The Dawn of the Knights
By Mario Muscar
The comic industry of the early- to mid-1990s was one of great financial success. The market was sustaining thousands of different comics and more publishers than ever before. It seemed that anyone who wanted a piece of the "comic book pie" was welcome to it, and thanks mostly to an increase in speculation in the investment potential of comics, that "pie" was big enough for everyone's forks. But following almost every boom is the inevitable bust. After speculators saw that their comic book purchases were not going to make them millionaires, the industry collapsed to a state of near-death.
The mid-1990s comics industry was just barely hanging onto life. Many smaller, independent publishers were gone and the two big companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, were struggling to maintain readership as many fans who felt burned by the speculator market were leaving the hobby. As is usually the case in any industry that is struggling, comic publishers start trying new, different approaches to comics to try to gain customers. One of the most successful attempts was the 1998 creation of the Marvel Knights imprint at Marvel Comics. Marvel Knights brought a string of commercial and critical successes to Marvel Comics, which helped reinvigorate the entire comics industry, and led to many changes that can still be felt today.
Marvel Comics has had a long love affair with the idea of "the imprint." The first true Marvel imprint was Curtis Magazines. Created in 1971, Curtis Magazines (named after Marvel's then-distributor, Curtis Circulation) was a publisher of black-and-white magazines. The imprint featured such fan-favorite titles as Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, Dracula Lives!, Savage Sword of Conan and Tales of the Zombie. Marvel's creation of this imprint, whose magazines did not feature the word "Marvel" anywhere on the cover, allowed the publisher to create comics in a magazine format that would not be subject to the rules of the Comics Code Authority and thus could feature more mature material, such as horror and violent fantasy. Curtis Magazines lasted until 1981, when Marvel dropped the imprint and began putting the name "Marvel Magazine Group" on the covers. One such magazine published in this line would birth Marvel's second imprint.
In 1982, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter launched Epic Comics. Spinning out of Epic Illustrated magazine, Marvel's version of the popular British mature-themed magazine Heavy Metal, the Epic Comics imprint acted as an umbrella under which writers and artists could create material for a mature audience. Epic Comics was also a creator-owned imprint, allowing creators to keep the rights to their characters and stories, as well as seeing more money from publishing royalties, a big step in what had previously been a mostly work-for-hire industry. Epic Comics published such titles as Jim Starlin's Dreadstar, Steve Gerber's Void Indigo, Steve Englehart's Coyote and Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier's Groo. Epic later published mature-themed comics with Marvel characters, such as Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz and the Havok and Wolverine story, Meltdown. Additionally, the imprint published some notable European comics, introducing works by French comics legend Moebius and the Japanese manga Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo to an American audience. Marvel shut down the Epic imprint in 1994, a victim of the boom and bust mentioned earlier.
Other Marvel imprints came and went in the 1980s and 1990s, including Star Comics, a publisher of TV/cartoon, kid-friendly properties like ThunderCats, Care Bears, Muppet Babies and Heathcliff; the New Universe, Marvel's attempt at an alternate universe with new heroes like Starbrand, Spitfire and DP7; Marvel 2099, which featured future versions of Marvel characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men and Dr. Doom; Razorline, horror novelist Clive Barker's line that included Ectokid and Hokum and Hex; Midnight Sons, Marvel's gritty horror books of the mid-1990s that included Ghost Rider and Morbius; and Marvel Edge, a successor to Midnight Sons that added mature titles like Daredevil, Punisher, Dr. Strange and The Incredible Hulk and was a spiritual predecessor to Marvel Knights.
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