The 90s was a wild decade for the American comic book industry. It was the era when comics hit their highest peaks and lowest valleys due to a mix of reasons. In the wake of landmark titles such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman that were released in the late 80s, many people realized that comic books were no longer “just for kids.” There was an undeniable demand for darker and more mature storylines. The campiness and pop of the Silver Age of comics were over. It was time for the Modern Age.
While this shift in taste was happening, the buying trends were also changing. The late 80s saw comics like Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 sold to collectors for thousands of dollars. The historical significance of these books being the first appearances of Superman and Spider-man, respectively, is what astronomically raised their value. Mainstream news outlets took notice of these sales and boldly reported that comic books were the next big financial investment. These reports caused a large wave of speculative buyers to flood the market, thinking they could get in on this new gold mine.
Soon enough, the major publishers acted to capitalize on this historical surge in sales by pumping out every type of “limited edition” comic book imaginable. From limited-run variant covers to the now infamous foil and glow-in-the-dark covers, Marvel, DC, Image, and Valiant were notorious in this era for relying on outlandish gimmicks to play into the speculator craze. Publishers were also obsessed with creating new characters and launching new titles to cash in on the perceived value of first appearances, boldly labeling them as collector’s items. But as quickly as the boom happened, everything crashed faster than a speeding bullet.
Marvel continued publishing books at an aggressive rate. Every new title released meant substantial print orders were being made to meet “demand.” But as time went on, readers lost interest. After the sheen of foil covers and first appearances faded, it revealed Marvel was more concerned with cashing in on trends than telling compelling stories. For the speculative buyers, seeing their “investments” collect dust on store racks was the last thing they wanted to see. What makes Action Comics #1 the Holy Grail of comic book collecting is that there are very few copies left that exist in the world. Because Marvel was printing out “collector’s items” on a massive scale, then their value would never amount to anything more than was labeled on the front cover.
By 1996, after a slew of dwindling sales and questionable business decisions, Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy. Marvel’s actions created a ripple effect felt across all corners of the industry. Not only were titles being canceled left and right, but comic book shops throughout the country were also shutting down in droves. What was once called the Modern Age of comics has since gained the alternate title of the Dark Age. The moniker is a reference to the gritty and mature tones that defined the era and how comic books as we knew it almost came to an end.
Being both creatively and financially dried up, Marvel contracted the help of independent creators Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti. The pair was making waves in the industry with their independent publication, Event Comics. The higher-ups at Marvel took notice of the success of their breakout titles like Ash and Painkiller Jane and how they interacted with fans and retailers. The two had successfully made names for themselves outside of the Big Two. With the comic book industry as a whole in such a rocky state at the time, Marvel was willing to take the risk with both Quesada and Palmiotti at the helm. Wanting to brand the books apart from the regular line, which was not selling very well, the pair came up with a name and logo. And so, the Marvel Knights imprint was born.
To get this bold idea running, Marvel insisted on pursuing talents to create the best matchups for the right books. These creators would act as the faces of the line, doing TV and radio appearances to hype up the release of books and pull in readers who have since left the hobby, promising new and exciting stories. This pursuit of top talent, alongside the decision to have all books be digitally colored, meant bigger budgets were needed to produce such titles. Despite the heavy investment during a rough time, Marvel’s goal was to create a line of books that were visually and tonally distinct from the main line of titles.
With clear goals in mind, Joe and Jimmy laid out the plan of having the Marvel Knights line consist of four key books: Daredevil, Black Panther, The Punisher, and The Inhumans. The imprint was set to give long-time readers the dark and mature stories they craved while also providing fresh starts for new readers to jump in. Instead of being bogged down by the greater plot happening in the Marvel Universe, Marvel Knights focused on telling street-level stories with a more grounded approach to the characters. Being apart from the continuity of the other Marvel books gave new readers a chance to come in from the ground up.
Knowing that Marvel was not going to give them the reigns to their A-list characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, or even the X-Men, they strategically chose characters that either had no books being published or were close to being canceled. They also wanted to choose characters they had a personal connection with growing up. That made it easier for Marvel to give them the creative freedom they needed to create bold new stories. Because readers were not busy hyper-focusing on details from stories told in the past, they could set their sights solely on telling stories meant for the future.
Daredevil was a special exception in their handpicked lineup. As ambitious as they were about the whole project, they needed a bit of star power to help get it off the ground and were owed a favor they decided to call in. Daredevil was their first choice to lead the movement for a multitude of reasons. For the first time in history, Daredevil was on the verge of cancellation. To keep that from happening, Joe and Jimmy made a bold pitch to hand character to their friend and rising filmmaker Kevin Smith.
The trio became fast friends when they met at the premiere of Smith’s film, Mallrats. Smith credits comic books as one of his major creative influences. All three of them talked often about how much they loved Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil and how comics should be treated better since they influence so many other media. So, when it came down to planning who would be the creative teams for the books, Kevin’s name was the first and only name on the list for the Man Without Fear.
The team-up was a win-win situation for everyone involved. Smith could live out his lifelong dream of writing a Marvel comic book, let alone a Daredevil story. Marvel on the other hand could easily market the book as being written by one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood at the time.
What came to be was one the most iconic stories of the character in Guardian Devil. The story opens with a woman approaching Matt Murdock and claiming to have given birth to a baby without losing her virginity. The woman then leaves the baby in Matt’s protection, claiming she was guided by angels to do so. While investigating the identity of the baby, Matt gets approached by a man named Nicholas Macaabes, who claims that the baby is the reincarnation of the antichrist. This revelation jumpstarts a series of disturbing events that push Daredevil to the brink of insanity. Considering Smith was in the middle of filming Dogma while writing this book, you can see why the story heavily used themes and concepts present throughout Catholicism.
To this day, many fans consider Guardian Devil to be among the best Daredevil stories ever told. Steven S. DeKnight, the showrunner of Netflix’s Daredevil series, credits Smith’s work on Guardian Devil as inspiration for the show. The lasting acclaim and impact of the book is an accomplishment Smith can be proud of, considering how he often said he was terrified of not living up to the legacy left behind by Frank Miller.
Next on the plate was The Punisher, who had no book being published at the time. Joe and Jimmy saw this as prime real estate that could only go up. By that time, The Punisher was already an established character but with little popularity behind him. The stories that came before all felt very one-note, with The Punisher's main appeal being he was a gun-toting anti-hero. With the Punisher dormant, they took this as an opportunity to do something crazy and grab people’s attention. So they called up their friends Tom Sniegoski and Chris Golden, creators who’ve never touched the character in their careers. And what did they pitch? The Punisher in a horror story.
In this version of The Punisher, he was transformed into an angel of death who battles hordes of demons with magical weapons. Taking it even further, they enlisted the award-winning horror writer Bernie Wrightson to pencil the book with Palmiotti inking. While the story received heavy criticism from readers, it historically sold very well. Its off-the-wall premise generated enough buzz to get people talking about The Punisher again. After all, it’s not every day you see one of Marvel’s more grounded characters take a sharp turn into the supernatural.
But the plan was not to rely on shock and awe forever. The initial run served its purpose of getting eyes back on The Punisher. So, once Sniegoski and Golden wrapped up their story, The Punisher was handed off to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the duo behind Vertigo’s critically acclaimed Preacher. To this day, Ennis’ work on The Punisher is considered essential reading for fans of the cold-blooded assassin. Frank Castle was depicted as an unapologetic and homicidal killing machine, character traits signature to Ennis’ writing style. The duo delivered exactly what they were known for from Preacher. In some cases, Joe and Jimmy had to finesse their way to get some of Ennis’ darker subject matter to print because, at the time, the editorial team wanted to keep the material for younger audiences, but this was not the focus for the Marvel Knights line.
Today, Black Panther is among the most recognizable names under the Marvel banner, largely due to the widely successful MCU films. But back in 1998, not so much. The character was so irrelevant at the time that when Joe Quesada pitched to Christopher Priest that he write for the character, Priest could only respond with “Who?”. Despite being created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character never truly burst into mainstream prominence.
When Christopher Priest devised his modern take on the king of Wakanda, everything changed for the character and Joe and Jimmy were there to add to the process. Together, they took the character in a new direction, came up with new supporting characters, and created a brand new look with the help of artist Mark Texeria. The initial run was told from the perspective of Everett K. Ross, the character played by Martin Freeman in the MCU films. The story focuses on Ross’ assignment as the personal handler of T’Challa during the king’s inaugural visit to America in Brooklyn, New York. The “Coming to America”-inspired angle to the story gave the character all the space it needed to develop for modern readers. Not only did Priest depict Black Panther as cool and intimidating, but he also let the character be funny for a change.
From T’Challa’s established rulership over Wakanda to the technologically advanced aspects of his suit, they all started from Christopher Priest’s character-defining run. Both Ryan Coogler, director of the Black Panther film, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, award-winning author, and journalist, credit Christopher Priest as their foundational inspiration for their takes on Black Panther.
If you read comics in the 90s and claimed to know who The Inhumans were, let alone cared about their story, then you were probably a liar. Like Black Panther, the Inhumans were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 60s but were never considered big players in the Marvel Universe. This made pitching for the book to be the biggest gamble among the roster of Marvel Knights titles. But for Joe and Jimmy, it was The Inhumans’ irrelevance that compelled them to push so hard for a revival of the Royal Family. They saw the title as fertile ground for creating something entirely new for a modern generation of readers to discover.
What came to be was a 12-issue run written by Paul Jenkins, of Vertigo’s Hellblazer fame, and artist Jae Lee. The story takes place within the Inhuman homeland, Attilan, and focuses on the dark and barbaric aspects of their society. Being a race predicated on upholding their rich gene pool, the Inhumans operated on a caste system that enslaved a race of genetic outcasts called the Alpha Primitives. The book boldly explored the horrors of living in a conformist society and the weight of responsibility that comes from its rulership.
By its conclusion, the run effectively established the Inhumans as another major group for readers to keep an eye on. The Inhumans have since played greater roles in the overarching story of the Marvel Universe, as they became more involved in the affairs of both the X-Men and the Avengers.
The 90s will forever live in infamy as the era when comic book creators were obsessed with belts, pouches, shoulder pads, and power armor. What seemed like a wild and crazy time to be into comics, the 90s serves as a painful reminder of what can happen when superheroes, and the creators behind them, lose their way. Had it not been for the dreams of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti to create new and captivating stories, the landscape of comic books would not look anything like it does today.
It’s crazy to think that comic books nearly phased out less than 30 years ago, considering how culturally present both Marvel and DC are today. Seeing characters like Daredevil and Black Panther be among the most recognizable names in Marvel today is a testament to the legacy of the Marvel Knights. What started as Marvel’s last-ditch effort to survive in a dying industry became a major turning for the entertainment giant. May the Marvel Knights forever be revered as the heroes that saved the House of Ideas.