Defunct indie publisher Eclipse Comics helped pave the way for later companies like Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, BOOM! Studios, and VIZ Media. Join us as we look at four comics representative of the change Eclipse embodied.
Next month will be the 38th anniversary of the publication of Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, the first comic published by Eclipse Comics, the now-defunct independent comics company founded by brothers Dean and Jan Mullaney.
To some, Eclipse Comics is little more than a historical footnote, just one of the many indie start-ups that flourished during the 1980s only to crash-and-burn as the comics industry was brought down by the speculator-fueled insanity of the 1990s. For those with an appreciation of the industry’s history, however, Eclipse Comics was something of a trailblazer, helping lay the groundwork for the current creator-owned comics scene, the graphic novel and “mature readers” markets, and the manga licensing and translation industry.
Below, I’ve listed a selection of Eclipse Comics publications that exemplify the company’s continuing influence on the medium and business of comics.
Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy
One of a handful books that can lay claim to the title of “first modern graphic novel” (its claim as the first graphic novel to be sold exclusively through the direct market is on more firm footing), this post-apocalyptic tale by writer Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy published in August 1978 was the very first comic to be produced by what was then known as Eclipse Entertainment.
McGregor, whose portrayals of interracial romance on Marvel’s Amazing Adventures proved somewhat controversial in certain places during an era not too far removed from Loving v. Virginia, continued his push for diversity in comics with the cast of this post-apocalyptic graphic novel, which had the interracial pairing of Sabre and co-protagonist Melissa Siren. The subsequent Sabre ongoing series, launched in 1982, also featured one of the earliest depictions of a kiss between gay men in mainstream comics.
A 30th anniversary edition of Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species was released in 2008 by Desperado Publishing (prior reissues include a 20th anniversary edition published by Image Comics and a 10th anniversary edition released by Eclipse in 1988).
Mai, the Psychic Girl by Kazuya Kudo and Ryoichi Ikegami
Eclipse Comics was the first comics publisher of note to seize upon the commercial potential of manga in North America. Working with manga “packager” Studio Proteus and the company that would eventually become manga industry leader VIZ Media, Eclipse brought titles such as Kaoru Shintani’sArea 88 and Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed to a new and hungry readership.
The best-selling Appleseed, currently published by Dark Horse Manga, continues to be popular with readers and creators alike. It was the minor commercial success of Kazuya Kudo and Ryoichi Ikegami’s Mai, the Psychic Girl, however, that truly heralded the widespread appeal of manga in North America.
Area 88 and Appleseed arguably had a built-in North American audience composed of male teens reared on action-adventure and science-fiction. Mai, the Psychic Girl, one of the very first manga to be licensed for English-language publication by Eclipse in the mid-1980s, had no such advantages. It had a teen female for its lead. And while it featured a combination of supernatural, sci-fi, and espionage thriller elements, the comic featured slice-of-life drama and comedy as much as it did fantastical conflict. And yet despite retailers having a hard time figuring out who the comic was for—Was it a “girls comic”? Was it a superhero comic? None of the above?—Mai, the Psychic Girl went on to become the first manga to be published to completion in English, and it continues to be a personal favorite today. (VIZ Media currently holds the manga’s English-language publication rights.)
Miracleman by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Neil Gaiman, and others
Miracleman makes this list not just because it is arguably Alan Moore’s best and most complete commentary on the superhero genre, but also because the coverage of the decades-spanning legal drama over the ownership of the title character (originally known as Marvelman) has contributed so much to the larger comics community’s understanding of the concepts of creators’ rights and intellectual property ownership.
Writer Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written about the case extensively over the years and distilled the legal mumbo-jumbo to the point that it can be understood in layman’s terms, and it is to his work that I refer readers who wish to learn more about the contentious battle over the Captain Marvel pastiche originally created by the late Mick Anglo.
Marvel Comics is currently reissuing the Eclipse Miracleman issues with remastered coloring, albeit without the blessing of Alan Moore, who refuses to put his name on the comics out of respect for Mick Anglo (the Marvel editions simply credit the stories as being written by “The Original Writer”).
Somerset Holmes by Bruce Jones, Brent Anderson, Joe Chiodo, and others
Released in 1983, the six-issue Somerset Holmes miniseries anticipated the “comics-to-film” trend by a good quarter-century, as it was envisioned from the outset by writer Bruce Jones and editor April Campbell to serve as a detailed Hollywood pitch of sorts. To this end, illustrator Brent Anderson’s work on the comic is exceptionally cinematic in its storytelling.
Unfortunately, Somerset Holmes also suffers from the same problems that afflict many of today’s comics intended for easy adaptation to film or television. The modern noir features clichés of 1980s action cinema such as a plot riddled with all-too-convenient coincidences and gratuitous scenes of titillation that distract from, rather than enhance, the reading experience. Nevertheless, on balance, Somerset Holmes is worth seeking out, both for its place in history and the excellence of execution of its visual storytelling craft.
The property did get optioned and Jones and Campbell even got a screenplay adaptation of the comic in the hands of a number of producers and studios, but it never made it to production as a feature film. In an ironic twist, Jones, Anderson, and Campbell have alleged that the 1996 Geena Davis starrerThe Long Kiss Goodnight was an unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Holmes. The Long Kiss Goodnight screenwriter Shane Black claims that his original screenplay for the film was heavily rewritten by uncredited script doctors, so the veracity of the comics creators’ claims of plagiarism comes down to “he said, she said” speculation. It bears saying that the comics and the film do share many similarities, although they aren’t so similar that coincidence can be wholly discounted.
The first four issues of Somerset Holmes were published by Pacific Comics, before publication shifted to Eclipse with Pacific’s closure. Eclipse reissued the completed series as a “graphic album” in both paperback and hardcover in 1987.
Other Eclipse Comics-published comics worth checking out:
- Airboy by Chuck Dixon, Tim Truman, Ron Randall, Stan Woch, and others: An old-school pulp-actioner featuring the public domain character created by Fred Kida.
- Appleseed by Masamune Shirow (English-language reprint rights currently held by Dark Horse): One of the most highly-regarded cyberpunk comics and arguably Shirow’s best work.
- California Girls by Trina Robbins: An entertaining slice-of-life comic for girls, written and illustrated by underground comix pioneer Trina Robbins.
- Detectives, Inc.: A Terror of Dying Dreams by Don McGregor and Gene Colan: A shaggy crime story, but the Gene Colan art is worth wading through the tortuous plot. Most recently reissued in 2009 by IDW Publishing in a hardcover collecting McGregor’s Detectives, Inc.comics.
- The DNAgents by Mark Evanier and Will Meugniot: Of a piece with the best mainstream teen superhero comics of the early and mid-1980s such as New Teen Titans and The New Mutants. The first 14 issues of the series and the DNAgents Super Special were most recently collected in a paperback released by Image Comics in 2008.
- Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Adventures by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty: An underrated modern classic of detective fiction, and easily in the discussion for the best crime comic of the 1980s.
- Night Music by P. Craig Russell: A seven-issue series featuring Russell’s various opera and musical adaptations. Collected in whole and in part in various paperbacks and hardcovers issued by a variety of publishers.
- The Rocketeer by Dave Stevens: A lovingly executed homage to the pulp fiction mystery men of the interwar era. Recently reissued by IDW Publishing.
- Scout by Tim Truman (first 16 issues recently reprinted in paperback by Dynamite Entertainment): A post-apocalyptic tale steeped in Native American folklore and tradition.
- Zot! by Scott McCloud: A light-hearted sci-fi inflected adventure comic, by the man behind Understanding Comics.