Shedding Light on the Dark Age: Josh Jabcuga interviews author Mark Voger about his book THE DARK AGE: GRIM, GREAT & GIMMICKY POST-MODERN COMICS, in this week’s edition of Squib Central.
Josh Jabcuga: Your book, THE DARK AGE: GRIM, GREAT & GIMMICKY POST-MODERN COMICS started as a three-part newspaper series published in 1997, which was picked up later that year by COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE. Nearly ten years later, we have the book. Why the personal fascination with this period of comics?
Mark Voger: Mainly because I, probably like yourself, lived this era. I was one of those older fans who read comic books in the 60s and then more or less dropped the habit. Along came Frank Miller¹s BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and suddenly, a lot of us were like, “This is cool!” A couple of comic shops opened up locally, and they became our version of Cheers a place where everybody knows your name. What followed was all of the fun and, in retrospect, sometimes embarrassing events of the era: the silver foil covers, the superhero makeovers, the polybagged premiums, the speculator mania for #1 and #0 issues, the weddings, the crossovers, the hologram covers, the death of this superhero or that superhero every other week . . .
Josh Jabcuga: I love the chapter titled "Harbingers of the Dark Age of Comics," where you show the seeds for the Dark Age were planted decades before anyone might suspect. You mention the first creators' rights face off -- there was a lawsuit going on over THE YELLOW KID, involving R.F. OUTCAULT, WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST, and JOSEPH PULITZER. And all this time we thought it was the boys over at Image who had all the guts. Or you make the case that Batman was the Dark Knight long before FRANK MILLER had his way with the character, citing the revenge-themed motifs in 1939's DETECTIVE COMICS #27. The Dark Age of Comics, this period, say, from around the publication of WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in '86 until the aftermath of the speculators craze and boom in the mid 90s -- was this Dark Age inevitable?
Mark Voger: Yes, in the sense that comics are always influenced by the times they are created in. Unkinder, ungentler times yield unkinder, ungentler superheroes. By the same token, comics influence the times. When a comic book becomes a movie, and that movie is imitated by other movies or TV shows, that¹s a powerful example of the exponential influence of comics. This is a mundane example, but when Warner Brothers retooled Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al., as dark superheroes (Loonatics Unleashed), I trace that straight back to Frank Miller.
Josh Jabcuga: Reading your book, it's amazing to see just how many "it" creators from the 90s have all but vanished, even many of the power players. I remember walking around the floor of the San Diego Comic-Con, maybe last year or the year before that, and seeing ROB LIEFELD sitting at a booth with little fanfare. This was the same guy that was once the posterchild for the comic book creator as rock and roll star. What went wrong for some of these creators?
Mark Voger: They were probably victims of the glut. There were so many creators during the Dark Age, of wildly varying degrees of ability, that the mid-90s crash was a foregone conclusion. You suddenly saw a lot of titles being cancelled, and a lot of independent publishers closing shop. So the ripple effect interrupted many careers. There followed a fair amount of shifting-of-gears. Today, we know Todd McFarlane more as a toy manufacturer than a comic book artist. Jim Lee seriously refined his art style; just compare his recent Batman work to his 80s X-Men. I¹m surprised to hear that Rob Liefeld’s booth wasn¹t a madhouse, Josh, though I can still find unopened copies of X-FORCE #1 in the 50-cent box at my friendly neighborhood comic shop.
Josh Jabcuga: Do you ever get the feeling that no matter how much talent found themselves without a job as the industry cannibalized itself, that if given the chance to be a part of that booming fad again, the comic book industry would do it all over again without changing a thing, if it meant big bucks in the short run?
Mark Voger: That¹s like a sci-fi question! Well, we have to face the fact that comics is a business first. Yes, it¹s an art form, but one that could not exist without fan support where it really counts: at the cash register. Once something sells, publishers want to make more of it to sell more,more, more. That’s why, after X-FORCE #1 sold nearly 4 million copies, so many comic books were polybagged with trading cards. But where there’s a boom, a bust can¹t be far behind. It’s all a great big circle.
Josh Jabcuga: Honestly, I really enjoyed being a part of the so-called Dark Age of Comics. I never really bought into the whole speculators' market B.S., so I was able to still do my collecting, enjoy the fact that my hobby was somehow "cool" now, and even make some money off the fly-by-night fans by playing the market a little myself. For a few years, it was baseball cards, then comics became the big thing, then Pogs were the hot collector items. Why did it seem like suddenly there was this great big collector's craze going on, with people trying to get rich quick?
Mark Voger: I think the incredible success of SPIDER-MAN #1 in 1990 was what ignited the speculation boom. There was just so much buzz around that book. People bought multiple copies, which artificially inflated the sales figures. Hot on its heels were X-FORCE #1 and X-MEN #1. Once this Pandora’s box was opened, there was no turning back. People honestly believed they would put their kids through college with the “Death of Superman” issue (SUPERMAN #75). In my book THE DARK AGE, Kevin Smith tells the story that he sold off his collection to help finance his first movie, CLERKS (1994), and his timing was impeccable. He got out of the market just before the crash.
Josh Jabcuga: I find it amusing sometimes when people say the industry killed itself during that period. No one told consumers they had to buy twenty copies of X-MEN #1. Yet if anyone got burnt, it was the industry because they started to believe in their own gimmicks. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the floor would fall out sooner or later. So who fooled who?
Mark Voger: Ah, that’s just the thing. We were all guilty, weren¹t we? Years later, when I was doing a little weeding out and I went through my Dark Age collection, I found two copies of PITT #1 (1993). Did I really buy two copies of PITT #1? God, I hope not. So you’re quite right. For many of us, we need look no further than our bathroom mirror to see a Dark Age offender. Like the book says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Josh Jabcuga: Is there any great talent out there that you feel got lost in the shuffle, someone who makes you say, "Man, that artist/writer was so great, I can't believe they can't get work these days," while some hack is raking in the dough?
Mark Voger: Actually, yes, and I tried to give them a shout-out in THE DARK AGE. In my epilogue, I recommend a heartbreaking graphic novel titled EPILEPTIC by a French writer/artist who calls himself DAVID B. I also tried to bang the drum about UNDERSTANDING COMICS by SCOTT McCLOUD, an amazing examination of the medium that I don¹t think got nearly its due. But some of the cream has risen to the top. I remember, when I was a humble writer/artist with a couple of independent comic books out, signing at a New York con alongside a teenager named MICHAEL AVON OEMING. He hung in there to become one of the brightest talents of the medium today.
Josh Jabcuga: In your book you mention one of the Dark Age Cliches being "Celebrities," whether it was someone like WILLIAM SHATNER writing a comic book series or the band AEROSMITH making a cameo in SHADOWMAN #19. That's a cliché that has survived, though, and maybe for the better, when you've got guys like JOSS WHEDON and F.PAUL WILSON getting into the comics scene. Are there any other Dark Age Clichés that you think the industry could still benefit from?
Mark Voger: I think the Dark Age Cliché we identified as “Milestones” is here to stay. That is, superheroes getting married, having children, coming out as gay men or women, getting sidelined by injuries, etc. This led to more serious developments such as characters battling alcoholism and AIDS. For the most part, these themes have been handled with sensitivity and solid research. For a while now since THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN, as a matter of fact comics have been all about harsh reality mixed in with the fantasy for ironic effect.
Josh Jabcuga: Where do you see the industry headed next? More cross-pollination with Hollywood?
Mark Voger: That’s for certain. Again, the cycle of influence is undeniable. More and more, comic books resemble movie storyboards. And as long as movies like BATMAN BEGINS and V FOR VENDETTA score at the box office, Hollywood will be mining the comics for gold. But does this help the medium of comics itself? A lot of creators I’ve spoken to don’t seem to think so, but I think the movies at least heighten awareness of comics. The main thing to keep in mind is that comics is a storytelling medium. That focus was lost for a while during the Dark Age, when people were more concerned with what was in the polybag than what was between the covers. But since then, thankfully, that focus has been regained, and comic books are back to telling stories again.