The writer-driven explorations of Marvel in the 1970s were not to last. The productive chaos in which writers served as their own editors was a boon for creativity, but contributed to Marvel's terrible ongoing problem with meeting deadlines. Jim Shooter's ascension to editor-in-chief in 1978 inaugurated a much more centralized operation, with numerous editorial mandates that frustrated some of the long-time creators. Shooter also instituted the practice of regular line-wide events, such as Secret Wars (1984), which were huge sales hits, but obliged the creators working on individual titles to bring their books into line with the overarching story. With a few notable exceptions, Marvel was no longer the place to look for introspection or a strong individual voice.
So where did the experiments of 1970s Marvel go? For the most part, they continued outside of Marvel. The rise of independent comics, and especially the boom in black-and-white publications, gave writers and artists opportunities that Marvel no longer afforded them. In the more mainstream world, the heir to Seventies Marvel was, perhaps surprisingly, DC. DC Comics benefited from an influx of Marvel refugees during the Shooter years, though their emphasis on characterization (not traditionally one of DC's strong points) was not matched by a great deal of attention to interiority. It was only with the advent of the so-called "British Invasion," the cultivating of talents such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, and Grant Morrison, that both the introspection and the sheer weirdness begun with Seventies Marvel had a real opportunity to develop. These creators were soon freed from the burden of the Comics Code and allowed to write for adults in the direct market, becoming the basis of the company's critically successful imprint, Vertigo. Rather than worry about an imagined immature audience, Vertigo turned "sophistication" into its brand.
But it is important to remember that, for all its advances over the commercial comics of its time, Vertigo was not the home of “art” comics or the heirs to the underground. Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes and such other key figures would not have found DC’s new line particularly conducive.1 Vertigo’s fantasy, horror, and science fiction comics were a place for the superhero-adjacent, pushing beyond traditional four-color boundaries but still using the grammar and tropes familiar to superhero readers looking for something more challenging (but perhaps not too challenging). If this sounds like I am damning Vertigo with faint praise, this is not my intent. If anything, I am recognizing myself in its target audience. If, to oversimplify, prose fiction has room for Tom Clancy on one end and (early) Thomas Pynchon on the other, with Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk in the middle, why can’t comics include a spectrum ranging from Stan Lee to Chris Ware, with Grand Morrison and Neil Gaiman somewhere in between?2 Moreover, the same reader can find different pleasures all across that range.
Where does all this leave Marvel? Despite the increasing homogenization of the company's line, the developments of the 1970s left their mark. More than that, they played a role in the success of the sales juggernaut of the 1980s: the X-Men. For a remarkable 17 years (1975-1992), Chris Claremont was the driving force behind this comic-turned-franchise, working first with penciler Dave Cockrum (1975-1977) and then John Byrne (1977-1981) on runs that are widely considered classics, and then continuing with a variety of artists for the next 11 years.3 His long, complicated plots and exciting twists and turns deserve some of the credit for the book's success, as do his artistic collaborators. But one of the elements readers repeatedly point to in Claremont's work is the series' "soap opera": we read his X-Men stories to find out what the characters will do next.
The soap opera angle worked in concert with his plotting, which developed multiple lines in parallel, so that, like Scheherazade, he rarely gave his readers a moment to feel as though the best part of the story were over. But there is more to it: Claremont gave the readers an almost permanently open window into his characters's heads.
Claremont's interiority was not that of Gerber, or Moench, or Wolfman. Instead, it was a much more commercially appealing formula that combined the prolixity of McGregor with the declarative tradition of Stan Lee. Through a combination of extended captions, spoken soliloquies, and long internal monologues conveyed in thought balloons, Claremont rarely let the reader lose sight of what was going on in his heroes's minds. Some of this narration was of the 60s-era superfluous variety, describing what was already apparent on the page. But often, his characters, though not engaged in extended "voice-overs" like Shang-Chi, slipped into an almost detached mode, remarking with surprise on their own emotions, usually in full sentences ending in periods. In Issue 145, Storm is the guest of Dr. Doom in a replica of his Latverian castle nestled in the Adirondack Mountains (why he had a castle there is not important now). Over dinner, Storm and Doom exchange pleasantries, but in the course of two panels (one of Storm smiling at Doom, and one of Doom's metal mask possibly smiling back), each silently comments on their emotional state with all the passion of a weather broadcast:
Storm: "I'm actually....enjoying this--and regretting that my sole purpose here is to keep Doom occupied while my fellow X-Men find and free Arcade. They should have reached his cell by now.
"Doom is a...fascinating man."
Doom: "Extraordinary. Storm seems drawn to me, as I am to her. Lioness to lion, queen to king.
"She does not fear me.
"She should. She will."
Earlier in the same issue, Storm comes across a reminder of the recently-departed Jean Grey, and thinks, "Ah, my beloved friend. Would I had died in your place. I...still miss you."
All of Claremont's characters engage in this sort of thought process at some point or another, and it is a particular effective device for contrasting their inner and outer states in their (frequent) moments of crisis and transformation. When Jean has turned in to Dark Phoenix, the persistence of her inner monologue makes her actions all the more schocking. At one point in Issue 136, she returns to her childhood home and encounters her family, who are instinctively terrified of her. Their typically word two-page encounter is an emotionally affecting contrast between the words Jean and her family say to each other and Jean’s own inner monologue. That monologue is made all the more poignant by Jean’s primary mutant power, telepathy. She is simultaneously registering her own feelings while eavesdropping on the hidden thoughts of her mother (Elaine), father (John), and sister (Sarah). As John embraces her, Jean thinks:
“Oh, not! Please, no! My telepathic power is so sensitive, I can’t block out dad’s thoughts. He’s an open book to me! Nothing’s secret, nothing’s sacred anymore!”
She knows her mother is concerned, but underneath, she feel’s Elaine’s fear. She lashes out, threatening them all verbally while her own thoughts register her desire to stop: “Can’t help myself! Don’t want to, anymore! I’m reacting to their thoughts, not their words!”
It is noteworthy that, while Claremont is normally perfectly happy to expose nearly all his characters thoughts on the page, in this scene we only hear Jean’s, even though Jean’s actions are motivated by her mind-reading. Jean is in the position in which Claremont’s readers usually find themselves, privy to the characters’ thoughts. The difference, of course, is that she can affect the action, while all we can do is watch it.
With the exception of awkward representations of foreign and regional accents, along with certain verbal tics (Wolverine always called people “Bub”), Claremont is not good at differentiating his characters’ voices. But in key storylines such as the Dark Phoenix saga, that weakness becomes a strength. If Jean continues to narrate her own thoughts and alternate between poetic and humorous language even after her transformation, that makes her villainous persona all the more believable: she stills sounds like Jean.
Claremont’s X-Men invites the readers into the heroes’ minds while making the process of identification effortless. Everyone is painfully aware of their own motives, especially when those motivates are in conflict (hence Claremont’s overused formulation “Part of me…..but [the other] part of me…). The best comics of 1970s Marvel created subjectivity effects that forced readers to recognize the basic otherness of other people, producing a simulacrum of Martin Buber’s famous “I-Thou” model of intersubjectivity: the consciousness of the other is not yours, but still a full-fledged self despite its difference. Readers may find themselves empathizing with Marv Wolfman’s Dracula only to remind themselves that he is a bloodthirsty mass-murderer; Gerber’s Omega and James-Michael Starling defy virtually any attempt to incorporate their otherness entirely within the reader’s sense of self. This sort of discomfort is not what Claremont’s X-Men, the shining star in the 1980s Marvel firmament, traded on. Claremont, his collaborators, and his many heirs found that presenting their heroes as superficially complex open books was a recipe for success,
There were exceptions, of course. Gilbert Hernandez did a fair amount of work for Vertigo after 2000. But it was never his primary home.↩
I have deliberately chosen only male writers for these examples, because, in the absence of extended discussion and nuance, the introduction of multiple genders in such discussions of taste and value tends to automatically place the women on a lower rung. An alternative, all-female list would certainly have been possible, but unfortunately the names might not be as recognizable. ↩
Cockrum returned returned for a brief run (1981-1982). Byrne made an even briefer return to replace Claremont as writer in 1992, and then wrote and drew 22 issues of a series called X-Men: The Hidden Years from 1999 to 2001. In 2018, he began posting penciled and lettered pages of X-Men: Elsewhen, which is technically X-Men fan fiction.↩