Frank Miller hit the scene like an atom bomb in 1979 with Daredevil #158. He infused his art efforts on one of Marvel's second tier Superheroes with noir shading and gritty styling. Shortly thereafter he got the chance to help plot the book and by 1981 he had taken over writing the book altogether, and he is quoted as saying:
"I was very hungry to do it, because it was my chance to do a crime comic. It just had to be in red tights."
It was a shot across the bow. It showed that superheroes could support the weight of heavier story-lines and that more than Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. could press the boundaries of spandex clad characterization. Since then plenty of creators have added nuances of other kinds of story-telling to their comics. Lately more creators have been taking these kinds of chances on their books and more and more we're seeing more complex characterizations in the pages of major publisher comics.
Recently creators who had been working in the self publishing world and small press industry have been the ones taking most of the chances. Guys like Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jonathon Hickman have been adding interesting things to comics since they first step foot in the Big 2. Other creators have been long time industry mainstays who have brought something new to their game and have reinvigorated concepts that had long been considered dead.
In 2004 Peter David returned to characters that he had been influentially involved with during the 90's, X-Factor. With his return in the Madrox mini-series he managed to bring noir and private detective style story telling to a mutant ensemble concept and in doing so he managed to reignite the characters of Madrox, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, and more. Most recently he folded Longshot and Shatterstar into the group and has utilized both characters with such a deft hand that it's kind of surprising that they had at times in the past each been considered laughing stocks. David brought a similar kind of sensibility to his run on the short lived Fallen Angel at DC which experienced a resurrection thanks to IDW and the series is considered to be some of his finest work to date by many of his fans. Peter David is a guy who has been working in the industry since the early 80's and has penned many seminal stories in his career and has often been lauded with critical acclaim and fan adulation, but it hasn't been since he started to bring outside concepts into the world of mutants and superheroes that he really caught my eye. And I think I might not be the only one.
The aforementioned Matt Fraction has brought, time and time again, the world of science to his titles. His run on Invincible Iron Man has had bleeding edge science close to it's vest since it's inception. His work on Immortal Iron Fist brought Shaw Brothers style kung fu film story telling into a superheroic medium. His work on Thor has been far more rooted in that of Myth than that of spandex. As a matter of fact on the first issue of his new Thor run he used the words "Quantum Cosmologist" and knew that they meant what they meant. The book is seriously good. If you're looking for super-heroics to be a little more than fist fights you really need look no further than the work of Matt Fraction. His run on Uncanny X-Men has managed to make the whole of the mutant population feel more like a community than almost any other writer in the history of the title.
Ed Brubaker brings spy fiction to both his run on Captain America and Secret Avengers as does Jonathon Hickman on his run on Secret Warriors. Hickman & Brubaker have managed to take the world of espionage and bring it out of the world of oft overlooked novels and Matt Damon movies and bring it to the printed page with incredible panache.
I think though the most surprising and most interesting application of these kinds of mash-ups has been the work that Peter J. Tomasi has done for DC. First with his work on Green Lantern Corps where he took a cosmic super-hero team and managed to make it feel more like an interstellar police procedural. And considering the the book is a spin-off from one of the most super-heroic heroes DC has ever managed to create (I mean, c'mon the man is a test pilot/air force pilot in his every day life and then becomes space faring protector of Earth when he dons his mask? Pretty epic.) it's a wonder that it works. But then when he was announced as leaving the book for a new Green Lantern title he managed to even put another spin on the concept making Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors feel like a police detective moonlighting as private detective in space. Guy Gardner has never been as cool as he is under the purview of Tomasi. R.E.B.E.L.S scribe Tony Bedard has made a career out of taking the structure of war movies and turning them to his needs.
Seriously this is the time of writers making comic books more than just superheroes. And I couldn't be happier. If you aren't seeing these themes in your books then you should seek them out. There is nothing better than reading a comic featuring characters you already like in situations that you would never expect in a comic book. Now if only more television shows grasped the concept of novel story telling instead of short story telling ... but we'll talk about that more next week.