The 1990s was the age of “Wizard” magazine and Image comics, the speculator boom followed by the spectacular bust, and a time when title after title was churned out featuring identical heroes with bad attitudes, big guns, and oh-so-many pouches. For Marvel Comics, it was the decade when the number of X titles grew out of control, Spider-Man was entangled in the divisive Clone saga, and some of their most beloved heroes were abandoned to the unloved experiment that was Heroes Reborn.
While there were certainly missteps, there were also numerous creative high points. Many of these, including “Marvels,” Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s run on “Captain America” and Peter David’s run on “Incredible Hulk” are widely praised. But what we’re interested in is the ‘90s runs that flew under the radar: the comics that never received the high sales or critical acclaim that their content deserved. Put down your Game Boy and read on as we count down 15 lesser known gems from ‘90s Marvel.
15 Heroes For Hire
In the aftermath of the Onslaught crossover, many of Marvel’s most beloved heroes (including the Fantastic Four and the majority of the Avengers) were removed from the mainstream Marvel Universe and placed into the hands of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld’s studios. The departure of so many Marvel Universe icons left a gaping hole in Marvel’s ranks, which led to the company attempting to bolster its superhero line with a number of new titles. One of these was the revival of a concept that had previously been a long-running success for Marvel: that of “Heroes for Hire.”
The book, primarily featuring work by John Ostrander and Pasqual Ferry, reunited Luke Cage and Danny Rand, with the team under the guidance of Jim Hammond, the Golden Age Human Torch. While the membership of the group changed according to the mission, members included The Black Knight, White Tiger, She-Hulk and Ant-Man. The comic was not a great success, only lasting for 19 issues before cancellation. It was simply enjoyable, straight-forward super heroics, but in an era that revolved around shock moments and status quo changes, the quality only increased the book’s appeal.
14 Werewolf By Night
There are many reasons why a title might fail to achieve the sales that its quality deserves. Lack of publicity, high price point, relatively unknown creators or characters – all of these factors may play a part. Sadly for Marvel’s short-lived relaunch of “Werewolf by Night,” all of the above points applied. The series was launched in 1998 as part of Marvel’s Strange Tales imprint, by Paul Jenkins (fresh from a run on “Hellblazer”) and Leonardo Manco. The initial signs for fans of Marvel horror seemed promising; the Strange Tales imprint was free from Comics Code Authority approval, while Manco’s atmospheric art was a perfect fit for Jenkins’ moody tale.
Unfortunately, the brief history of the title seems to sum up the messy business decisions that affected Marvel during this period. The Comics Code stamp appeared on the title from issue #3 onward, while after issue #6, the title was combined with “Man Thing” into a “Strange Tales” anthology book. The price of this title was $4.99 at a time when the average Marvel book cost $1.99, sealing its fate. Sadly, it was cancelled after only two of its four solicited issues, leaving Jack Russel’s story unresolved.
13 Hellstorm: Prince Of Lies
Despite running for 21 issues, from 1993-1995, this series is chiefly remembered for being the first Marvel ongoing work by Warren Ellis. Daimon Hellstorm’s previous solo series had only lasted for seven issues in the mid ‘70s, with the character’s subsequent appearances being restricted to membership of “The Defenders” and guest appearances. Where this title succeeded is that it examined Hellstorm from a supernatural perspective rather than a super heroic one, allowing the darker elements of the character to be successfully portrayed.
Rafael Nieves, Len Kaminski and Ellis chronicled Hellstorm’s adventures, while artists including Michael Bair and Leonardo Manco brought these stories to life. What was clear throughout these stories, becoming abundantly so during the Ellis issues, was that Hellstorm is far from a hero, despite his actions sometimes working towards the greater good. One of the most dramatic events of the series was the insanity and later death of Patsy Walker, the superheroine known as Hellcat, whose love for Hellstorm destroyed her in every possible way. With its constrained ambition, the series occupies an interesting position among the Marvel titles of this era: a darker than the normal superhero line, but unable to compete with the unfettered material in DC’s Vertigo line.
Although Marvel UK had enjoyed some success with original characters since its formation in 1972 (most notably, with Captain Britain and Death's Head), it was primarily known in the UK for its wide range of licensed comics, including “Transformers,” “The Real Ghostbusters” and “Doctor Who Magazine.” This changed in 1991, when the company made an ambitious attempt to create its own superhero line. The titles were collected in a UK anthology title, “Overkill,” while American editions featured extra material that shoehorned in existing Marvel superheroes such as the X-Men and Iron Man.
The line was an initial success and prompted the release of a variety of spin offs and limited series, the most successful of which was “Battletide.” Created by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Geoff Senior, the series brought Marvel US and UK characters together on a planet dedicated to gladiatorial battle. As a result, the series featured numerous battles and throw downs, with the presence of wild cards such as Sabretooth only adding to the glorious confusion. Marvel UK’s superhero line was dead by the mid-‘90s -- another victim of the comics implosion -- but this series remains as a reminder of the quality that the line could produce.
11 Silver Surfer (#125-145)
Although J.M. DeMatteis is best known for his Marvel work on “The New Defenders,” “Captain America” and “Spectacular Spider-Man,” during the mid ‘90s he also worked on a number of lesser-known Marvel titles including “Man-Thing,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Silver Surfer.” His run on “Silver Surfer” (following a run by George Perez) lasted from issues 125-145, in collaboration with a number of artists including Ron Garney, Tom Grummet and Jon Muth. While DeMatteis is heavily associated with ‘Bwah Ha Ha’ super heroics (including “JLI” and “Hero Squared”), he’s also produced an impressive body of thought-provoking, introspective work, which made him a natural fit for the Silver Surfer, a character known for his tortured soliloquizing.
A key theme of the run is the Surfer attempting to rediscover his humanity, leading him towards Alicia Masters. With the Fantastic Four in the Heroes Reborn universe at this time, DeMatteis utilized many of the team’s normal supporting cast. As well as Alicia, Agatha Harkness is also featured, while the Puppet Master (Alicia’s stepfather) is a prominent character, mirroring the Surfer’s journey in attempting to discern the kind of person he wants to be.
10 Daredevil (#353-364)
Matt Murdock did not have it easy during the ‘90s (does he ever?). At the conclusion of the “Fall from Grace” storyline in 1994, Matt faked his own death and assumed a new identity as Jack Batlin. The resulting stories saw a Daredevil caught in an identity crisis and dancing on the edge of a breakdown before Karl Kessel took over the book with #353, bringing a more lighthearted tone to Daredevil’s adventures.
One of the problems with “Daredevil” comics is that ever since Frank Miller’s legendary run, the tortured angst-ridden Matt Murdock has been viewed by many fans as the default position for the character. More lighthearted takes are often seen as less authentic, despite Daredevil’s ‘60s origins as a fun, swashbuckling character. Kessel’s run turned back the clock, utilizing familiar concepts in new and entertaining ways. Old villains such as the Eel and the Enforcers made an appearance, there was a renewed focus on Matt’s supporting cast, while the addition of Roaslind Sharpe (Foggy’s mother) introduced conflict. Kessel left the book in under a year due to a heavy workload, but his run reportedly acted as one of the inspirations for Mark Waid’s recent, well-received run on the character.
9 Cable (#20-39)
If there’s one hero that’s a poster boy for the ‘90s, it’s Cable. Confusing origin, big guns, numerous pouches, willing to use lethal force... It’s hardly surprising that despite the character’s evolution over the last few decades, many people still can’t see beyond his early one-dimensional appearances in “New Mutants” and “X-Force.” Thankfully, by the mid ‘90s, much of the mystery around Cable’s origin had been stripped away, following “X-cutioner’s song” and the “Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix” mini-series. They revealed him to be Nathan Summers, the son that Cyclops had sent to the future to save his life.
Cable’s status as a man out of time, and his years spent living among the Askani, were a key part of Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill’s run on “Cable.” Readers got to know Cable as more than a walking arsenal, learning more about the experiences that shaped his character, both in the past and in the future. Churchill’s art was a perfect fit for the title, whether depicting Cable’s battle against a rampaging Hulk or designing future civilizations. With Cable slated to be a major player in the upcoming “Deadpool 2,” there’s no better time to track down this great run.
8 Ka-Zar (#1-14)
When Marvel launched a slew of new titles in 1997, one of the more surprising entries was “Ka-Zar.” The Lord of the Savage Land’s last title had been cancelled in 1984, and since this point his appearances had largely been restricted to guest appearances, acting as a Savage Land tour guide to different superheroes every few years. In Ka-Zar’s favor was the fact that his title was overseen by two big names: Mark Waid and Andy Kubert. Waid had enjoyed great acclaim on DC’s “Flash” and “Impulse” titles, but was still looking for his break-through Marvel hit: his runs on “X-Men” and “The Avengers” had both been cut short after a handful of issues. In contrast, Andy Kubert had the Marvel pedigree after years of penciling “X-Men,” which made it difficult to imagine him penciling anything else. Together, the two clicked, producing a fantastically entertaining comic.
Kubert was equally adept at rendering the dinosaur infested Savage Land and the urban jungle of New York City, while Waid’s script kept the Plunder family front-and-center, with the family dynamic between Ka-Zar, Shanna and baby Matthew driving the book. The real star, though, was Zabu, everyone’s favorite saber-toothed tiger.
7 Generation X (#48-60)
Even the most dedicated “Generation X” fan would have to concede that by the mid ‘90s, the title had lost its way. The creativity and innovation of the Lobdell/Bachelo issues were a distant memory, replaced by a truly bizarre run from Larry Hama that proved tremendously unpopular with long-time fans. The addition of Terry Dodson in #38 at least meant that it looked good, but the story – with its space dwarves and pookas – was labored. When Jay Faerber took over the book with #48, his first job was to steady the ship.
Thankfully, Faerber did more than simply manage the book’s decline. His run streamlined the focus of the book, focusing on the interpersonal dynamics of the kids and placing them in new and compelling situations. The Massachussets Academy was opened up to human students, Emma Frost’s sister became the school’s new headmistress, and the almost-forgotten question of the real Mondo was finally addressed. These compelling stories, coupled with typically lovely artwork from the Dodsons, ensured that this run was a real return to form. Unfortunately, all these plot threads were never resolved by Faerber, “Generation X” being one of the books handed to Warren Ellis for the “Counter X” revamp.
6 The Avengers (#343-375)
This run on “The Avengers” has long been the source of controversy. For its detractors, it was an attempt by Bob Harras to turn the Avengers into the X-Men, complete with matching team bomber jackets. For its advocates, it was an underappreciated run that was rich in character development. This is a superb run that manages to retain an ambitious central narrative while at the same time focusing on team relationships in the way that “The Avengers” often does so well.
The run is notable for the way that it largely dispenses with any involvement from the “big three” of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. Cap makes several appearances and Thunderstrike is also a member at times, but the narrative is largely driven by lesser-known members of the team. The love triangle between Black Knight, Crystal and Sersi is the main plot that drives this run, culminating in “The Gatherers Saga,” an epic tale where Proctor (a Black Knight from an alternate Earth) gathers Avengers from alternate timelines to destroy the team. Steve Epting’s art expertly brought this to life, helped by the distinctive inks of Tom Palmer.
5 Sensational Spider-Man (#8-31)
If ever there was a man born to draw Spider-Man, it was Mike Wieringo. He often spoke in interviews about his love for the character and on “Sensational Spider-Man,” teamed with his good friend Todd Dezago, this fully came through in his work. The four Spider-Man titles at this point, while interconnected, all had a distinctive theme: “Amazing” was the main book, “Peter Parker” featured street level stories, “Spectacular” delved into Spidey’s supporting cast, while “Sensational” was a joyous romp through the Marvel universe.
Dezago’s and Wieringo’s run began in the dying days of Ben Reilly’s tenure as Spider-Man, but the bulk of their work featured Peter Parker back in the costume. Spidey explored the Savage Land and mystic planes, and faced off against lesser-known bad guys such as the Looter and Swarm. In the preceding years, the Spider-titles had been full of angst as the characters dealt with the ramifications of the “Clone saga.” “Sensational” was more lighthearted fare and all the better for it. Sadly, Mike Wieringo passed away in 2007, but he left behind a magnificent body of work of which “Sensational Spider-Man” is only one high point.
“Everything you know is wrong” has been a recurring theme at Marvel over the last few years. Whether “Secret Wars,” “Secret Warriors” or “Original Sin,” a recurring trope has been that nothing occurs by chance and that many pivotal Marvel events have been orchestrated by shadowy forces. While many of these series have been high-profile, this territory had already been covered in the pages of “Conspiracy,” a two-issue mini-series released in 1998.
The series, by Dan Abnett and Igor Kordey, is a head-spinning mystery that follows Mark Ewing, a reporter for the Daily Bugle, as he gets a peek behind the curtain and begins to comprehend the forces that underpin the Marvel Universe. As Ewing realizes how many Marvel events have been orchestrated by the military and the government, plot threads from throughout Marvel history are drawn together into a glorious whole. Igor Kordey’s reputation suffered due to his rushed fill-ins on “New X-Men,” but on this title, he showed exactly what he was capable of, his atmospheric art a perfect fit with Mark’s increasingly paranoid mindset.
3 Heroes Reborn: Masters Of Evil
When the heroes returned to the Marvel Universe at the conclusion of the "Heroes Reborn" experiment, the world they had been living on for the past year remained intact, offering future writers the chance to utilize it if they so desired. Fortunately for the citizens of Counter Earth (as it came to be known), they could still rely on the efforts of one Marvel Universe character. Doctor Doom had been trapped there after the events of “Heroes Reborn: The Return,” and set about the task of placing Counter Earth under his protection (or "control," if you’re feeling less charitable).
The “Masters of Evil” one-shot followed Melter, Black Knight, Radioactive Man and Whirlwind as they carried out Doom’s orders. Narrated by Whirlwind, the issue offers a great insight into ordinary criminals struggling to deal with world-changing events. Whirlwind is out of his depth and knows it: the question is whether he will be able to get out alive. Joe Casey writes a snappy script that’s shot through with dark humor, while Charlie Adlard’s art is perfectly suited, his facial expressions perfectly capturing the characters’ personalities.
2 The Last Avengers Story
This two-issue prestige format series from Peter David and Ariel Olivetti was released with little fanfare in 1995, but it is one of the greatest Avengers tales of all time. Set a generation in the future, it follows the remaining original Avengers, led by Hank Pym, as they come together for a final conflict with their greatest foes, led by Ultron. While the first issue is primarily setup, updating readers on the status of Marvel heroes and introducing new characters, the majority of the second issue details the brutal, destructive battle between the two sides.
In many stories of this type, it is easy for creators to fall upon the “everybody dies” trope, something that was common in “What If?” issues of this period. While David doesn’t shrink away from the brutal consequences of battle, it’s underpinned by the expert characterization that he is well known for. How these old friends and foes relate to each other, and how they have evolved over the years, drives the story forward. Olivetti’s dark art, with its often-misshapen characters, is a perfect fit, with his Grim Reaper being particularly unworldly and the original Avengers showing the ravages of time.
1 Clandestine (#1-8)
When it comes to quality, Alan Davis on writing and art is normally a good sign, as evidenced by his superb work on “Excalibur” and “JLA: The Nail”. With this series, Davis invented a super-powered family – the Destines. They were not an organized crime-fighting organization; many members used their powers to enhance their own lives or tried to deny them entirely. When the eleven-year-old twins, Rory and Pandora, developed powers and decided to become superheroes, family members were drawn together for the first time in years.
Rory and Pandora’s joy when discovering their powers is wonderful to behold, but that’s also the feeling that these issues evoke for the reader. The family dynamic is compelling, the stories captivating, and the art up to Davis’s usual high standards. Following his abrupt departure after #8, the series limped on for four more issues. But it wasn’t the same: these are Alan Davis characters through and through, and don’t feel right under anyone else. Davis has returned to the characters on several occasions, including a two-issue team-up with the X-Men, a five-issue miniseries and crossover annuals. However, these original eight issues are truly comic book perfection, debatably the greatest run in ‘90s Marvel.
That’s our picks for 15 overlooked Marvel runs from the ‘90s. Do you agree? Have we missed any? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook!