The 1990s are often looked at as a bad time in terms of quality for comic books in general, but especially for Marvel Comics.
“Extreme” heroes with chains and spikes and claws and guns (Wolverine and the Punisher, these are your children!) ruled the day, operating under the assumption that they were more “realistic” and “mature” than their predecessors. Villains who became popular enough to get their own series were redeemed very slightly and superficially so that you could root for them when they killed a bunch of dudes and made jokes about it.
The X-Men became increasingly inscrutable and insular. Chris Claremont had stopped writing the books in 1991, but because his style was widely credited with turning a second-tier, bimonthly book with a cult following into the industry leader, his successors continued writing in his general style but cranked up the intensity and turned down any measure of restraint. People get on Claremont’s case for self-indulgence and excess, but after he left, the unresolved plotlines, mysterious new characters with mysterious pasts, and dystopian alternate futures started piling up like never before. Every character seemed to have some secret connection to the past of every other character, so that while the number of mutants skyrocketed, their world became so much smaller.
But the X-Men kept selling, and so gradually that style of plotting spread to the other books. The infamous Clone Saga of the Spider-Man books was originally planned as a single sales-spiking storyline, but Marvel’s marketing department got a hold of it and demanded it be stretched to the breaking point, no matter how many times the creative team tried to just end the damn thing. All told, the storyline went on for about four years, turned at one point into an attempt at a back-to-basics reboot – establish the clone as the real Spider-Man, and give the “unrelatable” married Yuppie a happy ending with a new baby – and ended almost exactly where it started, except Norman Osborn came back out of the blue as a Lex Luthor-style master manipulator because they needed some sort of payoff for the readers who'd stuck with it.
The Avengers got the worst of it, because nobody seemed to care about the Avengers at all in the early 90s, so they just threw everything they could think of into the books and hoped something would work. They got trenchcoats and muted color palettes; Iron Man was manipulated into becoming a villain, died, and was replaced by a teenaged Tony Stark doppelganger from a parallel reality; the Wasp metamorphosed into a hybrid wasp creature; and Giant-Man…uh…Giant-Man got a costume covered in pouches.
So why would Marvel do all these goofy-ass, shortsighted things to their characters? Well, I think part of it is they got left behind by DC in the late 80s. They didn’t have a Watchmen, they didn’t have a Dark Knight Returns, they didn’t have an Alan Moore Swamp Thing or a Neil Gaiman Sandman. They didn’t even have a Crisis on Infinite Earths, man! So I suspect they were looking for a way to reinvent themselves, and when the guys who’d go on to start Image Comics came along, Marvel saw its opportunity.
It starts with artists like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld, but I don’t think the problem was ultimately with the future Image dudes themselves. By the late 80s when they burst onto the scene, superhero art had become perhaps a bit staid, bit too comfortable with itself – and I say this as someone with a genuine love for the art from that time, my own childhood golden age! – so it’s no surprise their energetic, enthusiastic approach sold. Some of my first Spider-Man comics were McFarlane Amazings, and I can’t rip Liefeld’s ridiculously proportioned heroes apart without noting that Jack Kirby was hardly consulting anatomy textbooks himself when drawing books like OMAC.
The point is, I can’t fault these guys for trying something new and exciting in superhero comics, even if it wasn’t always to my taste. The real problem, as it usually is in superhero comics, was with the guys who didn’t have any of their own ideas, so they cashed in current trends, following instead of leading. By the time the Image founders had studios of “clones” able to imitate Lee or Liefeld’s style so they didn’t have to draw their own stuff, we’re getting pretty far away from the haven for comics creators the Image rhetoric initially promised, but it’s even more unseemly for Marvel to do the same, to try to fight Image on Image’s terms with cheap knockoffs and lose.
In the wake of the Image revolution you had the great speculator craze – variant holographic foil covers polybagged with trading cards you were never even supposed to open – that was ultimately unsustainable and imploded by mid-decade. But just as unsustainable was the Image-model superhero, he of the gunspikechainbloodclaws. What ultimately distinguishes Kirby from some of the Image guys is that he was interested in creating concepts; at their worst, the new guys seemed interested in little more than names and costumes, all surface. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Spawn was the best selling Image book, because McFarlane actually took the time to develop a concept and an ongoing narrative and ideas (even if I never was into the book, personally) and stuck with it; Savage Dragon survives today because Erik Larsen was invested in the little corner he’d happily carved out for himself in comicland, not in hot-selling #1s.
So by about 1995 or 96 or so, Marvel didn’t have to worry about Image quite so much anymore, but when the smoke cleared they found they were in financial hot water (for reasons I’m not 100% on, but it’s not important to our discussion here), and all of their characters had somehow come to be in mangled states beyond recognition. Something had to be done. What would you do, True Believer?
What Marvel banked on, under Editor in Chief Bob Harras, was “retro.” A sort of “neo-Silver Age” movement was being spearheaded by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, and others at DC Comics, and Marvel was trying its hand at something similar. After the “Dark Ages” of the early 90s, here was a promise of comics “the way they used to be.” “Onslaught” / “Heroes Reborn” / “Heroes Return” provided enough of a break in the narrative that they could sneak in a semi-reboot on the Avengers and Fantastic Four properties, and suddenly everyone’s back to their classic costumes and characterizations. Goodbye Teen Tony and Wasp-Creature! At the same time, it wasn’t just a matter pretending the Bronze Age never ended. These were comics that turned a loving but critical eye to Marvel’s history; reconstructing superheroes, going through the code line by line and keeping the legacy stuff that still works, trying to update what can be salvaged, and dumping the rest.
Ultimately, though, trying to incorporate all the excesses and ridiculousness of the early-to-mid 90s with the rest of Marvel’s 30-40 year “tapestry” proved unworkable and unprofitable (particularly with the Spider-Man line), and this led to Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada having a go at it that proved a bit more successful.
But back to the late 90s. These years get painted with the same brush as the early 90s comics, and I don't really think they deserve to be dismissed like that. I’ll admit, I was in late middle school/early high school then, so these are the comics of my own youth. There’s some rose colored glass there, some nostalgia. And yet, even looking back on it ten-plus years later, trying to strip away all the sentimentality as best I can, I can’t condemn these years and wouldn’t want to. I honestly don’t think they’re terrible comics. Of course, there was some terrible stuff to be found, as there is in any decade, but I think if you sat down with a stack of late-90s comics stripped of all your preconceived notions, you’d see a lot of comics that were okay. Spider-Man comics were okay. There was a Quicksilver series and a Heroes for Hire team book concept that was okay. There was even an X-Men book or two that was okay. Though I was reading a bunch of these books at the time, I’ll admit that some of them don’t hold up and wouldn’t have a lot of re-read value for someone without the emotional connection to them that I have.
And yet…there were some Marvel Comics of the late 90s that were good. Some weren’t just good, some were actually pretty good, really. Maybe even great.
So I thought if nobody else was going to stick up for these books, I might give it a go. I’m going to focus on six in particular; I’m not saying these are the only good comics Marvel put out in the late 90s, or even that they were my favorites at the time. But they’re six that I think represent well the peculiar time they were produced in. There was no going back to the way things were completely; post-Watchmen, both the audience and the creators were too self-aware, almost painfully so, about superheroes and what they meant for that. So it comes down to a balancing act: how do you do something that feels like it belongs to that Marvel tapestry we all remember fondly while adding something new? How do you keep from being crushed under expectation? Can “retro” be fresh? What should a Marvel Comic look like in the last years of the 20th century? If you look at it this way, even some of the failures are interesting.
Let’s have a chat about all these things for the next couple Mondays, what do you say? Spread the word, invite a friend. I hope to find something interesting in these books nobody wants to talk about anymore.
Sept. 27: Avengers Forever
Oct. 4: Black Panther
Oct. 11: Untold Tales of Spider-Man
Oct. 18: Captain America (vol. 3)
Oct. 25: Thunderbolts
Nov. 1: Deadpool
Nov. 8: Honorable mentions and maybe a little something to tie it all together