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Comics of 1986: The Best Year Ever
© Alan J. Porter
February 13, 2006

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.

1986.

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 Usagi Yojimbo.

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 Hamsters.

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 since.

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.

Alan J. Porter is comics editor of RevolutionSF.

 
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