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It’s impossible to overstate how pivotal the ’80s were in the development of comic books. The decade is seen by historians and observers as both the industry’s turning point and the beginning of the art form’s modern age. What’s more, many of comics’ current artistic conventions and business practices were born or super-charged during this time.
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However, just because these mainstays were the standard in the ’80s doesn’t mean they apply to modern times. In fact, some of these hallmarks were seen as bad ideas even during their prime, and they only got worse with hindsight. Some of these tropes are outright gone today or at least toned down, but either way, a lot of good came from discontinuing them.
10 Many ’80s Comics Were Too Merchandise-Driven
Although comics almost went extinct in 1996, the foundations for the devastating bubble burst could be found in the ’80s. Around this time, rare Golden Age comics and more contemporary debut issues like Dazzler’s first solo comic from 1981 sold extremely well, and this convinced publishers to cater to the growing collectors’ scene.
The late ’80s saw the boom of specialized comics (such as first editions or limited editions) and merchandise like trading cards that were made to sell more issues, not advance the art and writing. Today’s comics are still made with the hopes of turning a profit, but titles focused solely on merchandising are fortunately not as prevalent as they were in the ’80s.
9 Secret Wars Was The First Of Many Inconsequential Costume Changes
As big a crossover event as Secret Wars already was, its most talked-about moment was undeniably Spider-Man’s new costume. Spider-Man’s black outfit caused such a stir that, not only did its debut issue sell out quickly (and still does today), but it inspired publishers to give their heroes new costumes to boost sales too.
Costume changes aren’t bad, but they were obvious marketing gimmicks in the ’80s. In fact, Spider-Man had reverted to his old suit by the ’90s, making the original build-up to his Secret Wars makeover almost wasted. Characters still change costumes today, but such moments are given the dramatic weights and longer build-up they deserve.
8 The X-Men’s Success Inspired Way Too Many Spin-Offs
The X-Men have been around since Marvel Comics started, but they really took off in the ’80s. In fact, the X-Men were so successful that their comic splintered into countless spin-offs, including solo titles for popular mutants and new teams for newcomers. The problem was and still is the number of spin-offs, and every other superhero copied this model.
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Everyone from Superman to Spider-Man had tons of spin-offs that only made their storylines more convoluted than necessary. While there were some hits, oversaturation was a real problem. These days, publishers do their best to keep their continuities simple while establishing a clear separation between the main canon and alternate takes.
7 There Were Simply Too Many Superheroes
The ’80s was arguably one of the best decades for superheroes after the Golden Age. DC and Marvel Comics were at the heights of their popularity and sales, and new publishers like Continuity, Dark Horse, and Pacific Comics introduced a host of new heroes and villains. That said, the ’80s also solidified superheroes’ stranglehold of comics.
Fantasy and horror enjoyed resurgences in the ’80s, but they were outnumbered by the sheer volume of superheroes. Newcomers wanted to beat DC and Marvel at their own game, while DC and Marvel doubled down on the hero-loving collectors’ market. Fortunately, the playing field evened out after the ’80s, especially after the crash of 1996.
6 New Superheroes Just Copied DC & Marvel
Part of the excitement of comics in the ’80s was that the superhero genre seemed primed for major change. With the rise of indie creators and creator-owned studios, it seemed as if DC and Marvel’s grip on the genre was finally coming to an end. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case since the newcomers just imitated DC and Marvel.
Comico Comics’ Elementals or imprints like Marvel’s The New Universe didn’t break new ground because they were really just copies of DC and Marvel’s worlds, only with a bit more grit. Thankfully, today’s new superheroes are more distinct than their counterparts in DC and Marvel, making them more innovative than their ’80s predecessors.
5 Character Diversity & Representation Were Lacking In The ’80s
The ’80s were a period of comics’ growing pains, made clear by the era’s lack of diversity. Even though big steps were made with the debuts of characters like Cyborg and Monica Rambeau (the second Captain Marvel) and how the X-Men tackled racism, the superhero landscape remained predominantly white with plenty of room to grow.
As the ’80s neared its end, creators who felt underrepresented split from major publishers to tell stories their own way. This led to the birth of Milestone Media in 1993 and paved the way for more representation in modern DC and Marvel titles. Needless to say, diversity has greatly improved and come a long way since the ’80s.
4 Anti-Heroes Were At Their Edgiest In The ’80s & Early ’90s
Comic anti-heroes like John Constantine are synonymous with the ’90s, but they began in earnest in the mid-’80s. By this time, both readers and creators were tired of yesteryear’s morally obvious heroes and villains, so pre-existing characters like The Punisher and Wolverine were reinvented into edgy anti-heroes, and new ones like Lobo debuted.
Anti-heroes were a much-needed breath of fresh air at first, but as time went on, they became the insufferable norm. Gone were the defenders of justice, and in their place were brutes whose actions bordered on fascism. New and old anti-heroes are still around today, but they’re a vast improvement over those who dominated the ’80s.
3 The Portrayal Of Women Was In Dire Need Of Improvement
Comics are consistently criticized for being something of an all-boys club, and ’80s comics were some of the most damning proof of this sentiment. Female representation in comics actually made some great strides in the ’80s (see: Kitty Pryde), but some of the most egregious missteps were also made along the way.
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If heroines like Elektra and those she inspired weren’t sexual fantasies for male readers, they were disposable plot devices who were tortured for the sake of male character development. A case in point is Barbara Gordon in the infamous comic, The Killing Joke, who was shot and abused to torment her father. This trend was exacerbated in the ’90s, but comics thankfully outgrew it by the turn of the New Millennium following immense backlash.
2 The Conflation of Maturity With Juvenile Edge Was A Net Negative
The late ’80s are colloquially referred to as “The Dark Age of Comics” – and for good reason. The era had a prevalent cynicism and disdain for the establishment, and this manifested in landmark deconstructions like Watchmen or dark stories like Maus. While titles like these showed comics’ potential for truly mature fiction, they were the minority.
Broadly speaking, ’80s comics equated cruelty and juvenilia to maturity, and this imploded in the ’90s. Risqué ideas aren’t inherently bad, but they were so excessive in the ’80s that they felt more like pretentious overcompensation than mature writing. Things later improved, but most edgy ’80s comics like Miracleman aren’t exactly timeless.
1 Comics Strayed Too Far From Young Readers During The ’80s
For better and worse, comic books “grew up” in the ’80s. This was because of a mix of factors, such as comics being pivoted more towards collectors, and a new generation of readers and creators who wanted to validate childhood heroes like Batman by making them more “adult.” In doing so, the industry alienated its core demographic: kids and teenagers.
Not only did this translate to declining sales and the enabling of gatekeeping, but comics also prioritized being seen as “adult” over actually being fun or just worth reading. It’s only now that comics are reversing this status quo, but the “maturity” has been so ingrained in readers’ minds that the course correction is facing steep resistance.
NEXT: 10 Edgiest Marvel Comics, Ranked
^ 10 Short-Lived ’80s Comics That Would’ve Been Successful If Released Now (www.cbr.com)^ Secret Wars (www.cbr.com)^ the X-Men (www.cbr.com)^ Weapon X’s 10 Deadliest Alumni, Ranked (www.cbr.com)^ Fantasy and horror enjoyed resurgences in the ’80s (www.cbr.com)^ Captain Marvel (www.cbr.com)^ anti-heroes like John Constantine (www.cbr.com)^ 10 Batman Comics You Shouldn’t Let Your Kids Read (www.cbr.com)^ the infamous comic, The Killing Joke (www.cbr.com)^ deconstructions like Watchmen (www.cbr.com)^ childhood heroes like Batman (www.cbr.com)^ 10 Edgiest Marvel Comics, Ranked (www.cbr.com)
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