Over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the mainstream North American comic book industry peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That sounds like both hyperbole and curmudgeonly old man thinking, when put so bluntly, but the more I think about it and try to poke holes in it — think of the amazing comics available now or there wasn’t a robust book trade back then or whatever, both of which are valid points — the more I realize such arguments are beside the point. The mainstream North American comic book industry was in better shape 30-odd years ago than it is today.
On the face of it, that’s relatively obvious: both Marvel and DC were in dominant mode, in terms of both market share but also output: beyond their core superhero comics, both publishers had additional imprints or titles dedicated to promoting different material that just don’t exist at either publisher anymore; Marvel, always the more conservative company, had Epic Comics and the Marvel Graphic Novels line, which regularly featured creator owned new concepts from Marvel talent, while DC had the Berger books, Piranha Press, it’s own graphic novels line, and random, wonderful oddities like Wasteland or Angel Love or Outcasts.
There was also a far healthier indie scene than we have today, I’d argue, with publishers like First Comics and Eclipse Comics acting in a similar manner to today’s Image Comics but with less of a focus on potential media adaptation and more willingness to experiment and challenge its creators as well as readers. Companies like Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink Press were around to offer alternatives to superheroes in terms of action/adventure strips, and Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, and others (including, again, Kitchen Sink!) were there with more alternative, artcomix material, too.
And what’s more, what’s the thing I keep coming back to is, there wasn’t the naked, blunt focus on the bottom line — whether corporate parents or potential movie or TV deals — that feels omnipresent in today’s industry. Everyone had to stay profitable, of course, but there was still, almost across the board, a willingness — an eagerness — to play and occasionally make dumb decisions for good reasons that just feels absent in today’s market.
Like I said before; there’s probably some element of nostalgia present in all of this, and certainly there are audiences and demographics better served now than way back then. But creatively, I can’t help but feel that the North American comics mainstream was far better off in the good old days. Does this make me old, or just right…?