Past Superhero Trends That Now Look Nuts
Before the internet or TV made us slaves to shiny screens, people used to go out and do something much more productive: buying comics. Stupid, fun, gloriously violent comics. Comics used to be so popular with the public at large, in fact, that they spawned trends that seem totally bizarre or even unthinkable today, such as ...
Instead Of Binging Netflix Series, People Used To Splurge On "True Crime" And Horror Comics
If you ask the average American to name a non-superhero comic book, they might say Archie or The Walking Dead or the inevitable Archie Meets The Walking Dead, and that's about it. But back in the day, U.S. comics used to be more than just superheroes -- in fact, for a long time it looked like the whole "masked lunatics saving people" thing was just a passing fad, and the industry moved on to other genres. Among those was the "masked lunatics killing people" genre, a.k.a. crime comics.
Even before superhero comics went into decline at the end of World War II, a "true crime" series ironically titled Crime Does Not Pay was moving millions of copies a month (they boasted "six million readers" on the covers because they figured everyone was lending the issues to a few friends). The stories were based on real crime headlines with a heavy dose of sensationalism added in, and America ate that shit up. It was the equivalent of a Netflix crime documentary, only the characters were still more believable than Tiger King's.
Horror comics were also a national obsession thanks to series like Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. Horror comics were selling so well, and superhero ones so poorly, that Marvel tried to rebrand Captain America as Captain America's Weird Tales, mostly featuring horror stories that had nothing to do with captaining or America.
Meanwhile, Captain America's creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby bailed the superhero genre altogether and found success in an unexpected place: teen romance comics. Their Young Romance series immediately sold a million copies, so they started churning out spin-offs like Young Love and the slightly creepy-sounding Young Brides. Within seven years, romance comics sold a combined one billion copies.
Comics were playing the role TV does today, in that a lot of it was trash, but you also had more sophisticated (and even progressive) stuff like EC Comics' sci-fi and satire series. And although no one gave a shit about superheroes anymore, readers could still get their dose of mindless action through western and war comics. The greater diversity in topics also brought more diversity in readers: at various points, there were more women reading comics than men. So what happened? Congress butted in and ruined everything.
The moral panic against horror and crime comics convinced America that these stories were turning kids into horny little commies, and resulted in the creation of a self-censoring organism, the Comics Code Authority. Since the most popular genres were now dead, the industry decided to give Superman's pals another shot and never looked back. Now, this isn't to say that superhero comics didn't get weird over the years ...
Celebrities Used To Show Up (Or Even Star) In Superhero Comics All The Freaking Time
Today, celebrity comic book cameos are exclusively reserved for shallow corporate tie-ins like that shitty comic where Jared Fogle meets the Justice League, and even those are becoming rarer (probably Jared's fault). But, back when comics were actually a form of mass media, celebrities would pop in as often and naturally as they do on sitcoms or talk shows, only with more punching. Superman and Kenny Rogers beating the crap out of drug dealers? Sure, seems perfectly in-character for both of them.
Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson meeting the Transformers? A match made in heaven ... until they had to edit him out of the reprints, anyway.
Lois Lane and Pat Boone? Spider-Man and the cast of SNL? Howard the Duck and KISS? All real. Some celebrities got their own surprisingly long-running comics, like DC's Adventures of Bob Hope (1950-1968) and Adventures of Jerry Lewis (1952-1972), both of which lasted longer than any Aquaman series to date. What's even more surprising is that these comics weren't just half-assed cash-ins: they featured talented creators like legendary Batman artist Neal Adams and team ups with superheroes like The Flash. It was like if DC put out a 100-plus issue series about Tom Hanks or Seth Rogen today.
Sometimes, superheroes returned the favor and visited celebs in real life. Superman guest-starred in I Love Lucy while Adam West's Batman hosted an episode of Milton Berle's Hollywood Palace. It's hard to imagine Robert Downey Jr. doing a corny musical number as Iron Man on a variety show, then staying in character for the interviews (unless he has a relapse and this is all unprompted).
So why did the comics/celebrities love affair end? Part of it is that comics simply don't sell like they used to, so publishers don't have as many Hollywood agents calling their offices (or it's just to ask the number of a movie studio). But this is also part of a larger trend ...
Comics Were Disposable, Like Newspapers ... And Way More "Meta"
Deadpool is considered a unique character because he knows he's living in a comic book, Ryan Reynolds movie, or on your divorced uncle's t-shirt. Such a transgressive concept! Except that, for decades, no one gave a shit about superheroes "breaking the fourth wall." There was barely a wall at all. Comics regularly ended with the characters winking at the reader and telling them to buy the next issue. All of these examples are from a single comic book:
There was a sense that the Superman telling kids "Let's rap!" in the ads and subscription slips was the same character from the stories. Decades before Deadpool, Green Lantern villain Black Hand would constantly talk to the reader and explain his plans, sometimes aided by an easel he pulled out of nowhere. He couldn't do that today, because Green Lantern is a "serious" comic and such silliness would be frowned up. Instead, they made him a necrophiliac. (Good thing he never went up against Bowtie-Wearing-Skull Man.)
It was pretty common for comics creators to show up in their own stories, sometimes as quick cameos and sometimes as the villain of a two-part story. Didn't silly stuff like that wreck the readers' suspension of disbelief? Not really, and that speaks to the fact that the entire way we interact with comics has changed on a deep level. People used to read Superman or Batman like you'd read a newspaper's comics page -- it was, literally, disposable entertainment. Most copies of Action Comics #1 probably ended up in the trash, or somewhere even nastier, considering comics have always been read in the toilet.
But as comics fandom began to emerge, readers started caring more about stuff like "storylines" or "a bare minimum of character consistency." And, as they became more invested in the stories themselves (rather than the simple act of being entertained by them), the now older comic book fans stopped accepting elements that broke the inner logic of a world where, uh, people can fly and shoot fire from their eyes. We can't put it better than writer Grant Morrison, who said:
One Guy Changed The Way Comics Are Sold (For Better Or Worse)
Comics used to be sold everywhere: newsstands, drug stores, toy stores, probably some body shops and hospitals, etc. This was great for younger readers because they could convince their moms to buy them the latest Spider-Man while waiting in line at the supermarket, but not so great for serious collectors (read: filthy nerds) who had to deal with the issues being mangled by little brats or missing. The publishers weren't too thrilled about this system, either, since anything not sold at the newsstands was returned to them, and then they ended up stuck with mountains of Adventures of Jerry Lewis and such.
All of that changed thanks to one man: a schoolteacher/convention organizer (read: filthy mega-nerd) named Phil Seuling.
In the early '70s, just as the newsstand comics market was starting to decline, Seuling walked up to the major publishers and offered them a better deal: selling comics directly to the fans! And by "directly to the fans," of course, he meant to himself, and then he'd sell them to specialized stores, and the stores would sell them to the fans. The important part was that, in exchange for getting a special price, Seuling would take the comics on a non-returnable basis, which his clients didn't mind that much -- what newsvendors considered unsellable trash, the comics stores called "the back issue section."
The publishers embraced this new "direct market" model, which was a big win for everyone. And by "everyone," once again, we mean for Seuling. He ended up with a massive monopoly on comics distribution just for being the guy who came up with the idea ... until a lawsuit forced him to share some of the pie with smaller distributors. The problem is that one of those tiny upstarts, Diamond Comics, helped itself to most of that pie. In the '90s, Marvel tried to compete with Diamond and distribute their own comics, but they failed so spectacularly that they crashed the entire distribution business. The only survivor was Diamond, which now controls everything, and is able to get away with some pretty gross shit as a consequence.
But what about digital distributors? Now that Diamond is quarantining all of their orders, isn't it digital comics' time to shine? Sure, but that market is also cornered by one company: ComiXology, which is owned by Amazon. In short, we've gone from monopoly to monopoly to monopoly ever since one guy had the bright idea to ditch newsstands. Hey, maybe the time is right to explore the "comics in hospitals" option again?
Intercompany Crossovers Were Killed By Legal Fuckery
DC and Marvel characters existing together seems like something that only happens on bootleg action figure packs, but it used to be a pretty common occurrence in the comics. Between 1976 and 2003, the two companies released 19 official crossovers, and that's without counting the 24 Amalgam issues: those magical weeks when DC and Marvel merged their lines, resulting in characters like Dark Claw (Batman/Wolverine), Super Soldier (Superman/Captain America), or Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel/Captain Marvel).
So how many have they published after 2003? Exactly zero. They've even stopped reprinting the older ones, despite the creators themselves requesting it. The prevailing rumor is that the companies had a falling out when Marvel EiC Joe Quesada compared running DC to "being a porn star with the biggest dick and you can't get it up," and DC President Paul Levitz somehow took issue with that. But Levitz is long gone by now while Quesada seems to have less influence at Marvel, yet the crossover embargo continues. And it's definitely not from lack of enthusiasm from the creators themselves: back in 2010, Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns and Iron Man writer Matt Fraction improvised a crossover plot on Twitter.
The writers for Justice League and Avengers publicly geeked out about a team up in 2018. More recently, numerous comics pros used their quarantine time to beg the companies for new crossovers under the #PleaseMarvelDC hashtag.
But, like most Twitter activism, this has resulted in nothing. From the looks of it, the reasons are bigger and more complex than Superman's giant limp dong. As Marvel's Senior VP of Publishing Tom Brevoort admits, the fact that both publishers are now owned by corporate giants (Disney and AT&T/Warner Bros.) complicates things legally and logistically. Not only is there a mess of paperwork involved in these things, but you have to justify the existence of an expensive comic that can likely never be adapted into other media -- and if so, what's the point of it existing?
Basically, Disney and WB don't understand why their little IP farms would go through so much trouble just to let their writers geek out with each other like they did in the '70s-'90s. (The biggest intercompany crossover to date, 1996's DC vs. Marvel, was one big fanboy wet dream that happened entirely because the top editors were best friends.) Also, why bother going to another company when you can just use the ones controlled by the same corporate giant? For DC, that means a shitload of Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera crossovers, from nonsensical ones like Joker/Daffy Duck to somehow even more nonsensical ones like Suicide Squad/Banana Splits.
Will we ever see a DC/Marvel crossover again? Well, a recent Watchmen sequel, of all things, teased one for 2030 (along with like fifty other future events), but there's no evidence that it's anything more than wishful thinking. That, or they're just assuming all media companies will be owned by Disney or Apple by then.
Top Image: DC Comics, Marvel Comics