By Erik Adams, Marah Eakin, Josh Modell, Noel Murray, Emily Todd VanDerWerff, Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, and Scott Tobias, AV Club
1. Singles accidentally mythologizes Seattle just as the rest of the world became obsessed with it
Though Nirvana’s Nevermind was released in 1991, it didn’t actually hit the top of the Billboard charts until January of 1992. The album’s ascendance also signaled the rise of grunge to national recognition, even though the style of music had been percolating in the Pacific Northwest since the mid-’80s. Though many albums of the era captured the scene’s sound, no movie captured—or attempted to capture, at least—the scene’s romantic foibles like Cameron Crowe’s Singles. Set in Seattle, grunge capital of the world, the movie interweaves the love lives of residents in an apartment building with the music of Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden. (The faux-band in the movie, Citizen Dick, even features members of Pearl Jam.) Though the movie itself wasn’t a smash, the soundtrack became a bestseller, helping to rocket acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Mother Love Bone, and Screaming Trees into the collective consciousness.
2. Everything’s an AIDS metaphor
It wasn’t easy to forget about AIDS in 1992, and reading movie reviews didn’t make it any easier. Want an easy explanation for the sexual unease on display in Basic Instinct and other erotic thrillers? AIDS. What’s Alien 3, with its celibate, religious convicts, about? “This must be the first $50 million thriller that also functions as an AIDS allegory,” Peter Travers wrote in his Rolling Stone review. And it’s not like they were wrong. By 1992, the AIDS crisis had gone mainstream, in part due to the efforts of activists to push it to the fore of the public agenda and, sadly, in part because it became obvious the disease wasn’t limited to gay men or intravenous drug users, making it harder for the general populace to ignore. Once an anxiety goes mainstream, people start seeing it everywhere, and everyone seemed to see it in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Coppola doesn’t push it, but underlying everything here, as perhaps it must with any serious vampire story today, is an AIDS subtext involving sex, infected blood and the plague,” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, while in the New York Times, Vincent Canby suggested “the director sort of nudges the audience to make analogies between AIDS and vampirism.” But in 1992, Coppola didn’t have to nudge too hard. Any film that used blood and sex and death to tell a story could only be seen as commenting on AIDS, even one that seemed most concerned with offering a fairly faithful adaptation of an 1897 novel while paying homage to the fantastic film techniques of the early 20th century.
3. “It Was A Good Day” captures a day in the life of Ice Cube
With N.W.A. and later as a solo artist, Ice Cube made his career rapping about L.A. gang life. “It Was A Good Day,” from Cube’s third solo album, The Predator, works as a negative image to all those tales of crime and violence, presenting a day in the life of a South Central gangsta when everything goes right. Cube has nothing to complain about here: He gets a breakfast with “no hog,” a “beep from Kim” (who can fuck all night), a chance to hang out with Short Dog and watch Yo! MTV Raps, time to play basketball, dominos, and craps, plus—and here the heart of the song arrives almost as an afterthought—“nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.” Cube was a star by the time The Predator came out, and far removed from the life he chronicled. But necessity required him to play the part on record, and “It Was A Good Day” distills the seductive appeal of gangsta rap into a (significant?) 4:20 running time. It’s a snapshot of the fantasy Cube and others were putting out there, the upside to a life of crime, violence, and casual sex that—for one day at least—had no repercussions. When the song was released as a single the following year, though, the F. Gary Gray-directed video tacked on an epilogue in which Cube arrived back home after his good day to be greeted by a battalion of cops.
4. Basic Instinct raises the hackles of activists
Paul Verhoeven’s cheerfully vulgar riff on Hitchcock proved to be the year’s most telling litmus test on sexuality and femininity, sparking a conversation so heated that even the film’s screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, rallied against it. The controversy began when Eszterhas’ script leaked and gay-rights activists took umbrage with its association of bisexuals and lesbians to murder; when Eszterhas’ offer to change the script to something more “socially responsible” was rebuffed, he joined the protesters who tried to disrupt the film’s shoot in San Francisco. If it were released today, no doubt the virtual pages of Jezebel would be occupied for a month, but perhaps more for its sexually aggressive post-feminist antihero than any fretting about its alleged homophobia. Cultural attitudes about homosexuality have shifted radically in recent years, but in 1992, Basic Instinct was a battleground in the war over public opinion, and the ice picks were out.
5. David Mamet’s Oleanna says… something about changing gender roles
Written as something of a veiled response to the question of whether Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill—raised in the 1991 hearings on Thomas’ fitness to be a Supreme Court justice—David Mamet’s Oleanna is at once a powerfully dramatic examination of political correctness run amok and a disturbingly paranoid, satirical fantasy about what might happen if white male privilege is ever questioned. That it can be both at once (and extremely successful at both at once) is part of its power; that it can be read completely differently by two people watching the same performance at the same time is what makes it one of Mamet’s best plays. Yet the piece, which centers on a college professor who either does or doesn’t harass one of his students and has his life ruined because of it, is so cagey that it’s almost impossible to figure out what Mamet really thinks about the increasingly prominent role of women in American society and how that threatens certain traditional power structures. In some ways, the play feels more hysterical the further time moves from 1992 and the more “sexual harassment” receives a concrete definition. But all it takes is a terrific production of the script to rip open the wounds and re-examine those questions all over again.
6. Lethal Weapon 3 has some messages for you
In spite of working in a genre that almost automatically aligned itself with law-and-order-above-all sympathies, Richard Donner never tried to hide his liberal ways, sneaking lefty political opinions into each of Lethal Weapon’s four entries. Actually “sneak” isn’t really a strong enough word. The second film made taking on Apartheid-governed South Africa a major part of its plot while also throwing in mentions of destructive tuna-fishing practices and essentially pausing the film for a safe-sex advertisement. That the films’ activist co-star (Danny Glover) shared Donner’s political positions probably helped. Lethal Weapon 3 took on a new range of issues, both in the background and foreground. Armor-piercing bullets, then a controversial topic, figure into the plot, and Donner put one of Glover’s daughters in a pro-choice shirt advertising NARAL. But it’s fur that’s first and foremost on the film’s mind. In one chase scene, Mel Gibson almost collides with a semi-trailer bearing the words “Only Animals Should Wear Fur, Except Tasteless Pigs.” He ducks before getting hit in the face with the message. Moviegoers didn’t have the same option.
7. Johnny Carson abdicates, launching a clash of would-be late-night kings
Though the various mini-cultures that defined the decades to come were on the rise in 1992, the monoculture was still dominant, and there was no greater sign of this than the reign of Johnny Carson at NBC’s Tonight Show. Carson had been the host of the program since 1962 when he announced he would be leaving the chair at the end of the 1991-92 season, and his influence on both the world of pop culture as a whole and stand-up comedy in particular was inestimable. Carson’s final week was a sometimes-maudlin swan song (seriously, watch that Bette Midler clip again) that’s now become famous as the last time everybody could agree on something in television, a line in the sand between the era of the monoculture and everything that came after. Jay Leno stepped into the role of Carson’s successor a few days later, even though Carson had hoped for David Letterman to get the job. Peeved, Letterman would eventually decamp for CBS, kicking off the first late-night wars and the gradual whittling down of The Tonight Show’s once-mighty audience. Though the show is still the top late-night program, it’s never been as prominent under Leno as it was under Carson. Maybe it never could have been.
8. Bill Clinton plays his sax on The Arsenio Hall Show
Although his program would be off the air by May of 1994, Arsenio Hall was one of the foremost cultural tastemakers in 1992, seen as hipper and more populist than the stodgier Johnny Carson and his successor, Jay Leno. This collided perfectly with the ethos of the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, which intended to launch the first all-out pop-cultural assault on a presidential election. (Though Ronald Reagan had always been comfortable on TV, he’d never placed himself in as many different venues as Clinton did.) Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio Hall came in June of 1992, one month after Carson had stepped down and in the midst of the troubled transition to the Leno era. The moment both cemented Hall’s new prominence and increased Clinton’s appeal with young and minority voters, who became key Democratic constituencies in the decades to come. Plus, hey, he sounded pretty great on the sax.
9. Dee Lite and others Rock The Vote
A record-industry-funded voting initiative founded in 1990—only a few years out from the Tipper Gore-spearheaded Senate hearings on obscenity in music and in the midst of 2 Live Crew’s troubles—Rock The Vote began as an attempt to get politically apathetic young voters to the polls by firing them up about attempts to limit freedom of expression. It first attracted attention via a series of flashy PSAs that same year, including a memorable clip of an underwear-clad Madonna wrapping herself in the American flag. Two years later, Rock The Vote revived that strategy for the presidential election year by enlisting everyone from Slaughter to Megadeth to The Ramones to tape ads that became hard-to-miss for anyone watching TV shows aimed at young people, especially on MTV. (Madonna returned as well, though what anyone hoped to accomplish with a three-minute-plus spot in which she bitched about how annoying it is to vote to her hair and make-up help is tough to guess.) Though officially non-partisan, Rock The Vote’s liberal leanings haven’t been too hard to suss out—even if not all of its subjects shared them—and the ’92 spots captured the spirit of a moment when those on the left, after 12 years of Reagan-Bush dominance, thought they might have a shot at getting a Democrat in the White House. And if Dee Lite could help by chanting “vote, baby, vote,” then Dee Lite would do just that.
10. A Different World stages the election
Two themes collided in the 1992 presidential election: the rise of a new generation (the Baby Boomers) to political power and the increasingly important role of women on the campaign trail. The latter was personified in the form of the controversial Hillary Clinton, who was alternately seen as a breath of fresh air in a prospective first lady and as someone who had overstepped her bounds and didn’t know her role. All of this collided in one of the strangest episodes of television ever produced, A Different World’s sixth-season episode “The Little Mister,” in which Dwayne Wayne falls asleep and imagines an alternate-universe election in which women are the ones running for office and the men are expected to stay mum on the campaign trail. The series was struggling to make a name for itself after the death of its parent series, The Cosby Show, and showrunner Debbie Allen frequently tried wild gimmicks like this to blend social commentary into the mix. Conceived as a weird bit of dream theater, “The Little Mister” features a gospel choir, sheep, and some of the broadest Ross Perot jokes ever committed to celluloid on its way to one inescapable conclusion: Hey, maybe women do have a place in politics!
11. Saturday Night Live is relevant again
In spite of Saturday Night Live’s reputation for challenging the status quo, only a handful of on-air incidents in the series’ 37-year history have rocked the boat enough to be cut from cable reruns or earn their performer a ban from Studio 8H. In 1992, however, two such events had tongues wagging about the show: a Wayne’s World Top 10 in which then-12-year-old Chelsea Clinton is declared “not a babe” (the joke plays against a “Schwing!” for the Gore daughters, but it’s a cheap shot absent from rebroadcasts) and Sinéad O’Connor’s misinterpreted protest against child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church—a protest articulated, free of context, when O’Connor presented and tore apart a photo of Pope John Paul II. The O’Connor controversy boosted the show’s public profile and provided it with comedic fodder for weeks afterward, but SNL would’ve made headlines in ’92 without it. As is typically the case, a presidential election proved a tremendous boon to the writers and cast, providing the late Phil Hartman with one of his most enduring characters in his “aw shucks” interpretation of President-elect Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Dana Carvey served as both President George H.W. Bush and “diminutive Texas businessman” Ross Perot in one debate sketch—a time-capsule-worthy scene for its inclusion of Perot and its snapshot of a moment when Dana Carvey was such an in-demand presence he was tasked with playing two roles in a single scene.
12. Bill Hicks helps transform “alternative comedy” into “comedy”
Two years later he’d be dead of cancer, but in 1992, Bill Hicks raged so hard that his comedy reverberated for decades to come, touching pretty much every good stand-up (and lots of bands). Hicks released his second album in 1992, but he still had to contend with clubs full of folks expecting something other than rants about pornography (mostly in favor of) and the hypocrisy of everyday life. At the time, you could still have a mullet and be the coolest comic around, and you could also expect to get a little bit more shit for what came out of your mouth: Hicks famously recorded a segment for David Letterman that was cut in its entirety, supposedly because of a joke about Jesus. (Letterman apologized in 2009, and ran the whole routine then.) The world was also preparing for the rise of Denis Leary in 1992, and Leary was preparing for the future by swiping Hicks’ persona (and entire jokes).
13. The not-ready-for-primetime players aren’t on SNL
Among the four main ensemble members of The Ben Stiller Show, two were Saturday Night Live alumni: The titular star did a four-episode stint in 1989, which overlapped with Bob Odenkirk’s four years at 30 Rock. (Janeane Garofalo’s run on the show lasted from ’94 to ’95, poorly timed with the waning reign of the show’s so-called “Bad Boys.”) But as their work on The Ben Stiller Show attests, the live, topical nature of TV’s sketch-comedy keystone was ill suited to Garofalo, Odenkirk, Stiller, and Andy Dick’s talents. Far more indebted to the dead-on film and TV parodies of SCTV, The Ben Stiller Show placed its core cast at the center of a universe where Woody Allen re-imagines Bride Of Frankenstein in the vein of Husbands And Wives, The Monkees receives a Seattle-based update called The Grungies, and Bruce Springsteen delivers babies in dive bars. The more cinematic sketches allowed Stiller to scratch his directorial itch, while the writers’ room gave Odenkirk, David Cross, and Dino Stamatopoulos the opportunity to work out absurdist impulses they’d fully exploit on Mr. Show. Plenty of SNL players of the era have faded from memory, but most of The Ben Stiller Show’s braintrust was responsible for the best film and television comedy of the last two decades—or, in the case of writer-producer-cast member Judd Apatow, the overseer of a mini-empire of humor partially rooted in a bobble-headed, whiny rendition of Jay Leno.
14. The Crying Game keeps its secret
Neil Jordan’s arthouse sensation The Crying Game started a limited release on November 25, 1992. In mid-February of the following year, Entertainment Weekly published a cover with Stephen Rea raising his index finger over his lips. The headline: “The Crying Game: The Movie Everyone’s (Not) Talking About.” Two decades later, such a cover would be unthinkable, and not just because Stephen Rea doesn’t play a dreamy vampire in the Twilight series. In the Internet age, where anonymous trolls can spoil at will, there are no defenses in place to keep cultural secrets from leaking out like a sieve—the true identity of Jaye Davidson’s character wouldn’t have lasted until opening day, let alone three months later. But in 1992, everyone seemed willing to sign the social contract that kept the twist intact, filling theaters with curiosity-seekers anxious to learn what their friends were (not) talking about. Leave it to the Academy to ruin the movie by nominating Davidson for an Oscar.
15. Sundance’s Class of ’92 sets the course of indie films in the ’90s
The dramatic- and documentary-competition sections at Sundance 1992 were not particularly inspired—In The Soup, anyone?—but three films completely changed the landscape. At a time when arthouses were dominated by Merchant Ivory costume pieces and polite foreign-language fare, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a bolt from the blue, carving out a place for nasty little genre movies in a marketplace dominated by the earnest and inoffensive. On the documentary side, Errol Morris’ A Brief History Of Time shared the Grand Jury Prize, which brought legitimacy to Morris’ unconventional, template-shattering style of nonfiction filmmaking and affirmed, after The Thin Blue Line, that truth needn’t be branded by a dull assemblage of talking heads and archival footage. Then there was Gregg Araki’s debut feature The Living End, a roughhewn, angry, and explicit road movie with two HIV-positive heroes that rebuffed the agreeable tone of films like Longtime Companion and showed that gay cinema could be raw and provocative, too.
16. Arrested Development meets Unplugged
1992 witnessed the release of a series of landmark hip-hop albums, but the year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop’s critics’ poll was topped not by Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, or Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. That honor belonged to 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of…, the album that briefly made Arrested Development multi-platinum superstars, Grammy winners, and critical darlings, thanks largely to the haunting single and video for “Tennessee,” a riveting, starkly beautiful exploration of place and identity that seemed to announce the arrival of a major talent. Arrested Development added a down-home, proudly homemade Southern feel to De La Soul’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age utopianism. The group offered an organic, rootsy alternative to glossy pop-rap and violent gangsta rap, so it was inevitable its moment in the spotlight would overlap with the heyday of MTV’s Unplugged, the much-derided exemplar of earthy authenticity (or faux-authenticity, depending on the episode). Sure enough, on December 17,1992, Arrested Development made its patchouli-scented oeuvre even more hippie-friendly with a performance on Unplugged. Alas, the group’s inexperience showed: The resulting album, which was released to mixed reviews the following year, featured 11 songs from the debut album every Arrested Development fan already owned, along with seven achingly inessential instrumentals. Rather than cement Arrested Development’s fame, the unplugged endeavor hastened the group’s critical and commercial decline. Arrested Development’s next album, 1994’s Zingalamaduni, became a notorious flop (the title sure didn’t help), leaving the group’s appearance on Unplugged as a curious time capsule of the height of both the hip-hop hippie and MTV’s strange flirtation with shunning rather than embracing the shiny electronic artifice of contemporary music.
17. Juice immortalizes the grime and glamour of Golden Age East Coast hip-hop just as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic moves the action to the West Coast
Tupac Shakur is synonymous with West Coast hip-hop, but his East Coast roots run deep. Shakur was born and grew up in New York and—after a brief cameo in the ill-fated comedy Nothing But Trouble—made an indelible impression on audiences as a violent sociopath addicted to power and notoriety in 1992’s Juice. Cinematographer-turned-director Ernest Dickerson’s debut doubles as a fascinating time capsule of East Coast hip-hop at the time, with its hungry DJ protagonist played by Omar Epps and cameos from the likes of Queen Latifah, Fab Five Freddy, Dr. Dre and Ed Lover, as well as other East Coast luminaries. The hit soundtrack album similarly offered a vivid snapshot of the era’s East Coast hip-hop scene, most notably in the form of “(Juice) Know The Ledge,” an adrenaline-pumping message song from Eric B & Rakim. After an exhilarating debut, Dickerson revealed himself to be a blandly competent gun-for-hire, but with Juice he deftly cross-pollinated the “hood movie” realism of grim urban dramas like Menace II Society with the arty bohemianism of Dickerson’s old collaborator Spike Lee.
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Dr. Dre, who went on to collaborate with Shakur on the classic single “California Love,” was painstakingly hand-crafting the sound and style of West Coast gangsta rap out of the wreckage of the super-producer’s eventful stint with NWA, with the help of prodigiously talented protégés like Snoop Doggy Dogg. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic laid out the blueprint for West Coast gangsta rap. Hip-hop is still playing catch-up to his myriad innovations, and Dre himself is still living in the long shadow of The Chronic two decades later.
18. Ice-T threatens cops, Paris threatens George Bush
That the self-titled album from Body Count (Ice-T’s rock band) was pretty much unlistenable didn’t make it immune to controversy, thanks to the inclusion of “Cop Killer,” a song that imagines an extreme response to police brutality. Released to little attention at the end of March, it started drawing protests in the heated wake of the L.A. riots the following month, when everyone from Tipper Gore to the Dallas Police Department spoke out against it. The controversy built over the summer as President Bush, Charlton Heston—whose recitation of the song’s lyrics gave the furor its oddest moment—Oliver North, and others denounced it. (Unmentioned at the time: They were giving the song far more attention than it would ever have had as the final track on a little-loved album.) Ice-T eventually acquiesced—pointing to bomb threats against Warner Bros. as one reason—then re-released the album with the Jello Biafra collaboration “Freedom Of Speech” in its place. But Ice-T did have a plan for keeping the song in circulation, telling Rolling Stone “Anybody walks up to me, I’ll give it to them.” Presumably this offer still stands, meaning anyone on the set of Law & Order: SVU—where the Ice-T has played a cop for years—could demand a free copy of a song that became improbably famous in 1992.
Later that year, Time Warner balked at releasing another controversial song via its Tommy Boy subsidiary: Paris’ “Bush Killa.” Directness and blunt force were the primary weapons in rapper-producer-mini-mogul Paris’ rhetorical arsenal, as evidenced by song titles like “House Niggas Bleed Too” and “Coffee, Donuts & Death” from his 1992 breakthrough album Sleeping With The Enemy. But Paris was never more direct or more forceful than when he decided to one-up other political acts of the time by releasing an elaborate revenge fantasy about the then-sitting president. Everything about “Bush Killa” marks it as a product of 1992. The Bomb Squad-goes-G-funk production even samples “Atomic Dog,” the George Clinton song that powered Snoop Dogg’s breakout solo single “What’s My Name,” while Paris’ gruff baritone is part Rakim, part Chuck D. Paris wanted the album to be in stores in time to affect the 1992 presidential election, but thanks to controversy and delays, it was released independently after Bush had already been voted out of office, rendering “Bush Killa” a violent exercise in wish-fulfillment about a lame-duck president history would remember as being far too meek and moderate to inspire such violent, over-the-top vitriol.
19. Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown attack highlights the culture wars
1992 was a bad year for Vice President Dan Quayle, even before he and George Bush lost the election. He suggested to reporters that a Burger King “now hiring” sign was proof the economy was improving. He told a New Jersey elementary-school student that “potato” was spelled “potatoe.” And responding to the 1992 Rodney King riots, he gave a much-publicized speech attributing such “lawless social anarchy” to “the breakdown of the family structure, personal responsibility, and social order.” Specifically, he cited the bad example set by the TV show Murphy Brown, where the eponymous character, a successful career woman who had just become a single mom, was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” By that point, Quayle already had a significant reputation for verbal gaffes and bumbles, and a public image as a dimwit, which fed the reaction to this quote: Some pundits questioned whether Quayle realized Murphy Brown was a fictional character, while others laughed off the idea of finding significance in a TV show. The incident was used to trivialize and downplay Quayle as the kind of small thinker who would get upset over an imaginary event—or, giving him more credit, the kind of dodgy thinker who would distract voters from the country’s dangerous racial tensions by trumping up a straw-woman scapegoat. For their part, the show’s producers took advantage by including footage of Quayle’s speech in the show, editing it so he appeared to be talking about the morality of a real woman, and having Brown (played by Candice Bergen) mock him in turn by sending him a truckload of potatoes. (The episode was called “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato.”) But all mockery aside, the speech set off a firestorm of public debate about changing morality in popular culture, and its possible effect on society, which led to Pat Buchanan’s fiery 1992 Republican National Convention speech citing the “culture war” as a conflict that would define America as surely as the Cold War. Like it or not, a dig at a TV plotline spiraled out into a still very much ongoing debate over moral values, how the mass media helps change them, and what it should and shouldn’t be allowed to say.
20. Chester Brown collects The Playboy, becoming the new standard-bearer for autobiographical alt-comics
For the first 18 issues of his comic book Yummy Fur, Chester Brown unspooled an elaborate, surreal, grotesque satire entitled Ed The Happy Clown; then with issue #19, Brown changed gears, writing and drawing a slice-of-life autobiographical story called “Helder.” Autobiography had been a major part of alternative comics since the early underground days of R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Art Spiegelman, but Brown’s comics were quieter and sparer, and when Brown then proceeded to tell a multi-part story about his boyhood obsession with Playboy magazine, he showed that navel-gazing autobiographical comics could be as complex and literary as any prose novel. Then-fledgling Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly made The Playboy its first graphic novel, and with Brown’s talented friends Seth and Joe Matt also making autobiographical comics, for a time “alt-comics” and “autobiography” were practically synonymous. But The Playboy remained a benchmark, thanks to its painfully honest personal details and phenomenal artistry, which helped The Playboy overcome the obvious criticism of its subject as masturbatory.
21. Image Comics finds creators doing it for themselves
1992 was the year Joe Shuster died, prompting a fresh wave of news stories about how he and Jerry Siegel created Superman, sold the rights for $130 and a contract to write his stories for comics, then lived the rest of their lives in poverty, struggling for recognition and remuneration while the corporations that owned Superman made millions. The mid-’80s saw a growing wave of protests and press about work-for-hire contracts and artists’ rights in comics, with high-profile industry vets Jack Kirby and Neal Adams demanding their artwork back from Marvel, and Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud and others pioneering a comics creators’ bill of rights. Even the big two, Marvel and DC Comics, spun off small creator-owned imprints. So when a handful of successful, big-name comics writers and artists formed their own publishing company in 1992, it instantly became news even outside the industry. Image Comics was established with the idea that its participants would own all rights to their own creations, and would be free to write their own series without editorial oversight or interference. The initial partners—Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Rob Liefeld (Youngblood), Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), Jim Valentino (Shadowhawk), Jim Lee (WildC.A.T.s), and Marc Silvestri (Cyberforce)—each launched their own Image imprints and creator-owned series, to various degrees of artistic and financial success. But Image’s importance wasn’t in finding a new way to market pumped-up super-people in spandex; it was in putting creator-owned comics on the same financial footing and public-awareness level as the majors. The rampant speculator boom of the mid-’80s to early ’90s guaranteed brisk sales for newly launched series from a newly launched company, and interest in Image was immediate and strong, putting the company on solid financial footing, and letting it serve as an extremely visible lightning rod for the ongoing struggle between content providers and distributors.
22. TV animation rediscovers ambition
In the fall of 1992, NBC debuted a full slate of live-action Saturday-morning programming, a move that could have sounded a death knell for televised cartoons. Instead, it proved to be a bad omen for a certain type of cartoon: the cheaply produced, disposable network fare that had populated weekend schedules since the ’60s. As the likes of Yo Yogi! and the Macaulay Culkin vehicle Wish Kid withered and blew away, a new crop of daring cartoons sprang up on Saturday mornings; that fall saw the Fox debut of X-Men, one of the first attempts to wrangle an ongoing comic book’s unwieldy continuity into the constraints of a TV series. The “dark deco” design of Batman: The Animated Series debuted in the network’s primetime lineup before moving to afternoons and becoming home to storytelling and art to rival the best of the Dark Knight’s comic books. Meanwhile, The Simpsons, entered its fourth season in September of ’92, airing such landmark episodes as “A Streetcar Named Marge” and “Mr. Plow.” And though no one would apply the “sophisticated” label to “Frog Baseball” and “Peace, Love, And Understanding,” the debut of the first two Beavis And Butt-Head shorts on MTV’s Liquid Television heralded an era of greater creative freedom and chances for airtime for the Mike Judges of the future.
23. Videogames choose their own adventures
1992 was a watershed year for videogames on several different fronts: The arcade game Mortal Kombat debuted and instantly became a flashpoint of public debate for its gory “fatality” moves, which could, for instance, let a victorious player rip out the bloody spine of a defeated opponent. The idea of the Entertainment Software Rating Board came directly out of the Mortal Kombat controversy. But the same year also saw the launch of the home videogame Wolfenstein 3D, a hugely popular run-and-gun game that involved sneaking around a castle prison, killing Nazi guards, and eventually foiling evil robot Adolf Hitler. By releasing the first third of the game as shareware—making a significant portion of the game free and encouraging fans to distribute it to friends, long before that was a standard industry tool—Apogee Software was both able to get the game out to an extremely wide audience and encourage newly converted fans to pony up for the full experience. Wolfenstein didn’t just popularize shareware release for games, though. It’s also widely credited as having started the ongoing first-person-shooter craze. In yet another direction for the medium, 1992 saw the release of Alone In The Dark, the first 3-D survival horror game. Its early use of visually simple polygon-based characters allowed for smooth character movement, but since the 2-D backgrounds were static and built separately, they could be much more lavish and immersive. The game’s focus on elaborate environment, creepy tone, and puzzle-solving (necessary, given the frequently unkillable antagonists) took Alone In The Dark in the opposite direction of Wolfenstein 3D, with its straightforward “kill everything that moves” tactics. With multiple popular genres being born at the same time, and a newfound emphasis on creative distribution and home play that offered experiences arcades couldn’t, videogames were building the foundations of a dynamic industry with infinite branches.
24. Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted and Unrest’s Imperial f.f.r.r. elevate indie rock
Post-Nirvana, major labels and MTV rushed to lay claim to the host of grungy, punky bands that had previously languished on college radio and the club circuit; in their wake came a number of stranger, more marginal bands, many of which were more into making hissy home recordings and issuing them on cassettes and 7-inches than playing live or courting stardom. But in 1992, two of those indie bands made a move. Pavement and Unrest, both of whom had become darlings of the record-store set with their eclectic, lo-fi early records, released full-fledged albums that were more focused and ambitious. Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted got the most attention, with its aggressive rock sound, catchy melodies, and pissy lyrics; but Unrest’s Imperial f.f.r.r. was just as significant for the way the band converted its affection for early ’80s Factory Records into an album that had the look, tone, and texture of their fetish, without losing Unrest’s appealing juvenile streak. Both albums have experimental interludes as odd and indulgent as what the bands had done on their early EPs and singles, but with a sense of purpose that made the fringes of alternative rock suddenly seem like a fine and fertile place to set up camp.