Just imagine a single year that saw the publication of two
of the most critically acclaimed titles in comic book history.
A year in which a universe was redefined. A year that saw perhaps
the biggest explosion in independent publishing and the return
of many classic characters. A year that saw some of the mainstream
creators producing their best work. Is it possible for all of
these to happen within one twelve-month period? Well, true believers,
it did. Twenty years ago.
The best year in comics. Ever.
A bold claim indeed. So let’s set the way-back machine
for 20 years ago and take a closer look at the four-color fun
making its way onto the racks that year.
According to my research 407 different titles were published
with a 1986 cover date, most of them continuations of existing
series. There were 183 books carrying a #1 on the cover, including
Airboy, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Classic X-Men, Dark Horse
Presents, Electra Assassin, Elric, Espers, Grendel, Justice
Machine, Legends, Omaha the Cat Dancer, Reid Fleming, Roots
of the Swamp Thing, Secret Origins, The Nam, The Shadow and
An impressive enough list. But then add to it Batman: The
Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen.
Amazing as it seems in retrospect, Frank Miller’s redefinition
of one of the iconic superheroes was published within months
of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ masterful deconstruction
of the whole genre.
Not content with producing two of the most powerful works
in modern comics, the folks at DC also decided that as 1986
was their 50th anniversary, it was a perfect time to clean house.
So was born The Crisis on Infinite Earths, which redefined
half a century of convoluted continuity and laid the foundations
for the modern DCU. Out of this rose a new look at the classic
superheroes, led by John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series.
But before the birth of this new Superman we got a chance to
say farewell to the classic Superman in Alan Moore’s “Whatever
Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.”
While DC was cleaning up its universe, Marvel decided to create
a new one with the launch of the New Universe line of books.
A bold experiment that didn’t catch hold, it perhaps laid
the foundations that made the “Ultimate” line so
successful and that still resonate strongly enough that the
concept will be revisited once again this year.
The Marvel universe of 1986 also witnessed the first resurrection
(of many) of Jean Grey and the return of the original X-Men
as X-Factor, and various heroes were plucked out of their
reality to fight a second Secret War.
But 1986 wasn’t just about the Big Two. It also saw
an explosion of independent titles (mainly black and white)
riding on the backs of those heroes in a half shell, the Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone was looking for the “next
Turtles” and some weren’t exactly subtle about it:
Naïve Inter-Dimensional Commando Koalas. Midly Microwaved
Pre-Pubescent Kung-Fu Gophers. Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos.
And my personal favorite, Adolescent Radioactive Blackbelt
This was also the year that the Disney line of comics returned
to the newsstands thanks to efforts of Gladstone, introducing
a whole new generation of kids to the works of Carl Barks and
the magic of comic books.
Two other significant events that proved essential to the
long-term health of the comic book medium happened away from
the shelves of the local comic book store. For it was this year
that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) was founded.
It has been helping creators, publishers and retailers ever
This momentous year was also the year that Art Speigleman’s
personal opus Maus was collected into book format and
distributed to book stores. This is perhaps the first comics
collection to get serious attention from the trade and the press,
culminating in a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and opening the book
store market to graphic novels.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think that all these significant
events happened in a single year. Yet at the time we had no
clue what was happening. Like most people I just enjoyed that
weekly trip to the comic book store (the late, lamented Forever
People in Bristol, England) picked up my books and felt an excitement
about what I was reading, little thinking that 20 years later
I’d be looking back with both nostalgia and awe.
As I said. 1986: The
best year in comics. Ever.