Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

I’m fairly pleased with how I summarized the late 90s for Marvel in the comments of the last post: after shortsighted decisions in the early 90s bent its superhero stable out of shape, Marvel spent the latter part of the decade trying to repair the damage and make their characters recognizable again to their core audience. With the exception of a few new concepts, like Deadpool and the Thunderbolts (and even those weren’t totally new, strictly speaking), Marvel’s main focus was on trying to get back in touch with the ol' Marvel magic. If the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada era was Reconstruction, might we distinguish the Bob Harras era by calling it Restoration? Or am I confusing the issue by throwing around not-very-well-thought-out academic classifications like this?

Would it be easier to tell you what it all meant to me?

Much of the discourse in the superhero comics blogosphere the last few years has been on “darkness,” about the loss of “fun” in our funnybooks. Which I’ve always felt was a little misdirected. I mean, I like superhero comics that are dark, I like superhero comics that aren’t necessarily all playful and wacky. But what I can’t abide is when a superhero comic is a complete and utter drag.

And that’s what the worst offenders of the last couple years have been. But I don’t quite feel that kind of crushing betrayal you read on a lot of blogs because I’ve been through it before, in the mid-90s. I went through my “Alas, what happened to the comics of my youth?” phase when I was 10 years old.

I mean, really, if you think those days were disheartening for longtime fans, imagine what they were like for someone in elementary school, finding himself reading a comic where Peter Parker has a psychological breakdown, wraps himself in a web cocoon, and refers to himself as “the Spider.” Like I said, “dark” is fine -- I had some X-Men Classic issues reprinting the first Morlock two-parter by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, and they were dark and moody and mysterious and seemed very sophisticated and “adult” to me as a kid. But these Spider-Man comics were, again, a drag; that really is the best word for them, if you know what I mean. Thoroughly unpleasant books -- what would a kid see in them, anyway?

But the years passed, and then the late-90s period came. The murky browns and greens and dark purples gave way to a brighter (computer-separated) palette, and the characters were all pretty much as I recognized them from the cheap little Marvel Super Heroes Guide Book I’d gotten from my school’s book fair that had taught me who all these guys were in the first place. They weren’t always the most adventurous comics, the most daring comics, the most innovative comics. But they were generally solid and they seemed entertaining, and as a 12-to-15-year-old, that was really all I wanted at the time. And I was fortunate, when I did start wanting more, that Jemas and Quesada came along to feed my teenage brain with Marvel Boy and New X-Men and X-Force.

When all is said and done, I think the comics I’ve talked about these last two months belong in company with the best stuff Marvel’s ever put out, and I do want people to know that the decade in which I spent my formative years did produce some legitimately good stuff. But as for the rest of it…you don’t have to like it, and I'm not going to try to convince you. You can tell me the post-Clone Saga, pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man books were mediocre stuff, and I'll tell you you're probably right. It’s not particularly distinguished stuff, I know that. The Harras approach to Marvel worked to hook this particular nostalgic-before-his-time early teenager, but it certainly wasn't an approach that was gonna revitalize the superhero comic for the 21st century. But, you know, those comics were mine, man, I was there. When I’ve got a really bad cold I’ll pull ‘em out and read them in bed, I don’t care.

Anyway. Was that sappy? You can tell me if it was. I hate to romanticize nostalgia too much, but I'm also suspicious of bloggers who dismiss it completely. Before I go, though, I’ll just list very briefly a couple more comics from the era that might not be great, might even be severely flawed, but are still easy-to-overlook bright spots of the age in their own way.

Joe Madureira issues of Uncanny X-Men: It’s hard to remember now, but Joe Mad’s infusion of manga/anime style into mainstream superhero art was a breath of fresh air when he first appeared. While a lot of artists in the wake of the Image founders copied and watered down their heavily rendered and crosshatched style, Madureira made stylization cool again. So these comics get an honorable mention purely for the art; Scott Lobdell’s scripting was, just as it was in the beginning of the decade, quite insular and inscrutable…

Fantastic Four (vol. 3) #1-4: …and yet. Lobdell’s “create a mystery that’ll hook readers and worry about figuring it out later” approach that became so exhausting on X-Men seemed like a breath of fresh air for the FF. By the late 90s, the Marvel Universe didn’t seem to have enough undiscovered country left for these explorers to explore, but Lobdell’s four-issue run seemed to at least promise new ideas ahead; we’ll just never know if he could’ve followed through, because they swapped Lobdell for Chris Claremont, and his run, suffice to say, is not on this list.

Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four: The other “Heroes Reborn” books seemed to be proto-Ultimate takes on the characters, but on FF, Jim Lee (with scripting by Brandon Choi) gave us a retelling of highlights from Lee-Kirby FF. In the first six issues, the FF get their powers, fight the Mole Man, fight Sub-Mariner, meet the Avengers, meet the Black Panther, and get wrapped up in a battle between Doctor Doom and the Skrulls for control of the Power Cosmic that Doom is siphoning off the Silver Surfer. That is some condensed storytelling, man. These comics don’t offer much of anything new, and they certainly don’t improve on Lee and Kirby, but I like to think of those six issues as a really cool adaptation of a Fantastic Four movie you could never afford to film.

Sensational Spider-Man: This isn’t the post-Clone Saga/pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man book I was reading the most at the time, but looking back, I’d say it was probably the best. Nothing groundbreaking, but just some really nicely done work can be satisfying in and of itself. Mike Wieringo’s work is great; why did we all wait until he was gone to notice? Writer Todd Dezago, meanwhile, offered old-school Marvel larks but gets hamstrung by inter-title crossovers and continuity, and for what it’s worth, he developed a way to modernize (well, for the 90s, anyway) the Stan Lee winking-but-still-sincere "voice" that most comics writers even today haven’t figured out how to do successfully.

Spider-Girl: I read maybe one or two issues of this, but never totally got into it. Still, I’m compelled to mention it because it had everything going against it in terms of what's traditionally successful in superhero comics -- female lead, set outside of regular continuity, debuted in friggin’ What If?, I mean really -- but found a hardcore devoted fanbase and managed to keep going (in one form or another) until just very recently. That’s got to count for something, right?

Cable: Man, I never read this either, but I always mean to track Joe Casey’s run down in dollar bins if I can. He works with artist Ladronn, who at the time was doing a style very openly aping Kirby. We associate Cable so strongly with the Image aesthetic, but Ladronn’s art forces you to rethink the character through a Kirby lens. Soldier from the world that’s coming, gimmicky glowing eye, part-man-part-machine…hey, let’s not dismiss this guy for being a Liefeld creation, you could almost make this thing work from a certain angle, couldn’t you? It suggests, to me at least, something relatively unique in comics at the time: instead of a modernization, a...past-ification? The late 90s' response to the early 90s. I don’t know, maybe it was rad.

That Punisher miniseries where he’s, like, an undead angel hunting demons and stuff: All right, just joking with that one.


Richard Bensam said...

Now I get why I relate so well to you talking about comics even though we're coming from such different eras. When I was ten, Jack Kirby was working on The Demon and Kamandi (but I was miffed about the superior New Gods and Forever People being cancelled), Jim Starlin was taking over Captain Marvel (but I was nostalgic for the Kree-Skrull War), and Dave Cockrum was on the Legion of Super-Heroes (but I was nostalgic for the Jim Shooter stories in Adventure from when I was five or six). What heavy burdens we shouldered at age ten!

But just the fact that we thought about comics that way, at that age, means we (and others like us -- I expect plok has a thing or two to say on this topic, for instance) had already abstracted something about what comics meant to us, or could mean. You can't feel disappointment or frustration with something unless you have an ideal version against which to measure it. That's more than just a matter of having the right comics to read; it also calls for being a certain sort of reader.

And god, yes, you're so right about the worst offenders in comics today. So many of them read like drudgery, like duty, like "nobody wants to be here, least of all the writer, but we've got all these plot points to cover and only so many pages a month to do it, so the sooner we get it done the sooner we can go do something fun afterward."

plok said...

I have to admit I read the Heroes Reborn FF, and definitely saw the point of it...although I wouldn't really like FF again until Pacheco's run. I did read Spider-Girl and felt a lot of affection for it! But mostly that was just because it resembled what I thought of as Proper Comics much more than a lot of things around it, not because I thought it was really so good as all that...

I dunno; it's complicated. I mentioned this to Richard not long ago: the other day my friend Ed was telling me that the new Spider-Man is actually pretty good, and all I could think of to say was "I can't imagine wanting to read a Spider-Man comic now, even if it's pretty good...they've driven my interest off, and I don't know if I can ever get it back." I don't even complain about it anymore, it took a while but I'm finally just not interested. My ideal Spider-Man was formed in my simultaneous exposure to Conway/Andru, Wein/Kane/Buscema, Lee/Romita, and Lee/Ditko...basically Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Tales reprints, and assorted reprint books and back-up strips. To me, these were all very consonant tones, and the tune they made when put together was a sweet I think only that tune is "my" Spider-Man, that weird condensation of what was already about ten or fifteen years worth of reading concentrated into four or five: I really did feel current with Spider-Man, in a way I guess most fans of a later vintage couldn't feel, or couldn't feel so conveniently. Like all of it made the same kind of sense, I guess! And then with the FF, I actually started with a half-and-half mixture of Lee/Kirby and Conway/Buscema!

Twenty-five cents for full-colour Lee/Kirby/Sinnott FF single issues!

I thought that was just how it was!

So,'s an interesting exercise, to put myself in your shoes!


plok said...

It's neat, because when I came in, a lot of what I was reading was in this "just after" period...Gwen Stacy already dead, the FF already broken up, I had just missed some enormous watershed moment, but it was also really easy to become immersed in the time before the watershed moment, just as if it was as present as the post-watershed stuff. Sounds kinda familiar, maybe! And then I was annoyed that Englehart and Buscema left Captain America, I was so looking forward to Kirby because I'd read all those reprints too, but then it was weird and seemed simplistic...over in Avengers, I was just plain let down, because it wasn't even Kirby disappointing me...

(Hilarious to think that "disappointment" with Kirby expressed itself mainly by me obsessively reading the hell out of everything he did anyway! Ha.)

And Gerber leaves the Defenders, and the Guardians, and Man-Thing and Howard disappear...even then, there was a trough. Even Nova #1 was a bright spot, and then there were the Eighties and a lot of books that used to be good turned awful. I guess Renovation started with Byrne on FF (well, actually Moench and Sienkiewicz), Stern and Rogers on Dr. Strange?

Englehart on Silver Surfer, eventually?

But it never felt like it really took, somehow.

Justin said...

Oh, absolutely, Richard, it takes a certain kind of reader, and I also think that's why people like us stick with comics even through the disappointing spells. If I'd just thought "Comics used to be awesome, and now they're not" as a kid, I'd've quit and never gone back. I'd go play soccer or something. But once you figure out WHY it is that these things speak to you, you're compelled to hold on, because you know there's nothing WRONG with Fantastic Four or whatever, it's just that somebody needs to do THIS and THIS and THIS and yo'd be right there again, right?

And then someone comes along who DOES scratch that itch, and it justifies everything. I mean...Grant Morrison, obviously a quality writer, but you've got to understand about what it was like when I first came into contact with his JLA. Spider-Man's supposed to be the comic you relate to, but this was a book where I felt the creators really UNDERSTOOD me and what I wanted to see. "One of those thirty is YOU, Batman" (or whatever the exact number was) is one of my defining moments as a comics fan. Wally West is too powerful to come up with credible threats, you say? All Prometheus has to do is make up some garbage about superspeed-sensitive bombs; it's so EASY if you're just clever about it!

At the same time, it's the same reason why I don't say that these '90s Marvels in particular were The Way To Do It. Because yeah, they did cement this young reader as a lifelong fan, but I wasn't an ordinary little kid. (But lest I position myself as some kind of precocious, special little snowflake...Richard, you point out there's been kids like us as long as there's been superhero comics, it's just some of our Engleharts are Busieks!) In addition to loving to read comics, I also loved to read ABOUT comics. I had Les Daniels' "Five Fabulous Decades" history of Marvel Comics and Peter Sanderson's character-centered companion, "Marvel Universe." I knew about the Dark Phoenix Saga and the Galactus Trilogy and Daredevil and Elektra and what the deal was with Bill Sienkiewicz way before I ever READ any of them. Pillock, you will think this is an inconceivable crime and never speak to me again, but I have STILL never read Englehart's Secret Empire/Watergate/Nomad stories, but I've seen a bunch of the most relevant panels and can tell you basically What The Deal Was from summaries.

So because I already had a sense of history (even if it was the potted, Marvel-sanctioned version), I was able to GET the whole late '90s "back to our roots" thing, even at thirteen and fourteen. I'd never read a Bronze Age Avengers story at that point, but I knew that's what Busiek was trying to get in touch with on his run. But, like I said, not everybody does homework (nor should they have to), so what I liked wasn't necessarily what the comics industry needed at that point. There's no reason a kid born in 1984 should have recognized Stingray on a George Perez Avengers cover. NO REASON AT ALL.

Justin said...

(Okay, that last bit was a lie. I actually thought he was some kind of Alpha Flight dude.)

Justin said...

And Pillock, man, reprints were important to me too. I had Claremont and Jim Lee's X-Men #1 as well as a reprint of Lee/Kirby X-Men #1. I ate up the original but didn't quite get the new one. Like, was it some kind of retelling? They're both #1, and they both start with the X-Men training with the Professor, and they both have Magneto, and I like Wolverine and all but this new one is totally boring and doesn't even END on the last page! Pretty art, though.

My parents were also good enough to buy me a Marvel Masterworks with Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spidey #1-5, and I had "The Arms of Doctor Octopus" in a Marvel Tales, so the Spider-Men I grew up with were drawn by McFarlane and Bagley, but also Ditko and Romita.

Old material's more available than ever now, which is nice for kids, if they're interested. Shame that so much of it's in black and white, though; I'll buy Essentials because I need those issues and can't get them any other way for the price, but I think my son deserves to experience them in color once he learns how to read.

Justin said...

Can't shut me up tonight for some reason.

I'm feeling that same kind of ennui, that same "I don't know if I could GET interested anymore" at the moment, which is why I've been on a "break" from most new comics for a year or so at this point. I'm even trade-waiting Batman & Robin, I mean, that's insane.

But the new Dan Slott "Big Time" Amazing Spider-Man direction's almost got me tempted to give in and start angling for that monthly (or bi-monthly, I guess) fix again. I don't expect it to be in league with Conway & company, but I feel like it almost might scratch that itch. For better or worse, the Slott Spidey I've read so far probably isn't too far off from what you'd get from me if I were writing the character.

Justin said...

In terms of the TYPES of stories and plots and stuff he wants to write, that is. I don't mean to be so presumptious as to suggest that I'm the equal in quality of this professional comic writer or anything.

plok said...

Fortunately, art isn't a competition! That's odd, right: if you and Peter David were both athletes, one day you'd have to think to yourself "I know I can beat this guy"...because you'd know you have to think that same thing about everybody, even the true starry lights, or you wouldn't be doing your job right! You'd have to think "I can beat Peter David" because you'd also have to be thinking "I can beat Alan Moore".

What a relief it is, not to have to do that! Poor Gerry Conway probably woulda had a nervous breakdown...

Man, I've gotta say it's really interesting to think about how your particular Spidey-matrix is composed, and how you approached Marvel's historicity as a Child of the thing was this issue of MTU where Spider-Man was in it for like two seconds on the splash page, then it was the Human Torch and Iceman, then the X-Men showed up in a limo and all I could think was who the hell are these people?! and then they were gone just like that too, like Spidey they just peeled off into other storylines...MINDBLOWING STUFF. Then a couple years later I got hold of a piece of the Avengers/Defenders War, literally the only characters I recognized were the Hulk and the Silver Surfer...and Surfy only because he'd been in the FF cartoon.

So that was seriously trippy.

Couldn't agree more about it being better in colour -- FF in particular cries out for colour as much as Ditko Dr. Strange, even now I'm just starting to grasp how a good colourist can make the storytelling go...and Morrison, yeah, he really accomplishes his goal of revitalization brilliantly, the point where I really got that wasn't even JLA, but when I finally read FF: 1234 through to the end...such a wicked comment on "these things aren't broken at all, they still totally work"...and what d'you mean you're trade-waiting B+R, Justin?!? Even I'm not trade-waiting B+R, for God's sake...!


plok said...

One day when you collect all these blog-writings, I hope you will call the book "Post?" POST!"

You should totally review the Englehart/Buscema Caps!