Comics – Evolution or Intelligent Design?

It used to bother me when I heard people talk about the evolution of comic books. The conversations always seemed to slightly demean the books of the past. I have heard people talk about Silver Age books like they were written and drawn by cavemen. I have mellowed a bit on this anger. I realized they weren’t really talking about the evolution of comics. They were subscribers to the idea of intelligent design behind comics. (OXYMORON!)

They talked about the changes in comics as if there was an end goal. That all of comics was heading towards one book. I was raised Kryptonian so I am going to refer to it as the Rao Comic. Feel free to insert your own belief system into the analogy. The Rao Comic would be perfect in all ways. All other books should be criticized for the shortcomings in comparison to the Rao Comic. The Rao Comic will be all things to all fans. All creators are trying to create the Rao Comic. They are all falling short. We are waiting for the Rao Comic.

The truth is there isn’t any end goal. There isn’t any perfect book. The guys who wrote books thirty years ago are just as smart as the writers today. The artists are just as talented. The audience, technology, and the expectations have changed. The comics industry has evolved into a rather ruthless creature. Imagine a nightmarish creature with claws made of variant covers and a mouth full of crossovers. It isn’t better or worse in my eyes. Just different. Different because we are different.

Evolution is a sloppy process. It is process that is enslaved to the conditions surrounding it. The evolution of comics is tied to the market. It is chasing your dollar. In that chase it might go down some dead ends. It could loop around on itself. It can happen slowly or a giant meteor can come crashing down on the industry. None of it really leading necessarily towards “better” comics. Just the comics that the companies think the market wants. There are a couple of these meteors that I find particularly interesting. They sent comics lurching forward but I do have a secret wish that intelligent hands could have guided the process a bit better.

There is Watchmen. The seminal comic book maxi-series by Alan Moore (Thanks Alan!) and Dave Gibbons. There are fans of this series that would particularly enjoy the analogy of a red hot ball of destruction burning away the dinosaurs of the industry. Moore and Gibbons turned the conventions of the superhero upside down. It was an epic shift in what a superhero comic could do. It had layers upon layers within it. The pirate story and it’s interconnection with the main story is true genius. It is a work that reveals new depths each time that I read it.

It didn’t so much burn away all the old stuff as land gently on top of the shoulders of the historical works. Watchmen is built on the tropes of the superhero genre. That is why it drives me absolutely insane when someone picks up a comic book for the first time and it is Watchmen. Watchmen is the peak of an iceberg. If you haven’t read stories about self driven vigilantes then you won’t see the subversiveness of Rorschach’s character. What is the impact of the Dr. Manhattan story line if you don’t have experience with super powerful godlike characters? The book’s impact lies heavily in the history of superheroes. It wasn’t created in a vacuum so it shouldn’t be read in a vacuum. It isn’t the first thing that you should read in comics.

Newer readers often read Watchmen and don’t grasp the impact it had on the industry. I love Watchmen and I read it every summer. There is a part of it’s impact that is completely dependent on context. In that sense Watchmen really wasn’t a meteor so much as an exit on the evolution highway.  It just so happened that everyone decided to take that exit. And stay there. For a couple decades. Watchmen was an interesting twist on the superhero story, not the road map for how comics are supposed to be written for adults. The shadow of Watchmen still looms over the capes crowd today.

Now hold on! I hear many of you yelling, “Tom just wants everything to be like the Silver Age!” I can’t totally argue with that. There are elements of the Silver Age mentality that I wished still existed in comics…and that I think STILL exist in some of my favorite comics. If I could reach back (Krona style) and interfere with the evolution of comics I would protect a few more of the elements. I would design the following:

I would make sure that The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the de facto future for Batman. It is an incredible work of art and I thoroughly enjoy reading it, but it is has enslaved Batman for a couple decades now.

I would snag Jack Kirby out of the past and pay him to come up with fifty different crazy ideas.  Then I would just toss them into the industry every couple years just to keep everyone on their toes.

I would make sure there was only one X-Men book. One Spider-Man book. Three Flash books.

I would make sure that All-Ages never means Just For Kids. Tarot will also still be available. If that is your thing. I am not judging…much.

I would make sure that the Thing still had a team-up book. Seriously. The Thing is awesome.

None of this matters to the evolution of comics. Now I am just trying to make my own Rao Comic industry. That just isn’t how it works. I can buy what creators make and do my bit to nudge things to my own liking, but I can’t make or break the meteors. My major consolation is that none of you can do it either.  We just have to sit and watch the industry get leaner and meaner. Huddle in the Katers Kave and pass me the Essentials.


Tom Katers has no control over what happens in the comics. He did not bring Barry Allen back.


  1. You covered exactly how I feel about Watchmen. I hate when people recommend that to first time comic book readers. Ugh.


    Awesome article as usual.

  2. I vaguely remember Tom alluding to something like this in an earlier podcast, and I severely agreed then. My opinion has not changed (or evolved) since.

    And the Thing is awesome.

  3. As much as I love Mr. Katers take on things, I think he overstretches a little here: "The guys who wrote books thirty years ago are just as smart as the writers today. The artists are just as talented."

     One need only to flip through the wonderful "Official Marvel Index" and read any entry to see that most of the books 30 years ago were created to meet a deadline.  The standard of creative story-telling was pretty low.  And for every Kirby, Kane or Buscema, there ware ten Heck, Perlin’s and Colleta’s.  I would argue that the level of sophistication has risen in thirty years and that we are all the better for it.

    And yes, Watchmen should never be recommended to a first time comic reader.  It is necessary to understand the context in order to enjoy its mastery.  

  4. @QPeeples The deadlines are besides the point, it doesn’t mean they weren’t as talented or as smart it just means they MAY have had to compromise in order to get things out on time.

    Also when it comes to artists we have just as many crappy artists working now including: Greg Land, Salvador Larocca, and the other blatant tracers.  

    Sophistication may have arrived at the expense of fun.

  5. I hear what Quentin is saying, but yesterday’s deadline horses like Heck Perlin and Colletta have modern contemporaries too. 


    What’s most different today is certain books are allowed the expensive luxury of being late for monthly deadlines, unlike the decades before when comics were only thought of a monthly periodicals that HAD to hit deadlines.  

  6. "I would make sure there was only one X-Men book. One Spider-Man book. Three Flash books."

    The X-Men actually have enough members to actually warrant multiple books.

  7. @Bornin Quantity != Quality 😉

  8. "I would make sure there was only one X-Men book. One Spider-Man book. Three Flash books."


    LOL. Amen. Right now there is enough Speedster fun to fill atleast 2 books *cough* monthly *cough* and without vampires. And I also agree with the "Watchmen" conundrum. I’m glad some of my friends are reading comics now, but they got hooked with Watchmen, and I have to explain your Ieberg metaphore to them.


    I’m curious to see where it all goes. If you read a book even from 1990 and the same title today, it’s such a leap it’s staggering.

  9. Great article.

    I also think a lot about how Watchmen is significantly based in reaction to (or sublimation of?) old superhero tropes. Sure, someone who doesn’t know about Golden and Silver Age comics can still appreciate the work, but Watchmen is really so much more than that. Its storytelling is also a riff on the comic book medium itself. This is why I thought the Watchmen film was so flawed: because Watchmen itself is invested in the history and methology of comics…so doing that in film is kind of inherently flawed. (Granted, other aspects of the film made it a decent film, but at heart there was something missing.) I mean, would you do a novel based on a ballet whose subject matter rests on a knowledge of the history of ballet? How about a rap album based on the history of Japanese dramatic plays?

    Still, lots of people I know read Watchmen and enjoyed it, despite the fact that these people know hardly anything about the history of superheroes, superhero comics, or comics, period.

    Wondering whether the history of comics is one of evolution or intelligent design is interesting. Certainly some "intelligent" design is present because the comics companies dictate what they think is best, based on what they offer us. If the companies aren’t "intelligent" in this design, then hopefully the properties will die out as a result of the audience simply not buying them. There’s another aspect, though, in that what suceeds in this evolution isn’t necessarily what’s "best", but simply what’s popular. If the comics company offers it, and the audience buys it, then the comic will be a part of comics for at least the near future.

  10. @QPeeples the importance of deadlines does not diminish the talent of those artists, id say it reinforces them. Creating quality work under those deadlines is much harder than when you have the time to rework until you get it right. Don Heck and Vince Coletta are actually very talented artists. Most of the work modern audiences are familiar withare the rush jobs and the work from their later years. Both those guys could get a book done in a week, Coletta could even ink a book in a weekend. They had to do a lot more work to make a living in the days of poor page rates, no royalties, no original art to sell. I doubt many modern artists could maintain a level of quality under those conditions. Look at how weak Cassidays rushed covers are lately, and when Hitch falls behind and cuts corners its shows. I agree with Tom. The audience, the technology and the demands have changed. Give dave Stewart or Morry Hollowell 64 flat colors and newsprint to work on and they will not produce better work than Glynnis Wein. Give Dexter Vines a weekend to finish 22 pages and see how many backgrounds he erases. 

  11. Not that I disagree on any particular point, but I should point out that evolution doesn’t actually have an end goal. It’s simply change over time. If it were a survival advantage for all humans to suddenly become incredible dolts who are only five inches tall, evolution would happily grant us that. /science

  12. @flakbait I would be a god then…