It’s common knowledge that the ‘90s were a strange time for comics. The “collector’s” mentality and the tsunami of shiny, vacuum-sealed, moon rock-infused variant covers it birthed was at its peak. Panicked creators tried every combination of grim and super extreme to try and replicate the fresh success of books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, while simultaneously kind of missing the point. We saw the fall of Marvel and the rise of indie. We saw DC somehow manage to stay relatively stable within the insanity. Creators were trying bold, albeit misguided, things to try and refresh an industry that was growing stale (and losing rapidly losing money as a result).
Our beloved heroes went through radical changes in personality and style. New, grumpier characters with unchecked bloodlust and too many pouches were introduced to try and court the jaded Gen-X market. Creators were stretching our beloved heroes as far as they could go, just to see the limits. Just not in ways the fans expected, or wanted. After all, there’s a reason the ‘90s are considered the apex of the Dark Age of Comics. So scroll down and take a look at eight ‘90s characters that only got better with age. And seven that, well, didn’t…
15 GOT BETTER: PARALLAX
At one point, the name Parallax ignited the fiercest fan-rage imaginable. During the ‘90s crusade to add more gnarly-ness to comics, Hal Jordan turned heel, renaming himself Parallax. His villainous shenanigans lasted a while, but eventually Hal saw sense, and sacrificed himself to save Earth. Parallax could have ended there, but a genius retcon from Geoff Johns turned a low point in Hal Jordan’s history into a key part of the Green Lantern mythos.
Johns revealed that Parallax was actually the living embodiment of fear that took possession of Hal to help sow chaos across the galaxy. With this, Parallax went from something Green Lantern fans would rather forget to something that blew the mythos wide open, paving the way for multiple new Lantern Corps and endless new storytelling avenues. Parallax is a prime example of a retcon done right, and the DC Universe is richer for it.
14 DIDN'T: GAMBIT
Unpopular opinion time: Gambit is one of the cheesiest X-Men to be given the spotlight. Donned in a trench coat and one of those inexplicable mask/hat things that somehow clings to his cheekbones while not covering his head, his look is “radical ‘90s bro-dude” personified. He’s always portrayed with a thick, New Orleans accent which quickly becomes irritating, and his sexist, womanizing ways are played off as him being a “ladies' man”.
Worse than all this, Gambit is all but inconsequential to the storylines he’s featured in. A kitschy cliché of the charming rogue archetype, Gambit has survived this long due to a devoted cult fanbase (sorry folks!), and not due to being a valuable addition to the X-Men mythos. Don’t even get us started on the whole playing cards gimmick.
13 GOT BETTER: WAR MACHINE
To be honest, it’s kind of shocking that War Machine is as good as he is, considering he’s pretty much the embodiment of “Iron Man spin-off.” Yeah, we’re bending the rules a bit here, considering Rhodey sans suit was introduced in the late ‘70s, but it wasn’t until 1992 that he took up arms as War Machine, replacing Tony Stark when he suffered a temporary bout of death.
Rhodey’s had the suit since, and has become such an integral part of the Iron Man mythos that he was an early shoe in for inclusion in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Despite a firm footing in the ‘90s trope of [INSERT CHARACTER] + BIG GUNS = $$$, War Machine has been shown to be a fully formed character in his own right, one with a well-deserved fan following and a prominent place in the Marvel Universe as a whole.
12 DIDN'T: SPAWN
Perhaps the biggest breakout success of the ‘90s, Spawn is synonymous with the indie comics boom and the ‘90s comic aesthetic. It’s a shame he sucks so much. Sent to hell for killing too many people, Al Simmons makes a deal with a demon and is allowed to return to Earth to see his wife, in exchange for becoming like, a totally demonic, primo gnarly hell guy, dude. He’s also completely overpowered.
Spawn enjoys immortality unless he drains his powers, but can also resurrect himself, alongside all sorts of other vaguely demon-y powers of destruction. It’s like when you’d play superheroes as a kid but claim all of the powers under the sun, re-forging yourself unto a golden god, an unstoppable force of kicking your best friends' ass. The impact that Spawn, an indie character, had on comics and ‘90s pop culture is great. The character, less so.
11 GOT BETTER: SQUIRREL GIRL
On paper, Squirrel Girl seems like a one-and-done character. Originally created as a counterpoint to the grim and gritty ‘90s superheroics, she teamed up with Iron Man, helped beat Dr. Doom, and promptly disappeared. But, as the Marvel heroes keep discovering, Squirrel Girl is more than she seems. With only her claws, a tail and the ability to speak to squirrels, Squirrel Girl has proven herself unbeatable, even taking down Galactus, all while being charming as hell.
Recently Squirrel Girl’s status has blown up, her current ongoing solo series attracting the attention of the mainstream while still appealing to die-hard Marvel fans. She’s determined, capable, and truly heroic, all while keeping a healthy outlook on life. Reaching ever higher status, Squirrel Girl is finally fulfilling her original purpose as a fun, genuinely joyful counterpoint to all the testosterone and brooding of mainsteam superhero comics. She’s unbeatable, and we love it.
10 DIDN'T: SUPERBOY
Conner Kent has really been through the reboot wringer. First, he was a simple genetic clone of Superman. Then, a hybrid of Superman and Lex Luthor, and then a not-so-simple clone in the New 52. Conner’s stories shifted wildly with each reboot, but fans have taken him under their wing regardless. So where can you read him in DC’s current titles? Well, you can’t.
That’s right, Conner is nowhere to be seen in the current DC Universe, and his Superboy position has been usurped. We’ve been given hints toward his eventual return, but Conner’s reboots are getting harder and harder to engage with. So yeah, we’re breaking the rules here. It’s not necessarily a “bad reboot”, but more of an increasing difficulty to reboot a fan-favorite that earns Superboy a spot on the list. Hey, no one said being a comics fan was straightforward…
9 GOT BETTER: GHOST RIDER
Danny Ketch, the 3rd Ghost Rider, should be rubbish. One of the more blatant attempts to grab some of that “Gen-X Grunge fan” money, Ketch is a reluctant hero, covered in spikes and chains and constantly brooding about the power he wields -- quintessential ‘90s comics. But, out of everyone given ‘90s makeovers, Ghost Rider is one that actually makes sense.
In 2008, Marvel updated the relationship between Ketch and the Spirit of Vengeance. Ketch was shown to be addicted to the sense of power that his possession gave him. A once reluctant vessel of the Spirit of Vengeance, now corrupted by it. By having Danny Ketch evolve into it, instead of having “HE LIKES THE EVIL” shoved down our throats, Marvel gave us a Ghost Rider with actual character progression, and a well earned moody streak.
8 DIDN'T: DEMOGOBLIN
Demogoblin follows in the footsteps of many evil goblins in the Marvel Universe, but there’s one key difference between them: he’s a demon. Demogoblin possesses enhanced physicality as well as the ability to lob hellfire around, but after a period possessing Hobgoblin he seemingly became obsessed with the whole goblin aesthetic. Showing a stunning lack of imagination, Demogoblin flies around on a magical glider out of hellfire and throws fire-shaped-like pumpkin bombs at people. Pretty much exactly like Hobgoblin.
Why in the name of Jack Kirby would Marvel waste a good demon on another Goblin?! It made sense for Hobgoblin to ride around on a glider throwing bombs, because he had no other means of being evil. But Demogoblin does! Factor in that Demogoblin made his debut in "Maximum Carnage", an awful, overlong Spider-Man event, and he’s really not got much going for him.
7 GOT BETTER: CABLE
Cable was pure ‘90s through and through. He carried a massive gun, possessed a cybernetic arm and was laden with so many pouches even a pack mule would wince. Cable was long held as an example of ‘90s excess, with his solo series plugging away uneventfully, but 2007’s "Messiah CompleX" proved to be Cable’s savior. By the climax of that huge X-Men event, Cable was repositioned as the lone protector of mutantkind’s last hope for survival, the baby Hope Summers.
The gruff, stoic soldier was now forced into a paternal role, giving him sorely needed depth, while still carrying a massive gun. With Cable set to make his live-action debut in Deadpool 2, moviegoers will finally see what the fuss is about, and spotting that stuffed bear tucked away in his belt in the promo image has Cable’s fans itching with anticipation.
6 DIDN'T: CARNAGE
For many of us, Carnage holds a special place in our hearts. He was in the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon, his merch was everywhere and everyone knows red is the coolest. But we’re sorry to break it to you, truly, but Carnage sucks. When part of the Venom symbiote got mixed with the blood of a serial killer named Cletus Kasady, it turned red and took the killer over, forming a brand new and like, totally more evil version of someone who was already pretty evil.
Cletus Kasady has no characterization apart from “hey, killing people’s pretty fun” and therefore when the symbiote bonds with him there’s nothing to stop its evil tendencies. Carnage is evil for evil’s sake, which is just boring. He also inspired a terrible Spider-Man event, "Maximum Carnage", which spawned even more crappy symbiotes. Carnage, we want to love you, we really do, but we just can’t.
5 GOT BETTER: HELLBOY
With a name like Hellboy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was a goth kid’s idea of a Satan worshipping anti-hero who totally sticks it to the man. You’d be wrong, but forgiven. Hellboy is actually a demon with a massive stone hand who investigates spooky paranormal happenings. Summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists, he was recovered by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and raised to be a relatively normal, and decidedly non-evil, being.
While a lot of the edgy ‘90s tropes are present in Hellboy, the quality of the stories has been so high and so consistent that it’s never fallen in to cliché territory. Comic readers have been getting regular instalments of Hellboy since 1994 and being able to maintain that level of quality over such a long period of time is amazing. If you’re looking for some non-superhero comics, Hellboy should be one of your first stops.
4 DIDN'T: AZRAEL
Batman is, amongst many other things, a master escape artist, but even he couldn’t escape being incapacitated and replaced with a psychopath. It was a surprisingly common ‘90s trend, albeit one fans did not appreciate. Azrael, a vaguely religious assassin, started as a supporting character in 1992, but when Bane snapped Batman’s spine like a piece of dry spaghetti, Azrael took up the Bat-Mantle in his place.
Complete with a spikey, over-designed costume that was par for the course in the ‘90s, Azrael generally acted like a violent dick during his Bat-tenure, knowingly letting people die and strangling Tim Drake out. It’s safe to say that, considering Batman’s strict principles on violence, fans did not take well to Azrael’s behavior. Eventually Bruce Wayne healed himself up and came back to kick Azrael’s ass, but the storyline still stands as one of the most egregious examples of ‘90s excess.
3 GOT BETTER: SPIDER-MAN 2099
It’s honestly a miracle that the 2099 line didn’t end up a catastrophe. Taking place in a cyberpunk dystopia where the legacy of the Marvel heroes influenced a new generation to fight back against corruption, Spider-Man 2099 was the highlight of the line, offering a fresh take on the Spider-Man concept while still respecting Peter Parker’s legacy. Miguel O’Hara, with half-human/half-spider DNA, revives the Spider-Man persona to save the citizenship from the corrupt corporations that are terrorizing them.
The ‘90s run was well received and a fan favorite, but when Marvel’s financial woes hit, the line withered and died unceremoniously. But, after an appearance in Superior Spider-Man, a new title was launched with the original writer Peter David. A rare example of a fan-favorite return living up to the hype, Spider-Man 2099 is in the throes of a welcome renaissance.
2 DIDN'T: DEADPOOL
This is perhaps the most unpopular opinion of unpopular opinions, but Deadpool is not good. Originally created as a pastiche of Spider-Man with elements of Deathstroke from DC, Deadpool morphed into the personality-less, fourth wall-breaking, pop culture-referencing idiot we now know him as during his first solo series. The thing is, Deadpool wouldn’t be so bad in moderation. But when he’s in three team books, his own solo series and multiple out of continuity mini-series, he becomes grating.
His appearances now read like a barrage of forced pop culture references, juvenile humor and a general “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M FUNNY” attitude, which makes it hard to take him seriously at all. Which, we suppose, is kind of the point. But when that approach seeps into team books and events with an eye towards the Marvel Universe as a whole, we find ourselves resenting his presence.
1 GOT BETTER: HARLEY QUINN
The rise of Harley Quinn to the DC A-List has been meteoric. For a character that was originally a simple right-hand woman to the Joker, Harley’s truly come in to her own recently, with multiple ongoing series and a prominent position in the DC Cinematic Universe. While Harley may be playful and eccentric, her personality still has depth, which helps her to stand out against characters with a similar surface approach (*cough*DEADPOOL*cough*).
She’s been through hell and come out of the other side as an example of a capable, independent woman who has survived abuse, and is reclaiming her life. Granted, she’s doing so by being a crazy villain, but nobody’s perfect. The fact that she’s now a character in her own right, out of Joker’s shadow, is the perfect meta-cherry on the sundae. As annoying as some may find her, a character like Harley is essential to modern comics.
Are there any other characters from the '90s you wish made the list? Let us know in the comments!