Slaying the Dragon #1: “The 1990’s Killed Comics”

Welcome to the first installment of a new, irregularly published column here at The Unspoken Decade. Slaying the Dragon exists solely to dispel half-truths and outright misconceptions about the most prolific decade in comic book history, the 1990’s.

In 1991, when I was 10 years old, I bought my first comic books from a spinner rack at a grocery store. The 1990’s were MY decade. I love everything about the 1990’s comic scene, even what I hated about it at the time. To say that I’m a 1990’s comics fanatic is an understatement. But to say I’m a 1990’s comics fanboy would be erroneous. By my own definitions, a fanatic is someone who loves everything about a specific topic; a fanboy is someone who loves it to the point of losing objectivity.

While I love everything about the 1990’s comic scene, I am able to separate facts from oft-repeated and unfounded opinion. Some geek blogger who dislikes the 1990’s uses the horse-laugh fallacy to win the approval of the current generation of comics fans, and that personal opinion gets regurgitated endlessly as actuality.

When I sat down to write this first edition of Slaying the Dragon, it didn’t take a lot of thought to decide which dragon I should attempt to slay first. Remove the head, and the body dies, they say. I’ll start with the biggest false notion—that the 1990’s are responsible for the current plight of the comic book industry.

Comic book films are making previously unheard of amounts of money at the box-office, meanwhile sales figures for books featuring iconic characters such as Batman, Spider-Man, and the other titans of the comics multiverse are still at a fraction of what they had been, not only in the 1990’s, but in most other decades as well. I’ve seen countless comics’ fans post on social media about how the 1990’s market crash has forever crippled the hobby we all love. False.

CRASH

It is absolute fact that the biggest industry crash in comics history occurred in the mid-1990’s. I would never argue against that. The only local comics shop (LCS) to ever exist in my tiny hometown opened during the boom year of 1993—a time when more comics were being published in a given month than even in the 1940’s. Then the bottom fell out of the market. There was more product being published than the market could support. My town’s LCS folded by 1996, never to be replaced. That’s reality. That is truth.

The comic book market has yet to even return to the sort of sales it enjoyed in the 1990’s, or even in the 1970’s for that matter, a time when industry insiders were predicting the demise of the entire industry. That is also truth.

But to blame the current state of the industry on something that happened 20 years ago is a simple explanation for a complex problem. I care far too much about 1990’s comics, to allow them to take the blame for a decline that started decades earlier.

While the 1990’s crash was the biggest in terms of the sheer number of publishers, distributors, shops, and titles forced to fold, it was just one of many crashes. It happens most every decade. In the 1940’s sales dropped following the end of WWII. In the 1950’s censorship and Seduction of the Innocent hysteria lead not only to a crash, but to public comic book burnings in communities around the nation. In the 1960’s, oversaturation inspired by the Marvel Comics revolution and the popularity of the Batman ’66 TV show lead to a crash. In the 1970’s, both Marvel and DC Comics were almost shut down by their parent companies thanks to the decline of the newsstand distribution system. In the 1980’s, an explosion of mostly forgettable black and white comics looking to imitate the success of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles caused a young, gullible direct market to crash, resulting in hundreds of new comic shops disappearing along with a gaggle of publishers. Yet, after each crash, the comic book industry has risen from the grave, much like a phoenix, or for that matter, almost every Marvel Comics character to ever die a sales-spiking death.

So why hasn’t the industry resurrected itself? Why hasn’t it returned to its previous heights? There are lots of reasons, and hardly any of them are a direct result of the 1990’s.

I believe it all started the 1970’s. When the big two were almost shut down by their respective corporate entities, their woes were largely the result of a failing distribution system. Cheap “funny books” turned a minuscule profit for both newsstand outlets and distributors, so huge amounts of comics were returned untouched in order to create shelf space for money making magazines. Then in the late 1970’s, the direct market appeared. Upstart distributors convinced comics companies to sell product to comic book specialty shops. This was the savior that comics had been looking for, or so everyone thought. Publishers were making big profits once again, and the direct market opened the doors for creator-owned comics and freed creators from the shackles of Comics Code Authority censorship, allowing for books that appealed to adults as well as children.

Then came the 1980’s crash, but no big deal. Publishers were still making some money on newsstand sales, and the direct market rebounded quickly thanks to speculators who came over to the comics market when the baseball card market experienced a crash of its own. These speculators were hoarding huge amounts of first issues, first appearances, and, later, gimmick books similar to gimmick “chase cards” found in random packages of sports cards. These greedy newbs were banking on their Spider-Man #1 (with a print run close to 1 million copies) eventually being worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, much like Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 was at that point in time (now worth millions of dollars). What these speculators failed to comprehend was that Amazing Fantasy #15 came out at a time when kids treated their comics like toys, reading, folding, and trading them until they disintegrated, rather than placing them in acid free bags and boards, and storing them in acid free boxes, all while having a much, much smaller print run.

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Then the bottom fell out, like anyone might have figured it would. Speculators fled, dumping their gluttony of “collectibles” into the market, causing prices to crash. True fans became disenfranchised as the value of their favorite books plummeted. Comics shops closed. Many who weren’t soured to the hobby simply out grew it or developed new interests. More shops closed. But there would be new readers to take their place, eventually right? It all worked out the other times, right? Well, apparently not. Today most comic book fans are 30 or order, meaning that they lived through the 1990’s crash and stuck with it, or they’ve returned after a long absence. These days, comics newbs are a minority (although a very vocal one).

New readers simply aren’t there, even though hundreds of millions of people see the latest Marvel or DC blockbuster in theaters. If only a fraction of them started buying comics, we’d have a new industry golden age. Why isn’t that happening? I believe it’s because the industry is relying nearly exclusively on a direct market that can’t produce enough new readers to replace the ones who inevitably tire of reading serialized entertainment. When the newsstand system failed, comics lost something the direct market hasn’t been able to replicate. Comics are no longer available at every corner drug store, gas station, toy store, candy show, bus station, or grocery store, the latter of which being where I first discovered the joys of comics. Many children (and adults) live hours from a comics shop. Even if a kid lives relatively close to one, a young comics fan needs to be in walking distance to have access to comics, and even then, they have to brave a shop littered with 30-somethings bitterly complaining about how the Scarlet Witch from Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t wearing the exact costume she wears in the comics. It’s difficult for most kids to convince their parents to make a special trip for comics. For me, it was next to impossible. The only kids I see in comic shops also have a parent that is there for comics. A kid lacking a parental geek is highly unlikely to discover the medium. Of course, all the blame can’t be put on comics becoming a niche market. There’s also the astronomical cover price. In 1991, $20 (not that I ever had that much money back then) could buy you 16 comics!  Now it barely gets you 4 comics. The 1990’s can take the blame here, as it was during the mid-1990’s when everyone followed Image Comics’ lead and began using ultra-expensive glossy paper.

I hope the industry savior is digital comics. Most kids have access to tablets, e-readers, or smart phones. Digital books can be significantly cheaper than paper and ink as well (even though most digitals currently cost nearly as much as the physical books, which makes little sense to me). These digital comics can be obtained by new readers young and old with just a few finger swipes. But we’ll see if the publishers figure out how to attract them.

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Mind you, this piece is no dig at comic shops or paper-and-ink comics. I love my current LCS, and hardily recommend everyone support their local shops. I myself much prefer physical comics to digital ones. Comic shops are what keeps the industry afloat, and that’s not a bad thing. The bad thing is that after almost 40 years of existing, the direct market hasn’t been able to attract the same amount of new readers the long dead newsstand industry once managed. So what the hell is the solution to this problem? I don’t know. If I did, I’d probably be some comics industry bigwig instead of a fan with an Internet column. But I hope the industry improves, or at least sticks around at its current level. A world without comics would be a dreary place. Just don’t blame my beloved 1990’s if it all disappears.

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