This month’s “DC Loves the ’90s” celebration has mainly been an exercise in nostalgia, looking back at a thirty-year-old aesthetic by a culture and fandom which has moved on to new frontiers. But it would be a mistake to think of it as a dead decade. The legacy of the 1990s is alive and well in the DC Universe, bearing some of our most celebrated icons who have managed to evolve along with the times. Today, let’s celebrate the Class of 199X, and the nine most enduring characters it’s given us through the decades since.
One of the most interesting characters to emerge from the 1990s was also one of the last gifts to Gotham City from the great Denny O’Neil: the fanatical Jean-Paul Valley, a troubled soul who fills in for Batman with a vengeful fury before emerging as a hero in his own right. With a soul-seeking mission which puts him frequently at odds with the zealous Order of St. Dumas that bequeathed him his training and abilities, Azrael became the last original character to carry his own solo comic series for one hundred issues. Today, writer Dan Watters continues Azrael’s story through the pages of Arkham City: The Order of the World, Batman: Urban Legends and Sword of Azrael.
Few superhero comics represented the weapon-toting, muscle-bound, pouch-heavy aesthetic excess of the 1990s quite like WildC.A.T.s, the flagship series in Jim Lee’s WildStorm line. And while every WildC.A.T. had the look, nobody on the team sported that essential ’90s ’tude quite like Cole Cash, the bandana-masked Grifter. Always ready with a sardonic quip and apparently one improvised step ahead of his enemies, it was hard not to be charmed by this gun-toting, grown-up Bart Simpson. When DC acquired WildStorm in 1998, Grifter endured as one of the brand’s biggest stars and has enjoyed multiple dalliances since with DC continuity. Today, after a recent stint bodyguarding Lucius Fox in Batman and Batman: Urban Legends, Grifter stars in a brand new WildC.A.T.s series which puts the vigilante deeper in touch with DC than ever before. The first enemy up on Cole’s list: The Court of Owls. They’re not gonna know hoo hit ’em.
The Batgirls: Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain
Let us not forget that two of the most beloved Bats are daughters of the ’90s. With one initially in the orbit of Tim Drake’s tenure as Robin, and the other a product of the climactic decade-ending “No Man’s Land” event, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain both did their time before finding a place in the Batsignal spotlight. The effects were more immediate for Cass, who would star in the very first ongoing Batgirl series as the 2000s began for nearly 75 issues. Stephanie had a longer journey to independence, starting as the Spoiler followed by a brief and tragic turn as the first female Robin until finally, in 2009, getting her own chance to sport the bat emblem as a worthy Batgirl in her own right. And which of them is Batgirl today? As a wise young lady once said, “Why not both?” Today you can enjoy Cass and Steph alike living their best lives in the ongoing Batgirls series (with a soupçon of Babs).
Just squeaking into the ’90s in the spring of 1999, Courtney Whitmore is the herald of an even older brand of nostalgia, breathing fresh young life into the historic Justice Society of America and All-Star Squadron of the Golden Age. Debuting like a called shot in her very own series, Courtney is the stepdaughter of Stripesy, a Golden Age sidekick to the original Star-Spangled Kid, and the inheritor of Starman’s Cosmic Staff. But you probably know that already, because you’ve been following the live action Stargirl series currently in its third and final season. It’s not many characters, and even fewer this recent in comics history, who earn such a hefty starring role outside of comics—which just goes to show how far this Stargirl has flown.
The Reign of the Supermen
No event in the ’90s rocked the DC Universe quite like The Death of Superman. But just as seismic as the loss of our greatest hero was the rise of the new candidates to take his place: Steel, Superboy, Cyborg Superman and Eradicator. The entirely human engineer John Henry Irons was the closest to Superman in spirit and has remained a loyal supporter to the Superman family ever since—even enjoying a recent romance with Superman’s Smallville sweetheart, Lana Lang. Superboy, the so-called “Metropolis Kid,” went on to have a hundred-issue series of his own, a definitive place on multiple incarnations of the Teen Titans and Young Justice, and has even maintained enough popularity to earn his own limited series from this year’s “DC Round Robin” competition. Cyborg Superman has enjoyed another kind of fame: as the destroyer of Coast City in his shocking heel-turn. The tortured Hank Henshaw is equal parts foe to Superman and Green Lantern alike. Eradicator has admittedly been more of a footnote since the Reign, but made an appearance of sorts in Superman & Lois’s debut season and was instrumental in bringing the original Superman back to life in the first place…so, you might say Eradicator’s legacy lives on through the Man of Steel himself.
The Superman-killer Doomsday may have been the headline grabber back in the ’90s, but time has proven the true villain of the decade to be the terror of Santa Prisca: the man who broke the Bat, Bane. As the orchestrator of the eponymous Knightfall, Bane made his mark in Gotham City by working smarter, not harder, wearing Batman’s resistance down to a nub before snapping his back over his knee. Bane has remained in Batman’s A-List rogues gallery ever since, always playing the long game when it comes to bringing his chosen enemy down…even if it takes 85 issues, as in Tom King’s 2016 Batman run. With surprising revelations about Bane’s true nature having come to light in the recent Joker series by James Tynion IV and Guillem March, only time will tell where this Santa Priscan satan will land next.
In 1993, it was difficult to imagine a more dire time to be a Green Lantern. Hal Jordan, the greatest Lantern of them all, was driven mad with grief and power by what we’d only discover a decade later to have been an alien parasite. The Guardians, and the Lantern Corps as a whole, were slain by his hand. Only one new recruit, a Torchbearer of convenience in a universe gone dark, remained to carry the mission of the Green Lanterns forward in its bleakest era: Latino comic book artist and New York City resident Kyle Rayner. Though chosen not through any test of characters as his forebears had been, but in a desperate encounter with a Guardian out of options, Kyle Rayner would wield his ring with courage, fortitude and a boundless imagination. When Hal eventually returned, now redeemed by his tenure as the Spectre and the revelation of his psyche’s poisoning by Parallax, Kyle had already evolved further by embodying the power of will itself as the hero Ion. And as the colors and corps of the Lanterns proliferated, Kyle became the first to pass the trials of the White Lantern, wielding the power of all emotions through his irrepressible humanity. He’s retreated from the spotlight in the Post-Rebirth years to clear the way for newer Lanterns, but Kyle Rayner fans remember a time not very long ago when he shone brighter than any hero in the universe.
The 1990s revolutionized children’s entertainment. Animation, movies and comics for kids offered a newfound sophistication and respect for their young audience’s awareness that fans of all ages could appreciate. Leading the way was the madcap, zany wit of Young Justice, which brought the decade’s new class of heroes together for the kinds of adventures their older counterparts would typically write off as far too silly, and yet were no less dire. The “Core Four,” Bart Allen (Impulse), Cassie Sandsmark (Wonder Girl), Kon-El (the aforementioned Superboy), and Tim Drake (technically a child of the ’80s, but grandfathered in for not donning the Robin suit until 1990), represented one of the tightest friendships among kid superheroes that could be found in comics, and has been sorely missed since the conclusion of its 55-issue run. While other Young Justices have emerged since, from the four-season animated series to a 2019 comeback written by Brian Michael Bendis, the original team lives on and are currently in the middle of unearthing the unspoken trauma stemming from their earlier adventures together in Dark Crisis: Young Justice.
The Class of Batman: The Animated Series
The greatest legacy of the 1990s to the DC Universe isn’t a character, or even a team, but a show. It’s almost impossible to express just how much of an impact 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series has had on Batman. Sure, it gave us original characters treasured to this day, from Renee Montoya to Harley Quinn—arguably the most popular DC character since Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman themselves. But it also systematically redefined every character it touched. Through BTAS, Poison Ivy blossomed from a man-hating femme fatale to a radical environmental crusader. The Riddler took on an air of style and panache which would elevate him to a classier style of villain. For the first time, we truly felt the pain of losing Harvey Dent as Batman’s closest friend and ally. Mark Hamill’s delectably layered performance of the Joker consolidated a historically conflicted figure of mirth and menace. And of course, the award-winning “Heart of Ice” turned Mr. Freeze from a stack of bunk science and ice puns into one of Gotham’s most tragic figures. What Julius Schwartz did for DC’s heroes in the 1950s, breathing new life into their stable for a new era, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini did for Batman’s world in the ’90s.
And then…there’s Batman himself. For many of us, it’s impossible to read a Batman comic today without hearing the grief-laden voice of Kevin Conroy underneath the cowl. That’s not just a case of perspective, but design: Conroy’s Batman has had such an impact on today’s comic book writers and artists that they can’t help but channel the performance of what’s considered by most fans to be the perfect Batman voice, bar none. The series’ only theatrical film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, lets us into Batman’s tortured inner world in a way rarely experienced before, and as a result, has informed every Batman story told ever since.
Of every project DC undertook in the 1990s, it was Batman: The Animated Series which has loomed largest these thirty years past. And among that rich skyline of influences, Kevin Conroy’s voice stands proudly as the tallest skyscraper of them all.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask…the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.