It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen once said, that comics in the 1990s were shit. Just Google “90s comics” and you’ll find a plethora of articles with titles like 10 Reasons Why Comics Sucked During The 90s, Why I Fear The 90s Revival Happening, The 10 Most Asinine 1990s Characters and Reasons the 90s Almost Killed Comics. Some of them even get the apostrophe in the right place.
While many of the criticisms offered by this kind of article are more than valid, it’s long seemed to us to be somewhat unfair that the entire decade gets written off as filled with excessive, gimmick-driven, pouch-laden dross. It could just be that we started reading superhero comics ourselves (mostly) in the ’90s, or it could be that there were genuinely some absolutely terrific comics produced in that decade amid whatever fiasco Rob Liefeld was involved with that week. Even putting aside the obvious likes of Sandman and Preacher, if you look specifically within superhero comics you can find things that are capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the preceding late ’80s age that draws so much acclaim.
So to prove this, we’ve come up with a list of ten superhero comics that all began publication in the ’90s (and ended it, if not within the decade, then close enough to the end of it) that we think are genuine, un-ironic, bona fide classics.
1. Grant Morrison’s JLA
There are few more obvious bridges between eras than Morrison’s revamped JLA – debuting two years before The Authority, it points the way for the large-scale, superhero-epic storytelling that would characterise the early 2000s, yet it’s still drenched in ’90s tropes: from Howard Porter’s art style, to the legacy heroes (Wally West, Kyle Rayner and Connor Hawke) in the lineup, to the fact that all of a sudden the book has to cope with Superman being in his “electric blue” form for a few issues. Somehow, however, Morrison navigated the various crossovers and editorial edicts that were lobbed at the book, and still managed to come out the other side with an explosive, if somewhat raw in places, classic.
At the time, it felt like something new and exciting – not to mention a welcome return to the idea of the Justice League being a group of the world’s greatest heroes who band together to face things they can’t alone. But in retrospect, it’s clear that it’s the zero year for so much of what has happened in superhero comics since.
2. J.M. deMatteis’ Spider-Man
You’ll find few comics websites prepared to defend the Clone Saga as vociferously as we do. It’s not that we think it’s any good, so much as we just have a lot of affection for it based on it being both our main entry routes into Spider-Man comics. For most people, however, the ’90s are a byword for all that’s ever gone wrong with Spider-Man – and to an extent, they have a point, from Spidercide, through Chapter One, through basically an entire decade with Howard Mackie writing.
But there were a few shining lights in ’90s Spider-Man comics, and the most prominent of them was J.M. deMatteis, who managed to turn out some genuinely brilliant comics even amid eras that are generally thought of as the worst. The most prominent, and usually the most talked-about, example is Amazing Spider-Man #400, which came slap-bang in the middle of the Clone Saga – and the fact that Aunt May’s death was later proven to be a hoax can’t undo the power that issue has. But even more striking, for me, is Spectacular Spider-Man #200. Again, it’s a story that’s been undone since – but the tale of the death of Harry Osborn is one that for me cuts to the absolute heart of the character of Peter Parker and the characters around him. It’s supremely tense and engaging, before seguing into a distinctive and moving silent ending. It might just be my favourite single-issue Spider-Man story, and it came with a shiny silver cover.
There was something very homogeneous about art styles in comics in the early ’90s, driven of course by the success of the Image founders, first at Marvel and then at their own company. This might explain why Alex Ross so suddenly and instantly became the biggest star in the field – it wasn’t just that his work was brilliant (although at that time, it really was – even if his storytelling wasn’t always up to snuff, and his reputation has diminished as he’s sunk into rather samey and derivative variant covers, his mid ’90s work was truly beautiful) but that he offered something so different at the time that it was a genuine shock to the system.
Marvels proved to be the perfect showcase for Ross’ style and talents at that point in time, too – it’s hard to imagine a more capable scholar than Kurt Busiek when it came to guiding readers through this alternate angle on Marvel’s history. There was a heavy trend, post-Watchmen, for “What if superheroes were in the real world?” type stories (somewhat missing the point that very little about Moore and Gibbons’ world was “real”), but few of them succeeded as well as Marvels at portraying that clash between the fantastical and the mundane.
4. Kingdom Come
It could be debated until the cows come home whether Marvels or Kingdom Come is the more interesting work – and which side of the debate you fall on probably depends almost entirely on whether you care more about the Marvel characters or the DC characters. Aside from the common link of Ross’ art (and his work may not be as instantly fresh and striking as it is on Marvels, but it’s also got a lot more depth to it), it’s doing something very different – still celebrating the past, to an extent, but drawing on DC’s more mythological history and setting, and in particular playing with the ever-present concept of legacy heroes.
It’s hard to shake the accusation that it bears some uncomfortable similarities to Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes proposal (although I’d charitably suggest that having the story come down to a battle between Superman and Captain Marvel owes far more to Ross’ own affection for the latter character than a deliberate attempt to ape the prior story), and it’s also perhaps a little too on-the-nose with its “Rarg, all these new-fangled ’90s heroes are bad!” pontificating. But it’s still a great story, with some absolutely outstanding moments (a lot of them revolving around Batman), and there’s not a Ross-drawn comic that looks better.
5. Age of Apocalypse
Okay, I don’t actually know why this is meant to be Any Good, because I’ve never read it. I’ve just heard James saying it’s good. So I’m turning things over to him, to explain to you exactly why he thinks so.
James: In the 90s, the X-Men comics had a reputation for labyrinthine, continuity-laden, event-driven stories which starred more characters than any casual reader could adequately identify. Guilty as charged. And yet out of this ethos came the Age of Apocalypse, a story so successful that twenty years later, the X-books have yet to escape its shadow. For four months, every X-title took place in an alternate timeline where Xavier was killed before he could form the X-Men, and followed Magneto’s ragtag band of twisted, dark, downtrodden X-Men as they attempted to make a last stand against Apocalypse and restore the timeline. It was labyrinthine, continuity-laden and event-driven, and it’s near-universally loved. Crossover might be a dirty word these days, but if nothing else, the 90s proved it was possible to be a critical and commercial hit with one.
6. Armageddon 2001
I can hear the chortles of laughter from the back at the suggestion that this comic should be anywhere near this list. But wait, hear me out. There are some pretty bad comics included under the Armageddon 2001 banner – including, arguably, the second half of the main bookending story itself, which was cobbled together extremely late due to the baffling decision to react to the leaking of the ending by changing it from something that had been carefully planned and telegraphed to… something that was really pretty stupid (and which actively contradicted things that had come before).
But as an example of what the ’90s style “crossover” should actually be, it’s pretty immaculate in its construction. Two bookending issues tell the story of a man from the future visiting the DC Universe’s present, who has been tasked with discovering which of them is going to become a tyrannical dictator in his time. Aside from an argument that suggests that turning one hero into a villain is an unnecessary “darkening” of a type that was all-too in vogue (but hey, the original plan was for it to be Captain Atom, who was kind of a prick anyway; and it then turned out to be Hank Hall, who was even more of a prick), that is, straight out of the gates, a great setup.
And what it allows for is a crossover that touches each tied-in series in whatever fashion the creative teams want it to. It takes place not in regular issues of each series, but in all their annuals – and in each case, an alternate-future storyline is able to unfold without disrupting the style and tone of the series in question. Now, in some cases, that means that – given the nature of the series at the time – we get some bad comics. But we also get some pretty decent ones, and in the case of the three (yes, three) possible Superman futures, a really good extrapolation of three popularly-discussed eventual paths for the character. And heck, I still get a kick out of those two bookending issues – they’re dramatic, entertaining guff, even with the cobbled-together resolution.
7. Batman: The Long Halloween
The ’90s aren’t generally thought of as a particularly great time for Batman, perhaps because the natural comparison is to a preceding decade that gave us Year One, Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. But actually, there was some pretty decent work going on in the main books in the early part of the decade – particularly from the pen of Alan Grant, and with some of the more esoteric books such as Shadow of the Bat and Legends of the Dark Knight. And besides, as I’ve talked about before, I even think there’s a lot to enjoy in Knightfall.
The latter half of the ’90s, meanwhile, gave us the no No Man’s Land arc – which is so huge and sprawling as to be impossible to recommend wholeheartedly, but which certainly has some moments of brilliance (and is responsible for bringing Greg Rucka into mainstream comics, so there’s that). The standout Bat-work of the ’90s, however, has to be The Long Halloween – a hugely influential miniseries from the oft-derided Jeph Loeb, who proves not for the last time that he’s at his best when working with Tim Sale. This take on the character of Batman, the city he inhabits and the rogues gallery he faces off against is arguably even more enduring than the work of Frank Miller in terms of how it’s informed subsequent portrayals.
8. Daredevil: Guardian Devil
My inherent DC bias means that I can’t see the best work of Kevin Smith’s brief flirtation with superhero comics as anything other than his Green Arrow – but by the same token, I can fully understand why the majority of people are more likely to see it as being this. I also think Guardian Devil suffers by comparison with the major run that would immediately follow it (i.e. Brian Michael Bendis’) – but it’s still important to note that without it, that early 2000s masterpiece may not have happened at all.
In fact, without this comic, a lot of Marvel stuff may not have happened at all. It’s easy to underestimate just how significant the launch of this title, and the Marvel Knights imprint as a whole, was. Marvel were going absolutely nowhere in the late ’90s, but five years after Daredevil #1 they had the Ultimate line, the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and a revitalised creative model. And a lot of that can be traced back to Joe Quesada getting the EIC job off the back of Marvel Knights.
“Important”, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean “good”. But Smith’s Daredevil, short a run as it is, is a good comic. Personally I’ve never really taken to Quesada’s art style (and again, it’s something that I think grounds the book in the ’90s rather than being particularly forward-looking), but this is an engaging, gripping story (albeit with a slightly uncomfortable case of fridging) that sets the tone for how Daredevil would be treated over the next ten years or more. And while Daredevil may mock him at the end, it makes a slightly more serious threat out of Mysterio, which is something that I for one always welcome.
Is this really any more a superhero comic than Sandman? It’s probably pushing it a bit, but we’d argue that yes, it is. It spun out of The Demon and the Bloodlines DCU crossover event; Batman, Green Lantern and Catwoman made early high-profile appearances (including being on covers); and there’s also the small matter of it containing one of the absolute greatest Superman stories ever written (issue #34’s “Of Thee I Sing” – seriously, even if you’ve never read another Hitman issue, track that one down). Plus, while it doesn’t really explore many in the way of superhero tropes after its first few arcs, Tommy does – to an extent – pattern himself after the genre with his “costume” (of sorts) and “codename” (of sorts). And artist John McCrea somehow manages to find the balance between the opposing genres the book occupies – yes, sometimes his superheroes look a little unconventional, but they do still look like superheroes.
So having established that it’s a superhero comic (of sorts)… is it a good comic? Well, yes, of course it is. It might be Garth Ennis’ finest comic, and in a career that includes Preacher that’s really saying something. It’s an absolute delight, filled with intense character development and balancing action and drama with a hefty dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. I honestly care about the characters in Hitman more than I do those in Preacher, particularly when the book hits roughly its halfway point and stops being “silly gunplay antics in Gotham City” and turns into a Garth Ennis Book About Morality And Friendship And Loyalty And Stuff. And yeah, sure, it’s not the only time Ennis has done a book like that – but the fact remains that it was quite unlike anything that DC had ever published before, demonstrating that the ’90s were still capable of being fresh and inventive.
Launching in 1994 and spinning out of the not-very-fondly-remembered Zero Hour crossover event, there was little advance indication that Starman would go on to be one of the most defining DC comics of the decade. In truth, even by the time it was finished, it wasn’t necessarily considered an all-time classic by the wider industry (while fiercely beloved by those who’d actually read it) – it was in the decade that followed that its reputation really grew, perhaps as the superhero industry caught up with exactly what it was doing.
So much about Starman seems anathema to its time – from its distinctive, overwrought art and prose styles, to its celebration of the Golden Age of superhero comics at at time when most titles couldn’t be looking further away from them. Rather than making a particular superhero dark and gritty, the series instead took an old villain and lightened him up (well, after a fashion). And rather than being a violent, action-heavy extravaganza, its focus was almost entirely on character-based interaction and drama, and an emphasis as much on the small things in life as the epic.
And yet and at the same time, it’s a comic that could only have come from the ’90s – a comic about one of DC’s most enduring characteristics, the legacy hero (yes, those guys again), at a time when their proliferation was at its greatest. It’s a stunning exploration of the depth of that rich, varied and storied universe and history, something that manages to bring together fifty years’ worth of comics and somehow link them all, making them all as important to one-another as they are in their own right.
There’s a lot more for me to say about Starman, and I intend to get around to it on here at some point. But for now, suffice to say that while it’s not perfect from start to finish, it still stands as a shining example of exactly what ’90s comics were capable of – and for all the ways in which it might not feel like “a ’90s comic” on the surface, it’s undeniably and irrevocably one at its core.
So there we go. Ten properly great ’90s comics. Well, nine and a half, if you count Armageddon 2001. And to think, we didn’t even get to talking about Eclipso: The Darkness Within. Wait, where are you going? It had A PLASTIC GEM GLUED TO THE COVER!