Anecdotal evidence should carry very little weight in any critical, historical review of an artistic medium, but as your humble editor lived in Arizona and, via Cons and store signings, met members of the Chaos Comics crew on a multitude of occasions, please allow me to share my dual impressions of the cast of creators behind books like Evil Ernie and Devastator, in particular writer/artist/publisher Brian Pulido and artist Steven Hughes; First off, they looked terrifying, they were not possessed of unintimidating physiques and their ominous convention setup was short only of belching smoke and actual human blood pouring from its peaks from being a legitimate house of horrors. Secondly, they were literally two of the nicest people I have ever met in my life.
Chaos Comics emerged in 1994 riding the Bad Girl and Grim’n’ Gritty trends to their logical intersection – Heavy Metal. Producing a line of skull-bedecked and flesh-abundant books (the covers of which wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the cover of a limited edition LP from a Scandinavian Death Metal band comprised of four men dressed as bondage gnomes and an animatronic succubus whose nipples wept blood) Chaos very sagely tapped into the obvious crossover with comic books fans and metalheads (and thanks to their licensing deal with the then-WWF, wrestling fans as well). Some folks might argue that this constituted a dumbing-down of mainstream comics, but its earnest infusion of sympathetic fandom was, at the very least, utterly unironic.
Women had always been woefully underrepresented in superhero comics or, if we’re to believe David Goyer, were mainly there so the male readership could rub one out without having to interrupt their progress on a story of two shouting men grappling over something. Certainly the female superhero prior to 1990 was generally possessed of one emotional setting, which was “gushy love stuff,” occasionally peppered with turning evil or some really obnoxious mischaracterizations of feminism.
Which is why the Nineties’ obnoxious mischaracterizations of feminism were so refreshing! Taking the term “strong female character” and ignoring the first and last words, comics in the 90s boomed with busty, leggy, butt-pokin’-out lady anti-heroes galore. Bedeviled with a brace of back problems were such characters as the above-mentioned Chaos’ Purgatori (Spelling or Amos, I could never decide) and Lady Death, the absurd Jazz and China of Double Impact, the absolutely insane Widow, whatever that thing was with its tits out on the Vamperotica title, Hari Kari, Scimidar, Shi, a whole mess of merely sexed-up and suddenly pulchritudinous heroines from the mainstream companies and an additional scoliotic sorority house emerging from the cracked foundation at Image, not the least being Liefeld’s back-broken Avengylene, Glory, and Lady Pendragon.
And then … they all got ACTION FIGURES, too! It was like if the Barbie aisle at Target got tricked out like space hookers.
The original Doctor Fate was one of the first wave of superheroes in comics’ Golden Age, a founding member of the Justice Society of America and a stalwart guest-star in dozens of DC Comics during what we may as well call his twilight years, as well as a relatively long-running and inarguably atypical solo series scripted by J.M.DeMatteis. When the Nineties came along, Dr.Fate’s clean-cut superheroic sorcery didn’t stand up to the rigors of the age, particularly with the genre-wide adoption of a humorless approach to “magick” (that’s just plain old fictional “magic” but the extra “K” means “Leprechauns who are into bondage”).
Enter Jared Stevens, a professional smuggler turned demon hunter who acquired the trappings of Dr.Fate by happenstance of holding them while the rightful owners got murdered by monsters from another dimension. Well, you know what they say, possession is 9/10ths of the law, and the other ten percent is getting murdered by imps. The cloak he turned into some badass arm-wrapping and the helmet he melted down into badass knives and other pointy things, and following a really ill-advised facial tattoo thus was born the new Fate.
Dr.Fate was never a light-hearted or wacky character, but the humorlessness of the new Fate was much to its detriment; how could someone dress like that and not be able to laugh at himself is anyone’s guess.
Before he joined the still-swelling ranks of multi-millionaires who use Kickstarter to crowdfund their vanity projects, Gaiman was part of a wave of British writers brought over to DC in the wake of Alan Moore’s rampant success revamping and reinterpreting the company’s characters. What influence Moore had on comics in the 80s, however, would pale in comparison to --- well, not Gaiman’s influence, perhaps, but certainly Gaiman’s stature and profile. He emerged from his tenure at the helm of Sandman as possibly the best known voice in comics.
As voices go, though, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Gaiman’s was; a highly literate writer without ultimately much to say, he did inspire a flood of similarly navel-gazing, water-treading Vertigo and indy titles which conflated an adolescent self-importance with character and scenes of folks talking over meals or at parties with plot advancement. Moore (along with Frank Miller) is often blamed for the trend of “grimdark” – misery and misfortune introduced to a character without a larger purpose – but I’ve personally felt that Gaiman’s run on Sandman, with its blasé insistence on Things Being Very Serious without ever establishing the stakes or purpose of the seriousness, inspired more of the suffering than anything.
Moore’s work, after all, has a consistent voice and purpose – he tests the ethical and functional structures of fiction against real-world settings to observe which ones fail, succeed or evolve – there’s transition and conclusion in his work, and a larger message about the intersection of popular culture and civilization. Gaiman’s voice, if we’re to accept him at his word, is that stories are magical and stories are important, which is all very good news for the storyteller but doesn’t exactly tell us what they’re so magical and important for. Unfortunately, that leads to the types of story that don’t particularly advance so much as they insist upon their own significance, without having established much of it to begin with, and that’s been a real plague in mainstream comics of all genres.
His issue of Hellblazer was pretty tops, though.
No 90s team book had a higher profile than Rob Liefeld’s on-again off-again Avengers/Titans-inspired Youngblood, which is a real shame because Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce deserves the real attention for possibly being the single most 90s team book to have ever been made of liquid metal.
Count the number of pure 90s-isms at work here: A group of (1) super-powered mutants from around the world are (2) abducted by an evil corporation with plans to take over the world, and while the team was (3) comprised of multi-ethnic characters from different cultures they were ultimately so alike that they (4) adopted single-word codenames for their (5) cybernetically-enhanced alternate selves and then later (6) they fought seemingly supernatural creatures.
Of the seven members of Cyberforce, the names that pay are “RipClaw” (the team’s Wolverine, also a Native American who naturally was able to communicate with the spirit world) and “Cyblade” (who was pretty much the X-Men’s Psylocke but with magnetic powers instead of psychic and maybe a dumber name, if only by an inch). The other five were Heatwave, the team leader, and then Ballistic, Stryker, Impact and Velocity which I believe are all related physical phenomenon, so someone had a gun catalog open during the naming phase.