Great Comics of the 1990s

 

            1990s comics often get a bad rap.  It’s partly because the big two of DC and Marvel responded to the rising challenge of new companies like Valiant and Image by flooding the market and there simply wasn’t enough talent to support all those titles.  Sturgeon’s Law definitely applies to the ‘90s.  It’s also partly because older fans had trouble adjusting to and appreciating the new trends (sorry, Baby Boomers).  As a younger fan, it reminded me of the way my parents complained about rap, alternative and grunge music.  And it’s partly because comic book readers morphed into collectors, buying first issues and variant covers for their alleged collectability.  There’s plenty of blame to go around. 

            Yet, in the midst of all this, comic book writers and artists were still doing what they do best: making great comics.  Yes, there were great comics in the 1990s.  Lots of them.  As someone who came of age during the ‘90s, I’ve drawn up my definitely-not-definitive list of the best comic books of the decade. 

            (Full disclosure: I read an article with this premise a few weeks ago on one of the major comic book websites.  However, that author’s list was 70-80% Vertigo and mentioned Image only in that the concept of a creator-owned company paved the way for later titles like Walking Dead and Saga.  Those examples don’t exactly refute the “’90s comics are crap” argument.  Dissatisfied with their effort, I decided to offer a list of my own.)

 

1. Bone (July, 1991): Jeff Smith’s peculiarly delightful comic took some time to catch on but thanks to support from independent retailers and direct sales through Scholastic Books, his creation eventually became one of the most recognizable shapes in comics.

 

2. X-O Manowar (February, 1992): Valiant actually burst onto the scene prior to Image first with the silver age retread, Magnus Robot Fighter, and then with the original creation, X-O Manowar.  Jim Shooter combined one part Green Lantern, one part Iron Man and one part Thor to create this unique savage in a space suit. 

 

3. WildC.A.T.s (August, 1992): My favorite of the initial wave of Image titles, Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s was intentionally reminiscent of his work on X-Men but with enough differences to make it interesting, like an alien heritage hundreds of years old.  Lee also recognized quickly that writers have a role to play and brought in Chris Claremont and Alan Moore to pen excellent adventures later on. 

 

 4 & 5. “The Death of Superman” (December, 1992) and “Knightfall” (May, 1993): These epic stories have been maligned by plenty of critics and fans, but I loved them- and so did most of my comic-buying friends.  They combined the best features of Shakespearean tragedy and summer blockbusters.  They were big tales focusing on the fall and subsequent rise of two of DC’s biggest stars. 

 

6. “Death: The High Cost of Living” (March, 1993) and “The Time of Your Life” (April, 1996): Sandman debuted too early for this list but the two spin-off mini-series featuring Dream’s sister Death certainly qualify.  Neil Gaiman upended expectations for the avatar of death, turning her into a charming, Goth girl who welcomed the recently deceased to the afterlife with kindly words of wisdom. 

 

7. Maxx (March, 1993): The second wave of Image comics was arguably better than the first as comic veterans stretched the possibilities of the superhero framework.  Sam Kieth’s idiosyncratic Maxx was the best of the bunch.  Was he a homeless man pretending to be a superhero, a dream or a dead rabbit?  Maxx was picked up by MTV and turned into an equally excellent cartoon as part of “Liquid Television.”

 

8 & 9. Icon (May, 1993) and Static (June, 1993): DC distributed comic books for Milestone, an imprint so good I couldn’t pick just one title.  Static was clearly the best- the early promos accurately described it as “the cleanup hitter”- but Icon wasn’t far behind, especially when sidekick Rocket stole the spotlight with her unwed teen mother storyline.  Milestone combined real life problems and superhero derring-do better than any other company.    

 

10 & 11. Marvels (January, 1994) and Kingdom Come (May, 1996): Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others had deconstructed superheroes in the 1980s with seminal tales like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid built them back up again with these “reconstruction” mini-series, lusciously painted by Alex Ross.  Marvels turned Busiek into a ten-year overnight sensation and Ross into a comic superstar.  Together, they restored the sense of awe and wonder to comic books, demonstrating that fans still like to be delighted and amazed. 

 

12. Hellboy (March, 1994): Dark Horse’s superhero universe yielded few hits but they became home to one of comics’ most identifiable figures when they published Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, starting with the mini-series “Seed of Destruction.”  

 

13. Shi (March, 1994): The early ‘90s were known for, among other things, their “good” and “bad girl” comics.  To my surprise and delight, one of these so-called “good girl” comics turned out to be a brilliant study of character, culture and form.  Billy Tucci’s Ana is a Japanese Christian caught between two cultures.  She’s a martial artist and an art critic, the descendant of a gangster and a missionary.  Tucci used Shi stories to explore Hiroshima, the Art of War and Japanese folk tales. 

 

14. Ultraforce (September, 1994): I enjoyed Malibu’s separate superhero titles but nothing compared to seeing all of them together, especially when drawn by George Perez.  Ultraforce featured a fun blend of familiar archetypes and quirkier characters.  Malibu was eventually bought out by Marvel and a second series written by Warren Ellis and starring Marvel’s Black Knight was almost as good as the first.

 

15. Starman (October, 1994): Starman is one of the best comics of any era.  Period, exclamation mark!  Others had played around with the idea of a legacy hero- Mark Waid on Flash, Christopher Priest on The Ray- but James Robinson fully explored the depth of the legacy concept with the reluctant son of a Golden Age mystery man and redefined what it meant to be a hero.     

 

16. Generation X (November, 1994): Generation X is kind of the lost classic of X-Men titles.  It’s never been revived, though many of its characters continue to hang around.  The title eventually lost its way but those first two years by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo were amazing. 

 

17. Nocturnals (January, 1995): Before being bought out and absorbed into Marvel, Malibu introduced their Bravura line as home to a different type of creator owned comics.  Dan Brereton built Nocturnals upon a foundation of classic horror tropes to create something new yet familiar, creepy yet charming. 

 

18. “Age of Apocalypse” (February, 1995): There’s a reason this story has been referenced so many times- including as part of this year’s Secret Wars: it was a brilliant concept executed exquisitely.  This alternate-timeline version of the X-Men saw various pockets of mutant resistance combine to challenge the indomitable might of the dictator Apocalypse. 

 

19. Astro City (August, 1995): Even more than Marvels, Astro City is Kurt Busiek’s love letter to superheroes.  He borrows familiar tropes and builds on them to create a world that is filled to the brim with wonderful things.  He also created rich characters that exceed their inspirations to reveal hidden depths of the heroic life.

 

20 & 21. Nightwing (October, 1996) and Birds of Prey (December, 1996): Chuck Dixon and DC expanded the Batman line with two of the greatest spinoff titles imaginable.  After time spent as Batman’s junior partner and the Titans’ team leader, Nightwing was flying solo at least.  Meanwhile, the former Batgirl, Oracle, teamed up with Black Canary to become the Birds of Prey in a one-shot, several mini-series and finally an ongoing series of their own.     

 

22. JLA (January, 1997): The “reconstruction” trend started by Marvels was so prevalent that even Grant Morrison of Vertigo fame got into the act.  Morrison reteamed the “Magnificent Seven” of the Silver Age, updated old villains like “The Key,” introduced religious overtones with actual angels and pseudo-pantheons, and created one of the seminal books of the age.  There were more JLA spin-offs than you can shake a stick at- if shaking sticks is your kind of thing- testimony to the title’s popularity. 

 

23 & 24. Thunderbolts (April, 1997) and Avengers: Heroes Return (February, 1998): In 1997, in the wake of bankruptcy and a collapsing market, Marvel farmed out several of their flagship franchises to Image.  It was a controversial decision, but it inadvertently led to several classic comics.  Kurt Busiek filled the superhero void with Thunderbolts, a comic about villains seeking redemption that routinely surprised readers with its twists and its heart.  He then helmed the return of the Avengers- though the returning Captain America and Thor were pretty good too. 

 

25. Martian Manhunter (October, 1998): Here’s the first of several JLA spin-offs to make its mark.  John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake gave the Martian Manhunter the series he always deserved, creating numerous secret identities- and extra heroic personas- around the world.  

 

26. “One Million” (November, 1998): We can be honest here, right?  Most crossovers are a mess.  When one works, it’s actually kind of astonishing.  Grant Morrison’s “One Million” worked.  He introduced a wonderfully futuristic new JLA from the 853rd century that had fans screaming for more.  

 

27. Black Panther (November, 1998): From the outside, Marvel’s decision to sub-contract several of their titles seemed like a failure so it was surprising when Marvel decided to do it again with some of their second-tier characters.  This time, however, the experiment was a resounding success.  Joe Quesada of Event Comics established the Marvel Knights band.  His Daredevil title with Kevin Smith was the headliner but Christopher Priest’s Black Panther title was the scenestealer.

 

28. America’s Best Comics (March, 1999): Alan Moore had been bouncing around the Image imprints for several years before Jim Lee finally gave him an imprint of his own.  Left to his own devices, Alan Moore ran wild devising the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong, Top Ten, Promethea and Tomorrow Stories.  Wow.

 

29. Hourman (April, 1999): Another JLA spin-off, Tom Peyer wrote the tale of an android learning to be a hero and to be human.  Paired with Peter David’s Captain Marvel (which debuted January, 2000), Hourman was a witty, fun superhero comic.  Snapper Carr and Rick Jones were the all-too-human guides for these “slacker superheroes.”   

 

30. JSA (August, 1999): Our final JLA spinoff, James Robinson and David Goyer updated the original superhero team for a new era.

 

There you have it- 30 great comics from comics’ most-maligned decade.  And I didn’t even include great titles that continued into the ‘90s but debuted earlier (like Sandman) or definitive runs on preexisting titles (like Peter David’s Incredible Hulk or Mark Waid’s Flash).  Don’t believe it the next time somebody tells you “’90s comics were crap.”  It was a great time to be a comic book fan, and there were some great titles worth reading. 

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Great column Chris.  

I've read a lot of these, but you got me intrigued to hunt down a couple that slipped by me, like Shi and the Nocturnals.

A couple of titles I'd add to the list would be Power of Shazam, one of my favourite takes on Captain Marvel, and Busiek and Larson's Defenders, an extremely fun book with the Defenders' big 7, and of course Legends of the Dark Knight, (although I think that falls in the same category as Sandman, starting in the late 80s).

This is a great list. I cannot argue with any of these picks at all (although I haven't ever read Shi or The Nocturnals). You have indeed proven what I have always believed--the 90's weren't crap! I remember reading so many of these with my knees hanging off of the loveseat in my dorm room in college and having my mind expand almost as much as it did as a result of being in college.

Thanks for touting the two best titles of the Milestone line, Static and Icon. Every issue of Icon left me wanting more. Each issue could have been 64 pages and that still wouldn't have been enough to explore all the ideas bursting from that title.

Hardware was pretty good, too. I never could get into Blood Syndicate, but then, it advertised itself as being "Not a team, but a gang."  

Same with me. I loved Static at the time, and Icon later, after DC integrated him into the main DCU (sadly, that's gone now). I bought up all of the possible trades for both characters (as well as Hardware's TPBs). As for Blood Syndicate, I bought it for a few issues, because it introduced me to an awesome new artist named John Paul Leon.

ClarkKent_DC said:

Hardware was pretty good, too. I never could get into Blood Syndicate, but then, it advertised itself as being "Not a team, but a gang."  

....I may have the eras mixed up but I think that the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern was from the 1990's?  Although I started reading comics books during the silver age for some unknown reason I never really got into Hal Jordan!   I liked the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern!  He came into the ring without any instructions...so he had to use trial and error to figure stuff out!  The Green Lantern Corp was wiped out so he had no back up and no one to go to for advise and no mentors!  Being an artist...he used his power ring in ways that Hal did not even think about!  Hal was more of a playboy type and he seemed to be fearless...almost super human attributes!  I think that Kyle was more down to earth!  He had girlfriend troubles and other normal problems!

I agree that Kyle Rayner wasn't as bad as many say. I also enjoyed his ring-creations. I think the most boring power ring action is just shooting out ray blasts.

I did enjoy the Silver Age stories of Hal Jordan. Whether or not they should have turned him into Parallax, they did do it. His redemption at the end of Final Night was very well done and should have stood. Bringing him back after all that wasn't a good idea, IMO.

Speaking of Final Night, I think this was one of the best events DC had in the 90's. Karl Kesel is one of the most underrated writers out there. This showed that he not only loves writing comics, but that he is also a very smart writer.

Richard Willis said:

His redemption at the end of Final Night was very well done and should have stood. Bringing him back after all that wasn't a good idea, IMO.

That's a great list, Chris. Every title that popped into my head before reading it was included.

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