DC’s Second Golden Age

When comics fans talk about “DC Rebirth,” they mean the branding from a couple of years back. But whenever I hear the expression, I always think of a different time, decades ago.

Specifically, it always takes me back to 1983.

Which was a pretty miserable time for me. I’d gone through a devastating breakup with my high school sweetheart, a girl I was so sure I was going to marry that I’d cut off all ties with my family and got myself expelled from college to be with her… and though college expulsion wasn’t part of the plan, I figured we’d just skip ahead to us moving in together. We tried, but Real Life for two 20-year-old dreamers with no real job skills is not a good foundation to build a relationship on, let alone trying to support an actual household. Especially when one of them thinks nothing of blowing the rent money on coke and pills (the one who’s NOT working–yeah, there is still a little smolder of resentment about that, four decades later.)

I’d moved back to Portland for us to get a place together, and we tried for about a year; but it was pretty miserable, no matter how hard we tried to make it seem like we were living the dream. Nothing poisons the romantic happily-ever-after like poverty and the constant stress and fatigue that comes with it, especially when you’re working a shitty job. And her frankly enormous drug problem was a handy cover to excuse my own growing issues with dope and drinking.

Eventually she decided she liked our friend Anne-Marie’s boyfriend better than me and for his part, he was happy to dump Anne-Marie for her. (Anne-Marie and I were the respective breadwinners in our households, which meant we were the ones that were never around, tired all the time, and no fun any more.) It ended pretty explosively and I stormed out, leaving her the apartment. Bitter lonely man going off into the night, music up and out.

Unfortunately, in the movies they never show you the time after that. I’d had no choice but to crawl home and admit I’d been wrong about everything. Because my mother liked to think of herself as a good person, she took me in; but since she really wasn’t a good person at all, she never missed an opportunity to gloat. There was no choice but to take it. I was a roiling mass of anger at the world, and even more angry at myself for being such a fool.

I spent a lot of time grieving with Anne-Marie. Our grieving process generally involved drinking heavily and wishing horrible syphilitic death on our exes. (I have to admit there was a certain bitter schadenfreude a few years ago when I found out the boyfriend had ended up a junkie rentboy living on the streets.)

Anne-Marie persuaded me to try college again with her at PSU and that ended badly for both of us. (I wrote about that here.)

So there I was, a two-time loser at college, barely hanging on, living at home with family that despised me and who I despised in return, a failure at everything. Life was pretty much a trudge from payday to payday. On payday at least I could find Anne-Marie or someone and we could go get hammered.

I had another shitty job, a telemarketing gig. Contracted fundraising, just a half-step up from being an illegal scam. But it paid cash every Friday and talking on the phone was something I could do sitting down and hung over. This was around the fall of 1982 or so.

The phone-bank office was in a ratty old building in downtown Portland, around Fourth and Alder. Walking up from there in the evening to my bus stop, I’d usually stop for a beer if I had money; if I didn’t, I’d kill time browsing the newsstand at the pharmacy till it was time to catch the bus up on Fifth. The place is a CVS now, I think, and the whole block’s been renovated. But it used to look like this.

The clerks were as bitter about their jobs as I was about mine, I guess, so no one ever bothered me about the drugstore not being a library. I’d quit buying comics by then, and sold off the collection for drinking money a piece at a time. Most of my books had gone too. But the old collector’s need to KNOW what was going on was still there; the compromise I’d arrived at was to kind of browse my way along at the drugstore, a half-assed way of keeping up.

So I had a vague awareness of the Great Talent Swap of the early 1980s… when Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Gene Colan, among others, all left Marvel for the creative freedom of DC, while DC stalwart Denny O’Neil left DC for the creative freedom of Marvel. (Former Legion mainstay Jim Shooter was already there, recently ascended to editor-in-chief.)

During high school I had been pretty much Marvel exclusive but I had gotten savvy enough to recognize creator names and so naturally I was interested in what all my favorite Marvel guys were going to be doing to shake up stodgy old DC. But I was still just doing the casual drugstore browse until this cover caught my eye.

I’d missed the Englehart/Rogers run the first time around but in my last year of high school I’d made it a point to track down the back issues. So the return of Boss Thorne, clearly in danger from Hugo Strange (but I thought he was dead?) definitely had my attention. Maybe Steve Englehart was back!

Well, no, he wasn’t. But Gerry Conway, who I knew from Spider-Man and also Hercules Unbound, was there. And so was my favorite Phantom artist of all time, Don Newton. I’d only seen one issue of his from his time at Charlton but that one was enough to put him permanently at the top.

And now he was on Batman and it looked amazing.

The story was pretty good too, and I was definitely hooked by the ending.

I honestly can’t remember if that one was the actual tipping point for me to resume buying the things or not, but I know it was that issue that got me actively interested in comics again. I do remember that by the beginning of 1983 I had a pull box–my first!–out at Future Dreams on east Burnside. The thing that really turned the tide was the whole Robin saga where Dick Grayson gave up being Robin…

…and eventually bequeathed the costume and identity to Jason Todd.

By this time Doug Moench (another Marvel exile that I remembered fondly from the Doc Savage magazine) had taken over the Bat books, and with Newton on Batman and Colan on Detective, they were just rocking it. When Jason officially became Robin it was a payoff to a buildup that had been going on for a year, and it felt huge.

Moreover, for the villain that month, Doug Moench had given us Crazy-Quilt, a character most readers probably had never heard of; but I recognized him instantly, because he was in one of my favorite books from the 100-page era. You may recall from this column a couple of weeks back, the first part of this reminiscence, how much I’d adored Batman #255.

Well, that reprinted Robin’s first time going against Crazy-Quilt, and I loved how Moench had chosen a specifically Robin villain to be Jason Todd’s baptism of fire. Of course Don Newton drew the hell out of it, too.

It hadn’t been that long since Robin had ceased to be Batman’s partner, but it had been long enough that reinstating the concept of “Batman and Robin” felt fresh and new, especially the way Moench was writing it. When I established my pull list at Future Dreams, I’d listed New Teen Titans, Tales of the New Teen Titans, Batman, and Detective. That was all I was going to do, I swore. I didn’t need to get everything.

Except Future Dreams had a five-book minimum for a reserve box. When I shrugged and told the guy I really only was interested in those four, he suggested that since I was clearly a Batman guy, I might like Batman and the Outsiders.

Well, okay.

I grudgingly agreed… and I was seduced one book further back into being a collector when it developed that I liked this title quite a bit.

That double-page spread is actually from the DC Sampler, which Future Dreams threw into my box when it showed up. It was promotional fluff, but it was well-done promotional fluff. And it served to show me that stuff was happening at DC. Of course, I was already on board with Titans, but in the runup to “The Judas Contract” Wolfman and Perez were really tearing it up on that book, and readers honestly had no idea what might be coming next. Apparently it was now okay to make real changes at DC.

It wasn’t just Titans. Lots of old standby books were getting shaken up. Green Lantern…

Swamp Thing…

Even the Legion, which I’d frankly come to think of as one of the dullest DC books out there (except for that brief period when Mike Grell put everybody in groovy bell bottoms) suddenly was looking a lot more dynamic and interesting.

It’s hard to put across how unprecedented and exciting this all felt. DC had always been the conservative company, it was Marvel that took crazy chances. But suddenly it was DC trying all sorts of new things… and they were good.

Amethyst came out of nowhere and blew us all away away with its exquisite craft.

Roy Thomas, whose Invaders had always been one of my favorites at Marvel, was having even more fun with the JSA on Earth-2. And this Jerry Ordway kid doing the art had some real game.

Even the licensed tie-in books had stepped their game WAY up. Star Trek was killing it with Mike Barr deftly weaving the new post-Khan status quo with all the Trek lore that had come before.

His inaugural outing with the Excalbians battling the Organians, and the Enterprise trapped in the middle, was just the beginning.

Even the game tie-in, traditionally a guaranteed lame-o of a book with the worst talent in the office dumped there, was turning out to be really something. A tie-in book in name only, Gerry Conway’s Atari Force was startlingly original… and with Garcia-Lopez drawing it, it was of course visually stunning.

Jack Kirby was back to wrap up his Fourth World saga in a brand-new graphic novel original.

I’d moved to Seattle and gotten sober by the time Crisis on Infinite Earths had taken the whole industry by storm. And 1986 was the year DC owned the comic book field. Of course we all know about Dark Knight and Watchmen and the new Byrne Superman

…but there were so many other cool things going on at DC along with those three. For example, can we take a minute to appreciate the Science Fiction Graphic Novel line?

Especially the breathtaking job Marshall Rogers did on Harlan Ellison’s Demon With A Glass Hand.

DC was doing great stuff with their newly-acquired Charlton properties, too. The Blue Beetle’s book with Len Wein and Paris Cullins was pretty standard, I admit, though I still liked it. But the Question from Denny O’Neil was the best work I’d seen from him in years, and the angular, shadowy art from Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar was a perfect fit.

Cary Bates was doing amazing work on Captain Atom, as well. Pat Broderick was definitely doing his part with the pencils, but it was the writing that was the star. Where had this clever innovative character-rich stuff been when Bates was writing the Flash? I hadn’t thought Bates had it in him (in my defense, especially after the interminable “Trial of the Flash,” I wasn’t alone in that assessment) but every month Captain Atom was better than it had been the month before.

Speaking of the Flash, Mike Baron and Jackson Guice had given him quite the coolness upgrade as well.

I could go on and on. Mike Grell’s reinvention of Green Arrow, the relaunch of Justice League and Suicide Squad, the breathtaking new Aquaman…

It was all so exciting and new, and from DC this was really just unprecedented. It had been at least a decade since they’d been trying this hard on so many fronts. Since I’d quit drinking I’d opened up both a lot of leisure time and disposable income, and I spent prodigious quantities of both wallowing in DC’s new renaissance.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. The huge success of both Dark Knight and Watchmen, a one-two punch of innovation and deconstruction, spawned far too many lame imitators, and grim-n-gritty became the new industry standard.

Alan Moore’s successes with Watchmen and The Killing Joke, in particular, seemed to have everyone thinking this was the way to go. Even though Moore himself had reservations about it.

But for that brief shining time between 1983 and 1988 or so, DC Comics was absolutely firing on all cylinders. That was the real “rebirth” for them, and considering my personal traumas getting clean around that same time, it was something of a rebirth for me too. I’m always going to think of those comics as an integral part of that time. It may seem silly, but I honestly took a certain inspiration from them. Like, if Batman and Superman and the Flash and, hell, the entire DC universe could reinvent themselves, maybe I could too.

*

Julie’s back home and we are settling slowly into our routine, so I think I can finally say… Back next week with something cool.

12 Comments

  1. I’m so glad Julie’s back.
    The 1980s was indeed a cool time. I was rerereading MILLENNIUM a few years ago and when they had a scene where the GLs call all the heroes together to warn about the Manhunters, I was surprised how nostalgic I felt for that era.
    Amethyst was amazing, and nobody’s done her right since Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn left (immediately followed by Giffen’s Everything You Know Is Wrong and Reality Is Sooooo Grim and Gritty reboot). I’m currently rereading Captain Atom, and yes. The backstory on Captain Atom is more subversive than lots of books that actually try to be subversive, and it led to some great stories.
    Mike Baron’s Flash wore out its welcome with me after a while (outside of Nexus I’ve never been much of a Baron fan). But WML made it work — much as I love Silver Age Barry Allen, I’d have preferred seeing Wally stay Flash.
    And I love Atari Force and Conway’s Batman run.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, Newton was definitely one of the best Bat-artists. I’m also partial to his work on Capt. Marvel/Shazam.
    And yeah, the DC science fiction graphic novels were quite excellent, and the Demon with a Glass Hand adaptation is probably the crown jewel of that line.

    As to the New Teen Titans – well, that was a hot title pretty much from issue #1 in 1980. Personally, I think it peaked with the Judas Contract. Not long after that there was a real drop in quality. I’d say issue #50 is a good cut-off point…

  3. DarkKnight

    It’s really a testament to Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano on how they were able to pull DC out of the DC Implosion and basically into the 80’s as this huge creative renaissance. Like you said, all of the creators were firing on all cylinders and that’s why this is also my favorite era of DC. I started with DC in 1992 and when I finally got my first decent paying job in 2001, I went back and bought pretty much everything you mentioned here. I can thank Wizard Magazine for that since they loved all things 80s DC and Marvel.

    As a side note I was really happy to see DC finally put out the Mike Baron and Jackson Guice Flash run in trade earlier this month. It only took over thirty years but it’s here at least.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    Glad to see this era get some loving, as I have championed it for some time, as well as the idea that 1986 was the culmination of Jenette Kahn’s efforts to bring DC kicking and screaming into modern publishing.

    I still say the beginning is 1979. People tend to forget that Jenette was the one who dropped the axe on the DC Explosion and turned it into the Implosion; but, it was a necessary pruning of the garden, to let the good stuff flourish. Slowly, they started to experiment. Not all of them worked; the Dollar Comics gave you a lot of comics; but you were very lucky if at least a third to a half were good and Timewarp didn’t set the world on fire. Still, little shoots were popping out of the ground. I dabbled but was losing interest in many fields. However, more and more, DC would pull me back in. There was New Teen Titans, which was fantastic from the start. I’d sample some Batman and loved Don Newton, who I also discovered on the Phantom (“Mystery of the Mali Ibex.”) I’d pick up that Firestorm guy who I saw in a house ad, pre-Implosion, largely because of Pat Broderick art, and it was pretty good.

    I read about Camelot 3000, in Amazing Heroes, but, had no comic shop from which to buy it; so, that had to wait. While X-Men was one of my few regulars, along with New Teen Titans and the odd Perez Justice League, Roy launched All-Star Squadron, which was WW2 history and the Justice Society & other Golden Age heroes and I was hooked. Then, I came across a recent issue of Legion, something about some dude called Reflecto (Really? Dumb name…), who had a secret and not too much after, Levitz and Giffen took Chameleon Boy, Shrinking Violet and Timber Wolf to the Khund homeworld and Timber Wolf fought a gladiator and kicked his but like he owed him money! Which was then followed by a short piece where Mon-El and Shadow Lass encounter a derelict planet, with powerful defenses that they accidentally trigger. At the end, a shadowy figure wakes up and laughs cryptically. Little did I know I was about to begin The Great Darkness Saga; but, I did know I wanted to get the next issue (On Orando, as Princess Projectra becomes Queen).

    DC used to have a house ad and banners trumpeting The New DC and boy, they weren’t kidding! It all built to Crisis, which not only served to celebrate their 50th Anniversary but take the industry by storm. After that, they were running with it and just launching classic after classic, until burnout and greed killed it. I liken it, somewhat, to the rise of the WWF. They had been a regional promotion, but with major urban markets, which earned them a lot of money, even in the down periods. Father sold out to son, who decided to break out of their traditional boundaries and go national, challenging the regional NWA promotions. At first, they didn’t have much to offer that was any better, other than matches at Madison Square Garden (which is a nice venue; but, Sal Bellomo vs Swede Hanson wasn’t going to create wrestling fans). Then, Vince signed away the top babyface and a top heel, from the AWA and Hulkamania saved the WWF from the Iron Sheik. McMahon started raiding talent and then bought the Georgia promotion and it’s tv show on Superstation WTBS and now had two national cable shows (WTBS’ World Championship Wrestling and USA Network’s All-American Wrestling). They took advantage of manager Lou Albano’s outside gig, appearing in a Cyndi Lauper video, and built an angle that they cross promoted with MTV, which culminated in the first Wrestlemania and they became the defacto national, big time promotion and eventual sole survivor of the Monday Night Wars. Tactics were more underhanded than DC’s; but, the basic premise was the same: overhaul an aged business and modernize and revive it.

  5. TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Implosion says (and they’re fairly persuasive) the culling of the DC Explosion came down from higher up the food chain at Warner Brothers.
    It also points out that Marvel killed about as many books in the same period but that never attracted as much attention.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Well, I think the main reason DC got the flack was because of all the ads trumpeting the DC Explosion, then only to see the mass cancellations so soon after they launched the features. Plus, Marvel had Star Wars keeping them alive, while X-Men and a few other were the big favorites of the growing Direct Market. Had Marvel done the same thing a few years later, after Shooter was becoming the target of fan ire, the story might have been a bit different.

  6. jccalhoun

    The 80s was when I was coming of age and I ate up DC comics at this time. There were so many great comics from this time that it cemented me as a DC fan. Legion of Super-heroes, Green Lantern, Flash, all the other B level heroes were my favs.

  7. papercut fun

    Thank you for mentioning the Star Trek series. Often licensed comics aren’t looked at as “necessary reading” since they don’t fit canon. However, the timing of this series was just before Paramount exercised strong control over the property and Barr was able to create a ton of great comics leveraging regular cast members and creating his own crew members who he could put through the ringer and change through the course of the series. I read the series for the first time a few years ago (I purchased a CD-ROM version of all the Trek comics up to 2008 on Amazon for cheap) and it was great to read these books. They also included the original letters pages and the editor – Robert Greenberger I believe – was enthusiastic about sharing what he knew about upcoming movie rumors and general discussions they were having with Paramount about upcoming stories and characters. You really don’t get that kind of behind the scenes scoop these days.

    This series spanned the time between Star Treks 2 and 5 I believe. So it was also lots of fun to watch them deal in real time with what they knew (or didn’t know) about the future of characters like Spock, make assumptions, and then quickly and neatly backtrack when the movies revealed what actually happened and try to make it fit. Frustrating for readers at the time I’m sure, but lots of fun to read looking back!

    1. I thought the way Barr solved the Spock-returns problem was actually more elegant than the one the movies used…and I think he also proved once and for all, long before there was any thought of a Next Generation, that the real star of the series is simply the concept. “These are the voyages.”

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