Every industry, particularly in entertainment, goes through its ups and downs. Motion pictures faced a slump when television became a staple in every home, and the coming of video games similarly affected television. Streaming services such as Netflix have all but destroyed video/ DVD rental stores and had a pretty significant impact on sales of those items as well. Print media has been suffering for years due to the demand for people’s attention being pulled in so many different directions. However, not all forms of entertainment have suffered purely due to the introduction of new technology. Some did it to themselves.
For the story of the Great Comic Book Crash (™) of the ’90s to be told, some context of the industry at the time must be given. From their earliest beginnings in the 1930s, comics were bought for a dime, read, passed around to friends and then, eventually, discarded. It was never considered that they might have some kind of future value. So, landmark issues such as Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15 were thrown away, sold at boot sales, or given away to younger siblings. They were, in essence, lost.
Jump to the 1980s, and comic books are experiencing something of a rejuvenation with releases such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, DC’s epic Crisis on Infinite Earth, Marvel’s multi-media Secret Wars and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. These titles were different, mature, and had long-running creative teams that were able to tell in-depth, mythos-defining stories. All of this made not only comic fans take notice, but also those who may not have picked up a comic for years, if at all. Suddenly, comics were seen as a legitimate art form. Watchmen and Dark Knight, in particular, are prime examples of how comics did not have to be “just for kids.” Even the mainstream media was talking about comics.
This all amounted to a new interest in comics. Readers who had moved away from the hobby but retained fond memories of it became interested again. Due to a healthy economy, these ex-readers came back into the fold and rather than just buy new comics, they also wished to revisit the memories of past years. At this time there was no such thing as collected editions of comics. The only viable way to read old stories was to purchase back issues. Comic stores then – and still in many cases – did not return unsold stock. Stores would have a number of older issues that didn’t sell for these returned customers to pursue, and the back issue market was born.
In 1991, the New York Times published an article entitled “Holy Record Breaker!” (because no newspaper story about comics can be printed without a play on the mediums’ infamous use of hyperbole and/or onomatopoeia) which told of the sale of Detective Comics #27 (first appearance of Batman) and Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) at auction for $US55,000 and $US82,500 respectively (roughly the equivalent of $US103,608 and $US155,412 today).
This article caused a massive spike in interest in the value of older comics. Price guides were produced that created a – some might argue false – baseline of what back issues were worth. Comic stores began to look at their back issues as another way of making money rather than just being stock that would hopefully someday be shifted. Many marked their issues a bit higher than guide value to ensure a decent profit which artificially increased the perceived value of issues. As collectors began to buy up back issues, certain key issues and runs became more sought after and thus demanded higher prices. Comic books had officially gone from a media that was discarded to one that was desired and collectible.
Amongst all of this, spectators started to take note. Spectators buy an item with the hope that they will see a massive return on their investment as the value of that item rises in the future. Seeing the values fetched by Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1, these spectators saw comic books as the next goldmine. The problem was, the sale of those two comics was all they based their assessments on. Those two comics were released at a time when, as mentioned earlier, comics were considered throwaway entertainment.
As such, there were comparatively very few copies left. They also featured debuts of two of the most famous heroes in comic book history. Action Comics #1 is also considered the launchpad for the Golden Age of comics. You can see why these two issues are so highly valued. However, not every comic is going to reach those lofty heights. This was a seemingly obvious point that was lost on spectators.
Instead, spectators began to buy up multiple copies of single issues that they felt would have some great value in the future. Number # 1’s, first appearances of characters, issues by popular artists or writers; there were many reasons why spectators might think an issue could be valuable. Rather than just let issues sell out, publishers printed more and more.
Of course, the publishers were not ignorant about the sudden boom in sales. Whether they realized their sales numbers were artificially raised by people buying 10, 20, 30 or more copies of a single issue or not, they took the opportunity to take spectators and collectors alike for all they could. Established publishers such as Marvel and DC ended series only for them to return soon after with a brand new #1. New publishers such as Valiant and Image Comics entered the market with a host of new characters and, thus, new #1s. Spectators believed that all of these new #1 issues would someday fetch the same price as Action Comics #1 and bought them in bulk. Image Comics’ first issue of Spawn alone sold 1.7 million copies when the top-tier books from other publishers were selling 50,000.
And it just kept coming. Variant covers, issues in polybags, issues with holofoil covers, black and white covers, “virgin” covers (covers with just the art and no text, not even the book’s title), and variants of holofoil, black and white and virgin covers as well. All in smaller numbers, all marketed as “collectible.” Whatever the publishers could do to entice collectors and speculators to buy more copies of their issues, the publishers did. Of course, it could not last.
Eventually, the speculators realized that the reason that Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1 were so valuable was that so few copies still existed. Also, by the 1990s, Batman and Superman were both solidly ingrained into not only the popular culture of America, but of the whole Western world. However, no one outside of comics knew what an Avengelyne was, or even a Scarlet Spider. In many cases, their investment isn’t worth the paper on which it is printed.
The market was oversaturated. Taking advantage of the boom, publishers were producing so much content that no one could possibly purchase it all, let alone read it. Buyers were burnt out, collectors felt overwhelmed, and the spectators looked at their piles of worthless comics and despaired. Stores were buckling under the weight of the amount of product, many of it now no longer shifting. Publishers’ books were no longer selling. It all backfired with many publishers and stores alike closing their doors forever. Even the mighty Marvel almost fell, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996, only to be saved by ToyBiz in 1997 when they bought the company.
While, as we all know, the comics industry survived this blow, it was a very close call. If not for ToyBiz’s acquisition of Marvel, and Warner Bros. ownership of DC, the comic landscape could have been incredibly different. Comic book sales have never quite reached the levels of the pre-boom era. The best selling single issue in 2018 was Action Comics #1000 which, with ten variant covers, sold 500,000 copies. The industry, however, has stabilized.
With more and more ways to read comics, including collected editions and digitally, the medium is more accessible than ever. With increased interest brought to comic characters and their stories via the films inspired by them, the crash of the ’90s is, hopefully, something the industry will not experience again.
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