Monday, August 18, 2008

Seriously, what were the good superhero comics of the 90s?

The title to my previous post was mostly a joke, but Alan David Doane answered it seriously in the comments field, suggesting three runs I've never actually read (though I've always meant to read Joe Casey's Wildcats--in fact, there was a copy in a used bookstore which I always considered buying, but I thought they were priced too high). But it's a good point--what were the good superhero comics of the 1990s?

As I've mentioned here before, I quit reading superhero comics somewhere around spring of 1995, and didn't start up again until the middle of this current decade. So that's about half of the 1990s supehero output that I've only read after the fact, if at all. As for the first half of the decade, I was reading way fewer comics than most (I didn't have such a huge allowance, you see), plus my taste ran a bit towards cool, hot artist of the moment.

So what follows is an almost certainly incomplete list of well-regarded superhero books below (I'm hoping some of you will fill in the blanks in the comments), with my thoughts on them. I'm not going to try to do any kind of summary on the decade as a whole, mostly because I think I'm kind of grossly underqualified to do so. My general impression is that it was a pretty terrible decade for superhero books, even (especially?) after the worst of the Image excesses had passed. It was a pretty great decade for alternative and non-superhero independent comics, though.

What follows is a more piecemeal set of thoughts, beginning with an awful lot of Kurt Busiek:

Avengers by Busiek, Perez, et al.
I've read the first of the hardcovers, and part of the second (never read the Ultron story, which is widely considered the zenith of the run, IIRC). These are solid, generally entertaining stories, from what I recall. But they're awfully mannered, almost self-consciously neo-Classicist. That's a strange approach to take towards old superhero comics, since the best of them shine with an incandescent stupidity that's half the appeal. At least for me--if you're more interested in the idea of superheroes (both broadly or specifically, as in "I specifically like Wonder-Man"), I could see this being an all-time favorite. My impression is that its reputation is largely due to readers' joy of having access to a solid team book featuring A-list characters after enduring six or seven years of toxic sludge from Marvel.

Astro City by Busiek, Anderson, et al.
Probably the best of Busiek's work in the 90s. It's the sort of thing which requires substantial familiarity with the original characters and stories being referenced; otherwise, most of the unexpected plot twists carry way less weight. Since I'm reasonably well-versed in superhero mythology, I'm not really complaining. Anderson's art has a sort of living realism--there's a lot of realistic detail, but the Spider-Man analogue bounces around like you would expect. (As opposed to someone like Alex Ross, whose work exchanges liveliness for cold, dead realism.) I don't think Astro City suffers from the kind of poisonous nostalgia I usually associate with these books, but there is a prevalent sort of baby boomer navel-gazing. Like, it's not that far off from Forrest Gump, except instead of Gump meeting Lyndon Johnson you have Average Joe characters interacting with Captain America. Or his stand-in. I'd much rather read this than most of the other stuff on this list; in fact, I've been meaning to check out the more recent volumes from the library. But it's not the sort of comic I feel obliged to actually own. I don't feel its absence on my bookshelf.

Marvels, by Busiek and Ross
I've always thought this was dreadfully boring, but that might be partly due to Alex Ross' art. Tim O'Neil recently said something about Marvels being a successor to Watchmen in a sort of interesting way. I'd re-read it to see what he's talking about, but I got rid of my copy before our recent move.

Thuderbolts by Busiek, Bagely, et. al.
I've read the first issue of this and came to the conclusion that this series' primary appeal is to those who were suckered in by the first issue, or who were suckered in by the hype surrounding the title after the first issue. That goes double for fans of Fabian Nicieza and Tom Grummett's New Thunderbolts, one's enjoyment of which is directly proportionate to one's willingness to repeat the mantra "Baron Zemo is the best character in comics today" on various message boards and blogs.

The Flash by Waid, et. al.
I think I've read two volumes of this, and I still can't figure out the appeal. It just seems like a competently-written (but cliche-laden) superhero book with bad art (in some cases by people who would go on to do much better art a few years down the road). I seem to recall Mark Waid, in the introduction to one of the TPBs, saying that the heart of the comic was the love between Wally West and Linda Park. I guess you'd find that relationship compelling if your only other exposure to human romance was the robotic love Barry Allen shared with Iris West in the Flash comics of the 1960s.

Kingdom Come by Waid and Ross
Everyone here hates this, right? We don't really need to go into it again, do we?

JLA by Morrison, Porter, et. al.
Okay, so I didn't like Rock of Ages. How about the rest of the run? I remember two good stories--the angelic invasion of earth and the original story with Prometheus. I can't remember anything about the evil sun (or whatever it was) story that closed out Morrison's run. Again, I can't emphasize enough how much Porter's art dragged everything down.

Incredible Hulk by David, et. al.
I actually read this when I was a wee lad, mostly because I liked Dale Keown's art (it was the 90s and I was 14, so give me a break). Even at the time, I remember thinking how lame all the Illiad/Odyssey stuff was--I mean, the Hulk was wearing a jump suit, for chrissakes! David's solution for tying up all the Hulk's various manifestations was fairly clever, although the sort of thing which you knew would eventually get reversed (you can't keep the raging green Hulk down forever). I'd certainly rather read David's Hulk than Waid's Flash, but I'd have to be rather desperate for entertainment to read either. In other words, I'd be all over this if it were in an otherwise poorly-stocked prison library.

Batman: The Long Halloween by Loeb and Sale
This is alright I guess, as far as less interesting/more commercially viable versions of Batman Year One go. I think most of the hoopla surrounding it was due to its being a more classic Batman story in an era of Bat-quakes and whatnot. Better than Hush, for whatever that's worth.

Starman by Robinson, Harris, et. al.
This is probably the most sacred of cows on this list. I read the first six or seven issues as a teenager and liked it, but generally found it to be inferior to Hellboy (the art, which was the sole reason I tried Starman in the first place, begged the comparison). I tried re-reading these issues a few months ago, in hopes of writing a review to commemorate the announcement of Robinson's return to full-time comics writing. I've got a bunch of notes, so maybe I'll go back to it one day. For now, I can say that I thought those first few issues were fairly good, but not as good as some things on this list (like Astro City). Harris and Robinson each had significant craft problems at this time; the former had numerous storytelling lapses, while the latter wasn't much for writing dialogue. The main thing setting those early issues of Starman apart from contemporary superhero comics was the attempt at some thematic depth beyond "here's what Superman means to Metropolis" or the like. I did find the execution a little ham-fisted, though. Maybe I'll try to read a few more issues--maybe up to #20 or so--and write a couple of long reviews.

The Golden Age by Robinson and Smith
Sort of the spiritual sibling of Kingdom Come--lots of stern hand-wringing about the nature of power and costume-wearing, but none of the guts to show the protagonists doing anything too unheroic. And wasn't the villain the Ultra-Humanite or something? You know, instead of the paranoia inherent in humanity? It's kind of like finding out that pathetic old supervillain was the mastermind at the end of Watchmen.

Stormwatch/The Authority by Ellis, et. al.
I wrote about it here. Wow, I was talking about moving even back then. Geez, how little I knew back then. Dick of three months ago, did you suspect that the sedatives you had acquired to give your cats would magically stop working about halfway through the trip, thus subjecting you to two long days of near-constant crying and attempted cat carrier escapes? Did you know that cleaning your apartment would take approximately twice as long as the period you spent living there? Would you have expected that the mechanics who fixed the air conditioner in your car would leave a tool in it approximately the size of a golf putter? Could you have ever guessed that Iowa would have so many bugs in it? That Nebraska would have so many trucks in it? That no human beings actually live in Wyoming? What a wonderfully horrible adventure you have before you, young man!

36 comments:

Marc said...

Well, three titles from the 90s that I enjoyed a lot were:

1) Sandman Mystery Theatre (which, despite being published by Vertigo, was essentially a pulp superhero book). Just read the entire 70 issue series last year and it holds up very well. Great Guy Davis art, too.

2) Chase (featured some great, early JH Williams art)

3) John Byrne's Next Men - haven't read these in a long time, but remember really liking the series.

Chris said...

Never read it myself, but I've heard that Christopher Priest's Black Panther run is pretty good.

Johnny B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny B said...

Second the Chase recommendation.

Also:
Major Bummer

Young Heroes in Love

Len Kaminski and Shawn Martinbrough's Creeper

Chronos

Kelley Jones and Doug Moench's Batman run was often enjoyable...

I think you're right- most of the best books weren't the rank and file superhero comics, obviously, although I'll admit to enjoying the Legion books of that decade as light reading of a sort. By the 90's I had pretty much stopped buying Marvel comics entirely except for the non-super Hellstorm and Druid, and very few DC super-books. Image? Nah, not until Ellis started playing around although I'll cop to picking up the odd issue of Gen13. I was pretty much even then a Fantagraphics and Vertigo guy, it seems.

Another short-lived but worthwhile 90's comic was Gemini Blood, from DC's Helix line. Also in a mostly sci-fi vein was DC's Hammerlocke, which came out in the early 90s and sported early Chris Sprouse art. I keep thinking someday I'll get back to doing an overview of that series...

Dick Hyacinth said...

I thought about Chase, but I was (incorrectly) thinking it was from earlier this decade. JH Williams art is a strong inducement. What exactly was that series about, anyway?

Black Panther is exactly the sort of thing that belongs on this list. I had checked out a volume of the former from the library a couple of times before I moved, but never got around to reading it. Not a huge Christopher Priest fan, but I haven't really read that much.

SMT--I didn't think of that. I guess it's sort of like Morrison's Animal Man, in that you want to dismiss it as a superhero comic, but there's no sound basis for doing so. I've never read it. I have read Animal Man, though, and it's far better than anything I mentioned in the original post.

Sandy said...

Here are some more suggestions:
1) Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.'s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
2) Matt Wagner's Grendel/Batman
3) Valiant (before Shooter left). Seriously. I loved this stuff when I read it, and I think a lot of it still holds up.

I also enjoyed Chris Bachalo's Generation X, but I haven't read it since it came out, and I'm not sure how it stacks up now.

And many people would probably suggest that Peter David's first X-Factor run and some of the stuff Claremont did in the early 90s with the X-Men should be considered good.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Alan Moore's Supreme, the first "meta" retro super-hero comic in my book. You know, the type of story that Matt Fraction enjoys writing so much these days.

I also liked Untold Tales of Spider-Man by Pat Oliffe and ... um .. Busiek.

I second Johnny B's recommendation for Chase, Young Heroes In Love, Major Bummer and Chronos.

Oh ... and Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness' Deadpool and Cable by Joe Casey and Ladronn (a dry run for Godland, in many ways).

And I really don't like Kingdom Come, but do have warm feelings for Golden Age. In some ways, I like it better than The New Frontier.

Tom Spurgeon said...

What about the various Steve Rude mini-series from the decade?

Jog said...

Peter Milligan's & Duncan Fegredo's Enigma would rank pretty high with me, although that's getting kinda far from orthodox superheroes...

Dick Hyacinth said...

Wow, lots of suggestions. In no particular order:

1. Yeah, I forgot about Supreme. Art was kind of spotty (literally, in the case of the coloring), but I thought it was a lot of fun.

2. I've always thought all those oddball DC series from the 90s (Major Bummer, etc.) have some kind of publishing history relevance that might not have been fully explored. Kind of like the early Jemas/Quesada days, only I'm not sure that there was any kind of coherent trend at work. Wasn't there some kind of monster superhero book around this time? I was going into comics stores pretty regularly from '97 to '99, but I don't remember seeing any of these books.

3. I loved Valiant back in the day, but I would consider that sort of a fan thing rather than a "these things really held up well" kind of thing. I should re-read Unity; I was really blown away by it when I was 15 or 16 years old.

4. I don't actually like New Frontier that much either. I'm not as big a Darwyn Cooke fan as most comics bloggers seem to be, but I appreciate his work on Solo and The Spirit.

5. Which Steve Rude miniseries? The only one that's coming to mind is the World's Finest prestige format thing.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Huh, I'm going to have to reread Kingdom Come one of these days. I haven't read it in years, but I absolutely loved it when it first came out (I was a teenager), and it still seemed pretty good the last time I read it. But nowadays it seems to have a pretty poor reputation; is it just due to the backlash against Alex Ross? Is it the nostalgia that people have become tired of? I'll have to try it again and see what I think these days.

Re: Morrison's JLA - I still think it's a damn good run, but again, I haven't read it in a few years. If Porter's art is a turnoff, you're probably not going to like it, because I don't think he got any better over the course of the run. Still, the stories are pretty awesome, including the ones you mentioned, along with DC One Million, an interesting JSA crossover (or guest-star; it all took place in the main JLA title) and the incredible finale. But maybe I need to read it again and see how well it holds up.

I was going to mention Untold Tales of Spider-Man, but I don't know if it's really all that good. I used to own the whole run, but I sold it on Ebay a while back (aside from the annual that Mike Allred illustrated; I held on to that one. Joe Sinnott on inks!). Wasn't its main purpose to give readers a Spider-Man book starring Peter Parker during the Ben Reilly years?

Re: Chase - I never read the series, but I believe it was about a non-powered woman working for the DEO, which was some sort of superhero-policing government agency.

Re: Generation X - I used to dig that book, but revisiting it a few years ago showed that the writing was pretty poor. Good art though, when Chris Bachalo was drawing it. I still have most of the issues, because I dig Bachalo so much; I wouldn't really recommend it unless you really like his art.

Kelson said...

Funny timing. It turns out that the same day you asked your question, I posted a Salute to 90s comics listing some of the high points of the decade.

Anonymous said...

Excalibur by Alan Davis (#41-67)

Johnny B said...

Wasn't there some kind of monster superhero book around this time?

Yes- it was called Scare Tactics, about a rock band made up of monster archetypes. That's one I didn't get all that curious about.

Wikipedia has a pretty good description of Chase, one of my favorite series not only of the 90's but for EVAR.

Another very good series of the 90's was Steven Grant and J.P. Leon's X-Files flavored take on the Challengers of the Unknown...

Johnny B said...

Oh, and I seem to recall a certain publisher of graphic novels whose name is part of his company's name, and whose initials are LY, has spoken of a possible collection of Major Bummer coming from his imprint...but I haven't heard anything along those lines in a long time so it may have just been rumor.

Anonymous said...

1963!!!!!

BRATPACK!!!!

MAXIMORTAL!!!!

Dick Hyacinth said...

Is that you, Rick Veitch?

I had mixed feelings about Bratpack, but the ending is the sort of thing that kind of sticks in your head, moving the comic from superhero parody to something more like an EC horror comic. I'll re-read it one of these days.

1963 is, in retrospect, the obvious answer. I don't know if that was the best series out of all the ones mentioned here, but it's probably my favorite.

Alex Ross' art is certainly a big part of why I don't like Kingdom Come, but I guess I have the same problems with it as I do with New Frontier or The Golden Age. Whenever I read one of these kind of comics, you always know that corporate stewardship of intellectual properties is going to provide some kind of safety net. Civil War, for all its myriad faults, was probably the closest I saw to a comic which tried to circumvent this kind of thing. That doesn't mean that it's actually any good, mind you.

Anonymous said...

I liked Gerber's Foolkiller but I don't know if that counts as a superhero comic or not.

cassidy2099 said...

I second the Deadpool recommendation. But let's not forget the awesomeness of Hitman and Preacher.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I think we're really pushing the limits of conventional definitions of "superhero" if we include Preacher. Very entertaining series, though.

MarkAndrew said...

Lessee... What do I absolutely love.

Icon 1-12. (I haven't read anythign after that.) The J.M. Dematties and Sal Buscema Spider-man.

Icon, especially, has some of my favorite character work in superhero comics.

Anonymous said...

TWILIGHT by Chaykin + García López

http://www.comics.org/covers.lasso?SeriesID=4006

Johnny B said...

GOOD call, anonymous. I started to mention Ironwolf: Fires of the Revolution, but it's not really a superhero book...

Abhay said...

A bunch of folks talked about the 90's recently here:

http://imagecomics.com/messageboard/viewtopic.php?t=39521

Rich said...

Chase.

Resurrection Man.

Young Heroes in Love.

Chronos.

Oddly, I can't think of any Marvels from the top of my head.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Oh yeah ... how could I forget 1963? That may be my favorite from the decade as well ...

escapegoat said...

How could Madman get left out? Great and refreshing stuff.

Steve Rude did several Nexus minis for Dark Horse in the 90's - not sure if you would include those as pure superhero, since it more of a superhero/sci-fi blend, but they were some of his and Baron's best work on the series. He did a bunch of mini-series for Marvel, but those started in 1999, and the only one that could qualify for this list was the X-Men Children of the Atom mini-series.

The first 12 issues of The Authority were also really great.

Corey said...

Fabian Nicieza & Mark Bagley's New Warriors. Darick Robertson's run on that was pretty good too.

Anonymous said...

Hitman.

Augie said...

Can't believe nobody's mentioned it yet: The Savage Dragon.

D. Peace said...

Busiek has always seemed bland to me, especially in contrast to the four-color madness that Grant Morrison unleashed (and continues to unleash). ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL, and JLA were all published in the 90's. There's just no topping that.

I believe Alan Moore's ABC imprint began in the late 90's. If you're willing to count them as "superhero" comics, LEAGUE and PROMETHEA are high points of that decade. To be honest, I enjoyed Moore's run on WILDCATS as well.

Sandy said...

I suggest the terrific 90's mini-series, The Sentry: Power of One Million Exploding Guns.

What? Never heard of it? That's strange....

wayne-ree said...

I'd second Priest's run on Black Panther. Deadpool, starting from the Kelly/McGuiness issues, all the way to the end of that series was almost always a fun read.

But, dearest to my heart: Todd Dezago and the late, GREAT Mike Wieringo on The Sensational Spider-Man. One of, if not, THE best Spider-Man runs of the 90s.

Anonymous said...

Transmetropolitan was another great that people are forgetting to mention.

Dick Hyacinth said...

How exactly was Transmetropolitan a superhero comic?

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