19 Pieces of Evidence Dispelling the Popular Notion that the 1990s Was a Decade of Despair for Discerning Comic Fans
1. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City
Pity the poor comic fan who came of age during the 1990s, the heyday of mullets, impractical shoulder pads, and about five thousand superheroes with “blood,” “axe,” “dark,” “death,” “strike” (or some clever misspelling thereof) in their names. But while the decade is remembered as a time when sizzle trumped substance (and when the phrase “the next Rob Liefeld” was meant as a compliment), it also provided many examples of superlative storytelling. Case in point: Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, first published by Image Comics in 1995. Set in a hero-rich city located somewhere in the western United States, Astro City alternates between stories told from the heroes’ point of view and stories about average people living in a world of wonder and danger. The broad canvas allowed for just about any type of story, from a first date between two high-profile heroes to a reformed super-villain coping with life outside of prison to a normal man haunted by vivid dreams of a woman he’s never actually met (or has he…?). Busiek racked up numerous industry awards for the series, and rightfully so: at a time when many publishers seemed to think extended fight scenes and gratuitous pin-up shots were their only professional obligations, Astro City succeeded in showing how the superhero genre was capable of so much more.
On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. The Golden Age Starman was at best a C-list superhero; why would anyone want to read a series about his son taking up the family business? And geez, how many references to obscure DC characters was this James Robinson guy planning to pack into his scripts, anyway? But fans took a shine to Jack Knight right from the start, in large part because of what he was not. No guns, no capes, no goofy secret identity-wrought crises, no special powers (aside from a nifty cosmic rod inherited from his father), no chest-beating melodrama… in short, Starman was Everyman, a Generation X hero that a lot of fans of the time could relate to (or at least see themselves having long, rambling conversations about pop culture with). Robinson’s other bit of genius was setting Starman’s adventures in Opal City, a fictional burg that was home to many of DC’s more intriguing underused characters, including the Shade, a former super-villain and man of mystery who often threatened to overshadow (pun intended) the star of the book. Throw in a three-hankie farewell to a Golden Age hero and satisfying conclusion, and this book’s status as one of the decade’s must-reads is assured.
Kevin Smith — he of Chasing Amy, Clerks and Mallrats fame — is one of those creative types that people either love or they don’t. And while much can be debated about his skills as a storyteller or filmmaker, one thing that can’t be denied is his love of comics. After writing a few one-shots and short series based on characters from his own movies, Smith was tapped to join artist (and future Marvel editor-in-chief) Joe Quesada in reviving Daredevil in 1998. Smith’s “Guardian Devil” storyline raised the ire of a few fans who didn’t appreciate some of the plot twists he injected into the Daredevil mythos, but his involvement generated the most interest in the character since Frank Miller’s iconic run, and it certainly helped foster Hollywood’s love affair with superheroes in the ’00s (including, natch, 2003’s Daredevil movie, which ends with a shot very similar to the cover image seen here). Smith’s tenure (which he followed up with other high-profile projects, notably DC’s relaunched Green Arrow series in 2001) also proved comics could be creative outlets for writers outside the comic-book clubhouse, and soon other directors, screenwriters and novelists were adding their creative juices to the mix.
There’s a reason why the kiddie lit sections in most big-box bookstores have entire shelves devoted to Jeff Smith’s creation: it’s just plain good, all-ages fun. Time magazine once heralded it “as sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier,” and… yeah, hard to argue that, really. A mash-up of Pogo, Uncle Scrooge and The Smurfs, Bone features three main characters — cousins named Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone — who are run out of Boneville when one of Phoney’s get-rich schemes go awry. Naturally, their banishment eventually leads them on a hero’s journey to help save their world. Kids can enjoy the slapstick humor of stories like “The Great Cow Race” while grown-ups can take in the Tolkienesque elements of high fantasy that characterize the sprawling epic. Or they can also enjoy the cow races. Either way, it’s all good.
The roots of DC’s mature-readers line can be traced back to 1982, when Brit Alan Moore was brought on board to inject new life into DC’s Swamp Thing. His work proved there was a market for horror/fantasy stories that didn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, and soon editor Karen Berger was recruiting other U.K. writers and artists — Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Garth Ennis, among others — to bring some fresh thinking to new and existing DC franchises. The “Bergerverse” titles — which tended to skew darker and feature more explicit themes and images than DC’s more mainstream fare — formally arrived in 1993, when the mini-series Death: The High Cost of Living became the first DC title to sport the Vertigo imprint. This list could easily be populated solely by Vertigo titles published during the ’90s that would live up to Berger’s mandate to “do something different” in comics: Sandman, Preacher, Hellblazer, Black Orchid, The Books of Magic, Flex Mentallo, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Shade the Changing Man, The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, Uncle Sam…
When comic fans gather to discuss the decade’s many faults, they tend to focus on the two publishers — Marvel and Image — that were at the forefront of the decade’s more disappointing trends: bigger guns, bigger biceps, atrocious writing, the simplest of lines uttered through clenched teeth and grimaces… the list goes on. But while Marvel, in particular, can be called out for its many questionable editorial decisions over the course of the decade (see also: its Marvel Swimsuit specials, or the indecipherable mess it made of its X-Men titles), 1994’s Marvels was not one of them. Like many other titles of the day, Marvels came with a gimmicky cover (in this instance, a transparent acetate cover), but that only served to enhance the beauty within. With words by Kurt Busiek and painted art by Alex Ross, this four-issue mini-series retold four seminal events in the Marvel universe, as seen through the lens of Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon. This was the work that first introduced Ross to millions of fans, but just as important, it was a story that showed readers what it would be like to actually live in a world where anti-mutant hysteria, invading Atlanteans and planet-eating giants are all possible. It also arrived at a most ironic time in history: a mini-series paying tribute to the stories of the past that made Marvel great, arriving at a point in time when Marvel seemed hellbent on sabotaging its future (coughSpider-Clonecough).
Having cut his teeth — and placed his uniquely surreal stamp — on such titles as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison was offered the chance to write JLA, a reboot that returned DC’s Justice League back to its original concept as the company’s premier team of A-list heroes (the 1980s Justice League series, while popular at the start, had morphed into a generic team of second-stringers in the ’90s, with spinoff titles like Extreme Justice and Justice League Task Force doing little to boost sales). Morrison had great fun exploring the dynamics between the “Big Seven,” and their opponents were presented as actual big-league threats requiring a team effort (invading Martian armadas and an all-out war in Heaven were both just another day at the office for these heroes). Morrison split after a few years and the book never fully recovered from his departure, but his run proved there was plenty of life left in old properties, provided they were handled with care.
8. The Avengers
Speaking of which. The Avengers celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1993 with a quartet of foil-embossed covers, but there wasn’t much to celebrate; while the Avengers was never intended to be a team of A-listers like the Justice League, it was hard to find anyone who could recognize all the names on the team roster, much less care about their adventures. The “Heroes Reborn” event of 1996 was marketed as a reboot of several of Marvel’s top titles, including The Avengers, but fans were largely unimpressed by the effort (when you have the likes of Rob Liefeld re-imagining Captain America as a brainwashed factory worker with an android wife, you tend to understand why). On the plus side, it led to “Heroes Return,” which in turn led to the re-re-introduction of The Avengers, this time helmed by fan favorites Kurt Busiek and George Pérez. Similar to JLA’s approach, this version went back to basics with an all-star lineup (with some new faces added) and rematches with many of the Avengers’ classic super-villains, and its debut (along with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man in 1999) was a clear signal to fans that storytelling and characterization were back on the agenda.
9. Kingdom Come
The arrival of Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come in 1996 invited many comparisons to Marvels, largely because both were illustrated by the photo-realistic art of Alex Ross and both put a more serious spin on heroes that fans have known for decades. But where Marvels was a nostalgic look back at Marvel’s creative high points, Kingdom Come was more of a cautionary tale for future comic writers (not that that disqualified it from being a damn fine read in its own right). Short version: it’s the future and the old DC heroes have retired or retreated to their own affairs, leaving the world to a younger, brasher group of “heroes” who cause just as much damage as the villains they fight. The accidental destruction of the entire state of Kansas stirs the old guard into action; meanwhile, an ordinary man is visited by the Spectre and and told he must bear witness to events as they unfold. Heavy on the apocalyptic imagery at a time when comic sales numbers were in freefall, the book was marketed to fans with a simple question: Whose will be done? More than a decade later, the answer is still not clear.
10. Understanding Comics
Between schoolyard snickers and the unflattering “Comic Shop Guy” character on The Simpsons, comic fans have had to develop a sense of humor about their literature of choice (even though the uncoolness of comics is what drew so many of us to them in the first place). But the fact is almost everyone on the planet has been exposed to comics in one form of another… and not just the obvious examples, either. But until Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics came along in 1993, no one really took the time to discuss how or why words and pictures worked together to tell a story to readers (or is it viewers? Or maybe both?). It was left to a comic creator to discuss the visual and cultural impact of the comic medium (as well as the question of how it conveys information so well), and McCloud did so by using a comic-book format to put forth his lengthy critical examination of the comic medium. Others have published books about the mechanics of drawing comics or the business of comic publishing, but McCloud was the first to use a comic-book format to discuss the visual and cultural impact of the comic-book format. “Very few people, both in and outside the comic book industry, have seen comics, in and of themselves, as a field worthy of study,” he said in an interview. “Since there is that vacuum, I feel that I do not have to so much as investigate this science, as invent one… I want to start a debate, not finish it. I don’t want to have the last word on comics. I want the first word.”
11. Strangers in Paradise
The early-’90s speculator boom that fuelled much of the mainstream dreck also encouraged thousands of independent creators and small-press publishers to come up with the next comic-book phenomenon that could compete with, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Reality being what it is, most of them failed to capture more than the interest of a handful of readers, but more than a few managed to create quiet oases of artistic success. Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise began as a three-issue mini-series in 1993, and it was published off and on until 2007. Over the course of 106 issues, Moore chronicled the lives of friends Helen Francine Peters, Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, Gwynnethina Casey Bullocks-Femur and David Qin. With its emphasis on relationships, it’s no surprise that Moore’s creation appealed to a largely non-traditional (read: female) comic audience, and the work of artists like him helped inch independent comics a little closer to respectability — no small feat in a world where Lady Death lingerie specials exist.
12. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
With the demise of Whitman, Gold Key and Harvey Comics in the ’80s and early ’90s, funny-animal comics were few and far between throughout the ’90s. One notable exception: Gladstone Publishing, which published books starring Disney characters from 1986 to 1998 (with the exception of a three-year hiatus). Classic stories by Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson ran side by side with new stories by modern artists, including Don Rosa, considered by many to be Barks’s spiritual heir (and if you’re asking why that’s a big deal, then go look it up, ’cause it is). Beginning in 1994’s Uncle Scrooge #285, Rosa began “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,” a 12-part story that details the events in Scrooge’s life leading up to 1947, the year Duckburg’s richest cheapskate was first introduced to comic readers. The challenge, as Rosa once said, was combing through a lifetime of Barks’s work and finding a way to incorporate every detail, no matter how minute, that Barks had revealed over the years about Scrooge’s history and bringing them together in one coherent storyline. An obsession with continuity was the downfall of many a title in the 1990s (see also: DC’s Zero Hour crossover event, or Marvel’s expanding universe of X-Men titles), but Rosa succeeded in showing how a little obsession could also help create a great story — and continue a grand legacy.
13. The Big Book series
You wouldn’t think Thomas Edison, Ed Wood, J. Edgar Hoover and Fyodor Dostoyevsky would have much in common, but according to The Big Book of Weirdos, they were all, well, weirdos. Paradox Press, a division of DC Comics, had a reputation for publishing offbeat titles, and they didn’t get more offbeat than the Big Book anthology series (1994-2000), 17 volumes of inspired humor, intelligence and madness. Each book featured a theme (death, losers, martyrs, the ’70s, etc.) and a cast of dozens, both within the stories and on the credits page (the series is notable for featuring the work of several EC Comics legends, as well as for introducing North American audiences to the work of Brit Frank Quitely). The stories themselves were short, each lasting a few pages or less, but they were bursting with true and fascinating facts, and they found a receptive audience outside of the usual comic shops — paving the way for other comic books to conquer the big-box bookstores of the land.
14. Drawn & Quarterly
“The most successful comics publisher in Canada” may sound like faint praise (akin to, say, “the most successful shoe store in Belgium”), but the people running Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly know a thing or two about showing the rest of us what comics are really capable of doing. The proof? Chester Brown, Robert Crumb, Guy Delisle, Julie Doucet, Kevin Huizenga, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, Chris Ware, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Lynda Barry… these are just some of the unique voices that D&Q has published since its founding by Chris Oliveros in 1991. Anyone who studies comics has to acknowledge the efforts of publishers like Fantagraphics and D&Q, companies that consistently challenge the idea of what comics “should” be about, and seek to open peoples’ minds up to the medium’s infinite possibilities. The ’90s was the decade in which publishers like D&Q proved comics could be more than the genre-based mind candy most non-fans still believe them to be.
From its earliest days, the comics industry has been a haven for writers and artists working on the fringes of society, but not all marginalized groups have had an equal chance to share in the glories. African-American creators, in particular, have long been underrepresented in the comics industry, an unfortunate fact of history that had become somewhat embarrassing by the time the 1990s rolled around. Milestone Media was an attempt to address that imbalance. Launched by a coalition of African-American creators in 1993, the DC imprint produced a handful of titles that were set in their own separate universe and featured a far more multicultural cast than the typical superhero book. But “comics for non-white people” wasn’t the real selling point; the true draw was the rich storytelling and innovative coloring processes that were revolutionary for their time. The mid-decade market crash, as well as the usual artistic challenges that come with maintaining a strong start, eventually took their toll on the Milestone line-up, but the creators had made their point long before DC pulled the plug in 1997 (though not entirely, as fans of 2000’s Static Shock animated series will tell you).
16. The Spectre
The Spectre, by and large, has always been the odd man out (if he can truly be considered a “man”) in the DC Universe. As God’s spirit of vengeance on the mortal plane, his mission is to punish those who commit evil, and over the decades different writers have wrestled with the challenge of writing credible stories around a being who’s essentially omnipotent. Writer and former theology student John Ostrander stepped up to the plate in 1992 with the launch of a new Spectre title, and his approach was to place the Spectre in a series of morally ambiguous stories that challenged the readers’ own sense of justice. What, for example, should be done to a woman who kills her abusive husband in his sleep? Can an entire nation of people be judged responsible for an endless cycle of civil war? How do you condemn a 90-year-old woman who spends a lifetime trying to atone for a murder she committed in her youth? The book never shied away from depicting the more gruesome aspects of the Spectre’s raison d’être, and its re-imagination of the Spectre stood in stark contrast to other, higher-profile ’90s revamps that weren’t nearly as successful in reviving interest in a character.
17. The Maxx
Formed in 1992 by a gaggle of ex-Marvel illustrators annoyed by work-for-hire deals that didn’t allow them to share in the profits of their creations, Image Comics was intended as a venue where comic creators could publish their work without giving up the copyrights to the characters they created. In theory, it was a bold move forward for artists’ rights; in practice… well, let’s just say a lifeboat full of rebels is not the most stable vessel to launch into choppy waters. Scheduling problems, personnel turnover, personality conflicts and a glut of questionable product almost sank the fledgling company during its formative years, but it survived to distribute some of the best and most sought-after work of the ’90s and ’00s (see also: Spawn, Savage Dragon, Astro City, Badger, Groo the Wanderer, Invincible, The Walking Dead). Sam Kieth’s The Maxx was an early standout, garnering enough fan interest to merit a 13-episode MTV animated series in 1995. Its titular hero is a homeless man in this reality but a hero in another, and the series focuses on his relationship with a young woman who also has a second identity in “the Outback.” Defiantly different and unlike almost everything else put out by mainstream American publishers in the early to mid-’90s, The Maxx dealt with emotional repression, abandonment, overcoming past tragedies — pretty heady stuff for a book about a big purple guy with claws.
I grouped these two together because of their many similarities: both were published by DC at around the same time, both featured intriguing characters with unique perspectives on events in the DC universe, both were cancelled well before their time, and… uh, both start with the letter C? Chronos starred Walker Gabriel, a petty thief who lucks into the time-travel technology of a classic Silver Age super-villain and ends up bouncing around the timestream, becoming a hero in spite of himself; Chase chronicled the caseload of a tough-as-nails agent of the Department of Extranormal Operations, a government agency charged with monitoring super-powered activity across the globe and neutralizing threats as they happen. Despite premises with potential (not to mention ample opportunities for the writers to play with pretty much any DC character they felt like including in their stories), neither series reached the 12-issue mark and both saw their swan song during DC’s mediocre “One Million” event in 1998. Which is a shame, really; the story of a (mostly) normal woman kicking ass and taking names while surrounded by superheroes and super-villains — or the story of an in-it-for-himself rogue forced to use his time-travel powers for the greater good — sounds like the kind of thing that would, if we’re talking TV or film adaptations, have a definite shot at drawing in both the fanboys and a few folks outside the comic-club tent. Anyone in Hollywood listening?