In the late eighties-early nineties, I was getting more and more disillusioned with Marvel Comics. The stories were sort of losing heart, and an increased output of books was accompanied with what seemed to be laxer standards for writing as well as art.
Well, perhaps "laxer standards" isn't the right word for it – there seemed to be tighter editorial reins than in the seventies, which were sort of a golden age for the company in my opinion. I wasn't old enough to get and read the books until the late last couple of years of the decade, when I started ordering back issues from a couple of Swedish collectors and traders and got lots of old comic books delivered home via mail (to my delight and my mother's consternation), but digging into those piles of comics by the likes of Gene Colan, Roger Stern, Frank Miller, Jim Shooter (who wrote some great Avengers stories IMO – I still have fond memories of one where there are so many flightless Avengers that they have to commandeer a bus to take them to the final confrontation with a cosmic enemy hiding out in the suburbs), Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber. Let me just repeat the (to me) most important name of those: Steve Gerber.
Steve Gerber was one of those writers who could be used to define the term "offbeat". He wrote stories not quite like anybody else's, stories about outsidership that emphasized the characters, not the action. They were brilliant – and usually flawed, but still brilliant. Think a seventies Grant Morrison. Or, for that matter, a seventies J. M. DeMatteis, a writer who exploded on the scene in the eighties. (Well, OK, he didn't really explode on the scene, I don't think he had a sufficiently huge mainstream impact for that, but he did for me. I loved his stories, with their flawed protagonists and the forgiving, even loving, perspective he had on those flawed people.)
Anyway, Gerber not only created Howard the Duck and wrote some absolutely terrific stories about this duck trapped on a world not his own (not that his own world was ever really his own, either, but I digress), he also wrote stories that told the reader that you could never be entirely certain about anything, in the Marvel universe or, by extension, in your own universe.
And that characterized the seventies Marvel universe for me. Gerber was just the creator who was most explicit about it.
We talk about the "revisionist" comics creators revitalizing the DC universe in the eighties-onwards – the "British invasion", Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, to a certain extent Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, etc. But we tend to forget that "revisionism", or rather, "chucking everything out the window and starting anew" was not uncommon in the seventies Marvel universe. "Hey, all those memories you have about your youth and origin? They're false, implanted under hypnosis by the Red Skull" wasn't quite the order of the day, but it wasn't uncommon for new writers to drastically remake characters and storylines (and introducing some pretty outrageous stuff like having President Nixon being the head of a plot to enslave America and killing himself when defeated by Cap). This made for a somewhat unstable but very interesting universe. With greater editorial control came a better ability to make deadlines and a more coherent Marvel universe, but also a somewhat less interesting one.
And then came the real downturn. Titles were turned over to people who knew how to tell stories that sold, but who didn't know how to tell stories with real heart in them (and in some cases didn't even seem to know how to write). The art went similarly downhill; competent artists cranking out so many pages that they simply didn't have time to do a proper job, or doing breakdowns turned into final art by inkers who weren't able to provide the magic that full, beautiful pencils can create, new artist being brought in that weren't up to scratch – not everybody can be a John Buscema, or a Gene Colan, or a Mike Zeck, but when you've been spoiled by reading their stuff, you won't be happy with art that just isn't up to snuff.
I'll refrain from naming any names here, as it wouldn't serve any real purpose; suffice to say, I wasn't happy with the art on quite a few of my former favorite titles. I'll give you an example, though: Captain America. After a brief but beautiful run on the title by Roger Stern, John Byrne and Joe Rubinstein – top-notch creators all – the book was taken over by J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck (I don't quite remember the inker, but it may have been Bob McLeod). Now, this was a move from an excellent creative team to another excellent creative team. DeMatteis crafted stories of subtlety, love, drama and melodrama, and the art was beautiful and action-packed. In fact, my favorite Cap moment occurred during this run – a monster has kidnapped Cap's girlfriend Bernie, and Cap comes to rescue her. The monster promptly beats him to a pulp. As the monster prepares to kill Cap, Bernie (who has made quite an impression on the monster) tries to stop him. This makes the monster stop, and think, and he decides that maybe Cap isn't his enemy at all. The monster takes off in order to sit on a mountaintop to think things through properly as Bernie cradles the unconscious Cap's head in her lap. Cap slowly wakes up, and wearily looks up to see Bernie's face, saying:
"Bernie… Are you okay…?"
That scene, more than any other, defines Captain America – and Steve Rogers – for me.
DeMatteis then proceeded to, among other things, tell a multiple-issue story about Cap's gay childhood friend, who protected him from bullies, contacting him again after all these years. (This was way before gay was considered OK in mainstream comics, movies and television.) And then he was replaced by a writer who was more interested in telling stories about terrorists and cleaning up Marvel continuity by having some dark menace kill off marginal Marvel crooks, and who completely lacked DeMatteis' subtle and deeply humanistic sensitivities, as well as his dramatic flair as a writer. The art chores were handled by an artist who similarly lacked subtleness and elegance. The book just died to me.
The same happened to many other Marvel books during what I think may have been called the "Marvel explosion". Writers were brought in who wrote stories superficially dramatic, but lacking all subtlety, and coordinating a lot of titles became more important than actually producing interesting stories with depth. By the early nineties, Marvel was pretty much a mess. DC wasn't a whole lot better, either; Frank Miller had ruined Batman with his brilliant Dark Knight Returns and Year One – his violent, driven Batman was so exceedingly well done and popular that it infected all the Batman stories produced by DC… and those other writers generall weren't good enough to do Miller's Batman without turning him into merely another monomaniacal and brutal action hero. (In fact, even Miller himself wasn't, as shown by his follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again.)
Anyway, that was a pretty long-winded run-up to Tom DeFalco's excellent interview books Comics Creators On Fantastic Four and Comics Creators On Spider-Man, but the reason for it is that I hold DeFalco and several of his interviewees to be among those responsible for Marvel's downhill slide, both as writers and editors. But nevertheless, it's very interesting to read their takes on the characters who have very much defined the Marvel universe, the Fantastic Four and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, DeFalco turns out to be a very good interviewer, asking about the creators' backgrounds, how they got into comics and how they view the characters and the creative process. You also get some interesting snapshots of how Marvel worked in the early days, as well as later on.
All in all, this is very interesting reading but hard to summarize as the creators involved (not just writers but also artists) have such diverse views. Many want to go back to the characters' roots, but they don't always agree on what those roots are. For instance, going back the Lee-Kirby roots of the FF doesn't necessarily mean using their old villains, because they were all about creating new ones, and thus "going back to the roots" could also mean doing just that, expanding the vistas explored as well as the villains roster. (Mark Waid, one of the better writers in the business, makes that point rather explicitly. I found that slightly ironic as I remembered reading his and Carlos Pacheco's Resurrection of Galactus story, and halfway through it realizing why I thought it was merely a decent story but not a great one even though it was so well told: I'd read basically the same story by Lee & Kirby, if not quite so expertly crafted. Just to be on the safe side, I searched that book out in my collection – fortunately, as it turns out, because Waid had nothing to do with it. Never trust your memory.)
Everybody also seems to agree that Fantastic Four is about family, with the exploration theme also being mentioned by several creators.
For Spider-Man, I thought Paul Jenkins had the most interesting take on the character – Peter is a hero because he cares enough to keep fighting, unlike the villains who've chosen to take the easier, lesser path instead. (And if you doubt that that is true, go buy Kraven's Last Hunt by DeMatteis-Zeck-McLeod, arguably the best Spider-Man tale ever told.)
Finally, a partial roster of the creators interviewed: Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, J. M. DeMatteis, Todd McFarlane, John Romita, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, John Byrne, Howard Mackie, Ralph Macchio, Walter Simonson, Doug Moench, Joe Sinnot and Jim Lee. Some really big names in there.
(Note to Swedish readers: I borrowed these books from the Serieteket library in Stockholm, a great resource for comics lovers.)