Each medium has experienced its seminal year in which everything came together in a perfect storm. Film had 1939. For pop music, scholars often cite 1969 and 1984. And for comic books, especially superhero comics, the year that changed everything: 1986. In many ways, 1986 ranks as important a year to the medium as 1938—the year that launched Superman in Action Comics.
Not only did the comics of 35 years ago change the game, they currently serve as inspiration for much of the comics-based media we all currently love. This single year transformed an entire industry. Here are just ten examples of how 1986 changed things for comic books forever. We’ll start with that year’s two biggest megaton bombs—both from DC Comics.
Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns
Let’s get this double-whammy out of the way. 1986 saw the release of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. So much has been said about both of these comics already. Although much about them is different, each is a deconstruction of the superhero concept; and each elevated the medium to new levels of respectability.
Yes, their success has sown definite downsides. Too many creators take the wrong lessons from their popularity, veering “dark and edgy” for the sake of it. But this aside, both of these remain towering achievements in comic book storytelling. And they stand the test of time. If you love comics and you haven’t read them yet, you probably should.
The X-Men Became a Franchise
By 1980, Uncanny X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” propelled the team to the top of the comic book sales charts. They even became successful enough to get a spin-off book in 1982: New Mutants. One spin-off wasn’t all that unusual, even back then. But in 1986, Marvel Comics launched X-Factor, which reunited the original five X-Men as a new team. With three mutant books on the stands, X-Men became comics’ first real franchise.
The X-Men family of titles became an industry juggernaut, no pun intended. So Marvel had the idea of crossing all of the series over in one big event in 1986. They called it “The Mutant Massacre,” and it turned out a huge sales success. It started the tradition of the annual summer crossovers within both Marvel and DC Comics’ biggest titles. This tradition continues on to the present day, with events like the recent “X of Swords.”
When we think of the X-Men’s biggest villains, we think of three characters: Magneto, Mr. Sinister, and Apocalypse. The latter character first appeared not in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, but in the spin-off series X-Factor. Initially, Apocalypse took the form of a pretty one-note world-conquering villain with a cool design. But Marvel eventually revealed him as an ancient being of enormous power. Not to mention, the ancient Egyptian En Sabah Nur was also the world’s first mutant.
Since his 1986 debut, he’s become an A-list baddie. Appearances on X-Men: The Animated Series elevated his status; and he even got the subtitle of his own movie decades later. Sure, it wasn’t that great a movie. But at least Oscar Isaac played him.
DC Gave the Trinity a Reboot
Although Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman remained pop culture icons for decades, their comics had sold poorly for ages. How poorly? Per this 1984 sales chart, their solo comics regularly lost out to Dazzler, Alpha Flight, and other Marvel C-listers. When DC revamped its universe in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, they got carte blanche to give all of these iconic heroes a modern makeover. And they pulled out all the stops, leaving nothing sacred.
DC lured Marvel writer/artist John Byrne (X-Men, Fantastic Four) to reboot Superman in ’86. Byrne stripped Supes of years of accumulated Silver Age silliness. Next, Frank Miller transitioned from the The Dark Knight Returns to reimagining Batman’s origins for Batman: Year One. Finally, Wonder Woman got the most radical makeover of all, thanks to Teen Titans’ George Perez. (Although those last two are cover dated as 1987, they hit shelves in November of 1986).
Suddenly, all three heroes had become current and relevant again. And most importantly to DC, they had begun selling comics again. And the changes made in these 1986 reboots have informed all the versions we’ve seen in other media, to this very day.
Dark Horse Comics Launches
Dark Horse Comics
These days, Dark Horse Comics stands as a mainstay of the comic book industry, thanks to comics like Hellboy and Sin City. Not to mention all its years holding the Star Wars, Aliens, and Predator licenses. Dark Horse made their debut in July 1986, with the comic Dark Horse Presents. The black-and-white anthology series featured the debut of Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, which went on to major cult hit status.
In the years to follow, comics ranging from The Mask and Umbrella Academy went on to become popular movies and TV series. Dark Horse truly opened up the gates for other strong contenders to challenge Marvel and DC in terms of sales and visibility. Without their success, Image Comics and IDW Comics may not exist today.
The Punisher Made the Big Leagues
The Punisher first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974. The character served as a response to the violent anti-heroes of popular ‘70s cinema. (Not to mention a specific fictional vigilante called The Executioner, who had a series of novels.) But he really took off in the ‘80s, in the glory years of the “angry men with guns” movies.
Marvel finally decided to give the character of Frank Castle a tryout limited series in 1986. It tapped into whatever was in the air at the time, selling like hotcakes for Marvel Comics. Within a year, The Punisher had his own ongoing series, which led to two other spin-offs by decade’s end. There was even a movie in 1989… although the less said about that, the better.
Amanda Waller Made Her Debut
DC’s concept of a “Suicide Squad” has existed since the ’60s. In those days, the pretty straightforward story followed a team of military operatives. In 1986, DC had the notion of making a bunch of incarcerated lower-tier villains into the US government’s new Task Force X. (Better known as the new Suicide Squad.) Their leader, taskmaster, and jailer took form as a brand new character, Amanda Waller. She went on to become a DC Comic staple.
Created by writer John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne, Waller (a.k.a. “the Wall”) was something rarely seen in comics in those days. A no-nonsense, plus-size African-American woman in a lead role. And one who was clearly in charge from the word “go.” She had no powers, but everyone was clearly scared to death of the high-ranking government operative. If the villains ever tried to escape, she’d fry ’em without a thought. Waller has become one of the most important non-superpowered characters at DC, portrayed in live-action by Pam Grier, Angela Bassett, and Viola Davis. That’s when you know you’re iconic.
Daredevil Was Born Again
For Frank Miller, 1986 wasn’t just the year of redefining Batman for DC. At Marvel, he continued his groundbreaking work with Daredevil, in the seminal storyline “Born Again.” In the early ‘80s, Miller elevated Daredevil from a Marvel Comics also-ran title to a gritty and critically acclaimed book. He returned to the character in 1986 with artist David Mazzucchelli.
“Born Again” ran through Daredevil #227-231. In this saga, Wilson Fisk—Hell’s Kitchen’s Kingpin—decided to methodically dismantle Matt Murdock’s life, one piece at a time. The story went to realistic places monthly superhero comics rarely went; it touched on drugs, prostitution, and mental health issues. And it forever cemented Frank Miller as the Daredevil creator.
A New Captain America
By 1986, the Norman Rockwell charms of Captain America seemed as dated as Mom’s apple pie. And yet, Cap was (and is) still one of Marvel Comics’ flagship characters. To fit in more with the Reagan-era “rah rah” patriotism exhibited in movies like Top Gun and Rambo, Marvel replaced Steve Rogers as Cap in 1986. The jingoistic former soldier named John Walker filled the new Cap role, created as an indictment of these attitudes. But the sales on Captain America actually grew. Walker himself lost the gig as Cap when Steve takes back the shield a year later; he then went on to take the name of the U.S. Agent, becoming a Marvel Comics mainstay. This storyline now informs the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
These are hardly the only the significant comics milestones of 1986. For instance, Marvel launched a whole new line of titles in its own separate universe, simply called “New Universe.” While it wasn’t a hit, elements of it still inform the mainstream Marvel Universe today. Plus, a character named Eddie Brock first appeared in Spider-Man. Over at DC, characters like Booster Gold debuted in 1986. That same year, Green Lantern transitioned from a solo title into Green Lantern Corps, expanding the mythos. The comic book industry may never stop building off the glory year that was 1986.
Featured Image: DC Comics / Marvel Comics