“The ’90s didn’t suck.”
If I had to sum up my initial pitch for IN YOUR FACE JAM, I’d use those four words. You can even see that if you go to the IYFJ column page. Now, I’m not going to say that this column has gone off track; the truth is that by that definition, I’ve spent most of this column’s three and a half year history off-roading. Or maybe not, since a lot of my opinions are shaped by the fact that I started reading comics in 1992 and never stopped. Sure, I talk about the ’90s every now and then, but big news often gets in the way.
Not this week. No, this week, I’m making a sharp U-turn and driving the IYFJ Mini Cooper straight into an abandoned riverside warehouse filled with cargo crates of ’90s-ness. Journey with me, into my bodaciously radical nostalgia brain. Yes, I regularly buy shipments of a dozen-ish Marvel comics series originally published between 1989-1994. Yes, I read all of them one issue at a time, as if I was kinda sorta reading them as they were published 25 years ago. This is a thing I have started to do for fun on weekend afternoons. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll sometimes see pictures from the insides of these unearthed time capsules.
I do this because it’s entertaining, for one thing. These ’90s comics are very ’90s-y; I’m reading a book called “Force Works”, which is as ’90s as a leather letterman jacket with a hip-hop Tasmanian Devil on it. I’m also doing it because it’s a fascinating exercise in what I am now calling tangential nostalgia. I read a lot of comics in the early ’90s, but they were all either “G.I. Joe” or “X-Men” titles. I read nothing else. So all of these early ’90s Marvel comics look like things from my childhood. They have the same ads (hello “Battletoads!”) and art styles (so many lines!) as the comics I remember from my childhood, and they occasionally feature events that I remember being referenced in the Bullpen Bulletins, but they’re all totally new. They also feature characters that I only ever knew from trading cards — characters like Hardcore, Bloodaxe, Splice and Century. I get my nostalgia pangs satisfied while also enjoying stories I never knew existed. See? Tangential nostalgia.
These comics are wild. It’s wild reading a “Northstar” limited series from 1994 that is totally built around him being gay, but for some reason can never actually use the word “gay.” Nova has a mullet that hangs out of his often disproportionate bucket helmet. Gun-toting heroes like Cable and Punisher are stock guest stars in newly launched series. Every book features clawed cyborg villains, even “Black Cat” — a book ostensibly about a cat burglar. The Jessica Carpenter “Spider-Woman” series makes no sense. I love all of this, because all of this is ridiculous.
But here’s where I make my stand: some of these books are really good. I know I’m operating with some level of nostalgia here, but these are also comics that I’m reading for the first time as an adult. And whereas some are hard to parse (“Cage”), others are surprisingly compelling (“Silver Sable and the Wild Pack”). I had no idea that a real character lurked underneath Thunderstrike’s ponytail and leather jacket, but there is one. Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz created a character in the classic Marvel style; he’s got real world problems and struggles with self-doubt. He’s also a father that struggles to balance his superheroics with maintaining shared custody of his son with his ex-wife. That’s a set-up we don’t see too often — and rarely see executed in a book with sick villains named Bloodaxe!
Similarly, “Wonder Man” tackles its superhero storytelling from the point of view of early ’90s Hollywood. Simon Williams is a stunt man aching to get a real acting gig, and he also gets roped into big action set pieces against his will. Gerard Jones’ scripts are gleefully satirical. Wonder Man fights show business-themed villains like a mutated lizard woman that’s enraged by Hollywood’s unattainable standards of beauty, and an assassin that speaks only in editing metaphors (“I’m the one who leaves you on the cutting room floor, baby.”). Jeff Johnson’s artwork is pretty ’90s, meaning that almost everyone sports aerobics gear as casual wear. But Johnson sells every joke Jones writes through facial expressions, and he actually draws backgrounds and locations well; this book feels like it takes place in California as opposed to New York City. Also the covers feature phrases like “Guts, Butts & Cuts” and “Tans, Teens & Trouble.” Of course I endorse this.
I feel like “Darkhawk” has become a bit of a joke character in the decades since his (only) ongoing series ended. Maybe that’s because he’s so inextricably tied to early ’90s edginess. His name is Darkhawk, which is just slightly more subtle than Bloodaxe. But Danny Fingeroth and Mike Manley’s “Darkhawk” is, like “Thunderstrike,” another engaging variation on the classic Marvel hero. This time around, it stars teenager Christopher Powell who comes into contact with a mysterious amulet — after watching his police officer father take a bribe from the mob! Chris’ dad then disappears, telling his son that he can’t face his family after what he did. The series balances Christopher’s life as Darkhawk with the shock the Powells feel after Mike Powell goes missing. The series features decidedly non-’90s art from Mike Manley, who looks like he’d be at home in Gotham (and that makes sense, considering that he jumps from “Darkhawk” to “Batman”). The book’s also not afraid to make its title hero look inexperienced. All of “Darkhawk” #3 is spent contrasting Powell’s rage with Spider-Man’s upstanding morals. Yes, Spider-Man punches Darkhawk in the helmet and calls him a jerk.
And then there’s “Silver Sable and the Wild Pack.” Silver Sable is a captivating character — which I never knew because everyone that talked about her in the ’90s seemed to be more into her skintight silver suit than her brains. Silver Sable is the CEO of Silver Sable International as well as a mercenary and leader of the Wild Pack. She’s unapologetic, ruthless, calculating, relentless and unwavering in her confidence. She’s in charge, and she’s livid that you even had to ask. She’s all that while still being fabulously wealthy and extraordinarily beautiful; she’s the type of tough stuff wish-fulfillment character that male characters often get to be — and she does it on her own terms. And while Steven Butler’s art definitely doesn’t shy away from playing up Sable’s physical appeal, he draws her like the unrepentant badass that she is. She grits her teeth with the best of the macho ’90s action stars. In addition to featuring a female lead unlike any other that Marvel had in the ’90s (a decade that was very, very light on female-fronted ongoings), Gregory Wright’s script works in political messages that still feel relevant today. After seeing how fantastic Silver Sable is in this hidden gem of a series, I want her to make a big comeback in modern Marvel.
I had no idea when I started this little time-wasting sub-hobby a year ago that I would actually end up enjoying some of these books. I really just wanted to enjoy some comics in the same way that I enjoy classic Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I expected cyborgs, pouches, ponytails, skateboards, claws, chains and obstructed feet — and I’m getting my fill of all of that. I’m also getting some surprisingly well-made comics, ones that even further solidify my already-held opinion that ya can’t write off a whole decade. Adult me now has an affinity for Silver Sable, Thunderstrike, Darkhawk and Wonder Man — and eight-year-old me had no idea what he was missing.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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