The seventies era was the beginning of the end for popular sequential art, ushering in a revitalised sense of page layout and story design that had its roots in the sixties and would see its final decline in the mid-eighties with such classics as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Comic book illustrators and writers like Jim Starlin, Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber brought ingenuity and vitality to seventies comic books that would spark a later revolution in independent publishers and cultivate some of the finest examples of the form. Yet rather than creating a sustainable model, the work done by imaginative and greatly talented artists would give way from mythic storytelling to commercial interest and bankrupt editorial meddling.
Marvel Comics Group produced groundbreaking titles in the seventies, like Jim Starlin's Warlock featuring a man struggling to find a nonviolent path to save his soul, and Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck with its eponymous hero navigating the joys and pratfalls of modern living. Steve Englehart's run on Captain America is probably the heaviest hitting of the three, translating the Nixon years into comic book form; the "star-spangled" hero confronts dark truths about his nation's political heart and has to decide what the American Dream truly is. These pioneers laid the groundwork for later serious books created by other artists in the eighties: Baron and Rude's Nexus, for example, in which the question of justice is thoroughly explored, or Dave Sim's Cerebus, an evolving experiment of the boundaries of comic book storytelling. Then along came Frank Miller and Alan Moore.
This pair of deeply gifted artists transformed the comic book landscape in ways that have been duly noted by aficionados and scholars. Moore's Watchmen is an epitaph for superheroes, at the same time utilising literary techniques to explore human nature. Miller displays similar literary virtuosity in The Dark Knight Returns but wraps it in pulp mannerisms and vigilante justice. Taken on their own these seem natural and even necessary progressions of sequential art, developed out of the hard pioneering work of their predecessors. Yet one has only to look at where comic books have gone from there to see that the form has degenerated and now is a pale reflection of what was.
What you see in the seventies and early eighties is evolution; what follows is regression of the form and a softening of what defines it, to the extent that comic books now resemble tv shows and movies and video games. (The style of comic book storytelling is also true in the inverse, as we can see in the huge popularity of Spider Man at the box office and shows like Heroes on tv.)
What's changed? In short, comics are no longer about mythic storytelling.
The grounding Moore and Miller used for their opuses was an old innovation: give spandex wearers real hangups and conflicts. Stan Lee introduced this style in the early sixties with his coterie of illustrators at Marvel, the "House of Ideas" as was, yet never strayed from putting characters into situations way beyond the pale of human experience. Like protosuperheroes from antiquity Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Samson and Odysseus, the House of Ideas gave us Spider Man and the Fantastic Four, humans with special gifts faced with epic challenges. These challenges developed beyond simple struggles of good versus evil, setting the stage for the more significant questions of the seventies stripe of hero. Yet even as Warlock and Howard the Duck strain against boundaries that we mere mortals can relate to, still they are part of narratives culled from a dizzy, cosmic scope, a factor unique to comics and woefully absent as of late.
The kind of obstacles seen in comic books today run the gamut of dealing with pregnancy, teenagers on the run or, as in the case of Spidey, which close relation is going to be killed next. The potential for these obstacles to be part and parcel of more epic narrative is still there and intrinsic to the form, but it gives way for issue after issue of protracted discussion and emotional handwringing, highlighted by the occasional fisticuff with a villain who also happens to be burdened by mundane concerns: spandex wearers are so much like real people now that the grandeur is lost and they no longer possess the ur-capabilities of true mythical figures. The root of this development can be traced back to Miller and Moore.
I am not assigning blame to either of these men. I'm not part of the camp that takes Steven Spielberg to task for creating the first summer blockbuster (Jaws) and therefore enabled the profusion of superficial "tentpoles" that make up the bulk of Hollywood fare, and neither am I attempting to say Moore and Miller are responsible for the loss of mythmaking in comic books. What is closer to the truth is that reader expectations have changed and the dizzy pioneering of superheroes is more liable to simply give them nausea. Meanwhile the few books that do aspire to those old heights come off derivative and uninspired.
Meddling by increasingly influential stables of editors is also a big part of what has changed. Comic books now are more driven by top-down decision making, in which the home office tells creators what to do with licensed characters rather than creating an atmosphere in which bold ideas can take off and find expression. You can see a little of this in Grant Morrison's breathtaking and prolific output at DC Comics, but even then the fingerprints of editors are all over the pages stealing his thunder. Consequently the best comics to be found today are not about a staple diet of superheroes, rather you will find formal experimentation and reconstuction of old conceits leading the way. Morrison's graphic novel The Filth is a fine example of a new direction for comics, yet it is with a little sadness because a significant appeal to the book is its deconstruction of the spandex myth. Comic books, it seems, are no longer fertile ground for mythical narrative.