The 90s: time of an enormous comic book boom, and the near-bankruptcy of industry stalwarts, DC and Marvel Comics. Why? Numerous factors contributed to the boom-bust economics of the comic business: investment speculation, overproduction of titles and publicity stunt events all contributed to the almost fatal finances of the comic book industry.
In the midst of it all, writers tried to update classic characters or produce new heroes to meet with the apathetic, dark and gloomy grunge rock attitude of the era. A good portion of them survive and endure in popularity to this day, while others have fallen by the wayside. Either way, it’s hard to read the comics of the era (or even some of our own) without grumbling “that character is sooo 90s!” Unlike the music of the time, that’s not a good thing, and revisiting their stories makes them feel even more hopelessly dated. Other than their ridiculous costumes, complete with superfluous belts, oversized weapons (thank you Rob Liefeld) and jackets, their anti hero, kill first question later, violent attitudes seemed more cynical than edgy in the days of post 9/11 hero worship. Even in the new era of hope and expanded superhero cinematic universes, gritty nihilists ring false when compared to wary heroes just trying to do the right thing.
10. Cable – Terminator Rip-Off
What the hell happened to the X-Men in the 1990s? An explosion of new mutant characters and spin-off titles all seemed to stem from one new powerhouse: Cable. The introduction of the diseased, time-traveling character made him into something of a Terminator rip-off (the Terminator series itself a rip-off of Days of Future Past), as he and hordes of tatted-up, depressive followers fought a losing war against Apocalypse in a dystopian future. Even worse, the revelation that baddie Stryfe was actually a clone of Cable invited eye rolling (thank you again Rob Liefeld). Lately, Cable and his adventures have become more palatable, and his inclusion in the forthcoming X-Men movie spin-off X-Force offers some hope that he might find a role in the mutants vs. humans conflict besides a constant reminder that the battle can’t be won.
9. Bane – A Needlessly Brutal And Overpowered Character
DC introduced Bane as part of their seemingly endless lead-up to the Knightfall arc, which saw Bruce Wayne worn down, paralyzed and retiring from the Batman cowl. Bane precipitated that arc as the supervillain, and again committed the sin of being an overpowered and needlessly brutal character. Bane’s strength came from the drug Venom, which also made him into something of a drug addict–another 90s trope. The climactic issue of the Knightfall story was little more than an extended beating of Batman, where he hardly even lands a punch. Since then writers haven’t quite figured out what to do with the character, who looks more like a Mexican wrestler than a supervillain. That said, Christopher Nolan and company did give him a thoughtful treatment in The Dark Knight Rises.
8. Doomsday – DC Needed Someone To Kill Superman
The godfather of all overpowered, stunt characters of the 1990s, DC introduced Doomsday with one purpose: they needed a character who could kill off Superman. Little more than a mindless brute, slobbering and growling as he killed countless innocents, Doomsday had neither personality nor motive. His defeat of Superman gained wide attention in the media, and collectors fought to get copies of the fateful issues leading up to the Son of Krypton’s demise, predicting the issues would eventually be worth a great deal of money. The over investment caused an artificial bubble in the comics market. When it deflated, it nearly bankrupted both Marvel and DC.
7. Carnage – Ultra Violent and Vampiristic
Carnage grew out of two early 1990s fascinations: the Spider-Man symbiote, and serial killers. As if making Venom into a slobbering brute wasn’t extreme enough–or perhaps because of it–the Spider-Verse introduced Carnage to up the ante. Ultra violent and vampiristic, Carnage, like so many other characters on this list, was laughably overpowered, gifted with regenerative abilities and the power to make weapons out of his symbiote ooze. In recent years, he no longer even plays the role of Spider-Man villain, perhaps because the character’s cinematic Renaissance attracts too many children to his title. Instead, he lurks around fighting second-string characters like Nova.
6. Azrael – Batman’s Apprentice
The rule that Batman never uses guns frustrated writers in the 1990s, so in the midst of the publicity stunt story arc boom, they figured, why not just paralyze him and replace him with someone else?
And replace Bruce they did, with this psychotic, firearm-packing, nut jub. Azrael started as an assassin before joining the Bat-family as Bruce’s apprentice. When he took up the mantle of the bat, he ditched the tights for robotic armor which included razor-sharp claws and gauntlets that shot bat-shaped razor blades. He eventually got so blood-thirsty that he forced Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement, at which point he led his own short-lived title. Following its cancellation, Azrael vanished from the pages of DC until 2015, and nobody seemed to mind.
5. Electro Superman – What The…
Few Superheroes reach the iconic status of Superman: his traits and costume have become American hallmarks. Naturally, then, with sales following the Death of Superman arc in the late 1990s, DC decided the character needed a revamp. Enter Electro Superman, who suddenly had more in common with Captain Atom than the rest of Krypton: his powers suddenly came from electricity rather than solar power, and he needed a special containment suit to control them. Things got even weirder when Electro Superman split into two beings: Superman Blue and Superman Red. The changes proved unpopular, and within months of the new “Electro” costume appearing, the tried and true Superman returned, and apart from a brief cameo or two, hasn’t been seen since.
4. The Super-Imposters – Superman Doppelgangers
In the immediate aftermath of the Death of Superman story, DC tried to maintain reader interest by introducing four new Superman doppelgangers: the clone Superboy Connor Kent, John Henry Irons, better known as Steel, a Cyborg Superman, and the Eradicator, a futuristic character in a streamlined super suit and sunglasses that loved to use lethal force. Needless to say, the four ran into conflict over the title of Superman. Their infighting, along with outcry from readers, precipitated the true Last Son of Krypton to return from death. Eradicator quickly vanished, and the Cyborg Superman became a villain, while Steel and Superboy continued to operate well into the 2000s.
3. Scarlet Spider – The Unpopular Spider-Man
Marvel tried to jump on the publicity stunt bandwagon in the early 1990s with this mess of a story. It started with the revelation that Peter Parke was actually a clone of another Spider-Man, Ben Riley. Unlike the heroic Peter, Ben resented his powers, preferring to live as a slacker and pass himself off as mentally delayed. Much like Azrael, Ben Riley adopted slightly more brutal methods than Spider-Man, and armed himself with a variety of new weapons. He eventually took up the Spider-Man mantle, much to the ire of longtime readers. With sales plummeting, Marvel killed off Ben Riley, and allowed Peter Parker to return to his heroics.
2. Lobo – Parody Of Wolverine
Lobo debuted in DC Comics in 1983, but remained obscure until the 1990s when he suddenly soared in popularity. Maybe his sudden stardom had something to do with his 90s-milieu characteristics: cocky attitude, violent tendencies and a love of booze. Like most of the other characters on this list, he also had near-invulnerability–at one point he did die, but the demons of Hell sent him back for being too extreme! Lobo provided a stark contrast to the rest of the DC hero lineup, in part, because writers had intended him as an over-the-top parody of the Marvel icon Wolverine. Ironic, then, that readers took the character so seriously.
1. Spawn – The Anti-Hero We All Loved In The 90s
What other character more embodies 90s pop culture than Spawn? A horribly scarred anti-hero with drug-like demonic powers and a love of ultra-violence, he prowled the streets beating low-life criminals to a pulp, courtesy of his living suit which granted him super strength and the ability to create weapons at will. Despite his heroics, Spawn knew he would always be damned, and would one day have to lead a Satanic attack on Heaven.
Overpowered, nihilistic, grimy and brutal, Spawn came to epitomize everything popular, proper and wrong with 1990s comics. Once a top seller, his popularity nosedived in the early 2000s, and by 2010, the once blockbuster character was barely a blip on the comics radar.
Some characters are for all time, others, of their time. The ten are all of the latter variety. Consider us lucky.