The '90s get a disproportionately bad rap when it comes to comics. While there's no denying that it was a time of excess, it's important to remember the cultural backdrop which they inhabit. The developed world (and particularly the US) was living in an unprecedented economic boom. The previous decade of rampant corporatism and Reaganomics had inflated a bubble that wouldn't burst until the depression of 2007. America was living it large and this was reflected in the popular media of the day. To look at the works of this decade with 21st century goggles is to miss the point somewhat.
Sure it was the decade of huge muscles, even huger guns and hugely implausible chest-to-waist ratios. Sure it was a period of fallen knights, maximum carnage and the death of the last bastion of Americana, but it also gave rise to some hugely memorable and influential characters. Some of these characters like Spawn and Hellboy have remained completely intact, others have undergone some serious visual and narrative restructuring. Others still, have been altered beyond recognition only to be transformed into a contemporized rehash of their original appearance (fashion is cyclical after all). Here we pay tribute to some legendary '90s characters that cut a very different figure today.
15 SUPERBOY (CONNER KENT)
For decades, Clark Kent's superheroics began when he was a boy, operating in Smallville as a pint-sized version of the Man of Steel proper. This was ret-conned out in the '80s and a new Superboy emerged on the scene...and his look embodied everything that was wrong with the '90s. He spoke in Gen X teen cliches, had a fade haircut, wore John Lennon shades and was generally rather irritating.
The character underwent something of a renaissance in the early '00s as a key member of the New Teen Titans and sporting a far more conservative look of blue jeans and a black T-shirt sporting the familiar 'S' shield. The New 52 radically (and controversially) altered Superboy's appearance yet again, with a sci-fi ensemble featuring a black bodysuit bedecked with glowing red details. As with most New 52 designs it was needlessly busy, overly ostentatious and many fans hated it.
The great thing about the X-Men mythology is it gives writers free reign to come up with a virtually inexhaustible supply of characters with zany (and in many cases gruesome) mutations that are limited only by their imaginations. Marrow is one of the series' great redemption stories, who has the ability to grow bony protuberances at will that can be used as armor or removed and used as weapons like clubs or knives.
As a child she was taken in by the Morlocks; a group of mutants deformed by their mutation who shun and despise the world above. Her appearance was initially gruesome until she was granted greater control of her powers and given a softer, more feminine appearance. She can, however, still be gruesome when she loses control of her powers in anger.
13 WONDER GIRL (CASSIE SANDSMARK)
While not the first character to bear the name Wonder Girl, Cassie Sandsmark won the hearts of fans just over 20 years ago as a believable teenage girl trying to navigate the everyday trials of adolescence alongside superheroism in the shadow of her predecessors Wonder Woman and Donna Troy. Like most teenage girls, she's revised her look quite a lot over the years.
Her original outfit was (like that of future boyfriend Superboy) riddled with '90s youth cliches including a faded denim vest and eventual leather jacket. She was later given a much more comic book appropriate ensemble of red tights with a red crop top which was again substituted for a red vest top and blue jeans. The New 52 re-imagined her as a thief who stole magical bracelets and sported a red version of Donna Troy's star spangled leotard and occasional barbed golden armor.
12 BEN REILLY
"The Clone Saga" was one of the most contentious comic book stories of the '90s and while a certain subset of fans love it, it's not generally fondly remembered. It's convoluted plot and complication of Spider-Man's universe has left a legacy that continues to cause confusion against all but the most devoted Spidey fans to this day. A clone of Peter Parker, Ben Reilly assumed the mantle of Scarlet Spider before going on to replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man proper.
Reilly would go on to adopt the identity of The Jackal (replacing Miles Warren; the very man who created him). While another clone, Kaine Parker has assumed the mantle of Scarlet Spider, Ben Reilly has been re-incarnated as one of Spider-Man's most complex villains (albeit one with a whole lot of back story baggage).
11 KYLE RAYNER
Kyle Rayner may not enjoy the spotlight as much as his Silver Age counterpart Hal Jordan, DCAU stalwart John Stewart or newcomers Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz but for those who came to comics in the '90s he was the Green Lantern Corps. For over a decade the intrepid hero policed all 3600 sectors of the known universe all by himself.
His aesthetic is a curious case of 'there and back again', undergoing numerous drastic changes before reverting back to a retooled version of his original '90s costume post-DC Rebirth. Not only has he sported a range of different variations on the Green Lantern costume over the years, he's also served as a White Lantern, a Blue Lantern and a member of the Omega Men as well as attaining Godhood as Ion; the living embodiment of the Green Element.
10 STEPHANIE BROWN
Wowsers, this girl has re-invented herself more times than Madonna. The daughter of a lower tier Bat-villain called The Cluemaster, Stephanie Brown despised her father's ways and became a solo teen vigilante before attracting the attention of the Bat-family. In her first incarnation as Spoiler she sported a purple bodysuit, cape and hood with alternately blue and black full face mask, boots and gloves. She later fought alongside Batman first as Robin in a costume virtually identical to Tim Drake's.
She later became Batgirl in one of the coolest iterations of the costume to date integrating elements of her Spoiler costume with the black and gold Batgirl costume worn by Cassandra Cain in the early '00s. In the New 52, and subsequently Rebirth, she was retconned back into her Spoiler identity, albeit in a much more Ninja Gaiden inspired version of the costume.
9 BART ALLEN
Barry Allen looks damn good for a grandfather, but that's just one of the perks of having time travel in your power repertoire. Bart Allen is the grandson of the Scarlet Speedster who shares his forebear's connection to the speed force but also suffered from an accelerated metabolism that caused him to age prematurely. He was raised in a VR machine (which could keep up the pace with him) which warped his self-confidence and muted his sense of danger making him... Impulsive!
Bart had a good run as Impulse before joining the Teen Titans and becoming Kid Flash. he even donned the red tights himself as the Flash from 2006-2009, after which he died and was resurrected again as Kid Flash. Although he was given a slightly different back story in the New 52 and Rebirth, his costume was a clear homage to both his Kid Flash and Impulse garb.
If there are two words that sum up the excess of '90s comics they are Rob Liefeld. Since Shatterstar's inception in 1990 he was a New Mutant before becoming a regular member of X-Force. His first appearance is a veritable checklist of '90s affectations. Long ponytail? Check! Big sword and/or gun? Check! Huge shoulder guards? Check! Excessively violent demeanor? Big ol' check!
While initially an emotionless killing machine, but subsequent writers imbued him with much more nuance, culminating in his gay kiss with teammate Rictor in 2009. Along with the likes of Wiccan and Hulkling he is one of Marvel's greatest (and unlikeliest) LGBTQIA success stories and while he now rocks a much more conservative look to that of his first appearance, he still kicks all kinds of butt!
7 RAVAGER (ROSE WILSON)
The daughter of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, Rose Wilson has terrorized the Teen Titans since she first appeared in Deathstroke #15. She was raised without awareness of her father's identity until as a teenager she was abducted by the Wade DeFarge version of Ravager (Deathstroke's half-brother) who told her the truth about her heritage.
Rejected by her father and raised by the Titans, she would go on to adopt her kidnapper's identity as the new Ravager in the '00s sporting a blue and orange bodysuit and bandanna mask with some subtle nods to her father's costume. While the New 52 reboot rendered her virtually unrecognizable in a black and red outfit that featured among other things a back-mounted bazooka, her appearance in Rebirth was much more closely modeled on her father's classic '80s aesthetic, until she joined up with Slade's black and white-garbed Defiance team.
Like many other characters in the Valiant Universe, such as Ninjak and X-O Manowar, Shadowman has gone through several aesthetic and narrative reinventions since his inception in 1992. This is largely owing to Acclaim's purchase of Valiant's parent company Voyager communications in 1997. This led to a line wide re-imagining of Valiant's key players bearing little resemblance to their comic book forebears.
Originally Jack Boniface wore a blue bodysuit that covered his entire body and face except for his hair and his lower jaw. In the Acclaim years he was redesigned with a bare chested, Voodoo influenced aesthetic. When Valiant regained the rights to their characters in 2012, the original version Shadowman was reborn in a costume that marries the two aesthetics with a black bodysuit and ghostly white face mask.
5 ADAM CRAY
Any readers who were teenagers in the early '90s remember how ubiquitous the grunge movement was. The more baggier, more faded and torn the better. Comics, ever eager to appeal to the youthful demographic that was still their core fanbase, were quick to add a hint of grunge to their new character designs. Thus, Suicide Squad member Adam Cray will be best remembered for his torn sleeveless khaki jacket and baggy combat pants.
A dead ringer for Ray Palmer (indeed, fans originally believed him to be Palmer himself in disguise), it wasn't long before Cray found himself rocking the Atom suit. He's most recently been seen (albeit in a far more clean cut guise) as Ryan Choi's college room mate in the post-Rebirth Atom comic.
An integral product of Milestone comics, DC's offshoot that aimed to bring greater minority representation to comics, Static Shock held its own in the comics world from 1993 right through to the New 52 (although the character has yet to appear in DC Rebirth). As popular as Static's comic has been, many fans will know him best from his animated exploits in the early '00s in his own series (which also played host to the DCAU Batman and Robin) as well as guest appearances in Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice.
As a character designed to resonate with contemporary youth, his look has changed with the iconography of his target demographic. Hence his original costume, which was not all that dissimilar to Black Lightning's, was replaced with something a little more distinct and timeless.
3 CYBORG SUPERMAN
When Superman died in 1993, four would-be Men of Steel battled for the mantle of Superman during the subsequent year. The most visually striking of which was the Cyborg Superman who was later revealed to be the dangerously insane former scientist and astronaut Hank Henshaw. Looking like the love child of Supes and The Terminator, the character has undergone many aesthetic changes since his inception.
A character that can re-shape his appearance he has been in a neat constant state of evolution with various upgrades and flourishes in his robotic parts depending on the needs of the story and the whims of the artist. He's even been a member of the Sinestro Corps resulting in a slightly modified look and power set. The current incarnation in Rebirth is far more machine than man, returning his look to a mocking techno-organic travesty of Superman's garb.
David North is yet another '90s character who has enjoyed different incarnations thus far in his comic book career. Born Christoph Nord, this German mutant mercenary originally operated under the alias Maverick. Though, like his contemporary Shatterstar, he was clad in a pastiche of '90s cliches including bulky yellow armor, bandoleers on every limb and a gun that looked like it weighed more than an adult rhino, he was nonetheless a feared mercenary.
He was later re-imagined as Agent Zero when he was brought into the Weapon X project along with the likes of Wolverine and Sabertooth. With a far subtler, more tactical outfit and a new set of powers he operated up until the events of "House of M" in which (like most of the mutant population) he lost his mutant powers. He has since returned to his Maverick alias, only without the gaudy costume.
1 HARLEY QUINN
You didn't think we were going to miss her out, did you? Famously introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, Paul Dini's creation made her way onto the comic book page in 1993's "Mad Love" (which would conversely be adapted into an episode of the animated series). Her appearance (a traditional harlequin costume) remained unchanged until her re-invention in the New 52 which cast her (for better or worse) in a much racier light.
Eschewing the traditional harlequin body suit for a corset and hot pants Harley (who had previously caked her face in white makeup) was given a different origin wherein she willingly jumped into the same toxic stew that created her Puddin', The Joker. Her appearance post-DC Rebirth differs little from its New 52 predecessor except that her previously bifurcated blue and red hair has been replaced with dip dyed blonde, presumably to match Margot Robbie's live action version.
Which of these '90s characters do you think look better now? Tell us in the comments!