A few weeks back on one of the comic book-related sites I visit, some of the guys were discussing their favourite 1990s Marvel comics. As you may know, the 1990s were not exactly a high point for quality comics; stylized art, big guns, big shoulders and big boobs were what seemed to sell, and variant covers and special bagged issues with trading cards and other gimmicks ruled the stands. Still, I read a lot of comics, so some of them must’ve been OK… right?
I think so. Here are five 1990s Marvel comics I enjoyed from 1991-1998 when Marvel, in my mind, righted its ship. (Note—I’m only considering ongoing titles, rather than mini-series like Marvels).
Namor, the Sub-Mariner by John Byrne (1990-1992)
This series didn’t look like much when it came out. Sub-Mariner, in his own comic? Even with John Byrne at the helm, didn’t seem like Namor was really a character that could carry his own book. And maybe he couldn’t, really, since Byrne filled it with guest stars! But either way, this was and is an excellent read, and some of Byrne’s best art in the 1990s. Byrne brought a lot to the character – while he’s often known for his “back to the basics” approach, it seemed to me that here, he was firmly taking Namor into the 1990s (they even declared it on the cover!), in bringing him out of the water, starting up a business, curing his “rages,” and having him fight for environmental causes.
The New Warriors by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1990-1992)
Man, did I love these stories! They’re pretty dated now—they’re very 1990s, and the dialogue is… well, it’s tough to read sometimes. But the 25 issues by Nicieza and Bagley are super-fun, they did a solid job capturing what it must be like to be a late teen with super-powers, and they dealt with some very real consequences too; the story where Marvel Boy loses control of his powers and mortally injures his abusive father is—while very comic-booky—still very affecting.
Fantastic Four by Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan (1991-1996)
I’ll admit I haven’t re-read these issues since they came out. So I have no idea if they hold up. But, I was not a fan of Walt Simonson’s run on the title (that preceded the DeFalco-Ryan run) or the end of Steve Englehart’s run (that preceded Simonson) so DeFalco’s back to the basics approach, alongside Ryan’s solid, workmanlike illustration, was just what I needed. (Also, their first issue featured the aforementioned New Warriors. So that was a good start!) Sure, they did some of the most 1990s things ever—they had the Human Torch lose his mind, had Wolverine slice up the Thing’s face, put Sue in a skimpy costume and “killed” Reed—but I remember eagerly awaiting each next issue to see what was going to happen!
Avengers by Bob Harras and Steve Epting (1991-1994)
Ah, the forgotten era of Avengers! This run is, again, pretty 1990s—it’s got fancy foil covers, the Avengers started wearing jackets with straps and pockets all over them—but it’s entertaining and enjoyable. The highlight is the “Gatherers” story, that runs for about 2.5 years; it actually starts right before the most 1990s Avengers crossover ever, Galactic Storm. In Avengers #343-344, the Swordsman seemingly comes back from the dead, clamouring for revenge. But all is not as it seems; as the story unfolds (on and off) over the next 30 issues of Avengers, we learn Swordsman’s from an alternate dimension, where the Avengers—specifically, Sersi—destroyed the world. And he’s got friends too – alternate dimension versions of various Avengers – and they’re led by the mysterious Proctor. Maybe this doesn’t quite reach the pantheon of great Avengers stories, but it’s well worth a read and I look forward to it finally being collected, one day!
Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1997-2001)
This series… I mean, it’s been 20 years and I still can’t believe that they managed to keep the ending of the first issue a secret! Everyone knows the gig by now, about how the newest super-hero team, The Thunderbolts, turned out to be villains in disguise. And about how Marvel eventually took the series away and ran in a different direction—twice. But those first 50 issues, plus Avengers cross-overs and annuals, are excellent. They’re straight-up page turners, and you never know what’s going to happen next. And the characters ring completely true, in how acting the hero changes each of them over time.
A few honorable mentions: Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run; David Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man run (this was hard to leave off the list); and Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which, truthfully, might be the best comic on this list, but was so hard to find in the 1990s thanks to its minuscule print runs, that I didn’t actually read most of it until the omnibus came out a few years ago.
Anywho, that’s 1990s Marvel Comics for you. I didn’t read much DC in those days, so that would be a much shorter list! Pretty much just Ron Marz’ Green Lantern, starring Kyle Rayner, and Grant Morrison’s JLA. Tough times for DC in the 90s!