The ’90s was an extreme time for comic books. Everything was extreme — characters had extreme guns, extreme hair and extreme clothes. The physical comics themselves were extreme in their gimmicks (remember the Amazing Spider-Man #375 with the “hologram” foil cover?!), with several cover variants for the same issues, some coated in plastic so that liquid would ooze around inside (Bloodstrike #1, now with fake blood!), and some made out of “indestructible material”. Gimmicky covers and artwork aside, plots became more and more extreme as well.
Whereas the ’80s was known for a more gritty, somber and introspective method of comic storytelling, the ’90s was all about screwing around with classic characters and drastically changing everything about them, from their objectives to their appearances. In other words, style became more important than substance. While characters across the board were being depicted in more and more unusual ways, women suffered particularly during this time, often reduced to eye candy, intimacy maniacs, or just means to move the plots along of their more established male counterparts. They got bad plots, bad dialogue and bad representation. We look at the 15 worst things to happen to women in ’90s comics, and see how far we’ve come!
15. SPIDER-MAN HITS MARY JANE
In Spectacular Spider-Man #226, Peter Parker and Ben Reilly are conducting a series of tests to determine who is the OG Peter Parker and who is a clone. This series of issues was infamously known as the “Clone Saga”, and made a lot of fans angry. When the tests were concluded, it was revealed Peter Parker was the clone and everything Spider-Man had been doing was a lie.
He gets consumed by rage and lays into Reilly with a purpose. Now, watching all of this in horror is Mary Jane, Peter’s pregnant girlfriend. She tries to stop the fight but as she gets close, he throws her off of him hard. He then gets all freaked out abandons her. What the writers intended as a gentle “shrugging off” didn’t come across that way in the art, and the violence against MJ was only used to move the terrible plot along.
14. HARLEY QUINN MAKES HER DEBUT
While Harley Quinn may have the distinction of being one of the only cartoon characters to be made into comic book canon after her animated appearance, her presence in her first one-shot comic in 1999 nevertheless established a horribly abusive relationship archetype that would be misconstrued and celebrated.
Batman: Harley Quinn follows the storyline of Dr. Harleen Quinzel meeting The Joker at Arkham Asylum, falling in love with him, their escape, and her attempt to make a life with him (decorating their hideout, for example). He can’t stand the thought of reciprocating her feelings, so he tries to kill her. He’s unsuccessful and she survives, aided by Poison Ivy, who suggests exacting revenge on both The Joker and Batman. But, while Harley manages to lure them both into a trap, she cannot kill the Joker after he apologizes for his behavior, making her a total pushover.
13. WOMEN’S WAISTS BECOME THE SAME SIZE AS THEIR ARMS
Seeing as how the ’80s was full of characters spouting intellectual drivel about their psychological conflicts and inner demons, it seemed only logical that ’90s comics should be more about style and less about substance. All that Alan Moore and Frank Miller stuff was too depressing, right? Bring on the guns (both metal and flesh kind), the corny dialogue and the completely exaggerated anatomies!
Whereas male comic heroes of the time just got hugely jacked (Cable), women got huge chests and waists the same size around as their arms. They also posed in ways that inverted their spines like a backward “S”. Their legs were twice as long as their upper halves, always made moreso by the presence of thongs. Series like Youngblood became the quintessential example of this style of artwork, which was so distracting that no one realized how lacking the stories were.
12. WONDER WOMAN BECOMES A BIKER
Every superhero seemed to be cooler if they wore a leather jacket. Superboy wore a leather jacket, not the streamlined suit of Superman (although he got his own “cool” mullet). Wolverine was fond of wearing one, because it gave him a tough guy appeal. In other words, leather is cool, typical bright colored costumes are not.
Apparently Wonder Woman’s outfit fell into the uncool category because in the ’90s, she got a total biker babe makeover. Like Storm in the ’80s, her normal crime fighting attire was ditched for leather hot pants, a leather bustier, and a leather jacket. While it’s true she was forced to relinquish her ensemble because it was determined that Artemis was more fit to wear the title of Wonder Woman, the biker outfit (and her shorter hair) were not iconic enough for Diana, and everyone was glad when she looked like herself again.
11. THE WITCHBLADE ALWAYS SHREDDED SARA’S CLOTHES
The Witchblade, a powerful mystical amulet that grants its host some pretty powerful supernatural abilities. This host always has to be a woman, because the Witchblade is actually male. And it needs to be a completely attractive woman, because when the host activates the Witchblade, it shreds their clothes in the process.
The attractive woman in this case is Sara Pezzini, the homicide detective who receives the Witchblade when it bonds with her and saves her from death during an undercover assignment. Since the series began in 95 until recently, Sara always had to worry about a wardrobe malfunction. When she wasn’t wrapped in the rags of her clothing, she was wrapped in an organic-alloy looking bikini that didn’t leave anything to the imagination.
10. WASP GETS TURNED INTO A GIANT BUG
A lot of weird shape-shifting storylines were going on in the ’90s, like Wolverine turning into a rabid dog-like thing. Then there’s Avengers #394, where Hank Pym and Wasp take on Immortus. At this time, Immortus has turned Tony Stark against the Avengers, and Iron Man accidentally takes out Wasp. Pym had to change her into a giant bug/human hybrid to save her life.
In the ’80s, Hank Pym had pulled a “Clone Saga” Peter Parker stunt of his own, smacking Wasp because he was a failure as an Avenger and she just didn’t understand his conflict. In the Ultimates version of Hank Pym that would come later, he’s even more abusive (and sprays her with Raid?!). In the ’90s, making her into a giant bug just further proves Wasp would always be defined by the erratic actions of her husband.
9. WHAT HAPPENED TO PSYLOCKE?
Originally the twin sister of Captain America’s tea-drinking knock-off Captain Britain, Psylocke originally had psychic powers, and followed her brother around like siblings do until she got her own gig. For a brief period of time she was abducted to the Mojoverse, brainwashed, and fitted with bionic eyes. All of this sounds kind of cool until she became a member of X-Men, and was just another telepath on the team.
At the tail end of the ’80s and into the early ’90s, that’s when things got weird. She was made to suffer from amnesia, gets kidnapped by The Hand, brainwashed again, and physically altered to look Asian. Then someone named Kwannon, who looks like her pre-op, says that she’s the real Psylocke. Except she’s not, but Psylocke remains Asian-looking for some time with no further explanation.
8. SUE STORM’S VERY VISIBLE CHEST
It’s a known staple of the comic book medium that sooner or later, your favorite character is going to get a major wardrobe overload. The ’90s saw Thor look like the lead singer in a heavy metal band, so it follows that we’d see Sue Storm look like the stripper that might appear in one of his music videos.
Sue Storm has, more often than not, appeared like some sort of mother figure. And because she seems like everyone’s mom, she’s not perceived to be as appealing as some of her other younger peers. Maybe Sue was tired of not feeling desirable or something, because she emerges in a two-piece getup with a 4-shaped boob window. She doesn’t even get to feel sexy for one minute before Reed Richards acts like she’s gotten a lobotomy, instead of supporting her desire to rid herself of archaic fashion.
7. JEAN GREY’S MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES
In the ’80s the controversial “Dark Phoenix Saga” was released. Jean Grey and the rest of the X-Men defeated Stephen Lang and his Sentinels and had to go through a radiation storm. Jean Grey ended up dying, but was saved by an entity known as the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force made a clone of Jean with the same personality and memories as Jean, and Jean was cast into suspended animation in a cocoon.
Eventually, she’s rescued from this cocoon, but not before a spark of the Phoenix inhabits her clone, Madeline Pryor. It gets resolved, but it leaves Jean with the memories and personalities of both the Phoenix and Madeline residing in her. In the early ’90s, the personalities really take over, but thankfully she’s purged of them during a fight with some Celestials, but it seemed rather easy to make the female of X-Factor the “crazy one”.
6. GENDER STEREOTYPING
Some people think comic books are all about gender stereotyping, but that couldn’t be further from the truth when characters like Wonder Woman and Storm get complex, sophisticated storylines and compelling personal codes. They’re respected by their peers and considered equals. In the ’90s, however, the ball got dropped, and we got a slew of women superheroes that got gender stereotyped.
We got Vogue, the cool purple-skinned chick from Youngblood who, after becoming an established member of Youngblood, decides to…start a cosmetic company. And we got Maxima, whose sole purpose was to sleep with Superman so she could have his super babies. When he refuses, she turns evil, and is eventually killed. And we got Vampirella who (though she’d been around for a while), decided to go on scantily clad missions with a sisterhood of sexy nuns in “chastity latex” in 1997.
5. THEY SUFFERED FROM SLOPPY ART
Series like New Mutants and Hawk and Dove were all the rage in the ’90s, with a mixture of almost pencil thin lines and exaggerated proportions. Perspective was seldom opted for if it meant sacrificing a frame involving comically large busts. But it wasn’t just how the women were drawn, it was the fact that soon they all resembled one another.
We know Wonder Woman is an Amazon, can stand shoulder to shoulder with Superman, and looks like she could arm wrestle She-Hulk. Drawing her like Black Widow would diminish her impressive physical traits. However, in New Mutants, no one cared about that because every female character had the same bust size, dress size and facial expressions. Only with hair could you (sometimes) tell them apart.
4. THE MARVEL SWIMSUIT SPECIALS
Between 1992 and 1995, Marvel decided that what comic fans wanted to see was their favorite characters in sexy two-pieces and banana hammocks. Everyone from Thor to Storm got a fold-out spread in these specials, whether fans were ready to see a more intimate side of them or not.
Sports Illustrated had its swimsuit special, and Baywatch was a popular show, so maybe they wanted to capitalize on swimsuit fever. But showing Black Widow in a bikini made of spider-webs and Rogue hanging out like a Clan of the Cave Bear extra with a giant dinosaur did nothing for the credibility of their characters. Psylocke just looks like she’s gone snorkeling in a vat of toxic waste and Mary Jane manages to look like she’s been taking some illegal substances.
3. KNOCKOUT IS OBSESSED WITH SUPERBOY
Superboy came on the scene as a clone of Superman after his death, with a little help from some human genetic material. In Superboy #1, he actually does a “tour” of the states, and stops over to Hawaii. There he meets Knockout, a super strong ex-stripper (yup). She takes a shine to him, and is often involved in many of his adventures on the island.
At a certain point Superboy assembles a crew of heroes, but Knockout wants to be his partner, to form a dynamic duo — just the two of them. He agrees, and she actually helps him better utilize his powers. It becomes steadily apparent though that she has a thing for him, despite the fact that he already has a girlfriend, Tana Moon and another admirer, Roxy. Knockout, a capable superhero in her own right, was reduced to slobbering after a cocky teenager.
2. GREEN LANTERN’S GF GETS STUFFED IN A FRIDGE
Ah, Green Lantern #54 and the infamous moment when Kyle Rayner discovers his then girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt stuffed inside a refrigerator. Like something out of a Jeffrey Dahmer casefile, this heinous crime was committed by Major Force as a way to tick off Green Lantern. Not only was the scene incredibly horrific, it was a cheap sucker punch to readers who could momentarily feel tragedy on behalf of one of their favorite superheroes.
But what about Alexandra? Did anyone actually care that she had been carelessly stuffed in a fridge in a completely nonchalant way, simply to drive a Green Lantern plot forward? Green Lantern got some angsty storyline full of revenge and havoc all at his girlfriend’s expense. She got the last laugh though, as the storyline caused comic writers to more seriously consider the tropes of the female characters they made secondary.
1. LADY DEATH IN LINGERIE
Lady Death, arguably one of the most sexualized characters of the era, seemed to exist to prance around in a metal bikini and give goth boys wet dreams. Like Vampirella, she was a femme fatale of darkness. Whereas Vampirella wasn’t really a vampire, Lady Death sold her soul to become the Ruler of Hell, and had the powers of the undead.
Lady Death in Lingerie #1 was a compilation that came out in 1995 and was literally a collection of various pictures and artwork of Lady Death in underwear. Like a coffee table book of gothic adult material, it was unabashedly all about her looking sultry. Not about her standing on top of Nazi’s heads, or the bones of her enemies, leaning confidently on her giant sword. No, this was sleazy fan service at its finest, and a low point for a truly iconic and unique character.
Did we miss any other horrible things that happened to women in comics in the ’90s? Let us know in the comments!
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