That’s So ’90s Week: Comics in the 1990s

38All right, it’s time to post again and stop hanging out at the beach and such. It’s 2019, oh man oh man, and that means 1999 was 20 years ago, which means the ‘90s ended 20 years ago, which means my 20s ended 20 years ago and I am officially old. 

I entered the 1990s as a gawky high school senior and ended them as a married newspaper editor. In between, we had grunge, Friends and Bill Clinton. I wore a suede vest for an awful lot of the decade and I’m not ashamed.

For That’s So ‘90s Week, I’m taking a look back at some of the pop culture epherma of the ‘90s that sticks with this ageing Gen-Xer. Let’s start with an epic history of comic books in the 1990s. 

517kxd1gnal._sx315_bo1,204,203,200_I’ve been collecting comics for (gulp) nearly 40 years now, but the 1990s was the closest I ever came to abandoning my monthly fix. Marvel and DC’s mainstream comics hit their gaudy nadir, and I was dead broke a lot of the time anyway. But there was an awful lot of brilliance to be found in the spirit of independent comics – Hate, Eightball, Cerebus, Yummy Fur, Naughty Bits, Dirty Plotte, DC/Vertigo’s Sandman – and that kept me going. 

Comics in the 1990s were bloody weird, and the latest in the great American Comic Book Chronicles series takes a deep dive into the excess, the creativity and the weirdness of the decade. Reading Jason Sacks and Keith Dallas’ American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s brings the kaleidoscope of the decade back to life. This handsome tome is packed with art (the good, the bad and the Liefeld) and more boom-and-bust stories than a Trump business tell-all. 

Companies bloomed and burnt like crazy in the 1990s, as the speculator boom took hold and spectacularly imploded. How big was the boom? In 1991, X-Men #1 sold over EIGHT MILLION copies. These days, a comic is lucky if it sells over 80,000 copies. 

220px-superman75Throughout ACBC, we see the twin poles of creative independence and corporate greed battle, greed usually winning. Marvel sells 8 million comics and goes bankrupt a few years later. DC kills Superman, breaks Batman’s back, makes Green Lantern a mass murderer, chops off Aquaman’s hand (spoiler: they all get better). Image Comics is formed in 1992, and despite beginning with some pretty awful clenched-teeth superheroic angst, it’s still here in 2019 and publishing a diverse and intelligent line of books. Former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, on the other hand, keeps popping up throughout the book starting up new companies that quickly fade away. There’s an awful lot of amusing stories about how big Rob Liefeld’s head got. 

img_4792I’ve always considered myself a pretty adequate comics history nerd, but there were entire publishing companies unearthed in this book I’d never heard of. Sacks and Dallas keep the constant flow of information moving in an entertaining way, and there’s tons of juicy comics-biz gossip peppered throughout.

I’m still not a fan of a lot of what happened in the 1990s – I’d happily never see another chromium-foil comic cover again – but this book is a grand trip back in time, and does a great job of showing how some of the chaos of the 1990s led up directly to the era when Marvel and DC rule Hollywood and a big chunk of the entertainment world. It also reminded there was a heck of a lot more to the 1990s than Spawn and the Punisher and that a lot of the creativity sparked then remains among the comics medium’s high points. 

Arrow: Still on target after all these years

After seven seasons, most TV shows start to run out of steam. And we’re in a big superhero TV show glut right now – if you’d told young me that one day there would be too many comic book-based programs out there for me to keep up with, I’d have laughed. 

But I always make time for Arrow, the show that kicked off TV’s “Berlanti-verse” of DC Comics-based series including The Flash, Black Lightning and Supergirl. It has its ups and downs, but the hero’s journey of Oliver Queen has always been worth watching. And the new Season 7 has one of the more entertainingly outlandish hooks yet. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, is now Prison Inmate 4587. 

I admit to getting a fanboy thrill at the end of Season 6, when Oliver Queen is unmasked as the Green Arrow for all the world to see, and shipped off to prison for breaking anti-vigilante laws. A superhero going to prison isn’t entirely a new idea, but to watch it unfold for the hero we’ve been following for six seasons is new. 

The considerable charisma of the cast helps here. Stephen Amell has developed into one of the better leading men on superhero shows, full of a rangy self-confidence and physicality. In a lot of ways, Arrow is what an ideal Batman TV series in 2018 could be like – even the character himself has often been written off as an archery-obsessed Dark Knight wanna-be. 

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One of the minor flaws of the otherwise swell Marvel Universe movies is they often tend to be about massive world-shaking events, so you never really get a feel for the day-to-day drama of the heroes. The actual Avengers were only the Avengers for about 1 1/2 movies in the MCU before everything fell apart, for instance. A TV series in many ways is better able to follow in the month-in, month-out drama of the periodical comic books that inspired it. 

By the time Arrow has gotten to Season 7, there’s a rich sense of legacy and history to it all that apes the ever-blooming continuity in 50 to 80 years of the comic books. Oliver Queen’s passed through many life stages – spoiled rich kid, the Hood, the Arrow, the Green Arrow, an orphan, the mayor of Star City (!), a father, a prisoner. He’s gone through a whole costume shop’s worth of sidekicks, from Speedy to Black Canary (a couple of them!) to Ragman to Mr Terrific and Wild Dog. In the process, we’ve seen the character mature from a callow youth to a seasoned veteran. 

Arrow is hardly the Citizen Kane of superhero fare, don’t get me wrong. It’s more of a gaudy Saturday-afternoon matinee, with cliffhangers galore, hairy near-escapes and derring-do. The writing can sometimes let the characters down (there’s an awful lot of contrived interpersonal conflict in all these shows, to be honest). Yet I dig it, and love watching Oliver Queen’s journey unfold. Long may his aim be true. 

RIP Stan Lee – 1922-2018

Stan Lee was probably the first writer I remember knowing by name as a kid. Even in the late 1970s, when he wasn’t writing Marvel Comics any more, his name was a talisman on everything they published. “STAN LEE PRESENTS” felt like a stamp of Mighty Marvel authenticity, like a key to a secret clubhouse. 

If Stan was presenting it, it had to be fun, right? 

He was 95, he was in ill health, but still, it’s hard to believe Stan Lee is gone now. He’s been there for my entire reading lifetime. With the death of Steve Ditko earlier this year, it feels like a curtain has been drawn over Marvel Comics’ greatest age.

Marvel_Tales_Vol_2_137My first real deep dive into Stan Lee’s own writing came when Marvel Tales, a reprint mag, began running the original Lee/Steve Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man from the beginning in 1982. I’d never read them before, and while my pre-teen eyes took a while to get used to Ditko’s more primitive-feeling artwork, I was sucked in to the stories as Spider-Man fought Dr. Doom! Met the Lizard! Battled Doctor Octopus and the Living Brain! Reading these marvellous tales, I realised what all the fuss about “Stan Lee Presents” was really about. 

There’ll be a lot of hot takes about Stan’s legacy in coming days, some of which will probably write him off as an overrated wordsmith. But as much as I love Jack Kirby and Ditko, all you have to do is consider their later work without Stan’s touch added – Kirby, fantastic and imaginative yet rarely tethered to earth, or Ditko, surreal and stark yet emotionally ice cold. Combined together, Lee and his collaborators during Marvel’s golden age of the 1960s launched entire cosmologies and a million dreams. 

IMG_4095If you want to really examine the seismic effect Stan Lee had on comic book storytelling, read one of DC Comics’ musty early Justice League of America issues from around the same time the Fantastic Four launched. While they’re charming enough, the stiff, military-precise characters are interchangeable and conflict is nonexistent. They fight crime with a smile and brisk efficiency. 

Compare that to the Fantastic Four, who in their very first issue are transformed by cosmic rays into superheroes – and immediately start brawling and beating the heck out of each other. They felt alive, in a way that the smiling Justice League didn’t quite seem to be in those days.IMG_4094

Each of the Marvel heroes was flawed in some crucial way – Spider-Man, hobbled by guilt; Hulk, a man turned monster; Iron Man, literally heart-broken thanks to an injury; Captain America, trapped out of time; the mutant X-Men, hunted by humanity.

Lee had already spent decades working in comics before the great creative flowering of 1961 led to the Fantastic Four and so many others. He often said he felt this was his last chance in comics, and so he wrote the stories he wanted to see. He loosened up something crucial in comics storytelling that was rapidly aped by everyone else in the industry. 

He was also a huckster, a pitchman PT Barnum would be proud of, a grinning mustached ambassador for comics right till the end, appearing in cheeseball cameos in multimillion-dollar movies forged out of his works. That alchemy propelled Marvel to dominate the comics world starting in the 1970s and really, right until this day – Lee sold himself shamelessly, sometimes embarrassingly, and his final days were marked by an unpleasant feeling that he was being sorely taken advantage of. 

But a salesman can still be an artist. Thanks Stan, for everything. 

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