Top Five: 1990s Marvel Comics

1990s Marvel Comics

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.

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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!

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 1

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four V1

Continuing my Fantastic Four Fridays, I’ve decided to (try to!) go back and actually read the entire Fantastic Four run (of volume 1, anyway) from the beginning. I have no idea if I’ll actually complete this—I know slogging through the 100s will be tough—or how long it’ll take, even if I do finish it! But let’s give it a shot. I’ll be reading this in the Masterworks format, so let’s start at the beginning…

What is it? Fantastic Four Masterworks Volume 1
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #1-10 (1961-1962)

The characters are fully formed right from the start

Sure, they’re fairly thin in the first couple issues; Johnny’s the hothead, the Thing is angry, Reed is steady, Sue is the mom, etc. But they’re consistent throughout these 10 issues. Reed and Johnny would be immediately recognizable today. Sue has obviously evolved significantly as society has become more egalitarian; in these early issues, she’s often little more than a hostage. But I’d say it’s The Thing that is the most different; for one thing, no one calls him Ben when he’s in his orange, rocky form; the rest of the team refers to each other by their first names regularly, but Ben is only ever The Thing. Which I found so… odd? Cold? Dehumanizing? And he’s just grumpy all the time—understandably so, given his situation, but he is definitely not the lovable Ben Grimm he would grow into. And yet, even so, the introduction of Alicia Masters in issue #8 sets him immediately apart from the rest of the team, as he’s actually the first team member to have some semblance of life outside the team.

The complexity of Alicia Masters is incredibly impressive

Alicia is by far the most unusual and unique recurring character introduced here. The complex relationship with her stepfather, the Puppet Master, is unusual for the time, as is, obviously her relationship with The Thing. And the fact that she’s blind is one of those strokes of pure brilliance; you’re left to wonder if she only loves the Thing because she’s blind and can’t see his hideous face, or if she loves him because her blindness allows her to see through his exterior to the person inside. (Also, make note of her “Is it you… you’re different…” comment when The Thing turns back into Ben Grimm… followed by her “Oh, it is you, the same wonderful man” as soon as he turns back into The Thing. John Byrne would pick up on this moment, tragically, years later.) And the relationship blossoms immediately; she first appears in issue #8, and then Ben is seen spending time with her in each of the next two issues.

These issues are relatively crude by the standards Stan and Jack would go on to set

That’s not to say there aren’t standout issues and brilliant ideas to be found. I mentioned Alicia’s appearance in issue #8. Returning Namor, the Sub-Mariner to prominence in issue #4 was another stroke of genius; notable here were both his “villain but not really” status, as well as the romantic was the dynamic introduced between him and Sue, and Reed as well. In issue #6 we get the first “super-villain team up” as Dr. Doom and Namor launch the Baxter Building into space; here, we get an even better since of who Namor really is when he realizes Doom is a true villain. In issue #2, shapeshifting alien Skrulls were petty cool on their own, but this issue stands out by showing us the first “world hates and fears superheroes” story, a staple that Stan and Jack would go back to again and again (Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men). And how about the Fantastic Four living in New York City, rather than a made-up locale, as established in issue #3? And going broke in issue #9? All brilliant ideas. But all of that said: There’s a sort of goofiness in some of the plots (Blackbeard?) and Kirby’s art is nowhere near as refined as it would soon become.

Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner obviously made quite an impression

Namor appears in issue 4; Dr. Doom first appears in issue #5. They team up in issue #6. Namor returns in issue #9, and Doom returns in issue #10. In other words, they’re the antagonists in half of these issues! Stan and Jack may have been winging it, but they clearly knew when something they created struck a nerve. It’s also interesting to note just how steeped these early issues are in the monster-comic era; the FF fight giant monsters in issue 1, 3, 4 and 9, and monstrous aliens in issue 2 and 7.

Dr. Doom’s first appearance is a bit… underwhelming

There are hints of the Dr. Doom we’d come to fear and respect in his debut issue: his college connection with Reed, his robot double, his ostentatious castle, his obsession with black magic and desire for the mystical gems of Merlin (found, oddly, in Blackbeard’s treasure chest). (I’m also a big fan of his tiger enforcer/sidekick!) But you gotta wonder: he’s smart enough to develop a working time machine and this is best plan he can come up with? I dunno man. And Reed, Ben and Johnny’s trip to the past is completely hokey, as is Reed’s “we’ll just bring back an empty chest!” trick. (Next issue, his plan to launch the Baxter Building into space is much more Doom-like.) I will give this issue credit for this, though; the Thing wants to stay behind in the past because he’s feared and respected in his make-believe role as Blackbeard. He eventually realizes his error, but note how, just three issues later, Stan and Jack give him a reason to alter his viewpoint: Alicia.

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I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read these comics in 1961. There are a ton of bold new ideas here, and refinements of older concepts, that had never been seen before. And for the most part they still hold up as fun, entertaining comics today!