Monday, March 17, 2014

What Happened in the 80s?

This is a companion piece to my very first post on this blog.  

While my search methodology for the queer comics timeline is hardly scientific or exhaustive, I do like getting a qualitative sense for who was making these issues and when.  To that end, I threw together a chart showing the number of issues with queer characters or themes published each year.

 I quickly noticed a definite spike in publications in 1988.  This chart is based only on comics I have already purchased, and I have been intentionally avoiding buying a lot of post-2000 issues.  Fortunately, I record all the newer issues on a to-buy list.  When I add in those, we get this:
  The 1988 peak soars even higher, unequaled until possibly the last year or two.  This raises a few questions.  What happened leading up to 1988 to make the comics industry suddenly willing to include queer characters and references?  What happened in the 90’s that meant we would not see similar numbers until very recently?  Those are some hefty questions, and the answers to follow are mostly speculative on my part.

Where were comics at the beginning of the 1980s?

 In 1980, the comics industry was just starting to recover from a slump in sales at the end of the 1970s, as the Bronze Age slowly faded out but before the modern age had begun to roar to life (Gabilliet, 2010).  Technically, the 1971 revision of the Comics Code, the comic book industry’s standards for content self-regulation, ( was still in effect and included the original version’s prohibitions on depictions of “sexual abnormalities” and “sex perversion or any inference to the same.”  In fact, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) sent around a memo in August 1974 (possibly in response to an obviously gay character in Our Fighting Forces #148 earlier that year) reminding publishers “homosexuality or any suggestion of it by illustration, dialogue, or text was strictly forbidden” (Nyberg, 1998).  Generally speaking, though, creators had more leeway with their comics than ever before, as exemplified by the very event leading to the 1971 revision. 
Our Fighting Forces #148
Earlier in 1971, the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Stan Lee to create an anti-drug issue.  Lee obliged but when Marvel tried to publish the books, Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, the CCA refused to give them their stamp of approval because any depiction of drug use violated the Code.  Lee and Marvel decided to publish them without the code and, importantly, they sold anyway.  In response to this and other concerns voiced by creators and publishers alike, the Code was altered to allow more leniency, including allowing comics to show drug use in a negative lights; however, the CCA made no changes in the realm of sex or sexuality (Kroopnick and Goldin, 2003; Nyberg, 2014).  As the 70’s ended and the 80’s began, comics creators continued to push the boundaries of what the Code would allow and what they could do by circumventing the Code entirely.

To keep things in chronological order, I’m going to make an aside here to a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Miller v. California.  In this case, the Supreme Court held that communities set their own standards for obscenity.  That is, each community can essentially enforce state and local obscenity laws as befits its unique feelings on the matter.  Remember this—it will come up again later.

Growth of the direct distribution market and the return of comics

Two interrelated factors contributed to the recovery of the comics industry in the 1980s.  The first was the rise of direct distribution to comic book specialty stores as a viable alternative to the traditional system of distributing via newsstands and supermarkets.  The second was the popularization of the graphic novel, which we’ll get to in a bit.

The existence of stores that sold exclusively comic books and related merchandise opened up a massive amount of shelf real estate for publishers.  Before this, comic books had to compete with everything else you might expect to see on a newsstand or 7-11.  Owners of those businesses naturally had to be conservative in their comics choices and limit their selection to what would likely sell.  Mostly, this meant only books from the big publishers and only issues with the Comics Code seal appeared on their racks.  Specialty shops, which purchased their comics via distributor companies, had more room (literally and figuratively) to experiment with their choice of stock and need not depend so heavily on the CCA logo to guarantee a sale (Gabilliet, 2010, p85-97; Lopes, 2009, p110).

This new market facilitated the creation of several new publishers to compete with the traditional DC, Marvel, and Archie: Eclipse (1977), Pacific (1981), Fantagraphics (1982), and First (1983).  Often these publishers exclusively used direct distribution to get their books out, and many did not bother seeking CCA approval (Gabilliet, 2010).
Fantagraphics Books, Pacific Comics, and Eclipse Comics
In response to the success of these newcomers, DC and Marvel began publishing books targeted to the direct market.  Marvel created Epic Illustrated magazine in 1980 and DC began putting out “For Mature Audiences” titles.  This process facilitated and was facilitated by an already growing interest in graphic novels, essentially longer-form and occasionally more literary comic books, that really started to get going with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God in 1978.

Graphic novels and comic book celebrities

It may not have been clear at first just how important graphic novels would become to the industry, but it rapidly became apparent after the 1986 publication of two seminal works: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  These two titles proved enormously successful for DC and were part of the reason for a few fundamental shifts in how comics were created in the late 1980s.  

First of all, as we’ve seen, they were part of a wave of titles targeted toward adult readers, many of the most successful coming from DC: Hellblazer (1988), Animal Man (1988), V For Vendetta (1988), Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), and Sandman (1989).  Furthermore, they helped to cement the rock star status of their artists and writers.  Paul Lopes divides comic book history into an “industrial age,” when comics were meant for mass consumption and creators were, with rare exception, interchangeable to readers, and a “heroic age” starting in the 80’s, when people started to really follow specific creators rather than characters (2009).  This celebrity, along with the ability of publishers to target a select, comic book subculture through direct distribution, allowed creators more freedom of expression with their work.  Artists and writers were also benefitted by the fact that the newer small publishers tended to pay creators more and allow them to retain rights to their work, which eventually encouraged the big two (DC and Marvel) to do the same (Lopes, 2009, p91-119).

DC’s success with these new titles was obvious to everyone.  By the end of the decade, they managed to surpass Marvel’s sales for the first time in 20 years (Gabilliet, 200, p90-93).  Marvel and other publishers sought to emulate their success and tried putting out their own more mature books (see, for example, my favorite of the lot, Silver Surfer: Parable by Stan Lee and Moebius.  This effort led to a huge influx of graphic novels—around 140 for first half of 1988 alone—that exponentially broadened the topics being explored by comics.

Pushback against “adult” comics

Not everyone was happy with the turn that comics took in the late 80’s.  On October 23, 1986, Steve Geppi, the president of Diamond Comics Distributor, sent a letter to retailers encouraging them to tell publishers enforce the Comics Code and return to producing comics with a higher standard of decency (Duin and Richardson, 1998; Gabilliet, 2010, p91).  Then as now, Diamond was the largest direct distributor of comic books and had substantial influence on publishers.
In response, Marvel began to use a stricter interpretation and application of the Code.  DC sent out new guidelines to its creators and proposed implementing a ratings system including Universal, Mature, and Adult labels.  Creators were upset by the announcements and many left DC in response, including several of their most prominent talents: Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, and Marv Wolfman.  Thanks at least in part to their actions, DC reversed its ratings policy but kept their “for mature readers” label they had already been using (“DC changels,” 1987).

There were also a few high-profile occurrences of more direct government censorship.  In 1986, the manager of Friendly Frank’s comic shop in Lansing, Illinois was arrested for selling “obscene” comics.  Some of the titles cited as evidence included Omaha the Cat Dancer, Weirdo, Elektra: Assasin, Love & Rockets, and Elfquest.  The plainclothes police officer who collected initial “evidence” against Friendly Frank’s wrote this telling line into his report, “As we looked through the comics we noticed comic books depicting various sex acts, lesbianism, homosexuality, etc” (“Comic Shop Busted,” 1987).  

Remember that court case we talked about, Miller v. California?  The one that allowed communities to establish their own standards for obscenity?  The manager, Michael Correa, was convicted of distributing obscene materials thanks to that case.  He was eventually acquitted on appeal (read the whole decision here) but not before Friendly Frank’s closed down, which Gabilliet attributes to bad publicity from the case (2010).  A silver lining of the story came from Denis Kitchen, of Kitchen Sink Press, who gathered a bunch of his comic creator friends to make a portfolio to sell and raise money for Correa’s defense.  The leftover money was used to create the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit that still fights for the rights of creators and publishers to do this day.

A very similar case in Canada in 1987 led to the creation of that country’s Comics Legends Legal Defense Fund.  Also that year, a shipment of Last Gasp comics, including Omaha the Cat Dancer again, was impounded in England for violating their obscenity laws (“Last Gasp titles,” 1987).  None of these three events had particularly large effects on the comics industry, but they did make the news and contributed to what Gabilliet refers to as a “self-protecting discourse” among publishers, creators, and readers (2010).  This discourse is around the idea that comics are always under threat of attack and must be both defended from external censorship and regulated internally (via the Code, editorial policies, etc.) to avert possible threats.


So that’s what was going on within the relatively limited world of comic books.  But what about the rest of the world?  In American and British national politics, the 1980’s were the heyday of conservatism.  Reagan was president from 1981-1989, and Thatcher was prime minister from 1979-1990.  In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the Supreme Court held that anti-sodomy laws were constitutional.  In the UK, Section 28 went into effect in 1988 and prohibited local government officials from “promoting” homosexuality.  Of note, the late 80’s was also when the “moral majority’s” attacks on the National Endowment of the Arts’ funding intensified, specifically over controversial artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.  

On the other hand, the LGBTQ community was more visible than ever in the 80s.  Wisconsin outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1982.  Berkeley began offering same-sex domestic partner benefits in 1984.  Celebrities like Elton John, Marlon Brando, and Rock Hudson, either came out or admitted to having same-sex sexual experiences.  Made-for-TV movies An Early Frost and My Two Loves depicted queer relationships for mainstream audiences. 
It was likely the HIV epidemic that brought the queer community the greatest attention in the 1980s and literally into every home in America.  In 1987, activists founded ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and began a series of high publicity protests to advocate on behalf of the thousands of people who were dying.  Later that year, hundreds of thousands of people joined in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights to get Reagan to acknowledge the AIDS crisis.  In 1988, at the bequest of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the CDC sent out an “Understanding AIDSpamphlet to every house in the country. 

Thrilling conclusion

And so, we finally arrive at 1988 and its huge number of queer portrayals.  Some are certainly more important or visible than others, but it is their sheer number and the number of people who would have read at least one that are most impressive to me.  If you need further proof that this year was something remarkable, consider that Andy Mangels organized the first annual “Gays in Comics” panel at the 1988 Comic-Con and that the Comics Code was revised yet again in 1989.  This was its last revision before all the companies dropped it in the 2000s, and it included the following policy:
In general recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups, religious institutions, law enforcement authorities will be portrayed in a positive light. These groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals...
This was all an incredibly long-winded way of answering our original questions.  For the tl;dr crowd, let me try to summarize things.
  • Direct distribution became popular, opening up new markets and allowing small publishers to thrive
  • Graphic novels and “comics for adults” became the new driving force of the industry
  • (Almost) everyone hated the Comics Code, and it had been dying since the 1970’s
  • Fandom, changes in buyer preferences, independent publishers, improved workers’ rights, and the declining authority of the Code allowed writers and artists more creative freedom.
  • Queers were everywhere in the 1980’s, and it was only natural that they find their way into the new tide of comics
Explaining why everything sort of fell apart in the 90’s will require another post.  On the bright side, this period really was the last time there was a serious effort to “censor” comics (what counts as censorship is also another post).  The National Coalition on Television Violence made a last-ditch effort in 1989 with a report attacking comics too violent, but they failed to get any real attention.  Society had already moved past them.

Gabilliet argues in Of Comics and Men that public indifference towards comics is far stronger now than any real threat of censorship (2010).  We have the occasional upset with ComiXology and iTunes, but really, he’s right.  With the popularity of the movies driving a small uptick in the popularity of comic books, there may be new concerns down the road.  For now, though, there’s never been a better time to be a queer comic book fan, and a lot of that is thanks to the remarkable year 1988.


  • Comic shop busted [Editorial]. 1987, February. The Comics Journal, 114, 13-15.
  •  DC changes labeling policy [Editorial]. 1987, September. The Comics Journal, 117, 11-12.
  • Duin S and Richardson M (eds.). 1998. Comics: Between the panels. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Comics.
  • Gabilliet J. 2010. Of comics and men: A cultural history of American comic books. (B. Beaty & N Nguyen, Trans.). Jackson, MS: U Mississippi Press.
  • Kroopnick S (director) and Goldin JG (producer). 2003. Comic book superheroes unleashed [documentary]. United States: History Channel.
  • Last Gasp titles seized by British customs [Editorial]. 1987, September. The Comics Journal, 117, 129.
  • Lopes P. 2009. Demanding respect: The evolution of the American comic book. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.  
  • Nyberg AK. 1998. Seal of approval: The history of the Comics Code. Jackson, MS: U Mississippi Press.
  • Nyberk AK. 2014. “Comics Code history: The seal of approval.” CBLDF. Retrieved from


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