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.