The ’90s is considered to be the worst period in the history of comics. Publishers like Marvel and DC figured that gritty comics would sell as long as they were gritty, never mind substance or story. The ’90s also saw the rise of the “extreme” art style. Everything was exaggerated. Male superheroes had more testosterone than ever, while female superheroes seemed more sexualized than ever. While the ’90s did manage to produce artists like Jim Lee, it also gave them the ever-polarizing Rob Liefield. Eventually, a group of artists spearheaded by Todd McFarlane broke away from Marvel and DC and created their own company called Image.
The ’90s also gave rise to the comics collectors boom. Suddenly, everyone wanted to collect comics as an investment to pay for their kid’s collage tuition. Comic publishers took notice and began to produce a plethora of gimmick covers and variants. Everything was a major event and a must have. Fans ate it all up.. for a while. Once those people began trying to cash in on their investments and realized that their comics were worth nothing due to their mass productions, sales dropped.
But behind every black cloud lies a silver lining, so here are 16 Comics That Prove The ’90s Didn’t Totally Suck.
16. The Darkness: 1-6 – by Garth Ennis & Marc Silvestri
On paper, The Darkness looks like a typical ’90s book but the thing is that it’s done so well. Released by Top Cow comics in 1996, the comic featured the talents of Garth Ennis and ’90s superstar Marc Silvestri. The Darkness mixes the mafia genre with horror and a tinge of super heroics. Writer Garth Ennis’ ability to write sharp dialogue and violence is on full display. Marc Silvestri stayed on the title for only 18 issues but he drew the hell out of them.
The book’s main character isn’t a nice guy but he’s so damn entertaining you can’t help but root for him sometimes – especially when he kills guys worse than him. Nothing fancy here, just a ’90s comic that knew its audience and delivered the goods.
15. Hellboy – by Mike Mignola & various
Hellboy was the brainchild of artist Mike Mignola. Mignola had been around since the ’80s, working for both Marvel and DC. He made the move to Dark Horse comics and presented them with a creator-owned story about a demon that is part of a team of paranormal investigators in charge of keeping the world safe from all the things that go bump in the night.
Mignola already had a unique art style, but with Hellboy, he refined it further. Hellboy had an exquisite Gothic, Jack Kirby-esque quality that made it stand out from the other stuff on the stands. The comic’s tone didn’t always mirror its dark look. Hellboy had a ton of wit and humor. Sometimes it was absurd, and sometimes it was touching but it was, and still is always a must read.
14. Spectacular Spider-Man – by J.M DeMatteis & Sal Buscema
DeMatteis and Buscema’s short run on Spidey is often overlooked as being just another bad ’90s story, but it’s actually one of the finest. Keep in mind, Spider-Man had a lot of titles going on in the ’90s but this one had the most interesting stories.
Spectacular Spider-Man saw the death of Vermin and a phenomenal exploration of the friendship between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn. DeMatteis really took his time to flesh out his characters, giving them complexity and depth. Fans really got to see what made Peter and Harry tick. We end up learning that their friendship is one that is doomed to fail but it’s always going to be there in some shape or form.
Sal Buscema was an artist who’d been working since the ’70s but had refined his style for Spider-Man. It had a rawness and explosiveness that always enhanced the quality of the script.
13. Superman: Peace On Earth – by Paul Dini & Alex Ross
Paul Dini is one of the most beloved writers to come from Batman: The Animated Series. Alex Ross is going to pop up more than once on this list. His stunning painted art style was a breath of fresh air at that time. Together, these two talented individuals crafted the oversized graphic novel, Superman: Peace On Earth.
In this story, Superman doesn’t fight against Lex Luthor or Darkseid or any other intergalactic threat. No – he takes on a much more grounded problem: world hunger. After witnessing the growing divide between rich and poor, Superman decides to tackle the problem on a global scale.
Dini’s script is lean and on-point. A topic of this delicacy would fall apart in the hands of a lesser writer. Alex Ross’s art is astonishing. Do yourself a favor and pick up the oversized version. His art was so good it won an Eisner.
12. The Maxx – by Sam Kieth & William Messner-Loebs
Image Comics released one of their most adventurous titles with The Maxx. Artist Sam Kieth came up with the whole concept and enlisted the help of writer William Messner-Loebbs for the dialogue. The Maxx is like nothing that came out in the ’90s. It’s like a David Lynch film mixed with Loony Tunes and superheroes. It’s deeply weird.
It’s hard to explain the story because there are so many moments where the reader questions what is real and what isn’t, but here it goes: Maxx is a strange humanoid being that was created by fluke. He’s homeless so he ends up living with his social worker (Julie).
Julie is the key to the whole thing. Due to her trauma from being raped, she creates a world in her mind called the Outback. There, she is the jungle queen, and her protector is Maxx. It’s an addictive read with the right level of weirdness.
11. Weapon X – by Barry Windsor-Smith
Wolverine was considered to be one of the most overexposed characters during the ’90s. It seemed like he was everywhere in the Marvel universe. Despite this, fans received Weapon X as one of the best Wolverine stories of all time. The story shed light on Wolverine/Logan’s mysterious past. No one really knew how Logan became Wolverine. Even he didn’t know how he got his claws. The comic answered all of these questions with grace and respect to what came before.
Barry Windsor-Smith tasked himself with writing, art, and lettering. It’s a massive feat by a massive talent. Marvel retconned Wolverine’s beginnings years later, but a lot of fans try to pretend that never happened and treat Weapon X as the definitive Wolverine origin story. It’s visceral, tragic, cool, and downright scary at times.
10. Batman Adventures – by Kelly Puckett, Ty Templeton, Mike Parobeck & Rick Burchett
Batman Adventures was based on Batman: The Animated Series, so DC’s primary target audience was children, but that didn’t mean the quality of these stories was poor. Batman had a decent go of it during the ’90s, but Batman Adventures was arguably his best title. It was also free from the shackles of continuity, instead focusing on standalone stories.
Kelly Puckett, Ty Templeton, Mike Parobeck, and Rick Burchett received plenty of accolades during their run, and they even won a couple of Eisner awards when the series changed to Batman & Robin Adventures. Even Batman: The Animated Series alumni like Paul Dini and Bruce Timm worked on the series.
The Harley Quinn centered Mad Love was a Batman Adventures special that went on to win an Eisner award for best single issue story in 1994. If you loved the animated series, you’ll find Batman Adventures to be a truly worthy successor.
9. The Spectre – by John Ostrander & Tom Mandrake
The Spectre was never a huge character but his series in the ’90s ran for 63 issues and developed a loyal cult following that continues to this day.
Spectre is one of the most powerful characters in the DC universe. He serves as the wrath of God; his sole mission is to punish evil. It wouldn’t be wise to mess with him because he isn’t very merciful. One of the most shocking and entertaining aspects of the comic was seeing the method in which he would dispatch an evildoer.
Aside from the coolness, the Spectre also had depth and imagination. Writer John Ostrander created side characters that were interesting and that you cared about. Ostrander wasn’t afraid to write about important topics like aids, homophobia, racism, and morality. The comic often dove into philosophical and religious topics without banging you over the head with too much of a slant.
8. The Nocturnals – by Dan Brereton
Fans from the ’90s might remember painter extraordinaire Dan Brereton most from his work on some of Marvel’s trading cards line. He’s always worked on a handful of titles due to his lengthy art process but Nocturnals was a labor of love.
Brereton created, wrote, drew, painted and even lettered most of the series. The comic started off at Malibu and quickly moved to Dark Horse comics. The series starred a ragtag group of monsters/misfits who sought to keep the world safe from evil aliens and other worldly forces. The whole thing is a love letter to superheroes and especially the horror genre. It’s the horror element that separates The Nocturnals from other superhero stories at the time. It’s really like X-Men meets Hellboy meets pulp magazines.
7. Batman: The Long Halloween – by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
Fans of this comic often forget that it came out in 1997. The year-long miniseries launched Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale into superstardom.
The Long Halloween tells the story of an elusive serial killer name Holiday. He murders once a year and his identity is a mystery, leading Batman to team up with the police to catch the killer. Aside from being an engrossing mystery, it’s also an excellent character study of Harvey Dent. Loeb and Sale really dig deep to tell the story of how Harvey becomes Two-Face. Each issues manages to cover something essential about the Batman universe, be it his rogues, or his relationships.
6. Astro City – by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross
For many fans, Astro City was the best series to come from Image. It was a reconstruction/examination of everything that made comics great. It’s the ultimate homage of a bygone era that the ’90s didn’t seem interested in revising.
Superstar writer Kurt Busiek went to Image and paired up with Alex Ross, and together they meticulously created the world of Astro City. Brent Anderson handled the interior artwork for most of the series.
Astro City examines what it’s like to be an average person living in a world of superheroes. This is a unique lens through which to tell the story. It can also touch on the personal struggles of being a superhero. The cast is huge, with the city being more important than any one character. Astro City has won a total of 9 Eisner awards during its publication.
5. Incredible Hulk – by Peter David, Dale Keown & Gary Frank
Peter David’s run on the Hulk lasted 137 issues but his run with Dale Keown and Gary Frank might have been the most remembered. David was the writer who merged Bruce Banner’s mind with the Hulk’s body, giving him an intellect. This allowed the Hulk to construct more articulate sentences, besides than “Hulk smash.” David also tied a thread started by former Hulk writer Bill Mantilo regarding Banner’s abuse as a child.
Dale Keown is seen by many as the definitive Hulk artist. He had the ’90s style, but he did it damn well. Gary Frank took over art duties after Keown and the quality was still strong.
Incredible Hulk was the standard by which many traditional superhero comics strived to achieve. It had drama, action, heroics, depth, humor, and heart. Issue #420 of the series is a great example of how good the comic could get, tackling issues like AIDS and suicide.
4. Batman: Black & White – by various
Batman: Black & White was a four-issue miniseries that united as many of the best writers and artists DC as possible to tell good stories. Names like Neil Gaiman, Bruce Timm, Archie Goodwin, Moebius, Joe Kubert, Brian Bolland, and more, made it an absolute treat for fans. Each issue contained multiple short stories told entirely in black and white, which was perfect for Batman.
Not bound to continuity, these all-star writers relished the opportunity to create unique stories. The original Batman: Black & White only lasted four issues but, it was one of the highest quality miniseries of the ’90s. The Black & White series had three sequels that varied in quality, but the first Black & White is the one most fondly remembered by fans.
3. Marvels – by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
The duo responsible for Astro City made their name on this fantastic miniseries. Marvels was a four-issue miniseries that told the entire history of Marvel comics through the eyes of a photographer named Phil Sheldon. Busiek would later take this format and expand it in Astro City.
Marvels was Alex Ross’s first major comics work, and it put him on the map. His unique painted style gave the book a realistic and throwback look.
The miniseries was a touching homage to the Marvel universe from two creators who truly loved it. Critics and fans loved the story, and Marvels won two Eisner awards, for best miniseries and best multimedia artist. Marvels had sequels, but none of them could completely capture the greatness of the original.
2. Sandman – by Neil Gaiman & various
There’s not much more that can be added to the accolades this comic series has received over the years. Sandman has won three Eisner awards for best ongoing series, while Neil Gaiman won four for best writer. Sandman was Neil Gaiman’s first foray in the world of comics. The first few issues started in late 1989, but the rest of the series was done in the ’90s. It’s a shock that DC even printed a comic that was so against the norm at the time.
Sandman was the literary person’s comic. It started as a mystical revenge story but evolved into one of the most excellent fantasy/horror comics you’ll ever read. It tells the story of Dream (the Sandman) and his quest to regain his lost powers, as faces the choice of accepting certain changes or perishing. Sandman managed to transcend the field and attract non-comic readers.
1. Kingdom Come – by Mark Waid & Alex Ross
This four-issue miniseries made a major impact when it came out: it won an Eisner award for best miniseries. Alex Ross was hot off of his success with Marvels and was eager to try his hand at a project with DC. He enlisted writer Mark Waid to help flesh out a story that remains the ultimate statement against the state of superheroes in the ’90s.
The story takes place a number of years in a possible future. Superman has long retired and the remaining younger heroes are hardly better than the villains they face. The world has spun into chaos and Superman is eventually convinced to return to set things in order again. But the Powers That Ne don’t plan on changing the status quo so easily.
Kingdom Come is an epic deserving of Alex Ross’s beautiful art and the story validates the relevance of the superhero.
What’s your favorite comic from the ’90s? Let us know in the comments!