Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gems of the 90's: Sidekicks

This is not a gem of the 90's

Gold, silver, and bronze… the ages of comic books. We invoke them with fondness, nostalgia, and sometimes ridicule but always with reverence. We talk about the things that characterize each age: The odd combination of noir and jingoism of the Golden Age; the unbridled craziness and outlandish science of the Silver Age; the progressive political activism of the Bronze Age. And then we talk about the 90’s, and we tend to do so in extremes. First, there are the 90’s haters:

“The 90’s sucked.”

“I cannot believe how much X-Force I have in my long box.”

“Kyle who?”

Then you have the 90’s nostalgics:

“I have EVERY issue of Hitman.”

“Kyle Rayner has a cute bottom.”

“Dude, what ever happened to Shatterstar?”

So why do we live at these extremes when it comes to one of the many decades in comics? There was most certainly a realignment in the creative energy behind comics. In the quest to be ‘not just for kids’, some comics became graphically violent to the extent that it became their main selling point. Comics became art driven, rather than writing driven, and the defection of creators to upstarts like Image and Dark Horse loosened the editorial control that, for better or worse, had at least given us our books on time. There’s a lot to be pissed about from the 90’s, and most 90’s apologists look back at X-Cutioner’s Song and The Infinity Gauntlet with fondness because, like it or not, it’s part of their youth.

But for a moment let’s set aside the view of the 90’s haters who shudder at the thought of one more X-Book and the 90’s generation who cut their teeth on Cable’s giant shoulder pads. Periodically on this blog, I’m going to give readers my two cents about the gems of the 1990’s, and why, in my opinion, it may be just as important as the silver age in influencing the comics we pull off the rack nowadays.

My first gem of the 90’s is one near and dear to my heart:

One of the hallmarks of the 90’s was book inflation. Name a character, and chances are he or she had at least a mini during the 1990’s, and one of the few areas where this was actually successful was with sidekicks for major characters. Tim Drake took over the mantle of Robin at the end of the 1980’s, and after a few successful minis, he starred in the first ongoing Robin series. The 1990’s also saw the creation of Impulse, a new and beloved sidekick for the Flash who, after falling out of favor with his mentor, would have his own popular ongoing series. The 1990’s had some big and annoying publicity stunts, the most famous of which is the Death of Superman, but out of that overblown marketing ploy was born Conner Kent, who had a reasonably popular ongoing series and was part of a highly successful Teen Titans relaunch.

What is compelling about the 90’s generation of sidekick, which began with Tim Drake, is their independence from their mentors and their ability to capture the interest of readers in their own right. In fact, many of these 'sidekicks' spent large stretches of time in full separation from their mentors, which, in many ways, allowed them to more fully cement their positions in their respective heroic traditions. While much of the superhero genre toiled away trying to become edgy and more adult, a few characters stood out as vibrant and deeply human heroes that readers young and old could identify with and root for. It’s no coincidence that these characters have all played major parts in the big crossovers of the past several years. It’s just a shame they keep dying.

I will periodically chime in with more gems of the 90's, but for now I pose the question:

What characters, sidekick or otherwise, is your favorite from the 90's, and is he or she still with us today?


Julian Lytle said...

She's kinda still around in New Warriors, but I want her a mutant again.
It twas the jump off!

Nate said...

Hey, toss Dick Grayson the respect he deserves. THE sidekick that set the standard, and then went off to lead his own bad-ass super-team. (I'm sorry, but the New Warriors or Young Avengers would never be able to take on HIVE or Brother Blood)

And he was the first sidekick to graduate to full-on separate status.

Tim Drake is a pale carbon copy.

Chris Griswold said...

Toss-up between Kyle Rayner and Bart Allen.

Chris Griswold said...


Devon Sanders said...

Though not a sidekick per se' and barely making the 90's cut by 5 months, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Stargirl.

lou said...

Superboy is my favorite. He is not alive anymore, obviously!

Jon said...

Two spring to mind immediately:

X (the Dark Horse guy). Sort of an anti-hero, before every man and his dog became an anti-hero and the concept ran dry. 25 issues of Steven Grant fun, then it died, never to be seen again.

Ghost Rider 2099. It's a bit dated now, but back then Len Kaminski's cyber-speak was pretty new. It was so much fun, the formula for each issue was basically: big robot fight, couple pages of character stuff, then set up big robot fight for next issue.

I could probably go all nostalgic and keep going, so many titles I liked died after short lives.

Oh, and since you brought him up, I LOVED Shatterstar when X-Force first started. Major missed opportunity with him.

SallyP said...

Oh the 90's. So much that was terrible, and yet, quite a bit that was actually pretty good.

And yes, Kyle DOES have a nice bottom.

KENT! said...

-Jack Knight (MIA these days)
-Hellboy (dude is an unstoppable freight train of awesomeness)
-Resurrection Man (dead fer reals?)

I did have a long-standing affection for the Team Titans until I re-read the series earlier this year and discovered it's a travesty (it's true, sometimes you can't go home again), as was most of Marv Wolfman's oeuvre in the 90's (also re-read Deathstroke and while not nearly as bad as Team Titans, still not very good...I'm afraid to re-read the 90's New Titans).

Unknown said...

I'm not disputing you that the evolution of some of the incidentals into full-blown characters in their own right was in many ways a good thing. It let authors play with new stories and new aspects of existing characters without messing with the archetypal nature of the central stories. Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Cannonball- even Cable- gave rise to an edgier, grittier, more urbane style of storytelling that was essential to moving away from comic books as putative kids' fare and into comic books as a powerful and flexible medium for any kind of story.

But to do that, first you had to prove that a) there was a market for it, and b) that market wouldn't destroy your core market. I would argue that X-Force was actually essential to that process (in addition to being, at least for a long run, a great series) because it took a bunch of underused characters, gave them flesh, and wrapped them in a compelling plot filled with angst, violence, and a surprising disdain for the powers that be. This was Gen-X's comic.

And that's where I take issue with Big Mike. The key point of the rising sidekick/side character trend in the 1990s was that these characters were, by and large, uncomfortable with the big names/stories of which they were a part and set out to do it better, not through confrontation with that power, but just by doing it themselves. Generationally, this is the story of Gen X. They didn't fight their self-absorbed boomer parents directly. They just volunteered more, payed attention to the issues more, and spent more time with their kids. Cable and Shatterstar didn't confront the X-men and say, "your limited use of violence makes you less effective." They just shot Black Tom and didn't care whether he died or not.

The problem being, you can't really do that with the flagship characters of a series because it risks destroying the series in the process (think X-Men). So, really great writers are attracted to the fringes of a series or a character on the edge (Neil Gaiman being the king of this).

And that's how it should be. Let a writer prove themselves on X-Force or Robin before you give them the reins with your primary mythology. The '90s saw an amazing growth of these kinds of stories and storytellers, but for some reason the essentials lessons seem to have worn off.

Rambo said...

While I don't dispute your argument, I do take issue with your actual examples. Impulse, while starting out being trained by Wally, was such a pain that he was cast out and left to fend for himself, so, not a sidekick. Superboy was one of the "Supermen" that appeared following the Death of Superman, in fact claiming to be the man himself. Supes took him under his wing later in a vague sense and more stringently into the late nineties and early 2000's, but I still consider him to be independant of Big Blue. Robin, in my opinion, is the only one of the bunch that was really a true sidekick, based on his consistent work with Batman and his position in the DCU as a right-hand to the Bat.