There was a lot of crap in the '90s, but there were still a plethora of great comics being produced. It’s just that the ratio of crap to good comics was completely skewed, and the industry almost died.
Speculation and the collectors’ market was terrible for the industry, but what made it worse was all the horrible products being churned out. You look back at a lot of those famous storylines and series and most of them have no artistic merit or meaningful value as actual comics (and they aren’t even entertaining to read).
Personally, I think the '90s comics that are most famous, like Death of Superman, KnightFall, Clone Saga, Spawn, Age of Apocalypse, Onslaught, and Maximum Carnage are straight garbage. They might have some nostalgia value, but there’s basically no reason to read stuff like that when you could, y’know, read something worthwhile.
Vertigo was created in the early '90s and their catalogue is obviously full of great reading material. Even the bottom tier Vertigo comics were still more interesting than most of the other Marvel and DC superheroes. Not everything was as good as their flagship series like Sandman, Hellblazer, Sandman Mystery Theatre, and Shade, but even the lesser titles showed some attempt at respecting the reader’s attention span. For example, take Animal Man after Morrison and Milligan were finished with it. It was still a solid read, especially when Delano took over.
The late '80s and early '90s were basically the British Invasion of comics. You had guys like Morrison (guess he might be Scottish, but whatever; I’m an insensitive American anyway), Delano, Milligan, Ellis, Ennis, Gaiman, Millar, and a number of good artists doing work for the big two (but mostly DC or Vertigo).
Don’t forget, books like Preacher, Invisibles, and Transmetropolitan started in the '90s. Not to mention Morrison’s run on JLA. And there were also the “superhero” books that were on the fringe of the DC Universe, like Hitman and Starman. If there’s a Marvel equivalent, I can’t think of them right now.
I really think DC kicked Marvel’s ass in the ‘90s. I’m trying to think of any Marvel titles that can try to measure up to something like Kingdom Come, and I can’t think of anything, other than Marvels. Spider-Man was sucking during that period. (I think DeMatteis’ first run on Spectacular is the highlight of the era.) The X-Men sucked. (But Joe Casey’s run on Cable was amazing, as was his Deathlok spinoff - although the Deathlok series might’ve been the early 2000s.)
Fantastic Four wasn’t very good, either. I remember those early '90s stories in particular, where Johnny married a Skrull and then Marvel made Sue dress like a slut. It was pathetic.
Avengers? What happened in Avengers during the '90s? Operation Galactic Storm? Convoluted crossover. Avengers/X-Men: Bloodties? Another weak crossover. And I still think the Busiek/Perez Avengers is really hard to read because of its Claremontesque sensibilities.
There were those Infinity Gauntlet crossovers and cosmic series that Groggy mentioned. I don’t think those have aged well, though, even though I have nothing but fondness for Silver Surfer by Starlin, Marz, and Lim. They might be entertaining, but I still can’t imagine thinking of them in the same tier as something like JLA.
The proliferation of comics before the bust probably means there’s a lot of stuff that flew under my radar. It’s impossible to have read everything, or even most things, that were published in that era. I just can’t think of any other Marvel or non-Vertigo DC comics that have aged well. Wait - DC also started Paradox back in the '90s, and they made some classics like Road to Perdition, Green Candles, and A History of Violence.
Even Image did a handful of good comics in the '90s, after the founders realized that they needed some help writing. Alan Moore took over WildC.A.T.s [with Travis Charest, baby! (on some issues)] and Rob Liefeld’s Supreme. Alan Moore’s Supreme might be my favorite Superman stories ever, including All-Star Superman - that’s how much I like it. He also wrote the 1963 miniseries for Image, a pastiche of Silver Age-era Marvels. Astro City started out at Image, I think, before DC bought WildStorm. So did America’s Best Comics (okay, that’s late '90s, but it should still count). Ellis did StormWatch and The Authority.
Dark Horse was kicking ass in the '90s, too. Concrete, Sin City, Hellboy, Martha Washington, Grendel, Nexus, Groo, Usagi Yojimbo, the Mask, Big Guy & Rusty, Hardboiled, and a bunch of other stuff. Bryan Talbot’s A Tale of One Bad Rat is brilliant. Joe Kubert’s Fax from Sarajevo is a graphic novel that really impacted me when I discovered it, and I still think it’s a superlative piece of work from one of the all-time legends of comics. Even some of those Star Wars comics weren’t all that bad, actually. They aren’t anything that will transform a neophyte into a full-blown hardcore fan, but a bunch of them were still more fun and entertaining than a lot of superhero stuff.
Finally, I think there were plenty of indie comics that are fantastic. Moore and Campbell’s From Hell is one of those comics that a lot of connoisseurs would consider one of the greatest of all time. Moore also did another OGN called A Small Killing, which is probably one of his lesser-known works but also one of his most interesting. Jeff Smith’s Bone is a true epic. Peter Bagge’s Hate comics are pretty great. There was Sam & Max by Steve Purcell - remember the cartoon? It’s been making a comeback as a computer game recently. But that Sam & Max comic is so awesome and funny that I will never part with my TPB. Cerebus and American Splendor were still going strong. Bendis and Brubaker were still toiling in the undergrounds at the time, but even their early, non-supehero works kick ass. (Fire, Goldfish, and Jinx from Bendis and Lowlife from Brubaker.) Guys like Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes are still the hallmark of ultra-hip, pretentious, indie rock kids today, and back then they were hitting their stride. Lapham started Stray Bullets in the '90s.
And I barely read anything from the other comics companies that rose and died, like Valiant and Malibu. But the few comics from those companies that I did read, I got the impression that they were at least as good the average Marvel comic.
Street Fighter by Malibu comics, specifically issue 2, is one of the funniest things I have ever read in my entire experience of reading comics. On the scale of Unintentional Comedy, Malibu’s Street Fighter #2 is Mike Tyson’s mouth. I’m not sure if the people who made that comic didn’t know what they were doing or if they were just such geniuses that a commoner like myself can’t discern their intentions.
I’m skimming over what I just wrote and I guess it looks like I’m one of those Internet dudes who’s trying to show off how much knowledge he has on an esoteric subject. Too bad comic books are the most important thing in life (after Jesus). Too bad I know so much about them.
Hey, bub - you asked first.