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Illustration of a young spider man fan in the cinema eating popcorn and watching a movie surrounded by other superhero fans Illustration: Erica Henderson for Polygon

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The biggest names in comics on what defined the last 20 years — and what’s next

What it means that the third decade of the Modern Age is upon us

The history of American comics is strikingly easy to segment into decades, on the decade.

The 1940s saw the medium blossom into full stride for the first time, the ’50s captured an anarchic post-war mood upended by the Marvel Revolution in precisely 1961. The 1970s saw superheroes grapple with direct topicality for the first time. In the ’80s, comics became critically acclaimed grownup entertainment, while the ’90s saw a hard swing back to teen-focused excess and the chaos of a speculator boom and bust.

Every 10 years has its own overall tone, and artistic trends and printing techniques have combined to give each decade its own look as well. That is, until you get to the ’00s.

American comics also have a recency problem. The medium’s history is traditionally divided into “ages,” ticking over into the Modern Age in 1984. But even comics scholars have yet to define the ’00s from what came before them, or the ’10s from the ’00s. In 2020, it’s technically been the Modern Age for 36 years.

A comic artist or editor might pause when asked to define the the last 20 years of comics. I know, because I’ve asked some: With the third decade of the Modern Age approaching, Polygon picked the brains of comics industry veterans to understand how modern history shaped comics, and how comics have shaped modern pop culture.

The results were nothing short of fascinating. And while everyone had their own individual take, themes did emerge. Wonder Woman scribes Steve Orlando and Gail Simone talked about the 2010s’ wave of diversity, while Lee, DiDio, and their Marvel counterpart Tom Brevoort went long on the movement of superheros to pop culture tentpoles. Cartoonists Scott McCloud and Gene Luen Yang nodded to the rise of the YA graphic novel, while superhero gurus Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns laid out the renaissance of pure superheroics. Not to mention Al Ewing, Amanda Conner, Brian Michael Bendis, C.B. Cebulski, Colleen Doran, Bryan Hill, Jim Starlin, Kieron Gillen, and Liam Sharp, all weighing in with their take.

Below, we’ve grouped together select quotes by theme, some obvious, some that only experts in the field would have the keen understanding to see. If you want to read everything that everyone said, check out their full answers here.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe swings through the streets of New York in Ultimatum #1, Marvel Comics (2008).  Graphic: Brian David Gilbert/Polygon | Source image: Jeph Loeb, David Finch/Marvel Comics

What defined the ’00s in comics?

Reclaiming the hero story

Scott Snyder (writer of Batman, Wytches, Justice League, Dark Nights Metal): I feel like the ’00s were about reminding people how great our classic characters are on all levels. It was about a reclamation, after the ’80s and ’90s, of deconstructing superheroes — to reconstruct them. Geoff Johns was a huge person in that, Grant Morrison’s a huge person in that, Bendis is a huge person in that. The generation right before me put them back together and said “This is why they’re great, in their corny, wonderful, superhero selves,” and created amazing new characters alongside that, that appealed to whole new audiences.

Geoff Johns (writer of Green Lantern, Doomsday Clock, Shazam!, The Avengers): I remember specifically for me in the ’00s, I was really excited about a lot of the new voices coming up, like Brian Bendis and Greg Rucka. [After the ] ’90s where it was really flashy, over-the-top superheroes, and colorful. [The ’00s] was a bit of a grounding from that with some of that work. The work I did in the two thousands was — I call it — it’s like neoclassic, right? The JSA, Wally West/The Flash, I started Green Lantern in the mid-’00s. I really liked going back to the basics of what the concept was, while pushing them forward. Like the JSA, I always loved the idea of the Justice Society having roots in the ’40s in a first era, but really progressing and evolving and having legacy — because it’s such a huge part of DC Comics — and exploring that, but keeping the rich history.

Superman looks up at a billboard depicting first responders and healthcare workers, and says “Wow,” on the cover of 9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists, DC Comics (2001). Image: Alex Ross/DC Comics

September 11, 2001

Bryan Hill (writer of American Carnage, Killmonger, The Outsiders): I think the ’00s in comics are largely defined, like a lot of media, by living in a post-9/11 world. How do you tell stories about superheros when the real world seems to be absent of the ones we need? I think fiction had to catch up to that. In the 90s we were very safe. We were in this Clintonian economy where we were so safe that you can make a movie with Ed Norton about how Ikea was the biggest problem in your life. That felt safe. I shop at Ikea, so I need to get punched, you could make that movie.

Tom Brevoort (editor, Marvel Comics, senior vice president of publishing): More than anything else, I’d say [the definite movement of the ’00s] was a deepening of the concept of the “world outside your window” and the willingness of the various creators and companies to tell complex and sophisticated stories about the world we live in and the real world events therein. This all really started in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, when comics were among the first entertainment media (due to our speed of production) to be able to effectively and emotionally deal with the aftermath of those attacks and the psychic scars that everybody was feeling. From there, as the decade went on, such stories with greater emotional depth became far more commonplace, and the biggest stories also tended to be those that were the most hard-hitting in terms of their story content (even though that content was often expressed through allegory.)

Superheroes go mainstream

Jim Lee (artist of Uncanny X-Men, Batman: Hush, Justice League; co-publisher at DC Comics): When I think about [the year] 2000 and Spider-Man coming out, the X-Men movies and all these things, the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the expectation for what superheroes are, everyone embracing the characters but not necessarily ... sort of the rise of superheroes becoming a cornerstone of pop culture. I know that’s not necessarily the comic books, but I think it plays into the story of “We didn’t rise as that water level rose.” Right?

I think, since then, publishers have been challenging themselves with [the question of] “How do we catch this wave?” How do we get out there on the periodical side and capture so much of the obvious passion and interest in these characters?

Dan Didio (writer of Metal Men, Sideways; co-publisher at DC Comics): We were talking about [the] “I Read Banned Comics” [sticker]; you gotta remember in the ’50s all comics were going to be banned. It wasn’t about a particular character or story, it was about a medium that they were trying to shut down. So it’s an intriguing question because, ultimately, we were the counterculture and now we’re the pop culture. That’s the weird shift for us, because in order to maintain our identity, we still have to push against the norm in some way. That is, I think in some ways, necessary.

Al Ewing (writer of Ultimates, Immortal Hulk, Loki: Agent of Asgard) The ’00s felt like the “Hollywood Decade.” “Widescreen” and “cinematic” became the new normal in terms of style, and the content became a strange mix of the grown-up and the childish, an attempt to get in tune with the new political zeitgeists while trying to compete awkwardly with the internet as a source of fetish porn. So many things felt “ready for the movie,” subconsciously getting the plots and costume designs and casting in place ahead of a world where the movies were finally ready to close the distance and become comics, complete with shared universes, crossovers and line-wide events.

Steve Orlando (writer of Midnighter and Apollo, Wonder Woman, Virgil): With Morrison and Quitely at the wheel, [X-Men] pushed forward the mutant concept in bold and innovative ways — though it was one of the first books to react to a film, it also did it the best out of the gate, summing up what we would come to know is the challenge of working on a comic while the characters appear in other media: we must welcome readers from outside comics, but we also have to be bigger and bolder than film, tv, or video games, we have to offer that much more creativity to show them there are things they can only get in a comic book. [...] The 00s put more eyes on superheroes than there had been in decades, mainstream eyes, and comics had to go through a period of change, its own secondary mutation, to maintain its place as the home of creativity and innovation.

Superman dashes through Metropolis streets in a t-shirt and cape. Text reads: The 2010s. Graphic: Brian David Gilbert/Polygon | Source image: DC Comics

What defined the ’10s in comics?

Even more mainstreaming

Scott Snyder: With the rise of indie comics in 2010 with The Walking Dead and Image and all of that stuff, too, I feel suddenly we were in an environment where it was almost like, OK, everyone loves comics now. Between the movies, indie stuff, superhero comics, everyone loves the characters, everyone loves the adaptations of these things. Now we have to make things, between 2010 and now — It’s been a struggle to figure out how to write things that both appeal to your longtime readers but also bring in new readers and appeal to a sense of individuated readership that says we want something we haven’t seen before.

Tom Brevoort: At this point, the defining feature of comics in the 2010s is the fact that they sit at the center of the entirety of all of pop culture. Whether it’s at the box office, on broadcast or streaming, at the toy store or the theme park, the characters and stories that originated in comics have permeated the rest of the culture on every level. It wasn’t all that long ago that a superhero film or television series was a rarity, and was often seen as fodder for a very specific niche audience.

Social media

Al Ewing: [The ’10s marked a] return to psychedelia and love, pitted against the last helpless gasp of the Olde Ways, with the dread Social Media fighting on both sides like Two-Face, always ready to ally himself if the coin-flip is right, but never to be mistaken for the hero. The story of the tens is a story of young people of all ages, all sick of grandad’s wanky lads-mag solipsism, all aching to throw their shoulder to the wheel and tell stories that speak to them and for them and the people they know. And — slowly, against some particularly creaky and cobwebbed resistance — it feels like the wheel has turned, at least a little.

Liam Sharp (artist of Judge Dredd, Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern): It was also the decade when comic fandom got toxic on Twitter, creating new tribes and new camps. Some felt it had become too progressive and screamed for comics that resembled precisely the era they most loved growing up — usually the bombastic excesses of the ’90s. But many others enjoyed the growing diversity, the rise in the number of female creators, and the moment Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel became arguably more relevant than they had ever been. [... B]old storytelling came under siege if it was perceived to have strayed too far from the canonical and sacrosanct rhythms and rules of past times. Comic couples were now part of shipping wars. Batman stopped being a Playboy — such unreconstructed modes now passé and out-of-step with an increasingly progressive world-view. To some the comics were growing up, to others they were getting too woke and politically correct. Creators began to second-guess their creative visions, while fandom started to feel it could back-seat drive the entire industry via the medium of Twitter.

Ms. Marvel stretches her arm to cartoonish lengths in order to punch a bank robber while she checks her phone. From the cover of Ms. Marvel #6, Marvel Comics (2014). Image: Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson/Marvel Comics

New, diverse talent and characters

Amanda Conner (artist and/or writer on titles including Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, Harley Quinn, Power Girl): I feel [that] this decade a lot of female superheroes came to the forefront. It was a very, very girl power decade for comic books. Also, and this has like been going on for the past 20 years is that when I first started working in comics — and even when I was reading comics as a little kid — there were really not that many girls reading comics. You would go to a convention in the late eighties and the early nineties and the only girls that you saw at comic book conventions were usually being “burros.” They were pack mules for whatever guy was the comic collector — and it was their mom or their girlfriend or their sister or their cousin, Hey, come to this call with me, I need you to carry all this crap for me while I get it signed. And every once in a while there would be an actual female comic reader. Now girls read comics across the table and it’s great. It’s really good. There’s more female creators, there’s more female readers. I feel like this decade has been a very, very girl power decade, which is great.

C.B. Cebulski (editor in chief, Marvel Comics): In the ’10s, it’s been an amazing time for discovering new talent; never before have we seen so many “ready for prime time” new creators writing and/or drawing comics, both independent and mainstream, from around the globe, adding a diversity of new voices to storytelling in both the print and digital mediums.

Colleen Doran (writer and/or artist on Sandman, A Distant Soil, Wonder Woman): Girls becoming a big part of American comics. I’ve been in comics since, well, longer than I care to admit, and this has never been a thing in my lifetime. There were a few women in comics, but it was really a queen bee set-up, and it wasn’t necessarily very welcoming. Now, women and girls in comics are not just becoming the norm, but a major creative and financial force. Without the financing, without the economic power, it was always going to be stops and starts. But women creators now make up a major financial segment of the market, and have some of the best selling books in both the direct market and the retail trade.

Gail Simone (writer on Birds of Prey, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Deadpool): I think it’s the era where we sort of gave mainstream comics back to EVERYONE. There was a time when girls comics sold in huge numbers, where kids’ comics competed with Batman directly and often won. Somewhere along the line, we focused SO MUCH on the core superhero customer base (not talking about independent comics, here), that we sort of abandoned those other audiences. In other countries, this wasn’t the case.

So, yeah, it’s been a couple decades of great superhero comics, but also, the rise of people like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Marjorie Liu and G. Willow Wilson and it shows … print is struggling all over, but most of the breakthrough titles have been very welcoming to newbies. Which I love. I have devoted a huge chunk of my life to comics, I want it to be open for everybody.

Squirrel Girl dreams of being held aloft on the shoulders of the Avengers, on the cover of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1, Marvel Comics (2015). Image: Erica Henderson/Marvel Comics

Kieron Gillen (writer on Young Avengers, The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars: Darth Vader): The most defining elements of the 10s is the increasing diversity in the books. I don’t just mean the cast or (as the decade went on) the creators, but in terms of the sort of stories you could tell. There’s a lot of what I’ll describe as quirkpop books, which tended to find their audience in trades rather than the traditional marketplace. Hawkeye and Squirrel Girl are two which leap to mind, but the playfulness of Ms. Marvel is simultaneously new while also being a pure statement of elements which were definitive to the earliest Marvel superhero books.

Jim Starlin (writer and/or artist on The Infinity Gauntlet, Batman, Captain Marvel): Every few decades there’s a whole influx of new people coming in. During the ’70s we radically changed comics, people were coming in and replacing all those cartoonists and writers who were the mainstay of the industry back from thirties and forties. My generation is being replaced now with a new generation, there’s always going to be something innovative coming in as long as the creative people keep getting hired, that’s the big trick. Getting the right people to do the right job. It’s not so much the characters as it is the people who tell the stories of the characters.

Steve Orlando: The ’10s, then, were also about a transition, but in this case it was the slow work (slower than it needed — or needs — to be at times) of updating our heroes to meet the modern moment. Diversity in creators, diversity in characters, and also in format — more YA and Middle Grade OGNs, more digital access, pushing back into stores outside the direct market. The attention of the ’00s showed us more people than ever love these heroic narratives, they demand, and deserve, to be the star, not the supporting player. In the 10s, that fight for representation took center stage, and it’s ongoing now.

Brian Michael Bendis (writer on Spider-Man, The Avengers, Superman, Alias, Powers): you can feel some of our audience is more traumatized and stressed out about the real world than they ever have been before and they come to us sometimes for total escape. I can feel it with my Superman readers. Take me to a world where the good guys win. I think about that … a lot.

I’m also seeing a great deal of creators from almost all walks of life pushing themselves to see how far they can push the medium. That’s a very good sign for things to come.

YA graphic novels

Scott McCloud (writer and artist on Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, Making Comics): Raina [Telgemeier] has transformed the industry and the art form for years to come. She’s the apex of the middle-grade and kids’ comics revolution, creating armies of new readers (conveniently feeding into the YA market!) and subtly altering American comics’ storytelling priorities — adopting an emotion-as-action rhythm far more satisfying to mainstream readers than the stuff-it-in-a-word balloon style of silver age superhero comics. Whole generations of cartoonists and readers will live in the house that Raina built. That most will be women and girls is especially exciting, and long-overdue.

Gene Luen Yang (writer and/or artist on American Born Chinese, Superman, Avatar: The Last Airbender): The ’10s was a huge decade for comics as a medium. Graphic novels for young people exploded, in part because of creators like Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, and Kazu Kibuishi. When I was young, maybe a handful of kids in every classroom read comic books. Today, it’s hard to find a single kid under the age of thirteen who hasn’t read Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. Everyone reads graphic novels.