Comic books in the 90s are remembered for flash over substance and that reputation is largely well-earned. Spider-Man stories like “Maximum Carnage,” Punisher’s “Acts of Vengeance,” Ghost Rider’s “Rise of the Midnight Sons,” or whatever the heck Rob Liefeld was working on were more definitely more bombast than soul.
Remember, popular is not always synonymous with “best.” So while there is a never-ending list of 90s comic book storylines that were runaway best sellers, we’re going to have to avoid the distraction of letting the 90s market define our list of the best Marvel comics of the decade.
Avengers: “Gatherers Saga”
The Avengers were the focus of several iconic and memorable stories of the 70s, but they were down on their luck by the 90s, sporting an odd duck roster of characters many folks had never heard of.
But simmering in the run was a love triangle storyline between Crystal of the Inhumans, Black Knight, and Sersi from the Eternals. It featured drama and surprisingly good character moments.
And it continued to fly under the radar, really taking its time to unfold. But a villainous team called the “Gatherers” finally made itself known, resulting in a saga with a surprisingly good payoff. We’ve written about it before.
What’s more, with Black Knight being cast in the upcoming Eternals movie, there is evidence that the MCU’s love affair with 90s storylines will continue.
It is being re-“gathered” before the movie. Pre-order it here.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become the most successful film franchise of all time, Thanos is a household name. But the average nerd might not realize that his signature comic book event was really good.
You know the story: At the start of The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos has collected the six Infinity Gems and attached them to his gauntlet. With their combined power, he becomes god-like and sets out to win the affection of Mistress Death, the living embodiment of death in the Marvel Universe. Thanos then uses his powers to kill half of the living beings in the universe
Written by Jim Starlin, the series sold well, so was followed by two immediate sequels, The Infinity War (1992) and The Infinity Crusade (1993).
Now, with it being the over-arching story of the first decade of the MCU, Marvel’s love affair with 90s storylines is bared wide for the world to see. One wonders if 90s storylines will continue to show up in the MCU.
In just 4 issues in 1994, writer Kurt Busiek, supported by the painted artwork of Alex Ross, told one of the best Marvel comics stories ever.
Written from the perspective of news photographer Phil Sheldon, the miniseries portrayed ordinary life in a world full of costumed superhumans, with each issue featuring events well known to readers of Marvel comics, as well as a variety of minute details and a retelling of the most famous events in the Marvel universe.
Marvels explored losing faith in heroes, but it never ventured into nihilism like many other 90s titles did. For every failure or disappointment, there was a seed of optimism and hope. While most everything else in the spinner racks was all bombast, Marvels was all substance.
It won several Eisner awards and shined a spotlight on the careers of Busiek and Ross. It’s a must read and collected here.
Daredevil: “Man Without Fear”
Frank Miller would return to Daredevil once again in 1993, this time being joined by John Romita Jr on art for the excellent Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.
Interestingly, this wasn’t a Daredevil tale written to break new ground or further deconstruct the character. Instead, it was a reconstruction. It went back to the story of Matt Murdock being raised by a single father, an over-the-hill prizefighter.
You’ll often hears present day audiences bemoan origin stories, but “Man Without Fear” was an origin story excellently done. Done so well, in fact, that it stood out as one of the best Marvel storylines of the 90s.
Thunderbolts: “Justice Like Lightning”
Speaking of bombast over soul, a not very good 90s Marvel comic book crossover had a stupid dumb villain named Onslaught eliminate a bunch of heroes directly in the public’s eye. Seeing an opportunity, Baron Zemo rebranded his nefarious no-good Masters of Evil into heroes called the Thunderbolts and was subsequently warmly received by a gullible public.
But a funny thing happened: Some of the ne’er-do-well Thunderbolts actually began to find meaning and purpose in do-gooding, choosing instead to became the heroes they were at first only pretending to be. (I’ve written more about the journey of the Thunderbolts wrestling with their angelic and devilish soles, so if you are interested in more, I’ll send you there.)
Written by Kurt Busiek with art by Mark Bagley, the entire classic series is excellent, but start with the first trade, which is collected here.
As a bonus, Baron Zemo’s inclusion in the upcoming Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+ might mean the Thunderbolts will be realized on screen.
Age of Apocalypse
Could good 90s X-Men stories even be told after Marvel moved on from Chris Claremont? “Age of Apocalypse” proved they could…at least once.
During the event the regularly published X-Men comics were replaced by new X-Men related miniseries, including X-Calibre, Gambit and the X-Ternals, Generation Next, Astonishing X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Weapon X, Factor X, X-Man and X-Universe. The event was bookended by two one shots, X-Men Alpha and X-Men Omega.
The storyline featured Legion, who traveled back in time to kill Magneto before he can commit various crimes against humanity, only to mistakenly kills Professor Charles Xavier, his father, leading to major changes in the timeline.
The death of Professor Xavier meant Apocalypse attacked 10 years sooner than he did in the original timeline, altering everything that happened from that point forward.
Alternate timelines had become a staple of the X-Men by that point, but Age of Apocalypse showed that Marvel could still do the story really well, even if the X-Men crossovers both before and after that were an absolute mess.
New Warriors 1-25
In 1990 the New Warriors received their own title written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by the underrated Mark Bagley. It had been a while since an important new superhero team had been established and the first 25 issues of this run was golden.
Plot points were understandable, characters were likable, motivations and complications were clear. Those things added together make for an enjoyable time reading a comic; one where you are eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.
The holo-foil “x-treme” of 90s comics was often anything but. New Warriors struck an exact mark between the big-gunned, shoulderpadded silliness of many 90s comics and the dark and grim seriousness that plagued others. New Warriors 1-25 was in many ways the very best of superhero comics tonally in any era. We wrote more here.
Spoil yourself, go for the big omnibus.