As I browsed through several long boxes of comics in my collection, I began to examine a few of the stark contrasts between the “lighter” subject material found in comic books published before the late 1960s as opposed to the “darker” material found in most books published during the 1980s. At some point during the 80s, comic books became much more mature and graphic in terms of content and subject matter and as I looked through these issues, I began to explore why these darker tones became more prevalent in the books of this era.
Comics have always reflected society in some way or another. How accurately they portrayed the underbelly of society was a different story. During the 1940s, comics and their title characters could be seen rallying around the war efforts in Europe. In the 1950s, these characters became more and more campy as the social “norm” created the need for more wholesome, family-oriented entertainment. This new way of life included the showboating of science (ie, the push-button age) and the “world of tomorrow” approach to spark people’s imaginations for a brighter future.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that a wave of underground comics began to surface. Newer independent companies, which did not always comply with the Comics Code adapted by DC and Marvel Comics, were responsible for publishing many of these books. These new counterculture-based comics, despite not being as widely circulated, began to increase society’s acceptance of adult-oriented comics in the industry.
With the arrival of the “Bronze Age” of comic books, beginning in the early 1970s, there came a huge tonal shift in many of the books already being published. The Comics Code Authority adjusted its stance for the first time in history. This was largely due to Stan Lee having challenged them over the rights to include the usage of narcotics in an issue specifically created due to the suggestion of the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Deaths of superheroes and supporting characters became more commonplace and the creation of new characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider reflected the publics desire for edgier characters. Even Batman began to adopt a darker visage, more in tune with how he was originally portrayed in the 1930s, as opposed to the campier character that many at the time associated with the popular television series starring Adam West. Issues such as child abuse, drug use, racism, radicalism and consumerism were now all being addressed.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, comics truly began to change tone as they became more psychological than ever before. The emergence of anti-heroes such as Wolverine, Punisher and Lobo became widespread overnight. In a sense, all of the values such as “truth, justice, and the American way” became diluted. Society’s perception of the real world began to change and superheroes began to reflect the suspicions and fears that that society began to feel more and more about the world. When the Reagan administration stepped up the War on Drugs campaign across America, it addressed the rampant drug and crime problems that were occurring in the country at the time and this greatly influenced the tone of the world that superheroes were living in. With the emergence of writers and artists such as Frank Miller, Alex Ross and John Byrne, these fears were illustrated in ways that had never been seen before be the average comic book reader. This was a period of time in the industry where characters such as the Watchmen, Man-Thing, Howard the Duck and other began to question the values of society more and more within their pages. Key books such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which sees an aging Bruce Wayne returning to pick up the mantle of Batman once again after violence begins to run rampant in a dystopian Gotham in the near-future, highlight many of the fears and threats (such as corporate control) that were escalating in society at the time.
In a very true sense, the wave of comic books published in the 1980s took the largest step towards accurately portraying emotional realism. The public no longer found it credible that an individual would selflessly use an extraordinary ability unique to them for the widespread benefit of mankind. Instead, the 1980s was a period of time where the reader found it more believable that an individual would launch a crusade against criminals based on their hatred, fear and anger of the injustice prevalent in their society.