Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known). Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history. They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.
Today’s essay is by Lawrence Derks. Enjoy!
Cool Comics of the 1990s
by Lawrence Derks
The 1990s were a great time for comics. No, seriously. Normally when people discuss comics in the 90s, they talk about holographic-foil-variant covers, costumes with lots of pouches, and, of course, the comics crash. While it is not the intent of this blog to ignore these events, I find it absolutely criminal that an entire decade of comics is known more for its financial failures than its creative successes. And there were a lot of creative successes in the 1990s. So to rectify this, I will use this space to highlight a couple great comics whose only mistake was being produced in the same decade as “extreme” superheroes.
In 1992, seven of the industries most popular artists left top-selling comics like Spider-man, X-Men, and X-Force to form their own publisher, Image Comics. It was supposed to be the place to find superheroes for the 90s’ generation aka EXTREME! However, it was also a place where creators would actually own the rights to their own work. And while a lot of those original Image comics did not age well, one work really stands out as a great read: Sam Kieth’s The Maxx.
At first glance, The Maxx looks like the quintessential 90s superhero comic: bulging muscles, scantily-dressed women, and graphic violence. Unlike the standard 90s superhero, though, The Maxx had more to it than flashy visuals; it had a story. The basic premise of the series is Julie Winters, a freelance social worker, helps out the Maxx, a homeless man dressed as a superhero. The comic shifts between two worlds, the real one and “The Outback.” As the comic progresses, Julie Winters and the Maxx learn they are connected through a tragedy that happened in Julie’s past which she refuses to acknowledge. It also becomes clear that The Maxx is not a story about a superhero at all, but a tale about trauma and suppression.
Also, while the design of the Maxx looks like the standard 90s superhero, there is nothing standard about the artwork. Sam Kieth uses a couple of different techniques in The Maxx. For the “real” world, he draws with very bold lines and it’s colored in a very traditional style. However, when the story shifts to the “dream” world or “The Outback,” Kieth shifts to pages painted with an almost Frank Frazetta-like feel. Which is fitting since Kieth draws a tiger-bikini jungle girl in “The Outback” scenes.
Another great comic, created in 1994, was Rob Schrab’s Scud: The Disposable Assassin for Fireman Press. The title tells the basic premise, however there was a lot more to the comic than a funny concept. In the first issue, Scud is hired to kill “Jeff” a creepy tentacled monster. However, as he’s about to kill Jeff off for good, Scud learns he’ll self-destruct upon completion of his mission. So instead of killing Jeff, he takes “her” to the hospital and hooks her up life-support. The subsequent issues are about Scud taking on other assassin jobs just to make enough money to pay for Jeff’s life-support (which is also his life-support).
While the comic is funny and great entertainment, Rob Schrab also puts a lot of himself into the book. Scud eventually finds love, which starts to mimic’s Schrab’s own feelings. The comic eventually became much darker, which Schrab attributes to a break-up and various real world problems. Scud: The Disposable Assassin is a great example of comics as therapy and it’s done in a much more creative way than a typical auto-bio comic. It documents the ups-and-downs of his life and relationships without explicitly being out his feelings.
I highly recommend both The Maxx and Scud: The Disposable Assassin, which are both available in a convenient collected form. There are many more great comics created in the 90s and I encourage Schulz blog readers to post their own favorite 90s comics in the comments section below. Maybe together we can change the way people think about the 90s and show that comics then were more than just flashy gimmicks.
– Lawrence Derks