The Comic-Book Apocalypse
The early nineties saw a period in comic-book history where the industry almost comitted suicide through greed, arrogance and stupidity. I was a lifetime comics buyer at that point. Moving from Spider-Man to the X-Men, to the Tick and beyond.
Then the speculators came. And like the sports card market before it, they took comic-books straight to hell. People were buying the books not because they loved them, but because they thought they could make a profit reselling them. This encouraged the industry to pump out gimicks.
First issues were more collectable? Start more titles — or better yet, cancel a title that has been running since the ’60s then restart it the next month at #1. People were buying more than one copy? Release six “variant” covers of every issue. Kill Superman. Cripple Batman. Give Spider-Man an evil clone. Holograms. Foil embossing. Die-cut covers. Every dirty trick in the book was tried to make consumers buy comics they didn’t love and didn’t need (except improving quality.) And it worked.
For a while.
I first stumbled across noun’s story in the forums at Quarter to Three, a videogame site. Like myself, noun was a comic-book affectionado during the early nineties. On top of getting sucked up in the speculator hype as a consumer, noun also started dealing a little on the side.
The seductuve lure of the speculator bubble eventually lead to ruin and damnation for hundreds of dealers and almost all of the small publishing companies folded.
So read along as noun gives you the play by play from his courtside seats at the comic-book apocalypse.
Part One: Noun’s Story Begins
This is going to be really long, and probably not even remotely interesting to non-comic collectors, but I wanted to answer this question in a separate thread:
Sorry for the hijack, but I’ve always been curious — how hard is it to start and run an RPG/comic/card shop? I’d swear there’s not enough margin/volume in it to survive, but apparently some do okay.
Starting is relatively easy, surviving is a bitch. It’s not a coincidence that the strongest stores are the ones that started in the ’80s or even the late ’70s. These folks opened their stores as a retail business first and foremost, and by the time the speculator nonsense came around they already had an established customer base and years of experience in running a business. Extra money they made during this period was mostly gravy, and when it all vanished they still had their basic business savvy and a small group of loyal customers to fall back on.
Not everyone made it – I know of a few well known stores in the Seattle area that crashed during the speculator boom. They made some bad decisions, expanded when they shouldn’t have, and lost everything as a result. There were dozens of new stores that disappeared when it was all over, and I suppose I must be one of these, even though I quit by choice and not out of financial necessity.
It started for me when I first moved to the Seattle area in ’89. I was low on cash (real low) but still made a point to check out a comic convention in the Seattle Center. I was blown away. I had been reading and collecting comics since I was 4, and even though I purchased a new copy of Overstreet’s guide every year, never really thought I would ever see the big money. I saw dealers making money left and right, and since I brought my comic collection with me when I moved to Seattle, I decided to give it a try.
I learned the promoter’s name after the show, gave him a call, and bought a table for his next event some six months or so away. I arrived with four long boxes of comics, a copy of the newest edition of Overstreet’s price guide, and tried to be charming. When it was over, I had made a little over two hundred dollars. “Hm,” I thought, considering my minimum wage job at the time. “Maybe there are some possibilities here.”
During the show, I chatted up one of the dealers next to me and asked some more details about the game. He mentioned there were two wholesale distributors in our area, Capital City and Diamond Distribution, though he recommended Capital over Diamond. (Shortly afterwards I found Diamond to be more reliable than Capital City, and years later Capital eventually went under altogether. But I digress).
So I started an account with Capital. They had several account tiers, basically amounting to the old rule of the more you buy, the bigger discount you would receive. I started an account at the lowest level, which meant I would commit to purchasing $250 worth of merchandise per month at a 40% discount of the retail price. Shortly afterwards, I learned the challenge of doing business at a quantum level. I’ll explain.
The new comics you see a store selling today were all ordered three months ago. Storeowners need to anticipate how many copies they’ll need to sell 90 days in advance, but they not only need to plan for their current subscriber base, but also for potential new customers. The goal is, of course, to get as close to selling out as possible. But then you have to factor in the products you’ve ordered that ship 3-6 or even 12 months late, products that get canceled, or even products that defy all the laws of retail physics and arrive early. Adding to the confusion is the fact that you need to do this on a monthly basis, and plan for shipments arriving on a weekly basis. Clearly, some forecasting and inventory skills are required here.
Then once you finally do get the merchandise, you’ve got to deal with customers who were impatient and ended up buying the product they promised to get from you somewhere else. Or worse, you’ll end up receiving three months of product at once, and customers aren’t able to afford it all at once. The distributors don’t care, you need to pay for the product they delivered. How you get rid of it is YOUR problem.
Granted, the above couple of paragraphs are not news to those of you involved in game distribution; you all have the same challenges. But these were all revolutionary concepts to a young 20-something just looking for some extra cash.
Part Two: Noun Gains A Few Levels In Comic Dealer.
Fast forward about a year. By this time, I’m doing one show a month, working on building up inventory, and building a reputation for myself in the community. My goal was to do these things before opening a store so I wouldn’t have to worry about store bills (power, rent, etc.) in addition to making cash to pay for weekly inventory. Plus, I was still working full time, so I needed all the money I could get.
During this period I had a Gord-like revelation. My original intent was to use my knowledge of comic history and impending interesting comics to expand the minds of my customers and get them to try new things, thus improving the industry as a goal. A lofty and ultimately futile goal. Hot books were the in thing, and the prime deciding factor for making a book “hot” was its artist. Never mind that cool indy-project or story on the way, what did I have by McFarlane, or Liefeld, or any of those other artists who’ve mostly since been forgotten. I hated selling them, and I hated having to carry them in my inventory, but I couldn’t say no to the dollars.
Still, I was moving a fair amount of books, once I started focusing on the current hot books – X-Men, Wolverine, Spiderman, and, in my area, Sandman. (Seattle, Goth, duh.) Initial Image books were popular, to a point. The books I sold helped pay for the stuff I had left over, and I was doing fairly well.
In the meantime, I was gradually building up my key silver age stock. First issues and first appearances of characters were almost always a winner. Books like Spider-Man #1 were the obvious trophies, but I couldn’t see tying that much of my money up in a single book. For a brief while, Marvel was launching several new books based on really lame ’70s characters (Moebius, Warlock, etc.) and I made a fair profit selling copies of Amazing SpiderMan #101 (1st Moebius) and Fantastic Four #65-66 (1st Warlock) that were previously almost totally unwanted before.
Back to that ordering process I mentioned earlier. Capital and Diamond both produced monthly catalogs for dealers to give to their customers so they could complete their order forms. The dealer versions of those catalogs were even more detailed. But the real wild part were the countless posters, promo comics, fliers, and other trinkets I would receive. I would sometimes receive more promo materials than actual comics I ordered for a month. It was unreal. But those promo comics and fliers were a good indicator of what might be popular later. I bought a lot of early Valiant stuff, like Harbinger. Boy, did that ever pay off.
But the most helpful thing for back issue dealers were the annual sales conventions. These were the trade shows where representatives from all the comic companies laid out their offerings for the coming year and tried to convince storeowners they would make big bucks selling them. Remember, I mentioned earlier that quality was already dropping. It was apparent that most ventures were doomed to failure (Heavy Hitters? WTF?) but an observant dealer could easily anticipate future demand and plan accordingly.
My best coup – the DC rep explained the whole breaking of the Batman storyline to us before it even started. Having remembered what a total media frenzy the whole Death of Superman caused, I knew something similar was in the making for Batman. I bought all the copies of the comics containing the first appearances of Bane and Azrael I could find, and, months later, probably grossed between $500-$600 reselling them.
But these bits of cleverness were few and far between, and I saw sales of my new books were slagging. I couldn’t compete with dealers who were purchasing new books at a 55% or greater discount, who were basically using comic conventions as a way of dumping thousands of their backstock for pennies. It was beginning to hurt.
Right around this time, comic non-sport cards were becoming popular. Early series produced by Comic Images looked like crap and sold poorly, but a company by the name of Impel had just released a few series of the Marvel Universe that sold very well, with hologram chase cards that were in high demand. I noticed a release of X-Men series 1 cards were coming soon, so I bit the bullet and bought a case of it. I *think* a case contained 20 boxes, which cost me around $13 a box. This was a huge gamble for me.
Thankfully, I received the case a few days before a major Seattle show, marked them up to $25 a box, and hoped for the best. I was mobbed and down to two boxes within an hour. I put those away (remember, I was saving for a store at this point). Desperate collectors hounded me and most other dealers for these cards throughout the show. Shortly thereafter I modified my business plan.
This was the show where I also realized the speculator market was exploding. I mentioned Harbinger #1 earlier. After selling two copies at cover price to customers practically apoplectic with excitement I marked one up to $5. It was gone in minutes. As a gamble, I marked one up to $10. It was also gone in minutes. I had left my other issues at home (backstock) but during a slow point I wandered the show to see what other dealers were selling their copies for. I saw one customer gladly plop down $25 for a copy. At future shows, I sold copies for $75 each, which is completely irrational for a new book with a multi-thousand print run. I knew it couldn’t last (and it didn’t, though the market took a long time to collapse).
This is parts 3 & 4 of our ongoing series on the speculator fueled boom and subsequent bust in the comics market during the early ’90s. Click here to check out parts 1 & 2.
Part Three: Noun Dual-Classes To Card Dealer
Something I neglected to mention before – I did a lot of market research before I got started, and kept on doing market research the entire time I was in business. Market research meaning, in this case, visiting as many stores as I could find and seeing what products they were moving, and at what prices.
I soon realized the Overstreet price guide I was initially using was all but useless in predicting current customer demand. In fact, I remember one of their issues contained a letter from the editor essentially stating they would never value issues less than a year old more than cover price, and that the whole market was being ridiculous about it. So when an upstart price guide/preview/hype magazine called Wizard burst onto the scene, and made current issue prices their focus, it soon became the magazine of choice and nearly drove Overstreet out of business. Eventually, Overstreet magazine relented and started to mirror current hot prices in their guides, but it was too late. The damage had been done. Such was the power of the speculator market.
I also learned that often price guides were of no use at all in predicting regional trends. Sure, Wizard was great at showing national averages, but a dealer still had to take into account local preferences (such as Sandman’s popularity in Seattle during the goth scene of the early ’90s).
Back to the story.
Now, the non-sports card market was almost entirely foreign to me. The only cards I’ve ever purchased prior to the X-Men cards were Star Wars cards put out by Topps in the ’70s. But after witnessing the success of the X-Men cards, I decided I’d better start branching out into non-sports cards, and fast. IIRC, my initial card inventory consisted of Marvel Universe 1 and 2, the X-men series I mentioned yesterday, and Star Trek 25th Anniversary. Somewhere during this period DC Cosmic Cards were released.
After seeing most people were only selling boxes and packs, I thought I’d carve a niche by actually opening the darn things and selling sets and chase cards. So I bought a glass case, bought some plastic boxes and card protectors from a sports card dealer, and set to work incorporating cards into my display.
A brief explanation for non-collectors. A “set” usually consists of the basic common card set, usually 90-100 cards, depending on the publisher and series. A typical box of non-sports cards tended to yield 1-3 sets, again, totally depending on the publisher. Occasionally, some printing snafu would make sets nigh impossible to complete, and in these cases sets would end up being worth more than chase cards. A “chase card” is usually a subseries of a higher quality card with a gimmick effect, like a hologram, that can only be completed by buying multiple card boxes or trading for them. For example, the Star Trek 25th anniversary series had a two-hologram subset, but the holograms were only available one per case. Sports card dealers generally regarded non-sports cards as a nuisance contaminating their own hobby, with the exception of the Comic Ball series, featuring Looney Tunes characters playing sports. Most would change their minds later, as I’ll explain.
Meanwhile, Capital and Diamond began offering more non-sports cards products through their catalogs. Comic Images started offering various series featuring known artists fantasy and science fiction artists. FPG also started doing the same for less obscure artists, such as Larry Elmore or Joe Jusko. My inventory was growing and pretty soon I had one of the largest non-sports card inventories at comic shows. The line was blurring.
Comics, meanwhile, were still out of control. Rob Liefeld issues of New Mutants continued to command big dollars, despite their horrible art. New Image comics were all popular and selling well, despite being complete and utter crap. (Yes, even Spawn, and I stand by that opinion.) Other independent comic publishers were really growing popular. Dark Horse, having been around for a few years publishing Cheval Noir and other arty books, started churning out multiple books based on the Terminator, Aliens, Predator and Star Wars movie licenses. Fans went nuts. Valiant started by releasing updated versions of obscure Gold Key comics like Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter (kinda like what DC did with Blue Beetle and Captain Atom from Charleton) but soon expanded their universe with their own properties. I already mentioned Harbinger. X-O Manowar, Rai and Shadowman were close behind, and just as popular. I was ignoring 90-95% of Marvel and DC’s line and just selling the hot books, and the occasional silver age book.
Valiant books were just insane. Being a brand new comic universe, new characters were introduced every issue. New comics soon doubled in price just because it had the first appearance of a minor character. Even old issues of Magnus Robot Fighter, previously ignored and looked down upon, were flying off shelves. Image comics were popular just because they were Image comics. Early image was staffed by folks who knew how to draw, but not how to run a business. Early issues were often ridiculously late and even more poorly drawn then usual. But people still bought them. I didn’t understand it, I just sold them.
I very clearly remember the beginning of the end. It was at a comic show in Portland, hosted by Dark Horse Comics. For months, collectors were trying to find a copy of Magnus Robot Fighter #12, the first appearance of Turok. The reason being, Valiant was about to launch Turok’s own comic book, and investors and speculators were looking for copies before it came out. What they didn’t know is that most dealers HAD multiple copies of it, but were hording their copies until Turok #1 came out so they could sell it for big bucks. Not me, though – it just didn’t feel like a good bet.
So anyway, this show happened to come out right after Turok #1 was released, and the joint was practically littered with copies of Magnus #12, all having magically materialized from various inventories. One dealer had rented a table just so he could sell his two long boxes full of Magnus #12. Turok was all over the damn place. And not a single dealer sold a single copy. The investors had totally vanished from the scene. The worm had turned, and comics fans were pissed off.
Comics collectors were finally mad at Marvel for churning out garbage for the past few years. They were mad at Dark Horse for never making an issue #5; all of their movie comics were four-issue miniseries, the logic being that #1 issues sell better. They were made at Image for producing comics based solely on their namesake – image. They were mad at Valiant for lying to them about their collectibility, which was untrue – Valiant never tried to do anything but make good comics. The rumor of collectibility was a misguided self-fufilling prophecy. But Valiant felt the pain just the same.
I still had plenty of comics, but I had stopped buying new books from distributors at this point. It was easier to buy new comics from dealers dumping below their cost, and used books from collectors looking for extra cash. So I had very little liability, but a lot of folks were not so fortunate. I remember one well-dressed dealer wearing a tie who was practically in tears by the end of the Dark Horse show. He didn’t sell a single comic; he had a table full of nothing but recent Valiant books, and collectors already owned multiple duplicates of each issue. There was no-one to sell them to.
I was still selling plenty of cards though, and by this time Skybox, Topps and Upper Deck started getting into the game. These three companies were staples of the sports card industry but knew money when they saw it. Impel, the company that made all the Marvel, DC and Star Trek cards I mentioned earlier, went belly-up and lost the Star Trek and Marvel licenses to Skybox, who were much more successful with it. Topps came out with quite a few movie card sets, as I later learned they had been doing so for decades.
Upper Deck, well…. they tried. I’ll get into their disasters next time.
Sorry guys, I wasn’t trying to be a prima donna; I got distracted by (gasp) WORK of all things. Curse you, corporate masters, for making me write that proposal when I could have been working on this!
Part Four: Noun Upgrades To Third-Edition Dealer Rules, Picks A Few Perks At Random, And Becomes Utterly Confused by Magic
Sometime before the collapse of the comic speculator market, Magic cards came out and were enslaving all who touched them. It was a totally novel concept at the time; a collectible card game, with a basic set consisting of several hundred cards, with the more powerful cards found at increasing levels of rarity. Add to this an expansion set released every 6 months or so, and people just couldn’t get enough of it. Dealers who got in early were making money hand over fist. This went beyond speculator mania – collectors were downright frantic for this stuff.
A dealer friend of mine convinced me to buy a couple of starter packs and Legends expansion packs from him so I could see how cool the game was for myself. To his credit, he spent at least 30 minutes trying to teach me the basics, but it just wasn’t sinking in. I could appreciate the art; Wizards of the Coast did a wonderful job soliciting paintings both from established artists and up and comers, but as a game, I didn’t get it. I also didn’t feel comfortable competing with the dealers who were far more knowledgable about this phenomenon than I was; it sounded like a sure way to lose my shirt. So other than selling my individual Legends cards for $1 each (turning $4 into $40) I stayed away from it for the time being.
Sports cards dealers, on the other hand, absolutely LOVED Magic. Their own hobby was in a bit of a slump, and their attempts at selling comics wasn’t working out, since they were all buying early ’90s Marvels and Image comics by the truckload. Magic cards were THE perfect opportunity for their pump and dump schemes.
Here’s how it works. Say a new card series comes out with a wholesale cost of $30 per box for a case of 10 boxes. That’s $300. On day one, sports cards dealers would jack the price up to $75, well over the comfortable margin of $20-$30 per box. If they sell 4 boxes at $75, that nets them $300 right away. They’ve broken even. They can now drastically cut the price as low as they want and still make a profit on the case. By the second week, the price would drop from $75 to $35. Two weeks later, it would reach $20 or less. To ensure their profit margins, at least in my area, dealers would form their own little cartel and all agree to fix prices at the higher level. Smaller dealers, many of whom purchased their inventory from the larger dealers, tried to sell their boxes at a normal retail price and could not compete. They were gutting their own hobby.
Enter Magic cards. In an attempt to prolong demand and collectibility, Wizards of the Coast rationed all orders for Magic cards they received. So if a dealer ordered 100 boxes, WHAM, their order would be cut to 50 boxes. Dealers would receive maybe 10% of their order on launch date, receive their next 30% a month or so later, and so on. Needless to say, this tactic combined with sports card dealer greed and collector insanity did not result in a stable collecting environment.
Caving in at last, I finally ordered a few boxes of the Ice Age expansion from an honest distributor who had grown sick of the whole scene, who would let me have them only if I promised to get them into the hands of actual collectors and not greedy dealers. I later found out that other dealers were paying kids to buy Ice Age packs from me, since I had turned them away earlier. I had them for about an hour, tops.
Then came Fallen Empires. By now, dealers were tired of the whole rationing thing and were doubling and tripling their orders to get what they really needed to sell. At the same time, Wizards of the Coast decided that maybe the whole rationing thing wasn’t working in their favor, so they relaxed their restrictions and substantially bumped up the print run for Fallen Empires. Sports cards dealers turned a quick profit at first, until it became apparent that everyone had Fallen Empires boxes to sell. Plus, it was a particularly weak and uninteresting expansion. This killed interest in Magic cards for about a year, though there were plenty of other CCGs to fill the gap.
Meanwhile, a rather disturbing trend surfaced in the comic world – bad girl comics. Lady Death, Vampirella, and similar books were suddenly the hot comics, and were basically little more than porn for preteens. The stories all revolved around scantily-clad women with breasts the size of watermelons generally hacking and destroying their enemies. This attracted a whole new class of collector to the industry – the kind that took porno mags to the 7-11 restroom. I wanted no part of this.
I’d have to check my inventory lists to be certain, but by now I was carrying around 50-100K cards to each show. I considered how much easier it was to transport 50K cards over 50K comics, took another look at the current trends, and decided it was time to cut and run. At that show I marked all my comics to four for a dollar, regardless of age. I sold a rather ecstatic collector a complete run of Joker comics from the ’70s. I kept the really valuable books, of course; if nothing else they made a great backdrop behind me. But the rest of the crap had to go. I got rid of 75% of my books at that show.
This is parts 4.5 & 5 of our ongoing series on the speculator fueled boom and subsequent bust in the comics market during the early ’90s. Click here to start at the beginning with parts 1 & 2.
Part 4.5 – Noun Recounts More Comic Drama
As I was looking through my invoices last night, I realized I really glossed over quite a bit of comic history before the crash, not to mention some of the other factors leading up to it, so I’m going to fill in some of those blanks today.
Back up about a year before the actual crash. Comics were still riding high, with new titles and gimmicks coming out every month. I already mentioned Valiant and Image, but I completely neglected to mention the Malibu and Continuity universes.
Malibu’s Ultraverse comics looked great, and early issues really started attracting readers, especially issues of Prime. Marvel later bought Malibu comics, made a bunch of one-shot comics pitting Marvel characters and Malibu characters against each other, then pretty much left those properties to rot. One bonus of the acquisition was Marvel’s gaining the rights to Malibu’s Men in Black series, which became a very profitable film franchise.
Continuity comics was a pet project of Neal Adams in the late ’80s, and he decided to take advantage of the comics craze of the ’90s by ramping things up a bit. He released new issue #1s of his core titles (Ms. Mystic and Armor) and launched other uninspiring titles such as Cyberrad, Megalith and Crazyman. Writing was not Mr. Adams’ strong suit. Worse, keeping to a monthly schedule was all but impossible for Neal, especially when he was co-scripting and/or penciling 7 books at a time. New issues were infrequent, like four to six months apart, and most of the titles cancelled after two or three issues.
There were countless other publishers. Innovation released titles on such unlikely licensing prospects as Lost in Space, Dark Shadows, and Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer. Seattle’s own Fantagraphics had been publishing for decades, but still had difficulty maintaining a toehold in the market, despite the boom. Now Comics also released quite a few licensed adaptations, such as various Terminator books (before Dark Horse acquired the license), Green Hornet, the Real Ghostbusters, Twilight Zone, and Ray Bradbury’s Tales. Needless to say, the audience for these books were very limited, and their having to fight for limited shelf space with titles that were guaranteed to sell hundreds of copies apiece led dealers to avoid carrying them altogether. I know I didn’t stock them.
Not all titles were failures, though. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, published by Homage Comics, remains today among the best comics the industry has ever had to offer to both casual readers and collectors alike. If you don’t already have the four released trade paperbacks compiling the series comfortably resting on your bookshelf, buy them now. They’re that good.
One especially irritating trend at both Marvel and DC was their predilection for summer crossovers. For years, Marvel had some form of crossover event in all their X-books – Mutant Massacre, Executioner’s song, etc. It tended to bring all storylines in those issues to a screeching halt as the writers had to incorporate that year’s summer nonsense into their works, then try to carry on their storylines afterwards. Later, Peter David would cite this as one of the reasons he eventually got fed up with Marvel and left. DC, on the other hand, had crossover storylines that only took place in the annuals of their titles, such as Armageddon 2001 or Eclipso: the Darkness Within, usually resulting in the launching of a new title. The goal was to increase sales by introducing readers to some of the slower-moving books, but aside from the crossover issues themselves, this rarely worked.
Other publishers started to get into the crossover game as well, most notably the now-ironically named Continuity Comics with Deathwatch 2000, and Valiant with the whole Unity storyline. More on those in a minute.
And the gimmicks, oh lord, how the publishers abused the gimmicks. It should be said in retrospect, however, that most of these gimmick covers looked fantastic. Ghost Rider #15 glowed in the dark. Silver Surfer #50 featured an embossed cover. Sales response to those issues emboldened Marvel to take the excess to brand new levels. Hologram and prism covers regularly appeared, often in first issues, anniversary issues, storyline completion issues, and finally at random and in combination. DC, to their credit, limited their gimmicks to polybagged comics with posters and trading cards, and the occasional multiple cover thing. Soon, other publishers followed suit with hologram and polybagged comics. Valiant even went so far as to produce Turok #1 with a chromium cover.
However, this did not come without a literal price. Though beautiful, these comics were much more expensive than the regular issues. Turok #1, for example, retailed at $3.50 a copy, about double what the average comic was selling for at the time.
Remember Wizard magazine? These folks were marketing geniuses. Initially, most Wizard issues were polybagged with one Prism card produced especially for them, and drawn by one of the hot artists at that given moment. Later, they would include multiple preview cards from other non-sports sets, and countless exclusive posters.
But Wizard’s greatest coup was the “issue 0” program. Wizard would work with publishers to have them create mini-comics, 16 pages or so, that were available only by purchasing Wizard magazine. Customers filled out the coupon, add shipping and handling, and mailed them to Wizard before the expiration date. Wizard would then turn these orders over to publishers, who would print the books based on the number of order forms they received. These books became the genuine collectibles of the new comic scene, often later commanding fairly high prices. Back issues of Wizard magazine became more valuable than the comics they were promoting, the ultimate irony.
Back to non-sports cards. As I mentioned earlier, the line between comic and non-sport collecting was getting blurry. Publishers such as Skybox released multiple card series based on comic events, such as the Death of Superman and the ill-fated Bloodlines. Comic Images somehow secured the rights to Valiant’s Unity series, releasing an uninspiring set to support an uninspiring series. Skybox released the Ultraverse Masterpiece set, a somewhat premature move for a fledgling comic company, though the regular Ultraverse series were somewhat better received. Someone already mentioned Joe Jusko’s excellent Marvel Masterpieces set (also by Skybox). A company by the name of Classic released a Deathwatch card set, their previous claim to fame being a Mortal Kombat card set based on the video game, not the movie.
Before Marvel Universe series three came out (and subsequently bombed), Capital City included one of the holograms from that series (Venom, I think) in an issue of Advance Comics. This led to the bizarre situation of the promo card being worth more than the actual series, but that’s another story.
Jim Shooter was eventually forced out of Valiant (either during or immediately after Unity, I forget) and he went on to form yet another comic company: Defiant Comics. Now at first, these comics were really, really good. But it didn’t take Shooter long to screw it all up by starting the cross-marketing nonsense. Not only did they kill interest in the comics themselves with a crossover storyline, but they released issue #0s of their core titles, Plasm and Dark Dominion, as card sets. The idea was that if you collect the cards, put them in 9-card sheets, you could read them like a comic book. One problem – Diamond Distribution included a comic version of Plasm issue #0, in comic form, in one of their advance ordering magazines, about two months before the cards came out. Nice one, Jim.
In one of the most bizarre trends of the industry, Plasm card binders became very high in demand. These binders, little more than a typical three ring binder you could purchase at Office Depot, contained original Plasm art on the front, a coupon on the back for a free comic, and a hologram chase card from the card set inside the binder itself. At one point I was selling these for $75 each, far more than the comics or cards themselves. It was insanity.
This then was the scene of the early ’90s:
- Comic, card, and hype magazine publishers were working together to inflate demand for their product
- Comic publishers were producing gimmick comics at the drop of a hat
- These same publishers were absolutely abusing the crossover sales tactic, and working gimmick covers and trading cards into the deal (and final price)
- Dealers were finding themselves increasingly pinched each month, having to find a way to buy an increased number of comics, at increasing prices, and all the cross-marketed media associated with them, such as trading cards and hype periodicals
- Even worse, the collector’s themselves were forced to choose which collectible hype they followed. Dealers could buy everything and hope some of it turned out to be hot, or roll the dice and try to forecast the next trend
So the surprise is not that the whole market eventually imploded, but that it didn’t happen sooner.
Next: The fiasco known as Deathmate, and noun gets back on track with the whole card thing.
Part 5 – Deathmate: The Disaster To End All Disasters
I mentioned earlier how Marvel and DC were doing countless crossover storylines in their respective titles in an attempt to boost sales. Most of them ranged from mediocre to suck, as their existence and publishing schedule tended to be mandated by corporate executives who then gave the writers and artists a couple of months to put it all together. (I see yet another parallel to the gaming industry.)
Even rarer (but far more interesting) was when Marvel and DC would temporarily put aside their business rivalries, and allow their talent to work together and create stories using characters from both universes. Some of you may be old enough to remember the X-Men / Teen Titans or JLA / Avengers crossovers, both of which were considered outstanding at the time. Superman/Spiderman wasn’t as well received, but it’s worth a look just for the goofy ’70s feel. They eventually published a TPB compiling all their crossover stories from the ’70s and ’80s, which may not necessarily be worth a purchase, but is certainly worth checking out at your local Barnes and Noble.
Marvel and DC buried their respective hatchets during the 90s, for the most part. There were a few reasons for this. Most of the Marvel talent defected to DC in the ’80s during Jim Shooter’s reign so they were still on relatively friendly terms with the remaining staff. Also, Marvel had been hiring lots of fresh blood to replace the exodus of the team who went on to form Image. One of them, Joe Quesada, actually started his career at DC before moving on to form or work with a number of independent publishers, and eventually became editor in chief at Marvel. This kind of melting pot of talent helped dull the rivalries somewhat, as a growing number of creators had worked with more than just one comic publisher. I’m betting most of you remember the various Batman vs the Punisher titles, as well as the various iterations of Amalgam Universe crossovers.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that comics were a multi-BILLION dollar industry in the early ’90s. You really didn’t need any reason besides that to justify the creation of a new title.
Marvel and DC weren’t the only possible combinations of cross-company crossovers, though they were usually of the most interest to fans (and sadly, usually the most financially successful). I already mentioned the ill-fated Marvel/Malibu crossover. Batman/Judge Dredd was a fun read and a solid experiment, and it seemed that just about everyone fought the Aliens and/or Predator at some point: Valiant’s Magnus, DC’s Batman, and Image’s WildCATS. My personal favorite crossover was the Archie Meets the Punisher one shot, just because it’s downright fun and a good reminder of how comic publishers can put out genuinely creative and entertaining material if they work at it.
And then there was Deathmate.
Hot on the heels of Unity was an ill-conceived crossover between the Valiant and Image comic universes. According to Valiant’s Bob Layton, who at the time was a VP and chief artist, this crossover was born when Valiant’s owners worked out a deal with Image’s owners, who then threw the mess into Bob’s lap to work out. So from day one the project was doomed.
The general concept was this: each company would be responsible for releasing three comic books. Each comic book would contain a crossover story between one character or team from each book, with a Prologue and Epilogue issue to set up and end the storyline, respectively. Further adding to the confusion was that these books were not numbered, but were rather identified by the color of their covers. The rationale for this was that, aside from the prologue, readers could read the comics in any order. In the end, Valiant would be responsible for publishing Deathmate Prologue, Yellow and Blue, while Image would produce Deathmate Red, Black and the Epilogue.
You’ll remember I mentioned that comics and non-sport card manufacturers often worked in tandem, and that was the other half of this disastrous crossover. Not one, but TWO card publishers were sucked into this. Upper Deck committed to producing a card set based on Valiant’s Deathmate titles, while Topps was tapped to produce a set on Image’s Deathmate books.
Though swamped with managing a dozen existing titles and planning the launch of additional titles, Valiant managed to release all three of their books near the end of ’93 — on time. Upper Deck, having had access to the art prior to publication, released their set around the same time. Both releases were uninspired and only of minor interest to collectors, all of whom were anxiously awaiting Image’s books. By now, both companies had established their reader base. Valiant appealed to older readers (or investors) who were tired of the crossover nonsense. Image appealed to younger readers, who pretty much bought anything with the Image logo on it. Then it all began to fall apart.
Despite having released promotional art at the same time as Valiant, which usually indicates a book was nearing publication, Image was late in releasing their half of the storyline. They missed the release date several times, forcing Diamond to cancel dealer orders for their books and have them reorder. After a month or two, many didn’t bother. Topps, meanwhile, were forced to reschedule their Deathmate print runs several times. By the third delay, Topps had had it — they backed out of the contract entirely.
All of Image’s Deathmate books were eventually released – about 3-5 months late. What few fans the series managed to gather lost interest moved on by the time the epilogue issue rolled out. Rob Liefeld’s issue looked especially atrocious, and more people were finally beginning to admit that his drawing talents were marginal at best. One good thing came out of this whole mess — thanks to Rob’s inability to meet deadlines and consistently making Image look foolish, the other Image founders ended up firing Rob once and for all, and began taking some solid steps towards creating a respectable comic publisher.
More to come (in less than two months, I promise).
Unfortunately, this is where noun stopped. So we don’t get a satisfying ending. But having lived through the speculator bust, there really wasn’t a happy ending. It sent the industry into a tailspin that they are just now getting over. Publishers and dealers went out of business. Fans turned away from comics and the speculators left to ruin some other business. (When was Enron founded, anyway? I’m willing to bet Ken Lay got start-up money by selling back issues of Youngblood.)