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Comic Book Questions Answered – How Were Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen Received When They Were First Released?

Comic Book Questions Answered – where I answer whatever questions you folks might have about comic books (feel free to e-mail questions to me at bcronin@comicbookresources.com). Here is a link to an archive of all the past questions that have been answered so far.

Reader Scott wrote in with a question that I thought it would be nice to answer, so enjoy!

Scott asks:

While “The Dark Knight Returns” is hailed today as a turning point in comics, along with Watchmen, what exactly was the critical response to it at the time of it’s release. I’ve looked around a little, but what I’ve seen is mostly “Looking Back” type reviews.

I know that there weren’t any blogs in ’86, but there were still magazines and fanzines. Was it always loved? What were the criticisms 22 years ago?

Both series were great successes (commercially and critically) right off the bat.

“Instant classics,” if you would.

Watchmen perhaps a bit more than Dark Knight.

If anyone else has any questions they’d like to see answered, feel free to drop me a line at bcronin@comicbookresources.com.

28 Comments

A post on series that were poorly received when they came out that are now considered classics would be interesting. It historically has happened a lot in literature but I’m not sure how much it really happens in comics. Maybe we would need more time to pass for such a situation.

The problem might be that comics that weren’t received well at the time of publishing weren’t allowed to get far enough to be later considered classics.

It’s interesting. I remember when both series were released, Watchmen particularly seemed to be universally loved and acclaimed. I can’t help wondering how different superhero fandom was back then. Fans were eager to see the writers push the envelope and there was almost a consensus that a greater “realism” and darkness was an evolution of the genre. Yes, even works that are somehow reviled today (like Byrne’s Man of Steel depowering and bringing Superman down to earth), or divisive (like Claremont’s X-Men, that was still going strong at the time) were mostly respected. While Watchmen was the pinnacle, unanimously praised.

It’s quite a contrast when you compare it to today’s superhero fandom, where you have at least half of the fandom embracing retro with a passion and loudly criticizing anything cynical and angsty when applied to superheroes. I remember a few retro fans in the 80s, but by and large they were the lone crazies whose voices were drowned out by the crowd.

Grico –

I don’t think they’re considered quite “classics” today, but many comics that were pretty much hated back when they were first released are today looked back at fondly, mostly due to changed in trends and tastes that I’ve mentioned in my above post.

An example would be Pre-Crisis Superman and Wonder Woman comics in the 1970s.

If my memory is correct, The Dark Knight was more in the public eye than Watchmen. There were quite a few newspaper articles about The Dark Knight Returns, and I’m pretty sure that it got a write-up in Rolling Stone at the time. I was 14 and just getting seriously into comics at the time and became a regular at the local comic shop (Gulf Coast Comics in Biloxi, MS) and we had many a discussion about the growing popular awareness of comic books at that time. Dark Knight was way more accessible at the time for non-comic readers because it featured characters they were already familiar with. Of course, us comic geeks were WAY more excited about Watchmen. =D

Grico- I think both Sandman and Starman lost a lot of fans during the later part of their runs (the space arc and the kindly ones were both awfully recieved online). But both stories read a lot better in trade paper back so they’re not seen as losing their way in the same way as they were at the time.

Critics rarely used the word “G***amn.”

Rene:

There were a LOT of people who were upset about Byrne’s Superman reboot, and were quite vocal about it in the various fan magazines. Even people outside the comics industry were upset with it, and one of Byrne’s stated reasons for leaving Superman mid-story (after having him kill three villains) was that DC didn’t defend him from Time Magazine’s criticism, IIRC.

How about “Stray Toasters” by Bill Seinkiewitz? Instant Classic hot on the heels of his and Frank Miller’s “Elektra: Assassin”?
I still remember picking up my first issue of Concrete in a used bookstore in the late 80′s, it was issue #2 or 3 where he tries to swim across the Atlantic. I’ve always loved every issue that came out, all instant classics.

How about “Moonshadow”? How about the original “Elfquest”? The first Graphic Novel to call itself that which I saw was Marvel’s “Death of Capt. Marvel” which I liked at first but after about a year I sorta hated, as all of Starlin’s stuff seems the same to me. I know, old school stuff and I’m a million years old!

Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! Would I wouldn’t give to have WB Animation take a shot at making that into a series. They could then do an Oz – Wonderland War DVD movie. That would just be too f-ing great. They should totally do it.

A post on series that were poorly received when they came out that are now considered classics would be interesting.

Kirby’s Fourth World is kind of the poster child for this.

Yes, even works that are somehow reviled today (like Byrne’s Man of Steel depowering and bringing Superman down to earth)

Is Man of Steel reviled today? Most people I hear (myself included) still seem to like it.

When I first started reading comics in a big way (late 86/early 87) the most hyped book seemed to be The Dark Knight Returns, closely followed by Watchmen, closely followed by Swamp Thing.

The Byrne Superman stuff was well appreciated by my group of comic book junkies and the ringleader who owned and operated the comic book store. We all appreciated the strong emphasis on continuity, which was what post-Crisis DC was all about. I don’t really remembering anyone really complaining much until the Legends crossovers…which really wasn’t his fault because he only did the pencils.

I dunno, Cory. My impression was that most of the real criticism of Man of Steel came from outside the comic book industry/fandom at the time. There were voices inside the industry that were against it too, but I seem to remember they were mighty lonely in the climate of the time. The way Superman comics had sold so extremely poorly for so long pre-Reboot was still remembered by most, and the portion of fandom that was heavily into retro seemed, like, 10% of fans, as opposed to today. I think retro fans are now about 50% of the fandom.

Like Mark Waid said, that he wished more people back then were vocal against Man of Steel like they are against Brand New Day today?

But of course, Byrne’s reboot was never unanimous, but I do think it was much more loved back then. Yep, some still like it, but my impression is that the general consensus has mostly changed, as it goes from “the run that revitalized Superman” to “a betrayal of the cherised Silver Age”.

The Eternals? by Kirby. That got canceled pretty quickly (I Think).

My memory may be faulty on this, but I think I recall that Dark Knight was underordered by many comics shops. Miller’s previous project, Ronin, was not a big hit, and a lot of shops had extra copies in stock for quite a while. So when Dark Knight was featured in Rolling Stone and other mainstream media, there was a lot of demand but not so much supply. Which further contributed to its market hotness. Second printings were not so common or so immediate then as they are now, so it took a while for DC to ramp up to meet the demand.

Two words that probably work as a poorly-received, now-critically-acclaimed series: Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.

Squashua: Really? I wasn’t reading it at the time but the letter columns and use net posts I’ve read from when it was coming out are all gushing with praise. Huh.

Incidentally, on a slightly related note, one of the many thing I love about reading old letter columns (and one of the reason I regret that they’re not included in reprint trades) is that you get to feel superior to all the poor schmucks who couldn’t predict which characters would be breakaway hits and which one’s wouldn’t. Like the guy who wanted a Rainbow Raider mini series, for example.

But of course, Byrne’s reboot was never unanimous, but I do think it was much more loved back then. Yep, some still like it, but my impression is that the general consensus has mostly changed, as it goes from “the run that revitalized Superman” to “a betrayal of the cherised Silver Age”.

I’m rather curious where all these retro-Silver Age fans hang out. Are there impassioned discussions of Charlton work or Kubert’s Enemy Ace that I’m missing? Given the general paucity of reprints from the ’50s and -60s combined with the relatively high back issue prices – Well, most fans don’t have any exposure to anything but the most highly revered and popular superhero (and ONLY superhero) comics from that period. Kirby’s superhero comics are discussed all the time. (And often overrated, IMO. I love Fantastic Four 48-60 and the later Thors as much as anybody, but the rest is a highly mixed bag, quality-wise.) Purdy much everything else is ignored.

And I’m certainly not hearing constant, rapturous praise for the Silver-Age Weissenger Superman.

WHO, exactly, are you referencing here? I very, VERY rarely hear the Silver-Age Superman described as some kind of genius comics milestone. There seems to be a lot more unequivocated praise for the Bynre stuff, actually, although they’re both pretty clearly flawed in some major respects.

“WHO, exactly, are you referencing here? I very, VERY rarely hear the Silver-Age Superman described as some kind of genius comics milestone.”

Indeed. Let’s not forget that “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is by no means indicative of the quality of pre-reboot Superman. Far from it, actually.

About the only people I hear complaining about the reboot these days are LSH fans; fair enough, eliminating Superboy did kill the books even while it made a corresponding narrative improvement to Superman – but one that wasn’t strictly necessary and should have been massaged to still work within the timeframe (c’mon, you couldn’t use the tried and true “memory wipe” excuse to explain why Clark didn’t remember being in the future?). But just about every aspect of the Byrne revamp – the decrease in powers, not killing Pa Kent, the increased emphasis on Superman actually being the Last Son, etc. – all seem to work better than what was in place beforehand, and seem to hold a wider appeal than what came before, especially amongst more mainstream audiences.

@MarkAndrew–Oh, us retro Silver Age fans hang out everywhere–even here. Online, most can be found at sites specializing in older comics. For what it’s worth, I find the “done in one” books of the Golden and Silver Age superior to nearly every comic published today. There is real craft in these old books and more ideas in 8 pages than in 8 ISSUES of a more modern comic. Also, the retro fans tend to lack patience with the rabid, continuity-obsessed fanboys that dominate the interwebs, so they often stay away. Far away.

Mr.Clam – Oh, sure, you guys exist. I’m a huge fan of Unca Cheeks and the Fortress Keeper, bloggers who share similar sensibilities.

But at this date, when we’re dealin’ with a 30 year old piece of pop culture like Claremont’s X-men, the vastvastvast majority of critics are gonna argue that it’s hopelessly dated, not that the storytelling style should be single issue stories emphasising plot over characterization – Which is what I’d imagine a Silver Age fan would say.

And, of course, the REAL comic nerds will argue that the Claremont/Byrne Starlord, Iron Fist, or Marvel Team-Up were better.

I’m not sure what was ‘poorly received’ in the old days, since I never heard what other fans thought back then, but I know Starlin’s ‘Warlock’ was not a big seller. Or Steranko’s ‘SHIELD’.

I’m still waiting for the whole DeMatties and Perlin runs on ‘Defenders’ to be recognised as among the greatest books of the 1980s.

“I’m still waiting for the whole DeMatties and Perlin runs on ‘Defenders’ to be recognised as among the greatest books of the 1980s.”

Under rated yes. This during Roger Stren ‘s Avengers run.

i’m coming into this REALLY late, guys… but anyone remember Strikeforce Morituri?

randypan the goat boy

May 25, 2011 at 10:04 am

In all honesty the one thing I noticed while reading the watchmen in monthly installments was that it was a very frustrating book. i would get my copy and usually read it in the store[ my best friend ran the store so I got away with reading my comics while on the property]. Then he and I would discuss it with the handful of people who were fans and we would discuss things that at 16 years old I had never heard used to describe a comic book. I will be honest trying to figure out the watchmen on a monthly basis was like trying to explain a card trick to a goldfish. Watchmen is meant to be read over and over again in great big bites. You have to read it and absorb it and if you were looking for a car chase or a big supervillain battle then you were just going to be disapointed. In my opinion the only way to read the watchmen is in trade paperback form. I always read it straight through and then i would take a week or so to reread it for the things i missed the first 12 or 13 times. and the beauty of it is…im still finding things. the book was way to complicated for casual fans and the only reason it became a hit was word of mouth and people like me telling anyone who would listen to not try reading it month to month

I remember picking up Swamp Thing in 1984, as it was getting good press and it was the only newsstand DC that didn’t carry the Comics Code seal.

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