Welcome to My 90s Life, a new-ish series of articles where I reread and review comic books from the much maligned extreme decade of pouched decadence, excessive cleavage, and chromium variant covers galore. If this premise sounds familiar it’s because I actually did a series of reviews like this in 2018.
Last summer, I embarked on an insane, perhaps ill-advised, journey to re-read books that I had read during my middle and high school years of the 1990s. It was mostly fun. I kiddingly joked that some of the stories were killing me. While that may have been a stretch, some of the stories were lacking in the creative department.
For this series of continuing articles, I’m not going to bind myself to only checking out the books that I actually read in 1990s. Most of the books I end up reviewing will probably be books that I actually read at the time, but I also want to broaden my horizons a bit by reading some books that I missed or perhaps simply couldn’t afford at the time.
My first reread in this relaunched series of articles is the original 1994 Lady Death miniseries by Brian Pulido and Stephen Hughes from Chaos Comics. If you spent anytime during the 1990s wearing Metallica shirts, growing a crustache, and/or walking around the mall food court twirling nunchucks like a bada#%, Lady Death was definitely the series for you. There is much to unpack about Lady Death and the Bad Girl phenomenon of the 1990s.
Bad Girl Comics Were
The original Lady Death is one of those books that I could not afford as a scrappy teenager. The price on the issue immediately shot up, spending many months on Wizard Magazine’s hot list, the arbiter of all hotness ratings. Lady Death was in the sweet spot of featuring a busty character and having a nice gimmick cover to draw in the speculators.
Of the Bad Girl craze of the 1990s, Lady Death was seen as the Queen. All of the bad girl comics had a few simple elements: big cleavage, scantily clad heroines with amoral or ambiguous motivations, more cleavage, and storytelling that didn’t much matter as long as you showed plenty of skin in the bodacious, extreme artwork. Oh, and cleavage. The other rock starlets of the era included (but were certainly not limited to) Vampirella, Razor, Purgatori, Glory, Avengelyne, Lady Rawhide, Shi, and many, many more. Lady Death opened the busty floodgates of bad girl heroines.
The front cover for the first issue gave enough people a reason to buy it, contributing to the “hotness” effect. I cannot adequately describe how “hot” that first series was in 1994 to someone who wasn’t there. If you were alive and collecting comic books at the time, you know how big Lady Death was, especially that first issue with its titillating chromium cover, one of the most pernicious gimmicks of the 1990s. Lady Death was an odd series out of the gate because it was one of the first comics to feature that shiny, shiny chromium cover. Valiant’s Bloodshot #1 is credited as being the first chromium cover, and their X-O Manowar #0 being the first wraparound Chromium cover, it’s Lady Death #1 that set all the 90s chromium fanboys a ’titter.
Much of the boom (and eventual bust) of the era can be blamed on the excessive dependence on silly cover gimmicks and endless variants. Boy, I’m glad we got past that variant phase! But in all seriousness, I can guarantee that a full 99.9% of the people that actually bought that chromium cover of Lady Death #1 never actually cracked open the book and read it due to the fear of ruining their precious investment. After all, these cool gimmicky comics were going to make you rich someday! I cannot tell you how many times the teens of this era said something to the effect of, “This is going to put my kid through college!”
We were all getting way ahead of ourselves because we struggled to even talk with girls, let alone marry, bed, and eventually procreate with one of these fabled gals. As close as we got to the fairer sex was the Lady Death Lingerie special, which undoubtedly insured that we would be further isolated from any female within a fifty-mile radius of our heavily bosomed comics.
By the time I became aware of the “hotness” of the first miniseries, all three issues were long gone from the shelves, only to be replaced as “wall books” with hefty price tags that 14 year old Brandon could not afford. This righteous placement behind the counter in every comic shop in America befitting their station as “hot” books. I managed to snag the Wizard ½ issue, the all-important Swimsuit Special, the second miniseries released in 1995, and of course the tasteful pubescent honey trap that was the Lingerie Issue… but nothing from the original series. I was forced to fawn over the busty riches of others.
Story vs. Art – Guess Which One Was Most Important in Lady Death?
In many ways, the comic books of the 1990s is a battleground where story and art did not so much work together as they competed with one another, with the former losing to the latter more often than not. Lady Death isn’t really any different than those titles.
Lady Death’s origin has had several revisions over the years. Even in her earliest appearances in Evil Ernies, she was presented solely as a sexpot temptress for disturbed Ernie, promising that he could “have” her if he killed all life on Earth. Pretty typical way to get a date in the 90s, if I’m being honest.
By the time Lady Death got her own series, the revisions to her character were already beginning. The story in Lady Death is straight out of any 90s metalhead pubescent boy’s dreams. Set in medieval Sweden, the original Lady Death miniseries showed her origins from a young girl Hope to the goddess of death herself. Get it? Hope? Hope!
The daughter of a cruel, warmongering nobleman Matthias, Hope (get it?) was ignorant of her father’s other predilections, which were, you know, devil worship and the black arts. Let he among us that didn’t have that experience with our own father cast the first stone. As is customary in these situations, the peasantry eventually got fed up with Matthias’s evil shenanigans and rose up to overthrow the demon worshipping edgelord.
Poor Hope (get it?) was caught up on the mess and burned as a witch. As the flames rose, Hope (get it?) uttered an incantation she heard her father use, summoning a demon who offered her salvation. Of course, Hope (get it?) accepts the deal and is banished to hell, where she loses her innocence, nay, her hope, in humanity, succumbing to her new role as Lady Death!
All of this is coincidentally the plot to my metal rock opera, Satan Rocks… And Rolls! It’s going to be great. Lots of pyrotechnics, apocalyptic metal, and nunchucks. Lots and lots of nunchucks.
And then there is the art. One can say with great certainty that art is intentionally provocative. What can be said about the Bad Girl era most exploitative, cheesecake comic book artwork? I mean, as the examples from this article alone show, it’s pretty overt in its attempt to show the female form in its most titillating form.
Female body work beside, the more Satanic and demonic art elements really do work for the book. Hughes’s artwork does exactly what it’s meant to do, excite and evoke strong reactions. It’s Monster energy drink for pubescent soul.
Lady Death: The Verdict
There are times when I read these 90s books where I am pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading something that I missed back in the day. The original Lady Death miniseries is not one of those occasions. I’m glad my tastes have changed. Lady Death isn’t high art by any stretch of the meaning. It won’t win any storytelling Eisner Awards. It was a breezy read of empty calories, high sugar and fat content, and with little nutritional value.
By the time I was in a place where I could have afforded to buy the trade of the original miniseries when I got to college in the late 1990s, thankfully I and the industry had moved on from the most exuberant excesses of the bad girl era. I remember seeing the trade sometime during my freshman year of college and snubbing it for other books. Fortunately, I had moved past the cringe-worthy desire to ogle at a pale skinned Swedish goddess.
I don’t say that to sound intentionally snotty, but there is a little truth to it as well. I actually wouldn’t mind reading one of the modern Lady Death comics to see if the creative people behind the current incarnation have moved past the outward and extremely in your face presentation of the female form.
I recently read Gail Simone’s Red Sonja run from a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how well the typical portrayal of the character was subverted. Not that it was devoid of the sexual undertones, but Simone presented Sonja as a real character that wasn’t simply a way to trot out a metal bikini on the page. Simone’s Red Sonja provides a nice template for using the Bad Girl in the 21st Century. I do wonder if modern Lady Death has moved beyond that in a similar fashion.
But I’m talking about the original miniseries today. That first Lady Death miniseries (and many thereafter) was unquestionably exploitative in its presentation of the female form. But that’s a criticism that could be leveled at a large swath of the medium before, during, and after the whole Bad Girl craze.
Lady Death wasn’t and isn’t alone in that. There are still plenty of cringe worthy moments for female comic book characters today, as evidenced by the recent Wal-Mart exclusive Superman 100 Page Giant #7 that featured Lois Lane getting repeatedly killed with apparent glee. There’s plenty of room to grow for the comic book medium. I think we’ve gone past the crazy T&A of the Bad Girl. That’s a step forward in a walk that has many miles to go.