Riddle Me This
What do you think of when you hear the words “Superhero comics in the 1990s”?
Holographic covers? Gritted teeth? Improbably large guns? Polybags? Exclusive trading cards? Superman’s “death”? Image Comics? Foil-embossed covers? Marvel’s bankruptcy? Wizard Magazine? Cross-hatching? Pouches?
All of the above?
We rarely know what’s going to define a certain period of time while we’re still the midst of it. Trends in fashion, music, graphic design, TV, etc. are kind of like a plant or a child. They’re changing every day, but you don’t notice it happening. Only later can we really take stock of what went on before. One of the stranger aspects of entering middle age is seeing eras you lived through – and remember well – gain an identity.
It has been really weird for me to witness the 1990s boiled down to its defining aspects. There were certain things we knew at the time would be part of the story: grunge music, flannel shirts, the swing revival. Others have come as a surprise, at least to me: oversized t-shirts, boy bands with odd facial hair, Nickelodeon cartoons, hackey sack. Once an era does gain definition, that identity often focuses on the big trends, and thus ends up feeling superficial and reductive, never quite matching how it felt to really live it.
This is definitely what has happened to the view of superhero comics in the 1990s. The exaggerated artwork and gimmicky sales techniques and massive shifts in status quo all happened, and they were all huge, but they are also far from the whole story. I know because I was there!
When the idea occurred to me to write a history of superhero comics in the 1990s, one of my big goals was to present a wider picture of the decade than what we’re used to seeing. I’ve always been drawn to lesser-known stories, the ones in danger of being forgotten in time’s unending march. In the 1990s these lesser-known stories include the fact that classic-style storytelling and artwork made a resurgence, new superhero universes were born and died at an alarming rate, and black superheroes and creators came into their own.
This is also personal to me. I started reading comic books religiously in late 1989, and in fact due to the two month lag between actual release date and cover date, the first books I bought were cover-dated January 1990. I temporarily quit following new comics in the later months of 1999. So the story of comics in the 1990s is also the story of the first and most formative phase of my 30-years of comic fandom.
A Few Words About Format
Writing a comprehensive history of something takes obsession and focus, and is the act is always in danger of becoming untenable. This level of difficulty increases with the scope of the topic. My history of Random House’s Beginner Books line covered several decades and over 100 books, and that took me over two years to research and write. There were at least 100 comics released each month in the 1990s, which adds up to over 14,000 different books. I’d already decided to narrow my scope to only superhero comics published by DC and Marvel, but estimated that would only reduce the workload by about 20%. To try to cover everything would take several years. And the end result would be either tediously long or frustratingly superficial.
While trying to solve this problem, I flirted briefly with the idea of focusing on just one year, say the eventful 1993, but that wouldn’t have been personally satisfying because it wouldn’t have allowed me to write about all of the runs and creators I want to. Next, I hit on the idea of picking one Marvel or DC comic from each of the 120 months comprising the 1990s, and writing an essay about each one. I went so far as to choose all 120 issues, but in that process I realized 120 essays was simply too...much...content.
So, I went backwards. I wrote out a list of creators, characters, runs, and trends that I definitely wanted to discuss, and then picked the individual comics that lent themselves to that. I ended up with 44 comics. Though this approach sacrifices comprehensiveness, I hope it will gain a level of depth it couldn’t have had before. I won’t be able to discuss every single significant comic book of the 1990s (I’m not writing about Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, for instance), but I do believe that, when taken in whole, this body of essays will present a vivid picture of superhero comics at the Big Two in the 1990s.
Though I’m going to approach this project with the same level of detailed research as I have my published books, this will ultimately have a different tone. In my books, I aim for as much nonjudgmental clarity as I can muster. My interests, values, and opinions come through, but in subtle ways. Because this is an extremely personal project for me, those interests, values, and opinions are going to be more directly stated. Many of the essays will also illuminate some aspect of the growth and evolution of my comics fandom.
Each essay will be numbered, just like comic books are, but will also be “new-reader friendly,” meaning you don’t have to read them in order, or read all of them. But if I do my job right there’ll be a cumulative effect, just as though you were reading these in a book.
Before we get to that though, there’s some context I’d like you to have.
Superhero Comics from the 1960s to the 1980s
As the 1990s dawned, DC and Marvel were on different trajectories, but that was nothing new. When the modern Marvel universe debuted in 1963, DC was already cruising along with a refreshed line that centered on the the perennially popular Superman and Batman, but also included new versions of their 1940s characters, including Green Lantern, Flash, and Hawkman. The major heroes had banded together as the Justice League of America in 1960. The remarkable success of Marvel’s rapid-growth superhero universe - Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man - and their mix of the conversational and the cosmic didn’t really change much about how DC operated. Their stories remained straight-laced and static, imaginary or of no lasting consequence. Character development was practically non-existent, and impactful new characters came along in drips and drabs.
In the 1970s, both companies allowed their superhero universes to become shaggy and a bit weird, but 1978 would be the year that set the course for both companies. DC, after attempting to match Marvel’s prodigious output, ended up cancelling 24 titles in what would be known as the DC Implosion. Marvel, meanwhile, ended its carousel of editors-in-chief and gave the job to a brash 27-year-old named Jim Shooter. He ushered in some fantastically beloved runs, including Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and John Byrne’s Fantastic Four.
Partly thanks to Shooter's micro-managing of talent, and partly thanks to its decision to start offering royalties to creators, DC in the 1980s reimagined itself as a creator-friendly haven willing to take chances on risky ideas. They allowed Marv Wolfman and George Perez to reinvent the Teen Titans to great success, and then gave the same team the keys to streamline the entire DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, resulting in, among other things, the John Byrne-helmed Superman reboot in 1986. That same year, DC published Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, both of which redefined the parameters of superhero stories. Those two blockbusters weren’t “in continuity,” meaning that DC’s mainstream universe continued on a somewhat staid (and low-selling) course, though the infusion of new writers brought character development and actual change into the DCU.
Under Jim Shooter Marvel reached new highs of commercial success, especially with the 1984 Secret Wars mini-series he wrote himself. But his 1986 New Universe – an attempt to create a new superhero continuity – was mostly a sales flop, piercing his air of invincibility. He was fired in 1987, and replaced by Tom DeFalco, who had helped found the lucrative Star Comics imprint that focused on licensed properties such as Heathcliff and Muppet Babies. In 1989, the Warner/Time merger gave DC huge media presence, which coincided perfectly with the release of Tim Burton’s mega-hit Batman film.
As 1990 arrived, DC pursued a path laid out by the success of Batman combined with their past acclaim for adult-oriented takes on their heroes. Marvel, meanwhile, was guided by DeFalco’s child-friendly outlook and undying admiration of the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby / Steve Ditko era.
That’s where our story starts, but there’s still a bit more you need to know.
Superheroes Weren’t Cool in the 1990s
We are currently in the midst of the salad days of superhero fandom and nerd culture. There are DC and Marvel movies, TV shows, video games, and merchandise everywhere you look. Nearly any past issue of a comic you’re looking for is available in a collection or online. You can find fellow fans easily, and everyone from infants to dudebros wear shirts with Green Lantern and Black Panther logos.
It was not always like this. Believe me. In the 1990s superheroes were extremely niche. It was exceedingly rare to see any evidence of them anywhere in mainstream culture, which is partly what made the success of the 1989 Batman movie so very exciting. Now people know once-obscure characters like Cyborg, Rocket Raccoon, and Captain Marvel (back then she was Ms. Marvel, or Binary if you were nasty). Now everyone recognizes Stan Lee on sight. Libraries and bookstores are filled with superhero “graphic novels” (we called them "trade paperbacks" in the 1990s) for all ages.
And in those pre-Internet, pre-Big Bang Theory, pre-Stranger Things days being a fan of science fiction/comics/anime/video games/role-playing games did not make you a part of an empowered geek culture. It made you uncool, and being uncool was mortifying. When it came to superheroes and comics liking them also set you up as a target for derision. Superheroes and comic books were for little kids and the sub-literate, so you had to hide that aspect of yourself.
The massive changes in the visibility, accessibility, and acceptance of superheroes and comic books didn’t happen in the 1990s, but the seeds were planted then.
What to Expect
Though I like to think 18 years as a teacher have given me the ability to make topics accessible even to those without great background knowledge, but I’ll warn in advance that there might be some stuff that flies by you if you aren’t a comics fan. I will however, be sure to explain the important bits.
It occurs to me that a good introduction should give you some idea of what to expect. So here’s just a partial list of the characters and creators I’ll be covering:
Zero Hour, the New Warriors, Starman, Legion of Super-Heroes, Batman Adventures, X-Men: The Animated Series, Wally West, Azrael, Amalgam, Ultraverse, Milestone, Impact, 2099, Spider-Girl, Rise of the Supermen, Kingdom Come, Justice Society of America, Image, John Byrne, Rob Liefeld, Mark Gruenwald, Todd McFarlane, Bret Blevins, Mike Parobeck, Mike Wieringo, Ron Lim, Dwayne McDuffie, Ron Frenz, Paul Ryan, and Fabian Nicieza. Whew!
Look for a new essay every Thursday (in honor of the day of the week when new comic books were released the 1990s). I’ll post on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but if you enter your e-mail address at the top right sidebar, you will be notified every time I publish a new essay.
Thanks for coming along on this journey with me.