Being a comic reader and a comic collector can indeed be different things, but in the early ‘90s, I was both. Lured in by Marvel’s cosmic epics and sustained by all of those foil covers and bagged “exclusives,” this was a time when comics were white hot, and when every kid lived within walking distance of at least one comic shop. (In my case, I could pick between 3 or 4.)
During that time, Marvel tested a new feature within many of its titles: THE COOLOMETER, a tongue-in-cheek guide to what was cool (and more bitingly, uncool) on any given month.
In retrospect, I take these monthly Coolometers for what they were: Snarky jokes with a little bit of self-promotion thrown in. Still, as a kid, I put a lot of stock into them. Sometimes they’d validate my own likes or dislikes. Other times, they’d make me feel bad for being into things that were deemed “uncool.” Either way, I looked forward to them just as much as I looked forward to whatever heady adventures Adam Warlock was about to go on.
Shown above is Marvel’s July 1991 Coolometer, pulled from Fantastic Four #356. If you look past the obvious joke entries and take it on the level, there were some pretty objective truths in there. (At least, that’s how it seemed to my not-quite-teenaged brain.)
I took the time to divide the entries of this Coolometer into six categories: Red Hot, Hot, Nice & Warm, Cooling Off, Cold and Freezing. I can’t say that I agree with every ranking, but it’s a nice enough capsule of what was in (and what was out) back in the summer of 1991. See below!
The Infinity Gauntlet, Penn & Teller,
Bare Knees, The Rocketeer, Thai Food
The Infinity Gauntlet tops the list, and since I still regularly buy comics that have even the most tangential tie to it, I have no problem with that. For those unaware, the overarching story of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe was cribbed from this series, where death-worshipping Thanos collects the Infinity Gems to become God, and then uses his newfound powers to cover She-Hulk with the same shit that messed up Stephen King in Creepshow.
Penn & Teller’s high position may seem surprising, but I remember seeing a live show of theirs around that time, and bragging about it endlessly to my friends. (Magicians who dicked around with fake blood while cursing? Count 11-year-old me in.)
And as for The Rocketeer? I’m… not sure I buy that one. I saw the film in theaters and was only too happy to win a vinyl Rocketeer doll from some long-busted claw machine in Long Beach Island, but I never had the impression that it was a big deal.
Claudia Schiffer, The Simpsons, Michael Jordan,
Geek Chic, The Incredible Hulk
No real arguments with any of these choices. Since no less than Wayne and Garth put their stamp on Claudia Schiffer just a few months later, she sounds pretty applicable for a “Hot” listing. And Michael Jordan? Well, if the fact that he was the only basketball player I knew by name was any indication, sure!
Course, this being 1991, I was way more into The Simpsons than models or Michaels. This Coolmeter arrived almost immediately following the conclusion of the show’s second season, when Homer and Bart were BLAZING hot. (That particular season also included what are still some of my favorite Simpsons episodes, from Three Men and a Comic Book to The Way We Was.)
NICE & WARM:
Rollerblades, The Witching Hour, Softball
Quasar, Geographic Undesirability
The stuff in this section didn’t rank highly enough to be considered “hot,” but Marvel was definitely implying that everything here was at least warm.
Since I’m mostly familiar with Quasar from all of the times Thanos wrecked him, I’d say that even this was too high of a position. (Especially when you see what’s coming later. Even by late ‘91 standards, there’s no way that Quasar ranked higher than the goddamned Ninja Turtles.)
The entry for “Rollerblades” sticks out most. I was in junior high at this point, and I can attest to their popularity. Even kids like me — kids who couldn’t rollerblade and would never be able to rollerblade — wanted a pair.
Our school had a firm ban on rollerblading in the halls, but kids were allowed to bring them to class, ostensibly because they were how they got to school in the first place. Every kid who had them was instantly cooler, which explains my former desire to own a pair. I’m not sure if I had any intention of using the things — I just wanted to sling ‘em over my shoulder while traveling from English to Math.
The Flash TV Show, Hannibal Lecter, TMNT,
Twin Peaks, Sushi
Now we’re at the point where everything left on the Coolometer was presented as being more “uncool” than “cool.” I think kids understood that Marvel wouldn’t resist the temptation to push their own properties up a notch, but there had to be some uneasiness over the things they pushed down to do so.
On the other hand, no matter how big of a TMNT nut I was, I’d have to admit that the franchise was cooling off by then. I wouldn’t go so far to say that it was all downhill after The Secret of the Ooze, but it certainly wasn’t all uphill, either.
As for Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs came out the previous winter, so I’d imagine that the candle was pretty short by the time summer rolled around. (Course, the Coolometer neglected to predict the sudden spike of interest in Hannibal Lecter later that year, thanks to all of the kids who wanted easy Halloween costumes.)
Still, I get the impression that Marvel used this section to take digs at things that were popular but weren’t theirs. Nothing here was ranked low enough to make it obvious, which was probably the point. If the Coolometer’s writers put the Ninja Turtles any lower in 1991, I’d have known they were on the take.
Bo Jackson, NKOTB, McLean Burger,
Steven Seagal, Bell Bottoms
And now we’re into the decidedly icy portions. These last two sections were filled with things that either hilariously underachieved or were simply past their prime, with a side dish of properties that may have very well still been popular, but not with preteen boys.
The McLean Deluxe — part of McDonald’s Deluxe line — was easy pickings for anyone who wanted to throw shade. Presented as healthier and more sophisticated than McDonald’s usual fare, those behind the McLean Deluxe failed to realize that people who thought badly about McDonald’s just weren’t going to eat at McDonald’s, no matter what. (It didn’t help that the ad campaign behind the Deluxe line could only hook a person who outright identified as a boring motherfucker.)
I can’t remember where NKOTB stood by late ’91, but it’s irrelevant: Even at peak popularity, the group was still brutalized by most preteen boys, if only as a matter of self-preservation. If any of my friends liked the New Kids, they certainly didn’t tell the rest of us.
I’m not sure if Bo Jackson experienced any sort of scandal that’d explain his low placement, but his and Nike’s famous Bo Knows campaign had run its course by then, and given the prior saturation of those commercials, I guess a lot of folks were sick of him?
Voguing, Vanilla Ice,
Ponytails on Men, Regis & Kathy Lee
Aw, poor Vanilla Ice. Many of us have warmed up to Vanilla Ice over the decades, recognizing his weird-but-obvious charisma, and appreciating the fact that he so often lets himself in on the joke. Still, his placement near the bottom of the Coolometer was undeniably on-point by July 1991 standards.
(Hell, I mentioned Secret of the Ooze earlier. Going into that movie, me and my friends were all super pissed about Ice’s cameo, thinking that the association would do more to hurt the Ninja Turtles than to help them.)
The rest of the entries were all easy targets for the time, especially considering who these comics were made for.
Marvel’s Coolometers are often a subject of derision these days, both for the obvious self-interest and for the fact that so many of the entries were entirely nonsensical, no matter the context. Still, if you dig deeper, there was a kernel of truth to them. Looking back, they’re neat summaries of trivial trends at their highest and lowest points.
But man, Quasar over Donatello? That’s just wrong.