THE OTHER 1980s
Editors: Brannon Costello and Brian Cremins
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Publication Year: 2021
Topic: Independent Comics, Under-studied Comics
WHAT IS IT?
In The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics’ Crucial Decade editors Brannon Costello and Brian Cremins bring together twenty essays that explore forgotten treasures from the dawn of the Direct Market era. Some of the comics featured are obscure, some are underappreciated, and some simply are not “literary” enough to have previously attracted serious scholarly attention.
If you locked a bunch of comics studies scholars in a room with nothing but long boxes of '80s overstock comics, I imagine this book of essays might be the result.
It’s sort of wonderful.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The introduction (penned by the editors) lays out the basic thesis around which the book is built: that there was a lot more to the 1980s in terms of comic books than the comic studies “canon” of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus. The decade was diverse and rich in terms of its stories and creators, and academics would do well to spend a bit more time exploring creators and comics that have been “dismissed or ignored outright” by critics who have celebrated the literary merits of Moore and Spiegelman.
This approach results in an explosion of fresh and interesting work. Each chapter is short (under fifteen pages) and is written in clear and entertaining prose. As a bonus, for fans of a certain age these essays offer a welcome and nostalgic reminder of all the comics we loved that may not have held up as “classics” but nonetheless were so important to us at the time.
I would love to see more books like this that have the courage to trust the depth and richness of the comic medium, and to take chances exploring something new. I am sick to death of hearing about Watchmen, and I am nearing saturation on The Young Avengers at this point as well. Whatever decade you are discussing, show me something different. Break out your old Ms. Mystic and Coyote comics to address climate change, like José Alaniz does here. Or address "white settler colonialism” in the American west by using Tim Truman’s brilliant Scout series like Jeremy M. Carnes did. There are so many unloved comics out there just waiting to be rediscovered and interpreted, and The Other 1980s is a handbook on how to find and explore them.
For anyone who was buying comics in the '80s, this is book should go directly to the top of their reading list. It would be almost impossible to properly discuss everything that is going on in The Other 1980s, but here is a list of a few titles that are featured, just to give you a taste of what’s inside: Elfquest, Aztec Ace, Six From Sirius, Neil the Horse, Stewart the Rat, Shuriken, Sabre, The Micronauts, Rom, The ‘Nam, Wimmen’s Comix, Strip AIDS USA, Scout, Captain Carrot, Ms. Mystic, Southern Knights, Robotech, Angel Love and Amethyst.
The Other 1980s references and seems to build on the work of Christopher Pizzino, whose book Arresting Development effectively argued that we need to learn to appreciate comics for what they are, rather than ignoring them if they have not “grown up” into some enlightened literary state. Costello and Cremins have made the conscious decision to embrace this idea, and this book considers comics in all their forms – yes, even Ambush Bug – to be worthy of academic analysis.
Alex B. Smith shows how Strip AIDS USA was a well-meaning but flawed effort and does an excellent job showing how gay comics like Howard Cruse's Wendel and Jerry Mills' Poppers introduced HIV-positive characters, reflected changing attitudes toward monogamy, and dealt with the death of friends from AIDS.
Isabelle Licardi-Guillaume’s insights on Wendy Pini and Andrew Kunka’s on Doug Moench were among the book’s highlights for me. Both authors did a nice job of helping to show why these creators were important at the time while also exploring why their work may not be read or lauded as often today as it probably should be.
A number of these pieces effectively argue that the 1980s was a far richer time in terms of comics for women than is often thought. From Elfquest to Wimmen’s Comix to Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, comic books seemed to be encouraging participation in the hobby by women during the decade, making the disappointing state of comics for girls and women in the 1990s and onward all the more disappointing.
I know I scoffed at Ambush Bug a bit ago, but Blair Davis’s look at the humorous side of DC in the '80s was terrific. Davis uses Captain Carrot, Ambush Bug, Blue Devil and ‘Mazing Man to remind us that all was not grimdark at DC in those days, and this essay shows that the company was taking chances and trying different things all through the decade.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The content and tone of these essays vary wildly. While this is probably appropriate given the out-of-control publishing environment that was 1980s comic books, it does make the collection feel a bit untethered at times. Do the Micronauts and Dori Seda ever really belong in the same book? In any case, the quality of The Other 1980s is solid across the board, and its diversity of focus means that there will likely be something great here for comic fans of all tastes.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
Short answer: you should read The Other 1980s because it is original, spirited, and is a phenomenal book for both comic fans and comics studies scholars!
For fans old enough to remember these comics, there is real joy in seeing them revisited and reconsidered. The essays in this collection may even inspire you to dig deep into your collection so you can reread your old Aztec Ace and Shuriken books. But even for those who were not there for the '80s, this anthology is both entertaining and academically satisfying.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more from Brian Cremins: Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia
For more from Brannon Costello: Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin co-edited by Costello and Quina J. Whitted
ABOUT THE EDITORS
Brannon Costello is a Professor of English at LSU. He co-edited Comics and the U.S. South (2012) with Qiana J. Whitted. You can follow him on Twitter @bwcostello.
Brian Cremins is a Professor of English at Harper College in Illinois. Besides his Captain Marvel book (see above) he has published essays on a range of comic-related topics including Superduperman and Pogo.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©2021 Louisiana State University Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED