Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Whatever Alan Moore tells you, he really didn’t start it

The recent AV Club primer on Alan Moore trotted out an old chestnut, namely that Watchmen kicked of an era of grim and gritty comics. What’s irritating to me about this statement is not just that it’s wrong - said era was already well underway for years – but that I’ve never even seen it challenged. Memories of comics often get foggy about what came before what, but I’m in a particularly good position to remember what came before Watchmen. Like most comic readers I know, I quit comics at one point and eventually came back, but I happened to discover girls leave my childhood hobby 3 months before Dark Knight Returns started and about 9 months before Watchmen kicked off.. My memory should be reasonably clear on what came before the big bang of 1986 and I can tell you the phrase grim and gritty itself had been in use for well over a year, probably more like 3 or 4 years, when I quit.*

The deep roots of the 80’s grit explosion are in the 30’s pulp origins of the superhero traced up through the early 1970s, notably the darker parts of the relevance movement (see the O’Neal/Adams Batman, starting with issue 232, June 1971) and superhero comics creators publishing more violent and morally stark stories (albeit usually not strictly superhero stories) in independent B&W magazines such as the Warren magazines of the same period. The 70s heavy influence by the apocalyptic future branch of science fiction and other darker genres, fostered by the beginings of geek-fan hypersaturation, also helped Petri-dish the first spores of the movement. In many ways, the direct progenitor was seen in early 70’s Marvel with the re-emergence of non-superhero genre comics, especially horror titles (Toumb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, etc., but also Conan, Shang Chi, and the ilk) which felt different from the superhero output of the time but crossed over into it and infected it with its heightened sense of anti-heroism. The first signs of the infection in the main host showed up in 1974-5.

There seemed to be something in the water at Marvel at this time (maybe someone left an Executioner book in the bathroom) when, firmly in the superhero universe, potentially darker, more violent heroes began to emerge: most notably The Punisher (Amazing Spider-Man 129, February 1974), Wolverine (Incredible Hulk 180-1 October/November 1974), and Moon Knight (Werewolf by Night 32, August 1975). Of course, the code hadn’t become a dead dog quite yet, and these characters more extreme tendencies (and the implications of their actions) were blunted and blurred. Despite the obvious repercussions of having a character who slashes at people with knives attached to his arms, Wolverine probably wasn’t even conceived of as particularly dark and Frank Castle shot the bad guys with rubber bullets, for Christ’s sake (some soldier). Moon Knight, drifting as he did through backups in Marvel’s B&W Magazines was the most hardcore in the early going, especially after Adams-acolyte era Bill Sienkiewicz took over (Hulk! Magazine 13, February 1979). But this was just the first signs of redness – the festering wound was yet to come.

The catalyst for the rise of the popularity of the grim and gritty paradigm came with the advent of the era’s superstar comics creators (although, it is perhaps more correct to say they catalyzed each other). This was mostly fostered by Frank Miller and the Claremont Byrne team, but at Wolfman/Perez team, and to a lesser extent Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz are implicated. For a proper discussion, it is probably best to get specific at this point, so here it goes (I’ve organized by character for flow):

Wolverine was the most important single character in this phenomenon. A relatively bland creation out of the gate, and disliked by X-Men writer Claremont, he only started to gel when John Byrne took over the art chores on, and slipped into the co-plotting of, the book. Byrne’s sculpting of Wolverine’s “don’t eff with me, bub” personality, and Claremont’s reaction to it really fascinated readers at the time. The seminal early event in his progression was the character’s explicitly delineated killing of a guard in the Savage Land (I think it was X-Men 115, November 1978, although I might be off by an issue). The killing, which in the story context was portrayed as somewhat necessary was made a bit more unsettling by the look of anticipation on the hero’s face before the act: “I’m going to enjoy this” it seemed to say. Along with the constant talk of berserker rages, and the horror of his murderous potential by the other team members, especially Storm, this was what really got people interested in the runt. Then came the body slam – “Wolverine Alone” (X-Men 133, May 1980) the issue where Logan goes nuts killing Hellfire Club guards left and right, making the threat of uncontrollable violence, only hinted at before, real. But it was the Wolverine miniseries (starting September 1982) that saw the ultimate solidification of the grim and gritty image - not only for Wolverine himself, but for the whole age. “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” Try to say that without clenching your teeth, looking up through your eyebrows, and snarling. Before we move on, it is noteworthy that the Uncanny X-Men of this era also gave us many more grittifying moments including the Death of Phoenix (kill them to show you are hardcore - 137, Sept 1980), Days of Future Past (future dystopia, everyone’s cynical - 141-2, January/February 1981), and Storm’s badass Mohawk angst (turning the gentle caring character into a punk… take that Mary Marvel! - starting 173, October 1983).

Miller’s run on Daredevil, and its fallout, are arguably the most important general element of the gritty revolution. Miller started on Daredevil with just art at issue 158 (May 1979), and had a phase of gradually taking over the writing (with 168’s January 1981 introduction of Elektra being his first solo credited issue). The intervening issues show a gradual seepage into Miller’s trademark brand of grimness - dirty cities, ninjas, and badasses badass enough to outbadass everyone else - with the retelling of the origin (164, May 1980) and the code rejected Punisher story (would have run as 167, December 1980) being of particular note. After 168, though, the world of Daredevil was all Miller, from the re-working of Bullseye into the ultimate grim and gritty villain throughout the run, to the death of Elektra (181, April 1982), to the final publication of the previously rejected Punisher story (163-4 June-July 1982).

Speaking of Mack Bolin the Punisher… the undeniable early 80’s popularly of this character is the hardest to document. The dude that goes around shooting bad guys was considered cool, to my memory, throughout the late 70’s, but it was Miller’s one two punch of Amazing Spider-Man Annual 15 (Summer 1981) and the aforementioned DD163-4 that really seemed to harness what people liked coherently. The trouble is that the Punisher never had a title during the period we’re talking about and, with the exception of the Miller issues, wasn’t that well written. But I can tell you from experience that all the comic readers I knew got really excited at the possibility that he was going to shoot someone in the face.

I should also briefly come back to Moon Knight, who launched his own Bill Sienkiewicz drawn series (November 1980), which went direct sales only with issue 15 (January 1982) because it was, essentially, too dark for the code. It was in these non code issues that Sienkiewicz’s art really began to take on the impressionistic tone he has become more associated with today. One big landmark of Marvel’s grim and gritty era was the spoken-of-in-hushed-tones Bizarre Adventures 31, the “violence” issue featuring work by Byrne, Miller, etc, all working in bloody kneecap mode, in April of 1982.

DC’s publishing style wasn’t quite as conducive to this phenomenon, but it was there to be sure. It took the New Teen Titans 2 months from their first appearance in DC comics Presents 26 (October 1980) to introduce Deathstroke the Terminator (New Teen Titans 2, December 1980), another “I’m the best there is” badass. They went on use him and his psychologically damaged (and underaged) spy Terra in the definitive “intense” Titan’s story The Judas Contract (starting with Tales of the New Teen Titans at issue 42, April 1984) the same month that the group started their own non code approved book with a bunch of more “adult” stuff like satanic rites. The New Titans also gave us (in Annual 2, Summer 1983) the DC version of the Punisher, the Vigilante. Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen started to grim up the Legion with the Great Darkness Saga around May of 1982, and (for his first appearance only – DC Comics Presents 52, December 1982) Giffen’s own Ambush bug really looked like a psychopathic clown murderer in the hardcore Joker mold (he soon became more of an all purpose comic foil). I won’t go into Swamp Thing (gritty since February 1984) because it’s not really a superhero title, doesn’t always have the dark tone, and started kind of late in the game.

The early 80s mini boom in independent publishers was heavily involved in this phenomenon. Matt Wagner’s Grendel, the king of the era’s ultraviolent anti-heroes (utterly without societal morals, Hunter Rose slices anyone in his way apart with his razor sharp double pronged pole arm), first appeared in Comico Primer 2 in January of 1982, alongside other “extreme” kinds of characters with names like Slaughterman. First comics had a few “hard” characters show up in 1983 including Mike Grell’s (of Legion of Super-Heroes fame) Jon Sable Freelance (Mercenary for hire), Reuben (American) Flagg by former semi-hot superhero artist Howard Chaykin (dystopian future law enforcement), once and future superhero creators John Ostrander and Timothy Truman’s Grimjack (dystopian future mercenary), and dystopian future badass soldier/leader Nexus (originally published by capitol in 1981 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, superhero cre… you get the idea). These harder edged characters which, while not superheroes per se, but might as well have been… they all created by superhero creators, wore costumes, had powers or abilities, secret origins, etc. There were many other companies flitting around before the revolution of 86’ that were either all badass all the time (Silverwolf and Aircel spring to mind) or published some extreme characters (Continuity and Renegade). Moore’s earlier seminal superhero deconstructive work Marvelman (Miracleman later when it got to the states) started in Britain’s Warrior Magazine in 1982, and 2000AD was busy producing dystopian future grimness since the 70’s.

The final proof that grim and gritty was firmly established and popular years before Watchmen and Dark Knight, is that humor comics were making fun of these tendencies as early as 1982. What If? 34, Aug 1982, contained gags making fun of the grimness and badassness of characters, Captain Carrot (1982 or 83) had some sequence parodying grim and gritty (I’ve got to pull the issues… I can’t remember which ones it was), and E-Man (First Comics iteration, issues 2-3, May and June of 1983) did an all out parody of X-Men, angst, tough as nails Wolvie, and all. . Last but not least, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984) were first and foremost a parody (or a loving attempt to capture the spirit of) of grim and gritty mutant/ninja comics (Raphael, the mysterious tortured Wolverine analogue, was, at first, the featured character).

I’m not denying that this aesthetic did have a real growth spurt in the late 80’s, but there are multiple reasons besides the popularity of Watchmen for this. Let’s name a few:
1. Artists who were weaned in 1982 started coming into the industry and gained power to dictate what they wanted to do, and what they wanted to do was draw cool stuff, i.e. do something awesome like Frank Miller’s Wolverine.
2. Editorial weakened. Marvel especially started to get more lax about whet they would let through, with a character the Punisher, not allowed to have his own title for years of popularity (because he wasn’t a good guy), suddenly having multiple titles. Artwork that would have been deemed unacceptable a few years ago was allowed to pass, Wolverine was suddenly in 6 titles a month, and a weakening code that let questionable material through.
3. The black and white boom, which started due to the Ninja Turtles not Watchmen, encouraged anyone who could pick up a radiograph to publish whatever they felt like with NO editorial interference. What everyone felt like putting out, apparently, was badly rendered AWSOMENESS (and I don’t mean that in a good way, just as a description of intent) that read like the Turtles or Miller, depending on the presence or absence of fur.
4. The British invasion, which owes a debt to Moore in general, but not to Watchmen any more than any other work of his, led to a number of mostly good writers entering the game who were just coming off of writing dystopian badass future stories for 2000AD. Fill in the blanks: their first superhero comics were g___ and g_____.

The main point I’m trying to make is that Grim and Gritty was a “thing” and had captured the consciousness of 8-12 year old boys long before Watchmen. In fact, gazing at the above list, it seems that 1982 (4 years before Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns) was the watershed year for the phenomenon. So next time Moore says “If I had known what writing Watchmen would unleash…” be a bit dubious, and maybe look at both it and Dark Knight Returns as, at least from one angle, the first meta-commentary on an already existing grim and gritty sub-genre, not the first examples of it.

* It’s hard to pinpoint when I quit exactly, but basic mental archeology seems to place an absolute quit date at around December of 1985, with Dark Knight Returns starting in March of 1986 and Watchmen in Sept. of 1986… In this post, I‘m referring to consistent dates on CBDB and GCD, which I think are cover dates not actual release dates. Also, I can’t document this, but I think I first heard the phrase grim and gritty during the run of the Wolverine miniseries in one of the fan mags like Amazing Heroes, which would date the term to the latter half of 1982.


At 7:27 AM, Blogger Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said...

Hey, when you're right, you're right, and you are right!

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Aaron Strange said...

This is a great argument, w/ good attributions & no hysterics -- If only all comics crit measured up! And smart eye w/r/t Deathstroke's appearance in "Titans."

At 2:51 PM, Blogger The Goddamn Batman said...

I think you're not seeing the big picture here.
You proved Watchmen didn't come out of thin air (nothing does) but it doesn't mean it didn't "cause" the grim n' gritty revolution in comics because it got media coverage like nothing before it and it elevated the medium as a whole, spunning lots of mediocre imitators along the way.
They mirrored the most "flashy" elements in Watchmen though, most of them just the grim n' gritty part, it was a trend before but after Watchmen it became canon.
That is why there is a post-Watchmen era in comics and not a post-DeathstrokeTheTerminator.

My english is a bit rusty right now so apologies for that.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

Hi all! Thanks for the comments. GDBM, I would actually love for someone to make that case in long form, with lists of comics involved. As I admitted, I wasn't around first hand for the post Watchmen period, and can't either support nor refute the specifics of what went on. Most of what I've seen from the era has been TNMT and Miller knockoff B&W books and the poorly quality controled output of the big two, both of which don't seem to be able to be laid directly at Watchmen's feet as much as how popular the grim and gritty aethetic had gotten, of which Wtchmen was a high water mark. My main point, after all, is not that there wasn't a grim and gritty surge after 86, but that it was on top of a horendously popular phenomenon that was kept in check to some extent by editorial caution. It's the "kisked off" that I have a problem with.

Not to belabor my response, but there was a wave of post Miller and post X-Men comics characters. There was no post Deathstroke because Deathstroke was an attempt at harnessing a Marvel style "hard" character. People tended to rip off the originals.

Your "media coverage" idea is interesting too, since I don't really know what you mean (and, hey, that's why I would love someone to write a counter piece). The comics media covered the stuff I talked about, and noted how darker, harder characters were more popular, but I don't know of any media explosion till Wizard showed up (1990?). Maybe I misunderstand. The comics press apparently loved and overcoverd Watchmen, but they did the same on the Miller Marvel books, and the Byrne X-Men.

I think this is probably a semantic lagerheads that we're at. Please, please, I'd LOVE to see any thoughts on the specifics of the post watchmen period.

Cool comments, guys.

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

It's "kicked off," sorry.

At 12:54 AM, Blogger Left Luggage said...

For the prosecution, I present "The One" by Rick Veitch, published by Marvel the year before "Watchmen".

At 3:53 AM, Blogger Alicia said...

I believe the Captain Carrot grim n' gritty parody issue was #12, the debut of Little Cheese. The entire issue is structured basically as a parody of Miller's Daredevil, complete with a Kingpin analogue and a murdered father in the background. It's the only Captain Carrot issue concerned with murder and not more wacky forms of villainy, actually.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger The Goddamn Batman said...

Mmmm I'm definitely in no position to write a counterstatement, especially on such a thorough essay as yours, my knowledge of the period is by no means that encyclopedical pretty much because I was 3 years old when Watchmen originally came out! And the first time I read was when I was twelve (94). But all my favorite comics come from that 85 - 89 period and I understand that the media coverage Watchmen (and DKR) got at the time was different (and greater) because it was mainstream media that covered it (Time, Rolling Stone, etc.). The work was that different. Stephen King talked about it, Tim Burton was saying he was basing his movie in Year One (yeah, sure). What I mean is the mainstream was paying attention like never before, even today (there's a lot more movies out there now, but nobody in the mainstream talks about the source material now). In the mainstream's eyes comics had evolved, and I think they were pretty much right.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Todd C. Murry said...

Thanks, all. That's the Captain Carrrot issue I was thinking of (February 1983), and I forgot about the One (which started at Epic in 1983).

I do remember that Watchmen got mentioned in the mainstream media, and began an era of stuff like Frank Miller's Hard Boiled being in Rolling Stone's "Best of the Year." To strip it down (I sound like a broken record) my point is simply that you can't say something kicked off an era of ____ when_____ had been THE dominant popular paradigm for 4 years.

I'm more concerned with the "street level" here - what it felt like to be a kid and a(superhero) comic fan in 1980-1985, which was to get really jazzed about all the cool, tough talking, grim "heroes" with the underlighting and the first person narration and the operatic deaths and the obscene-father-of-enjoyment villians (although we hadn't heard of Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan yet). At the same time, we were aware that this was silly on some level and easily sunk into self parody (hence we found the actual parodies funny).

With the media attention angle, it seems like you are getting into a area more concerned with Watchmen popularizing the media by bringing new people in who liked grim and gritty or adding legitimacy to the media/sub-genre, which may be related to the increase in volume of grim and gritty in the late 80s but is a little beside my point. I'd go with "Watchmen heralded the peak period for grim and griity comics."

Again, semantics.

Again, I think this might be semantics.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger The Goddamn Batman said...

I totally agree, then.
Great post and great discussion (so far).

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for directing me to your post, Todd.

Re: the "real world" publicity-- my memory's surely as selective as anyone's, but I mainly remember stories about DARK KNIGHT RETURNS getting coverage, not so much WATCHMEN. I guess one could search ROLLING STONE indexes.

I recall citing the ROLLING STONE coverage of Miller at a panel for Jim Starlin in Dallas, probably late 80s-early 90s. He said something I no longer remember about how people didn't appreciate it that his DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL predated all the recent fuss. From the floor I pointed out the salient fact that, issues of quality aside, it was simply a fact that ROLLING STONE hadn't covered TD0CM. He grudgingly allowed that this was so.

Come to think of it, Starlin's influence ought to be cited as well. His WARLOCK, however much cadged from Michael Moorcock, has to be cited in a list of "formerly bright heroes darkened up." And of course he might be cited as the first fan-turned-artist to anticipate Geoff Johns in the fetishization of death.

Raven of NTT should also be mentioned in that her daddy issues are at least suggested in the early tales, the ones not exclusive to comics stores. Arguably she has more kinship with monster-heroes like Son of Satan than with Doctor Strange.


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