Some part of me regrets having been too busy to accept Brian Cremins and Brannon Costello’s invitation to contribute to their new edited collection, The Other 80s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade, by submitting something on one of my all-time favorite comics series of the 1980s, Power Pack. But unfortunately, I had too much going on at the time between moving, conferences, and other publishing deadlines. Plus, I had already written about Power Pack for The Middle Spaces, so I’d have to think of a different approach, which while totally in the realm of possibility, also meant more work on my part. Thankfully, however, despite not being able to contribute, I was honored to be asked by Brian and Brannon to help out by blurbing the book (which I did), and I followed up by offering to do my part to spread the word about it and the work of fantastic scholars between its covers by giving a little preview of what you’ll find inside, discussing how it came together, and its goals and publishing that interview here.
As I wrote in my blurb:
In The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade, editors Brian Cremins and Brannon Costello have drawn together a myriad of brilliant scholars to provide a gold mine of careful and contextualized reflections on under-studied comics of the 1980s. In each chapter, these scholars shine a light on comics that have been overshadowed by the endless return to a handful of examples from that era—Maus, the Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen—that for too long have served as a narrow stand-in for everything going on in the field during that decade, and making their case for why these overlooked comics deserve to be studied. From examining the work of lesser known comics writers like Doug Moench, whose comics spanned the gap between the 70s and 80s, to exploring the indie boom that put publishers like Comico and Eclipse on the map (if temporarily), to licensed comics based on toy lines and their role in shared universes, to the conservative resonances of The Comics Journal’s infamously irascible take on mainstream comics, and more, The Other 80s widens the lens to reveal a fecund period in comics that is only now getting more than a scratch on the surface.
Below, Drs Cremins and Costello took the time to answer my questions and give us insight into this cacophonous and carnivalesque decade that, as the subtitle tells us, is certainly crucial in ways that both complement and move beyond the so-called canonical tests of that decade and how the thinkers they brought together tackle it. The book is organized into five parts and as such so is this Q&A, with a look at the contents of each part before we get to the questions. You might already be familiar with Brian and Brannon from their participation is The (re)Collection Agency interview series, in which they spoke about their previous monographs—Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia and Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin respectively—along with their own personal and professional collecting practices.
Part 1: “The New Wave: Crucial Writers, Artists and Titles”
- Isabelle Licari-Guillaume, “Delayed Recognition: Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest.”
- Andrew J. Kunka, “Lords, Masters, Aces, and Knights: Doug Moench and the Advancement of Comics in the 1980s.”
- Maaheen Ahmed, “Neil the Horse and Suppressed Comics Memory: Dolls, Funny Animals, and Entertainment Work.”
- Shiamin Kwa, “The Circles in the Squares: Analogic Thinking in P. Craig Russell’s Salomé and Pelléas and Mélisande.”
OO: Why the 1980s? And what makes a writer and/or artist crucial in this period when the assumption of the collection is that they have not gotten enough attention?
Brian Cremins: I’ll let Brannon take more of this one since the collection was his inspiration! I think he first mentioned it to me at the 2016 ICAF in South Carolina. I seem to remember waiting in line to ask Keith Knight to sign a poster and Brannon said, “How about an edited collection about 1980s comics?” I immediately said, “Yes! Count me in.”
Brannon Costello: One key point of origin that I remember is when Brian was kind enough to review a draft of the introduction to my book on Howard Chaykin. In my first attempt at making the case for Chaykin’s distinctiveness and significance, I had gone overboard into a kind of expansive Chaykin Exceptionalism, where I was claiming that he was the main, maybe the only, creator who had lived up to the promise and potential of the independent comics movement, and Brian pushed back on that in a really helpful way, pointing out (in his friendly and collegial manner!) that it was overly dismissive of a rich and diverse body of work. It was an incredibly valuable comment, not only because it pushed me to be more specific about the claims I was making for Chaykin’s work but also because it made me think critically about what I was and wasn’t reading from the era and how seriously I was taking it. I think some of our early conversations about putting this book together probably came from that back-and-forth. And I may have first proposed the collection, but it’s no exaggeration to say that it would not have been possible without Brian’s intimate knowledge of this period and his tremendous generosity and thoughtfulness as an editor and collaborator.
It was our sense that we (scholars, critics, fans) generally acknowledge that the 1980s are a key era in the development of comics—in terms of comics as a medium, in terms of the widening appreciation of comics as a legitimate art form, in terms of attempts to cultivate new audiences and create new publication formats to reach those audiences—yet the conversation about what’s interesting about 1980s comics often tends to revolve around the same handful of major texts: Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Maus primarily. It’s no accident that these are comics that translated well into the “literary graphic novel” paradigm that continues to exert a powerful influence over what gets reprinted, what gets written about, and so forth. There is nothing wrong with the literary graphic novel in and of itself, but we knew that to begin to capture the era’s variety, depth, and sophistication, it would be important to pay particular attention to comics whose distinctiveness and originality don’t always fit into that mold.
There are a few ways to define “crucial” in regards to the comics and creators that our contributors discussed—whether it’s in terms of aesthetic innovation, or the way they illuminate some aspect of the evolving comics marketplace, or how they help us rethink assumptions about comics history, or how they engage in a revealing or original (if not always entirely successful) way with social or political issues. A book like Stewart the Rat is very different from a series like Micronauts and both are very different from a series like Angel Love, but our contributors help us see how all of those books tell us something unique and significant not just about 1980s comics but also about how comics became what they are today.
Part 2: “Gerbils, Geckos, and Wharf Rats”: Or, Publishers, Properties, and Capitalism”
- Paul Williams, “Making Graphic Novels in the Early Direct Market: Eclipse Enterprises and Steve Gerber’s Stewart the Rat.”
- Brian Cremins, “‘Entertainment Should Be an Adventure’: Reggie Byers, Shuriken, and the Black-and-White Boom.”
- Andrew Hoberek, “Another Toy Story: The Micronauts, Rom, and Capitalist Epic.”
OO: The implicit connection you make between creator-owned/work-for-hire woes (Gerber’s Stewart the Rat as a reaction to Howard the Duck), the black-and-white boom (Brian’s own chapter), and franchise comics based on toys (Micronauts, etc.) by putting them in the same section is a fascinating one. What do you think was going on in the 80s that put all these economic forces to work in shaping comics?
Brannon: In terms of the economic forces that underlie the diverse books in this section, and indeed in the whole collection, it’s hard to underestimate how promising the expansion of the direct market seemed for creators and readers in the early 1980s: the idea that you could explore adult subject matter in a visually distinctive, even experimental manner, that you could still reach a broad enough audience to support yourself without having to sign your rights over to one of the major publishers, that you could do work that was original and idiosyncratic and yet still be part of the “mainstream” world of comics. It’s a fascinating case of creators and publishers trying to figure out what modes of expression this emergent economic model is going to authorize. Of course, that window of possibility only stays open for a short time before a series of speculator-driven crashes, the collapse of the indie publishers, and other factors combine to make the direct market the risk-averse mechanism for servicing the Marvel and DC brands that it has become today. (Andrew Hoberek’s piece on Micronauts and Rom isn’t about the direct market per se but it’s a really fascinating look at how the licensed comics of that era are an early expression of the ideology of cross-platform corporate synergy that dominates cultural production today.) But the work that was done within that window remains fascinating both on its own terms and for the picture it offers of a thwarted evolutionary path that comics might have followed.
OO: Brian, why did you want to have your own contribution be about the black and whites when the 80s is so fecund and there is so much to potentially write about?
Brian: For years, I’ve wanted to write about publisher, writer, and cartoonist Reggie Byers and his company Victory Productions. Initially, I thought I’d be writing about Bill Woggon and Barb Rausch’s Vicki Valentine, from Renegade Press, but when I read Maaheen Ahmed’s fabulous proposal on Katherine Collins’s Neil the Horse, a series Rausch also worked on, I decided to shift away from writing about comics and paper dolls, and returned to that idea I had about Byers and his series Shuriken.
Shuriken was one of those black and white titles in the 1980s that was difficult to find. When I would come across copies of it back then, they were expensive, since that was the height of the speculator boom in black-and-white titles. I first saw Byers’s work in Comico’s Robotech: The New Generation, and I’ve always admired his sense of design. As we mention in the book, he was one of the first artists in the 1980s to combine his love of manga with a more American-style storytelling sensibility, along with artists like Wendy Pini and Frank Miller. Much like other comics from the period, the black-and-white titles published in the wake of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are often fascinating works of art, despite their flaws. Shuriken is one of those standout titles, a lot of fun to read and to look at, especially as an example of how a young and innovative cartoonist like Byers got his start.
Part 3: “The Sense of the Everyday”: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Sexuality
- Meg King, “Graphic Representations of ‘Vietnam Syndrome’: Race and Masculinity in The ’Nam and Real War Stories.”
- James, Zeigler, “For Shame! Wimmen’s Comix Redux and Dori Seda’s Lonely Nights.”
- Alex B. Smith, “‘Hysteria, the Other AIDS Epidemic’: Strip AIDS USA, HIV, and the Narrative of Respectability.”
OO: I was struck by how the intro to section three begins by talking about music, and when thinking about challenging race and gender norms in the 1980s, my mind falls back to the fluidity of gender representation in so many bands of that decade, even as Black artists had to fight to get on MTV. How is that reflected in the comics the scholars in this section write about and ones they didn’t get to write about?
Brian: That’s a great question, and what’s interesting is that the essays that most focus on gender fluidity as a hallmark of 1980s culture appear in different places in the book, including in Isabelle Licari-Guillaume’s essay on Elfquest at the start of Part 1, Shiamin Kwa’s essay on P. Craig Russell’s opera comics, which expands on the surface reading theories she’s developed in her recent monograph Regarding Frames: Thinking with Comics in the Twenty-First Century, and Dan Yezbick and Jonathan Alexandratos’s article on Robotech in Part 5. In thinking back on that era, it’s easy to forget what a tremendous impact 1970s glam rock had on 1980s pop music, from Boy George and Culture Club and Madonna to Duran Duran and Prince and the hair metal bands. And then you get to the late ‘80s and you start seeing that resurgence in ‘60s psychedelia not just with Prince but with A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers and De La Soul and Living Colour. There are so many currents in popular culture that these writers and artists were responding to in their comics, as were fan publications like Don and Maggie Thompson’s weekly Comics Buyer’s Guide, David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview (I just read the sad news that Kraft passed away a few weeks ago), and The Comics Journal. Jeremy Carnes also touches on the way pop music shaped the popular imagination in his article on Tim Truman’s Scout, a series which is filled with allusions to the African American Blues tradition. And, as Jeremy reminds us, Scout even included a flexi-disc soundtrack in issue #19, featuring Truman’s blues rock band.
OO: Why no Omaha the Cat Dancer essay?
Brian: I’m so glad you mentioned Kate Worley and Reed Waller’s Omaha, which we reference in the short introduction to Part 4. I hope one day soon to see another book on 1980s comics, or a monograph on Omaha. I think it’s important to note that this is a book on U.S. comics in the 1980s, a starting point for other writers, and not by any means the book on the period. We’re hoping it gets people talking and inspired to write their own essays and books about this rich, diverse era.
I’d like to see more research like Meg King’s on The ‘Nam and Real War Stories and Peter Cullen Bryan’s on Another Rainbow and their reprints of the classic Carl Barks stories. Those essays shine a light on how publishers large and small adapted to a rapidly changing marketplace, one that was filled with many different constituencies–younger readers, collectors/speculators, aspiring writers/editors/artists, older and more nostalgic readers. And that’s just a small snapshot of the communities that were reading comics in the 1980s. As Trina Robbins always reminds us, it wasn’t just male superhero fans reading comics. The audiences were wider and much more diverse than we might realize, but, as Blair [Davis], Aaron [Kashton], and Rachel [Miller] all point out in their essays, it’s only in the last ten years that we’re finally seeing the legacy of innovative publishers like yronwode, Byers, and Jenette Kahn taking hold in the marketplace. Aaron suggests that all of those funny animal and romance comics might not be at the “edges of the frame” at all, to borrow one of Brannon’s phrases from the book’s introduction. Those comics—Neil the Horse and Renegade Romance and Meet Misty—might have been “at the center of the frame” all along. It’s just taken 40 years for other publishers to catch up! The sad thing is that too many of these innovators don’t receive the kind of respect and interest they deserve. We hope the collection changes that.
And, now that I think of it, the book doesn’t include essays on some of my favorites—Matt Wagner’s original Mage series, which remains one of the most visually stunning comics ever published, thanks to Sam Keith’s inks and Wagner’s airbrush colors, Mark Martin’s superhero parodies, minicomics like Matt Levin’s Walking Man Comics, which got its start in the ‘80s, J.M. DeMatteis’s Moonshadow, Gene Colan’s pencil and watercolor experiments, like the Nightwings graphic novel, Woggon and Rausch’s Vicky Valentine, which Aaron does touch on briefly in his article, and a lot of other titles that Deni Loubert’s Renegade Press published, for example. I’ll be first in line to buy a monograph on Barb Rausch. What an artist!
Loubert, by the way, edited and published some astonishing comics. Renegade Press is probably best remembered now (rightly so) for publishing the last few issues of Neil the Horse, one of the great comics of the decade, but one of the many joys I had in working on this project was finally reading other Renegade titles I missed back in the ‘80s. Back then, I was a faithful reader of Dan Day’s Cases of Sherlock Holmes, but I finally got to read comics like Kafka and Wordsmith and Bill Dinardo’s short-lived but stunning series Friends (which is about an alien and his human buddies, not about a bunch of people awkwardly dancing to The Rembrandts and drinking coffee). There is so much great material just waiting to be (re)discovered, and you can find a lot of it in Randy Scott’s comic art collection at Michigan State. I just donated a lot of the comics and magazines that we used as resources for our contributors as we were working on the book to MSU, so I hope scholars get a chance to start exploring all of that material for themselves. Speaking of Randy, I also found one of his letters to the Comics Buyer’s Guide as we were doing research, along with a couple of mine!
Brannon: An Omaha the Cat Dancer essay would have been great and anyone interested in that comic should check out our contributor Aaron Kashtan’s 2019 essay on that series in Inks. And I want to reiterate Brian’s point that we hope this will be a book on 1980s comics, not the book. One decision we made early on was that we would ask for shorter essays so that we could include more of them and thus cover a broader range of material—and even so, as Brian observes, there is so much left to discuss! There’s certainly a lot more to say about gender in a series like, say, Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil as well—we only had space to touch on Doran’s work in the intro, but I hope our book can provide a useful context for someone to dive deeply into that series. One thing that Alex Smith’s essay on Strip AIDS USA makes clear is that the sometimes strategic embrace of respectability politics hems in representations of gender and sexuality even in ostensibly progressive-leaning spaces, and I’d love to see more work on comics of the era that used sci-fi or fantasy genre trappings to escape that trap or that pushed back against it directly in the way that Jim Zeigler describes Dori Seda’s work doing in his essay.
Part 4: A Real American Hero? Adventures in Comedy, Politics, and Regionalism
- Jeremy M. Carnes, “‘Shades and Light’: Representational Paradox and Tim Truman’s Scout Saga.”
- Blair Davis, “The Lark/Light Returns: DC’s Humorous Heroes of the 1980s.”
- José Alaniz, “‘Where Is My Soil?’: Ms. Mystic in the Anthropocene.”
- Brannon Costello, “Metropolis in Dixie: Race, Liberty, and the Atlanta of Southern Knights.”
OO: This section has essays on four very different comics, what makes these comics worth revisiting, especially as representations of something potentially quintessentially American? And is there a difference between returning to comics like Scout or Captain Carrot and having to carefully explore something as explicitly problematic as Southern Knights?
Brannon: I think there’s a temptation when writing about an under-studied work, especially if it’s one you like, to want to gloss over its problematic aspects, especially if they complicate some more progressive aspect of the comic’s ideological critique. Our contributors deftly avoided that pitfall and not just in this section. For instance, José Alaniz’s piece on Ms. Mystic makes clear that you can’t really disentangle that series’ environmental politics from its cheesecake sexuality—it’s not just that one is good and the other is bad, it’s that the series’ ecological imagination is bound up with and constrained by its cliched gender representations and its focus on conventional superhero action. And yet those limitations are part of what makes the series interesting as an artifact of 1980s-era thinking about environmental politics and the superhero genre as a vehicle for social commentary. It’s an interesting contrast with Jeremy Carnes’ essay on Scout, which is much more about how Tim Truman is explicitly grappling with, and trying to move beyond, the sorts of clichés and conventions that Neal Adams is sometimes simply replicating.
OO: I saw you present an early version of your chapter on Southern Knights at CSS 2018, how has it developed since that early version and was there anything you discovered or realized about that comic in the intervening time that surprised you?
Brannon: With my Southern Knights essay, I began that project really intending to focus on the series’ depiction of Atlanta as a kind of southern Metropolis and how that pushed against the tendency in superhero comics to represent the U.S. South as a place of contamination and corruption that is somehow not really part of the United States. Thinking about that dynamic has been a major trend in southern studies, building on the work of Leigh Anne Duck, Jennifer Rae Greeson, Tara McPherson, and others, and I thought the series offered an interesting perspective on it. I initially saw the series’ minimal representation of Atlanta’s African American population as problematic but not necessarily central to what I was interested in—something I was going to address but not devote a lot of time to—but the longer I spent with the series and the more I wrote, the more apparent it became that those threads were densely woven together. That essay proved to be challenging for me to write. I realized that I’m used to being at least partly motivated by a kind of evangelical impulse in my writing, by being excited to share something that I love but that hasn’t gotten enough attention or that hasn’t been examined from the most illuminating perspectives. Southern Knights might need examination, but love is not the word I’d use for it. Thankfully, the collection as a whole has no shortage of enthusiasm-motivated essays!
Part 5: “A Small Step Toward That Utopian Dream”: Communities of Readers
- Jonathan Alexandratos and Daniel F. Yezbick, “Robo-texts and Mecha-morphs: The Rise of Robotech, the Coming of Comico, and the Transmedial Joys of the 1980s ‘Japanimated’ Explosion.”
- Peter Cullen Bryan, “‘Always Another Rainbow’: Fans, Comics Publishing, and the Return of Donald Duck.”
- Robert Hutton, “The Crusade of The Comics Journal.”
- Rachel R. Miller, “Revolution Girl Style Later: Intergenerational Feminisms and the Second Life of Wimmen’s Comix in the 1980s.”
- Aaron Kashtan, “Amethyst, Meet Misty, and Angel Love: Historical Footnotes or Paths Not Taken?”
OO: So what do 80s comics tell us about comics present or comics future, if anything?
Brannon: I think about how in the 1980s direct-market heyday, books as different as Katherine Collins’ Neil the Horse and Doug Moench’s Lords of the Ultra-Realm seemed to be part of a more tightly knit comics world, where there was room for enormous diversity of style and content within packages that looked roughly similar—serially published pamphlets. It made it easier for someone who went to the comics store to buy a new issue of Uncanny X-Men to see something like A Distant Soil or Real War Stories or a Donald Duck comic as part of the same universe and maybe to take a chance on it and thus have an entry point into a wider sense of what’s possible in comics. Certainly, that’s how I ended up reading American Flagg!—because my favorite series at the time was Captain America, and I thought they must be similar. To me, it feels like even when you go to a great comics store now that carries monthly superhero comics alongside YA graphic novels alongside adult graphic novels alongside zines on consignment, there is a sense that each of those types of comics exists in something of a silo. Maybe that’s not right—maybe that’s just my nostalgia talking and the expansive branding of any comic with a spine as a “graphic novel” creates similar conditions of possibility. But for people who are engaged with comics, as creators or critics or readers, it’s important to remember how capacious and strange the world of comics is, to resist the temptation to think of any one genre or format of comics as the whole of comics, in order to think about the threads that bind together types of comics that might seem fundamentally different or even opposed to one another. The world of 1980s comics, that our contributors are mapping in this book, is one in which those connections are much more immediately legible, and thinking about that history can help to make those connections more legible in the present as well.
Brian: There’s a passage from Eclipse editor and early comics scholar cat yronwode that Brannon and I cite in the book’s introduction that speaks very well to the links between comics today and the U.S. comics of forty years ago. I stumbled across this passage in an installment of “The Penumbra,” the column she included every month on the inner front cover of Eclipse’s comics in the mid-to-late 1980s. Her brother-in-law Jan Mullaney was rehearsing a show at St. Mark’s Theater in New York, which leads her to thinking about the similarities between his work in theater and her work as an editor and publisher. The process of making art “of any kind,” she writes, “must be protected from dictators and thugs, it must be kept free from the taint of corrupt influence, and it must be kept open to anyone who wishes to participate.” As we were editing this collection over the last four years, I returned again and again to this passage, not only for a sense of hope but also to understand what these comics from 40 years ago might tell us about the world we face today. One of the reasons we were so happy that Keiler Roberts was able to draw the cover for the book, and the paper dolls in the interior, is that her series, Powdered Milk, reminds me so much of the best of the black-and-white titles from the ‘80s. Powdered Milk would have been a perfect series for Renegade Press. I think contemporary cartoonists like John Porcellino, Whit Taylor, Ben Passmore, Marnie Galloway, Amara Leipzig, Danielle Chenette, Isabella Rotman, and Mickey Zacchilli—to name just a few—are carrying on the progressive, experimental, but still accessible spirit that drove publishers like Renegade and Eclipse.
Your questions also reminds me that, in the summer of 2020, as we were getting ready to work on the copyedit for the book, Bob Mould released a new tune whose opening lyrics I think sum up the more terrible legacies of the 1980s, while also trying to offer a way forward. On “American Crisis,” he sings, “I never thought I’d see this bullshit again/To come of age in the ‘80s was bad enough.” He’s singing about his memories of the AIDS crisis: “I watched a lot of my generation die/Welcome back to the American crisis.” In the song, it’s like he’s trying to find his way out of that endless historical loop, to something better and more equitable and caring. I think the best comics of the 1980s can still do that for us. That’s also why the book ends with Rachel Miller’s piece on Wimmen’s Comix and the Riot Grrrl movement, and Aaron Kashtan’s essay on titles like Barbara Slate’s Angel Love, Trina Robbins’s California Girls, and Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, and Ernie Colón’s Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. We wanted the book to close with a focus not on the past, but on the future and on those “paths not taken”—to borrow Aaron’s phrase—that comics and comics studies might still follow.
OO: So what next for the both of you? Are there any other 80s comics you think you’ll come back to or seek out now that the book is done and in people’s hands?
Brannon: Right now I’m writing about Swamp Thing, a piece of which I’m presenting at the upcoming virtual Comics Studies Society conference in August. Partly related to that, I’ve been re-reading some of Rick Veitch’s 1980s-era work like Heartburst. And a piece of me will always be sad that we didn’t get an essay proposal on Jan Strnad and Dennis Fujitake’s Dalgoda!
Brian: I don’t have plans for another comics studies project right now, but I again want to say what an honor it’s been to be part of this project with Brannon and with this talented and forward-thinking group of writers. I hope the book conveys a real sense of community and possibility. I also hope people aren’t shy about cutting out and coloring in the paper dolls that Keiler created for the interior of the book, based on the two characters she drew on that fabulous cover (which also features fantastic design work from Michelle Neustrom). We really did try to emulate the comics of the era, with their paratexts and letters pages and other assorted weirdnesses. May the love and the weirdness continue!
I want to thank Brian Cremins and Brannon Costello again for agreeing to think through and answer these questions and for bringing together these great scholars to examine a decade that can both be too easily reduced to a few clichés and that has as many different connotations and meanings as there are people who lived through it. You can order The Other 80s: Reframing Comics; Crucial Decade directly from LSU Press or from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Brannon Costello is James F. Cassidy Professor of English at Louisiana State University. His publications include Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin (LSU Press, 2017), Conversations with Michael Chabon (UP of Mississippi, 2015), and Comics and the U.S. South, coedited with Qiana Whitted (UP of Mississippi, 2012).
Brian Cremins is Professor of English at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, and the author of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia (UP of Mississippi, 2016).