Like sands through the hourglass, so are the comic book companies of our lives. In what will probably end up being a highly irregular series, I will look at comic companies that are no longer with us, and try to figure out what, if anything, we can learn from their myriad foibles and triumphs.
What it was called: Epic Comics
When it was around: 1982-1994; 1995; 2003
What it was: In the early '80s, Marvel Comics dominated the sales charts, thanks to hit titles like Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, and GI Joe. As the comics industry shifted its focus from newsstands to specialty shops and bookstore chains, Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter decided to create a new imprint aimed at older readers and science fiction fans called Epic Comics, which would consist of both upscale monthly comics and high quality, album-style "graphic novels" (a new term in the industry). Using the company's popular, Heavy Metal-inspired adult fantasy magazine Epic Illustrated as a model, the imprint would eschew superheroes in favor of space opera, sword and sorcery, and offbeat characters not related to the mainline Marvel Universe. The titles would also be exempt from the Comics Code Authority, with no restrictions on "mature" content like sex, violence, language, drug use, etc.
More importantly, the entire line would be creator-owned, which was an entirely new concept for Marvel and much of the comic book industry at the time. In the late '70s, Marvel had alienated creators and fans with its treatment of Steve Gerber, who had unsuccessfully sued the company for the ownership rights to Howard the Duck, a character he had created in 1973 with artist Val Mayerik. (There's an exhaustive history of the lawsuit and Gerber's working relationship with Marvel here.) The Epic line was seen as a way to encourage innovation and artistic freedom while allowing the writers and artists to fully own their creations, and more importantly, making amends with challenging writers and artists who had left the company in recent years as it had become more focused on commercial properties like toy and movie tie-ins and X-Men spinoffs. As a further display of goodwill, Shooter assigned veteran comics writer and editor Archie Goodwin, one of the most respected figures in the industry, to oversee the imprint.
Epic Comics launched in late summer 1982 with Dreadstar #1, the work of Thanos creator Jim Starlin, a metaphysical space opera in the vein of his earlier work on Captain Marvel and Warlock that had begun as a serial in Epic Illustrated. Steve Englehart, best known for similarly "cosmic" runs on The Avengers and Doctor Strange, contributed Coyote, a superheroic take on the Native American legend with art by Steve Leialoha. Howard's creators Gerber and Mayerik produced Void Indigo, a violent mix of SF, horror, and fantasy about an ancient Sumerian warrior reincarnated as a vengeful extraterrestrial stranded in modern-day L.A. — a grim variation, in some respects, on their earlier "duck out of water" antihero.
Over the next couple of years, the line expanded to include more titles: Groo the Wanderer, a parody of Conan-style "heroic" fantasy by MAD vet Sergio Aragones and Stan Sakai; Starstruck, an adaptation of the cult SF stage play by Elaine Lee, with art by Michael Kaluta; The Black Dragon, a medieval fantasy by X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, illustrated by John Bolton; Alien Legion, a military SF adventure created by Carl Potts, Sisterhood of Steel, a fantasy series by Christy Marx; Moonshadow, by JM DeMatteis and Jon Muth; Time Spirits, by Steve Perry (no, not that one) and Tom Yeates; and a number of others.
So what happened? Despite a great deal of hype, Epic was troubled from the beginning. Reviews were mixed, and sales tended to be flat, with many buyers blanching at the then-astronomical $1.50 cover price. (At the time, the typical comic book cost $.60.) The general consensus was that the new comics weren't really all that more daring or ambitious than the newsstand line, despite the "mature readers" label. And in the case of certain titles that were unambiguously adult-oriented, some shop owners refused to carry them altogether. One such example was the Void Indigo graphic novel, which featured explicit scenes of rape, torture, and murder. (One comics reviewer condemned it as "a crime against humanity" and "pustulant.") Retailers' reactions were so negative that the accompanying series never made it past the second issue. After that, a number of creators, including Perry and Yeates, accused Marvel of toning down the content of their works in the hopes of avoiding controversy.
By the mid-'80s, most of the original series had ended after a dozen issues or fewer, with the big exception being Dreadstar, which Starlin took to First Comics in 1986. Epic Illustrated, the line's spiritual progenitor, folded the same year. Over time, the imprint was quietly revamped, with the focus shifting from creator-owned properties to a more traditional model. After the success of Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin, there were more "mature readers" series with established Marvel characters, such as Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown and a short-lived Tomb of Dracula revival. There were also colorized reprint series of Richard and Wendy Pini's Elfquest and Mark Shultz's Xenozoic Tales (here retitled Cadillacs and Dinosaurs). In addition, there were an increasing number of licensed titles, with comics based on George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards, William Shatner's TekWar, the Car Wars role-playing game, Fritz Leiber's "Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser" series, and the works of Clive Barker. There were still a handful of creator-owned titles, like Marshal Law and Stray Toasters, as well as American editions of foreign comics, including ambitious translations of Moebius' core albums and Otomo's Akira, but the imprint grew smaller and less prestigious as the '90s began, and was shut down entirely in 1994 following the collapse of the industry. It was revived briefly in 1995, to finish the Akira series, and again in 2003, though that produced only one title, Mark Millar's universally-hated Trouble, chronicling the sexual awakening of a teenaged May Parker, better known to comics readers as Spider-Man's Aunt May. With the departure of editor Bill Jemas, the imprint died again, probably for good. By this point, with newsstand distribution a thing of the past, the Comics Code moribund (it died in 2011) and the average age of comics buyers hovering around 35, there was no need for a separate imprint aimed at adult readers.
So what's its legacy? Arguably Epic's biggest contribution to comics was that it showed that creator-owned comics were a viable proposition a full ten years before Image came along. It also provided a standard for what "upscale" comics should look and feel like, with higher quality paper and full color graphics. If you look at some of the independents of the time, like First, Comico, and Eclipse, you can see how the companies recognized the value of aesthetics. If the paper and reproduction are really nice, as opposed to newsprint and the four-color process or black and white, then it must follow that the story and the artwork are also superior. That describes most comics published today, which would certainly be considered "deluxe" by 1982 standards. (One wonders what the readers would make of the $3.99 cover price, though.) The imprint also demonstrated that "adult" versions of all-ages superheroes were acceptable, paving the way for direct market only "mature readers" labels like DC's Vertigo and Marvel's now-inactive MAX.
On the whole, though, much of the Epic line was either thoroughly mediocre or spectacularly cruddy. Compared to some of the other independent titles from the same period, such as Fantagraphics' Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez, or Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! at First, or even "mainstream" titles like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, there's not a whole lot going on in these comics that's really revolutionary or exciting or provocative in terms of style, themes, or narrative. For the most part, the only thing that made them "epic" was that they didn't involve stories about people with superpowers in tights... though Dreadstar, which was the line's bestselling title for a number of years, was precisely that, especially following a mid-series revamp. The big exceptions are DeMatteis and Muth's Moonshadow, a science fiction fairy tale with lovely painted art that should be of interest to Saga fans, and Lee and Kaluta's Starstruck, which still continues to this day (and remains gorgeously baffling). And Groo, of course, is wonderful. Since most of the core titles were owned by their creators, you can find a lot of them recent editions from other publishers, such as Dark Horse and IDW. And many of the Marvel-owned series like Elektra are still widely available in brand-new editions. (Oh yeah, and we might see a Dreadstar movie at some point from the same guys who produced The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Miracles never cease.)
Marvel currently has a creator-owned imprint called Icon, which publishes Casanova, Kick-Ass, and Criminal, among others, but it has no connection to the Epic brand. Hopefully no one will propose a Void Indigo-Trouble mashup, though you never know with Millar.