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!