|"I'M NOT GAY!!!"|
For more info on the other Ages of Comics click here.
We should probably start by talking about the era itself. The range of this period is heavily contested however most would agree it began in 1986. This as the year that two masterpieces came out: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Both were dark, gritty deconstruction of the classic (i.e. “campy”, “corny”) idea of what it is to be a superhero. They were also both really good, especially Watchmen which is a contender for the greatest superhero story ever told. This was also the year that DC Comic’s mega crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, another beloved classic, was released. The series rebooted the entire DC Universe, cut all ties to the Silver Age and Golden Age and, while not starting from scratch, was supposed to be a more modern interpretation of their world. This was really what this era was shooting for in the following years: a fond farewell to the days where comics were for kids and embrace a more mature, more complex and above all edgier style.
Yeah, that sounds good on paper.
The end of this era is probably the most debated of any other era in comic books. For one many, many people firmly believe that the Dark Age never ended and we’re still there today. However others believe that it ended between 1995 and 1996 as those years saw the debut of Astro City, which was a reconstruction of the good aspects of superhero comics from the Silver Age, and Kingdom Come, which was itself a deconstruction of the Dark Age and the antiheroes that populated it. 1996 was also the year of the Comic Book Crash, which we’ll talk about today. Still others point at 2000, the debut of Ultimate Spider-Man and Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate” line. Either way the idea is that by the late 90s the industry had gotten tired of the antiheroes and the dark and grittiness of the times and were moving back towards a more lighthearted vision of what it means to be a superhero. So now that we know the "when" we should look at the “why”.
Guns, tits, and pouches after the jump.
|And then this bullshit happened|
Of course things go wrong when things were taken too far with this. Not to mention that by the time the 90s got really rolling were knees deep in that “EXTREME” bullshit that was just everywhere. So now I’d like to discuss exactly what my issues of this Age was but since I don’t want to write a 5,000 word essay I will simplify things by breaking things down in parts.
The Characters and The Tone
|Who could forget such classic and memorable comic book characters?|
Purple Tights Man. Poorly Drawn Lass. Black Dude in Armor.
But the so-called “90s Antihero” is different from your usual antihero trope. The 90s Antihero tended to be insanely, sometimes laughably, overly muscular in a display of hyper masculinity. “Rarrw, I’m strong”. They tended to be extremely pro firearm. I guess the idea was that if a superhero was going to use lethal force why wouldn’t he use giant f**king guns. And also swords were pretty common too. Often they used both. They are shallow characters who are tortured and angst filled but strangely don’t have very much more than that to their characters. They were often little more than rip-offs, at least visually, of characters from other companies (and usually they were rip-offs of the X-Men, especially Wolverine). They made really short, simple yet “gritty” names that were often misspelled so it’d sound cooler. Or "kewler", I guess. "Death" and "blood" were commonly used in titles.
|Blood Pack, because overusing the word "blood' is EXTREME!!!!|
This is the era where Venom, a great yet completely psychotic Spider-Man villain, got so popular that Marvel decided to make an ongoing series about his adventures as a “Lethal Protector” or whatever, thus ruining him as a proper member of Spidey’s rogues gallery to this day. This is just what happened during the 90s.
Art Style and Depiction of Women
|Holy hell! Someone call a doctor: their spines have been mangled!|
But it was women who got it the worst. Almost all across the board women were downgraded into sexual objects, which was ironic considering how much the feminist movement had affected comic books in the previous Age of Comics. The female heroes and the villains tended to be drawn as huge breasted stick figures whose tiny frames and waists could never support the weight of their chest in real life. I’ve heard it described as female heroes basically all looking like twelve year old boys but with huge tits. That seems to be the case; waaaay too many artist did not (and still do not, sadly) know how to draw women. Many, if not most, of these characters were given ridiculously skimpy costume designs to the point of many of the being practically naked. Because when you’re fighting armed muggers and energy blasting mutants the obvious choice of clothes to protect yourself is a metal bikini. Worst of all artists would routinely draw them in laughably improbable poses that were clearly done for the sake of sexiness but also displayed a nauseating lack of understanding of how spines bend. Do you really want to draw women’s breasts and their butts at the same time so badly? Of course this was a problem both before and after the 90s but it seems that The Dark Age of Comics really had thing going out of control.
And yes, you can make the claim that male heroes are just as exploited as the female ones. But I will point out that while it might be easy to say someone like Superman or Batman or Namor the Submariner are exploitive characters take in mind that almost no male character is drawn or designed for any sort of titillation in mind. Women heroes, especially in the 90s, often were. That’s the difference.
[On a similar subject you should check out The Hawkeye Initiative to see how ridiculous this sort of thing can get]
Comic Book Collecting Reaches All Time High/Low
|Cover price was $3.95. I paid $20 after the first printing sold out|
17 years later it's worth $5. I made a critical error
So at some point prior to the Dark Age of Comics people realized that old comics, things like Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, and Amazing Fantasy #15, were worth thousands and thousands of dollars. This was because there were significant and very, very rare; many of these books were initially thrown out by disapproving parents and so the number of copies in good condition is very low. However somewhere along the line fans got it into their heads that the reason they were worth so much was solely because they were old and developed value. So with this logic many people headed into their local comic shops buying multiple copies of comics with the idea that they could make a lot of money if they managed to properly store them over the course of however many years . This was not good economic sense; they’re only valuable if they’re rare (and in a lot of cases historically significant) not simply because you bought them years ago. However this did not stop comic book companies from taking full advantage of the situation by printing a ton of copies (that fans eagerly bought) with "collectable" gimmick covers. Oh man, were there a lot of these gimmick covers! Hologram covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, die-cut covers, and in a lot cases a shit ton of variant covers for the sole purpose of getting fans to “Catch ‘Em All.” Gen¹³ #1 featured no less than thirteen variant covers! For its first issue! In addition companies repeatedly restarted their major books numbering since so many fans thought that somehow buying a new number one issue of a book that’s existed for decades would somehow be worth a lot of money. Guess how well that worked out?
|One copy down, thirteen copies to go!|
I was in on this too; I was a kid (9/10/11 or so) and I recall very clearly after watching a documentary about Stan Lee that I could possibly pay for college with comic books I buy now (the documentary practically said this). I was stupid, just like everyone else, and the comic companies took advantage of it making a lot of money in the short term. Long term…well, let’s just say this whole concept likely helped bring about the Comic Book Crash of 1996.
Oh and the worst part of all this? In some cases (like at Marvel) it was the marketing department, not editorial and certainly not the creative team, that had final creative say. Which meant that stories were being forced to be written in ways to capitalize on the collector market. That’s likely why there were so many events, crossovers and shake-ups (Death of Superman, Batman’s replaced by edgier crime fighter, the entirety of the Clone Saga). Seeing as I'm of the mindset that editors shouldn't mess with works that much you can imagine my rage at the goddamn marketing guys dictating things!
Style Over Substance
|Because someone decided Lobo was too subtle|
Or should I say “Art Over Writing”? This was the era of the “Superstar Artists” who were selling books not only based on their art but also their names. This is all well and good (comic books are a visual medium after all) but a terrible side effect of this was that writers sometimes got shafted by the artist’ power. For example Marvel was a bit infamous for artists discarding elements of what the writer wrote and just doing whatever they wanted (supposedly this is why Chris Claremont, the then signature writer of the X-Men, walked out) and the editors doing jack shit about it. The problem with this dynamic is simple; just because you can draw pretty pictures doesn’t mean you’re a writer. There are numerous examples of artists who are also great writers (and a huge number of comic book writers started out as artists) but during the 90s a lot of stories were flashy and high impact but absolutely lacked any sort of proper storytelling structure and this was part of the reason.
To make matter even worse a lot of these “Superstar Artists” had problems making the monthly deadline for their art and were consistently late. This was one of the bigger criticisms of Image Comics during the 90s (Image being a company founded by several “Superstar Artists”).
Obvious I’m biased here. Clearly I’m a writer and not an artist so it’s not too surprising that I get a little sensitive about the idea that the artwork of a comic is somehow more important than the story. I get the same way about bands that don’t have bass players. Bunch of assholes…
The Comic Book Crash of 1996
|This blood's for you!|
(At least it would be if it actually shipped on time)
The Good Stuff
|No joke here; Hellboy is actually pretty great|
Anyway there’s a lot that went on during this era and to be honest this really just scratching the surface. Bottom line is that things sucked in the 90s, a lot people were acting without common sense, and everything was EXTREME. But man, what a ride it was.
|Pictured: The first comic book I remember buying on my own initiative|