The early ‘90s comic book era isn’t referred to as the “dark ages” for nothing. During the ’80s, no medium was more ground-breaking and bold than comic books. Detaching the perception that they were just for kids, writers like Neil Gaimain, Alan Moore and Frank Miller revolutionized the industry with titles such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Promethea, and Sandman. These books rose above the superhero genre and ultimately appealed to fans with more sophisticated tastes.
Needless to say, the decade of revolution didn’t continue into the ’90s. Despite the fact that Moore, Miller and Gaimain were still churning out great work, new trends started to overtake the industry. The exceptional storytelling of the ’80s were replaced by flashy art and gluttonous publishers’ get-rich-quick schemes. Thus began the era of bland, hyper-sexualized drawings and classic superheroes thrown randomly into tedious stories created purely for shock value.
When classic characters like Spider-Man, Batman and Thor were given horrible new costumes; every character became a bad-ass, absurdly over-muscled Schwarzenegger replica. There was a propensity to go “Xtreme” with not just the art (enormous guns, skulls, and skimpy outfits on exceptionally well endowed women), but also the dialogue (with every other one liner ending in an exclamation mark).
We all know the story of the ‘90s boom and bust that is still affecting comics to this day. During the ’90 collector speculation ran wild, people found out their fathers’ comics were fairly valuable, so they started looking for the next big money comic and proceeded to unwisely buy an insane amount of copies of it. The publishers started playing into this with lots of new #1’s, tons of variant covers, foil covers, etc.
It wasn’t actual fans, it was naive collectors that didn’t understand the basic supply and demand principal, basically, the more of a commodity that exists, the less its actual value. If demand decreases and supply remains unchanged, a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price. So pretty much the entire reason the market bottomed out and those collectors never got a return on their investment was due to the fact that they bought comics in abundance causing the publishers to print way too much. The reason your grandfather’s comics were worth so much is that people didn’t collect them. They were thrown out and destroyed, especially during WWII, thus limiting supply.
Where the ‘90s really hurt comics though was in crippling the indie market so much that it was damn near impossible to get into the business independently. Although, when comics were booming, you admittedly had a bigger audience to target and sell to. You most likely wouldn’t reach the levels of Marvel or DC, but there was still plenty of room to be profitable. With the comic conglomerates over saturating the marketplace smaller publishers had to deal with a smaller market that didn’t respond well to new characters.
The other reason why this was a big deal was because it stagnated the pool of creators. There were plenty of really talented people who had to give up their comics dreams because they simply weren’t making enough money.
Another problem with ‘90s comics were the fact that artists (as opposed to writers) were the dominant creative force. Pretty pictures are nice, but when character and story take a back seat to art, you get some pretty horrendous comics. Lots of artists who weren’t good writers were constantly churning out sub par stories. They were relentlessly trying new things, which was commendable, but this would cause the art style to became dated quickly, and it all looked pretty goofy in retrospect.
Now, lets talk about the elephant in the room, Rob Liefeld. If this was Terminator 2 and ’90s comics were Judgment Day, consider Liefeld to be Miles Dyson. Anything good about ‘90s comics were drowned out by comic book creator Rob Liefeld and his influence; terrible artwork, adolescent attempts to be XTREME, nonsensical storylines, stories filled with guns, skulls, cannons, and more guns. All sense of artistic proportion was essentially lost.
In the early 90s, the self-taught artist became well-known due to his work on Marvel Comics’ The New Mutants and later X-Force. In 1992, he and numerous other popular Marvel illustrators left the company to found Image Comics, which started a upsurge of comic books owned by their creators instead of their publishers. The initial book published by Image Comics was Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood #1. Image would eventually be best-known for series like Spawn, The Walking Dead, Savage Dragon, Saga, Witchblade, The Darkness, Invincible, and Haunt.
In the end, Liefeld’s name would go on to become something of a lightning rod in the industry, for good reason. He was one of the draftsman behind Heroes Reborn; and he was on the forefront of the variant cover movement. Liefeld’s use of excessively exaggerated muscles and amusingly large weapons was a novelty in the comic world and for a while his books sold majorly. Now, it’s just an embarrassment looking back on it. It can be argued that the creative philosophy that Rob Liefeld brought to the comics industry just about bankrupted the whole medium.
It wasn’t all bad though, some prominent and talented artists and writers rose to prominence during the decade, including; Andy Kubert, Alex Ross, Salvador Larroca, Dale Keown, Ron Garney, and Mark Texeira. We also had some pretty awe-inspiring stories and characters like; Preacher, Razorline (Clive Barker), Aztek, Hitman, The Invisibles, and Flex Mentallo.
There’s undoubtedly a lot of bad stuff that came from the decade, but hey, Grant Morrison’s JLA came out of it, so it wasn’t all bad. Written by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, 1996’s Kingdom Come series focuses on the metaphor of ‘90s comics destroying the comic world, literally and figuratively. Kingdom Come showed us how terrible the ‘90s antihero was and spelled the end of that cocaine fueled, exploitative, inadequately drawn, and overall insulting era.
The effects of all of this still remain today, yet the comic industry refuses to acknowledge them and grow. We still get all the variant covers, new #1s, attempts to bring people into comics using the same tricks that didn’t work in the past. Overall, things are definitely better than they were 20 years ago. Digital comics have made it easier for independent artists to get their work seen and for them to make a living off of it. But in the end, let us never forget the terribleness, let us never forget Spider-Man: The Clone Saga (1994-1996), Jean-Paul Valley as Batman (1993-1994), The Electric Superman (1998), DC Zero Hour (1994), and let’s hope that we all gain some knowledge from our mistakes…oh, please let us learn.
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