The Single Most Important Year in Superhero History Was 1986

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

All week on Vulture, we're examining '80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.

Only one superhero movie came out in 1986: Howard the Duck. Adapted from stories first published in Marvel Comics about an anthropomorphic duck making his way through the world of humankind, the film was a box-office disaster, barely scraping up the $37 million it cost to make. It was also a good metaphor for the state of American superhero fiction that year. The Superman film franchise was drying out and the average person still associated Batman with the goofy Adam West series from two decades earlier. Facing a collapse of mainstream interest, comic-book publishers had largely given up on selling issues at newsstands, opting instead to ghettoize their product in specialty shops. There was little reason to believe anyone outside of geekdom would take superhero comics seriously, either as art or as a source of intellectual property.

Yet exactly three decades later, here we are, living at the tail end of a calendar year where five superhero films have been released and nine superhero TV shows have aired. Taken together, 2016’s movies — Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War, and Suicide Squad — have raked in upward of $4.1 billion, an amount greater than the GDP of 46 different nation-states, with Doctor Strange still to come. Superhero comics are, for better or worse, taken very seriously these days — and in many ways, their ubiquity, popularity, and success were made possible by the events of 1986. Though the larger world took little notice at the time, a series of revolutionary stories and creative decisions in the comics industry during that 12-month period took the concept of the superhero and matured it, reimagined it, deconstructed it, and turned it into a legitimate and lucrative art form. As veteran comics scribe Mark Waid once said, "In the world of superhero comics, the pivotal moment wasn't a specific publication; it was a specific year: 1986.”

The shift in comics that year wasn’t limited to tights-and-capes titles: Most notably, Art Spiegelman published Maus, a Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about his father’s Holocaust experiences, which convinced a generation of intellectuals that comics could be literature, and frustrated comic-shop owner Mike Richardson founded Dark Horse Comics, providing a platform for independent publishers that sought to tell stories in an array of genres. (Dark Horse would also eventually become a powerhouse at publishing work that was later adapted for film,* such as Sin City, 300, and Hellboy). But 1986’s legacy was cemented by products belonging to the super-set, in particular four introductions to the canon: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, the conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the rise of the concept of the permanent crossover event. Between them, a significant portion of the modern entertainment landscape was shaped.

Two of those landmarks were pieces of creator-driven genius from the minds of men who’d grown up reading comics during hardscrabble childhoods on either side of the Atlantic. One was The Dark Knight Returns, written and penciled by Frank Miller; the other was Watchmen, written by Englishman Alan Moore. Dark Knight Returns is a titanic piece in and of itself, but it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that Miller actually cranked out three hall-of-fame stories in 1986. Two were situated in Marvel's Daredevil mythos: a lushly violent saga about the character's murderous ex, Elektra, painted by one of the comics medium's titans, Bill Sienkiewicz, called Elektra: Assassin; and a Daredevil story called Born Again, written by Miller and penciled by David Mazzucchelli. The latter showed its hero brawling his way through a New York City overrun with poverty, crime, and decay. Miller was obsessed with those themes at the time, having recently escaped Manhattan for Los Angeles in flight from the horrors of Koch-era NYC (“One Bernhard Goetz is enough,” he told The Comics Journal in 1985).

But for all the urban paranoia in Born Again, the book barely held a candle to the fears of TDKR. Batman had been a grim avenger of the night in his earliest stories, back in 1939 and 1940, but shortly after that his owners polished him up for mass-market palatability. He reached his sunny apogee in the high-camp Batman TV series in the ’60s, with Adam West’s campy depiction defining the character for millions. Batman’s tales took a bit of a darker turn in the 1970s under the stewardship of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, but none of his stories had been as bleak as TDKR, written and penciled by Miller.

In it, readers watched as an aged Bruce Wayne came out of retirement in a festering Gotham to scowl and monologue his way through an escalating series of battles: first against Two-Face, then the leader of a group of juvenile delinquents called the Mutants, then archrival the Joker, and finally — in a creative move no one had earnestly tried before — Superman. The epic was steeped in eventide blues and grays, and punctuated by delightful one-liners (a favorite: As Batsy cripples the Mutant chieftain, he growls, “You don't get it boy, this isn't a mudhole — it’s an operating table. And I'm the surgeon”). It was a massive success not only among geeks, but also mainstream readers and critics: Stephen King famously called it “probably the finest piece of comic art ever to be published in a popular edition.”

But what other creators found so magical and inspirational about the book was its brutality and cynicism. In the wake of TDKR’s release, a new phrase entered the nerd lexicon: “grim and gritty.” It became the operating principle for at least a decade’s worth of superhero stories, with publishers increasingly putting violent antiheroes in the spotlight: Venom, Spawn, the Punisher, the Darkness. Although Miller’s story was self-contained, the trajectory of Batman’s adventures changed, too: In 1993’s Knightfall story line, Bruce Wayne’s back was broken by a villain named Bane, leading to a vicious enforcer named Azrael briefly adopting the mantle of Batman. But while TDKR had been a densely crafted critique of a United States in freefall and a clever reclamation of its protagonist’s roots, its descendants were more often than not just stories about amorality and murder. It’s too often forgotten that Batman doesn’t actually kill anyone in TDKR, and in fact delivers an explicit condemnation of guns; it should also be noted that there are a lot of well-crafted comedy beats interspersed throughout the narrative.

Nevertheless, multiple generations of moviegoers have lived in the especially dark shadow of Miller’s four-chapter saga. It was a major influence on the six Batman films: Tim Burton’s team took visual cues from it for Batman and Batman Returns; Christopher Nolan drew heavily from it for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight (naturally), and The Dark Knight Rises; Zack Snyder won’t shut up about how important it was for the creation of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which borrowed heavily from TDKR’s Batman versus Superman plot. Before Miller, the average American pictured Batman in his technicolor 1960s incarnation; after Miller, he’s been the angry bruiser who rakes in billions at the box office. We can’t escape. Thirty years later, The Dark Knight Returns is one of the two superhero books a non-geek is most likely to have on their shelf.

The other is Watchmen. Four years older than Miller, Alan Moore was already one of the most revolutionary writers to ever type a comic-book script as of 1986, having garnered fame for British works like Marvelman and V for Vendetta, and then for DC Comics’ Saga of the Swamp Thing. The opportunity for his magnum opus came when DC bought the rights to a set of once-popular superheroes from failing publisher Charlton, such as the Question, Captain Atom, and the Blue Beetle. Moore had a weird notion: What if he took these figures, still recognizable to a not-insignificant portion of the reading public, and really fucked them up? Rape, murder, social upheaval — wouldn’t these sorts of things happen both to and as a result of real-life costumed crime fighters? DC didn’t let him touch the actual Charlton characters, but gave him the green light to dream up some people loosely based on them.

Moore, penciler Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins got to work on a 12-issue story that Moore hoped would be “a superhero Moby-Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density,” as he put it in a 1988 interview. Mileage may vary on whether it’s Melville, but certainly Watchmen was more intricate and ambitious than just about anything that had preceded it in the medium. The story was presented with a staggering degree of visual complexity. The image on each cover was echoed in the first and last panels of the story within. One issue, focused on the character Rorschach, mirrored the panel layout of its first half with that of its second half; each book had Borges-like fictional documents as backmatter; and even the one-word title Watchmen had at least four different meanings. And yet, even if you were oblivious to all those subtleties, the narrative itself was still thrilling — and, to a surprising degree, grown-up.

Though primarily set in the mid-’80s, Watchmen took as its subject 50 years of American history and tragedy. A cynical superhero and Cold War assassin named the Comedian gets murdered and his erstwhile compatriots, in various groupings, set out to uncover what happened to him. Gradually, a secret plot is uncovered and the world is forever changed by a near-apocalyptic event. The book offered political commentary and a dramatis personae of super-folks with deeply human foibles: a tech genius who can’t get an erection unless he’s in costume, a playboy industrialist who flirts with sociopathy, a cosmic Übermensch who sees no point in wearing clothes, and so on. Even more so than The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen provided evidence that superhero fiction could aspire to rise above its pulpy, simplistic roots. Though Watchmen, as with TDKR, spawned lazy imitators — high-profile series like Marvel’s Civil War and DC’s Identity Crisis are examples of stories that used mental illness, political iconography, or sexual violence to lend cheap gravitas — it was in Moore’s book that a generation of readers saw the potential for tragic, understated reworkings of superhero archetypes.

Both Watchmen and TDKR were heavily cynical in tone and theme, reflecting their creators’ perspectives on society and culture at the time. But it was a different kind of cynicism, that of corporate streamlining and synergy, that drove the other two significant developments of 1986, ones that are all too familiar to modern superhero fans: the reboot and the crossover.

As of the mid-’80s, DC had a big problem: Its superhero universe was a mess. In fact, calling it a “universe” is a bit of a misnomer — what they had was what geeks refer to as a “multiverse.” DC had fallen into the habit of explaining away inconsistencies in continuity and characterization that had sprung up over five decades by saying such contradictions were the result of stories having taken place in alternate universes. Eventually, there were too many universes to follow, especially if you were a novice reader.

To address that problem, DC brass concocted a crazy gambit: They’d burn down the house and build it up again. And so, in 1985, the publisher introduced a massive story bearing the name Crisis on Infinite Earths, written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by George Pérez. It centered around a cosmic battle in which the heroes of the various alternate realities banded together to take down a cosmic supervillain. When the story came to its apocalyptic conclusion in 1986, the multiverse was destroyed; in its place, a single, streamlined universe was born. There, characters were relatively young, their backstories made sense, and the world around them felt fresh and modern.

The impact of Crisis was profound; Greg Berlanti, the producer behind five DC TV shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and the in-development Black Lightning) has said the story’s 1986 conclusion was what made him fall in love with superhero storytelling. The flagship story in the new universe was a Superman mini-series called The Man of Steel. Helmed by writer-artist John Byrne, it presented the story of a Superman who soared through the middle of the decade, still youthful and struggling to find his footing. (DC was merciful toward the classic conception of Superman and sent him off in one of the most beautiful Supes stories ever told: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, written by Moore and penciled by classic Superman artist Curt Swan, and also released in 1986.)

The swirl of events and stories created during and after Crisis remains the gold standard for so-called “reboots” — attempts by a superhero publisher to take its fractured (or failing) universe and reconcile it by telling a huge story that changes the fundamental aspects of its reality. Once again, we see a lasting legacy with oft-diminishing returns: DC had reboots or quasi-reboots in 1994 (Zero Hour), 2006 (Infinite Crisis), 2011 (Flashpoint), and this year (Rebirth). Marvel has been more sparing, preferring to operate with half-measures. A few characters were briefly rebooted in 1996 (Heroes Reborn); in 1999, the company established an imprint called Ultimate Marvel, in which their characters were young and unshackled by the burdens of overcomplicated continuity; and an event last year (Secret Wars) reset a few aspects of reality.

DC’s superheroes didn’t have much time to relax in their post-Crisis world, though. The dust had barely settled before another crossover event called Legends began in the autumn of 1986, one that was remarkable simply for being another crossover so soon after the completion of the previous one. Prior to the mid-’80s, stories of that scale simply didn’t happen in superhero comics, much less happen every few months. That changed thanks to a standoffish man named Jim Shooter. He’d been Marvel’s editor-in-chief since 1978 and, in 1984, he’d spearheaded the first major crossover, a mega-tale called Secret Wars. It was a sales sensation, and Shooter wasted no time in launching a sequel, Secret Wars II, in 1985, right alongside DC’s Crisis. Another Marvel crossover event came in 1986, one called Mutant Massacre.

Though that latter story remains a fun read to this day, its significance isn’t in its content, but rather in its very existence. When Mutant Massacre was a success, Shooter decreed that every year would offer at least one crossover event. He was ousted a few months later, but his approach remained. Whether by coincidence or imitation, DC reached the same conclusion in 1986 by following Crisis with Legends. The era of the permanent crossover cycle had begun. It was a brilliant, if somewhat craven, strategy, since a crossover meant that readers of any individual series involved in the larger story had to purchase issues of the other books, too.

Marvel and DC have stuck to the rhythm ever since, with varying degrees of creative success. Sometimes, a big tale can create a thrillingly epic scope. For example, last year’s Marvel event, the confusingly named Secret Wars (which was loosely inspired by the original one, but still wholly separate) was fascinating. This year’s outing, Civil War II, has been a disappointment. Fans speak regularly of “event fatigue,” but the fact remains that these projects juice sales. That philosophy has carried over to Marvel and DC’s film output, which has become fixated on the notion of regular crossover events. The 2012 The Avengers, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War and Justice League — these are all stories whose excitement and profitability are built on the idea that they bring individual franchises together into a frenzied melee. The crossover machine is more productive today than it’s ever been before.

The same can be said about the general superhero economy across its many franchises and mediums. You can’t attribute all of that success to 1986, but the game certainly changed that year. The genre’s single most lucrative character, Batman, is largely the Batman readers met in The Dark Knight Returns. His travails and those of his fellow crime fighters are sketched out by writers and directors who have pulled neuroses, moral quandaries, and perversions first plumbed in Watchmen. The executives who oversee the crossover-laden cinematic universes keep them streamlined (or at least attempt to do so) with aspirations of Crisis-like precision. Much of the playbook was written in 1986, and its instructions are being duly followed.

In a sense, those epochal developments resulted from a kind of maturity cycle for the superhero ecosystem. Every 20 years or so, a generation of creators builds on the comics they read in their childhoods. The genre experienced its first peak in the 1940s, it took a great leap forward in the 1960s, and the writers and artists of the 1980s were uniquely situated to advance their beloved medium to new levels of credibility and viability. Twenty years after that, the next generation of creators, weaned on Watchmen, TDKR, and the rest, penetrated the world of film as writers, directors, and executives, kicking off the superhero boom of the aughts that continues to this day. Comics scribe Brian K. Vaughan told me a few months ago that, over the years, he’s seen a curious development: Early in his career, when he met with producers, they had no respect for comics — but their interns did. As time went on, he’d go to more meetings and those interns would be junior executives; eventually, they were powerful enough to give green lights.

That’s as good an explanation as any for why superheroes swooped in and took over Hollywood in the past decade and a half. The executives, screenwriters, directors, and ticket buyers of today have a tremendous respect for the characters that rose to prominence in the darker, crazier caped-crusader comics of the ’80s. Zack Snyder, Kevin Feige, newly minted DC Films co-chief Geoff Johns — they were gobbling those stories up in that period. Batman v Superman wouldn’t exist without TDKR. Captain America: Civil War wouldn’t exist without the crossover event philosophy. The Berlantiverse of superhero shows wouldn’t exist without Crisis and its aftermath. And so on, and so on. Superheroes as we know them have been around for nearly 80 years, but the superhero landscape most familiar to billions of consumers, which continues to swirl around us, was born, screaming and wide-eyed, in the four-color pages of 1986.

*This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Dark Horse Comics was not directly involved in the film adaptations of 300 or Sin City.