The '90s were a terrible time for comics. Major publishers were flooding the market with variant covers and expendable crossovers, while a gritty sensibility was grabbing the industry by the throat. But the worst '90s comics came in the form of the Marvel Heroes Reborn universe, a pocket universe where your favorite characters received new backstories, which included getting wiped of their memories and edged up to boost sales. If this change were organic, Heroes Reborn could have been interesting, but instead, it became a joke almost immediately. Within a year, the whole thing imploded.
We'll look at why Marvel felt the need to make such a drastic change to their creative strategy, which helped the company usher along this weird storyline, and how it affected the company as a whole. If you're too young to remember Heroes Reborn, read on and thank your lucky stars that you weren't tricked into buying these comics. If you lived through this series, you can finally learn what Marvel was thinking when they rebooted their entire universe.
In the late '80s and early '90s, the comic book business was booming. Vulture reported that in 1993 alone, the combined sale of every comic book publisher reached nearly a billion dollars - something that had never happened before. This boom was driven by comic collectors and speculators who believed that a new million-dollar-book like Action Comics #1 would be released, and publishers were happy that collectors kept buying.
They released multiple covers and pumped out more books to meet consumer demand. Unfortunately, by '96, the speculators dropped off the map. Comic sales dried up, stores closed, and Marvel lost its economic footing.
The comic book bubble burst of '96 isn't the only thing that hit Marvel hard. In 1992 Marvel lost the talents of three popular artists: Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Todd McFarlane. These three, along with a few other writers and artists, left Marvel to create Image Comics, a publishing entity where creators owned the rights to their titles. The company still operates to this day and has published groundbreaking comics, such as The Walking Dead and Sex Criminals.
Image quickly garnered attention with their original superheroes who weren't constrained by the same old school codes of conduct or laborious backstories, and they were cool - something that Marvel hadn't been in a while. After losing the Image Comics crew, Marvel began to flounder both artistically and financially. While it's normal for a business to ebb and flow, this was a big hit to Marvel.
Marvel planned a relaunch, which interested old fans and brought in new readers. To do this successfully, Marvel put together a think tank that included Uncanny X-Men writer, Scott Lobdell, and Marvel's editor-in-chief, Bob Harras. They moved all of the non-X-Men characters to a new universe, but they had to make it narratively satisfying.
Lobdell explained, "Bob Harras [and I] are sitting around trying to come up with a story that makes sense for the X-Men to stay where they are, but those other characters to go... the question became, who has the power?" Lobdell realized that if any character had the power, it was Onslaught.
Essentially, Lobdell and the rest of the higher-ups at Marvel had to figure out how they were going to transition characters into a new universe and work their way back from there. That's when they decided to have the Avengers and Fantastic Four sacrifice themselves to save Earth from the physical embodiment of Magneto and Professor X's combined anger, Onslaught.
Marvel wanted to rebrand itself by bringing creators who were familiar with the company but had different ways of doing things. Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were contracted by Marvel to spearhead the Heroes Reborn initiative, and they also continued to carry out their Image Comics duties. Lee and Liefeld managed the design and storytelling, splitting up the books between themselves.
Lee wrote Iron Man and Fantastic Four, while Liefeld took on The Avengers and Captain America. Their way of creating a clean slate was to place the characters in a pocket dimension created by the son of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, Franklin, who would use his powers to devise an alternate universe where everyone could stay alive after sacrificing themselves to destroy Onslaught.