In the '90s comic world, ‘grim-and-gritty’ anti-heroes dominated the market: spandex-clad, gun-toting men and women whose steroid-enhanced, body-builder physiques and ridiculously buxom and scantily clad bodies were out-shadowed only by the large number of pouches they wore (so, so many pouches).
Underneath die-cut, holographic, glow-in-the-dark covers, popular Marvel characters like the Punisher and Ghost Rider were not afraid to kill their enemies in the most violent ways possible, stacking up body counts that would rival small wars. Thankfully, some Marvel characters who were created during the '90s outgrew the trappings of their time, but some weren’t so lucky, remaining relics of their ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ era.
10 STILL AWESOME: Sleepwalker
Introduced as an alien police officer whose beat is the human dreamscape, Sleepwalker is a prime example of creativity that bucked the trend. Bonded to Rick Sheridan’s subconscious, Sleepwalker both protected Rick’s mind and fought crime in the waking world. At a time when comic characters were all muscle-bound and armed to the teeth, part of Sleepwalker’s appeal was his unique and somewhat spooky appearance: thin and frail, inhuman, and carrying no weapons. Although the character would struggle to find popularity with readers, (perhaps as a result of being too original for the time), a modern reboot with the right creative team might gain ground with fans looking for something a little off the beaten path.
9 HASN’T AGED WELL: Rage
In the '90s, street gangs were the subjects of constant media (over) coverage, stimulating public anxiety regarding urban violence. As an inner-city youth, Elvin Haliday experienced this reality first hand, until a dip in some chemicals granted him super strength, invulnerability and aged him to an adult. With his grandmother’s encouragement, Elvin donned a costume and joined the ranks of the super-folk, spending time with both the Avengers and the New Warriors.
Going by the alias Rage, Elvin’s costume represented all the cliches the public had about a gang member’s appearance, from the all-leather attire to the fingerless gloves. His characterization never really venturing beyond the one-dimensional, Elvin's recent death put his readers out of their misery.
8 STILL AWESOME: Gambit
With his good looks, mysterious backstory, exotic accent, cool powers, and impeccable fighting skills, Gambit was immensely popular when he made his debut. Typifying the ‘brooding-loner-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-crazy-ninja-skills’ trope that was popular in '90s action films, Gambit’s mystique was further enhanced by his apparent familiarity with the other side of the law, and his relationship with fellow X-Man Rogue.
Despite several revelations regarding his dubious past and the less-than-scrupulous reasons he may have joined the X-Men perhaps taking the shine off his apple a touch, the Ragin’ Cajun has evolved over time while retaining his popularity with the fans, so much so that Hollywood is still considering him for a solo film.
7 HASN'T AGED WELL: Bishop
Dystopian alternate futures were always a popular feature in comics and science fiction, but even more so in the '90s, perhaps through the massive success and influence of Terminator 2 and The X-Files. The X-Men have particular experience dealing with alternate futures, as they’ve worked to ensure so many of them don’t come into existence. The X-Man known as Bishop was a refuge from one of those futures and made his gun-toting, pouch-wearing debut in 1991. Having grown up in a future where the X-Men were betrayed and killed by one of their own made the character interesting, as he tried to discern which member the traitor could be. However, as the storyline drew out so did his appeal, and when it reached its inevitable conclusion, interest in the character had faded considerably.
6 STILL AWESOME: Squirrel Girl
At a young age, Doreen Green found she could communicate with squirrels and later, developed 'powers' associated with her totem animal: strength and agility, large front teeth, and a prehensile tail. Making her first few appearances in the mid-'90s and conceived as comic relief, Squirrel Girl was definitely atypical for a superhero of her time: she was not brooding or dark, and she stayed clothed throughout her appearances. In recent years, Squirrel Girl has strung up an impressive series of victories against Marvel's most dastardly villains, including Doctor Doom, Galactus, and even Thanos! (Yes, that Thanos). Moreover, her recent ongoing series has proven popular with younger audiences, providing them a positive role model and out-showing her 90s contemporaries in relevance and longevity.
5 HASN'T AGED WELL: Darkhawk
When Darkhawk first appeared in his self-titled series, he had all the trappings of a perfect '90s hero: mysterious origin, dark costume, and an angsty alter-ego in teenager Chris Powell. With his ability to create force blasts, enhanced strength, regenerative powers, and claw-cable, Darkhawk kept the streets of New York City safe. The amulet at the source of his powers remained shrouded in mystery until issue 21 of his series, where it was revealed that the suit was an alien cyborg body that switched places with Powell when he activated the crystal. Expecting a more mystical or supernatural origin for the character, many readers winced at the hokey B-movie science fiction elements woven into his origin. Interest in the character waned and has never really gained traction since.
4 STILL AWESOME: Carnage
A funny thing happened to Venom, the wildly popular Spider-Man villain, in the '90s: he joined the likes of the Punisher and Wolverine and became an anti-hero, his twisted sense of justice allowing him to kill criminals with ease. With Venom on the heroes’ side, Marvel needed another symbiote to pit against Spider-Man. Enter Carnage, the maniacal spawn of Venom.
More violent, more psychotic and dangerously more powerful than Venom, Carnage allowed Marvel to have their cake and eat it too: simultaneously, readers could get their fill of the fan-favorite symbiote villain and the fan-favorite symbiote anti-hero at the same time. Well-received since his debut and right into the pages of the currently-running Absolute Carnage, the character has kept evolving over the years and because of it, has never lost his edge or appeal.
3 HASN'T AGED WELL: The Scarlet Spider
Replacing a classic character with clones or stand-ins was all the rage in the '90s, as companies tried to emulate the financial success of The Death of Superman. DC tried the successful formula again with Batman and Green Lantern, while Marvel tried it with Spider-Man in the now infamous Clone Saga. A clone of Peter Parker from a 1973 story arc, Ben Reilly first reappeared as the Scarlet Spider and was thought to be the real Web-Slinger for a time, until his death revealed he was actually the clone. To this day, the mere mention of The Clone Saga makes Spider-fans wince in disgust, and despite the character's recent return, his grunge-style costume and convoluted backstory are best left consigned to the decade in which they (re)appeared.
2 STILL AWESOME: Deadpool
When Deadpool made his first appearance, he was an unremarkable assassin who bore more than a passing resemblance to DC’s Deathstroke, albeit wearing a knock-off Spider-Man costume. As was obligatory for comic book assassins in the '90s, he was ninja-trained, carried guns (and pouches) and had a shadowy past.
Over the years, writers have parlayed Deadpool’s ability to run his mouth during a fight into a defining character trait, endearing him to fans who appreciate a sprinkle of comedy in their heroes. Now an unofficial ambassador for pop-culture referencing, 4th-wall-breaking comedic superheroes (and cool Canadian actors), Deadpool’s popularity has transcended the decade he originated from, making him the biggest Marvel success story of the '90s.
1 HASN'T AGED WELL: Cable
The pouch-wearing patriarch of '90s superhero chic, Cable epitomized every trait the decade's characters were to have: he was tough, grim, deadly, calculating, had a mysterious backstory and was armed to the teeth. As the leader of X-Force, Cable advocated a more confrontationally proactive approach to human/mutant relations than Professor X, but was not a militant in his ways as Magneto, which appealed to the sensibilities of the day. Revealed to be Cyclops' son from the future, the appearance of multiple versions of the character (and their convoluted histories), as well as the counter-logic of having an Alpha-level mutant rely on such a ridiculous amount of firearms (and pouches), diminished his popularity, ironically leaving him a relic of the past.