They say that hindsight is 20/20, and in many respects this is true. It’s easy, when you look back at events in your past, to say “If I hadn’t done X, then Y wouldn’t have happened.” We all do it, it’s human nature to wonder what might have been had we chosen a different path.
However, that truism that is so often spoken fails to take into account two things that directly effect our perception of events in retrospect: regrets and nostalgia. Our outlook at both the time of reflection as well as the time in question, skews our view when pondering the past which is why I want to say upfront that myself, along with the rest of our “esteemed” Panel, fall in the mid 30’s age group and so nostalgia will play a significant part in this piece. Don’t worry though, I’ll touch on those regrets a bit towards the end. But for now, put on your rose-tinted glasses, as I take a look at the “dreaded” 90’s era of comics in attempt to shoe that it might not be quite as bad as it’s perceived to be.
Gonna Party Like it’s Nineteen Ninety-Nine
Coming off the booming success of the 80’s, which saw so much innovation, and broadening of the scope of what they could be, comics exploded onto the main stream consciousness in a major way (which admittedly lead to some problems, but we’ll get to that). While there are several things I could point to, the first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of the kind of attention they were getting is the very foundation of the genre itself: Superman. A major part of the trouble people have when trying to hop into the Man of Steel is that he can literally do just about anything. How can you root for a guy who isn’t ever really in true jeopardy? You kill him, that’s how. While it’s not the first time he had “died”, Superman #75 hit like an atomic bomb. Media outlets such as the New York Times ran obituaries… FOR A FICTIONAL CHARACTER. It was discussed on news broadcast and in magazines of all varieties. In 1992 everyone was talking about it.
The story of his death and funeral were followed by a hiatus of all four of his titles. This in turn led to the rise of 4 “Supermen” and the ongoing mystery of who, if any, was the true Last Son of Krypton. I, to this day, still go back and read the saga every so often. It captured my imagination in a way Superman had never done before, or really has since. Except for Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come was a 4 issue series that dealt with a potential DCU future where the next generation of meta-humans inherited the world and proceeded to royally mess things up. Seeing what’s happened, our heroes come out of retirement in an attempt to rectify things. What follows is a tale of a battle spiraling out of control between the metahumans, which causes the normal leaders of the world to attempt to contain the problem by there own means, all of which is told alongside direct quotes from the chapter of Revelations pertaining to the Biblical Armageddon. Again presenting us with a situation where Clark’s powers just don’t hold the easy answer, showing us a Kal-El struggling to come to terms with being a true world leader in a world that has seemingly passed the “Man of Tomorrow” by. It’s a truly remarkable piece of work. Spurred on by their success from “killing” Superman, DC did similar things with both Batman and Green Lantern which did, at the least, provide some very important things that are still relevant to this day.
Batman, coming off the success of 1989’s Batman movie (It was everywhere) alongside his phenomenal animated series in ‘92, was arguably DC’s highest profile character. While Knightfall was a bit of a bloated mess and his replacement was not exactly a hit, it did have some highlights worth mentioning. The Bane we were introduced to was, despite his portrayal in the movies, more than a musclebound brute. He was a highly intelligent, implacable man who overcame his situation through an indomitable will to survive. His reliance on the drug venom was his Achilles heel and despite eventually overcoming it, writer’s have never managed to recapture that same awe from his initial run but the potential is there. Outside of the Joker and Catwoman he’s battled against the Bat more times on the big screen than any other member of his rogues gallery (sorry, I’m not going to count Scarecrow’s cameos in the latter parts of the Dark Knight trilogy) which speaks to the impact and mystique he built in his initial appearance.
It also began the progression of Tim Drake from just another “Robin”, to a genuine hero in his own right to the point where in many people’s eyes, he has become “THE” definitive Robin” due to his uncanny intelligence and tactical mind. Even more so than the original, Dick Grayson. The replacement Batman was the catalyzing element that forced this transformation. Arguably though, the biggest 90’s impact on Batman, came from Grant Morrison’s run on JLA. This is where we see the Dark Knight shift from just being the “World’s Greatest Detective” to what’s come to be referred to as the “Bat-God”. Re-launching the Justice League, which had been primarily made up of second-stringers for years, we finally got all of the big heroes back together.
And yet, Batman tended to outshine them all through his being prepared for any situation at all times. Whether it was being outnumbered and alone against a group of Martians that had defeated the rest of the league, or seeing how he would take down the his teammates should they go rogue when his plans were stolen in the seminal “Tower of Babel”, Batman definitively proved just why he belongs in the same company as gods and kings. This is largely the same version we see to this day and yep, it too is from the 90’s.
Over on the other side of town was Marvel. With the toy market and even trading cards driving so much business for them, things were definitely looking up for the “House of Ideas” and the majority of that was due to the X-Men. Following the resurrection and growth of the 70’s and 80’s, the X-men became almost it’s own universe in the 90’s…and people couldn’t get enough of Marvel’s mutants. Spin-off teams, solo titles, cartoons, videogames, even Pizza-Huts, they were literally everywhere. To this day, 1991’s X-men #1 is the best selling comic of all time followed by X-Force #1 as the second with over 12 million copies sold between the two.
The line continued to be a juggernaut for most of the decade thanks to crossovers like X-Cutioners Song and Fatal Attractions which, among other things, featured Magneto pulling the adamantium out of Wolverine’s body by way of his pores which is an image that stays with me to this day. Don’t even get me started on the “Age of Apocalypse” that took over all the X-titles for a glorious few months in 95/96, that’ll extend this already long column to the size of a small novel! They also delved deeper into the subjects of the open hand as opposed to the closed fist approach and racial discrimination which are still pertinent topics to this day. Perhaps more so than at anytime since the civil rights movement was so dividing our country (not that that’s entirely in the past).
No discussion of 90’s Marvel would be complete without bringing up Spider-Man and I’m going to take a dive into the deep end and go right into the most maligned era of his 50+ year career: The Clone Saga. No other story, save perhaps “One More Day”, has even come close to drawing the ire of readers like the Clone Saga did. Here’s the thing no one ever brings up though, it was good… at least at the start. Bringing the Clone back after a 20 year absence as the Scarlet Spider worked. People were interested in the Spider-line, and what was unfolding in it, in a big way. People dug the character of Ben Reilly and his alter-ego. It gave them the best of both worlds in that in Reilly, who hadn’t been dragged through all of the traumatic events Peter had endured, was a character who was more of the fun-loving wisecracker of old while still maintaining the Peter people had grown attached to over the previous two decades.
The problem however, was that it was drawing too much interest. With the bursting of the speculator bubble alongside the collapse of the toy and trading card market, when they saw the sales numbers for the Clone’s return, editorial mandated they keep it going as long as it could go. Rather than taking place over the course of several months with Scarlet Spider swinging off into his own stories, they drug it out over the course of TWO YEARS. No story can hold itself together under the weight of such pressure over four monthly titles for that long when it was never intended to do so. Padding it out by revealing our beloved hero of decades wasn’t the real one and positioning Ben as the one true spider did nothing except make a bad situation worse. Eventually they comic booked their way out of it, reinstating Peter by way of a convoluted plot by Norman Osborn. But I reiterate that it WAS good to a certain point. If it hadn’t been, then there wouldn’t have been the outrage over the shift in tone of Reilly’s character in the recent “Dead No More” arc.
Built in Their Own Image
Arguably, the biggest and best thing that came from the 90’s was the founding of Image Comics. There had been independent publishers before, and should Image close it’s doors, there will be more coming after. What makes Image such a special case is that, tired of dealing with the structure of the “Big 2”, the hottest stars in the industry, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee and Jim Valentino united, creating an independent company with the power to go head to head with the two giants while allowing creators to control their properties. On the backs of creations like Savage Dragon, Witchblade, Gen 13, Spawn, and WildC.A.T.S. (many of which went on to be featured in cartoons, tv , movies, and video games) Image quickly rose to the number 3 publisher in the business, even surpassing DC at times in market share. All within the span of a handful of years.
This was done in spite of the fact that, due to their lack of management experience, they were notorious for missing ship dates for their titles. People were that into what they were selling that they put up with their inconsistent output. Spawn is still going, nearing the record for most issues of an independent comic in history with another movie on the way, over 25 years later. It was by no means perfect, the aforementioned poor management and the studio heads taking on some Marvel/DC-like tactics of hiring freelancers to work without control were definitely not ideal, however without Image of the 90’s we might not have such great titles like: Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, and a small title you might have heard of called The Walking Dead.
The Bigger They Are…
I’m not going to belabor this part too much, there are any number of articles covering this across the net, but I spoke about regrets earlier. The rocket that launched the medium to new heights eventually ran out of fuel. Whether it was too much of big guns, shoulder pads, and pouches with pouches in them or too little clothing on woman of increasingly disproportionate assests, or just too much sizzle and not enough steak in the stories, the market collapsed. To meet the demand created by people buying everything they thought might be the next big thing im order to make a profit (which wasn’t going to happen with companies printing so many copies), publishers overextended themselves in an attempt to grab every dollar that they could. Once the speculators moved on and readership returned to “normal” levels, companies couldn’t sustain themselves after expanding in order to satisfy that demand. Marvel, the leader in the industry, was forced to declare bankruptcy and had to sell the rights to their characters to movie studios to keep themselves afloat while they restructured (Something which Disney is trying to undo with their pending purchase of FOX). But, had they not done so, we wouldn’t be seeing the results we’re now enjoying with the MCU. The groundwork was laid by Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man’s success at the box office which resulted from that licensing. So, yeah, I’m going to go with the 90’s are responsible for the cinematic superhero renaissance we’re currently enjoying. I warned you at the beginning that I get nostalgic when talking about 90’s comics. I realize I’m in the minority, but I can objectively say it wasn’t all bad. It can’t be, the 90’s gave us Deadpool (from Rob Liefeld no less, the main target for criticism for the pouches etc. I mentioned) and who doesn’t love them some Deadpool?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the 90’s in comics or on anything that I’ve rambled on about previously, feel free to:
Post them in the comments section below
On Twitter: @SladeSteelesoul
On Instagram: The_Comic_Panel