The 1980s were an important period for comics as they transitioned from the Bronze Age to the Modern or Dark Age of Comics with books like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. It was also an incredibly creative time for Marvel Comics with Chris Claremont and John Byrne beginning the decade with their “Dark Phoenix Saga” epic in Uncanny X-Men, Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil as well as the first event crossover Secret Wars and ending with the rise of artists, like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, who would later found Image Comics.
At East Coast Comicon, comics historian and researcher of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe Peter Sanderson, former Uncanny X-Men editor and Daredevil writer Ann Nocenti, and former Amazing Spider-Man editor Jim Salicrup chatted and swapped stories about what Marvel was really like in the 1980s.
After saying comics were his drug of choice then, Jim Salicrup described the differences between Marvel in the 70s and 80s. He said that the 70s were a chaotic time for Marvel with lots of new books and hopping on pop culture trends with books like Master of Kung Fu, Planet of the Apes, and black and white horror comics. In the 80s, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter started to rein things in.
Peter Sanderson asked Ann Nocenti what the environment was like when she first broke into comics as a writer/editor in the 1985. She said there was plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but also huge Captain America and Spider-Man cut-outs when she walked into the office. The ad in the Village Voice for the Marvel editing/writing job was pretty vague so she thought she might have to write pornography. This was because a job in comics was seen as embarrassing. Nocenti had only read Pogo and Dick Tracy comic strips because her parents thought comics were trash, but did a lot of things at Marvel starting out including coloring and pasting word balloons to the page. Unlike today, editors drew and wrote some of their own books, and freelancers were welcome at the office. Some editors, like Jim Shooter or Larry Hama, would train new talent in storytelling techniques showing them sample art by legendary creators like Wally Wood to improve their skills and tell better stories.
A big sub-topic of the panel was how Sanderson, Nocenti, and Salicrup dealt with Chris Claremont, who wa in the middle of his seventeen year original run on Uncanny X-Men and was also writing X-Men spinoffs like New Mutants. Nocenti said that X-Men editor Louise Simonson taught her how to rip apart his work while still being nice, and Sanderson said the trick was to feed him a lot of Chinese food while he rattled off ten story ideas all at once. Salicrup was Claremont’s editor on Uncanny X-Men in the early-80s and had to referee disputes between him and John Byrne, who wanted to take the book in a different direction. Unlike the previous editor who preferred Byrne, Salicrup listened to both creators. However, he was
too nice” to kill off Jean Grey so he got Jim Shooter to officially sign her death warrant while he edited a story in which she lived, but lost her mutant powers.
Salicrup also talked about how the marriage between Spider-Man and Mary-Jane Watson in 1987 happened too prematurely. He wanted to switch up Amazing Spider-Man which was becoming a never ending series of supervillain battles and build up to the marriage with a “will they, won’t they” romantic subplot. However, the marriage got pushed up, and Salicrup had two months to return Mary-Jane to the Spider-Man comics and get her and Peter married. He did say the idea of Spider-Man getting married was good because “what’s more responsible than getting married”, and that the best-selling Spider-Man comics (1987-2007) featured a married Peter Parker. This also showed that the character could grow and change, and not stay in high school for 70 years, like Archie.
Peter Sanderson asked Ann Nocenti about Longshot, a mutant character she created with Art Adams (who was a guest at East Coast Comicon) in a 1985 miniseries. Because this were her first comic, Nocenti was super-enthusiastic and wrote a whole Longshot “bible” about the characters in the Mojoverse he lived in. She picked newcomer Adams as her artist because he sent in sample pages of the X-Men washing dishes showing his ability to make the most mundane activity an interesting bit of storytelling. Adams designed a lot of the Mojoverse minions, and Longshot’s look with his one bright eye came from a creepy one eyed cat, who would sneak into her loft at night. The Hollywood parody aspects of Longshot were influenced by Nocenti reading media theory by Marshall McCluhan and Noam Chomsky, and she applied ideas about the media controlling people’s attention to the span to this “maniacal” series with detailed art.
Sanderson and Jim Salicrup talked about Spider-Man’s black costume, which came from a fan idea and debuted in the Secret Wars crossover. In the days of Watchmen and Dark Knight, Marvel wanted to make a new, darker (literally) version of Spider-Man to set him apart from the silly red and blue suit wearing Spidey, who had a segment in the kid’s show The Electric Company. Salicrup thought the new costume made Spider-Man look like a villain and wanted to return to the classic red and blue suit. Begrudgingly, Jim Shooter let him switch back in Amazing Spider-Man #300, but he had to create a new Spider-Man villain. (Most of the good Spider-Man villains were created by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr in the 60s.) He, writer David Michelinie, and artist Todd McFarlane decided to make the black suit and villain, which led to the creation of Venom. Salicrup also remarked that a lot of the young talent at Marvel in the 80s, like Frank Miller and John Byrne, had a rebellious streak, which is why they left for DC, which gave them more money and creative freedom. This attitude ended up leading to the founding of Image in the early-90s.
The panel ended with Sanderson asking Nocenti what it was like to follow Frank Miller on Daredevil, especially after his legendary “Born Again” storyline with artist David Mazzucchelli. At the time, Nocenti didn’t realize she was following a seminal run and injected her own experiences in the unsafe Manhattan of the 1980s. She also had a problem with the ultra-violence of Miller’s run and created more peaceful ways for Daredevil to solve problems while exploring his compassion and empathy as a character.
Nocenti was one of the many fresh, new voices at Marvel in the 1980s that make those comics worth reading today in trade paperback or on Marvel Unlimited. For example, even though I was born in the 1990s, some of the first comics I read were Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants as well as Secret Wars and some Peter Parker Spectacular Spider-Man issues from the early 80s with Black Cat in them.