A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s

Wander into your local comic shop one of these days and you’re bound to see some familiar faces.  No, not just Superman, Spider-Man and the like.  We’re talking characters like Darkwing Duck, the Fraggles and Jareth the Goblin King.  If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, those names will certainly ring a bell, even if they’re characters you’d sooner expect to see on Teletoon Retro or adorning the covers of 20th Anniversary Edition DVD sets.  So here’s a question to ponder: how well are they making the transition from TV screens to the printed page?

Since the dawn of the new millennium, comic publishers seem to have been mining our collective childhoods for film and television properties with sequel potential and turning them into monthly or limited-edition comics.  “I didn’t put much thought into it back then,” recalls illustrator Emiliano Santalucia, of the start of the trend.   “My guess was that people from my generation were growing up and entering the industry and wanted to bring back a piece of their childhoods.  For people my age (thirties to mid-thirties), those properties were our popular culture.  Slightly older folks had Star Trek, for example, while He-Man, The Goonies and Back to the Future became our new myths.”  For Santalucia, a long-time He-Man fan, passion played a big role in his work on MV Creations’ Masters of the Universe comics, which were released in conjunction with the revamped cartoon series in 2002.  “We wanted to prove to the world these characters were as good as the heroes from the previous generation.  We wanted to prove Skeletor was a villain as great as Dr. Doom!”

A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s“I think that has very little to do with it,” sighs famed GI JOE scribe Larry Hama, whose twenty-five years in the industry understandably leave him doubtful as to whether a wave of nostalgic writers and artists can really have any affect on the medium.  “It’s business.  Nobody puts money into something unless they know there’s a viable market in it.  It’s driven by the consumer.  It’s unrealistic to think of it as being driven by the creators.”

This may be why comics based off Transformers and GI JOE never really disappeared to begin with; they never stopped selling merchandise.  “It was toy-based properties leading the way back then,” confirms Santalucia, and on this point, Hama agrees.  “The only reason they brought back GI JOE to create a cartoon (in the 80s) is that it was well-known as a 12-inch figure.  That’s why Barbie never goes away!”

Still, some adventurous publishers began to eye concepts that didn’t have the benefit of being supported by a new cartoon series or product line.  Dusting off shows or films with untapped potential certainly makes sense from a fan perspective, according to comic reviewer Lewis Lovhaug, aka “Linkara” of Atop The Fourth Wall.  “Fans of TV shows and movies with cult followings are severely disappointed when they think a show has ended before its time,” he has observed.  “They want to see justice done, even if it’s in a completely different medium.”

A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s 1And the comic industry is as eager as ever to try and cater to their older demographic.  “Comics are an aging media, where there aren’t a lot of new readers and readers are aging with it,” muses Santalucia.  “So it seems comics are holding strong to concepts and characters relevant to this aging audience.”

Of all the publishers aiming material squarely at children of the 80s and 90s, Los Angeles-based BOOM! Studios has earned a reputation for being one of the best. Since gaining access to the Disney canon of characters in 2008, they’ve brought Jim Henson’s Muppets into the world of comics for the first time, and more recently the Disney Afternoon staple Darkwing Duck.  Initially announced as a four-issue limited series, the Darkwing title created such a stir among fans of the 1991 cartoon show that BOOM! opted to make it a monthly book.  The first four issues of the title have since sold out, proving fans’ thirst for more of the Masked Mallard is far from quenched.

The book’s success can almost certainly be attributed to three factors, the main two being art and story.  From a visual standpoint, illustrator James Silvani brings a cartoony bounce to the characters, reminiscent of the animation in the show.  His detail-filled panels are expertly complimented by colourist Andrew Dalhouse, whose vibrant hues and subtle shadows evoke the look of painted cels.  A more appropriate visual treatment for the material there simply could not be.  In the opening storyline, meanwhile, writer Ian Brill brings back all the show’s main villains and throws in cameos from Duck Tales characters for good measure; a clever move given the light continuity kept between both shows back in the day.  Lastly, it couldn’t have hurt that fans hadn’t seen Darkwing in any form since the late 90s, making his return cause for celebration.

Fans of Jim Henson’s final feature film, 1986’s Labyrinth, likely felt equally jubilant when publisher Tokyo Pop announced it would release a three-issue sequel in manga format.  Return to Labyrinth, however, didn’t quite knock the concept out of the park when it began circulating in 2006.  Though the series was extended to four volumes and Kouyu Shurei’s cover art looked promising, the opening chapters failed to meet fan expectations.  As Katherine Dacey, a former editor at Pop Culture Shock, wrote in her review, the first book lacked “the charm of Henson’s puppetry or the appeal of David Bowie as the Goblin King”.  She wasn’t alone in her disappointment; sales for subsequent volumes fell by almost half.

A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s 2One could easily make the argument that the book shouldn’t have been a manga to begin with.  The Japanese form of storytelling comes with it’s own visual quirks and distinct attributes, none of which necessarily meshed well with conceptual artist Brian Froud’s designs from the movie.  It didn’t help matters that interior art by Chris Lie “varied considerably from panel to panel” and that – unlike with Darkwing - the lengthy story didn’t have the option of simply picking up where the original film left off.  Labyrinth was about teenaged Sarah maturing into a young woman through her quest to retrieve her young half-brother, Toby.  Return put Toby at the center of his own coming-of-age tale and surrounded him with various new supporting characters, none of whom could hope to compete with the originals in the eyes of the fans.  It probably also didn’t help matters that Tokyo Pop took four years to get the complete story in the hands of readers.

Timing and momentum definitely shift when you adapt a medium from live action to comics.  As Lovhaug explains, “the trickiest part of it is length.  The average comic book at 22 pages will probably take at most ten minutes to read… and there’s only so much you can fit into those 22 pages.”  Factor in a waiting time of thirty days for a monthly book and the audience’s patience can wear thin.  “It can feel like things are muuuch slower for the reader as opposed to watching it on a screen.”

If they know the original creator is on-board, however, they might not mind.  Slave Labor Graphics’ 2006 Gargoyles comic seemed destined for success specifically because Greg Weisman was scripting each issue himself, and making use of ideas he’d abandoned when Disney essentially demoted him prior to the show’s third season, the ill-fated Goliath Chronicles.  Knowing the guiding light behind the action/fantasy series was writing the comic books put many a fan at ease.  Plus, Gargoyles as a concept always blurred the lines between X-Men and Batman, making it a natural fit for the world of comics.  Yet, instead of having a long, healthy run, Gargoyles and it’s spin-off title Bad Guys crashed and burned within two years due to (you guessed it) wildly uneven artwork and several-month long waits between issues.  Disney ultimately upped the cost of their licensing fee, preventing the book from ever getting back on its feet.  The final four issues of Gargoyles never even made it to the newsstands, and were ultimately released as “bonus material” in the 2009 trade paperback edition.

Count it and Return to Labyrinth among several attempted relaunches that for one reason or another, missed the mark.  2003’s Thudercats comic, published through DC’s Wildstorm label, sold well enough but was met with criticism from readers for maturing the content of the previously kid-friendly series.  The second storyline, “The Return”, saw villain Mumm-Ra enslave the heroic team of cats in the absence of their leader Lion-O.  The two youngest Thundercats, Wilykat and Wilykit, however, were depicted scantily-clad and enchained at the feet of their evil new master.  Consider that the art was provided by Ed Benes, who is well-known for his provocative penciling, and the sexual implications become unavoidable.  One reviewer went so far as to declare the book a “sad fanboy sex comic”; perhaps the ultimate insult to any comic’s legitimacy as a sequel.

A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s 3“Due to the limited exposure of comics, I think these books have little chance to really tarnish or enrich the properties,” says Santalucia.  Lovhaug, having reviewed his fair share of stinkers, offers another perspective.  “Readers can always disregard them as non-canon.  Heck, back in the day, Gene Roddenberry declared that all spin-off media related to Star Trek was non-canon and that only the live-action shows and movies were canon.”  As Hama suggested, money may ultimately be the determining factor, even to Santalucia.  “Unless (relaunches) are very successful, they are quickly forgotten.  It’s a bit sad, because comics don’t mean much anymore.  I feel that’s how it is today.”

Still, successful or not, these books seem to be having a ripple effect in the entertainment industry.  Consider Legends of the Dark Crystal, a 2007 manga series released by Tokyo Pop that was cut down from three volumes to two, in spite of receiving positive reviews from critics.  It can’t be merely coincidence that after the release of the manga – the first sign of life from the property in over twenty-five years – the long-stalled Power of the Dark Crystal sequel film finally gained some momentum.  The Jim Henson Company announced in May that directors Peter and Michael Spierig have officially taken on the project, to be produced by the Australian branch of Omnilab Media with a goal of releasing the picture next year.

Some properties are even shifting their focus away from big screen theatrical comebacks in favor of comics instead.  When ABC’s offbeat fantasy series Pushing Daisies was prematurely put out to pasture, for example, series creator Bryan Fuller hoped to use a movie as a means of tying up all of the loose ends.  Instead, he’s tweaked his ideas and arranged to have DC release a limited-edition comic series.  A recent interview, however, reveals he has hopes the comic will take off.  “I literally just finished outlining the 12-episode arc,” he explained to E! Online, “which has an ending that propels us into another big story, so it’s kind of blackmailing (DC) into ordering more comics, but we’ll see if that’ll happen.”

A Look Back at Comics From the 80s and 90s 4To sweeten the deal, he’s even brought series composer Jim Dooley on-board to create a soundtrack for the fans to enjoy while reading the new books.  It’s these kinds of unique opportunities that Lovhaug believes will tempt more creators to consider playing in the printed medium.  “TV shows are limited by budget, particularly animation.  There are voice acting costs, or for a live action series, the budget for special effects and complex stunt work.  In comics, as long as the artist can draw it, it’s capable of being presented on the page.  As such, readers expect the same kind of things they got out of the TV show (particularly characters and storylines) but on a larger scale.”  They will certainly get what they’re hoping for out of the Pushing Daisies book, then, which will pit the leads against a zombie army of “1,000 corpses”.

Speaking of the undead, fans of Joss Whedon’s work continue to have more material on the way than they can shake a stake at.  The official eighth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer will soon be joined by a new Angel series in 2011, both thanks to Dark Horse Publishing.  Archaia Studios Press is busy printing new Fraggle Rock books and has enlisted Brian Froud to work with them on other Jim Henson properties, including Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Mirror Mask.  BOOM! Studios, no doubt bolstered by the success of their Darkwing title, has already announced a new Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers comic will hit newsstands this December, with DW likely to get even more exposure.  Recent online chatter suggests that something new is in the works for the Masked Mallard.  Could the positive press surrounding the comics have inspired Disney to finally release the rest of the show to DVD?  Whatever the nature of the mystery development, BOOM! has already decided to collect and reprint some of the various 90s comic strips featuring Darkwing and his foes, a sign of their growing confidence in the property.

Lastly, but not leastly, devoted Gargoyles fans continue to buzz about an August  Twitter chat between “boomstudios” and someone calling themselves “Demona_Gargoyle”.  From the exchange, it’s pretty clear that the publisher is aware of fans’ hopes that they’ll pick up the title, tweeting “Oh!!! We HEAR you!!!” and “sounds like an idea!”  “Demona”, speaking in character and perhaps also on behalf of the fanbase, made one stipulation:  “I just hope you ask that delightful human, Weisman, to write it. He is the only human I tolerate.”

While it’s anyone’s guess at to whether this will come to pass, one thing remains clear; as long as Hollywood continues to realize they can economically wrap-up storylines or test-run relaunches by releasing comics, it’s very likely we’ll be seeing more of our childhood favourites back on the racks.  And thankfully, from the looks of things, publishers are finally grasping how to do them justice.

This article originally appeared in the Dec 2010 issue of CGM.