How The 1990s Almost Killed Superheroes
It's 2021, so there are only two possible places where you could be reading this article: sitting at home or waiting in line to buy Pokemon cards. When you look at the lengths people are going to just to buy little pieces of cardboard with drawings of electric rats on them, it's easy to get the impression that a single trading card bought today could finance your solid gold mansion in a few decades -- but that's also what many of the people lining up to buy superhero comics in the early '90s thought ...
... and, uh, it didn't work out that way. In fact, that whole thing almost killed the "buff people in colorful yoga clothes fighting crime" industry. Here's how:
A LOT Of People Were Buying Comics Just To Scalp Them
Like with today's Pokemon card craze, what set off the comic book-buying bonanza of the '90s was basically a combination of 1) average fans now being older and having more money to throw around, and 2) investors realizing that something that was once dirt cheap could potentially go for big bucks one day. In 1991, The New York Times put out an article about how the first Batman comic had gone from costing 10 cents to $55,000, causing everyone who bought the paper that day to have their eyeballs replaced by dollar signs like in an old-timey cartoon.
A whole lot of people thought, "Hey, if that crappy old Batman comic is now worth 50K, surely this issue of DeathBlood Meets DarkDeath (Feat. DeathDeath Jr.) will be worth THREE TIMES that! It's got way more exclamation marks on the cover!!!"
This new fever also coincided with the rise of the first comic book rock stars. Within a few years, artists like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld went from total randos to having their own Levi's ads and showing up on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous -- which is extra impressive when you consider that only two of those three could draw something that kinda looked like a human body.
Still, they must have been doing something right, because for the first time ever you had hordes of fans showing up at comic book stores asking specifically for issues drawn by one artist.
More readers (or buyers, at least) meant more stores opened up, especially after the two biggest comic book distributing companies lowered the requirements to order bulk comics from them. Suddenly, any nerd with $300 in their pocket could go from buyer to dealer, which is how the U.S. went from having 800 comics stores in the late '70s to around 10,000 in 1993. And since there was more shelf space to fill, it was easier for new comic book companies to pop up, hoping to be the new Marvel or DC ... or at least the new Archie Comics, but with more guns and bigger boobs.
So now you had a whole bunch of people eager to buy comics -- some in case they were worth something one day, some because they were opening up their own stores, and some because they actually wanted to read them. And, for a while, this worked out pretty well for everyone. But then something tragic happened: the business people noticed.
Marvel And DC (But Mostly Marvel) Went All In On Pandering To Speculators
When the major comic book companies realized they were getting a massive influx of new readers, the reaction we less "Well, let's make sure we're giving them the best possible product for their money" and more "OK, how do we squeeze more cash out of them?" One common tactic was (and still is) to print variant covers for special issues, hoping that collectors and speculators would buy the same comic multiple times because the art on the front was different. For instance, 1991's X-Men #1 had four different Jim Lee covers that combined into one image, plus a a fifth version that folded out like a porno mag centerfold (ask your parents what that is).
And it worked: X-Men #1 sold over 8 million copies and inspired like 8 million copycats as everyone jumped in on the multiple covers bandwagon. With so many variants everywhere, the editors had to think of ways to make theirs stand out, and that's how we got infamous gimmicks like holographic covers where you could barely tell what was going on ...
... glow-in-the dark covers, black-and-white covers, covers with all sorts of fancy embossing effects, covers with holes cut on them, covers with "magic eye" illusions, covers splattered in fake blood, covers with plastic trinkets attached, and, because they knew their audience so well, comics that came pre-sealed in plastic bags for collectors, which meant they had to buy another copy if they wanted to read the story (but at least those usually came with stickers and other useless junk inside).
At the same time, Marvel raised prices and began churning out more and more new series to keep the company growing and make it look more enticing to investors. They also hyped the hell out of their superstar artists ... which came back to bite them in the ass when Lee, McFarlane, Liefeld, and others left to form their own company, Image Comics. And of course, they took all of Marvel's gimmicks and dialed them up to 11 -- or higher, in the case of the new series that came out with 13 variant covers, including a blank "draw-it-yourself" one.
DC wasn't quite that shameless, but they did start relying way too heavily on "special events" to keep sales high. After killing Superman and crippling Batman went pretty well, they felt like every major DC character had to go through something traumatic: Green Lantern had his city nuked and became a villain, Aquaman had his hand eaten by piranhas, Green Arrow had a helicopter blow up on his face, Wonder Woman was fired from Wonder Womaning, Flash stubbed his toe pretty bad going to the kitchen one night, etc. And, for every savvy comic book reader who realized that these were all just temporary setbacks, you had nine newcomers who were sure that Superman was really dead forever and his "final" issue would fetch millions sooner or later.
Meanwhile, a whole secondary market popped up just to cater to collectors and speculators: magazines included lengthy price guides and told buyers which issues would totally make them rich in the future. Aaaaand then it all went to hell.
The Crash Was Devastating, But It (Probably) Can't Happen Again
The 1993 issue where Superman comes back from the afterlife is often named as the moment when the comic book speculation bubble began bursting, but there are actually several candidates for that honor. Comics store owner Mike Sterling points to Valiant Comics' Turok: Dinosaur Hunter #1 as a potential culprit. Retailers were certain that this hot, "chromium"-covered new release would be a huge deal, so they ordered millions of copies, and ... most are still sitting in garages and warehouses across America. Decades later, Sterling still had some copies left in his bargain boxes.
Another potential industry killer was Deathmate, a highly anticipated crossover between Image and Valiant's characters. The problem was that Image's hot shots weren't great at meeting deadlines for their own comics, let alone a special series -- by the time their issues came out, several months had passed since the start of the crossover, the hype had died down, and store owners were left holding hundreds of thousands of issues no one wanted anymore (plus all of their variants).
Speculators had finally realized that a comic owned by millions of people was never going to be rare enough to sell for any significant money, so they moved on to buying Beanie Babies or something. Regular readers and collectors were burned out by the low quality rags now flooding the market and just stopped buying comics, which meant that all those new stores had no one to hock their over-ordered stock on -- almost a thousand stores closed in the first quarter of 1994 alone and many more followed. Marvel wasn't too worried, though. As their comics sales dropped, they continued trying to impress investors by aggressively expanding into other areas like trading cards, toys, restaurants, and, heck, maybe even movies. They even bought their own comics distribution company! Everything's coming up M--
Oh. Marvel ended up succumbing to debt and internal drama, and only saved itself from bankruptcy by making a deal with the devil (worse, actually: a Mar-a-Lago regular). Most independent comic book publishers weren't so lucky and ended up being bought out or just disappearing. The end result of the comic book speculation bubble was: less comics publishers, less comics stores, less comics readers, and oh yeah, a single comics distributor with a gross monopoly that's still having a negative effect on the industry to this day.
That said, even as the industry gets boned by current events, another comic book crash is unlikely to happen, simply because Marvel now has Disney's infinite pockets behind it while DC still rests cozily by Warner Bros.' bosom. For the same reason, we're not too worried about The Pokemon Company and Nintendo running out of money anytime soon just because some scalpers are hoarding all of their cards hoping to get rich. Nah, it's always the small business owners and the fans who end up getting screwed, so no big deal. So rest easy and go catch 'em all (if you can find 'em)!
Top Image: Marvel Comics