Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not All Bad: A Defense of 90's Comics

It started when I stumbled upon this list of The 10 Worst 90s Comic Character Revamps on-line and shared it via e-mail with fellow members of the Sunday Comix group, eliciting the following response:
"There is no doubt the 90s were the worst decade for comics ever. Ever. Even worse than the 80s."
That was followed by:
"At least the 80s are funny. The 90s just seem sad."

At that point, having initiated this, I felt it therefore incumbent upon me to  rise to the defense of the comics of the Clinton decade.  Sure, it was the heyday of Liefeld and McFarlane and their various imitators, the era of multiple chromium/3-D/die-cut/holographic/lenticular/trading card cover gimmicks,  a time when a plethora of "new universes"--the Ultraverse, Comics Greatest World, the Kirbyverse, Impact, and many others--sprung up overnight and disappeared just as quickly, the time when it seemed like any new character created had, as if by some unwrittten law, to include the words "blood", "kill" or "death" or some combination of thereof in his name, and the era of the "speculation boom" that at first  caused sales to skyrocket then threatened to destroy the industry.
It was also, however, if you look very closely, an era that produced some pretty good comics, and I set out to make a list of the highlights of the decade that, with a little help from Sunday Comix member Jonathon Riddle, who compiled his own list that included a couple of things I'd overlooked or forgotten, eventually grew to over fifty items.
Some of the highlights of that list follow the jump....

While it seemed that the mainstream publishers were content to wallow in crap that appealed to the lowest common denominator, self-published alternative comics were experiencing something of a Golden Age, thanks to an influx of new titles and talent spurred on by the cross country public relations campaign spearheaded by Cerebus creator Dave Sim.

Out of this mini-boom in self publishing arose some of the finest comics  of this or any other decade, including Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and Jeff Smith's Bone.  Also notable are a few self-published comics that started out strong, but disappeared rather quickly, leaving a handful of really good issues before fading into vague memories.  Among these are Martin Wagner's Hepcats, and Marcus Lusk'sTales From the Bog.
The decade also produced one or two undisputed masterpieces that were not just great comics but actually served to challenge even long time comics fans perceptions of what the medium was and what it could do.  Here I'm thinking primarily of Scott McCloud's groundbreaking work of comics non-fiction, Understanding Comics, which used the comics medium itself to talk about the nature and potential of that medium, and Jay Hosler's beautiful and brilliant Clan Apis, which deftly illuminated the power of comics to both entertain and educate.
At this point, I should like to point out the contributions of the city I have called home for the past two decades, Columbus, Ohio, to the comics of the era.  I've already mentioned a couple of them. Both Jeff Smith and Jay Hosler called this burg home while creating the works cited above.  A list of other creators emerging from the Central Ohio region during this period and going on to comics stardom would have to include Paul Pope (THB), Paul Hornschemeir (Sequential), and Sean McKeever (The Waiting Place).
Columbus is also home to a whole slew of less well known creators who, during the 90s, did outstanding work in the field of small press publishing, or, as it is more commonly referred to these days, "mini-comics." Among these, and, I'm proud to say, among my closest friends, are Michael Neno and Max Ink.
Ink's work with writer Nik Dirga on the widely acclaimed Ameoba Adventures is cited by almost as many mini-comics artist as the reason they entered the field as is Matt Feazell, who, of course, also churned out a lot of great comics during the decade under discussion. Among those citing Ameoba as an influence was Baltimore based artist Terry Flippo, whose story of a young boy and his giant alien robot pal, Axel and Alex, must be counted as one of the best mini-comics of the 90s.
Another notable mini-comic of the time is Holey Cruellers, written by Troy Hickman and drawn by Jerry Smith.  Cruellers centers around a chain of donut shops patronized primarily by super heroes and villains.  The series, much like Kurt Busiek's Astro City, another standout comic of the 90s (which I believe Cruellers pre-dates), concentrates on tales of costumed characters as believable human beings with believable inner lives rather than the larger than life cosmic spectacles that are the stock in trade of the super-hero genre. The series would later be redrawn by a variety of mainstream super-hero artists, including Dan Jurgens, and published by the Top Cow arm of Image Comics under the new name Common Grounds in 2004.
Other Ohio cities besides Columbus harbor comics talent who produced excellent work during this time. Cincinnati resident J. Kevin Carrier produced, and continues to do so to this day, the mini-comics anthology Fantasy Theater, home to numerous characters from the JKC "universe", such as futuristic sword and sorcery babe Glorianna, and Silver Age inspired mother and daughter super-hero team Lady Spectra and Sparky.
And then there's Cleveland, from whence emerged the "new Stan Lee", the man who is currently the major creative force that drives the events of the Marvel Comics universe.  I speak of none other than Brian Michael Bendis, who, before he "sold out", wrote and drew a number of noirish crime comics, among them Torso, the story of what became of famed gangbuster Elliot Ness after busting Capone, and his efforts, as Clevelands Director of Public Safety, to catch one of the 20th century's first known serial killers.
You cannot, of course, talk about comics and Cleveland without name dropping autobiographical comics pioneer Harvey Pekar, who brought his groundbreaking American Splendor to Dark Horse Comics during the nineties, where he produced a series of specials and mini-series including 1994's A Step Out of the Nest, depicting Pekar's return, after many years, to David Letterman's talk show following his battle with cancer, which is depicted in that same year's graphic novel Our Cancer Year.
I've rambled on quite a bit so far and I haven't even gotten to the Marvel and DC highlights of the 90s, and, yes, there were actually some good comics put out by the "big two" back then and I want to tell you all about them, but since that will be quite a big chunk of text in itself, I've decided to break up my case for the comics of the 90s into two (at least) posts.  The next one will cover the mainstream boys and I'll wrap up this one by mentioning a few more notable "independent" comics.
Aside from the already mentioned Lady Spectra, Holey Cruellers, and Astro City, other notable non DC/Marvel takes on the super-hero mythos were John Byrne's Next Men, published by Dark Horse, while Malibu's short-lived Bravura line brought us Howard Chaykin's cynical appraisal of super-heroes in Power and Glory, and Alan Moore infused new life into a Rob Liefeld creation, while at the same time both re-telling and commenting on Mort Weisinger era Superman stories, in Supreme:The Story of the Year.
Speaking of Alan Moore, it was during the 90s that he and artist Eddie Camphell produced their masterpiece From Hell, a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper case that found the roots of the 20th century in 1880's London (and, unfortunately, inspired one of the worst movies I have ever squandered two hours of my life suffering through...but they can't be blamed for that).  Grant Morrison, who I'll speak more of in the second part of this treatise, teamed with artist Paul Grist for the controversial St. Swithin's Day.

Finally, the decade produced some very funny humor comics, including Evan Dorkin's anarchic Milk and Cheese, and Judd Winick's The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, featuring tales of the smartest human being who has ever lived and who happens to be a very foul mouthed ten year old.  Even though you have to have an intimate knowledge of the state of the comics industry in the early part of the 90s to really understand it, Normalman vs. Megaton Man, by Jim Valentino and Don Simpson with a slew of guest artists including Beanworld's Larry Marder, is simply hilarious to those of us who get the jokes. (My favorite line in the comic, and one of my favorite funny lines of all time, is "All Three Stooges shorts are fight scenes, not all fight scenes are Three Stooges shorts.") Don Rosa produced a stunning tribute to  "good duck artist" Carl Barks in the twelve part epic The Life and Times of Scrooge Mc Duck, weaving nearly every hint of the miserly duck's past that Barks had thrown into his stories through the decades into a tale that spans the years from McDuck's childhood in Scotland right up to the point where Donald Duck and his nephews first meet the then reclusive billionaire  in Barks' 1947 tale "Christmas On Bear Mountain."
I'm going to give my fingers a rest after all this typing, and return in a day or two with the rest of the best of the 90s.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Ray! It's nice to be included in such fine company. :)

  2. Very kind to be remembered Ray, thanks for the nice words to Max and I!

  3. Thanks to both of you, Kevin and Nik, for commenting, for the comics you produced that I mentioned above, and, most especially, for slogging through the long-winded thing.

  4. What a nice way to remember the good times of the 90's, with list of good comics & great creators! Way to go, Ray!

  5. Until now my understanding was that mini-comics referred to a specific format--4½×5½ inches, i.e. a letter-sized page folded into eight pages--and not to the smaller print run. I guess it could be both.

    In a way it’s no surprise that the ’90s saw an increase in alternative/independent comics; the ’90s was the decade obsessed with being alternative and indie. Gains made by self-publishers and small publishers are healthy for the medium, but in contributing to a decade aesthetically, alternative comix are hampered by the lack of production values such as professional lettering. (Bad lettering completely ruins a comic for me and makes me unable to take it seriously.) So it’s a good thing that you’re also planning to look at the mainstream titles from the ’90s.

    I hated the ’90s at the time because they were so not the ’80s, a decade I was really enjoying when suddenly it ended. In comics, I particularly hated what seemed like the Image-ification of the entire art form. Looking back now, I realize that there were non-Liefeld-y comics published in the ’90s, and that all my favourite artists continued to get work, but it seemed as if the default style for the whole industry had gone from being faux-Kirby or faux-Byrne to faux-Liefeld. Certainly all the lesser artists, the non-fan-favourites, and the hacks started drawing ugly anatomy and pointless crosshatching.

    However, I now own several Image comics--which conveniently for me are abundant in the 25-cent and dollar boxes, now that the speculation boom is over--and a lot of them are actually not bad. Jim Lee, a guy I incorrectly lumped in with the Liefeld style at the time, did pretty competent art in /WildC.A.T.s/. Silvestri’s /CyberForce/ was not bad either. Whilce Portacio is a very adequate artisan on /Wetworks/. I even get a kick out of /Bloodstrike/ now, even though it *is* in the Liefeld style. Plus there were comics that were not at all in the Image style: /Deathblow/ with Tim Sale, /Wildstar/ by Jerry Ordway, /Trencher/ by Keith Giffen...15 to 20 years passing really helps to smooth over the stress I felt at the ubiquity of the Image image.

  6. A very nice column, Ray! I second all your picks and recommendations. Good job!

  7. There was indeed a lot of good independent and small press work created in the '90s, Ray (a lot of it generated in Ohio). I still believe, however, that the '90s were the worst decade for comics as a whole.

    Does Malibu count as an independent comic? If so, I vote Steve Gerber's underrated Sludge series as one of the most enjoyable titles of the '90s - intelligent, suspenseful and funny, as all of Gerber's work was.

  8. not all comic from this age are bad, some histories are interesting and incredible, in 90's maybe not all the heroes are a tall, strong men with hundreds of weapon or super power, but definitely all was heroes.