It’s a known fact that comic books in the 1990’s were celebrated more for the artists drawing them, than any groundbreaking storytelling within. Though it was an era where a foil-embossed or hologram sticker cover could sell millions of copies (see my article here) it’s not that the publishers were hiding bad writing or lack of ideas with flashy gimmicks, these companies were just trying to get that extra cash while the kids were buying into the hype.
So it raises the question, were there decent comic book stories being told in 90’s comics? To answer that query, I’ve put together a list of what I consider the 5 best comic book events of the 90’s that have endured beyond the decade where Urkel reigned supreme and fanny packs were all the rage. Some were legendary, others infamous, but all deserve to be read.
The Infinity Gauntlet
Imagine yourself 10 years ago and somebody casually mentioning The Infinity Guantlet in conversation. Would you have any point of reference for this now iconic piece of super hero cinema hardware? For the majority of the world population, probably not. But for geeky kids of the 90’s this was the macguffin that many Marvel crossover tales focused on.
Thanos had been wreaking havoc in the cosmic end of the Marvel universe for years by the time this multi-issue series hit the shelves in 1991 with art by George Perez (eventually Ron Lim) and writer, Jim Starlin, but he was never so formidable as the moment he finally collected all the mythic Infinity Stones and suddenly had the ability to warp reality itself. But his growth in menace and power had nothing to do with a desire to conquer, but rather to win the affections of his “dream girl”.
You see Thanos worships Death, like literally the embodiment of Death as a robed, female figure. This part of the Mad Titan’s character was removed in the Marvel Studios film adaptation, but in the comic book version of the story the whole reason Thanos decided to wipe out half of all sentient life in the universe was just to get a girl to like him. The heroes of the Marvel universe had fought intergalactic threats like the Skrulls and even the world-eating Galactus in their own books before, but never had they needed to band together against this much power from a being who even wasn’t focused on Earth.
The series led to follow-up crossovers like Infinity War the following year, then The Infinity Crusade in 1993, as well as the ongoing title Warlock and The Infinity Watch. Of course the lasting legacy of the story is in theaters as the 2 part Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame films had the highest grossing box office in history.
The Spider-Clone Saga
Back in the 70’s a costumed villain known as the Jackal, who was really a science professor named Miles Warren managed to create a clone of the web-slinger in The Amazing Spider-Man #149. Our web-headed hero battled his genetic twin, then made a truce, but the carbon copy was tragically killed by a bomb that also ended the life of his villainous creator. Tossing the body of his Spider-Twin into a nearby incinerator smokestack, the real Peter Parker thought that was the end of story.
But in 1994 a year long storyline began with issue #117 of Web of Spider-Man wherein Peter Parker came face to face with himself. Yes, the Spider-Clone wasn’t killed after all, he had been wandering the world for years calling himself Ben Reilly and had taken on the heroic hoodie-wearing persona of the Scarlet Spider. Soon more clones showed up in the form of the villainous Spidercide and the brooding Kane. Even more shocking, genetic testing determined that the Peter Parker we had been following in the comics for 20 years was actually the clone all this time. This revelation gave “Peter” the excuse he needed to finally leave the dangerous life of Spider-Man behind and start a family with Mary Jane.
Thus began the rise of The Sensational Spider-Man aka Ben Reilly, who ditched the hoodie, bleached his hair and got an all-new costume designed by legendary artist, Dan Jurgens. There was even an issue 0 with a lenticular cover and issue number 1 had a variant with a cassette tape featuring The Ramones singing the Spider-Man theme from the album Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits. “Spider-Ben’s” first storyline involved a revamped Mysterio stealing a page from the Jim Carrey Riddler in Batman Forever and hypnotizing the citizens of New York City with his new cable TV network box.
While many people criticize the convoluted “Maximum Clonage” storyline that capped off the Ben Reilly years and the bizarre method by which Peter Parker re-claimed the mantle of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (spoiler, Ben Reilly was actually the clone and he melted), this storyline is what got me back into buying the web-head’s comics on a monthly basis.
Marvel certainly got greedy in stretching out the Clone Saga for an entire year’s worth of comics, but the initial concept of reaching back into this loose thread from the character’s history was solid. For me it was as exciting a prospect as Spider-Man getting the black symbiote costume, it felt like a new era to jump on board for. But just as Ben Reilly melted away, so did my affinity for the Spider-Books.
Death of Superman/Reign of the Supermen
Characters die and return all the time in comic books, after all they’re basically soap opera with brightly colored spandex. But never was the concept met with more pop culture acclaim and hullabaloo than The Death of Superman. I’m sure you remember the reports on newscasts worldwide as disinterested reporters feigned interest in the demise of a cartoon character in a red cape.
In reality the coverage was fluke based on a slow news cycle and yet it led to thousands of people who had never set foot in a comic book store arriving with case in hand to buy the special black polybagged edition of Superman #75 with an funeral armband inserted. But the story didn’t end with the deadly double knockout that Superman and Doomsday delivered to each other.
Next up was the Funeral For A Friend storyline, where the big blue boy scout’s fellow super heroes mourned his loss and discussed how they would step up to fill the void left by Earth’s protector. Soon 4 new faces showed up in Metropolis to vie for the title of Superman.
The Reign of the Supermen storyline was one of my favorite comic book events as a kid. Superman’s death was shocking, but a quartet of new Supermen duking it out to prove they were the real deal was awesome! John Henry Irons forged himself a suit of armor to become a literal Man of Steel, while a teenage clone in a leather jacket rejected the Superboy moniker. A mysterious being in a visor who looked the part, but opted for killing evildoers claimed to be the Last Son of Krypton and yet somehow Cyborg Superman, despite his metal facial hardware seem liked the front runner for being the one, true Man of Tomorrow reborn.
Ultimately one was killed, the cyborg turned out to be an evil imposter and the remaining Supermen teamed up with a resurrected, mulleted Kal-El aka the real Superman to put an end to his schemes. But probably the biggest effect of this story that ran from 1992 to 1993, was the fact that Superman kept his long haired look for years after the fact. Even adopting a pony tail for his Clark Kent alter ego. It was an embarrassing look for the character which endured until he transformed into a blue, energy based hero in 1997. The less said about that idea, the better.
Not to be outdone by Superman’s death and return, 1993 found Batman subjected to his own tragedy in the pages of the Knightfall storyline. This event running through all related Bat-Books found the juiced-up villain Bane releasing every criminally insane inmate from Arkham Asylum, causing the Batman to run himself ragged in attempting to bring down his rogue’s gallery. When Batman finally confronted Bane, his back was broken over the muscly knee of the Venom-enhanced mastermind and the caped crusader was out of commission.
While in recovery, Bruce Wayne selected a mentally unstable member of a warrior cult named Jean-Paul Valley who fought evil as the cloaked avenging angel, Azrael to put on the cape and cowl in his place. Due to mental conditioning by the order of St. Dumas, Jean-Paul was a more brutal Batman, who was constantly being chastised by Robin for his violent tendencies. As a result the volatile Valley fires Robin and pursues his crusade as a solo mission, eventually encasing himself in a deadly suit of Bat-Armor featuring sharpened claws and razor sharp batarang blaster.
A mystically healed Bruce Wayne ultimately returns and takes on Valley, defeating his replacement by taking advantage of his mental instability and returning to Wayne to his role as Gotham’s protector. I didn’t personally buy every issue of this storyline which ran from 1993-1994, instead I listened to a multi-hour audio play version on cassette tape that brought the comic book story to life. But that single cover image of Bane bending Batman across his knee is a seminal image of my comic book collecting youth, despite having not picked up the comic during it’s initial release.
Marvel VS DC
Back in the 70s and early 80s, Marvel Comics and DC Comics had teamed up to produce one-off inter-company crossover books pitting Spider-Man against Superman, Batman against the Hulk and even the X-Men against the Teen Titans. These were the things that comic book fans dreams were made of. This trend picked up again in the 90’s with Spider-Man teaming up with Batman and later the upstart Image comics teen heroes, Gen 13, who also had an adventure with the Fantastic Four and their Marvel mutant counterparts, Generation X. But none of these self-contained tales could match the hype and excitement of the 4 part Marvel Comics versus DC event in 1996.
The set-up was basic enough, 2 warring brothers who watched over the Marvel and DC universes decided to open dimensional rifts between worlds and pit their mightiest beings against each other, with the loser’s universe being wiped from existence. But who cared about the reasons? We just wanted to see whose heroes were the best! With the added option to mail-in an official ballot or email your vote for who should win these contests, we were all invested in the outcome.
These match-ups were meant to settle age old questions like Aquaman vs. Namor, The Sub-Mariner, who was the real King of the Seas? The Flash or Quicksilver, which was the superior speedster? Storm vs Wonder Woman, which goddess had the goods? Wolverine vs. Lobo in a bar fight, who was the roughest and toughest? Most exciting to me at the time were 2 of my favorite new characters the Ben Reilly Spider-Man vs the rude dude Superboy from Reign of the Supermen mixing it up. Speaking of mix-ups, this whole event led to my absolute favorite comics gimmick of all time: The Amalgam universe.
Yes, Marvel and DC took the crossover concept to the EXTREME (this was the 90’s after all) by literally combining their characters into a line of mash-up comic books called Amalgam that were a hard-core comic book fan’s dream come true. Written and drawn by the top artists of both companies these 12 Amalgam books shipped to comic book stores between issues 3 and 4 of Marvel versus DC as a blurring of the lines of reality in the real world.
Most combinations made sense, Superman and Captain America were merged to become Super Soldier, Batman and Wolverine fused into Dark Claw, Wonder Woman and Storm became Amazon, even the Justice League and X-Men were blended into the JLX. Some combos were just bizarre, but fun like Spider-Man and Super-Boy becoming Spider-Boy, though no one saw The Punisher and Diana Prince becoming a crime-fighting pair in Bullets and Bracelets or Bruce Wayne becoming an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the place of Nick Fury. Either way, they were all a hoot.
The universes were separated again by issue 4 DC versus Marvel, but the formula proved so popular that in 1997 the Amalgam universe returned in a series called DC/Marvel All Access where a young man with the ability to travel between worlds witnesses more team-ups and showdowns. This lead to another crop of even more ridiculous Amalgam titles like Swamp Thing and Man-Bat becoming Bat-Thing, Iron Man and Green Lantern becoming the Iron Lantern or the combo most fowl (see what I did there?) where Lobo and Howard The Duck became the fraggin’ main mallard, Lobo The Duck.
Marvel versus DC was the best type of gimmick, combining all of my favorite things about comic book events. It was unique, drew on the character’s history, but created new ideas and continuities, while managing to have fun with the concept. So many events on this list wanted to be epic storytelling for the ages, but at it’s core comics are entertainment and DC versus Marvel continues to bring a smile to my face.
So there you go, the 5 best comic book events of the 90’s. Obviously there were more than made my list (mostly involving the X-Men), so tell me about your favorite comic book events and crossovers from this era.