For an old generation of comic books fan like me, I couldn't remember precisely when but beginning with The Dark Knight Returns (DC) by Frank Miller in 1986 and Watchmen (DC) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1987, mainstream comics lost its "innocence" and aren't exclusive to kids anymore. Stories became more hard hitting, edgy and grim. Reality kicks in. Superheroes are "deconstructed" and become flawed individuals. Most aren't pure moral guardians anymore. Instead, they are mired with personal problems and issues, some even tethering on the edge of insanity. They gets old and fat. The villainy they faced are not just individuals, but also the ever changing public opinions and the battles often took place on a more macro level as well as getting increasingly intangible. Some becomes totally irrelevant in times of change. Some gets killed. Comic books began to cross the line over to being considered as "serious" literature. One famous event I first encountered was when DC decided to allow the fans to vote whether Jason Todd, the third Robin would survive in Batman : A Death In The Family (DC-1989). He didn't (he was deemed not popular) which I think gutted DC quite abit during that time. Other titles include Batman : Year One (DC -1987) also by Frank Miller and beautifully illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, The Sandman (Vertigo - 1989) by Neil Gaiman, a storyline of epic proportion which centered around Dream, a The Cure's Robert Smith lookalike entity, The Swamp Thing story arc by Alan Moore and The Killing Joke (DC - 1987), also by Alan Moore. The success of the such "serious" themed storyline launched countless other titles and influenced other publishers to make over their existing superheroes' origin. Superman (who grew an irritating looking pony tail, of all things) and his origin got re-vamped (first of many to come I suppose) by John Byrne in the seminal Man Of Steel (DC - 1986) mini series, Spider Man (arguably amongst the first to adopt serious personal issues and best during when Todd McFarlane was pencilling the series), Hulk (child abuse, psychological issues), X-Men (dysfunctional, superheroes version of a family drama), Daredevil etc.
By the 90s, it gotten too much. Story with realistic theme is nice but where are all the fun and entertainment? Some were written just for the sake of being grim and gritty. One of the personal favourite "not so serious" comics which I like from around this period is World's Finest (DC- 1990) by Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude. The three "prestige" format books miniseries features Superman and Batman against Lex Luthor and Joker as well as supporting characters from both superheroes background (except Robin who remained RIP). A balance is required sometimes. Looking back, most serious stories are written by Alan Moore, the manic looking English man, story writer extraordinaire (who went on overdrive in From Hell (with Eddie Campbell, Top Shelf - 1991 to 1996), another epic storytelling of Jack The Ripper and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, amongst others) I stopped following some comic titles altogether by early 90s (too many story arcs, superheroes origin gets redone, gets killed and brought back over and over again. Worse are new titles being launched and only to gets axed after a short period. Then there are problems of coherent continuity i.e. writers got change, plots got change). And looking back at Watchmen, I finds it too nihilistic and disturbing. And there is no one single character whom I can root for. The Comedian is cruel and vicious, Dr. Manhattan is too far removed from humanity even though he is "omnipotent", Rorschach is a morally absolute sociopath, Ozymandiaz is suffering from visions of grandeur and looks at the rest of the humanity as inferior, The Nite Owl is an average suburbia lonely man, The Spectre is manipulative and complains too much. And the ambiguous, open ended conclusion! Will Ozymandiaz gets what he deserves for planning the genocide with the man made squid? I guessed Moore did get his story across to me. And I guessed that's why Watchmen remains an important masterpiece of story telling to me personally. It totally dismantled the superheroes "invincibility".
Currently, I concentrate only on selective mini-series which have a beginning and ending story arcs. Thus can spare me from "chasing" the stories indefinitely. If it were beautifully drawn and colored, then that would be bonus to me. Two titles which caught my eyes back then were Marvels (Marvel Comics - 1994) and Kingdom Come (DC - 1996), nicely written by Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid respectively, both beautifully illustrated by Alex Ross, who applied the fantastic looking gouache technique, a watercolor like rendering for all its contents. And Superman. Darn, Ross surely captured all the majesty for the Man Of Steel. His rendition captures what I think the Son Of Krypton should look like. It's like the vintage version (just like Steve Rude's version in World's Finest), a squared jaw Superman, with a commanding patriarch like authority. I never see Supes as a young man, even though he might age slowly (he's an alien after all). In Marvels, the story is told from the eyes of a photographer, an average man. We gets to see the supers doing all sort of stunts from the perspective of a human. Which is refreshing. In Kingdom Come, ex-Justice League members get to face off with the new batch/ new generation of amoral supers (which I felt like a veiled commentary on the current "serious" superheroes) who have killed off all villains and are now battling themselves for lack of enemies. What is great is that the JLA are portrayed still sticking to their old principles and values. And of course, if opportunity arises, I will continue to read and collect comic books, just the ones that has a stand alone story or miniseries, with a balance theme of realism and fantasy. Now, where can I get a copy of the Absolute Justice by Alex Ross?