Life & Liberty: The Comics Grow Up


Do you know who I am, punk? I'm the worst nightmare you ever had. Kind that made you wake up screaming for your mother.
Batman, The Dark Knight Returns

Batman turns 50 this year, and, like the medium that spawned him, he has gone through some enormous changes during the past five decades. The circulation for the Batman comic has more than doubled over the past two years, and a motion picture starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger opens on June 23. The comics industry is also doing well. The number of titles currently published is greater now than it has been for over a decade. Several small independent publishers have broken the duopoly held by corporate giants Marvel and DC for almost 30 years. And just about every city in the United States can boast at least one store specializing in comics.

Just 15 years ago comics looked like a dying art form. The stories were dull and repetitive, catering to the most juvenile of readers. Sales were down, and long-lived titles were being canceled. Even the most popular titles were in trouble. Batman, which had once sold hundreds of thousands of copies a month, had a circulation well below 100,000.

To understand why, we have to go back to 1954. The comics industry was about 20 years old. Several dozen titles sold hundreds of thousands of copies each month. Artists and writers such as Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis were pushing the limits of the medium—devising sophisticated graphic layouts and aiming their stories at teenagers or young adults, rather than the traditional comic-book audience of children. Slowly they were turning comics into a mature art form. Unfortunately, the '50s was also the era of Joe McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower, the Red Threat and conformity.

At a time when the country was looking for monsters under every bed, Frederic Wertham wrote The Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham argued that comics would be the ruin of Western civilization. Through them, America's youth were exposed to pedophilia (Batman and Robin), lesbianism (Wonder Woman), and drugs and occultism (horror comics published by EC). The book sparked a firestorm of protest against comics. Evangelists and holy rollers across the nation blasted comics as godless pornography. That summer, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings to determine whether reading comics would lead young people to smoke marijuana, drink beer, fornicate, and rebel against authority.

Reeling from the attack, in 1954 comics publishers formed the Comics Code Authority to regulate content. Drugs, sex, and black magic were banned. The villain had to be punished by the end of the issue. Heroes had to be noble and virtuous. And religion could never be presented in an unflattering light.

The CCA served its purpose—it got do-gooders off the publishers' backs. It also stymied the development of comics for adults. Writers basically kept telling the same juvenile stories over and over again.

In the 1970s, a new generation of comics artists and writers began chafing under the yoke of the CCA, and a new generation of publishers started to see greater possibilities for comics. Small independent companies like Comico, Kitchen Sink, Eclipse, First Comics, Quality, and Vortex—who were not members of the CCA—began to offer writers and artists greater artistic freedom and ownership of the characters they created.

Soon, DC and Marvel began to lose their best people to the independents. Mike Grell created Jon Sable, an ex-mercenary trying to escape his violent past and start a new life as a writer of children's books. Howard Chaykin, who had been out of comics for several years, returned to First Comics to do American Flagg, a wild cyberpunk vision of the near future. (Chaykin's work on Flagg earned him several Nebula nominations from the Science Fiction Writers of America for best short story). As the major companies lost their best talent, they also began losing market share.

Forced to fight back, Marvel and DC slowly began to allow their writers to move beyond the standard superhero stories and deal with contemporary issues in an adult manner, often publishing comics without CCA approval. Marvel was the first to achieve success with a revamped version of The X-Men. Playing heavily on the themes of self-doubt and alienation, writer Chris Claremont used the familiar super-powered slugfest as an occasion to examine racism, anti-Semitism, and other sources of conflict in society. By combining traditional superheroics with more-thoughtful plots and characterization, X-Men attracted adults while maintaining younger readers. It now boasts a monthly circulation of 450,000, the largest in North America.

But these developments were little noticed by people outside the field until 1986, when DC released the graphic novel (an oversized comic containing a complete story) The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns features a middle-aged Batman wracked with guilt over the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. Alienated from most of his friends, Batman's crusade against criminals has become an obsession.

Miller had previously made a name for himself as the writer/artist of Daredevil. When he took over that series it was near cancellation, but Miller recreated it as a gritty crime comic—drawing upon the prose style of Raymond Chandler, the social attitudes of '70s action films, and the visual style of film noir. In just a few months, Daredevil became one of the highest-selling titles in the industry.

Dark Knight was an equally overwhelming success with comics fans; the first printing sold out literally overnight. For the first time, those outside the field also noticed that comics had changed. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Spin ran stories on the new Batman. Dark Knight was hailed by Stephen King as "the finest piece of comic art ever to be published in a popular edition." It was blasted as "a neo-conservative manifesto" by The Village Voice.

Most of the media coverage, however, focused on superficial elements—the graphic violence, the overt sexuality, and the difference between the Batman of Dark Knight and the Batman of the 1960s television series. The real significance of Miller's work was overlooked by most observers outside the comics field. A mainstream comic had acknowledged that costumed superheroes are vigilantes and tried to understand the conditions that would produce such men.

For 50 years comics fans have known that Bruce Wayne turned to crime fighting because his parents were killed by a mugger when he was a child. But in Dark Knight, Batman's origin is shown in flashback from Bruce Wayne's point of view. We see a gun firing, blood spurting, and Martha Wayne's hand wrenched from her son's as her body falls to the ground.

In Gotham City, random violence is a way of life and teenage gangs rule the street. Liberal politicians try to appease the gangs, and fascist police lash out blindly, hurting the innocent as well as the guilty. In such a world, anyone with Bruce Wayne's obsession with seeing justice served must be a vigilante, must be himself a criminal. Batman tells a congressional committee investigating superheroes, "Sure we're criminals. We've always been criminals. We have to be criminals."

The climax of Dark Knight is a confrontation between Batman and Superman. In the past, these two characters have been portrayed as friends, but in Dark Knight they are just former allies whose relationship has always been uneasy. Superman is Batman's opposite: convinced that the world is basically decent and that with a little aid the system works well. In fact, Superman is no longer a vigilante; he works for the U.S. government. Batman rebukes him: "Yes—you always say Yes to anyone with a badge—or a flag. Just like your parents taught you to. My parents taught me a different lesson—lying on this street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all."

In an interview with Comics Journal, Miller explained that he viewed his version of Batman as a "response to the insanity of our times," a "symbol of the reaction that I hope is waiting in us, the will to overcome our moral impotence and fight, if only in our own emotions, the deterioration of society." Despite Bruce Wayne's own emotional problems, Batman remains, in Miller's view, a "moral force…plainly bigger and greater than normal men, and perfectly willing to pass judgment and administer punishment and make things right."

If Miller updated the concept of the superhero for the 1980s, then the idea was turned inside out by Alan Moore in his miniseries The Watchmen (the title is taken from Juvenal's question "Who watches the watchmen?"). In The Watchmen, the moral order has broken down. The United States has degenerated into fascism, and expansionist policies have brought it to the brink of war with the Soviet Union. Only a handful of former costumed superheroes can save the world from nuclear annihilation.

However, they are not "bigger and greater than normal men." The ethical sickness that afflicts society has also touched these men and women, and they may very well change nothing. Moore's attitude toward his superheroes is best indicated by an aphorism from Nietzsche that he uses in The Watchmen: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

The new comics writers take seriously Lord Acton's observation that power corrupts. While they acknowledge that the legal system does not always work, Moore, Miller, and their peers worry also about the power possessed by their supervigilantes. The constant tension between the noble motives that guide superheroes and the corrupting influence of their power is a vital element of the new comics. The moral black-and-whites of an earlier era of comics have disappeared, replaced by different shades of gray.

Charles Oliver is REASON's editorial assistant.