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Grumpy Old Fan | Who won the ‘80s?

Where the over-people gather to watch big-screen botanical throwdowns

A couple of weeks ago, I wondered whether we could trace the entire sidekick-derived wing of DC’s superhero-comics history back to Bill Finger. Today I’m less interested in revisiting that question — although I will say Robin the Boy Wonder also owes a good bit to Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane — than using it as an example.

Specifically, this week’s question has nagged me for several years (going back to my TrekBBS days, even), and it is this: as between Alan Moore and the duo of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, who has been a bigger influence on DC’s superhero books?

As the post title suggests, we might reframe this as “who won the ‘80s,” since all three men came to prominence at DC in that decade. Wolfman and Pérez’s New Teen Titans kicked off with a 16-page story in DC Comics Presents #26 (cover-dated October 1980), with the series’ first issue following the next month. Moore’s run on (Saga of the) Swamp Thing started with January 1984′s issue #20, although the real meat of his work started with the seminal issue #21. Wolfman and Pérez’s Titans collaboration lasted a little over four years, through February 1985′s Tales of the Teen Titans #50 and New Teen Titans vol. 2 #5. Moore wrote Swamp Thing through September 1987′s #64, and along the way found time in 1986-87 for a little-remembered twelve-issue series called Watchmen. After their final Titans issues, Wolfman and Pérez also produced a 12-issue niche-appeal series of their own, 1984-85′s Crisis On Infinite Earths.* The trio even had some common denominators: Len Wein edited both Titans and Watchmen (and Barbara Randall eventually succeeded him on both), and Gar Logan’s adopted dad Steve Dayton was friends with John Constantine.

If Titans and Crisis versus Swamp Thing and Watchmen were the whole tale of the tape, it’d probably be enough — but of course it isn’t. Moore also wrote one of the definitive Superman stories, “For The Man Who Has Everything” (1985′s Superman Annual #11), an even-more-definitive Joker story, 1988′s The Killing Joke, and 1986′s elegaic “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”  Later in 1986, Wolfman literally helped redefine Superman with twelve issues’ worth of The Adventures of Superman (plus a big role in the conception of post-Crisis Lex Luthor), while Pérez (with writers Greg Potter and Len Wein) relaunched Wonder Woman.

Of course, Crisis facilitated the changes to Superman and Wonder Woman (and, not incidentally, helped make “Whatever Happened…?” possible). It also allowed Wolfman and Pérez to depict Wally West’s graduation from sidekick to headliner, as he took over the role of the Flash from his late uncle. Not quite two years before, the duo showed Dick Grayson similarly giving up his Robin identity for the long pants and disco collar of Nightwing; and as the ‘80s drew to a close, Wolfman and Pérez (with artist Jim Aparo) would introduce the third Robin, Tim Drake, in the Batman/Titans crossover “A Lonely Place of Dying.”

Accordingly, we might see this question in terms of quantity versus quality. While Wolfman and Pérez left their rejuvenative fingerprints on a multitude of DC’s characters (not to mention the underlying cosmology), Moore infused the relatively-few characters he wrote with new sensibilities and fresh perspectives.

However, I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. New Teen Titans was a superhero soap opera, compared virtually from the start to Uncanny X-Men, but it was an extremely well-done soap opera. Simmering subplots like Starfire’s confrontation with her diabolical sister, and the year-long buildups to “The Judas Contract” and Donna’s wedding, demonstrated the eventual emotional wallops that monthly comics could produce. Likewise, no discussion of Moore’s work is complete without mentioning the hidden depths he found in Swamp Thing and Watchmen’s Charlton-derived creations.**

Instead, in gross terms I believe the difference between Moore and Wolfman/Pérez is one of direction. Although Wolfman and Pérez did a lot to update, “modernize,” and otherwise develop their characters organically, basically their approach was conservative, in order that those characters could still function as familiar going concerns. Even Dick’s and Wally’s graduations, progressive as they were at the time, came out of more practical needs. The Bat-books and Titans each wanted Dick/Robin for different purposes, and separating Dick from his original alter ego made both sides happy. Conversely, Wolfman and Pérez never quite knew what to do with the ultra-powerful Kid Flash, so in Titans’ first three years they made him a reluctant hero (who’d actually retired upon his graduation from high school), revealed that his speed was killing him, and had him quit the team. Fortuitously, Crisis cured him, depowered him sufficiently, and gave him a new reason (honoring his uncle) to be a superhero.

With Swamp Thing and Watchmen, though, Moore pretty much blew up familiar status quos in order to take his characters into uncharted territory. Even his depiction of the Justice League, in Swamp Thing #24, was nontraditional, among other things describing the JLA Satellite as “a house above the world where the over-people gather.” Moore had Swampy fight Batman and Luthor, but he also took the character into space and across dimensions. Obviously he had to have both character and book continue uninterrupted, but apart from that Swamp Thing’s narrative range expanded dramatically.

And then, of course, Watchmen blew up superhero comics themselves.

Now, at this point I suspect some of you may be wondering where a certain ex-Daredevil writer/artist fits into our DC-1980s retrospective. Somewhere between, I’d say; maybe closer to Moore than to Wolfman/Pérez, but maybe not as close as you’d think. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and (with artist David Mazzucchelli, naturally) “Batman: Year One” set a new standard for Batman stories, just as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had done fifteen years before. I don’t include Miller with Moore or Wolfman/Pérez because he didn’t do a lot of Batman — four 48-page issues of Dark Knight and four 23-page issues of Batman — but pretty much instantly he became the main influence on the character for at least the next decade.

More generally, Dark Knight and Watchmen were a one-two punch in favor of … well, hyper-violent, grim ‘n’ gritty superhero comics. Dark Knight especially showed how a well-known character like Batman could be revitalized through such an approach, and not long after Mike Grell was using the hyper-violent Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters as the pilot for a gritter, grimmer GA ongoing series.

Nevertheless, as prevalent as it was, grim ‘n’ gritty didn’t become ubiquitous across DC’s superhero line. Pérez’s Wonder Woman, Mike Baron and Butch Guice’s Flash, and the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis/Kevin Maguire Justice League International each had distinctly different tones, as did the biggest post-Crisis relaunch, John Byrne’s Superman.

I mention the Byrne Superman in this context largely because it was seen as evidence of DC’s “Marvelization.” In 1986 Byrne came to DC fresh from an extended, well-received run on Fantastic Four, just as Wolfman and Pérez had started New Teen Titans following their own well-regarded Marvel work. Titans might have been DC’s response to the success of X-Men; but it was also seen as a “Marvel-style” superhero soap, driven more by raw emotion than by fidelity to some square Silver Age ideal. Similarly, Marvel’s tighter continuity (and lack of reliance on an allegedly convoluted Multiverse) helped justify Crisis’ cosmic housecleaning.*** Add in Miller, doing for Batman what he’d done for Daredevil, and a pattern starts to form.

Even so, I believe Moore’s contributions to DC’s tonal palette have surpassed Wolfman and Pérez’s. The duo might have taken DC further down the road to Marvel-style storytelling, but the publisher had been on that road for a while already. After all, writers like Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart had similarly crossed over in the ‘70s. Moore’s success helped start a “British invasion” of writers and artists, leading eventually to the likes of Neil Gaiman on Sandman and Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and JLA.

In short, even though Wolfman and Pérez were wildly successful in their own right, Alan Moore’s influence led to the creation of a whole new line of comics. Moreover, the Vertigo style bled back into the superhero line, both in the ‘90s with JLA and James Robinson’s Starman scripts, and today in its own corner of the New 52.

This topic definitely deserves more space than I can give it today, but for now I’m content to give Moore the edge over Wolfman/Pérez. Tonight I will sleep just a bit more soundly … that is, if I don’t start thinking about Len Wein….

++++++++++++

* [Moore also pitched a line-wide crossover, the dystopian-future Twilight of the Superheroes, but for various reasons it was never produced.]

** [Let me be clear: the phrase “Charlton-derived” is used solely for shorthand, and is in no way intended to diminish Moore’s role in creating the world of Watchmen. I’m not getting into that fight here.]

*** [In fact, a letter to the Wolfman-written Green Lantern, which confused Magneto with Dr. Polaris, helped get Wolfman thinking about streamlining DC’s continuity.]

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40 Comments

You know, this has quickly become my favorite CBR series. It certainly helps that you’re a huge old-school DC fan (and by that, I mean you know about stuff from before the 2000s, something I can’t say about a lot of the self-professed DC fans I meet). Also, I like your long articles, where usually I’m not, but there’s something about your style; I think it’s the dense information and objective analytic approach you take to superhero comics, a rare mix. Keep up the good work!

I respect the literary tranformation that Alan Moore ushered into the entire comics industry with his work on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. But the fact is, Marv Wolfman & George Perez were the creative team that transformed DC as a company and saved them from financial ruin after the infamous DC Implosion in the late 70s.

The #1 smash hit success of New Teen Titans gave DC a gigantic influx of cash that they desperately needed. Outside of Mike Grell’s The Warlord, DC hadn’t had a big hit book in years. Marvel’s sales lead on DC was so obscenely large that rumors were rampant that Marvel was considering buying DC outright in the early Eighties. There is even the letter from Jim Shooter that I believe was featured on Bleeding Cool in the last 9 months where a deal was being negotiated for Marvel to license about a dozen of DC biggest properties. The failure of that deal precipitated a project to save DC and make it more accessible–and that was Crisis On Infinite Earths.

New Teen Titans rocketed to #1 and its mammoth sales success gave DC a ton of money to go out and lure creators like Frank Miller (who took leave of Daredevil to do Ronin at DC–3 years before Dark Knight) away from Marvel as well as new talent like Brian Bolland and Alan Moore. It was COIE that took the foundation for a new DC created by Wolfman & Perez’s Titans and exploited the hell out of it by setting up groundbreaking runs like John Byrne’s Superman, Perez’s Wonder Woman, Miller’s Batman and the very successful relaunch of Justice League the year after that.

Everything Marv and George did with NTT, COIE and WW gave DC the resources to survive and then thrive like never before. New books and new franchises began spinning out of a reborn DC saved and revitalized by the work of Wolfman & Perez: Batman And The Outsiders, successful relaunches of both Swamp Thing and Firestorm, Infinity Inc (the book that launched Todd McFarlane), the surprise hit Amethyst, cult favorite Blue Devil, Watchmen, Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, A Lonely Place Of Dying, et cetera. All of those projects were only possible because of the financial windfall brought on by the work of Wolfman & Perez.

Let’s not forget that Wolfman & Perez also managed to double Robin as a profitable property by spinning Dick Grayson off into the very popular Nightwing while simultaneously allowing DC to continue making money off of Robin. Thus giving them 2 franchise characters for the price of 1.

The list of positive changes and commercial & critical successes brought on at DC by Marv and George transformed DC as a company, but also comics as an industry. DC was the company that instituted a ROYALTY PROGRAM for creators in 1982 because of sales on New Teen Titans. A month or two later, Marvel’s Jim Shooter followed suit and instituted their own version of that. The whole reason DC and Marvel even have royalties for creators is all because of what Wolfman & Perez accomplished at DC.

Moore gets the literary cred as a great writer who helped transform the understanding of comics as literature for the whole industry. But if it weren’t for Marv & George’s revival of DC as a company, there wouldn’t have been a DC Comics to hire Moore and give him the launchpad to do all that he did.

I’d toss in one more name: Paul Levitz. His success on Legion (well, successes; two separate runs) led him to the top job at DC for decades, where he made a LOT of great things happen.

I think one simple thing: all of you are right. It was ALL of those creators’ efforts in this time that brought DC back to prominence–you can’t seriously isolate all the credit on one writer/artist.

!980′s was the the decade that I amassed ton and ton of DC comics as never before.

Ditto for Marvel, Independents and those unforgettable Warren magazine titles.

Thank you to those editors, writers and artists who brought me and many other fans (like me and this well regarded, Grumpy Old Fan) out of their buying slumps.

I can’t say the same thing right know. My comic book buying habit is at its lowest level ever, averaging no more than 20, even 15 titles a month, sometimes even less.

Very interesting piece and very meaty. Definitely deserves multiple posts. Depending on which angle you want to look at this could go either way. Overall I believe Moore’s, to date, the greatest and most important writer to the medium but It’s hard for me to flat out say that he was more important to DC than Perez/Wolfman especially after considering the information that @Flashpoint bought up.

I would suggest that the sucess of Wolfman Perez led to the revitalisation of the WHOLE DC Line that helped bring alan to the forefront….. for all intents and purposes Wolfman and Perez on Titans [ and Livitz and Giffen on Legion led to the company taking chances with Alan Moore in Swamp Thing and other titles.

While Moore on Swamp Thing led to a line of comics …. Wolfman and Perez led to the series of event that helped redefine DC.. all those miriad of titles in the 1986-1989 period which many feel is the pinacle of the DC climb were not due to Moore but to Wolfman and Perez…. Moore may have won the early 90′s in that regard but those super-heroes titles owed more to Wolfman and Perez.

That you had to even explain the Watchmen discussion’s Charlton-derived comment just goes to show how stupid that argument even is. Pre-Before Watchmen, the characters were always based on Peacemaker, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, etc. Post-BW and suddenly you have to walk on eggshells for the same comparison. Bull.

Alan Moore is a Master… but in my opinion Wolfman & Pérez are the “Lennon & McCartney” of the DCU. :)

Jake Earlewine

May 25, 2012 at 6:46 am

Wolfman and Perez are the Wolfman and Perez of DC. Their Teen Titans run was normal super-hero stuff just right for the times. It was an enjoyable read, and I’ll probably never read it again.

Alan Moore? Boggles the mind. I’ve read some of his stories three or four times (including the Watchmen) and would like to read them again. His best work is Timeless. Even writing super-heroes, Alan Moore transcends genre.

I agree with the author. It was Moore, hands down. DC spent the next twenty years recycling Moore’s stuff over and over–in tone (the grim and gritty explosion) and ideas (everything from ‘the Killing Joke’ to a one-off GL spawned entire plotlines, characters and miniseries). Furthermore, they didn’t just do so in the books themselves but in other media (Burton’s Joker, JLU’s adaptation of ‘the Man who has everything,’ just to name two). Finally, Moore’s success inspired DC to recruit other British comics writers, giving us, among others, Gaiman, Millar and Morrison. Moore may be a cranky old near-hasbeen at this point but his influence on DC in the 80s was roughly akin to the influence of the Beatles on 60s music. Not only did his work change everything but his followers did as well.

I love George, Marv, and Alam. I refuse comparisons because all of them entertained and enlightened me. If anything, I miss the tenor of those times, and I think comics have been lost on a treadmill since then, refusing to move. The innovators will always be compared and contrasted, but they will all be remembered!

I know Miller and Moore are soley credited for bringing in “grim n gritty” into superhero books, but I wonder how much the times themselves were a factor. I mean the eighties saw the likes of Rambo and Die Hard and what have you, it seems like grim n gritty was present in the general popular culture regardless, not to mention the fan base was getting older and the stories reflected that.

Warren Newsom

May 26, 2012 at 9:02 am

While Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a classic and helped raise the genre of super-hero comics to a kind of mainstream literary acceptance, Watchmen also destroyed that genre. The Marvel and DC universes are almost entirely based around the concept of “super-hero deconstruction”. The heroes live on worlds that hate them or worlds where they are less the saviors of Earth than they are the catalysts for cataclysms. Gone are the characters who strived to create a utopia and in their place are heroes contributing to the dystopic breakdowns of their societies. It’s depressing.

Alan Moore’s work at DC was entertaining and his concepts were deep and interesting. But they are now over-used, threadbare, and shallow. I really wish he wasn’t as big an influence on today’s creators as he is.

Grant Morrison is not British, but Scottish!

This is the best column you’ve written. The instinctive answer for me was Alan Moore of course!, but your points will make me mull over on this one quite a bit more.

Great column

I don’t think there’s is a winner in this case. Both were important. Moore more on the “long tail” end, but Wolfman and Perez were the kings of big sales. And, as mentioned, there is the importance of Jeanette Kahn and Paul Levitz in all that.

Tom Fitzpatrick

May 26, 2012 at 10:11 am

I was going to ask: “what about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series?”, but then I realized that the series began in 1989 and ended mid-’90′s.
So, that series really doesn’t count for the purposes of this blog.

Maybe if this was “Who won the ’90′s?, I’d put my money on Gaiman and Morrison.

I would say that Wolfman/Perez did more for DC as a company through their work than Moore, who instead did more to the entire industry with his.
Summing it up;
W/P rolled in the cash
Moore rolled out the creative

(And as someone pointed out, Morrison is Scottish (and many Scots appear to hate being called Brits))

“Watchmen” remains in my opinion an absolutely malignant influence, one of the things that’s wrong with the world. It was the equivalent of making a grand opera whose point is that it’s absurd for the characters to be singing. It was an act of deliberate disparagement against the medium and genre itself.

And it was a very bad idea to tell contemporary writers that they are so much cleverer than the people who originally thought up the brightly colored and patriotic characters. That too is a part of its subtext, in my opinion.

you know who really won the 80′s at dc it was denny o’neils reboot of the question.

@SteveGus: Agreed. Thank you. You rule.

Great article. I agree with the sentiment a lot of posters have stated. Moore set a new standard for comic book storytelling and Wolfman/Perez set the stage for The DCU to be successful through the 80s.

Great article.
While I feel Alan Moore’s output for DC in the eighties was certainly ‘game-changing’, it was an industry-wide influence, not solely shaping DC and not confined to the eighties. I’d argue that the impact of Watchmen took a few years to sink in—I didn’t even buy it until the trade came out!—and that the impact of Moore’s work is reflected in the late 80s to the present. The 80s proper, however, in my view belonged to Wolfman/Perez.
I would argue that Wolfman/Colan’s Night Force was a precursor to Vertigo, as much as Swampy.
Can’t forget the successful runs of Omega Men, Vigilante (Adrian Chase), Deathstroke, the Terminator (stemming from the success of the Titans) and the sheerly prolific output by Perez on covers, linewide—remember those wrap-around Who’s Who covers?
And there’s also The History of the DC Universe, which was a welcome set-up for the post-Crisis world.

That is why i said DC pretty much owed the 80′s wolfman/Perez…. it was the titans the led the turnaround

The titans sucess led to revitalisations in other book that included Swamp Thing.

Titans led to Batman and the Outsiders;Legion;night Force; All-Star Squadron;Atari Force; Perez on JLA;Blue Devil; CrisisSwamp Thing;Omega mew;Doom Patrol;Vigilante;Firstorm [Fury of] ; the list of what The sucess of New Teen Titans helped DC achieve with stability in a time the Marvel was pretty much kicking every sort of ass.

Alan Moore came along and capitalised on that sucess and creativity that hadn’t been at DC previously……remember before NTT— DC was still recovering from the Implosion

There would be no DC Alan Moore without Wolfman/Perez..

in other words while Wolfman/Perez may be the Lennon/McCartney…. Moore was Pink Floyd [complete with a Syd Barrett phase David gilmour era and roger waters denoument

To SteveGus, comics doesn’t equal superheroes. Comics had been on the scene for one hundred years before superheroes arrived.

have to give credit to all three for wolfman and perez not only kicked off a new dc with the titans including having some old sidekicks graduate to their own heroes kid flash to flash and robin to nightwing. plus showing any one can be robin . plus alan took dc in areas they have never gone before with swamp thing plus watchman

@ El Neo

Scotland is part of Britain.

A shout out has gotta be given to Gerry Conway and George Perez’s run on Justice League of America in the early 80′s. Although Perez didn’t hang around for long (as he left the book to focus on New Teen Titans), but they made a huge contribution to JLA’s satellite years.
Also let’s not forget inker Romeo Tanghal who inked Perez for most of his Titan run. He was an excellent inker who brought out even more detail to George’s work.
Great article!

Roy Thomas’ body of work at DC in the 1980′s was good. Many things he did, and characters he created were used and built upon right through FLASHPOINT.

Actually I think the real unsung heroes of DC’s 80s revival was DC Editorial (Dick Giordano, Len Wein, Karen Berger, Jennette Khan etc). Without them having the guts to hire people like Wolfman, Perez, Miller and Moore and let them run with their projects and supporting them when they came to them with ideas like killing the Flash or Supergirl or COIE then none of it would have happened in the first place.

I think to a large extent why DC went off the rails in the early 90′s was that editorial dropped the ball and let writers get away with stuff like Hawkworld trashing Hawkman’s continuity rather than keeping them on the straight and narrow.

My two cents:

Wolfman and Perez changed the course of the DC Universe and set the tone for most of what the company would do from the eighties onward. Alan Moore changed the course of the entire medium, altering perceptions within and outside of the industry as to what “comics” could do, be, and aspire to. Edge to Moore.

@Warren Newsom and @SteveGus,

I could not agree more. While i love both Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns…the fact that 90%+ superhero comics that came after it tried to do the same things they did absolutely ruined comics for me. Most of what Marvel and DC published in the 90′s is virtually unreadable to me. I guess I just miss superheroes who are actually heroic.

Warren Newsom

May 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm

To @Leocomix

You say:

“To SteveGus, comics doesn’t equal superheroes. Comics had been on the scene for one hundred years before superheroes arrived.”

This is true. But from the early 60′s to today, super-hero comics have dominated comic book sales in the U.S. (I know that in the rest of the world that is not the case, but we’re mostly talking DC here.) While Alan Moore’s work for DC was ground-breaking, he did pretty much destroy the super-hero as we knew it.

It wasn’t the quality of his work, or the originality of his work (anyone remember Squadron Supreme?), it was that his work became accepted as literature whereas the comic book of the Len Weins and Steve Engleharts wasn’t. Englehart and Don McGregor, both working at Marvel in the 70′s were easily as good writers as Moore, and their work was much, much, MUCH more original than his.

My own opinion is that I don’t think Moore deserves the level of accolades he has received for his comics work, and I think that in the 80′s and 90′s his work was given far too much importance and hence has had too great an influence on the industry. I’m not saying he’s a bad writer, or that he’s untalented — far from it. I’m just saying that he’s been a greater influence on today’s creators than he should have been.

I blame Paul Levitz.

Grant Morrison may be Scotish but it was his work in the Britiish comic book industry that got him noticed by DC.

Grant Morrison’s passport says he is British.

Someone brought up that Wolfman wrote Green Lantern during his DC tenure – but who remembers those stories? On the other hand, Alan Moore did some backup stories – BACKUP stories that introduced a much more cosmic sense to the series that I would argue has been the backbone to the GL success throughout the 21st century so far. How much of what has been done in the GL books would not be there without Mogo, to name just one Moore concept?

I’m not arguing for one team over the other because their importance/impact was different. Both were important, but one was immediate, while the other set up the longterm success. there is no Vertigo without Moore’s Swamp Thing. And almost all of the bookstore presence from DC was/is Vertigo. But there was no DC to grow into that success without W/P keeping DC solvent.

Wolfman/Perez inflience was, perhaps, more important on the short term, espcially providing DC with a much needed source of revenue.

Alan Moore´s influence was more important in the long run both, at DC and on the comic medium in general.

By the way, do not forget another influencial Moore creation on those years: John Constantine.

Cheers.

How is it possible that so many people can’t grasp the concept of Scottland being a part of Great Britain and thus being Scottish = being British. No one called him an English writer ffs.

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