What comics should Doomsday Clock blame for making superhero comics‘dark or grim’

DC’s Doomsday Clock is pushing the idea that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen is the root of all evil by essentially turning superhero comics into dark, grim and gritty comics. In a sense Geoff Johns (the writer and architect of Doomsday Clock) is sort of right as without Watchmen there’d have been less ‘grim’ superhero comics but only because the superhero comics industry follows a trend.

But this version of history is ignoring the fact that ‘grim and gritty’ was by the time of Watchmen’s publication in 1986, very firmly established. Before I explain it’s best to explain what ‘grim and gritty’ actually is. TV Tropes establishes it as…

A Tone Shift that seeks to make a work of fiction more serious, cynical or gritty.

Superhero comics have always had those elements in them from the early days of Superman beating up slum landlords to the JSA hanging around with kids in the 40’s New York ghetto but for most of the time superhero comics were just escapism, especially in the 50s when after the introduction of the Comics Code anything ‘edgy’ in superhero comics were neutered for years. Yet tonal shifts started happening at DC in the 60’s when in response to Marvel’s more neurotic heroes some of their heroes became ‘darker’. Best known of all these is Batman who went from this…

To this..

In the course of the 1960’s.

The idea of making a character ‘darker’ was a simple, sometimes lazy, shorthand for making superheroes more ‘realistic’ and was such a trope in the world of superhero comics that Moore and Gibbons actually satirise it in Watchmen.There’s even a few lines of dialogue from the older characters in the book mentioning about how the younger heroes are more violent, darker, than they were. Problem is that if you only read Watchmen on a single level this will pass you, so if you read it purely as a simple superhero story you won’t notice the different levels. This appears to be the problem with Johns in that he’s not read it, or gets how superhero comics would get ‘gritty’ when they needed to.

The wave of grim and gritty Watchmen was really talking about was the post Frank Miller Daredevil phase.

The impact Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil is somewhat lost today but he took a character who’d artistically soared when the likes of Wally Wood or Gene Colan had drawn the book, but was at best a second rate character clinging onto his own book by their fingernails. Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter threw an incredibly young Frank Miller onto the title first as artist, then as writer/artist giving Marvel their first real auteur of the 1980’s.

The problem wasn’t Miller’s work which was superb, it was the stuff that tried to be Miller that was on the whole, poor and problematic, as was the work which initially followed Alan Moore’s early American work. Heroes start becoming ‘darker’ in stories where all the creators have taken from the work of Miller and Moore is the violence, and on the whole the work is awful. One exception is Steven Grant and Mike Zeck’s Punisher miniseries which at least tried to do more than just have senseless violence.

And here’s where we get to the point. Johns should be protesting and complaining about but that would mean dissecting his own work, which includes Blackest Night; a story featuring zombie heroes coming back from the dead to do what zombies do.

DC Comics should also turn in on themselves to study their part in creating their own problems with works such as Identity Crisis or the entire failed revamp which was The New 52.The issue with degrading art or going for the lowest possible option often doesn’t lie with the originators but with the copycats who aren’t talented enough or willing, to create something new from inspiring works. Instead they’ll mine certain elements and everyone digs violence and rape right?

DC dug themselves a hole. Doomsday Clock is an attempt to dig themselves out that hole while throwing shite at Moore and Gibbons for having the audacity to create something great that gave DC plaudits and cash, but because DC allowed creators lesser than Moore and Gibbons to turn out lesser material in an attempt to make people think they’re buying something like Watchmen because there’s a hero beating someone’s face off in graphic detail. So when you read Doomsday Clock realise that it’s the act of a company trying desperately to absolve itself of blame and making you excited about it.

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Superman died 25 years ago

1992 was actually a bloody good year. Things were nowhere near as depressing as 2017 but as the Justice League film vaguely entertains people and DC’s piece of Watchmen necrophilia, Doomsday Clock, is due to be released it’s worth looking back at those days 25 years when DC Comics killed off Superman in an event which summed up those times in comics.

Some context; 1992 was a year when comics were still caught up in a massive wave of popularity, and the speculator bubble hadn’t yet spectacularly burst so things that had been building up since comics became noticed by the mainstream in the mid to late 1980’s were now in it’s late capitalism phase. By 1992 Image Comics were a very, very, very large thing with Todd McFarlane’s Spawn proving itself to be simply gigantic in terms of sales which left Marvel and DC trailing in their wake. Marvel decided to pump out mountains of new titles each with variant/gimmick covers (sound familiar?) while DC also did variants, their main tactic was the Big Event and the biggest of the Big Event was the death of Superman. To say DC milked this is an understatement. When Superman #75 was released it came in the standard cover not to mention the bagged edition which came with a Superman black armband.

There was also the scare platinum edition which was exactly the same as the bagged edition but a different colour…

Comic shops were rammed full of people buying the issue just because they thought this was a special issue, but of course us fans knew that it was a gimmick and that Superman would be back. He was back within the year.

The news reports at the time tell the story of a massive possibly profitable comic for collectors and this piece is all about the cash.

And this piece featuring former Marvel editor Jim Shooter and John Byrne hits the nail on the head.

The death of Superman was always a cheap gimmick; probably the cheapest and biggest in an era of cheap gimmicks, but it gave DC enormous publicity, not to mention when the speculator bubble burst, it’d picked up enough readers for it to sail through the worst days of the 90’s in better shape than Marvel who came close to going out of business.

At the time I was working in the industry in Bristol in the vaguely legendary Comics and CD’s on the Gloucester Road, and we had so many copies of this we thought we’d have to eat them. We had boxes upon boxes of them. Some we even had shipped sea-freight (I need to do a blog about how comics were shipped to the UK in detail soon) to us, and we shipped them back to the US where dealers had run out. It was lunacy. In 1993, DC Comics broke Bruce Wayne’s back and gave us a new Batman and the lunacy carried on.

In 1994 the comics bubble finally burst. The speculator boom imploded, comic companies died, shops went bust, and as said even Marvel teetered on the brink yet here we are 25 years on still talking about a cheap gimmick and how the ripples from that event can be seen today.  Last weekend in Kilmarnock I sold a set of the death of Superman that had been lurking for 25 years in a box somewhere because for all the horrible blandness of the comics, they’re still a part of history that’s still ongoing and we have no idea how it’ll end.