Monday, 21 May 2012

Comics from 1981 vs. Comics from 2012

On the 20th of May 1981 a child was born in the Welsh town of Newport. A child who would go on to become yet another overweight obsessive who uses the technological miracle that is the internet to vent his ill-informed opinions on a dying medium that focuses entirely too much on one niche genre. Which is another way of saying that I've just celebrated my 31st birthday. Now the fun and merriment of my birthday celebrations have finished I thought I'd take a moment to reflect. And since the notion of taking stock of exactly what I've achieved in thirty one years on Planet Earth is far too depressing to contemplate, let's see how far super-hero comics have come instead.

I thought I'd compare the comics on my Pull List to their 1981 equivalents. Aquaman, Avenging Spider-Man, Supergirl, FF, and Earth 2 weren't being published in 1981, and although Aquaman had a back up strip in Action Comics and Marvel Team-Up served the same purpose as Avenging Spidey, I'm going to be strict and limit my list to direct equivalents. That leaves Amazing Spider-Man, Action Comics, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Fantastic Four, Invincible Iron Man, Justice League, Batman and Legion of Superheroes. I'm going to pretend that I haven't read any of these comics and that I'm approaching them as a newcomer to that title. I'll decide which ones have the best cover and which ones have the most intriguing plot synopsis. On this basis I will decide once and for all whether the standard of super-hero comics have improved, stayed the same, or gone right down the crapper. This months comics are cover dated July, so I've chosen 1981 comics that also have that month on the cover. My source for covers and info is http://marvel.wikia.com, and and some of the synopses have been further summarised by me.

1981Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 #281, Cover artist: Frank Miller.

Spider-Man battles Mud Thing, the combined form of Sandman and Hydro-Man.

2012Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 #685, Cover artists:  Stefano Caselli & Lorenzo de Felici.

Part four of the epic ‘Ends of the Earth’. Featuring the World’s Greatest Super Hero: Doctor Octopus! Guest starring Black Widow and Silver Sable.

Cover Verdict: The 2012 cover looks very pretty but it's just generic posing and it teases nothing other than the presence of two characters about whom I care very little. The 1981 cover is much better. It promises that Spidey will fight a gigantic, blobby monster, which is a pretty exciting prospect. Miller successfully conveys that Spidey is crapping his pants in fear but still ready for action, and he does this without even showing Spidey's front!

Synopsis Verdict: "the World’s Greatest Super Hero: Doctor Octopus!" is intriguing stuff, but not half as intriguing (and gross) as the idea of Sandman and Hydro-man merged together.

Overall Verdict: Judging purely on the cover and the synopsis, 1981 wins. Given the choice between the two, I would purchase the 1981 issue.

1981:  Action Comics Vol 1 #521, Cover artists: Ross Andru & Dick Giordano.

Superman & a brand new hero named Vixen team up to fight a poacher called Mordecai Mule.

2012: Action Comics Vol 2 #9, Cover artists: Gene Ha & Art Lyon.

Featuring characters from parallel Earths, including President Superman!

Cover Verdict: Compared to the striking image of a black, alternate reality version of Superman in Washington, the 1981 cover doesn't stand a chance. If it turns out that Vixen isn't on Superman's side she doesn't look as if she'd really be a credible threat to him. If she is on his side, he's not really going to need her help against a few guys with guns, even if one of them is sporting a bad ass eye patch.

Synopsis Verdict: Considering that super-hero comics are still dominated by white males thirty one years later, the promise of a brand new black, female hero really stands out, and the villain has a great name. But let's face it, as a concept President Superman from a parallel Earth has awesome written all over it.

Overall Verdict: 2012 wins! A brand new Universe beats a brand new super-hero every time!

1981: The Flash Vol 1 #299, Cover artists: Carmine Infantino & Dick Giordano.

The Rainbow Raider finds a way of restoring his color-sense and charging himself with color-power, and the Shade ends up helping him fight the Flash.

2012:  The Flash Vol 4 #9, Cover artist: Francis Manapul.

Continuing the debut of GORILLA GRODD in DC Comics – The New 52! THE FLASH travels to GORILLA CITY for the first time! • Who are the "RUNNERS" – and what do they mean for THE FLASH and the SPEED FORCE? 

Cover Verdict: The 1981 cover would be good were it not for the boring white background. The modern cover looks gorgeous but even if it didn't it would win by default because it has gorillas on it.

Synopsis Verdict: I've got a lot of love for the Rainbow Raider but he can charge himself up with as much colour power as he wants, he'll never be as pants-wettingly-fantastic as a city full of super intelligent gorillas. 

Overall Verdict: 2012 wins! GORILLAS!

1981: Green Lantern Vol 2 #142, Cover artist: George Perez.

Kalista explains the origin of the Omega Men to Green Lantern and Carol, after which GL joins the alien heroes in their battle against the Citadel, who are invading Earth. Meanwhile, a supposedly dead Omega Man comes back to life.

2012:  Green Lantern Vol 5 #9, Cover artists: Doug Mahnke, Mark Irwin & Alex Sinclair.

HAL JORDAN and SINESTRO learn the horrific truth behind the members of the Indigo Tribe and their connection to ABIN SUR. Also, the GUARDIANS begin their plan to replace the Green Lantern Corps – at any cost!

Cover Verdict: The 1981 cover is the better one. It looks beautiful and promises new characters. The modern cover is murky and grim and says very little about what's happening within. 

Synopsis Verdict: 2012 is much more intriguing. In 1981 we're promised the origins of characters that had their début in the previous issue but in 2012 we're promised answers to questions that have been teased for the past few years. Even if you hadn't been following the title, the idea of the Guardians replacing the GL Corps sounds much more interesting than an alien invasion. 

Overall Verdict: 2012 promises the more interesting revelations but there are still revelations to be had in 1981, and we have an awesome Perez cover! It's a close one but 1981 wins.

1981: Justice League of America Vol 1 #192, Cover artist: George Perez.

The JLA battle two versions of the Red Tornado while Prof. Morrow reminds the real Red Tornado of his origin and hints that there may be more to that origin than meets the eye.

2012: Justice League Vol 2 #9, Cover artists: Jim Lee, Scott Williams & Alex Sinclair.

"THE VILLAIN'S JOURNEY" begins here! Part one of a story introducing an all-new major nemesis for the Justice League.

Cover Verdict: I'm a fan of Jim Lee but the 2012 cover is, quite frankly, rubbish. It's a perfectly fine image but it tells us nothing of the comic other than the fact that Superman, Cyborg and Batman are in it. It took me ages to realise that they're fighting Arkham Asylum inmates because the focus is mainly on the three heroes and their generic posing. The 1981 is beautifully drawn, manages to display far more characters and gives us some idea of what's within.

Synopsis Verdict: You have to admit, the début of a brand new villain sounds much better than a recap of the Red Tornado's origin.

Overall Verdict: Another very close one, but 2012 wins. I really don't like the modern cover but the promise of a new villain just sounds better than another look at an old character's origin.

1981: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol 2 #277, Cover artist: George Perez.

A drowning Phantom Girl is saved by a new hero named Reflecto, who refuses to answer questions about his past--just before Grimbor chains the entire Earth.

2012: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol 7 #9, Cover artist: Steve Lightle.

Kicking off an all-new storyline! BRAINIAC 5 and DREAM GIRL have been abducted by the why is the Legion refusing to rescue them? One of the greatest LEGIONNAIRES quits!

Cover Verdict: They're both very good covers. The image of Brainy getting rescued by Dream Girl is brilliant but what little we see of the monster they're escaping from doesn't look particularly interesting. In 1981, the Legionnaires in the foreground look fantastic but Reflecto and Phantom Girl look a bit boring just coloured in yellow. This is a shame as they take up a lot of the cover.

Synopsis Verdict: A new hero arrives in 1981 while an old hero quits in 2012. I think the former is more interesting.

Overall Verdict: 1981 wins! There's just more going on in the older cover and I'm more interested in who Reflecto is than another Dominators story.

1981: Superman Vol 1 #361, Cover artist: Ross Andru.

Superman and Captain Strong face an alien woman with the power to transform into animal shapes, whose race is doomed unless they can get control of Captain Strong’s sauncha.

2012: Superman Vol 3 #9, Cover artist: Ivan Reis.*

SUPERMAN faces new supervillainess MASOCHIST! How can Superman fight an opponent he can't touch? LOIS LANE faces a turning point in her career as a journalist.

Cover Verdict: The older cover has a boring yellow background but I like the look of the purple alien. The 2012 cover looks much better. It would be perfect, were it not for the fact that I'm not convinced by that punch. There's loads of speed lines, suggesting that there's a lot of momentum behind that wallop, but the artist hasn't conveyed any power in the impact of the punch. 

Synopsis Verdict: Superman and a Popeye rip-off versus aliens sounds fun, but a bit inconsequential. There's a brand new villain in the modern issue, but the name Masochist sounds very nineties, in a bad way. On the other hand, a villain who derives pleasure from being hurt but can't be touched does sound pretty interesting.

Overall Verdict: 2012 wins! A Popeye rip-off fighting aliens may sound like loads of fun but the modern issue has a new villain with a potentially interesting premise, albeit a crappy name.

1981: Invincible Iron Man Vol 1 #148, Cover artist: Bob Layton.

A Stark plant in the Central American nation of Costa Diablo is raided by the military and its head, Ricardo Pruz, a personal friend of Tony Stark, is taken prisoner. Iron Man heads off on a rescue mission.

2012: Invincible Iron Man Vol 1 #517, Cover artist: Salvador Larroca.

If Tony Stark isn’t Iron Man, then who’s the guy in the suit? Zeke Stane digs for the truth. Spymaster racks up his victims.

Cover Verdict: I love them both! Iron Man bursting up through the floor of a science lab causing a bunch of soldiers to crap themselves is a very striking image. On the other hand, the modern cover is simpler but much more effective. Is Stark tearing out his own mechanical heart or is his body rejecting it? Either way it's a powerful image that cuts right to the, ahem, heart of the character. 

Synopsis Verdict: Iron Man fighting a foreign army while he has a personal stake in the battle sounds a hell of a lot more entertaining than yet another replacement Iron Man. And we all know it's just going to be Rhodey. 

Overall Verdict: 1981 wins on the strength of the synopsis, but it's a hard decision because I love the modern cover.

1981: Fantastic Four Vol 1 #232, Cover artists: John Byrne & Terry Austin.

Diablo, the self-styled Master of Alchemy, sends four elemental beings to track down and defeat the individual members of the Fantastic Four. (Interesting side-note, this is the first issue of John Byrne's legendary run on the title.)

2012: Fantastic Four Vol 1 #605.1, Cover artist: Ron Garney.

The Secret History of the Fantastic Four. Everything starts just like you remember. It ends like something completely different.

Cover Verdict: The negative effect on the modern cover is a bit creepy, but ultimately it's a cheap effect. The images of our heroes shooting from a villain's cauldron is far spookier, and cooler. 

Synopsis Verdict: Let's face it, "four elemental beings" probably translates as four generic monsters. The "Secret History" of the FF sounds a lot more intriguing.

Overall Verdict: 2012 wins! The modern cover isn't great, but it's just creepy enough to work well when combined with the cryptic synopsis.

1981: Batman Vol 1 #337, Cover artist: Jim Aparo.

Batman encounters an ice-powered criminal named the Snowman in Gotham, who proves to be the son of a human woman and a Yeti.

2012: Batman Vol 2 #9, Cover artists: Greg Capullo & FCO Plascencia.

Batman must stop the TALONS that have breeched the Batcave in order to save an innocent life...and Gotham City!

Cover Verdict: The modern cover is definitely a beautiful, eye catching image, and I love the house dripping blood. But it doesn't tell us much about what's going on in this comic and unless you've read the previous issue, it's not clear what we're looking at. The older cover has Batman on skis, rendering all arguments against it invalid.

Synopsis Verdict: A Batcave invasion sounds great but the question I have to ask myself is, does it sound as awesome as a yeti's bastard? No, I don't think it does. 

Overall Verdict: 1981 wins! Owl assassins are no match for the Abominable Snowman's love-child.

So after comparing my Pull List to its direct 1981 equivalent based on the quality of the cover and how interesting the plot synopsis seems, we have a tie! Five wins for 1981 and five wins for 2012. Of course, if I were to actually review the contents of these issues we could have quite a different verdict. But it seems if I went into a comic shop that contained these twenty issues and bought just ten of them based on the cover and the plot synopsis, then I would have selected an equal amount from both eras.

One thing I've noticed from comparing these comics is that you could jumble up the plot synopses and with perhaps a few exceptions, you'd be hard pressed to match up the plot to the correct era. Despite all the changes in cultural attitudes, regime shake ups, devil deals, cosmic events and New 52s, mainstream superhero comics are pretty similar now to how they've always been. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. Personally, I like it. There's a reason I keep going back to mainstream super-hero comics, and while I like to be surprised by them and want them to adapt to new audiences, I never want them to change beyond all recognition. I cherish the comforting familiarity of the well worn formulas and clichés. Maybe that makes me part of what's wrong with the comics industry? I don't know.

If this article proves anything I think it's that, at least as far as I'm concerned, super-hero comics weren't better or worse back in the good ol' days. There are good comics and bad comics now, just as there were back then. There are good writers/artists/stories/characters and bad writers/artists/stories/characters now, just as there were back then. And of course good and bad are entirely subjective concepts, just as they were back then.

Although the illegitimate offspring of a Yeti will always be objectively awesome!

* UPDATE: Superman Vol 3 #9 hit the shelves with a different cover to the one that was solicited, also by Ivan Reis. The character named as Masochist in the solicitations was named Anguish in the actual comic.