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TwoMorrows’ history of the American comics industry tackles a creatively fertile period.

Book Review: ‘American Comic Book Chronicles: 1980’s,’ Edited by Keith Dallas

What a difference a decade and a half makes.

The second book in TwoMorrows Publishing’s American Comic Book Chronicles Keith Dallas’ The 1980s shows a comics industry much changed from the one depicted in ACBC’s look at the first half of the 1960’s. Where that volume described a gasping publishing concern struggling to rebuild a flagging readership, the 1980’s were an entirely different terrain – at least for Big Two comics companies DC and Marvel. While their peak sales era appeared to have passed, the two companies posted average monthly sales figures of 2.8 and 5.4 million comics via newsstands and store spinner racks. Not bad, though plenty of industry observers in the day couldn’t help noticing that other mainstream comics publishers weren’t doing nearly as well.

What changed the industry picture – for better and worse – was the eighties’ era birth of the Direct Market: a changing distribution system that led to the flowering of comic book shops across the country. Comic books were becoming a specialty market, comparable to other hobbyist niches, and if at times this shift seemed to work against the art form’s maturation, it also helped keep the industry alive. Concurrently, a comics press focused on both art and industry machinations became more prominent, as did the still newish small press – all of which found a place in the comics shops.

Yet another element needs to be noted here: the generational shift in comics creators. Where earlier comics were crafted by writers and artists who hadn’t necessarily seen comic books as their primary creative outlet (even Stan Lee, for instance, had made several attempts to move into more prestigious newspaper stripwork), the newer crop grew up with ’em and had sought a profession in the field with characters that they loved. This frequently led (and Dallas’ history describes some of the choicer moments) between writers convinced that their take on a character was the only correct one, with subsequent clashes between writers and editors that were eagerly documented in the comics press.

Which brings us to Jim Shooter. If any one figure is prominent in 1980’s, it’s the comics writer who became Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief in 1978. A strong editor charged with reining in what had been described as a chaotic creative environment, Shooter wound up butting heads with a number of the company’s creators, many of whom would ultimately flee Marvel to the welcoming arms of DC. He also, unfortunately, was tasked with being the face of corporate Marvel when beloved comics artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of many of Marvel’s most enduring characters, became engaged in a long legal struggle to get his art returned to him. Dallas’ history takes full advantage of the comics press’ reportage around Shooter’s tenure, which perhaps slants this volume away from the first book’s greater focus on comics content more than some readers might prefer.

To be sure, the eighties had its prime moments of comics creativity, both within the mainstream and in the ever-more-significant realm of alternative comics. 1980’s takes note of these achievements, though it tends to focus on mainstream work (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, et al.) over the indy press. Still, you can’t have a history of eighties American graphic storytelling without acknowledging Will Eisner’s A Contract with God or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, though this reader can’t help noticing that the alt comics periodical where Spiegelman’s opus first appeared, Raw, only receives a cursory mention.

Still, as an era which gave us Dark Phoenix and Love and Rockets, inspired nonsense like Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Barbarian and Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, company spanning game-changing series like DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s Secret Wars, the eighties proved quite fertile for comics. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1980’s captures this juicy chunk of comic book history – and a time when graphic novels became a viable publishing proposition and mainstream comics were more than just feeder sites for the Hollywood machine.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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