Tough question, the more I think about it the less sure I am of my answer. First, an answer to this question needs to be framed in the context that we are talking about trends, because it is easy to find exceptions. An answer also needs to cut through the filters of nostalgia. We tend to remember the good and forget the bad. While I can easily name a dozen badly written books from this year, when I think of the 1980s, the books that come to mind are great books like The Watchmen, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, The Dark Knight Returns, Kraven’s Last Hunt, and The Dark Phoenix Saga. The bad books aren’t so easy to remember. But I am reminded of them when I peruse my collection. The 1980s had its fair share of terrible books; more than its fair share.
A complication to add to the discussion is that while the question asked for quality of the stories and defines story as plot and writing, in the medium of comics, the art is an integral part of the story telling. The two really can’t be separated. The artist can define the pacing, the mood, the clarity, and the tone. Printing evolution has allowed the audience to demand more detailed art. Today’s artists put much more time into each page and have more techniques available to them. Because of the influence of independent books, the big two publishers tolerate more diverse artistic styles, today - house styles are less pervasive.
In 1992, the formation of Image Comics gave a boost to independent comics and made them a feasible arena for writers to make a living. That has resulted in a reverse migration. It used to be that writers and artists would start in the independent books, establish a reputation and then be picked up by Marvel and/or DC, where they would then spend their career. That still happens, today, but now there is also a migration of writers and artists away from Marvel and DC into independent books. This is because they want ownership of their creations. With rare exceptions, they can’t really have that with Marvel and DC. So, top notch writers like Greg Rucka start with small-press books, get discovered by Marvel and DC where they become superstars, and then when they get alienated due to lack of control, they leave and go to places like Image. In the last 5 years, that has led to a significant loss of talent to the big two. More books are in the hands of fewer writers.
There has been a power shift away from the editors and artists and towards the writers, over the last 15 years. Writers like Brian M. Bendis and Geoff Johns have great influence over the direction of Marvel and DC Comics, respectively.
In general, stories have become longer form and that has allowed more nuance but also forced more decompression. In the 1980s, there were more one-and-done stories. Today, the expectation is that a story be 5-6 issues in length so that it can be packaged and sold again as a trade paperback collection. On the plus side, we get more longer stories. On the minus side, we get more short stories stretched to look long. Some books that are great reads in the trade paperback form, are hardly readable in single issue form. In 22 pages, almost nothing happens in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, but in 120 pages, a decent story is told.
The 1980s gave us the event book. In 1985, DC released Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was a 12-issue mini-series, but all of the other books in the publisher’s line were required to tie into that book. This introduced the term “red sky tie-in.” It was an annoying aberration then. Today it is the norm. Event books have become a requirement. Each publisher will build their schedule around a couple of key line-spanning stories that may have 60, 70, or even 80 tie-in issues. Only the most powerful writers are able to refuse to participate.
The Comics Code Authority is finally dead, so comics today can go places where they couldn’t thirty years ago.
Overall, I would say that the writing of the average comic book has improved, but due more to the penciler than writer. Few modern books reach the level of quality of the examples I cited in my first paragraph, but the average book is smarter and written for an older audience. But the climate has made it harder for outstanding books, like the ones I cited, to be produced today, by the big two.
Robert Frost's answer sums up a part of my personal perspective but I wanted to go just a bit further. I was hoping someone else would chime in because I feel so old talking about the reduction in overall quality of comics.
But the reduction in quality is not in their production values. Comics are more beautiful than they have ever been. Printed on better paper, colorful in a way the old comic creators would have given a limb to be able to create, they are a visual extravaganza, whose decades of technique can be (not always) shown by the proper artist/writing/editing team of creating works whose like has rarely been seen.
More modern works by George Perez, Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and many other legendary names have been responsible for some of the best and brightest events in recent comics. And yes, I know there are many others.
What had changed for me in the comic industry was the change in the perspective of the heroes and the story themes.
They have become dark anti-heroic versions of themselves. They lack hope, most no longer believe in a brighter future and if there were characters among them that did, (Charles Xavier, for example) they seem to meet an untimely end... (Yes, Xavier has died before...so he may not stay dead.)
The stories in modern comics are patently less cheerful, less hopeful and more about a creeping despair, not a climb toward the top of a mountain of challenges, but more of an inexorable movement toward an unchangeable world whose inertia has become unable to stop its slide toward defeat.
Extreme fans whose perspectives are being catered to have reduced the overall quality of the work for the rest of us. Such catering/pandering seem to effect even the slightest changes to long standing characters such as Wonder Woman who after forty years, still can't get a full pair of pants or a jacket, without incurring fanboy outrage.
COMPARING THE ERAS
The most pressing changes I notice in the comic industry include:
- Superheroes don't fight villains exclusively. As a matter of fact it is increasingly difficult to determine where the line between hero and villain is drawn.
- Is Doctor Doom a heroic villain? Is (was) Wolverine a murderous hero? How about the Punisher? He's killing mobsters who have no problem murdering the average citizen for wealth and power. Is the Punisher the solution or part of the problem. How about Spawn? He fights evil in some of its purest forms, using powers derived from Evil. He uses the same methods his foes use including torture and torment. Ghost Rider does as well. This widening of the grey moral boundary is one of the most exciting thing (to a lot of readers) to happen in comics. I still question if it is good, right or necessary.
- When I grew up reading comics, it wasn't unusual for the occasional superheroic dust-up when two heroes who hadn't met before or when a costume change might cause a mistaken identity and the two would battle before realizing they were on the same side. Then they would bring the pain to the bad guys, who were clearly defined.
One of my favorite comics of the 80s. Marvel Two-in-One was always a bit of a clash of heroic styles and the occasional hero slugfest before getting down to the business of fighting villainy.
- Now? Superheroes spend as much time fighting each other as they did villains. What happened to the brotherhood of earlier eras? What happened to the greater good? Why have all of the stories become about hero on hero conflict?
- I blame Secret Wars, the Beyonder and all of their spinoffs for this trend. Today we have Civil War and a bunch of other superhero conflicts where the ability to tell whose side you should be one is met with a colossal "meh". It would appear the Secret Wars will be making a reappearance in the next couple of years as well. <Sigh.>
- The superheroes don't break up secret cabals, they now become them. DC had an entire storyline where the Justice League mindwipes its members because of a disagreement about how to handle a rapist. Marvel has a group of supposed super-intelligent heroes who plot how to "protect" the world from threats only they can perceive. They even call themselves "The Illuminati."
Marvel's Illuminati - a secret cabal of good guys? When did good guys form cabals anyway?
- There are times when superheroes of one universe might be considered supervillains in another. The Authority, an otherworld version of the Justice League, for a time were some of the most feared metahumans on their world and likely several nearby realities as well.
The Authority: as scary a version of the Justice League you ever want to see.
- Supervillains have now become better heroes than the heroes themselves. Witness both the popularity and effectiveness of the Marvel series: Thunderbolts.
Diversity is a four-letter word...
This transformation in the status quo has left me breathless and hopeless for writing where the characters return to their more heroic lifestyles.
But with all of that visual splendor I mentioned earlier, there are ugly politics of race and gender hiring. The Big Two of Marvel and DC have both come under fire in recent years for their lack of diversity in either of their bullpens as far as regular writers, artists or editors are concerned.
The last thirty years has shown how little diversity there is in the hiring of creative talent and how little the medium's color palette has changed over the decades. While our world has grown more complex and racially integrated such change has not managed to creep into the comics themselves. Marvel's recent efforts to bring in some diversity had resulted in the gender-bending of Thor and the recent forced retirement of Steve Rogers and replacement of Sam Wilson in the titular role of Captain America.
The new, more diverse Avengers...
Comic characters created long ago are generating top dollars at the box office. This has renewed creator's rights lawsuits against comics companies for a slice of the ever-growing pie created by movies and those characters. With money being potentially made not through the comic medium but through television, movies, merchandising and advertising, the comic has now become little more than a gateway industry whose primary mission is to set up other media engines for potential financial growth.
Comics, their characters, their themes, their once revolutionary perspectives have fallen by the wayside, secondary to the the overall need to make money for the corporate bottom line.
There are so many things that undermine what was once a simple pleasure created by individuals who wanted to tell heroic and mythic stories. Even the underlying spirit of the characters has been irrevocably changed:
Compare the perspective on my favorite hero, Superman:
- Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
- Voices: "Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"
- Announcer: "Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands; and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way."
To his more modern counterpart in the Man of Steel:
- Faster than a cruise missile, more powerful than an exploding nuclear weapon, able to span the globe in mere seconds!
- Screams of terror from the ground: Look up in the sky! It's an alien death machine! It's destroying our city! Is he going to save us? It's Superman!
- Announcer: Yes, it's Superman, refugee from another planet whose inhabitants were too arrogant or lazy, we are never sure which, to determine what was wrong with whatever mishap caused their planet to explode. (Planets don't explode unless you are really doing something terribly irresponsible.)
- Building a rocket small enough for one, his parents sent a child whose superhuman potential could have rendered the Earth, desolate if he landed in the hands of the wrong people, Kal-El would grow up ostracized and alone before he decided he should help people.
Kal-El, hobo of Steel
- Discovering renegade Kryptonians want to destroy the Earth, Kal-El chooses to protect Humanity, resulting in the deaths of only millions who will likely revile him and other aliens in general setting up a movie franchise where one of the world's most recognizable icons becomes a character no one wants to admit they actually know personally.
- Superman, angst-filled hero from another planet who has yet to inspire this latest generation to anything other than wholesale destruction of entire cities, the defeat of another Kryptonian threat with the murder (okay, necessary execution /manslaughter) of an enemy more powerful than himself.
- Yes, Superman, furthering the fear the common man has of an alien who looks like them, can fly faster than jets, can destroy entire cities in about twenty minutes and completely unable to be held accountable for his actions, by anyone."
Yep, Kal, I know exactly what you are feeling, my friend.
Yes, this pretty much undermines my viewpoint of these iconic characters for me and makes me long for those ridiculous stories like A Tale of Two Supermen.
My biggest feeling about the comic industry is that it reflects the darkness of the real world, reinforced with the horrors capable of being generated by virtue of being a world of imagination.
Where in the real world we contend with terrorists, environmental catastrophe, and the threat of social collapse as our economies become more intertwined.
In the Marvel Universe, we see this reflected in the collapse of the multiversal membranes and other Earths trying to occupy the space of our Earth, with our finest heroes having to defeat and potentially slay versions of themselves trying to protect THEIR Earth.
No matter how you slice this, someone has to lose and this undermines what comics have always meant to me. The underlying theme in comics, which I managed to bring into my own life was this:
Do your best to find a win-win for everyone. Real heroes don't accept the win-lose scenario. We fight for the best possible scenario for everyone involved. When you are forced to make that choice, the hero sacrifices himself before allowing those without the power, the capacity and the responsibility to make that choice in his place.
Today's comics promote the idea there can be no true winners. Only those who lose a little less than those who lose everything.
I thought the idea of promoting mythic heroes was to talk about how they overcame the odds already stacked against them by being clever, strong, wise, unorthodox or thorough just plain cussedness. Determined to find a solution, not only of convenience but one promoting a future worth having, not just the future we have to settle for.
Sadly, I don't see those heroes anymore. I guess they weren't lucrative enough for corporate America. Marvel has taken a page from the DC playbook and begun destroying pieces of its Multiverse, because nothing makes money like destroying the Universe.
For DC it was Crisis on Infinite Earths, for Marvel, the Incursions taking place in New Avengers. Whatever it is, the story will make money but won't demonstrate the heroism we have come to associate with these heroes when I was growing up.
I see this as the twilight of the comic hero, a being who promoted a perspective there isn't room in the future. One where you could resist the inexorable descent into mediocrity, strive for greatness and recognize it wasn't in the achieving of that greatness that mattered but in the striving.
I'm working as a professional content writer for the last 5 years in a company essay writer.