If we harken back to the 1980's, we can start to see the moment what comics would begin to tread the path to cool, the moment when Dark Knight and Watchmen gained a foot hold in the national consciousness as in, "not afraid to hand to adults". The only problem, well documented of course, is that once you'd handed those to someone, there was no follow up. "What is next?" we collectively asked, and only the void answered back.
And we all know what you don't do to the void.
Frank Miller was memorably quoted in the Comics Journal at the time, as saying, "people talk as if we have this great history behind us, when what we have are 50 years of shit." And, collectively, many of us agreed with him and hoped to see a whole bunch of new work, better work, adult work.
I think that its time to reassess that quote and see if its true. And how we answer it may depend on your definition of success.
Very clearly, no one in their right mind in the mid-80s would ahve ever predicted the phenominal success of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. Conditioned to the lackluster or just plain horrible 1970's films or TV movies, Dr. Strange and Daredevil included, and the Bill Bixby Hulk series, there simply is no way to have foreseen that you could bring Wolverine to life on the big screen and not make him a laughing stock, much less Colossus or Doctor Octopus or The Sandman. We had no way of knowing that effects would simply become this good. Nor that the comic geeks would take over Hollywood 20 years later.
So, on one hand, we have a checkered literary past with a lot of work that, lets face it, simply doesn't stand up to the level of complexity that we've seen in the last 16 years. I don't have to go through the litany of names, I'm sure, to make this argument. Nor do I doubt that the stellar lights from comics past, Bernie Kreigston I'm looking at you, could have done work this adult, this real had they been given the opportunity. Clearly they were never going to be given that opportunity, nor would the readers have been there anyway.
But the films have exposed comics as being something taht we fans always said they were: great breeding grounds for the fantastic, fertile earth for creating interesting characters. Our little 4 color fantasies ahve given life to some amazing characters, characters that have now tickled the funny bone of the great unwashed pop culture masses in ways that only your die hard comic fan used to know. We weren't wrong, it seems. We knew how good the Clarement/Byrne X-Men were, and now so does the rest of the world. We knew how good the O'Neil/Adams and Englehart/Rogers Batman was, and now t he rest of the world knows as well. We were willing to look past shoddy printing and dodgy art occasionally to get our fix of these characters.
Do I really need the thick phone books reprinting every single issue of Iron Man? No, not really. And I love Iron Man. Your average sane individual doesn't need that much George Tuska art in his life. We do have a rather dodgy legacy, and right now much of that legacy is being put back into print, and I'm not sure that much of it holds up under anything other than through the lens of nostalgia. But it proves that the individuals who worked in this formerly reviled industry were, under tight deadline and often bizarre editorial direction, relentless in using the dark corners of their imaginations to provide us with some brilliant and memorable ideas.
Diamonds among the dross. We comic fans have always found them. And slowly the rest of America is as well.