The Mundanities of a Seminal Art Movement: Comics in the 80’s

When I was a kid, reading and enjoying superhero comics, before Watchmen changed team superhero books forever, things were a little different. Up until then, the only superheroes who had a private life were grown-ups with boring jobs, and the only superhero with an inner monologue was Ghost Rider, (slumped in a grave yard, with endless thought-bubbles going on about how much of a pain in the arse it is being a flaming skull. We used to mock his emotional wanking, and that solipsistic 1970’s idea that a bunch of teenagers might empathize with another human being in pain – we didn’t). I was reading whatever was fun, different, I wanted my comics with a large dose of escapism (as I still often do).

When things did begin to change, it wasn’t sudden. Books like V for Vendetta or The Dark Knight Returns didn’t spring forth magically from an arid wasteland. Those big name, ground-breaking books of the mid to late ’80’s were the culmination of a shift that had began gradually, and gained momentum as it went. In retrospect, I guess that comic book creators were simply looking at the superheroes of the 1940’s and ’50’s that they grew up with, and seeing what their own take on it would be, experimenting really. But I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking “Is this enjoyable, does it do something so wild and and stupid that I laugh my ass off as my mind is being blown?” I had no idea that I was in the midst some kind of reinvention of the medium, all I knew was that whatever I picked up seemed to be a good time.

It never occurred to me that characters as cool and sassy as Grendel or Penny Century were the vanguards of any kind of movement or shift in comics. I just read them, and enjoyed the fact that they were crazy enough to do this patently stupid job, and enjoy themselves a lot while they did. No one said “Gosh, Penny Century is like the self-aware representation of every female sexual stereotype that exists and she’s embracing it and subverting it. How clever and ironic!”, and I certainly didn’t think it. I just thought “Hey, look at that body! And she wants to be a superhero soooooo much! She’s hysterical. I must see what else she does.” I remember an incredibly geeky fanboy telling me to pick up Grendel, he wore a Grendel t-shirt and had a Grendel pin, and had a Grendel patch on his bag and I thought he was awful, but I still picked it up. You know that Bruce Wayne wishes he were this suave, Grendel was everything superheroes weren’t being and it was gloriously elegant fun.

Somehow in there I got lucky and I read The Shadow. I liked his mismatched, messed up “team”, I liked his goddamn uzi, I liked his stupid nephews, and I really I liked it when buildings went “KABOOM” in brutal, scratchy letters across a double page spread. I’d never read The Shadow before it’s mid ’80’s irreverent relaunch, I had no idea that die-hard fans were appalled at the choices that Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienkiewicz (and then Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker) were making, I just loved it. (Apparently not enough people bought it, so it disappeared. Since no one’s freaking out about that, there’s never been a reprint in trade format, but if I were you, I’d get on ebay and hunt down those sublime back issues right now.)

Back then, when I read something as seemingly crass as American Flagg or Marshal Law, I thought they were extremely entertaining. Delightfully irreverent for sure (though I definitely wouldn’t have put it that way at the time). I didn’t stop to think that they were also a prescient and damning take on all the things that constitute a foreigner’s perception of America, I was too busy enjoying the ride. In the same vein, when Claremont and Sienkewicz started subverting The New Mutants, it never occurred to me that my favorite team book was breaking new ground. I just liked The New Mutants because they were both crazy as hell and they had no choice but to fight. They created the kind of surreal challenges that would’ve knocked Morrison’s Doom Patrol off it’s feet (another fantastically odd take on the genre). But I wasn’t reading it because it was revolutionary or new, I was reading it because it was bloody good, brutal, and strange.

Here’s the thing, it didn’t last. I thought comics would always be as surprising and incredible as Stray Toasters. I thought it’d just carry on that way, getting better and better. But it didn’t, like all art movements, there is a finite amount of time that it can last before commerce and fashion takes it’s toll. I had no idea that this was a kind of a renaissance if you will, but in retrospect, the few comics that I’ve mentioned were part of an incredible time in comics. Everyone’s heard of the big names, but they are just part of a much broader movement that was a sublime thing to grow up with. With hindsight it’s almost obvious, and it makes me wonder what this current era will seem like in 20 years. I know that I’m reading a diverse range of books, and the quality is right up there, but what will it look like en masse, with some perspective and distance from it all in 20 more years?

Sonia Harris has been into comic books ever since it was weird for a small english girl to be reading them (and damn hard to find them). In between reading, she lives and works in San Francisco. Send your observations to for her consideration.


  1. Who looks for all those things when you’re a kid, anyways? It’s not untill you get older and you start to pick apart the books you’ve read in your younger years for nostalgia’s sake, and find all those hidden nuances. That, however, can be a double edged sword, and you find that the stuff you read as a kid was absolute tripe. I wonder if there was anything you read in the 80’s that was at the opposite side of the spectrum? (i.e. – you don’t know why you’ve read such stupid crap)

  2. I’ve read a couple issues of The Shadow.  As a fan of his pulp roots, Chaykin’s take was not to my taste, but the craft in those books is mind blowingly good.  It’s like American Flagg had a baby with an old timey radio show.

  3. Thanks Sonia. Now I have a whole lot of books to hunt down and read. The best articles on this site are the ones where I come away with a ton of books to read I never heard about or would not have bothered to read.

  4. Man do I ever want Sienkiewicz Shadow in a trade.  That’d be awesome.  I think that this time in comics is going to be very fondly remembered.

     These are times when Marvel had a Civil War and Captain America died.

     When DC gave Grant Morrison free reign on the mother lovin Batman.

     When Scott Pilgrim is becoming a phenomenon so big that the movie is being made before the series is even done.

    This is a time when books are comic anthologies are being called "mixtapes", books are published based on Tori Amos songs, and Alan Moore is telling his stories via show tune.

     It’s a great time to be into comics.  I’m having a wonderful time.

  5. I wonder how many readers in their youth, during this period, forget that they weren’t strictly the only people reading. The fanbase wasn’t completely devoid of cognitive thought, much as now.

    Books like DKR might not have immediately been the totemic icons they’ve become, but I’m sure I remember fairly immediate response to their jagged twist on the conventional plodding (plotting?) of the time. Grendel-guy clearly had the fanboy bug, and deserves at least that much credit. Less zealous patrons, I’m sure, were also capable of recognising sattire when they saw it in other obvious, now historic examples.

    The change might not have been "sudden," but I’d like to think it wasn’t unnoticed.

  6. Eighties bollocks. Get a calendar.

  7. Phew, I was worried.

  8. @MikeHaseloff That’s the kicker, I can’t believe that I was so clueless. I’m sure that more mature readers at the time were well aware of how amazing it was (and I don’t just mean in years, I’ve always been extremely immature). I just honestly thought that comics were always going to be that great, it never occurred to me that it was unusual. The 90’s were a bit of a shock, I can tell you.

  9. @soniaharris Hey! To your credit, it’s not like you were preoccupied by shoulderpads and gun holsters. Penny Century had her arse out!

  10. The Shadow was one of the best books of the period.  Grown-up, ironic, hilarious.  It’s sad that so few people seem to know of it.

    The story I was given back then by my LCS owner was that the owners of the Shadow estate didn’t like the "modernising" of the character and pressured DC drop the book.  I think it was actually moderately successfully and it’s demise was not about sales.  A short time later a traditional style Shadow book started and, as far as I’m aware, lasted barely a few issues.  I loved that book and still have the issues boxed in my spare room.



  11. And, even to this day, I love Stray Toasters despite the fact that I still don’t know that I understand what it’s about.

    The 80s were a great time in comics. 

  12. good article

  13. The Kyle Baker Shadow was incredible too….Seven Deadly Finns is one of my favorite comic arcs ever.  Sonia, I agree with both the spirit of your column and almost every book you mention.  I’d add Elektra:Assasin and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing to the list as well.

    80s bullocks get a calendar?!?  Humor?  Derision?  and is that the I Kill Giants Joe Casey?!?

  14. I  bought the complete run of that Shadow series from ebay a few months back, I’ve read a few single issues in the past and really enjoyed it.  May have another crack at the full run tonight excellent artwork by the looks of things.

  15. @Urthona I agree, I think I mention Baker’s Shadow too. It’s definitely as good as his predecessors. And the only reason that I didn’t recommend Moore’s Swamp Thing and Elektra: Assassin is because I mention them fairly friequently in my other articles (particularly here and here).

    @TommyC Yes! Read them, all of them, consecutively. They’re inventive, irreverant and very funny.

  16. Ah!  Yes you did mention Baker…damn, you’re good.

  17. Ah, Marshall Law is a forgotten classic.  Love the character design.

    That Shadow cover by Seinkiewicz is one of my all-time favorite covers.  That, and his Batman 400 cover.

    I’d also recommend Rich Veitch’s King Hell Heroica trilogy, which consists of The One, Brat Pack, and The Maximortal.  Dark and slimy revisionist superhero stories before they were in vogue.  Veitch was one of the pioneers of this movement.

  18. Wow, it’s like you and I hung out in the same store reading the same books. 

    (But, I read Marshall Law for the occasional boobies, hey, don’t judge, i was young!).

  19. Marshall Law rules but I was hoping this article would talk about even for a little some of the Alternative stuff like Lloyd Llweyln and Cerebus.

  20. @ultimatehoratio He did the cover of Batman 400!? Okay, now I know what I’m searching for (always good to have a back issue to want). Will try and find a copy of King Hell Heroica to take a look at sometime…

    @CAM The women in Marshall Law were messed up! You’d have been better off reading Love & Rockets for the boobs.

    @SirCox I didn’t discover Cerebus until 1995 when I had to search out all the back issues in order to get the full picture, but I loved Lloyd Llewelyn. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Check out this beauty, Sonia:

    It’s a picture of me.  No, actually, it’s the cover of Batman 400, which is almost as nice.  If I remember correctly, he did a couple of interior pages, too.

    As far as The King Hell Heroica goes, Bratpack is the most highly regarded and each book in the trilogy is independent of one another.  The One was published under Marvel’s Epic line and had some fantastic covers.

  22. @Sonia Yes, it’s probably true, but black and white?  Not back then!

    Oh how I’ve grown, (in the pants).

    Ouch, that’s…that’s just terrible.