Having mentioned ’60s superheroes, at Marvel and DC, and Alan Moore, I thought I’d talk about those who tried to take the genre somewhere else in past years.

Steve Gerber
It was Steve Gerber who got me back into comics in the ’70s, after dropping them when younger, and he’s still one of my two or three favourite comic writers ever. He wrote a swamp-monster comic called Man-Thing, making the stories about characters and issues rather than horror or superheroics. In an issue of the gloriously named Giant Size Man-Thing, an odd guest character appeared: Howard the Duck, a cynical and sardonic talking duck from another dimension. He proved popular enough to get his own title, in which he sneered about this world of talking apes and got involved in parodic superhero adventures. It was sometimes terrific satire, but also substantial human drama, with the quiet moments among the best. A great series, and there is a fine Essential collection.

Gerber also wrote The Defenders, and this was the weirdest superhero title of its time, with strange villains and plots, including a bewildering sequence of issues where character’s minds and physical brains were getting switched around – watching the Hulk try to grasp that they had his friend Nighthawk’s brain in a dish, and the cute fawn was an evil wizard, was tremendous fun. Check out Essential Defenders 2 and 3 (3 also includes a great story by David Anthony Kraft).

Frank Miller
Frank Miller was the other shining new light of Alan Moore’s generation, and we’ll come back to his later work in another instalment. He came to prominence with some tremendous work on Daredevil, combining classic comic art (a lot of it learned from studying the likes of Will Eisner) with some imaginative, gritty stories and some good new characters, most notably Elektra. His most famed work of that time was The Dark Knight Returns, a future tale of Batman that had a huge impact. His work was questionable politically, but brilliantly executed, and Dark Knight totally reinvigorated a rather stagnant Batman, and has been the key model for the character ever since. (This is reprinted in countless forms, and you will have no difficulty in finding it.)

Scott McCloud
I’ll also slip Scott McCloud’s Zot! in here, as an example of the different approaches opened up in the ’80s indie boom. McCloud is best known for his superb later Understanding Comics, a very sound formal guide to the medium in graphic novel format. His formal understanding is very much on show in Zot!, with all kinds of great cartooning, plus clever characters and fresh stories, but maybe the most impressive aspect of what was a tremendous series was its dealings with its teenage stars as people – one issue that is an intimate conversation seems to me to be something of a masterpiece. (There are collections of this great comic, but they may be a little harder to find than those above.)

This is just a sampling – the ’80s really opened superhero comics up, in terms of extending the boundaries of the genre and offering new possibilities. Too many people simply regarded the biggest successes, Moore and Miller in particular, as defining new paradigms, but some others have more smartly seen them as invitations towards rethinking how to do this rather absurd genre.