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Hobbes: How will these be so rare and valuable if every kid in America has five copies?
"I think any organization or store that pushes comics as investment items is at best short-sighted and foolish, and, at worst, immoral and dumb. You can sell lots of the same comic to the same person - especially if you tell them they're investing money for high guaranteed returns. But you're selling bubbles and tulips. One day the bubbles will burst and the tulips will rot in the warehouse."
—Neil Gaiman, Gods & Tulips
The great comics crash... of 1996. Actually, it lasted a number of years, from at least Death Mate (1993) to the failure of Marvel's Heroes World deal (1997), but if you need a year, 1996 isn't too bad a choice.
The Crash resulted from two main causes, which semi-coincidentally emerged alongside the rise of the Dark Age. The first of these was the rise of "direct market" comic book shops, which were not covered by the Comics Code and thus could sell books that did not have Code approval, and which also served as a convenient gathering place for fans of the medium to meet and discuss them. They were also a big plus for the publishers, since unsold copies were thrown into the back-issue bin as opposed to being "stripped" and the cover returned for full credit. Although direct-market comics distributors had existed since the foundation of Mile High Comics in 1971, the 1990s saw the two major direct-market distributors (Diamond and Capital City) drastically reduce their ordering requirements; a vast number of "comics dealers" sprang up overnight, most of them young, inexperienced, and undercapitalized. These actions caused the direct-market to jump from 6 to 70 percent of total comic book sales from 1978 to 1992.
The second, and probably the key factor, was the comic collector boom, which would have drastic impact on the industry. Over time, early comics had become valuable, mostly because not a lot of them had survived, and the possibility that new comics might be valuable started to drive the market. The impact of the collector boom is often overstated for end-level collectors; the real driving force in this regard came from many of the aforementioned "dealers" who over-ordered in massive numbers for a demand that wasn't there even in the boom days.
The comic book industry soaked it up. Numerous marketing tactics designed expressly to appeal to this collector's market began to appear. Some of the most common were:
- Series being relaunched with new #1 issues.
- Issues printed with multiple variant covers so that completists would buy multiple copies of a single issue.
- Issues sold pre-bagged in plastic, so that one could either read the comic or keep it pristine (or to encourage buying one copy to read and one copy to keep pristine).
- Trading cards and holofoil covers appearing whenever the editor thought a series needed a sales boost (indeed, the latter gimmick was so common that some refer to the Dark Age as the Chrome Age).
- Massive Retooling of comic series and "shake-up" storylines to generate more publicity for "gimmick" issues. In particular, the 1992 Death of Superman storyline sparked a massive rise in comic book speculators due to its high level of mainstream publicity, and alienated many when the con was revealed.
This was also the era of the superstar artist. Popular artists left Marvel and created Image Comics. Matters probably weren't helped by the marketing department being given editorial control at Marvel, which also led to Onslaught and Heroes Reborn, where Marvel outsourced its comics for a year to popular artists' own studios. Sales boomed based on art, often ignoring writing.
Unfortunately, the resulting spike in sales was only a short-term benefit, as publishers ignored one basic economic fact: The old comics were selling for such high prices in the first place only because they were extremely rare. Conversely, the new "collectibles" were being churned out by the truckload. Millions of people had bought comics like X-Men #1 in hope that it would become a rare collectible, but since there were millions of copies floating around, anyone who wanted to collect it could get it for a song. And to make matters worse, a lot of the material that was trying to become collectible using these gimmicks was the kind of poorly written Liefeldian rubbish that few believed was worth collecting in the first place. Finally, the artists at Image Comics proved very prone to Schedule Slip; the Death Mate crossover, one of the most notorious cases of this, helped to kill Valiant Comics.
When the public and dealers realized this, the bottom fell out, and the market collapsed. Many of the smaller publishers went bust or were bought out (including Valiant Comics), and two-thirds of all direct market comic book stores went out of business.
Marvel's filing for bankruptcy in 1997 was another blow to the industry. It happened at the same time as the market problems, but had more to do with then-owner Ron Perelman acquiring the company through junk bonds and dummy corporations and then ransacking the company for the purpose of lining his pockets. In addition, Marvel had attempted to in-house distribution of their own comic books by purchasing a mid-level distributor, called Heroes World. The ensuing shootout ended up destroying Capital City Publishing, and leaving Diamond as the sole distributor for every other comic company. Heroes World bled money and had serious issues shipping issues out on time, which caused many stretched-thin comic stores to go under, further aggravating the industry's woes. In 1997, in the midst of bankruptcy hearings, Marvel finally gave up and sold the company to Diamond.
All of this also impacted the consumer base of the medium, which moved increasingly from the mainstream public to a smaller niche market of fans and collectors. The dominant stereotypes of the readers of this age, fair or otherwise, are of (1) the "comic book teenager", an insecure fan who hated any hint of 'silliness' in his comics and demanded that they be "adult" and taken deathly seriously, even though the shocking content of said comics only implied immaturity; and (2) the "collector" who obsessively and joylessly maintained his collection in pristine condition, with little or no interest in the actual content. Ultimately, the recurring theme of this may seem to be short-term gains that lead to long-term harm for the series, publisher or even industry.
Comic book sales seemed to have hit their lowest point in 2001, at about 67 million copies sold. However, other forces were already in play by then, including first and foremost the rise of the trade paperback (which, sold in bookstores, nets more money for the companies than the actual comics these days). Dark Horse survived due to its licensed titles (particularly the Star Wars books), while Image survived due to the fact that its loose-knit structure provided low overhead. DC survived due to being firmly in place within the Time-Warner hierarchy, while Marvel got into its next big business -- movies. Ironically, the movie deals that helped to save Marvel and turn it into a multimedia giant (and future Disney subsidiary) were inked by none other than the man who helped kill the company in the first place -- Ronald Perelman. In addition, his attempts to get comic book stores to sell collectible Marvel-themed card sets meant a small card-game company out of Washington had a ready-made market for their upcoming smash hit.