It’s impossible to encapsulate how seismic the effect of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was on the field of comic books. Not only did it introduce a more prestigious package for comics (and a then-unheard-of cover price of $2.95) but interest in the series also inaugurated the now-common process of repackaging collections of recent storylines into mass-market trade paperbacks. Frank Miller is at his apex here, crafting a story that is chock-a-block full but which is also never less than operatic and approachable. The cover alone is as modern and forward-looking as any ever done.
The only release to rival DARK KNIGHT RETURNS this year was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ meditation on super heroes and how their childlike view of morality breaks down in a real-world context. Every issue of WATCHMEN was not only an event, it was a sacred text to be decoded–what was up with all of those blimps? Amazingly constructed and immaculately crafted, WATCHMEN’s success is all the more amazing in that it used no pre-existing characters to whom the audience would have an attachment. Once again here, the package is completely devoted to supporting the story content, with the cover image acting as the first page. Unequaled.
Alan Moore’s other hat trick of the year. With the impending arrival of superstar John Byrne, who would be relaunching the Superman mythos from the ground up, Moore takes the opportunity of using the final pre-Byrne issues of SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS to show that such a relaunching isn’t remotely necessary. As is his wont, Moore wrings pathos out of old characters and situations and finds new insights into familiar relationships and iconography. George Perez’s inks on this issue give mainstay Curt Swan’s pencils a sharp, modern polish that brings the whole thing home. A pitch-perfect love letter to at least 30 years of Superman stories.
Probably the most visceral comic book of the year, and the moment where author Dave Sim’s synthesis of words, images, lettering and page design all come into sharp focus, ably assisted by environment artist Gerhad. Cerebus spends much of this issue climbing to the Upper City to confront the giant stone Thrunk who has usurped his position as Pontiff. Sim confines the action to tin vertical panels until the moment of confrontation, where the pages break format as Cerebus lays his opponent low in a tremendously satisfying manner. A virtuoso performance.
The penultimate issue of Matt Wagner’s modern day Arthurian saga is actually its strongest, in which prospective hero Kevin Matchstick must accept his destiny as the reborn Pendragon and come to terms with the fact that this has spelled destruction for many of those around him. MAGE: THE HERO DISCOVERED was a terrific series front-to-back, but this was its apex–the final issue, focused more on the physical victory, didn’t have the heart this installment–it was fine, but almost an afterthought once Kevin picks up his enchanted bat at the end of this issue.