was infamous for the sheer amount of characters it produced of this type as well as actually taking older characters and shoehorning them into to the category…or replacing them with someone who did. A lot of the new characters were interchangeable and have been largely forgtten about by the Modern Age.

But the so-called “90s Antihero” is different from your usual antihero trope. The 90s Antihero tended to be insanely, sometimes laughably, overly muscular in a display of hyper masculinity. “Rarrw, I’m strong”. They tended to be extremely pro firearm. I guess the idea was that if a superhero was going to use lethal force why wouldn’t he use giant f**king guns. And also swords were pretty common too. Often they used both. They are shallow characters who are tortured and angst filled but strangely don’t have very much more than that to their characters. They were often little more than rip-offs, at least visually, of characters from other companies (and usually they were rip-offs of the X-Men, especially Wolverine). They made really short, simple yet “gritty” names that were often misspelled so it’d sound cooler. Or "kewler", I guess. "Death" and "blood" were commonly used in titles.

Blood Pack, because overusing the word "blood' is EXTREME!!!!
And they were really violent. Pointlessly violent. The body counts were super high; a stark contrast to superhero comics of the previous few decades. The so-called “mature” writing was actually very juvenile as it was violence for violence sake as opposed to there being purpose behind it. Watchmen was violent, sure, but Watchmen also was also trying to make a point. I don’t know if a huge list of Dark Age Comics can say this. Bottom line it’s a style over substance era of comics; big guns, explosions and flimsy pretenses for them. And to make it worse the “heroes” tended to be varying degrees of overly grim assholes that are only slightly better than the villains they fight. Totally not my scene; there’s a reason I didn’t like The Expendables.

This is the era where Venom, a great yet completely psychotic Spider-Man villain, got so popular that Marvel decided to make an ongoing series about his adventures as a “Lethal Protector” or whatever, thus ruining him as a proper member of Spidey’s rogues gallery to this day. This is just what happened during the 90s.

Art Style and Depiction of Women
Holy hell! Someone call a doctor: their spines have been mangled!
To say that the art during the Dark Age of Comics was wholly bad would be very unfair. Even some of the artists most associated with the times, such as Jim Lee, were incredibly talented. But a lot of the artwork possessed major problems. A large part of this was Rob Liefeld, a very popular artist whose style was extremely influential on the art of the 90s…the problem was that Liefeld’s art was far from perfect and the many flaws it had were also emulated by many other artists. There were problems with backgrounds, there were oddities drawing feet, characters were constantly grimacing and not much else, a ton of characters seemed to have their eyes shut or at least were drawn very small; and these issues were everywhere. Costumes (for men, anyway) featured common elements of heavy shoulder pads and superfluous pouches. Oh my god, there were so many pouches! Additionally most of these heroes were, as I said earlier, incredibly and impossibly muscled. It was so bad that an entire industry of superheroes looked like steroid abusing monsters. I assume this was part of this giant macho trip the industry was going through in its simplest, yet dumbest, form: More Muscles = Tougher/Stronger/More Interesting.

But it was women who got it the worst. Almost all across the board women were downgraded into sexual objects, which was ironic considering how much the feminist movement had affected comic books in the previous Age of Comics. The female heroes and the villains tended to be drawn as huge breasted stick figures whose tiny frames and waists could never support the weight of their chest in real life. I’ve heard it described as female heroes basically all looking like twelve year old boys but with huge tits. That seems to be the case; waaaay too many artist did not (and still do not, sadly) know how to draw women. Many, if not most, of these characters were given ridiculously skimpy costume designs to the point of many of the being practically naked. Because when you’re fighting armed muggers and energy blasting mutants the obvious choice of clothes to protect yourself is a metal bikini. Worst of all artists would routinely draw them in laughably improbable poses that were clearly done for the sake of sexiness but also displayed a nauseating lack of understanding of how spines bend. Do you really want to draw women’s breasts and their butts at the same time so badly? Of course this was a problem both before and after the 90s but it seems that The Dark Age of Comics really had thing going out of control.

And yes, you can make the claim that male heroes are just as exploited as the female ones. But I will point out that while it might be easy to say someone like Superman or Batman or Namor the Submariner are exploitive characters take in mind that almost no male character is drawn or designed for any sort of titillation in mind. Women heroes, especially in the 90s, often were. That’s the difference.

[On a similar subject you should check out The Hawkeye Initiative to see how ridiculous this sort of thing can get]

Comic Book Collecting Reaches All Time High/Low
Cover price was $3.95. I paid $20 after the first printing sold out
 17 years later it's worth $5. I made a critical error
So at some point prior to the Dark Age of Comics people realized that old comics, things like Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, and Amazing Fantasy #15, were worth thousands and thousands of dollars. This was because there were significant and very, very rare; many of these books were initially thrown out by disapproving parents and so the number of copies in good condition is very low. However somewhere along the line fans got it into their heads that the reason they were worth so much was solely because they were old and developed value. So with this logic many people headed into their local comic shops buying multiple copies of comics with the idea that they could make a lot of money if they managed to properly store them over the course of however many years . This was not good economic sense; they’re only valuable if they’re rare (and in a lot of cases historically significant) not simply because you bought them years ago. However this did not stop comic book companies from taking full advantage of the situation by printing a ton of copies (that fans eagerly bought) with "collectable" gimmick covers. Oh man, were there a lot of these gimmick covers! Hologram covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, die-cut covers, and in a lot cases a shit ton of variant covers for the sole purpose of getting fans to “Catch ‘Em All.” Gen¹³ #1 featured no less than thirteen variant covers! For its first issue! In addition companies repeatedly restarted their major books numbering since so many fans thought that somehow buying a new number one issue of a book that’s existed for decades would somehow be worth a lot of money. Guess how well that worked out?
One copy down, thirteen copies to go!
X-Men #1 (1991) is a good example of what went wrong here: a new #1 (thirty years after the original X-Men #1) with several variant covers. It sold great but Marvel also printed an insane number of sellable copies was way higher than the number of people buying them. So that means today in 2013 the book isn’t worth all that much because it’s simply very common. Supposedly this book is worth five bucks but seeing as I still occasionally see comic book shops selling copies (meaning there are STILL unsold copies of that goddamn book) for fifty cents to a dollar good luck it getting anyone to buy it from you.

I was in on this too; I was a kid (9/10/11 or so) and I recall very clearly after watching a documentary about Stan Lee that I could possibly pay for college with comic books I buy now (the documentary practically said this). I was stupid, just like everyone else, and the comic companies took advantage of it making a lot of money in the short term. Long term…well, let’s just say this whole concept likely helped bring about the Comic Book Crash of 1996.

Oh and the worst part of all this? In some cases (like at Marvel) it was the marketing department, not editorial and certainly not the creative team, that had final creative say. Which meant that stories were being forced to be written in ways to capitalize on the collector market. That’s likely why there were so many events, crossovers and shake-ups (Death of Superman, Batman’s replaced by edgier crime fighter, the entirety of the Clone Saga). Seeing as I'm of the mindset that editors shouldn't mess with works that much you can imagine my rage at the goddamn marketing guys dictating things!

Style Over Substance
Because someone decided Lobo was too subtle
Or should I say “Art Over Writing”? This was the era of the “Superstar Artists” who were selling books not only based on their art but also their names. This is all well and good (comic books are a visual medium after all) but a terrible side effect of this was that writers sometimes got shafted by the artist’ power. For example Marvel was a bit infamous for artists discarding elements of what the writer wrote and just doing whatever they wanted (supposedly this is why Chris Claremont, the then signature writer of the X-Men, walked out) and the editors doing jack shit about it. The problem with this dynamic is simple; just because you can draw pretty pictures doesn’t mean you’re a writer. There are numerous examples of artists who are also great writers (and a huge number of comic book writers started out as artists) but during the 90s a lot of stories were flashy and high impact but absolutely lacked any sort of proper storytelling structure and this was part of the reason.

To make matter even worse a lot of these “Superstar Artists” had problems making the monthly deadline for their art and were consistently late. This was one of the bigger criticisms of Image Comics during the 90s (Image being a company founded by several “Superstar Artists”).

Obvious I’m biased here. Clearly I’m a writer and not an artist so it’s not too surprising that I get a little sensitive about the idea that the artwork of a comic is somehow more important than the story. I get the same way about bands that don’t have bass players. Bunch of assholes…

The Comic Book Crash of 1996
This blood's for you!
(At least it would be if it actually shipped on time)
There were several factors for the comic book bubble bursting in the mid-90s; certainly the runaway collecting that I talked about was probably the main one. The fact is that for a while the money was flowing but once the consumers and the dealers realized that comics are only going to be worth something if they’re rare and you can’t be rare if there’s millions of copies of the comic you just bought floating around the market collapsed. Of course it did. Mainstream popularity for comics died out and millions of comics went unsold. Many independent publishers went out of business in the aftermath, including Valiant Comics which was a legitimately well-managed company that did most things right (until they teamed up with Image for the Deathmate crossover, but that’s another story). Hell,even Marvel went bankrupt, which was likely the first in a series of events that would eventually lead them to being bought by Disney years later…which honestly has worked out well for everyone (except for Darkwing Duck fans but, again, that’s another story).

The Good Stuff
No joke here; Hellboy is actually pretty great
As much as I’ve bitched during this article I don’t want to leave the impression that everything from this era was bad. In case you couldn’t figure it out I started reading comics in the 90s so in a very real sense this is the Age of Comics that taught me how to love the medium. There were great stories being written, the battle over creator rights was brought into the forefront of conversation, creators were taking greater measures to introduce minority characters than ever and many changes to the industry proved positive. Unfortunately I’m running long and the positives of the Dark Age probably deserve their own post but just remember that for all the things I dislike like about The Dark Age of Comics ere are things I really do love about it. For example most of my friends know that I LOVE the Scarlet Spider (Ben Riley) so I can’t despise the era that introduced him to me.

Anyway there’s a lot that went on during this era and to be honest this really just scratching the surface. Bottom line is that things sucked in the 90s, a lot people were acting without common sense, and everything was EXTREME. But man, what a ride it was.

Pictured: The first comic book I remember buying on my own initiative


  1. This was a great article Beta.

    I pretty much missed the Dark Ages entirely. Yep, around 1987 I decided I was too "grown up" for comics anymore so I stopped collecting and reading them. I started up again around 1997 - and Astro City was one of the first books I read again! Anyway, I remember being in a comic shop a few times during the early 90s (looking for role playing games) and seeing some of those outrageous covers you mentioned in your article. My thoughts were "wow, I'm glad I'm not wasting my money of comics these days!"

    I'm glad you pointed out some of the good things about the age though - I am also a big fan of Hellboy. And hey, if the Dark Ages hadn't happened maybe we wouldn't have gotten any really good "cool" superhero comic books coming back into the market... at least for a long time anyway.

    I guess if I ever want to read any of the comics from that era I can just go to my local comic book shop and browse through their 25-cent bins - almost all the issues are still there!

    1. Yeah, by '97 everyone pretty much realized the 90s were kind of dumb so that would have been a pretty good time to get back into comics.

      I also went through a "too grown up for comics" phase starting from about 1999 through 2003 or so. And yet I still bought Wizard magazine during that time. Weird.

  2. Expendables was an awesome movie, and I personally the Dark Age comics. I know they're silly looking nowadays for how over-the-top and ridiculous they are. I love anti-heroes myself, Punisher being my all time favorite comic book character(with Garth Ennis's Punisher MAX series being my favorite comic series of all time).

    I get why people don't like this era, but there's something about it I find charming, I do feel bad for all the comic book shops that went out of business though. It's mind-boggling how close the industry came to destroying itself entirely, the industry crash was so disastrous it made the video game crash of 1983 look tame by comparison.

    I don't think the 90s were "dumb" at all.

    1. We'll have to agree to disagree on this, I'm afraid.


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