The 1990s are a much beloved and nostalgic decade for many young adults today. If you grew up in the ’90s, you had all the best cartoons, the best music, the best sitcoms. Life was pretty good for a kid growing up in the 90s. That is, unless you were a comic book fan. By and large, between the golden era of ’80s comics and the breath of life that came back into comics in the 2000s, there was a wasteland of nonsensical storylines, overly muscly dudes with impossible proportions and gritty personalities, scantily clad women with impossible proportions and no personalities, and lots of pouches with nothing in them.
However, if you were dedicated enough to keep buying comics during this decade, there were some downright legendary stories that hit the stands if you knew where to look. There were even little gems here and there from some of the biggest superheroes nestled in between story arcs that made you cringe. The bottom line is if you’re someone who instantly skips by any comic book written between 1990 and 1999, there are a handful of books you absolutely have to go find right now because they might just become your new favorites.
20. BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL
Batman: Knightfall is perhaps the most iconic and important Batman story of all time. It introduced Bane, one Batman’s greatest enemies, and of course led to Batman’s first definitive defeat in which Bane breaks Batman’s back. It also led to the switch from Batman’s golden age blue cape and cowl to the black cape with the yellow oval-encased bat symbol.
Knightfall spanned several books from such great writers as Chuck Dixon, and Alan Grant, with writer Dough Moench and penciler Jim Aparo penning the main Batman book. The storyline was adapted for Batman: The Animated Series and even made it to the big screen in a loose adaptation with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Even if you’re not a huge Batman fan, Knightfall is essential reading for any comic enthusiast.
19. DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR
Frank Miller, along with illustrator John Romita Jr. essentially took what Miller had done with Batman: Year One and applied it to Daredevil. It gives us a modern look at Matt Murdock’s childhood, the accident that gave him his powers, and of course, the loss of his father. It also gives us our first ever look at Daredevil’s original simple black outfit that was later used for Season One of Netflix’s Daredevil.
It’s a comic book written by Frank Miller, so you can correctly assume that the story is gritty, realistic, emotional and action-packed. Even over 20 years later, it’s still one of the best-reviewed and most fan-beloved Daredevil stories of all time and the ending is possibly one of the greatest in comic book history.
18. THE SANDMAN
Although Neil Gaiman’s Sandman first launched in 1989, most of its run went through the ’90s. Neil Gaiman is a pretty well-known writer these days, but at the time of Sandman‘s publication, he only had a handful of published short stories to his name. However, as readers of Sandman know, the evidence of a great writing career was already there, blending elements of horror and mature dark fantasy.
The series went through a handful of artists early on, but it still managed to maintain one of the most unique art styles of any comic book at the time. The book followed Dream, the titular Sandman, a living personification of dreams. After his capture in an occult ritual and subsequent escape, he sets out to rebuild his kingdom in the dream realm, while navigating the modern world.
Preacher by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon comes up in every list of must-read comics, and for good reason. From the very first issue, it established itself as a mature, weird, violent blast of a series that kept the punches and surprises coming every single issue. The series primarily follows Jesse Custer, a former preacher with the ability to make people do whatever he tells them to, Tulip, his gun-toting ex-girlfriend, and Cassady, his best friend, vampire, and all around horrible-yet-tragic person.
Despite the name, this book is not recommended for religious readers as it mostly follows Jesse on his quest to find God and make him answer for his abandonment of Heaven. The story is complex with too many twists to spoil here, but if you haven’t read it, you may want to clear your schedule, because it’s still one of the best graphic stories around.
Deadpool is practically a household name now, but back when Joe Kelly started the character’s first ongoing series, he was primarily known as an X-Force villain who cared only about himself and the pursuit of cold hard cash. Joe Kelly started the Merc with a Mouth in earnest on his path to redemption. He performs his first truly selfless act in the first issue and realizes that he can change his ways and maybe even rise up as a hero.
Joe Kelly’s Deadpool is a unique entry in superhero comics because even though Wade Wilson wants to be a hero, he wrestles with self-doubt, self-loathing, guilt, setbacks, and emotional scarring. Later writers often turned Deadpool into a goofy, looney tunes-type character, but although Kelly’s run was often hilarious, his sense of humor was usually a defense mechanism to keep people at a distance and to hide his pain.
15. KINGDOM COME
DC’s Kingdom Come by writer Mark Waid with art by the legendary Alex Ross was a four-issue Elseworld miniseries following the growing conflict between the out-of-touch traditional superheroes and a growing number of new amoral and violent vigilantes. Meanwhile, Batman has assembled a team to mitigate the escalating conflict, stop Lex Luther’s plans to use the situation to his advantage, and stop the inevitable superhuman civil war with the potential to destroy the world.
The story begins when a number of prominent heroes in the Justice League, including Superman, abandon their roles as heroes after mass public support of a new vigilante who murdered the Joker. He ultimately reforms a new Justice League to go to war with these new vigilantes, and all hell breaks loose.
Speaking of the legendary artwork of Alex Ross, he actually got the idea for Kingdom Come from his work on Marvels with writer Kurt Busiek, and it’s pretty much responsible for launching both of their careers. However, whereas Kingdom Come is set in the future, Marvels is set in the golden age of Marvel superheroes between 1939 and 1974.
It takes place from the perspective of an ordinary news reporter named Phil Sheldon over the course of his career as he witnesses and reports on many of the iconic moments in Marvel superhero history. This book is a must-read for the street-level perspective on these larger-than-life characters, and there are tons of easter eggs for Marvel fans along the way, including an ending that will be on your mind for a long time after you finish.
13. GUARDIAN DEVIL
Kevin Smith is mostly known for his career as a film writer/director with cult hits like Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, and Red State, but he’s a lifelong fan of comic books. In 1999, he finally got the chance to write for one of his favorite Marvel heroes: Daredevil. Whether you’re a fan of Kevin Smith’s work in film or not, Guardian Devil is a must-read for Daredevil fans and comic book readers in general.
It was an eight-issue story arc that kicked off volume two of Daredevil‘s main continuity and follows Daredevil as he’s unexpectedly tasked with caring for an infant who is prophesied to either become the new messiah or the new antichrist. Much of Matt’s motivation in the story is driven by his Catholic background and there are some truly shocking moments that come as a result.
The simple art style of Jeff Smith’s Bone looks like something that would appear in your daily newspaper comic strip, but it’s actually an epic tale on the scale of Lord of the Rings, but with a lot more light-hearted humor. That may not sound like anything special, but the ten Eisner Awards and eleven Harvey awards won by the series over its 55 issues speak for themselves.
The series follows the three Bone Cousins, Phonicle P. “Phoney” Bone, Smiley Bone, and Fone Bone as they’re kicked out of their hometown of Boneville, and forced to make their way across the dangerous fantasy landscape on the run from beasts and monsters as they go on a hero’s journey to free the people of the Valley.
11. BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN
Batman: The Long Halloween is mentioned on nearly everyone’s list of best Batman stories. It’s not quite as action-packed as you might expect a typical Batman story to be, although there is plenty of action in it. The main shining point of the graphic novel is how writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale brought back the detective aspect of Batman that goes missing from a lot of his stories, despite originally being billed as the world’s greatest detective.
Loeb and Sale craft a genuinely intriguing mystery around a serial killer known as “Holiday” who kills only on holidays. By the end of the book, you suspect nearly every character who appears of being Holiday, and although the book does technically answer this question, it’s done in a way that makes you question whether you really know who Holiday was.
10. INFINITY GAUNTLET/ INFINITY WAR
We don’t have to tell you how influential and important of a story Marvel’s Infinity War is. The Marvel Cinematic Universe adaptation is currently tracking to be the biggest superhero film of all time and the grand finale of a decade-spanning series of films.
Although these days, it seems like Marvel tries to do a massive universe-altering event a few times a year, before Jim Starlin’s Infinity Saga (including Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade), a cataclysmic event of this magnitude and scale had never really been attempted before. Some would argue that the stakes and success have never been replicated since. As you already know, the story involved Thanos the mad Titan gathering together the Infinity Stones to wreak havoc on the Marvel universe. With the movie only days away, we won’t spoil anything for you, but if you haven’t read it yet, now is definitely the time.
9. THE MAXX
The Maxx by writer/artist Sam Keith remains a cult hit among comic book fans to this day, a quarter of a century after its release. It’s weird, surreal, action-packed, and nothing short of brilliant. It follows The Maxx, a purple superhero who exists in two worlds: the real world and the Outback. In the Outback, The Maxx is the superpowered protector of the Jungle Queen, but in the real world, he’s a down-on-his-luck homeless man.
The Jungle Queen also exists in the real world as freelance social worker, Julie Winters. The series starts off with Julie being harassed and pursued by a dangerous man, until The Maxx steps in to put a stop to it. The Maxx spawned a TV mini-series on MTV, an Atari video game, and even a tabletop RPG.
If your only experience with the character John Constantine is the 2005 Keanu Reeves movie, forget what you know. They bear only the most superficial resemblance to each other. The series was originally written by Peter Milligan, and it’s a great start to the series, but when Garth Ennis took over, that’s when it really became a must-read. For added star power, after Garth Ennis, the series was taken over by Warren Ellis.
The series also kicked off the long working relationship between Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon that would lead to Preacher, Punisher: War Zone, and more. John Constantine was a streetwise magician and occult detective of morally questionable character who protected people against supernatural threats, usually by talking fast and outsmarting them.
Todd McFarlane’s Spawn started in 1992 and is still running to this day. The series is rapidly approaching its 300th issue and still being written by Todd McFarlane. The comic series inspired tons of spin-off comics, one feature film with a remake currently in production and an animated television series on HBO that lasted for three seasons.
From the beginning, Spawn has been a dark, twisted, action-packed series, but it’s also full of great flashes of comedy and some truly emotional moments. It follows a man named Al Simmons who was burned alive and sent to Hell. Al sold his soul in exchange for returning to Earth, but when he got there, five years had passed, and Al had turned into a demonic creature called Spawn.
6. SIN CITY
Frank Miller’s Sin City is considered by many to be his greatest work. It inspired two feature films, both of which were co-directed by Miller himself. Unlike many many comic books, instead of one ongoing story, Sin City tells a series of independent but interconnected stories taking place in the neo-noir background of Basin City.
Basin City is partially controlled by corrupt officials with the police department in their pocket and partially by several criminal enterprises vying for control of the city. While Frank Miller has often drawn his own comics, Sin City really makes use of the artwork as a storytelling medium. Nearly everything is drawn in black and white, with only a few splashes of color to draw focus or emphasis. Sin City is beautiful to look at and beautifully told.
Hellboy was created, written and drawn by Mike Mignola in 1993. It’s been adapted into two feature films directed by Guillermo Del Toro, with a reboot currently in production starring David Harbor, two animated films, three video games, and Hellboy was even a playable character in Injustice 2.
Hellboy is a red-skinned half-demon with a massive stone fist and horns that he filed down to nubs. He was summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists.When he’s rescued by the Allied Forces, he’s raised as an agent of the B.P.R.D., an agency dedicated to protecting the world from the dark forces of evil. He often works with a team of other supernatural beings as a paranormal investigator. It’s part horror, part action-adventure, part noir, but awesome in every respect.
4. X-MEN: AGE OF APOCALYPSE
X-Men: Age of Apocalypse is was an X-Men crossover event spanning several series with work by such great writers as Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, Warren Ellis, Jeph Loeb, Fabian Nicieza, and Larry Hama. The storyline involved Legion going back in time to kill Magneto, but he accidentally kills a young Charles Xavier instead.
This mistake drastically affected the present timeline causing Apocalypse to attack Earth ten years sooner than he did in the original timeline and enslaving humanity. The consequences were so far-reaching that the Age of Apocalypse timeline even took the place of Marvel’s main 616-universe for a brief period. Each X-Men book followed small individual factions of mutants that opposed Apocalypse, including one led by Magneto. Eventually, the timeline was restored, but Marvel has revisited the timeline several times including a 14-issue series between 2013-2015.
James Robinson’s Starman was one of the most fully-realized new characters of the ’90s. Robinson’s Starman, Jack Knight, was the son of the original Starman (a golden age superhero from the ’40s), who was reluctantly thrust into the role of a hero and used his knowledge of technology to create his cosmic staff.
Starman was nominated for several Eisner awards, and won the award for “Best Serialized Story” for its “Sand and Stars” story arc. Unlike most comics in the ’90s, Starman wasn’t a brutal muscle-bound vigilante. He didn’t wear a costume, he didn’t carry any firearms, most of the time he didn’t even want to fight crime, but he quickly became one of the most fascinating and beloved characters in all of comic book history.
2. THE SPECTRE
The Spectre, as a character, has been around since the 1940s, but when writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake took over a new Spectre series, they re-examined the character and created something distinctly new. Ostrander’s series also revealed that the Spectre was a fallen angel who fought in Lucifer’s rebellion. When he repented, his penance was to serve as the embodied the wrath of God.
The Spectre is the embodied Avenging Spirit of the Murdered Dead, and while that sounds like a pretty straightforward series, Ostrander’s take never took the easy path of giving the Spectre the straightforward choice. He was constantly put into complex ethical dilemmas where he had to make morally ambiguous choices like what punishment was suitable for a woman who killed her abusive husband in his sleep.
1. DEATH AND RETURN OF SUPERMAN
The Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding is one of the most well-received and best-selling Superman stories of all time. The Return of Superman… not so much. After decades and decades of Superman stories, his books weren’t selling well, and he was generally losing relevance, so DC’s solution was to kill the unkillable man.
If you’re a comic book fan, this is absolutely essential reading. Even if you’re not a fan of Superman, it could be one of the most important stories in comic book history because superheroes didn’t really die until in comics until then. Since then, every superhero under the sun has died and been resurrected, but when Superman died, no one thought he would ever come back. As Max Landis put it, The Death of Superman killed death in comics forever.
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