How I hated new comics during the 1990s (Part One)

Written: 22 October, 1998

I'm trying to understand why I didn't start buying new comics again until 1997. For most of the 1990s, I hated new mainstream (Marvel, DC) comics, believing them to be nothing like the old mainstream comics that I still enjoyed. Today, however, I buy many mainstream comics and in some cases enjoy them as much or more as the ones I grew up with.

I've gone over some letters I wrote to a friend during the 1987-91 period (I borrowed them back) and will quote portions from those letters to better understand just why I felt the way I did back then.

MAY 14, 1989: "Maybe, on second thought, a few minutes after pondering, I shouldn't go to 7-11 & get comics. It'd just be a waste of money. Yeah. Besides, I've enough to read as it is. I have comics at home I've never read (almost complete runs of Marvel-Two-In-One, Powerman/Iron Fist & Micronauts, in fact, which I've never touched). Maybe I should sell all my Spideys, Hulks, Avengers, etc. I dunno. It all seems so pointless. I have a lot of old Defenders & I keep saying one day I should get all the issues I don't have, but who cares? I've (the new) Superman #1-23, but I've stopped buying it. It's just a waste of time & money. I don't rilly care about All-Star Squadron now that it's cancelled (cancellation tends to plague my faves), but I've a lot of 'em. But why bother to get the missing issues now?"

By the early 1990s, I'd changed my opinion on this and actively sought out back issues of All-Star Squadron and Defenders to try and complete my runs. By 1994, I was even buying back issues of Young All-Stars because of it's connection to All-Star Squadron. So, instead of buying new comics during the early-to-mid 1990s, I was buying only back issues of comics that I knew I liked. Why didn't I like new comics, though? Why did I find them unsatisfying? Here's more from that letter:

MAY 14, 1989: [So I went] "into 7-11 & purchase X-Men #247, JLA #27, Cap #356, Iron Man Annual #10, & Action Annual #2." [Until reading this today, I had no idea that I'd bought any of those except the Cap issue! Here's why I don't remember:] "The Action Comic annual looks okay. The Cap comic looks real good, Milgrom made his art look like Simon-Kirby. The X-Men & JLA look okay I guess. The Iron Man Annual looks really dumb, 'cos it's part of a continuing story! Aargh! I'm sending you all of them except the Cap one. God, what a waste of money."

As it happened, that issue of Captain America was the last one that I bought new off the stands until 1994 or 1995, when I bought Mark Waid's first two issues. Why didn't I buy more Caps after #356, if I said I liked it? I'm sure I would have liked subsequent issues even more because a few issues later, the excellent "Bloodstone Hunt" began, which also had a backup serial (and I have always liked when comics have backups). I didn't find out about those subsequent issues until 1997, however, when I started buying back issues. I could have got them new off the rack in 1989. Why didn't I? Perhaps the answer lies in this subsequent assessment of the comic:

MAY 17, 1989: "I guess I should agree with that Dr. Glick on Larry King; here's what's in my latest Cap: young boy kneed in the groin, boy then beaten on back with a stick, young girl hit in stomach by stick, villainess kicked in stomach, children locked in dark cages, villainess kicked in head, dirt flung in face, lines like "Drugs are your friend! Don't let anyone stand between you and a high! Violence is your right!", a group of children murder an innocent man, throwing his body into a fire, young girl gets her neck broken in full panel view by a group of villains who then laugh about it. And then for 4 pages a Captain America without his super-serum body is beaten in the head, in the back, in the hand, in the throat, on the face (not counting 2 pgs. where he's tied up, punched twice & then injected drugs with a syringe), punched in the face, punched by 5 different villainesses at once, kneed in the stomach, & again pounded on simultaneously by the villain esses & in the final panel the 17-year old Cap, weak, unconscious, is gripped by the hair about to be given "one last killing blow!" & that's where the story ends. Whatever happened to the hero winning in the end??"

As the 1980s ended, my enthusiasm for new mainstream comics had waned completely and one good comic was not going to draw me back for the next month's issue. In fact, I soon made this pompous declaration:

JUNE 3, 1989: "DC has rilly sold out. I have here & now decided that I shall never buy a comicbook by the following publishers: MARVEL, DC, ECLIPSE, FIRST, ARCHIE, HARVEY, COMICO, NOW, or any other comics publisher that supports assembly-line production."

This was 20 days before the first Batman movie premiered. Obviously, my vow didn't last long. I know that I bought X-Men #3 in 1991, at least. But for around a year, at least, I probably did not buy any new Marvel or DC comics. I had little money to spend on them anyway, having graduated in 1989 and not having a job for most of the early 1990s.

JUNE 23, 1989: (Batman movie premiere day) "I feel so lost w/the Marvel & DC comics, that's basically why I don't read them anymore. Like I was saying, when I used to read Batman, CRISIS was just winding up, every DC series was getting rearranged & renumbered & it was pretty exciting. You had Moore on Swamp-Thing (and planning to do WATCHMEN), Miller on Dark Knight and Batman for 4 issues, Byrne beginning the Superman mini-series which reintroduced the character, nobody was sure whether Batman had a yellow circle around his chest or not after CRISIS (and here CRISIS was done to END confusion!), so some issues he did, some he didn't, you had the last issue of WW, a 4-issue L.S. [mini-series], & the new #1 all within about 8 months span [actually 12 months]. IT WAS COOL! Then it collapsed. Byrne's Superman got dumb, Miller left to do Elektra: Assassin, WW got too confusing for me, all the new #1's (Flash, JL, etc.) were dumb & the Batman creative team changed so many times & the tie-ins with Millenium so confusing, Moore left Swamp-Thing, & the only good DC comic was Watchmen. Now, the only good DC comic is V For Vendetta. I think V's already over, but I'm missing some of the last issues. On the Marvel front, I stopped buying Cap because of Gruenwald when Cap became The Captain, & I stopped buying Classic X-Men when the Bolton back-up tales got boring, & Thor & Spidey are just getting a wee bit too involved for me. I just want to buy a comic where I don't have to have been following it for the past ten issues to know what's going on. Besides, I'm growing sick of mainstream comics overall; I hate their "product" mentality. So, now the only things I read are Comics Journal and Love & Rockets. ....One of the problems is that I can never get the comics I'd like to get because, even when Comic Gallery [closed comic shop] was around, they're so hard to find. While every comic shop carries junk like Suicide Squad and Doom PAtrol [I've never read either series, by the way], & you can find all their back issues in there, good comics like Raw, Hup, Rip Off Comix, [all three of which I'd never read either] & the like are unbelievably difficult to find. The only place I've ever even SEEN an issue of Rip Off was in one on the shops in Lansing [waaaayy far away] & I've NEVER seen the other two. That's why going to a comics shop isn't such a big thrill for me because I know I prolly won't see anything I want except for maybe a Cerebus or a graphic novel, or a Weird Wonder Tales in the grody comics box, if I'm lucky."

DEC. 5, 1990: "I bet I prolly praised DC a lot [in my late 1980s letters]. Well, I did that because of the DCs being done at the time; 1984 to 1988 was, like, DC's little "DC Age" I guess. They had nothing to lose so they took some chances and they did better comics than Marvel was doing at the time (Romita Jr. on X-Men (ugh!), Secret Wars II, "The New Universe," DeFalco & Frenz on Spider-Man, etc.) (even Cap, Hulk, Iron Man, Avengers, Defenders, Daredevil, etc, sucked at the time & Thor was getting run into the ground by Simonson (he started out good) & Byrne was doing the same to the FF (Byrne's first 25 issues of FF were great; after that, it got stupid!)) In fact, Marvel still sucks! (as does DC now). Maybe I liked Marvel back in the late '70s & early 80s 'cos I was a kid then. Anyway, back to DC: they had Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Stephen Bissette, George Perez, Keith Giffen, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jerry Ordway, Gil Kane, Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Todd McFarlane, Brian Bolland, etc.! I think DC's last hurrahs were Arkham Asylum, V For Vendetta, & Perez's run on Wonder Woman. Now it's over! Around ten of the above names no longer work for DC. They still have some pretty weird titles (Hellblazer, The Sandman, Pirahna Press titles, etc.) and are prolly more "adult" (i.e. trying to be adult by using bad words, extreme gore, sex & naked women) than Marvel in the "Recommended for Mature Readers" line, but their regular "Comics Code Approved" comics look just like Marvels!....So, to summarize, my current feelings are that DC & Marvel & Eclipse & Comico & First, etc. suck. I seriously doubt that I'll ever change my mind about that. What comics am I excited about these days? Mainly Love & Rockets. I haven't seen too many truly alternative comics 'round these parts (the reason I can get L&R is I have a sub!)."

I was still excited about comics apparently, but mainly hard-to-find alternative comics which I rarely got my hands on anyway.

JULY 1, 1989: "I can't wait for Moore & Sienkiewicz to release The Mandlebrot Set from Moore's company, Mad Love. That'll be excellent."

Well, I'm still waiting since I never did see a copy of Big Numbers (what the series was eventually titled). How long can one maintain one's enthusiasm for comics one can never read?

On July 12, 1990, I made a list of good and bad things about various eras and for the 1990s wrote, "No good good TV shows except reruns.... but! lotsa good comics, cable TV, VCRs, CDs, and the fall of communism!!" In another letter around the same time I expanded on my enthusiasm for new comics: "Did you know that we are living in right now what has been called the TRUE Golden Age of comics, 1980-1990? and beyond?) (The 1940s-1970s are nothing compared to today, in respect to comics, since the best of those decades are being repackaged in quality book form & the new comics are better than they've ever been.)" But I think I was referring to the comics Renaissance of the late 1980s; I can't imagine that I was trying to say that current mainstream comics were as good as, say, 1940s-70s mainstream comics. I expressed my fondness for old Marvel and dislike of new Marvel in the following letter:

JUNE 14, 1990: "You once mentioned how you thot early Marvel is better than current Marvel. I think the reason for that is: they only had a handful of titles & a handful of people working for them. They were so small-time compared to DC that they figured they could do unusual characters & not have to worry about wrecking merchandising possibilities. I mean, before Marvel, when did you ever hear the hero of a comic say to the villain: "Huh? Team up with you?! You're nuts! I - Hey, why not? I don't owe nothin' to the human race! They been houndin' me, huntin' me! Treatin' me like an animal! This would be my chance to pay 'em all back! We could -- Nah! Forget it! I ain't buyin' it! The Hulk needs nobody! I can do what I gotta do without you -- I'm the Hulk -- Do ya hear -- The Hulk!!!" (Hulk to Metal Master in Hulk #6!) They could take chances 'cos they had nothing more to lose & they had Ditko & Kirby (...& okay, Lee!) dreaming up original (for superhero comics, post-Code, at least) stuff. Nowadays, they aren't gonna take any real chances (except meaningless ones like changing the hero's costume or having him get married or having somebody get killed off); there's too much money at stake, too many books being done, too much reliance on "continuity," too many editors, etc etc!! Of course, today's mainstream fans can't stand those early Marvels; the art looks "old" & the characters might not be totally consistent with what was later called "the Marvel universe." (Of course, in today's Marvel comics, if Hulk had joined up with Metal Master, it'd become a 5-issue saga crossing over into every Marvel comic, hyped as a major earth-shaking event, etc etc.) Not that it's bugging me; I haven't bought a Marvel comic (or DC, Eclipse, First, etc) in ages & have no intention of buying them in the future!"

I'm not sure I entirely agree with all of this now. I think one of the things I most dislike about 1990s comics is just how far the characters strayed from their earlier incarnations. For example, I'm glad that Doctor Strange is back to his normal self instead of the barely-recognizable version he became in the 1990s. Same with The Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and others. I know that I disliked how big & corporate everything had gotten, how mainstream comics looked more and more like manufactured product than the charming and quirky publications of the past. Comics like Yummy Fur had letter-page text written by hand, and that more down-home approach appealed to me a great deal. (The graphic nature of many indies was not so appealing to me, although such content had begun to creep into mainstream comics as well, and I found it more inappropriate in the mainstream stuff, since they were ostensibly aimed at kids.) Also indies dealt with different genres whereas mainstream comics appeared to be more & more exclusively superhero-oriented from the mid-1980s on. ("Appeared to be." For there were exceptions I somehow ignored. More on that in Part Two.)

OCT. 2, 1990: "...after reading these [1970s] Bullpen Bulletins...were you, say, surprised that so much of them taked about now-canceled non-superhero mags? Tell me if I'm crazy or not: When I read these, I couldn't help but think that Marvel was doing more interesting comics back then [in the mid-1970s] than they're doing now. Do you agree?? They didn't seem to be as superhero-obsessed. I think Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan are the only comics Marvel currently publishes that came out of that 1970-1975 period of Marvel, where they tried to capture some non-superhero markets. Although I'd guess that the issues of Savage Sword from back then are a lot better than the current issues. ....CRAZY had a lot more to offer the occasional, non-fanatical comics reader than WHAT THE--?! has. Personally, I think the 1945-1960 period was Marvel's best, when they published a little bit of every category -- superheroes, horror, romance, humor, western, crime, mystery, science fiction, adventure, monsters, war, you name it. That's why I like real companies better than Marvel & DC. Marvel & DC just publish whatever's popular & cancel it if it isn't popular with the Sidney Mellons of the world. Yet Fantagraphics will publish the popular Amazing Heroes and take the money they made off that & put it into publishing more of the poorly-selling quality mags like Love & Rockets, Graphic Story Monthly, etc.!"

Variety had been important to me for a long time, and that attracted me to both the older comics and independents. Here's an undated bit about my early buying habits:

"I also found 5 pieces of paper from 1984 (?) [when I was 13] of me trying to figure out how many comics I could buy on my $3.00 a week allowance. Here's what was on the list: Haunted Library, Scary Tales, Ghostly Tales, Ghost Manor, Fightin' Navy, Fightin' Marines, Battlefield Action, Conan, Mighty Crusaders, Original Shield, The Fly, Archie & Me, Jughead, Nick Carter Killmaster [not a comic, a paperback novel series], Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Dr. Strange. Wow, those were all the books I used to buy back then."

And, of course, over half of those titles were not being published by the late 1980s. (Heck, nine of them were gone by 1985!)

MAY 5, 1991: "I've been rereading my Comics Journals again & getting back into the "alternative comics" spirit. Here are a whole bunch of comix I want to try next time I go to [local comics shop]: American Splendor by H. Pekar (current ish is #15), Arcade back issues (1970s), Big Numbers by A. Moore & B. Sienkiewicz, Dirty Plotte ($2.50), Drawn & Quarterly ($3.75), Eightball, Hate, Palooka-ville by Seth ($2.50)," [etc., etc.]...Of course, a lot of those won't be at [local comics shop]."

I was still going to comic shops looking for new alternative stuff in 1989-91, but rarely finding new comics worth buying.

NOV. 8, 1989: "I went to Book Bin [local comics shop] today; they're 25-cent thing sucked, so here's what I ended up getting: Warlock Special Edition #4 ($1.00), Ms. Marvel #17 (25 cents), Strange Suspense Stories #66 (Charlton 1963 issue, $1.00), Tower of Shadows #8 (Marvel, $1.00), Defenders #42 (50 cents), 57-60, 67, 68 ($1.00 each). Believe it or not, that Ms. Marvel ish & an issue of NOVA were the only "old" Marvels in the 25-cent boxes! Everything was failed new stuff. If I had wanted to, I'm sure I could have bought up a whole collection of Power Pack, Alpha Flight, & the New Universe titles for under $10.00! While I was there two guys my age came in, buying comics & -- I felt like I was "slumming" actually buying, y'now, superhero comics, even if they are better than current superhero comics -- and I overheard the two guys talk about some comic & the other goes "Yeah, well, I don't buy DCs" & the other says "Oh, well, me neither, but this one was a good one..." It's like... what morons. I thought 1986 had changed all that. It's like I told you before, Book bin exists in a time warp where 1986 never happened! It's weird."

"1986" being my way of indicating the Renaissance of comics that took place in the mid-to-late 1980s, where DC stole Marvel's crown and indie titles were popping up all over. Reading this now, I have to wonder why I was so hard on those two fellow fans considering that I didn't consider myself a DC reader then either. Who knows, maybe they were fellow alternative comics fans who wouldn't stoop to read a mainstream comic! And about the 25-cent boxes being filled with so much "failed new stuff," this is the same shop that I now visit to acquire recent comics in their 5 for $2 boxes. Their cheap boxes are filled with new stuff, which now I consider a good cheap way to get new stuff but back then considered stuff to flip past and ignore.

OCT. 2, 1989: "....Whereas I used to buy Marvels & DCs every time I went to Lawsons [nearby 7-11 type store], since LAwsons closed, I've stopped buying them & neither company holds any interest for me WHATSOEVER, ever since I've been buying more independent comics. Oh, by the way, there's a difference between "independents" like Eclipse, First, Now, Dark Horse, Comico, etc. which are more like DC or Marvel than independents (REAL independents) like Catalan, Raw, Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, Kitchen Sink, Rip Off, etc. which have practically no similarity to Marvel, DC, Eclipse, Dark Horse, etc.-type books."

I guess I saw the companies like Eclipse as becoming too commercial, having work-made-for-hire, licensed properties, etc., unlike the companies like Fantagraphics. But then Eclipse & First died off anyway, and Fantagraphics entered the licensed property/work-made-for-hire arena with King Kong (under their Monster Comics label). So this kind of distinction eventually became unimportant to me. Besides, I knew how silly it was to buy (or not buy) comics based simply on the company that published them, since I'd deplored that attitude which I witnessed among those two non-DC fans.

A friend of mine still bought Marvel & DC comics, although he stopped around 1991 or so (although he works in a comics shop today). In October, 1990, I stopped by this friend's house and noted: "I was surprised; he had recent issues of various DCs & Marvels lying around -- I haven't seen a recent DC or Marvel in ages -- but they were the same old Marvel/DC superhero tripe. Can't see why he wastes time on it."

Later that month, I found myself thrilled at at least one development in the mainstream comics scene.

Oct. 20, 1990: "But while at Waldenbooks, I saw a comic called WEIRD SCIENCE! Could it be, I thought... YES! Gladstone is reprinting EC COMICS! So I bought the issue of Weird Science" [and then went to Book Bin, a nearby comics shop]. "Book Bin is incredibly mainstream-oriented, but I wanted to go for two reasons: a.) I figured they'd have the latest [Comics] Journal, and b.) They'd probably have some more Gladstone EC reprints there! Well, we went there & after looking around I asked the guy if they carried The Comics Journal; he gave me a blank expression & said "No." Then I asked if they had any Gladstone EC reprints & another guy behind the counter goes "Like Tales from the Crypt? It's over there on that shelf!" Sure enough, there was a copy of Crypt and The Vault of Horror so I bought 'em & left. ...I haven't been this excited about a mainstream comic since... prolly since Watchmen!!"

So, why didn't I keep on buying these reprints? Well, soon the science-fiction title got cancelled and it was all horror. Sure, they did absorb the sci-fi and crime comics into the horror ones, but even then it didn't last long. By like 1992-94, Russ Cochran was releasing the issues in normal-length format but again it started off mostly with the horror stuff. And, here's what I had to say about EC horror a few years before:

JUNE 26, 1987: "And I sent you a horror EC cuz I don't really like horror ECs. I discovered that the only ECs I'm crazy about are Crime, Shock Suspenstories, and Science Fiction ECs."

So...I didn't get really enthusiastic until more recently, when I started picking up the more obscure non-horror EC reprints, such as the titles I champion today like Piracy and Valor! I'm sure that if Piracy and Valor had been coming out every month back then, as they were in 1998, then I'd have bought them with the same enthusiasm as I do today. Or maybe not! I didn't have much spending money back then and could be kinda screwy sometimes in my opinions!

I'm going to be buying Spider-Man regularly again, because of the reboot, for the first time since 1989, when I gave up on buying new issues of that character. So, why am I buying Spidey again now? Maybe because Marvel took my advice from almost ten years before!:

NOV 8, 1989: "You don't know how happy it makes me to hear you say that you prefer Ditko's Spidey to current Spidey. Marvel has been squeezing everything it can out of Ditko's Spidey for the past 10 years! I don't know how long it can go on without some sort of "redefinition" or "back to the basics" approach. That's what Byrne did with the FF & it rilly helped the title, but as soon as he leaves some Marvel hacks who are just there doing "a job" crank out such lousy bulls**t & start up again everything Byrne was trying to fight. It's so unproductive. At the very least, I think Marvel should only let Spiderman have one monthly comic: The Amazing Spider-Man & then have somebody who'll take their time & do a good job write and/or draw it. Byrne'd be a good choice, but after he left the FF (& a little bit when he was doing FF), he stopped caring & just churned it out & it stank & it showed (his Superman is a "superb" demonstration of how badly Byrne has deteriorated in the past few years)."

Man, I must be able to predict the future! I wrote the above almost ten years ago! Anyway, no wonder I'm gonna be buying Spidey again regularly now -- for the first time since 1989, the year I wrote the above -- because they are doing what I had said they should do, cutting down on the titles and doing a "back to the basics" thing, and putting a good artist like Byrne on it. (It took me awhile to like Byrne's art again, by the way. Even when I found some of his Next Men comics in a 25-cent box in 1994-95, I hesitated on buying them because of feeling he had Byrned out.)

Even back in 1991, when I had long since stopped buying mainstream comics, I could sometimes recognize and appreciate a mainstream series if it had the right people working on it. Case in point:

APRIL 8, 1991: "Remember how I'm borrowing a stack of [a friend'] recent Marvels? (and his JLAs!) Well, among them is UNCANNY X-MEN #254-276. [My friend] said he was gonna stop buying [X-Men] 'cos he didn't like the current issues....Well, you ain't gonna believe this, bub... but I read #254-276 over the weekend and LOVED IT! Sure, it's not Love and Rockets or some personal statement, and yes Claremont does tend to repeat himself, but the comic is AS GOOD NOW, THIS VERY MINUTE, as it was back when I had a subscription to it (back in the #150's-160's) & that's good enough for me. Especially now that Jim Lee's penciling the book. Claremont has at long last found a PARTNER, the credits merely say "By Chris Claremont and Jim Lee" and then go on to list who did the lettering, etc. So, when did you stop reading X-Men? Was it because of that "Siege Perilous" thing? How could you not like the "Lady Mandarin" trilogy (prolly my favorite of #254-276)? When I told [my friend] all this on the phone Monday at noon & explained how I used to blast people who read X-Men he was all "Yeah, I know, I was one of those you put down!!" I can't believe I was so unfair! Thankfully, he's decided to continue buying X-Men, so I can just borrow his copies (instead of getting a subscription, which I was planning on doing)!!"

Things kinda fell apart in this area, too. Marvel started a new Uncanny-less X-Men series for Claremont & Lee, but Claremont was forced off the book by issue #3 and Lee would soon abandon Marvel for Image. It was like the Baxter editions of Titans and Legion all over again, where the good creators get a new title but then leave the book, making it less interesting to the reader. I bought #3, but would not buy another X-Men book until... Well, I haven't bought a new issue of X-Men since. But I'll be buying X-Men for awhile beginning this December when Alan Davis comes aboard as penciller. So, again, I'll try almost any title, despite my preconceived notions, if the creators are to my liking. I feel like my praise of Jim Lee's X-Men above echoes the way I justify today enjoying mainstream comics like Avengers as well as indie comics like Penny Century. I realize now that I can buy both kinds of comics and not have to choose sides: mainstream or alternative.

New comics appeared to becoming more dislikable to me by 1992. Things were changing and I felt like I was out of the loop. I'll explore all that and more (without letter excerpts) in Part Two, coming soon...