Throwback Thursday: 20 Years Ago The Rise and Fall of Comic Books
Two decades ago in 1993, comic books were selling millions of copies per issue. Marvel & DC were putting out over 140 titles per month. Speculators were pushing re-sale costs for collectible issues higher and higher, even before eBay existed. We had flashy foil, embossed, die-cut, chromium and acetate covers that made each and every issue of every series (no matter how good or bad) into a collectible. The industry was riding a high being able to sell any piece of crap to anyone just because of speculators. True fans found it very difficult to pick what they wanted to buy or not because of the sheer amount of books being put out.
Marvel was king of the market at the time and the best-selling titles back then are still some of the hottest titles today. You can never go wrong with the X-Men, who were the kings of Marvel Comics throughout the entire 90s. The X-Men had two main books at the time and multiple spin offs. We had Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, Cable, X-Force, Excalibur, Alpha Flight, X-Men Unlimited, X-Men Classic, X-Men Adventures, and Wolverine to name most of the X-Men family of books. Marvel figured if they slapped an X in the title, people would buy it and why not when they were selling millions of copies per title.
Meanwhile, over in the world of Spider-Man, we had multiple titles as well. X-Men made sense in selling multiple copies in the market because you have a team of characters you can promote, but Spider-Man is just…well just himself–why do you need multiple titles? Because they sold that’s why! There was Amazing, Spectacular, Web Of Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, Spider-Man Classics and a book they just called Spider-Man. There were so many Spidey titles that they literally ran out of adjectives to put in front of his name. We even had horrendous gimmick costumes such as the (left)”Spider-Armor”! This is what happens when you are making too much money because you are putting out inferior products using gimmicks instead of quality stories and art. Marvel was very guilty of the gimmicks, adding special covers, horrible costumes, and just awful stories to sell anything they could to anyone. They were forgetting what made them sell so well, great stories and great characters. Marvel was not the only one who was forgetting where they came from. Their distinguished competition, DC, was just as guilty with their gimmicks, but instead of throwing out flashy comics, they decided to do the unthinkable: Killing and maiming main heroes.
DC comics decided that Batman needed his back broken by the new villain Bane. The heads of the company somehow thought that by removing (Spoiler Alert) Bruce Wayne as Batman would somehow make people say, “What’s Next, I have to buy Batman!” This lead to a massive Bat Book crossover called Knightfall, which sold millions of copies as well. Knightfall lasted the summer and could be easily followed in Batman and Detective Comics. Then greed really kicked in and you had to follow the next part of the story into Detective Comics, Shadow of the Bat, Batman, Catwoman, and other tie-ins like Robin, Legends of the Dark Knight, and some Justice League third rate title no one remembers. It was starting to get out of control and brew to a boiling point. DC decided to still combat Marvel by not just hurting Batman and making you read countless books on what would happen to Bruce next but by KILLING Superman. You heard right, we had the Death of Superman crossover. Technically Superman 75, which killed Superman, was released in 1992 but the aftermath continued way into 1993.
The Reign of the Supermen was the story that came next introducing us to 4 new Superman/Supermen. Action Comics, Superman: Man of Steel, Adventures of Superman, and Superman were the 4 books you had to read to get the whole story of Steel, Superboy, Eradicator (Think the Punisher but Superman with a visor) and CYBORG Superman. I know this is painful to read and you are probably thinking, no wonder the market crashed it was full of crossovers and just plain crap. Some people may still love these stories, but most of it was just awful to read. Go ahead, go back and read your issues that are collecting dust and tell me they are quality comic books, i’ll wait. Ok I wont, I lied. At the same time that DC and Marvel were warring with each other over who could put out the most titles with the least quality, several huge creators were still trying to make their Image Comics experiment work. In 1992 some of the biggest illustrators in the industry left Marvel and DC and created Image as a venue where creators could publish their material without giving up the copyrights to the characters they created. This was the first real company you could create what you wanted and hold onto the rights of the characters. Marvel and DC had contracts that were work for hire, which meant anything you created while working for them was owned by the company and not you. Image was a huge historical step into creating a company that changed the industry for the better.
Creators started pumping out new alternative characters we have never seen before and stories that could push the envelope and contain more adult oriented stories Marvel and DC would not allow. We were lucky enough to get some truly original groundbreaking series as well as some copycats that were just fun. Original titles consisted of The Maxx, Spawn, Savage Dragon, WildCATS (Now owned by DC), Youngblood, and Shadowhawk. The upside to Image Comics was the creators were finally free to do what they want and the downside to Image Comics was they were free to do them when they wanted, which lead to horrible shipping schedules and incomplete series. With any new company they had a lot of bugs to figure out but its 20 years later and Image is still thriving. Some amazing creators have come out of Image and we have gotten some truly groundbreaking comics such as The Walking Dead, Saga, and Chew to name a recent books.
Speculation is what ruined the comic book market just like it almost ruined the stock market. People who did not understand comic books were rushing to buy anything and everything that looked cool or might sell for a higher price. Many investors made a lot of money on a lot of books that had no right to ever sell for what they were selling for. Millions of collectors are stuck with boxes of old comics that sit in storage, a garage, or their parents attics collecting dust with hope they will be worth something. For the most part, the majority of anything from 1990-1993 is not worth the paper they are printed on. In the end, we got Image Comics so creators got stronger. Marvel went through a wicked bankruptcy and eventually emerged stronger than ever. Most of the top movies every year are Marvel Studios movies with plenty on the way. DC comics through association grew and continued to do well with their array of classic characters that have been rebooted with “The New 52” for a newer generation. New companies have been created thanks to the path Image paved. We have a new Valiant Universe, IDW comics, Dynamite comics, and many others.
The great crash of 1993 almost killed the comic world, books will never sell in the millions again but the market is strong and enjoyable due to amazing writers and artists and we are better for it. So the lesson from this is collect wisely, listen to speculation but do not fall for it always or you will be left with a storage full of pretty colored paper that was once worth a ton but is not worth more if you recycled them.