The ’90s are a constant source of fascination for contemporary comics readers. They represent a degree of excess in both their style, and their action heavy content. This was an era defined by the Wildstorm comics of Jim Lee and Brandon Choi, the expansion of the X-Men universe by Rob Liefeld et al. and the spawning of… well… Spawn courtesy of Todd McFarlane. It was a time of big guns, big muscles and bigger splash pages. It was also the decade in which big event comics came into their own with a (manufactured) boom in the commodification of comics with the markets awash with variant and lenticular covers and huge events spanning several titles becoming more and more commonplace.
This was the age of “Knightfall”, “Zero Hour” and of course the comic book event to end all comic book events “The Death of Superman”. The story lines were big, and so were the visuals with many characters across the board getting bold new makeovers or even being reinterpreted completely. While the emphasis on marketing razzmatazz over plot and character may cause us to look back on these times with smirking derision, there were many moments where the DC characters of the ’90s cut a finer figure than their contemporary counterparts…
There are numerous reasons why Batman’s ’90s duds are superior to his post-Rebirth costume. Batman works best as a monolithic, wraith-like figure and the artists of the time really played this up, particularly the likes of Doug Moench and Howard Porter giving us a Batman that was a scarier, almost vampiric creature of the night. The Batman of this era was all pointy ears, exaggerated glove fins and a billowing, physics defying cape.
Today’s costume (like its new 52 counterpart) is far more concerned with plausibility, showing us Bruce’s armor in needless detail and making it look unnecessarily busy. The yellow oval Batman worse on his chest in this era (briefly revived by Grant Morrison and David Finch pre-Flashpoint) makes more strategic sense as a target too, to draw fire away from his head.
14. TIM DRAKE
Thankfully, Tim Drake aka Red Robin has shed his God-awful New 52 costume for something far superior. However, the fact that his post-Rebirth costume is proving so popular with fans owes a debt to its similarity to the majesty of Drake’s original Robin costume.
Although the original R symbol looked way better than the double R in the new logo which just looks… bleugh, if only Tim could stop being Red Robin and just revert back to Robin. Not that we want Damian to die… Again. People forget what a game changer Tim’s ’90s costume was. To take a design concept that had looked outdated since the ’70s incorporating a lemon yellow cape, green shorts and pixie boots and making it cooler and more up to date yet unmistakably a Robin suit.
13. BOOSTER GOLD
Booster Gold fans really haven’t had a fair shake post-Flashpoint (or even for quite a while before it for that matter). At the time of writing it has been 198 days since Booster Gold appeared in a DCnU comic. Long gone are the glory days in which fans could enjoy the witty repartee and ‘buddy cop’ banter that Booster used to exchange with Ted Kord’s Blue Beetle (who was unceremoniously shot prior to Infinite Crisis). Even after Booster got his buddy back post Flashpoint things were never quite the same. While the reality warping nature of the post-Rebirth DC universe hints at Booster’s return he was last seen merged with Waverider in the bewildering cluster bomb that was Convergence and he was wearing a costume that pales in comparison to the brash simplicity of his earlier costume.
12. HAL JORDAN
Most readers who cut their teeth on the comics of the ’90s knew Kyle Rayner as the one and only Green Lantern of Sector 2814 (and the rest of the universe come to think of it). Hal Jordan, however, still made quite an impression on the era. In a descent to the dark side that would make Darth Vader shrug apologetically, Jordan became (or was retconned to having been possessed by) Parallax. While in this identity, Jordan destroyed the Green Lantern Corps, killed all but one of the Guardians of the Universe and almost destroyed the Universe.
That said…he looked pretty damn cool doing it. The interplay between black, green and white combined with those mighty shoulder pads and even the streaks of white in Hal’s hair all combined to create one of the nattiest (sort of) supervillains in the DCU. Also, he had a cape. Capes are awesome.
The Scarecrow has been a genuinely creepy character since his very first appearance in 1941. What’s creepier than a walking scarecrow who sometimes has access to a big scythe? There have been many ghoulishly brilliant renderings of Professor Crane but many regard his expressionistic interpretation at the hands of Tim Sale in 1996’s Batman: The Long Halloween as one of the best in which he looks so imposing and impossibly thin he could barely be considered human.
Recently Scarecrow was conscripted into the Sinestro Corps (an evil equivalent of the Green Lanterns who utilize fear instead of will to subjugate and control the galaxy), which makes total sense, but given how cool Sinestro Corps members usually look, this recent re-invention of Scarecrow’s look is pretty anticlimactic.
Take one look at Jason Momoa in Batman v. Superman or Justice League and it’s pretty clear that the films’ producers had the bare chested, long haired ’90s version of Aquaman in mind when they cast the Hawaiian super-hunk as the big screen King of Atlantis. It’s not hard to see why. This version of the character had edge, and his look was far more becoming of the swashbuckling nature of the character.
Some great work has been done with the character in comics in the recent years but when it comes to his aesthetic he’s still just wearing a slightly more detailed version of the orange shirt and green leggings combo that he’s been rocking since 1941. There’s nothing wrong with it per se but it pales in comparison to the hook handed bad boy that readers knew twenty years ago.
9. HARLEY QUINN
At some point, somebody somewhere said, “Hey, does anyone else thinks Harley Quinn’s kinda ? How about we really bring that front and center from now on?” and thus began a series of makeovers that have sparked widespread debate among fans, feminists and the generally furious over whether or not Harley is unnecessarily fetishized. One need only look at the Suicide Squad movie (which should surely be regarded as a calling card for non-readers to start investigating comics) to see which version of Harley DC execs want to promote.
That’s not to denigrate Margot Robbie’s nuanced performance, but it’s hard to argue that Harley isn’t objectified for the film. Not only was her original look more modest, it was more visually distinctive and… quite simply looked more like a harlequin.
8. BLUE BEETLE
We have a soft spot for Ted Kord. He was a well-adjusted and more likable version of Batman who had a ’40s serial/pulp hero thing going on (tellingly, he was created by Steve Ditko), combined with an arsenal of sci fi gadgets unrivaled by anyone except Rick Sanchez. Many fans never quite got over his death in the lead up to “Infinite Crisis” and as cool as his replacement Jaime Reyes is (and he really is) there’s something off about the Guyver-seque blue and black living armor sported by Reyes courtesy of the scarab known as Khaji Da.
Even though Kord was never able to unleash the scarab’s power he cut a fine figure as the Blue Beetle even without it. Kord was given a new lease of life in Rebirth but unfortunately his Beetling days are already behind him by the time we meet him.
7. MARTIAN MANHUNTER
Many casual fans know the Martian Manhunter from the Justice League animated series, where his role was… largely administrative, dispatching calls telepathically from one leaguer to another like some ludicrously overqualified switchboard operator. The truth is that this is a pretty awesome character. We highly recommend John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake’s mini series from 1998 which seamlessly blends science fiction with hard boiled detective drama.
Many attempts have been made to update Jonn’s look and make him cooler but there’s something endearing about the original look that he sported from the ’50s right through to the New 52. It looks like something that someone with no understanding of Earth customs would throw together to crudely replicate a superhero costume based on a combination of superhero/pulp hero garb and the swashbucklers of Golden Age Hollywood.
6. THE JOKER
The Clown Prince of Crime has always enjoyed a certain visual consistency right up until the New 52 in which he got his face hacked off just for LOLz and spent an entire story arc wearing the rotting skin of his visage strapped to the dripping viscera beneath. He later returned with a brand new face, and most recently in a much more naturalistic guise which makes him look more like a ’30s hoodlum than the flamboyant (yet still menacing) character that he is.
While Joker’s recent stories from the New 52 onward have generally been very good, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t miss the more classic Marshall Rogers inspired look that Mister J still wore in such classic ’90s stories as “Going Sane”, “Fool’s Errand” and “The Joker’s Wild”.
What is the Matrix? Why, it’s an amorphous shape-shifting alien that throughout a goodly portion of the ’80s and ’90s assumed the role of Supergirl until the Post-Crisis Kara Zor El was introduced in the early ’00s. Despite her spectacularly convoluted backstory (and the fact that she was in a relationship with Lex Juthor Jr.) the character herself was good-natured and endearing and her costume has an elegant simplicity to it which has been somewhat recaptured in her post-Rebirth costume (let’s just pretend that awful New 52 costume never happened), but never bettered.
Even the big ’90s hair is a win as far as we’re concerned. We like the new costume well enough but the long skirt and thigh high boots seem somewhat mismatched, and there’s something irksome about the way her insignia differs so much from Superman’s. Do family crests come in different fonts on Krypton now?
4. ANIMAL MAN
Say what you will about Grant Morrison, all Animal Man fans owe him a great debt. It was he who took this second tier DC hero and breathed new life into him with a sprinkling of metatextual awareness that pre-dated Deadpool’s fourth wall breaking, combined with a strong ethical focus on animal rights issues (and a whole lot of Morrison’s trademark supernatural flourishes). The character also got a slightly revised look which, while very much of its time, held up in all the ways that Superboy’s costume at around the same time didn’t as it wasn’t trying quite so hard to be cool.
Morrison’s run set a high benchmark for other celebrated writers like Jamie Delano and eventually Jeff Lemire to the title. As great as the post-Flashpoint Animal Man stories are, not only is Buddy’s new costume comparatively boring, he’s often the subject of some truly Cronenbergian body horror.
Why is it that whenever it comes up updating a comic book character’s look the go-to seems to be to give them a hoodie? They did it with Superman in Earth One, they did it with Hal Jordan in “War of the Green Lanterns” and they did it with the post-Flashpoint
Captain Marvel Shazam. Shazam’s new look is illustrative of the post New 52 fixation on getting as much unnecessary detail into costume designs as possible and while Superman’s look has been restored to something of his former glory in Rebirth the same cannot be said of the big red cheese.
There’s something timeless about his original costume (which has never looked better than in 1996’s Kingdom Come with its white half cape, waist sash and brass buttons that’s lost in the inexplicably armored and needlessly elaborate version of the character’s look.
Capes are awesome. There’s no garment that more encapsulates the grandeur and theatricality of the comic book medium. Capes can make a character look bold, heroic and powerful, but they can also make a character look menacing. From The Phantom of the Opera to Darth Vader, some of the greatest villains in pop culture wear capes. While Brainiac has had many visual interpretations over the years his ’90s look with the high collared cape and magician’s beard has to rank among his most archetypally villainous.
Brainiac has since been re-incarnated many times, alternately as a cyborg or a disembodied presence infecting mechanical constructs. He recently escaped the multiverse in the wake of the “Convergence” storylines before re-appearing in a wholly new form in Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps.
1. THE FLASH
While The Flash has been fairly consistent in his appearance since the Silver Age, Wally West’s costume from the mid ’90s represents the perfect balance between respecting the tried and true while injecting a little bit of contemporary flair. Wally’s costume was a little sleeker with more stylized lines in the belt, boots and insignia than his predecessor Barry Allen’s and was a darker red with a shiny metallic finish that made him look like a hybrid between man and Ferrari.
Barry’s current costume (which has remained virtually unchanged post-Flashpoint, is also pretty cool but plagued by too many unnecessary details and seams as well as arbitrary yellow lines streaking through the suit whenever he uses the speed force. There’s very little in it, but the ’90s version just pips its contemporary counterpart at the post.
Which of these ’90s looks do you like the best? Let us know in the comments!
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