There’s been a lot of talk over the past year and a half about Marvel and DC comics seeing a slump in sales. While their film and television projects seem to be going strong, their print end is seeing some problems. Marvel recently came under fire when diversity in their books was blamed for a run of poor sales. There was some walking back on this statement by Marvel and many individuals and shop owners who have looked into the matter are blaming the sales slump on a number of other things, namely business tactics being used by the two big publishers. Whatever the reason, the market should be able to right itself as it isn’t the monster it was before it crashed in the 1990s.
There was a time in the 1990s when just about every comic book was selling 50,000 copies and a comic wasn’t considered a hit until it sold 250,000 copies. Even the best selling Marvel books have a hard time selling 60,000 these days.
DC released Rebirth last year and that issue sold millions of copies. However, the success of Rebirth didn’t lead to the printing of millions of copies of every issue and flooding the shelves. It’s almost as if the industry knew that they shouldn’t be getting too excited and going all in. That might be because they remember the infamous crash of the comic book industry in the 1990s and some of the reasons that led to it. Keep reading to see what some of those reasons may have been.
15. The Direct Market
One of the major causes of the Comic Book Crash in the 1990s was the establishment and rise of the direct market. Specialty stores became places where comic book fans could meet and convene and the stores themselves weren’t bogged down by the Comics Code. In addition to the direct market allowing comic book fans to find each other, this particular branch of sales didn’t have to return what they didn’t sell like a newsstand would. This meant that back issues and all those hard to find rarities were accessible and being sold in these specialty comic book shops. This reinvigorated a love for comics among adults and they began hunting down milestones from their childhood like Amazing Fantasy #1 or the first issue of Action Comics, and they paid serious cash for the nostalgia. In addition to first issues, they also hunted down universe changing events like the first appearance of Galactus.
14. The Dark Age of Comics
Comics have always experienced a never ending saga of rises and falls when it came to sales. The highs are usually the result of some outside factor or a major shake-up within the industry. The Dark Age of Comics saw a push by the industry to begin marketing comics for an older audience as opposed to children. The Dark Knight Returns, one of the comic book source materials for the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is a product of this era. Sin City, Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, DC’s Vertigo line, and countless indie publishers were all making this push happen. Adults have more money than children, why not market to them as well?
Again. Why would nostalgia and an increased interest from adults with some expendable income hurt an industry that relies entirely on sales?
13. The Speculators
The speculators were the worst. It was these folks that were probably most responsible for killing comics in the 1990s. Many comic fans will probably tell you that the speculators weren’t fans at all – they were non-fans that were scooping up as many comics books as they could in the hopes that they’d see a large return on their investment. In reality, plenty of them were probably fans as well.
These buyers would scoop up multiple copies of a single comic that seemed like it would have any resale value twenty years down the road. The idea was that buying a bunch of these today meant paying for your kid’s college tuition in twenty years. It meant retiring to a beach house in fifty years. The logic was, if you saw a guy selling a copy of Amazing Fantasy #1 for $50,000 in 1991, just imagine what six mint condition copies of the first appearance of Carnage would get you in 2021.
Instead of letting speculators clean out shelves and selling out of the product, the industry just published more and more copies. Stores were ordering numerous copies to appease the speculators and no one ever really knew what was going to be hot. This left a lot of shops with dead stock they couldn’t move. Eventually the speculators realized that rarity drove up the prices of old books and all these multiple copies weren’t going to sell. They cut their losses and stopped buying. This left publishers and shops in a predicament. Who would buy back issues when everyone has three copies of the same book? How could they sell ten year old back issues when all the speculators had multiple copies to sell? A fifty-cent bin doesn’t pay the bills.
Shops and publishers alike started shutting down as they had all bitten off more than they could chew. What exactly were the publishers doing that brought in droves upon droves of speculators? A number of things.
12. New Number Ones
One of the single biggest things to kick off the rise of the spectator’s market was the massive explosion of new first issues. When we say there was a massive explosion, we’re not talking about a volcano or hand grenade. We’re talking a full on nuclear warhead. From the 80s and into the 90s a large number of titles started fresh with brand new “Issue 1’s.” There were also a lot of new publishers hitting the scene like Image, Malibu, and Valiant. All these companies were dropping their first issues. The speculators all assumed these “first issues” would attract the same prices as the original first issues from past decades. The speculators bought up as many copies of an “issue 1” that they could and then kept them in pristine condition.
The problem here is those classic first issues of bygone decades were rolled up and stuffed in pockets. Mom’s threw them out. They simply didn’t survive. A first appearance of Spider-Man fetched a high price because it was rare and interest in comics had been reinvigorated. What the speculators did was flood the collector’s market with more mint-condition first issues than anyone would or could want.
11. Shake-ups To The Status Quo
Another way to get the speculators to buy several copies of one title is to make the issue a big deal with a shake-up to the status quo. The status quo are those big name characters that have largely gone untouched for decades. Spider-Man might be the best example of this.
In the 1990s, there was a whole saga involving Peter Parker and a number of clones made from his DNA. It turned out that this other guy, Ben Reilly, was actually the real Spider-Man and it was Parker who was the clone (Yeah…we know). The book went from featuring Peter Parker as Spider-Man to a man named Ben Reilly filling his shoes.
Naturally, speculators believed if this Ben Reilly guy was the new Spider-Man, this issue was going to be huge in thirty years. They all bought up ten copies, boarded and sleeved them, and waited for that sweet, sweet pay day. Once again completely oblivious to the fact that hoarding multiple copies eliminated the concept of rarity.
How do you get people that are already willing to buy three copies of the first issue of Sam Keith’s The Maxx to buy even more copies of the first issue of The Maxx? That’s easy. You offer the same issue with different covers and each cover has a smaller number of copies available. You give them a black and white cover and a glow-in-the-dark cover in addition to the standard cover. Now you’ve just sold nine issues of the same book.
Once again, if you can sell nine of the same thing, isn’t that good for business?
It is, but publishers did that with every title before they even knew it would sell. While The Maxx turned enough heads that MTV produced an animated series, there were countless other titles that didn’t catch anyone’s eye. Your store just sold 300 copies of The Maxx #1, but you’re also sitting on 300 copies each of six different titles that no one was interested in.
9. Holofoil Covers
I still get a little excited when I see those shiny, shiny holofoil covers. The holofoil cover is very similar to the variant cover but it’s slightly different. In many cases a holofoil cover was a clear indicator that you were holding a variant cover. It was also incredibly trendy at the time. Things hit a point where a comic might only have one cover but that cover just so happened to be holofoil. A less informed spectator might assume this is a variant and buy six copies. Give your book a holofoil cover and there’s a good chance someone might pick it up over a standard cover of a book that actually is popular.
8. Artists Were Rock Stars
Another major way you could move a large number of copies of the same issue is slapping the name of one of the many rock star status artists in the industry at the time on the front cover. For whatever reason, people could not get enough of guys like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. Marvel would create a whole event that absolutely desecrated some of their major characters just to get Lee and Liefeld’s name on the cover of their books again. But things were bad enough at that point, and it was too little too late.
You might argue that there are writers and artists with names that can sell books today, but none of these individuals are in commercials selling Levi jeans like Rob Liefeld was. People were buying jeans because the guy who created X-Force said they should.
7. Shocking Story Gimmicks
Superman died. An iconic American staple had been killed. With the way death is handled in comics, it seems like this wouldn’t be a big deal (it wasn’t) but at the time it felt huge (we’ll talk about why that is in the next segment).
Story gimmicks like this became commonplace. When these stories happened, they would span across several books. Remember when we asked how you could get someone to buy 9 copies of the same issue? Now, how do you turn that 9 into 36? It’s simple. You release four different books for the same character. If you want the whole story, you need to read all four that month as opposed to just one main title. Each book also has its own variant covers. The greed here is mind-boggling and this issue with gimmicky stories and big events is still rubbing many readers the wrong way to this day, as it’s still in heavy practice by the major superhero publishers.
6. Unprecedented Media Attention
Superman’s death in the comic book pages felt huge because it was huge. For whatever reason, the media was all over it. This story arc popped up on every major news site. Every news channel covered it at some point. The stories weren’t just about the death of a comic book icon, they heavily covered how it was an ideal time for speculators to buy Superman comics. The death of Superman and the media frenzy that followed may have been one of the single biggest reasons the spectators converged in such large droves. It’s widely believed that the crash itself happened somewhere around the mid-90s. The crash came into fruition just a short time after this Superman fiasco. Publishers, creators, and some shop owners just didn’t understand (or didn’t want to understand) that every book wasn’t going to sell like this.
5. Too Many Publishers
The events that led up to the crash and the slow death that followed can’t all be blamed on speculators and the direct market. The publishers were feeding into it and there were a lot of publishers. A boom in publishers and creators also took place. Why not? First issues were selling just because they were first issues. Many publishers were trying to mimic the shared super hero universes of Marvel and DC. This led to a lot of companies making a lot of books. Even speculators couldn’t keep up. Many of these publishers went completely under or fell into obscurity.
Buyers were becoming burnt out. Nobody could possibly be reading everything. Speculators couldn’t buy everything.
4. Trading Cards
Back then, we weren’t just led to believe the comic books were going to be worth money. We were hearing that everything featuring the characters were going to be worth money. You know, like baseball cards!
A number of publishers were printing yearly trading card sets just as the MLB would print baseball cards. Publishers like Marvel and DC would have sets featuring the whole universe, sets based around a single character, and sets that were printed from cartoons based on the comics.
3. Action Figures
Even the smaller publishers jumped on the action figure bandwagon. Todd McFarlane was doing pretty well with this. His figures were highly articulated and actually looked more like collectibles than toys. Still, even the smaller publishers were making toys. However, that’s not quite as bad as what the big publishers were doing.
Marvel and DC seemed like they were actively pursuing making a figure for every single character in their library. If you were alive at the time, you might remember walking down the toy aisle and seeing rows and rows of the same character. That’s because there were characters being made that nobody wanted or even knew of. Who was purchasing a Caliban figure from the X-Men line? There isn’t a kid out there that will say that their favorite mutant is X-Man, and the character certainly wasn’t popular enough for a speculator to pounce on. We don’t mean to pick on Caliban, but we were witnessing even more saturation that was burning people out and leaving stores with items they couldn’t move.
2. Everyone Gets A Comic
Did you like any movie or television show that was on in the ’90s? Someone was probably making a comic.
Bill & Ted of the Bill & Ted movies had a comic. Ren and Stimpy had a comic. The Simpsons had several comics. Alf had a comic. The Care Bears had a comic. Movies like Steven Spielberg’s Hook had a four issue mini-series that told the same story as the movie. The FOX sitcom Married With Children had a comic book for crying out loud! It’s hard to imagine that anyone was asking for a Married With Children comic. It’s almost as if there was this idea that if a comic book merely existed, it would sell exceedingly well and bring in a big payday. It’s as if there was this firm belief that content didn’t matter.
1. No Internet
This isn’t to say there was no internet. The internet was a thing. The problem here is it wasn’t the animal it is today and most people didn’t have access to it. Those that did certainly couldn’t get the kind of information they can get now. The consumers and the publishers just couldn’t get on the same page.
Many speculators were new to the game. They didn’t understand that the market was becoming over saturated and they were buying and preserving junk that would never become rare enough to increase in value. The speculators continued to buy well after they should have stopped.
The publishers kept producing so much stuff because they just crossed their fingers and hoped the consumer was going to buy like this forever.
Perhaps if there had been something like the internet around, buyers could have heard more voices and seen more easily what was happening. Publishers could have been aware that customers were hitting a tipping point in terms of how much they were willing to keep investing with no pay off.
While superheroes and comic book adaptations are huge on the big and small screen, the print side is seeing a little bit of trouble again. Let’s hope that knowledge of history and this open gateway of real-time communication can keep the comic book industry stable into the future.
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