The 1990s were a period of boom and bust for the comic book industry. Many of the highest-selling single issues of all time (like X-Men #1, still the record holder with more than 7 million copies moved) were released during that decade, and the two major publishers were churning out huge quantities to meet the demand of not just diehard readers but also speculators, who falsely assumed that the hot-ticket titles they were picking up in droves (and in multiple variant covers) would appreciate in value. It was a bubble market, of course—the craze inevitably died down, as casual buyers turned to other investment opportunities and plenty of longtime readers abandoned ship, feeling burned by too many bloated crossovers and cheap gimmicks. If you needed proof that the bubble was bursting, Marvel filing for bankruptcy in 1996 did the trick.
One business strategy both companies adopted, during this perfect storm of greed and desperation, was to inflict giant, attention-grabbing changes on their flagship attractions—to kill off, cripple, corrupt, or otherwise dramatically alter their most popular characters. Commercially speaking, the most successful of these was “The Death Of Superman,” which made headlines worldwide and sold like hotcakes, sending both DC and Marvel racing to the drawing board to cook up more shock-and-awe sales stunts. The 10 storylines listed below, including one that predates the short-lived demise of Kal-El, all generated a lot of attention. How each of them were received by fans is another matter entirely.
Superheroes—especially Marvel superheroes—are defined by their problems. Peter Parker can’t catch a break, the X-Men are hated and feared by society, and Batman can never get over the death of his parents. These are the engines that drive 80 years of serialized storytelling, so what happens to a hero when you take away the central, defining peril of their life? Writer Peter David attempted to find out in 1991, when he effectively “cured” The Incredible Hulk of his overwhelming anger at the world. David had already spent a few years at this point establishing that the various Hulk personas—the childlike Savage Hulk, the cunning mobster type Joe Fixit, and Bruce Banner himself—were all manifestations of Banner’s dissociative identity disorder, and now he took it a step further, tapping superhero psychologist Doc Samson to merge the three into an amalgam of their best traits, with none of their weaknesses. (To compensate, this new, “perfected” Hulk would revert to his scrawny Banner body if he ever got too angry.) As it turns out, though, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is still a lot more compelling than Dr. Jekyll Who Is Also Really Strong And Very Cool, and so this “merged” Hulk was eventually revealed to be just another, separate personality, later dubbed “The Professor,” and kicked firmly into the background along with The Pantheon, his short-lived team of superhero sidekicks. [William Hughes]
Explicitly pitched within DC as a way to delay a storyline in which Superman would’ve married Lois Lane, the “Death Of Superman” arc was all about finding out what it would take to get Superman off the table without resorting to kryptonite. That’s where Doomsday, a giant beast with spike-like bones sticking out of his body, comes in. With virtually no personality to speak of, Doomsday is what you get when you say “We want Superman to die and we don’t really care how.” The two fought, with big chunks of Metropolis getting leveled, and both Superman and Doomsday were dead by the end. Immediately after that, DC began laying the groundwork for Superman’s eventual resurrection, with his body disappearing from his grave and four imposters taking up the Superman name. These included Superboy (a teenager with a leather jacket), the Eradicator (who had sick shades and shot beams out of his hands), Cyborg Superman (who was just a Terminator), and Steel (who wore a metal suit like Iron Man). The Cyborg turned evil, and while Superboy and Steel fought him off, Eradicator killed himself to bring the real Superman back to life—briefly giving Supes an emo black costume in the process. In the end, the massive stunt had little impact on the larger DC universe beyond giving Superboy and Steel the spotlight for a while. [Sam Barsanti]
In contrast to “Death Of Superman,” which was walked back almost immediately, it took a whole year for Batman to fully recover from the beating he suffered at the hands of a tactical genius on super-steroids named Bane in “Knightfall.” Rather than killing Batman outright, Bane wore him down over a few issues by setting a bunch of villains loose and waiting until they softened him up. With Batman exhausted, Bane easily kicked his ass, breaking his spine in the process. The fight left Batman nearly paralyzed, but instead of allowing Robin or Nightwing to take over as Gotham’s protector, he gave the gig to a newbie named Jean-Paul Valley. An escaped member of a cult, Valley had been trained from birth to become an assassin named Azrael and was secretly brainwashed by a program called The System. Valley became increasingly unhinged and violent, modifying his Batsuit with lethal gadgets like a flamethrower and a razor-blade launcher, but Bruce was eventually able to fix his spine with mystical healing techniques and returned to Gotham to fight Valley for the cowl. He won, but the public’s faith in Batman had been totally shaken—not to mention that Robin and Nightwing were pretty pissed that Bruce gave the Batman name to such a maniac. This gave Batman a desire to trust his allies more, setting the stage for the modern Bat-family. [Sam Barsanti]
As DC was preparing to resurrect the biggest name in superheroism just months after killing him off, crosstown rival Marvel was locking and loading bombshells of its own to drop on its bestselling X-line. Timed to the 30th anniversary of the X-Men—and launched while “The Death Of Superman” was still in progress—“Fatal Attractions” pitted the various mutant teams against a resurgent Magneto and his plan to subject humanity to a global electromagnetic attack from his new orbiting sanctuary, Avalon. Like a lot of major comics crossovers, it wasn’t so much a complex, satisfying story as a daisy chain of “shocking” changes to the status quo, playing out between the hologram-sporting covers of six linked issues. In the gross-out climax, an enraged Magneto painfully draws all of the adamantium out of Wolverine’s body through his pores in big goopy tendrils, revealing that Logan’s claws—now purely bone—were there all along. But that was just the big headline in a multi-month event that also saw Xavier mind-wiping his archrival in retaliation and Colossus, reeling with grief over the death of his sister, defecting to the supervillain’s side. To its credit, Marvel didn’t immediately backpedal the way DC did—it’d be years before Wolverine would get his metal endoskeleton back and the master of magnetism would awake from his coma. [A.A. Dowd]
“The Death Of Superman” didn’t have much of a lasting impact, but it did make some waves throughout the DC universe. Specifically, while the evil Cyborg Superman was running amok, he destroyed the hometown of Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, and set off the “Emerald Twilight” arc. Overcome with grief, Jordan used his Lantern powers to bring everyone in the city back to life, a move that was strictly forbidden by his Green Lantern bosses, the Guardians Of The Universe. The Green Lanterns are basically space cops, so the Guardians tasked a bunch of them with hauling Jordan in so he could be punished, but he flipped out, ended up murdering a couple of them, and took control of the Guardians’ supreme power. He rebranded himself Parallax, a big-time supervillain, and continued to try and use his power to bring back Coast City—but, like, in an evil way. When it was clear that this wasn’t going to work, he fell back into being a more general villain, right up until Jordan sacrificed his life to prevent the Earth’s sun from being destroyed. Hal Jordan is arguably the most famous Green Lantern, but thanks to “Emerald Twilight,” he spent most of the ’90s either dead or as a bad guy. [Sam Barsanti]
Decades after Super Friends made Aquaman a pop culture punchline, DC is still trying to figure out how to make the character cool. In 1994, writer Peter David’s big attempt at reconceiving the aquatic hero came in the form of physical mutilation. During a clash with the supervillain Charybdis, Aquaman’s powers are neutralized and he finds himself at the mercy of the beings he could previously command when his hand is dipped into a pool of piranhas. Already exiled from Atlantis, the hero is dealt another devastating blow with the loss of his hand, which is replaced with a harpoon that makes the character look more like a pirate, especially with the beard and long hair. That look reflects Aquaman’s new renegade attitude, and it’s not a surprise that this is the era that most heavily informs the look of Jason Momoa’s big-screen action-hero version of the character. The comic-book version is more tortured than Momoa’s “Aw yeah!” interpretation, but the harpoon hand ends up being a really cool weapon, especially when it gets upgraded to a retractable version that he can control with his mind. [Oliver Sava]
Say what you like about most of these big, character-altering attempts at smashing the status quo: At least their editors generally had an endpoint in mind when they were dreaming them up. Not so for the infamous “Clone Saga,” which started with a (relatively) simple, hooky premise—What if the Peter Parker who’d spent the last 30 years web-slinging around New York was actually a cheap copy of his original self?—and then spread to swallow up two entire years of weekly Spider-Man comics. (The damn things just sold too well for anybody to stop, apparently.) Along the way, readers were introduced to a whole host of assorted Spider-Clones: Scarlet Spider Ben Reilly; the “original” Peter Parker, who was just trying to reclaim his life (and did for a time, replacing the married, soon-to-be-a-dad Peter as the star of all four mainline Spider books); Kaine, the brooding, deformed antihero capable of seeing the future; and even the goofily named “Spidercide,” the most overtly murderous of the bunch. But not even four Peters Parker were enough for the Spidey-team’s writers, who also introduced figures like the apparently godlike Judas Traveller, and a whole host of insane clone-bakers and geneticists, all claiming that their rivals were the ones lying about what was really going on. It was, in other words, an overwhelming mess, and Marvel eventually swept the whole damn thing off the board, declaring once and for all that Peter was the real Peter, Ben was dead, and that the whole thing had been a ludicrously complicated plot orchestrated by the Green Goblin, himself back from the dead to retake his place as Peter’s arch-nemesis and retroactively architect a million editorial headaches. [William Hughes]
Charles Xavier’s son, David “Legion” Haller, had a rough life. Traumatized by a terrorist attack as a child, David found his mutation manifesting as multiple personalities, each with their own superpower, and new traumas would continue to fracture his mental state. David doesn’t make the best decisions, and in the “Legion Quest” event, he travels back in time to kill his father’s greatest enemy, Magneto. He accidentally kills his dad, though, and 1995’s X-Men #41 creates a new timeline where the supervillain Apocalypse has taken control of the entire world. “Age Of Apocalypse” would take over the X-Men line that year, with the core titles being reimagined for this dystopian context. It’s one of the most celebrated events of ’90s X-books, giving creators the opportunity to reimagine these characters in an AU that replaces increasingly tangled continuity with something fresh and exciting. Characters received bold visual makeovers, relationships dramatically changed (Rogue and Magneto are married???), and the storytelling was action-packed and full of surprises. Marvel has returned to the world of “Age Of Apocalypse” on multiple occasions because the original story was so popular, and in 2011, writer Mike Carey riffed on the idea for “Age Of X,” introducing a new universe created by Legion where mutants have almost gone extinct. [Oliver Sava]
The ultimate threat, the biggest bad of them all. That’s how Marvel teased Onslaught, the hulking, mysterious supervillain at the center of one of the worst-received crossovers of the ’90s. To say that the guy’s reputation preceded him would be an understatement: He announced his arrival by punching the supposedly unstoppable Juggernaut from Canada all the way to New Jersey. The choice of targets turned out to be a clue to the heavy’s identity, as did his headwear, a conspicuously familiar helmet. Onslaught, as readers eventually learned, was a kind of split personality of Professor X’s—a physical manifestation of his worst impulses, combined with hidden traces of Magneto’s twisted mind, which Xavier absorbed when he psychically lobotomized him at the end of “Fatal Attractions” (see above). For many, the Onslaught saga, which dragged on for months, monopolized many major Marvel titles, and led into another giant crossover (see below), was the epitome of a bad comics event: a huge time and money suck built around a cool concept, not a good story. But there were interesting ideas within it, from exploring Xavier’s dark side (including a supremely creepy callback to his Silver Age habit of pining for teenage Jean Grey) to the revelation that the X-Men traitor Bishop came back in time to stop was none other than the kindly bald guy in the wheelchair. [A.A. Dowd]
As it turns out, Evil Professor X was so damn powerful, he knocked some of Marvel’s longest-running characters straight out of their home studio, landing them in the laps of Image Comics founders Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld instead. In-universe(s), the subsequent migration to a new reality—dubbed Heroes Reborn—was pinned on Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman’s cosmically-powered kid, Franklin Richards, who spirited his family and their pals the Avengers into a new universe at the moment they apparently “sacrificed” themselves to stop Onslaught’s rampage. In the real world, though, listless sales had inspired the parent company to farm a quartet of flagging books out to the popular Liefeld and Lee, who took up duties on Captain America and The Avengers, and Iron Man and Fantastic Four, respectively. Gifted with updated backstories, and freed from decades of restrictive continuity, these newer versions of the characters could have run indefinitely, if rumor of Marvel’s intentions are to be believed. But enthusiasm quickly waned, first for Liefeld’s books, and then for the line as a whole, and so Franklin was tasked with smashing the paired realities back together. Once Reborn, the Heroes now Returned, confident in the knowledge that they had done their duty—i.e., shaken things up in the comic shop long enough to generate a ton of new revenue for their parent company yet again. [William Hughes]