I love the ‘90s. I’m not afraid to admit it. I loved the explosion of new companies and new characters. One of the things that I enjoy about comics is the ability to immerse myself in new worlds, to explore and to wonder. I remember a Silver Age fan describing his reaction to the first meeting between the Justice League of America and the Justice Society: “You mean there’s another team of superheroes that we don’t know about? A whole other earth? That’s amazing!” The discovery of the Justice Society was exciting to that Silver Age fan. In a similar way, the opening up of all of these new universes in the ‘90s was exciting to me. There’s yet another world to explore? There’s yet another set of characters to meet? That’s incredible!
Even so, I didn’t like every one of the new universes. There were bad ones. And some of the good ones were better than others. So here is my ranking of the ‘90s universes.
The best comic book company of the early ’90s was Valiant. You could even argue that Valiant had more consistent quality than either DC or Marvel, but since I’m only ranking the new companies I don’t have to bother with that. Valiant seemed to have everything. Valiant had a strong core of writers. Jim Shooter surrounded himself with industry pros like Bob Layton and David Michelinie. Valiant had great art. Barry Windsor-Smith was the star artist for the company but Valiant would also see contributions from such artists as Joe Quesada, Bart Sears, Dave Cockrum and Rags Morales. Valiant had great characters. One of the smartest moves that Jim Shooter made as editor was acquiring the rights to Gold Key’s Silver Age properties Dr. Solar, Magnus Robot Fighter and Turok. Some comics’ fans have long memories. This was a great way of appealing to them and getting a core of readers on-board. Yet Valiant didn’t simply rely on their licensed heroes. They also invented interesting new characters like Eternal Warrior, Shadowman and X-O Manowar.
However, Valiant was more than just the right mix of ingredients. There was something else that made Valiant stand out from the rest. I think that Valiant had a natural-ness to it that is hard to describe. It actually reminds me of what Jim Shooter was trying to accomplish with the New Universe in 1986. Comic books had become so chock-full of colorful characters and super-villains and alternate dimensions, that they sometimes seemed detached from reality. We were reading about wonderful worlds, but not our world. Shooter had been trying to recapture an “our world” feeling with the New Universe but failed, in part because he took too much of the fantastic out. With Valiant, Jim Shooter and his compatriots seemed to strike the right balance. They still had alien races and dark dimensions. But Valiant also had a real feel to it. The colorful heroes were surrounded by ordinary people- secretaries and hotel clerks and scientists who weren’t the victims of their own experiments. The colorful heroes interacted with real events like car crashes and when people died, they stayed dead. Plus, not all of the heroes were colorful. Some of them opted for trench coats or leather jackets, even if they were 6000-year old immortals. But that only seemed to make them more interesting. When you read Valiant, you felt that you were reading “our world” with a little bit of the fantastic spread on top. And it was fascinating. My only complaint is that Valiant seemed light on villains. It seemed like every hero had the same two nemeses: Master Darque and Dr. Eclipse. It would have been nice to have a bit more variety in terms of adversaries.
Milestone comics may have had a DC distributor logo in the corner but they were still their own company and their own universe. And in my opinion, Milestone was second only to Valiant as the best of the ‘90s universes. Like Valiant, Milestone seemed to have the mix of everything. Valiant coalesced around Jim Shooter and the talented professionals who were still willing to work with him. Milestone was more of a group project as black creators considered ways to make their mark on the industry. This group included both writers like Dwayne McDuffie and artists like Denys Cowan. That meant that Milestone was the only other company that could claim consistent quality in terms of story and of art. They also had strong characters. Some of their core characters were reminiscent of iconic characters from the big two- Icon was like Superman, Hardware like Iron Man, and Static was sometimes compared to a Silver Age Spider-Man. Yet they had their own distinct personalities and identities. Milestone had great characters.
The one thing that Valiant had that Milestone didn’t was
scope. The Milestone group chose to fill
a specific niche. They created minority
characters. At first their main
characters were all black but they expanded to include other minorities, such
as the Korean Xombi, before they were done. And they focused on one setting- the urban Midwestern city of
It’s pretty hard to classify Image. Valiant comics had a unity to them. Milestone comics had a common vision. The only thing that Image had in common was that a bunch of artists and writer/artists wanted to be left alone to do their own thing. They were wildly successful at first. However, that success had an unforeseen consequence. Individual universes began to coalesce around the six original artists. It wasn’t that long before Image felt like six companies instead of one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it hard to rank Image. Some of those studios put out consistently excellent work and could have ranked above Milestone or even challenged Valiant for the top. Other studios had significant problems and could have been ranked near the bottom of this list. Splitting the difference, Image falls right in the middle.
The one thing that is unique to Image is that Image was, at least at first, an artist’s haven. It was founded by six artists: Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino. Some of them may have had experience as writers, but they were primarily known as artists. Image comics looked good. I know that some older fans would disagree with that statement but I’d remind them that the even older fans didn’t like the new wave of Neal Adams, Jim Steranko and Barry Windsor-Smith when they first appeared on the scene. Image comics did look good. They were bright and flashy and pleasing to look at. But they didn’t have writers, and they didn’t want writers. Some of the artists proved that they could do well enough on their own. Others realized that they needed stories as well as art. Jim Lee, for example, brought in established writers like Chris Claremont and Alan Moore as well as up-and-comers like Kurt Busiek and Warren Ellis, making his Wildstorm the best by far of the Image studios. Yet some of the studios didn’t learn right away. Rob Liefeld’s Awesome/Extreme studios published Youngblood spin-off titles that seemed even more derivative than the parent title. That isn’t a complete condemnation of Awesome/Extreme by the way. There were some exciting, action-filled issues in there and I enjoyed many of them. I don’t hate Awesome comics; I simply recognize that they’re not as good as others. Plus, while Liefeld may have been slower to react, he eventually had writers such as Jeph Loeb and Alan Moore work for his imprint.
Ultraverse comics seem to be the mirror image of, uh, Image. While Image was the artist’s haven, Ultraverse was the writer’s hang-out. The universe was crafted by nine founding fathers, all of whom were writers. The group included industry vets like Steve Engelhardt, Steve Gerber and Mike Barr. It also included newer guys like James Robinson and Gerard Jones. While Image comics were sometimes sub-par because of their lack of writers, Ultraverse comics varied widely in terms of quality of art. They were able to find some established artists to contribute such as Barry Windsor-Smith, who worked his way over from Valiant to help create Rune, and George Perez, who contributed pencils to the big crossover Break-Thru and the team title Ultraforce. And they did a good job at unearthing future talents such as Terry Dodson, who started out on Mantra and now works on DC’s Wonder Woman, and Aaron Lopresti, whose first regular title was Sludge and now works on Ms. Marvel. Despite those successes, the art in the Ultraverse was sometimes sub-standard. The new guys went through their growing pains, and the universe had more titles than quality artists.
However, the art isn’t the only reason why Ultraverse ranks lower than Image. Normally, I would think that I would take writers-without-artists over artists-without-writers. Yet despite being the writer’s hang-out, the Ultraverse didn’t have the kind of originality that you might expect. A lot of their characters seemed like obvious derivatives, even more so than characters at Milestone or Image. Prototype was too much like Iron Man, Sludge too much like Swamp Thing, Prime too much like SHAZAM. And when they were all put together on a team, the Ultraforce trio of Hardcase, Prototype and Prime seemed a lot like The Avengers’ Captain America
, Iron Man and Thor. Plus, some of the original ideas didn’t work as well as you might have liked. The 1,000 year old man reincarnated in a woman’s body for the first time seemed like a good idea but the execution in Mantra didn’t pan out. And, like Valiant, the Ultraverse seemed to be short of great villains. There was Rune and Lord Pumpkin, but not much more than that. Despite those complaints, I’m still a fan of the Ultraverse. It was new and exciting. Prime did offer an interesting twist on the SHAZAM icon. Topaz may have been a lot like DC’s Maxima, but Topaz was easily the better character. I may prefer Valiant or Jim Lee’s Wildstorm, but I still enjoy reading Ultraverse comics.
5. Dark Horse:
Comics’ Greatest World
Finally, we come to the bottom of the barrel. While I may acknowledge certain flaws in Image or Ultraverse titles, I still enjoy and defend those comics. I can’t say the same thing for Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World. Dark Horse was accused of being late onto the bandwagon and launching a superhero line in response to the success of the other companies. Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson defended the company saying that these titles and this world had been in development since 1990, years before some of these other companies were founded. Well, if that’s true, these titles should have stayed in development even longer. Part of the problem is that Dark Horse tried to launch 16 titles all at once. While some of the other companies quickly grew to that, they all started out at least a little smaller. Image had six titles at first, the Ultraverse eight. And those companies had trouble maintaining quality as they grew. By starting out with 16 titles, Dark Horse had quality problems from the start. There may have been a few gems in there, but they were buried under a glut of garbage.
Dark Horse did have a few hits. Barb Wire got a little bit of fire with the “bad girl” crowd and even had a movie starring Pamela Lee Anderson. Ghost got a little bit of smoke with the “good girl” crowd and is still known for some beautiful Adam Hughes art. And X seemed to do okay as a vigilante, lasting about 45 issues. But the bulk of the line was a dismal failure. Some of the titles had bad writing, others bad art. And some were simply bad ideas. Despite their grandiose title, Comics’ Greatest World was actually the worst.
And those were the new universes of the ‘90s. Two I would recommend to pretty much anyone. Two I would recommend to some. One I would recommend to none.
The comics of the ‘90s take a lot of flak from older fans who didn’t like the new developments (sound familiar?) but for a new fan, it was a great time. There were so many new characters to meet and new worlds to explore. And it seemed like the possibilities were endless.
(Originally Published at CaptainComics.us on March 30, 20007, Ranking the '90s Universes )