I used to joke that I didn’t need to participate in all that 80s nostalgia because I was there the first time. And it seems like it never went away. Upon reflection, I think I’ve heard that old Violent Femmes song Blister in the Sun more in the past year than I did in 1983.
The 90s are a whole different kettle of fish. I was kinda busy then and love to look back on that decade. So I’m grateful that TwoMorrows has just published the 1990s edition of the long-running series: The American Comic Book Chronicles. Each volume has been fantastic and this one looks to carry on that standard of excellence.
And of course, this week “With Further Ado” is all about Yuletide Gift. I thought this would be another good book to recommend. I caught up with writer Jason Sacks just to make sure. Spoiler alert: he confirmed my suspicions…it’s a fantastic book for gifting. Here’s what he had to say:
Ed Catto: Can you give me a little background on this amazing series – how it started and where you see it going it, Jason?
Jason Sacks: The American Comic Book Chronicles series has been running for more than a decade. Editor extraordinaire Keith Dallas had the idea of creating year-by-year and decade-by-decade histories of the comics industry which combined good research with a lot of great images from those decades.
We have a volume about the 1960s and two volumes about the 1960s, none of which I wrote. I wrote the 1970s volume and contributed to the 1980s volume. The ‘90s volume is my final volume in the series. We have a pair of 1940s volumes in the works, produced by notable Golden Age historian Kurt Mitchell.
EC: Follow-up question : aren’t you exhausted?
JS: This book was four years in the making. I read nearly every issue of every comics magazine of the era, including Wizard, Comics Retailer and The Comics Journal. I also conducted new interviews and found resources on the ‘net. But none of that was work. It was a pleasure to get to dig into all this material. And I loved shipping the book to our printer!
I’m not sure if we’re going to do a book about the 2000s in this series just yet. It seems too soon. If we do, I won’t be writing it!
EC: What made the 90s such a special time for comics?
The Image Comics rebels showed that comics’ hottest creators could walk away from Marvel and create exciting new characters like Spawn and WildCATs. The phenomenal rise of Valiant Comics showed that new characters like X-O Manowar, Bloodshot and Turok could capture fans’ imaginations more than old, established characters like Batman, Spider-Man and Green Lantern.
In response, Marvel and DC acted as if their traditional characters had become old and boring, with DC breaking Batman’s back, killing Superman and having Hal Jordan go insane. Marvel made Spider-Man a clone, killed Reed Richards and tore Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton out of his body.
Meanwhile, Vertigo showed there was an audience for more mature comics like Sandman, Shade the Changing Man and Hellblazer. And indie and small press publishers were thriving as well.
By the end of the ‘90s, some of the most innovative super-hero comics were published, leading to the types of comics that are so popular today. Planetary, The Authority, Grant Morrison’s thrilling JLA and books like Marvels and Kurt Busiek’s Iron Man showed that super-heroes still had the ability to thrill fans.
EC:. I love the way you break it all down year-by-year. What’s your favorite 90s year?
That said, the craziest year to me was 1993, a year when something like 28 new publishers or imprints suddenly popped up, trying to grab some of the amazing surge of sales in new comics. As I discuss in the book, “Retailers ordered approximately 190 million total comics in February 1993. Only two months later, orders more than doubled to over 400 million units. The most popular comic books sold a million copies per issue, and many mid-range titles sold over 100,000 copies. As Chicago-area retailer Gary Colabuono reported, “In the spring weeks of ’93 we were doing $1,300 more [per week] than our summer weekly average.”
That was the year DC launched Vertigo and Milestone, Marvel launched a line called Razorline based on ideas created by Clive Barker and a line called Frontier centered in England, Malibu launched a new line of characters in the Ultraverse at the same time Dark Horse launched Comics’ Greatest World.
It was crazy. If I was a comics fan looking for old familiar characters, I would have been totally overwhelmed!
EC: Which 90s projects or titles do you feel deserve to be remembered more fondly than they actually are? What deserves a second look?
JS: There’s a lot of forgotten gems from the ‘90s. Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt from 1991 is a fascinating meditation on war. Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruise is an excellent autobiographical graphic novel that ties the civil rights movement to his coming out of the closet. City of Glass by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik is a brilliant and transcendent graphic novel experience.
As far as mainstream comics, pre-Unity Valiant Comics are super solid super-hero comics. Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen’s Iron Man from ’98 and ’99 crosses Tony Stark with James Bond and is super fun. Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man is also a treat. Jim Shooter’s Broadway Comics had promise. Amalgam Comics from 1996 and ’97 are silly, offbeat treats. Peter David’s ‘90s Supergirl series is underrated. And though it’s not obscure, I was surprised how well the big Batman: No Man’s Land storyline holds together.
This also was a big decade for indie comics. Most people remember Strangers in Paradise, but there were dozens of wonderful small press comics like Swan, Scud the Disposable Assassin, Through the Habitrails, Jar of Fools, Castle Waiting, Age of Bronze, Tales from the Bog and much more.
EC: As you researched the decade for this volume, were there any initiatives or books that you found like better now than you did in the 90s?
Early Image Comics are pretty objectively bad, quality-wise, but writing this book I came to love their energy.
EC: One title is called “Changed or Die” and has a heading of “Three Letters Say It All”. What’s that all about?
JS: We tried to use comic or real world events for chapters or subheadings. “Change or Die” is a famous, great storyline in Stormwatch that kind of presaged the change of quality in comics. “Three Letters Say It All” is a reference to Morrison’s JLA. Similarly, 1992 is titled “Nirvana” because the industry found its heaven at the same time we all learned about Kurt Cobain.
EC: I really enjoy your focus on publishers/imprints like Broadway, Homage, Fantagraphics and more. Was this decade important for them?
JS: Yeah, it’s fun to explore these more obscure publishers.
Broadway is fascinating because it was one of three attempts by comics legend Jim Shooter to create a new comic company during the ‘90s. They had a lot of great ideas and excellent talent but they just couldn’t get any leverage in a bad market. Their Fatale and Powers that Be are great bargain bin finds.
Homage is a cool offshoot from Jim Lee’s Wildstorm that published Astro City, the sublime Strangers in Paradise and the delightful Leave it to Chance.
Fantagraphics was a major presence during the decade. Their comic Hate captured indie rock zeitgeist and was a major hit, but they had some financial problems which required them to publish some of the oddest porno comics in history just to get by.
EC: Much has been said about the “darkness” that was ushered into comics. There’s some other unfortunate trends from the 90s. Through the sober lens of hindsight, what do you think of it all now?
JS: Ehh, without getting through the darkness we might never be in the great era we live in now. People tend to dwell on the negatives, but the darkness of the early ‘90s led to bright light later in the decade. In the same way, the obsession with slick, early ‘90s art helped us appreciate higher quality art later. And though it was obviously horrible for the industry to lose thousands of readers after the mid-‘90s boom turned into a bust, it cleared away a lot of bad comics and dead wood.
EC: A hard question: We recently saw as DC cancelled the next reprint book for the 90s Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner. Can we infer that 90s fans can’t support projects like that? What’s your take?
JS: I came to love Kyle in reading his stories for the ‘90s book, but it seems a lot of fans maybe don’t love him as much. Everybody loves Hal, who had a terrible 1990s, and maybe resent Kyle for taking the costume and name. I think ‘90s fans can support ‘90s projects but maybe DC just couldn’t spark the interest for that book.
EC: Are you sure won’t rethink your position on writing a book for the 2000s? And why doesn’t that decade have a better nickname?
JS: I do love the 2000s, but someone else can write a book about that decade! I might move to more books about the ‘90s because though this book was a ton of work, we left some great stories on the cutting room floor!
EC: Thanks so much, Jason.
The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1990s -is written by Jason Sacks, edited by Keith Dallas, and published by TwoMorrows. List price is $44.95 but check your local comic shop for some great deals. One of my favorite Geek Culture online retailers, Bud’s Art Book, has it available for a hefty discount here .