The ‘90s were a great time for the comic book industry. There were issues that sold millions of copies, a benchmark that is unheard of in today’s market. But a lot of readers think of this as a period where style overshadowed substance. The positive of this was that many comics of this period had fantastic art that had an energy that galvanized the industry. However, when taking the time to read the stories that went along with them, it is easy to come away wondering whether fans were ever reading them in the first place.
Of course, there are some diamonds in the rough from this period. In fact, some of the stories shine with context and age. It is also fun to look back at some of the creators from the ‘90s and see where they are today. A lot of artists that have become top talents in all of comics got their start during this period. Some of the writers and artists are still working regularly today, and others are now in leadership positions at Marvel and DC, guiding the larger decision-making process of major publishers. Let’s take a look back at some of the best and worst of this boom period for comics.
15. GREAT: PANIC IN THE SKY
Perhaps the most well-known story of the ‘90s is “The Death of Superman.” While it retains its quality, the big crossover that came before it was pretty great as well. “Panic in the Sky” was a story that had a near Crisis level feel to it, with Brainiac taking control of Warworld and using some major Superman supporting characters to help him attack Earth. What results is Superman gathering a motley crew to help him fight off the assault.
The team is not just the normal Justice League, however, as it includes characters like Mr. Miracle, Nightwing and even Deathstroke. The story has a metric ton of action packed fun, thanks to creators like Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway and Tom Grummett, who all turn in fantastic work. Fans of the many corners of the DC Universe owe it to themselves to check this one out.
14. LESS GREAT: HEROES REBORN CAPTAIN AMERICA
It would be impossible to tell the story of ‘90s comics without mentioning Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. Their massive selling work on X-titles and Image Comics made them major power players. Marvel felt some of their classic characters needed a boost, and it brought back the very creators who had left them a few years back for that very reason.
The results were mixed at best, with major characters like the Avengers and Fantastic Four dying at the hands of mega villain Onslaught for shock value, but they didn’t make sense long term. The worst creative marriage was Rob Liefeld and Captain America. Liefeld’s dynamic and edgy art was no longer of the same quality. The story is also difficult to digest, with a corniness to the dialogue that feels like it has to be on purpose. The whole package feels like a big inside joke against Marvel.
13. GREAT: ROBIN ZERO YEAR TIE-INS
DC had one of its major events in the ‘90s in Zero Hour, which had two tie-in issues in just about every comic being published. While some were more memorable than others, the coolest to revisit are Robin #10 and #0, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tom Grummett. Robin #10 deals with one of the coolest scenarios imaginable, teenage Tim Drake teaming up with teenage Dick Grayson. Tim’s admiration coupled with his need to prove himself to his hero is a pleasure to read.
Robin #0 gives us another Dick and Tim team-up, but this time they are in their current incarnations, with Dick as Nightwing. They bond over their now shared origin stories involving Two-Face, and it all culminates in Dick’s first transition into being Batman following Bruce Wayne’s injuries and Azrael’s overzealousness in the “Knightfall” saga. These are two issues of outstanding character work.
12. LESS GREAT: KNIGHTFALL
If “Death of Superman” was the biggest DC story of the ‘90s, then “Knightfall” would be a close second. The story of Bane breaking Batman’s back after exhausting him by breaking open Arkham is a classic in many people’s eyes. However, in revisiting the saga today, there are many problems present that make the story stand out in nostalgia much more than quality.
Like many crossovers even today, the story had way too many parts and tie-in issues. Reading consecutive issues of Batman or Detective Comics might be coherent, but reading the alternating stories between those and more Batman family titles makes the whole thing read and look very uneven. While the threat of Bane was legitimate and memorable, the overall arc and the amount of time it took to resolve itself make it something not worth rereading ever again.
11. GREAT: ALAN MOORE WILDC.A.T.S
Alan Moore is a comic book legend who is best known for his work on masterpieces like Watchmen or V For Vendetta. However, it is incredible how much independent work he did with comics that most people would not associate with him. One such work was his time on the Jim Lee creation WildC.A.T.s for Image Comics.
Moore takes the whole story that was established previously and turns it on its head by having the characters learn that the war with the Daemonites that they have been so concerned with has been over for hundreds of years, rocking their perspectives. He also introduces an entirely new team during his run as well. The stories are engaging and look great, especially when Travis Charest is drawing them. Take time to go back and check them out.
10. LESS GREAT: DEATHMATE
The boom in sales of the ‘90s went along with some new companies getting powerful, and an inter-company crossover was promoted as a major event. Valiant and Image teamed up for Deathmate, a series of one-shots that would mix the two company’s characters, with some being done by Image creators and others by Valiant’s creators.
What followed was a mess of delays, miscommunication and issues that were identified by colors rather than numbers. Readers got such rousing combinations as H.A.R.D. Corps combining with WildC.A.T.s to make the HardC.A.T.s! The whole thing deals with the universe being screwed up and eventually returning to normal, but interestingly, “Deathmate Red” came out after the “Deathmate Epilogue. If nobody cared about the story by then, what difference did it make? There is some cool art here, but it is about as close to unreadable as it gets.
9. GREAT: X-CUTIONER’S SONG
The X-titles of the early ‘90s were the hottest thing in comics. The launches of X-Force and X-Men were high points for the industry that may never be duplicated. But when artists like Liefeld, Jim Lee and others left for Image, Marvel faced an interesting time for these titles. Their answer was “X-Cutioner’s Song,” an X-Men crossover that culminated in many storylines from multiple books.
One of the coolest things about revisiting this story is seeing the artists that came onboard. Now industry legends like Andy Kubert and Greg Capullo show their early chops here while giving us the payoff of the Cable and Stryfe look-alike saga, and introducing the major threat of the legacy virus. The story also begins Cyclops’ path down the rabbit hole that led him to find out that Cable was in fact his son with Jean Grey. This story deserves to be called a classic.
8. LESS GREAT: TORMENT
Joining the ranks of the record-breaking sales of the X-titles in the ‘90s was Todd McFarlane’s solo Spider-Man series that he both wrote and drew. McFarlane was without a doubt THE Spider-Man artist of the decade, and he will be remembered as one of the greatest Spidey artists ever. The problem was that his previous work was written by experienced writers, whereas this was not.
The first arc, “Torment,” was visually stunning with beautiful renderings of Spider-Man swinging around in all types of interesting poses. In fact, the whole thing would make a great coffee table art book. However, when reading the actual story involving a Calypso-manipulated Lizard on a murder spree, McFarlane’s writing inexperience shows. The narration and dialogue are difficult to digest, but it certainly all looks pretty.
7. GREAT: TITANS HUNT (NEW TITANS #71-84)
While it is the “Judas Contract” that tends to get most of the love in terms of classic Teen Titans stories, the ‘90s featured one that was pretty great as well. “Titans Hunt” by Marv Wolfman and Tom Grummett uses many of the same characters as “Judas Contract,” but tells the story of the Wildebeest Society taking down various members of the Titans, with the mastermind being a mystery throughout the story.
The story also features Deathstroke working with the team rather than against them, and has some cult favorites such as Red Star, Pantha and Phantasm playing big roles as well. Deathstroke’s son Jericho turns evil and is ultimately stabbed by his own father in a seminal New Titans moment. Just a small bit of advice, avoid issue #80 as it ties into “War of the Gods” and it really does not feel connected to the overall narrative.
6. LESS GREAT: NINJAK: BLACK WATER
First, just to be clear, let it be known that Ninjak is an awesome character with one of the most stylish costumes in all of comics. He is even going to be part of web-based live action series very soon that looks pretty awesome, but his ‘90s solo series was an awful read. There is an inordinate amount of dialogue and it covers the awesome early artwork of current Marvel Marvel Chief Creative Officer, Joe Quesada.
There isn’t much in-depth character development here, and what is left is an overly dark, by-the-numbers ninja spy book. That may sound intriguing, but the Quesada art doesn’t last long and the story gets very convoluted quickly. If you want to read Ninjak, read Matt Kindt’s incredible run on the character in both his own book and Unity, or check out his debut in the second collection of X-O Manowar.
5. GREAT: TERMINAL VELOCITY
Every Flash reader knows that Mark Waid’s ‘90s run is filled with some of the greatest stories ever told, with Wally West as the scarlet speedster. “The Return of Barry Allen” is often cited as the greatest Flash story of all time, and that may well be true, but there are other great arcs in his run and “Terminal Velocity” has a lot of the heart that makes Wally West such a great Flash.
If you like the Flash family, you will love seeing Impulse, Max Mercury, Jay Garrick and others running around within the story as well. This also began explaining the Speed Force and its role in a speedster’s existence, as well as the phenomenal concept of a speedster needing a “lightning rod” to bring them home. In this case, it was Linda Park, who would later become Wally’s wife. This one is well worth a reread.
4. LESS GREAT: 2099 COMICS (THAT WEREN’T SPIDER-MAN)
There were a lot of comics in the ‘90s that attempted to be edgy and cool by telling stories that took place in the future. Marvel attempted this with the 2099 line of comics in the ‘90s, where the dystopia and the angst of the ‘90s still reigned supreme.
Ravage 2099 was the pinnacle of this terrible concept. While it made sense to have future versions of the X-Men and Punisher, this was an original character who was a Robin Hood type that fought an evil corporate executive with awful villain monologues. X-Men 2099 went with characters that were new and had ridiculous names like Skullfire. Punisher 2099 seemed like a good idea, but it wasn’t violent enough, and the character came off as less hardcore than the one a century before. The best thing about these books were their very ‘90s foil covers on their first issues, as well as much of the art.
3. GREAT: JLA: ROCK OF AGES
Grant Morrison’s work may not be for everybody, but this JLA story is one packed with so much awesome content that it can’t be ignored, and when you pick it up and read it again you almost always appreciate it more. If you want to know what it is like when Darkseid gets the Anti-Life Equation and controls Earth in the same story with a Lex Luthor-led Injustice Gang in possession of the Philosopher’s Stone, it is here.
There are so many great moments here, including Batman surviving eight years of torture by Darksied and tricking Metron into becoming human. How about the Atom flying on Green Arrow’s arrow to be the one to stop Darkseid? You can even read Martian Manhunter helping Superman go through a maze made up of the the Joker’s brain patterns. It has some high concept stuff, but it is very rewarding and truly deep.
2. LESS GREAT: NFL SUPERPRO
The ‘90s were a time of Starter jackets, sports cards and jerseys just as much as they were a time for comics. So it would make perfect sense to combine the worlds of sports and comics into a football player superhero, right? Marvel even tapped the talented Fabian Nicieza of X-Men fame to write. What resulted was the dumpster fire to end all dumpster fires.
In just 12 issues, the title managed to anger Native American tribes, introduce an evil kicker who was aptly named Quick Kick, and an assassin with time travel abilities called Instant Replay. This is legendarily bad stuff. Thank goodness Nicieza says he actually got some free NFL tickets for his work, which at least explains why he bothered writing it in the first place.
1. GREAT: A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH
The best indication of whether an X-title in the ‘90s will be a good read is to look at the writer, and if you see Fabian Nicieza’s name, the book is probably solid. No matter how polarizing Rob Liefeld might be as a creator, the art here is his best ever. If you hate pouches and big guns, you may never like his art, but seeing Cable, Deadpool and the rest is pure joy.
The story is engaging due to the dynamic of the young team with their older leader. Cable believes in more harsh methods than Professor X, and the villains they face are fresh and hold many keys to the mysterious life of Cable. The story also features a wild widescreen crossover with McFarlane’s Spider-Man that was a fan’s dream at the time. It is surprising how well this one holds up.
What other ’90s stories stand out to you, for better or worse? Let us know in the comments.
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