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    25 Most Influential Moments in the Past 25 Years

    By Brian Cronin

    FOR BETTER OR WORSE

    Comics are experiencing a new Golden Age, some say. Others feel things are dire. The fact remains that comics today are quite different from the ones you grew up reading. Change is inevitable, and the comics of today can’t help but reflect past developments. In that spirit, we present an unscientific list of 25 of these events and developments that have brought comics to where they are now.

    25. “Batman: The Animated Series” -

    The release of this cartoon series in 1992 began a miniature boom in the comic market of comic books geared toward children, which has continued to this day, with DC’s Johnny DC line of comics. In addition, the series gave the comic book world Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke.

    24. Death as marketing tool -
    One could argue that major superhero deaths were occuring in the late ’70s, but it was in the ’80s that death went from being something that writers would occasionally use to shock the readers to a consistent marketing tool. The success of titles like “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” “Dark Knight Returns” and “A Death In the Family” showed that, in the comic book world, death is a real sales tool.

    23. Elseworlds -
    With the release of “Dark Knight Returns,” the concept of Prestige format stories set outside of continuity became an important piece of the mainstream comic market. Big name creators who would never agree to become the regular artist or writer on a monthly series would be willing to do a one-shot or limited series where they were not constrained by continuity, or even time and setting! Few writers can turn down the chance to do Batman any way they please, and artists really appreciated the format that “Dark Knight Returns” originated, which became the standard format for Elseworlds, as the nicer paper did wonders for the presentation of their artwork. Such notable stories as “New Frontier,” “Kingdom Come,” “Gotham By Gaslight,” “Batman/Captain America,” “Superman: Red Son” and many, many more would never exist if it were not for Elseworlds.

    22. Treatment of Original Comic Art -
    Not so long ago, all the original art left over from the production of comics was thrown in the trash. Can you imagine that today? The treatment of original art has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. There have been a number of exhibits in museums devoted to comic books and comic book art, and a popular feature of comic book conventions has become the display of original comic book art. Moreover, the sales market for original comic art market has skyrocketed in the past decade or so, and it provides a new income for artists that did not exist 25 years ago. Along the same lines, many artists maintain a tidy income solely on doing original art for fans.

    21. Comics Code -

    In 1989, the Comics Code Authority had a major overhaul of the rules, and this was mainly in response to the simple fact that the power of the Code had severely decreased during the 1980s. The days of living in fear of the Code were over, as more and more comics were simply being released sans Code approval. The relaxing of the Code’s standards in 1989 was a step in the right direction, although books still continued to be released without the Code, particularly those comics released in the Direct Market. Finally, in 2001, Marvel dropped the Comics Code entirely, choosing instead to adopt their own rating system (which has evolved into an absolutely indecipherable mess: A for All Ages?!). [see related story here]

    20. The Mini-series -

    Another “new” creation that did exist in the 1970s, it was in the 1980s that the mini-series became a staple of comic book publishing. Whether it be a quick tie-in to a big crossover or a small, personal mini-series by a company not willing to devote an ongoing series to a new talent, mini-series have become an important part of the comic book industry. Can you imagine trying to squeeze something like “Dark Knight Returns” into the regular Batman title? Or if “Watchmen” was an ongoing? The mini-series has become a great storytelling tool, and also gives publishers flexibility, not having to agree to an ongoing series. In addition, mini-series are a great way of establishing trademarks on characters. Marvel needs only to release a Captain Marvel mini-series every few years to maintain their trademark protection for “Captain Marvel.”

    19. Digital Coloring -

    This is an innovation where the final result has yet to be seen. With the advances made with computer coloring technology (which made its big mainstream debut at DC in the mid-’80s by, of all people, legendary Silver Age artist Murphy Anderson), more and more comics are being produced where the pencils of the artist are digitally colored, without an inker being involved. This is a major change, as a) It puts a lot of inker jobs at risk, and b) We have seen the creation of a new artistic category. Not knocking the work of Cary Nord or Luke Ross, but when one is reading “Conan” or “Jonah Hex,” it is likely the digital coloring of Dave Stewart and Jason Kieth that readers are noticing, not so much the pencils of Nord and Ross.

    18. Xeric Grant -
    In the early ’90s, comic creator Peter Laird created the Xeric Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funding to charities, but more importantly, for the comic book world, provides the Xeric Grant, which provides monetary assistance to promising self-publishing comic book creators. Some of the creators who have received the Xeric Grant have gone on to become big names in the independent comic scene, like Adrian Tomine, Jason Lutes and Jessica Abel.

    17. Marvel’s bankruptcy -

    This could more properly be titled “Bill Jemas takes over.” Marvel going bankrupt ended up being one of the most important creative events of the past 25 years. With the company in shambles, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada basically had free reign, resulting in a staggering number of ambitious projects. Not all of these ambitious comics were good, but enough of them were to make this era in Marvel history stand out. And once Marvel was better financially, that ended the same “try anything” atmosphere.

    16. Kevin Smith -

    While he may end up remembered most for taking four years to complete a six-issue mini-series, Smith did demonstrate two truths that would become important to comics of the past five years: 1. Successful writers outside of comics would be glad to write comics and 2. Comic companies would be glad to have successful writers outside of comics write for them. Without that, we wouldn’t have Joss Whedon, Greg Rucka, Brad Meltzer and, well, a whole pile of other writers, good or bad.

    15. “Maus” -

    Winning a “special” Pulitzer Prize for this Holocaust memoir did not lead immediately to a raft of graphic works of like quality and ambition, but it does stand as the first moment literary critics accepted a graphic novel as being on par with prose novels; ie, the recognition that “Comics is Art.”

    14. Special Covers -
    Back in 1991 or so, did anyone suspect that the Silver Surfer gleaming up at them in all his foil-covered glory on the cover of “Silver Surfer” #50 would usher in an embarrassing, lucrative half-decade of similar excess? Within that time, cover enhancements became such an important part of comic marketing that you could honestly tell how important your comic was by what kind of special cover your book received. Even today, variant covers have become a standard sales tactic used by Marvel to help garner extra sales, and by smaller companies, who rely upon the extra sales from variant covers to make or break the success of the comic (and with Diamond’s new minimum sales requirements for a comic to be listed in Previews, those extra few copies sold due to variant covers are extremely important).

    13. Comic Book movies -

    There have been a number of successful comic book movies in the past six years, with little obvious influence on the comics produced afterward. However, comic book movie success has had an impact on how companies have sprung up hoping to cash in by selling the movie rights to a comic book property. This is not only a boon to comic publishers, but it is also a way for comic book creators to make a nice income as well. Of course, there are those critics who feel that this has led towards smaller publishers only being interested in comics that they think can be made into films, including writers more concerned about writing something they could sell as a movie, rather than just writing a good comic book.

    12. British Invasion -
    The British comic book industry is rich in history, however, it has not always exactly been rich in terms of wealth. Therefore, for British creators, the real money in comics lies in America. In the early 1980s, America came calling for them. Editor Len Wein led the charge, mainly, with his hire of Dave Gibbons for Green Lantern. Through Gibbons, Wein came into contact with other notable creators, such as Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill and Brian Bolland. Moore’s success, in particular, paved the way for a number of writers from the British Isles, all of whom have, in total, helped to greatly shape the comic industry of the past 20 years, as their different influences helped add new energy and ideas that helped revitalize many American comic characters. Imagine the comic book industry without Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Jamie Delano, Mark Millar, Steve Dillon, Barry Kitson, Simon Bisley, Mark Buckingham, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Fabry, Dave McKean, Bryan Hitch, Alan Davis, Steve Yeowell and Frank Quitely just to name a few!

    11. Crossovers -
    When Marv Wolfman began constructing his massive crossover storyline, “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” 20 years ago, part of his plans for the story involved other comics interacting with the mini-series. The concept of crossing over was not new, of course, as it had gone on as far back as the 1940s, although not usually in DC Comics. Marvel had crossovers on occasion over the years, most notably the Avengers/Defenders War. However, no crossover was ever as big as Crisis, and therefore, it should not be too surprising that most editors were hesitant to lend their book to Wolfman for the crossover. However, after early sales results came in, suddenly, Wolfman was inundated with requests to be included in the crossover. This began the 20-year trend of the major crossover. Companies have discovered that crossovers serve to (if only for a limited time) bring the lower-selling titles up closer to the level of the higher-selling titles, and the higher-selling titles generally do not lose sales, either, as a result. This has become a major sales tool, and routinely affects the way writers write books, knowing that they sometimes have to interrupt their plots to work the comic into the crossover.

    10. Death of Superman -
    Crossovers were one of the major sales tools of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the “Death of Superman” was a whole other creature. Like Crisis, other books had the option to tie-in to the Death of Superman, but no other book (save “Justice League America,” which was written by Superman writer Dan Jurgens) chose to partake in the story, figuring it not to be a big deal. How wrong they were! The mainstream media attention to the “Death of Superman” shocked everyone in comics, and for the next few years, companies tended to gear their efforts as to tap into that “Wow! Look at what they’re doing NOW!” speculator’s market. This, of course, did not last long - but the effects were dramatic and systemic.

    9. “Watchmen” -
    More influential than even ”Dark Knight Returns” (Frank Miller was reading the limited series in production, so his own book reflects ”Watchmen’s” influence) for its darker look at superheroes, this “grim and gritty” or deconstructionist mode of superhero storytelling was so popular a model it was almost a mandate for any new book, and naturally, it became a creative dead end, for Moore and everyone else not as talented as him.

    8. Image Comics -
    The formation of Image was a significant step in comic book history, as a group of popular creators got together and decided to form their own comic book company. The ’80s saw the rise in importance of the writer-artist, exemplified by Frank Miller, John Byrne and a handful of others, and the Image founders–almost all of whom were known much more for their art than their writing — followed in their footsteps, showing that art alone could sell books in large numbers. Image founders like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld were treated as though they were just as important as the characters they were creating, and were given freedom accordingly. It was this sales power that led to the artists feeling confident enough to form their OWN company, which exists to this day, about fifteen years later. The “cult of personality” continues today, in the form of DC selling projects based upon the name Frank Miller and the name Jim Lee, and to a lesser extent, creators like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (whose picture accompanied the ads for his “Seven Soldiers” project).

    7. Independent Comics -
    Independent comic companies were around in the ’70s, like Last Gasp and Eclipse Comics, but it was during the ’80s that people first really began looking at independent comics as a viable alternative to the Big Two. Eclipse Comics was around, but in 1983, First Comics made its bow. Soon after, a major step was taken by a small parody comic with a print run of 3,000 copies. The book, of course, was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and the stratospheric success of the comic (due to TV and toy tie-ins) led to a tidal wave of new independent comics looking to similarly strike oil. Meanwhile, in 1986, Dark Horse made its debut, and 20 years later, is still going strong. In late 1989, Caliber Press began, the same year Jim Shooter and Bob Layton founded Valiant Comics. While a major tie-in between all these notable entries in the comic scene is that all of them, save Dark Horse (and those pesky Turtles) no longer exist, the fact remains is that the 1980s began a new era for independent comic companies, which still stands today with Dark Horse, Image, Fantagraphics, IDW and more.

    6. Manga -
    The success of comics in Japan after World War II has been nothing short of stunning. However, the success of Manga was fairly slow in affecting American comic books. In the 1980s, this began to change, as Marvel had great success with an adaptation of the famous Manga, Akira. Today, there are many new, English language comics produced in the format and conventions of manga, more mangaesque art appears in mainstream North American comic books, and the highest selling graphic novel of 2005 was Full Metal Alchemist Vol. 1, and the highest selling series of 2005, ”Fruits Basket,” which saw a number of its volumes reach the top of the charts during various months of 2005. [see related story here]

    5. Libraries -

    Twenty five years ago, you would be lucky to see a few copies of comics kept mixed in with the magazines at a library. In the past ten years or so, though, libraries became more and more cognizant of the great utility of comic books in encouraging young adults and children to read. Nowadays, there are many libraries that have large collections of graphic novels, becoming a starting point for many a new comic fan’s entry in the world of comics. It comes as no surprise that many stores have cross-promotions with libraries for Free Comic Book Day, as comic book stores and libraries are now side by side in the hunt to get kids to read comics, each for their own reasons, of course.

    4. Desktop Publishing -

    Publishing your own comic book used to be a monumental task that few could ever dream of achieving. Nowadays, all it takes is enough determination to weather the creation process, as the act of actually making a comic has become so much easier in the past 25 years. The advent of computer technology like Photoshop has made it possible to quite literally publish comics from your desktop. And, as with anything, whenever a development comes along that allows more voices to get their creative visions across, it is good for the industry and the art form (and, well, us the readers).

    3. Bookstores -

    Libraries have become important tools in getting kids to read, but if there are no comics being published, then those kids won’t have anything TO read, which is why bookstores have become increasingly important. The sales of graphic novels (Manga and American comics) has become so popular these days that you can simply track the development by looking at the shelves of your local book store. Where once, comics had perhaps A shelf, with every comic just thrown together, now comics often have their own SECTION, with Manga being sectioned off from the rest of the comics. The success of graphic novels is good for the book industry, but it is certainly good for the comic industry as well. In fact, as of this month, total graphic novel sales are JUST on the heels of overtaking total comic periodical sales in America, a sales development that would not have seemed possibly a mere seven years ago. Bookstores look more and more to be the saving grace of the comic book industry.

    2. The Direct Market -
    The Direct Market existed before 1981, but clearly, it was the 1980s that the Direct Market became what it is now, which is the main area where comic periodical sales are derived. What is interesting, though, is how little people seem to realize that the Direct Market has had giant effects that are not so easily seen. When the Direct Market came into effect, comic sales were at roughly 25 precent sell-through. In other words, if a comic book sold 100,000 copies, the comic company was printing 400,000, and ultimately pulping 300,000 of them. Therefore, if a comic cost 8 cents to produce, companies were spending 32 cents per each issue sold. With the direct market in place, comic companies could sell 90,000 copies, but not have to produce the 300,000 copies that were pulped (as to why they had to make 400,000 if they did not think they were going to sell that many, it was because that is how many copies the stores would order under the returnability system that periodicals work under), and therefore, would make MORE money selling LESS comics. Because of this, comic companies could afford to spend more money making the comics LOOK good. This is why the coloring process and the paper in comics are so much nicer now. The comic companies can spend twice as much money producing the comics and STILL make a better profit than they did in the old days. This is why comic companies could afford enhanced covers (they’d never be able to afford such covers under the newsstand system), this is why companies had more mini-series, and this also enabled more independent companies to open up, as they had a market they could use, efficiently. Therefore, a good deal of the comic innovations of the past 25 years owe a debt of loyalty to one innovation - the Direct Market.

    1. The Internet -
    Its importance is self-evident; after all, how are you reading this article? The Internet has allowed for fans to have access to so much more information about comics than they ever were in the past, and it has also served as a giant swap meet/comic club, where fans can share their opinions about comics with each other (i.e. bitch and moan). In addition, the Internet has allowed for a level of interaction between fans and creators that would unimaginable 25 years ago. In fact, this interaction is not just between fans and creators, the internet has created a new level of interaction between writers, artists and editors that has provided a brand new manner of collaborating. The Internet has perfected buyers’ ability to purchase comic books. The Internet has become a new arena for artists to deliver their comics to the masses in the form of web comics. Beyond original web comics, the internet is always introducing new arenas of delivery media, and one such new delivery method is downloading scanned comic books. Right now, it is a fairly systemic practice, although illegal. Still, the technology exists for comic companies to use to provide LEGAL downloads, as well (which Marvel has begun to do on their website). The Internet has even caused DC Comics to do away with letter columns, choosing instead to interact with its fans on the internet at DC’s official message boards. With all of these things taken into consideration, it is no wonder that the Internet is the biggest event in comics in the past 25 year.

    Posted by Tim Leong on June 5th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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