08 August 2006

Why Superhero Comics Sucked in the 1990s and the Industry Tanked pt 1

People often talk about the 1990s as the Bad Old Days of comics; this is obviously an over-generalization as there were plenty of good funnybooks that got released between 1990-1999; the 1990s were also the decade that saw Vertigo flourishing as its own imprint, and the "indie" comic really come into its own, with people like Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Seth, Chris Ware, Evan Dorkin and others making their mark. Marvel and DC always have some reliable creators on staff who manage to poke their head above the current trends, and even Valiant, Ultraverse and some other aborted lines had some really good concepts at their core that got sucked under by the shit-tsunami.

But when people talk about the 1990s, they're mostly talking about superhero comics. And they're really talking about 1988 (or so) to 1996 (or so). It's easy to pick up on the transparently Bad Ideas of that period, like the Superbitch Sue Richards, Liefeld's fifteenth iteration of Cable or six different limited edition chromium die cut covers polybagged with a hologram. But the factors behind the scenes were as ugly as what was often being published. As ugly as Herb Trimpe, longtime Marvel Bullpen workhorse and ordained minister forced to grind out his last years in the industry pretending he never learned how to draw, throwing together horrifically ugly Liefeld pastiches of grimacing women in thongs because that is what, for a moment, the Market Demanded.

There were really several factors that led to the frequently extraordinary "badness" of superhero comics in the 1990s. This is going to be really long, and I apologize for that, but fully understanding how fucked superhero comics (and the industry in general) were circa 1997 or so takes some explaining.

In the mid 1980s, DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel Superhero Secret Wars were two big twelve-issue "event" mini-series that featured practically every character in their respective universes and crossed over into a number of ongoing series. They were both huge successes sales-wise, and so this started both companies off doing frequent "events", which usually involved a core mini-series and dozens of crossover issues. This came to a head in the 1990s, which we'll get to in a minute.

At the same time, the 1980s saw a lot of attention being cast on comics and other collectibles (toys, baseball cards, etc.) as baby boomers started spending insane amounts of money to recapture their childhood via Mickey Mantle and Spider-Man. When people learned that comics from 20-30 years were now selling for hundreds or thousands of dollars, people seemed to think that hey, if they bought comics today they could put their kids through college in 20 years.

The big flaw in this theory, across the board, is that old collectables are valuable because they are rare. Most Mickey Mantle rookie cards and X-Men #1s were sold to kids that beat the hell out of them, rolled them up, stuck them in bicycle spokes, left them outside in a tree-house, and got them thrown out when they were grounded or left for college. Their rarity is what drives the prices up, not neccesarily their age.

So when Marvel started hyping up Spider-Man #1, X-Force #1 and X-Men #1 in 1990-1, they nudged the reader to believe that one day soon, they would all be worth thousands of dollars. However, these books all had print runs in the millions, and the majority of these copies were being immediately placed in bags and boxes so that they will be in mint condition. Consequently, these comics can now often be had for a quarter or less.

But at the time, comics were riding high, with lots of books regularly selling a million copies or more per issue. The readership was almost certainly lower than that, since a great many issues were being purchased in bulk, either by collectors or by a store-owner who salted them away dreaming of future profits. Hearing about the big business being made in comics, corporate raider Ron Perelman bought up Marvel in 1988, and triggered the next wave of ridiculousness in his bid to strip-mine the living shit out of any company he owned.

Many of Marvel's hottest artists jumped ship a couple years later. Guys like Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee were hyped up and widely credited with helping create the buzz that resulted in those million-selling #1s I mentioned, but after requesting better pay they were literally compared to hired fieldhands and easily replaceable cogs by a Marvel executive. They quit en masse and formed Image. These guys were mostly in their mid-20s, and without any sort of editorial constraint really kicked off the "XXXTREME" phase of superheroes, with Shadowhawk running around all HIV-positive and breaking heroes backs, Spawn running around as a demon from hell with an enormous cape and skulls everywhere, and dozens of more or less forgotten characters like Cyberforce, Bloodstrike, Ripclaw, Cybernary, Warblade, Bloodwulf, Deathblow and pretty much every other cliched "hardcore" compound name you could imagine. These books were pretty terrible and aren't remembered fondly (or at all) a decade later, but at the time they were HOT HOT HOT and spurred on by speculators they sold like hotcakes.

So pretty soon, Image became the model that Marvel and DC emulated. DC continued the mega-events and special "collector's item" foil/hologram/die-cut/embossed/polybagged" cover trend (originated at Marvel but really brought into its own by upstarts Image and Valiant in the early 1990s) and struck gold in 1992 with the Death of Superman. It was the last big mainstream story about the collectibility of comics, it sold millions of copies, was seen as some sort of historic milestone (people really seemed to think he would stay dead), and launched a series of comics where DC would kill or replace all their big characters -- Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, etc. -- to diminishing returns saleswise.

Marvel, who had already gone through the whole "replacing all the big name characters" gag in the 1980s when then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter thought Jack Kirby might regain copyright of these characters, simply brought in newer more "extreme/Image" anti-hero ersatz versions of their flagships:

Spider-Man --> Venom

Thor -->Thunderstrike

Avengers --> Force Works

Iron Man --> War Machine

Captain America --> USAgent

Fantastic Four --> Fantastic Force

Ghost Rider --> Vengeance

Not to mention any character with a halfway decent following being given multiple titles of their own, launching dozens of secondary or tertiary heroes into their own mini-series or series, starting side-lines like "Marvel 2099", etc. Story quality be damned, Perelman was looking to maximize profits, maximize shelf-space (the better to crowd out all the upstart companies trying to start up) and just generally make as much money as possible.

At the same time, there was a serious talent shortage in comics. Marvel and DC were both operating on the (sadly somewhat true) assumption that their comics sell on the basis of their iconic characters alone, not the talent attached to them. So most of the better writers and artists jumped ship to companies that at least promised better treatment for creators, like Image, Valiant, Dark Horse and the Ultraverse. Other people just left the industry alltogether for jobs in film, animation and elsewhere. But even without these factors, there were so goddamn many comics coming out each month that really really rushed and substandard material was getting released every month. At least when the comics actually came out, which was another mitigating factor in the complete disaster of 1990s superhero comics.

Imagine if you will the peak of the comics speculation boom circa 1993-1994:
there were close to a dozen companies trying to promote themselves as the premiere superhero line. Pretty much all of them were taking their cues from a company being run short-sightedly and incompetently by brash artists with remarkably little business sense beyond hype and surface sheen. The creative impetus boiled down to "make a bunch of flashy changes involving deaths and costumes changes, slap a #1 on the cover of everything possible, ideally have some sort of gimmick cover or insert, and cross the book over with as many other books as possible" and very little attention was paid to boring things like who would actually write or draw the comic. But they were all still selling really well.

You can see how this leads to trouble.


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Your remark about Jim Shooter is way off. He was ousted in '87, way before most of this occurred.

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