The 1990’s Comics Crash
In the 1990s, the comics industry experienced a crash the likes of which has rarely been seen in other industries. The market imploded, sales plummeted, people lost their jobs, and the industry as a whole became a cautionary tale. Fortunately, the world of comics survived the 90’s and today is thriving with new characters, stories and more ways to read comics than ever before. But what happened to create such incredible fallout? How does a multi-million dollar industry lose that much steam over such a short period of time? The answer, it turns out, lies in a number of different factors. Individually, each of these would have been a blow to the profitability of the industry, but taken together they were catastrophic. To truly appreciate the scale of what happened though, we should probably start before the crash itself.
The Success of The 80's
In the 1980s, comics were experiencing perhaps their most popular and profitable periods ever. The quality of the stories being told was at an all-time high, with DC Comics putting out memorable stories like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Watchmen. Meanwhile, DC’s perennial boxing partner Marvel was creating its own lasting stories with major crossover events like Secret Wars. This is due in part to the fact that creators were finally earning the kind of compensation they deserve, which kept good talent in the building and turning out great art and stories.
Meanwhile, comics were coming to the forefront of the collector’s market as well. By this time, comics had been around long enough to have created some genuinely important firsts and for those firsts to be sufficiently valuable. For example, Batman had become such an iconic figure by 1993 that the comic he debuted in, Detective Comics #27, sold for $55,000. Since Superman was still king of the DC hill at the time, a little while later Action Comics #1 sold for $82,500. These were outrageous sums of money for the time. It even caught the attention of the New York Times, who ran an article called “Holy Record Breaker” about the sale.
All this to say that in the late 80’s and early 90’s, publishers were feeling invincible and collectors everywhere were looking to get the next big comic book that they could stash and then re-sell in a few decades to buy that dream home.
The Issue With Collectors
Before we get into how collectors and the publishers catering to them contributed to “The Crash," perhaps its best to point out why and how something becomes a valuable collectors item in the first place. The most important quality of any collectible item is rarity. Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1 were so valuable because there were so few of them left. Kids had bought them, read them, then trashed them because that’s what kids do. Of course the appearance of some of comics most famous characters were important, but the fact that so few existed in the world is what lead people to pay the price of a really nice car for them. Today, we see this all the time with misprints. Some of the most valuable toys and cards in the world are ones where something is misspelled or inverted or some other abnormality.
In the 90s, publishers realized that a significant portion of their revenue came from collectors. There were people who were actively seeking out comics to save for a future date, some even buying specific issues in bulk. To get the most out of these collectors, publishers turned to a number of tactics that seem questionable at best.
First of all, variant covers become standard for any comic event of even moderate importance. This was publishers taking the same story and then repackaging it five or six times with different covers. Sometimes the covers could be put together too create one large panoramic image. The idea was to get people to essentially buy the same comic multiple times to get the full set.
A similar tactic was employed with polybags. Comics were sealed in colored bags to “increase their value”. Since quality of the comic is essential to retaining the value of the piece the idea, in theory, is to keep the comic sealed so it stays in pristine condition. Of course, comics are meant to be read and this was the pre-internet days. So, if someone wanted to actually read the comic they bought they would have to buy two copies: one to read and one to keep. To complicate matters further, comics were sometimes released with multiple variants of polybag to encourage collectors to purchase all of those. It’s easy to see already how this was starting to spiral out of control.
Another tactic publishers took was re-branding comics and starting their numbering all over. Obviously, a #1 of a comic was going to be worth something significant, so collectors would run out to buy the “first run”. Today, publishers still reset numbering, although it is usually to establish a change in status quo, writer, or artist. Also, collectors have wised up and don’t jump at every #1 on the shelf.
The most infamous tactic of all was publishers artificially creating “shake-up” storylines. These storylines were so big, so game changing, that everyone HAD to go out and buy them. The most famous of these is, of course, The Death of Superman. This issue was promoted virtually everywhere, making mainstream media outlets all across the United States and even the world. Knowing demand was going to be huge, DC printed a huge number of the comic, with variant covers and with multiple poly bags, rolling all of their tricks into one massive push. It worked and everyone rushed out to buy a copy, many people, called speculators, purchasing as many as they could get their hands on.
All this goes back to what we said at the top of the section. Things are only valuable if they are rare and all these tactics ensured that these comics were anything but rare. Every amateur collector had a copy, right down to kids saving them in the back of their closet. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand, when everyone has something nobody wants to buy it. This led to comics shops sometimes buying a bunch of comics to appease the speculators, only to have them sit on their shelves collecting dust.
Too Many Publishers
With comics becoming such big business, everybody wanted a piece of the pie. Marvel and DC were essentially the only to major players at the time and it looked like there was plenty of room for more. New publishers flooded the market, doing their best to copy the two giants at the top of the heap.
This could have been great for the industry, if these publishers made their first priority telling great stories. However, this was essentially a money grab and it showed. Knowing that first issues were a big deal, new publishers would launch multiple comic lines hoping to cash in on the speculators and average readers looking to grab a new title. Since the vast majority of these titles simply weren’t very good they quickly fell by the wayside. The lack of quality combined with the overabundance of titles meant that there was simply too much for any one person to read or collect.
The rise and fall of these pop-up publishers negatively affected comic book stores as well. Since the stores didn’t want to miss the next best thing and be left in the dust of the competitors they order as many of these new titles as they could. When they couldn’t sell them they became dead weight and additional strain on an industry that was already struggling against the weight of its own success.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the 90s the guys who were making the most popular comics were bona fide celebrities. Guys like Jim Lee, Rob Liefield and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane were household names. People knew what they looked like, knew their work and they even appeared in advertisements for brands like Levi.
Brand recognition is a powerful thing and publishers saw a rise in comics when certain well-known writers and artists were attached. Naturally, this was because these guys were good at what they did and put out quality material. However, like any good movie franchise that has worn out its welcome, publishers began doing anything they could just to cash in on the name brand. It didn’t matter how good the story was, if Jim Lee’s name was on it people were going to buy it. Predictably, the quality of the stories went down as comics were rushed out the door and onto shelves to start generating revenue. Sales continued to drop, which was compounded by the fact that these celebrity artists demanded top dollar for their work.
You can sum up all of the factors leading up to the crash pretty simply: too many poor quality books and not enough people to buy them. Eventually, buyers became savvy to the many, many gimmicks that publishers were using to boost sales and it backfired. Collectors found other places to take their money and average readers were exhausted with the sheer volume of comics available and lacked the motivation to sort through them for a decent story. With a huge backlog of unsold comics and no one coming through the doors comic stores began to slowly shutter all across the country, giving publishers fewer places to sell the large run of comics they had printed. This led to layoffs within the industry and overall panic. Because comics had been present in the media for their extreme success, their downfall was equally publicized, which only made the problem worse. It bottomed out in 1994, when Marvel reported an annual loss of $48.5 million dollars. In 1996, there was only an estimated 4,000 comics shops in the whole country. That same year Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
There was no easy fix for the industry. Lots of legal and boardroom battles ensued to keep certain companies afloat while others faded into obscurity. But the industry made it out and today has recovered beautifully thanks to the success of comic book movies and the accessibility the internet provides. With Marvel being owned by Walt Disney Company and DC Comics having the support of Warner Brothers it is doubtful we’ll ever see a crash like that again, but it is good to reflect and learn from the time the comics industry almost died completely.