It started as a bit of an in-joke with my partner: I would on occasion talk about various comic book topics; when I started on another a while later, the only thing she could remember was the year ‘1986’ and its role in comic book history, so whenever I mentioned another topic, she would say, ‘1986?’ It recurred so frequently, I thought I should look into it; turns out I’m not the only one who has discussed it.
There are two articles from 2016: one at CBR, and one at Vulture; the famed comic book historian Peter Sanderson has written an entire book about it. And those were just the ones that appeared high in the search engine.
Basically, what I’m going to say isn’t news to anyone who has a passing interest in the comic book industry, but I wanted to talk about it because of the personal connection that 1986 has in my comic book reading history.
The Vulture article has a quote from Mark Waid, who knows a thing or two about the history of comic books: “In the world of superhero comics, the pivotal moment wasn’t a specific publication; it was a specific year: 1986.” And he’s not wrong, as the following list of separate items would prove.
At the smaller side of the events of 1986, Dark Horse Comics was created by comic book shop owner, Mike Richardson. There were independent publishers before Dark Horse, but apart from Image Comics, no other publisher has had quite the same impact. The combination of creator-owned work and licensed franchises made Dark Horse a successful powerhouse, so much so that they were able to create Dark Horse Entertainment to focus on film adaptations.
The Aliens, Predator, Robocop and Terminator comic books, to name a few, were successful and did something interesting with the concepts (the Alien v Predator concept would be first hinted at in a Dark Horse comic book) and provided a solid financial basis for the company. Later, Dark Horse would have an extremely long run of Star Wars titles that introduced many elements.
Then Dark Horse would become a home for big-name creators to do their own thing: John Byrne, Walt Simonson and Art Adams would find a home at Dark Horse, Stan Sakai would bring Usagi Yojimbo to Dark Horse; but Mike Mignola would create Hellboy at Dark Horse, and Frank Miller would create Sin City in the anthology title Dark Horse Presents, as well as publish 300 at Dark Horse. All of this started because of 1986.
The mainstream and literary acceptance of comic books would start in 1986 through the publication of the first collected volume of Maus by Art Spiegleman. He had been writing and drawing the title since 1980, but the collection would be sold in book stores, not just comic book shops, and get reviews in the New York Times, thus becoming more successful and introducing more people to the idea that comic books weren’t just for kids – a story about the Holocaust with people wearing animal masks is not standard comic book fare.
Over at Marvel, there were a few elements that contributed to the importance of 1986. The company had been making significant strides for a few years (The Uncanny X-Men was the biggest selling title in the mainstream books, and creators who would become huge names had starting making waves that would ripple out, plus the crossover title Secret Wars would be the first company-wide crossover that would change the way the industry worked), so it’s difficult to pin 1986 down as pivotal for them. However, there are a couple of things.
Frank Miller would write the Born Again storyline in Daredevil, with art by David Mazzuchelli, and the Elektra: Assassin mini-series, with art by Bill Sienkiewicz. Both were great books, with the Elektra title showcasing the sort of thing that comic books were capable of, as well as being gritty without being realistic. Meanwhile, the Mutant Massacre crossover, a story told over several issues of The Uncanny X-Men, The New Mutants, X-Factor, The Mighty Thor, plus Power Pack #27 (a book that took me ages to finally obtain for my collection), proved to be incredibly successful. This prompted the annual mutant crossovers that proliferated and expanded to becoming ‘event’ comics that dominate the superhero comic book industry to this day.
The final but perhaps most important event at Marvel in 1986 was ultimately deemed a failure: the New Universe. Jim Shooter, the editor-in-chief at Marvel comics at the time, wanted to do something big to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Marvel comic book universe as we know it. Because the big concept behind Marvel was ‘the world outside your window’, Shooter’s idea was to repeat that, with an emphasis on it being our world: no superheroes existed in it until the White Event that created superpowered individual, pop-culture references in the books would refer to our world and the comics would play out in real time.
Shooter was promised money and talent to promote and start this ambitious project of eight new titles that were unconnected to the Marvel universe; however, the money was significantly reduced and the big names were siphoned back into the Marvel universe (which is why there are so many different people involved in the early days of some of those titles). Shooter, the instigator and writer/creator of Star Brand, one of the main titles, would be fired within the year, and the three books that weren’t cancelled would struggle on to 32 issues before the plug was pulled.
However, I believe that the New Universe would be the primer for all the subsequent attempts at starting new lines of interconnected superhero comic books, from Shooter himself starting the Valiant comic book line, Malibu’s Ultraverse, Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World, Defiant Comics, even the Ultimate universe – all of them were shown the way by the New Universe.
Finally, the most critical turning points in the comic book industry were happening at DC Comics. And there was a lot going on. This was due to Crisis on Infinite Earths, a company-wide crossover that effectively rebooted the DC universe. It started in 1985, but finished in 1986 and would have wide-ranging ramifications that are still being felt today. (Greg Berlanti, the man behind the Arrowverse of shows of DC characters, has said that Crisis on Infinite Earths is what caused him to take the path he chose.)
DC Comics were a mess of alternate Earths and histories; Crisis on Infinite Earths changed all that. After the series ended, there was only one Earth with a shared history, meaning that the Justice Society of America were active in the second world war and were the inspiration for the Justice League. Not all titles were rebooted but big things happened to the biggest names.
Wonder Woman would be rebooted by George Perez with a focus on the mythology of Diana, princess of Themyscira (no longer using the Diana Prince secret identity), a version that was the basis for the successful Wonder Woman film of 2018. Even more significantly, DC’s lead character, Superman, would be rebooted by John Byrne in the Man of Steel limited series, which tried to restrain the character from the all-powerful god-like character with a seemingly endless array of powers and rationalise his alien nature. He even eliminated the Superboy concept – Superman only becomes Superman and puts on the costume when he moves to Metropolis as an adult – which would cause problems for the Legion of Super-Heroes (but that’s another story).
Batman would have his own special changes: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a huge turning point in comic book history in its own right, as Miller imagined a Bruce Wayne who had retired some 20 years in the future but who is drawn back to being Batman, in the proverbial ‘grim and gritty’ fashion that would become the norm. The success of this title would re-energise Batman and lead to the Tim Burton Batman film; even today, the book has influences, with Zack Snyder essentially trying to recreate aspects in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. A smaller but, to my mind, better and more significant Miller Batman story from the same year was the Batman: Year One storyline in Batman #404–407 later that year, which would look at the early days of Batman; this book would influence the film Batman Begins, but also lead to the ‘Year One’ concept of books that would spring up in its wake.
The most significant moment in 1986 is arguably Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Entire books have been written about this limited series, so I won’t labour the point; just to say that the superhero comic book industry was shook by this book and changed because of it, for better or worse, DC stills sees profit in this book (reneging on an agreement that the rights would revert to Moore and Gibbons) and using the book as the basis for comic books to this day, and it is still the only comic book on the Time’s 100 best books of the 20th century.
As for my personal connection to 1986? Well, it wasn’t reading most of these books – that would come a few years later. For me, 1986 was the year that I started my comic book hobby – as first mentioned in this post. I’m not sure exactly when I first bought The Uncanny X-Men #201, but 1986 was the year when I would start collecting in earnest, with the various mutant-related books at Marvel (as well as a year or so of 2000 AD). I would become fascinated by these fantastical stories and their interconnectedness and the magical way that words and pictures could convey any kind of narrative. I would come to discover Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (and even Howard Chakyin’s reboot of The Shadow, which also happened in 1986 and is a small but significant footnote in the evidence for 1986 as the pivotal year) and many other books that were a result of what happened in that year, not realising I had chosen such an incredible time to discover comic books.