The 1990s was a decade that changed the comic book industry forever in any number of ways, whether it was the speculator-fueled boom and bust that killed a number of smaller publishers; massive storylines like the Death of Superman; Spider-Man being replaced temporarily by a clone; the removal of a number of key characters from the Marvel Universe due to publisher decree; or a number of business decisions that have repercussions to this day.
Image Comics and the frenzy that preceded it
The story of the ’90s really begins in the 1980s. Comics were always about star creators, but by 1986, people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore had became iconic. Younger artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were watching as that happened. At the same time as Miller and Moore became stars, the Ninja Turtles became a phenomenon which showed there actually was the chance to get rich quick creating and selling comics. Then there was the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie, which showed comics could get attention and popularity from the general public. During those few years, McFarlane was becoming a star on Amazing Spider-Man, and he was paying attention to what was happening to the older generation.
Those trends came to a head in 1990 with McFarlane’s “adjectiveless Spider-Man,” which set him up as a star creator and sold a cumulative 2.35 million copies. That comic showed a young star creator could sell a crazy number of comics and demonstrated to people both inside and outside comics that there was a new era dawning.
From there, the ’90s as we think of them really started. The next year Jim Lee’s X-Men No. 1 sold over 8 million copies, and that runaway sales success sparked the gold rush of people looking to pay their kids’ college funds with profits from holographic issues of Fantastic Four, The Death of Superman, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Youngblood. When they found their copy of Bloodshot No. 1 was worthless because everyone owned that comic, that helped spark the bust in sales that crushed the industry for the rest of the decade.
At the dawn of 1992, comic books were booming. Tim Burton’s Batman had kicked off a new wave of big-budget film adaptations. Superhero products could be found in nearly every aisle of every department store and supermarket. New comic shops were springing up in shopping centers and malls, publishers were seeing their highest sales figures in years, and new companies were making names for themselves as serious players. And Marvel Comics was the unquestioned big fish in the pool, with their stock booming in the six short months since they’d gone public, and an unparalleled creative stable.
But big changes were afoot. In December of 1991, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee, Marvel’s three biggest artists, informed publisher Terry Stewart that the company’s policies toward talent were unfair, that creators were not being appropriately rewarded for their work, and that they were leaving, effective immediately. In the month thereafter, they joined forces with a few more like-minded artists from Marvel’s top-selling titles, worked out a deal with small publisher Malibu Comics for production and distribution, and decided on the title for their new company — recycling a name that Liefeld had originally intended for an aborted self-publishing venture. On February 1st, 1992, a press release was sent out announcing the formation of Image Comics.
The details of who exactly was involved were a bit vague, and conflicting reports appeared almost immediately: George Perez and a number of other name creators were rumored to be participants. But once the smoke settled, the founders of Image would forevermore be established as McFarlane, Liefeld, Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Whilce Portacio. (Chris Claremont was also listed in initial press reports, as he had been planning to team with Portacio on a new title called The Huntsman, but once Portacio decided to create his own series from scratch, Claremont turned his focus to projects for DC Comics.)
Just to put in perspective what a big deal this was: in June of 1990, Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 had become the best-selling comic issue of all time, touching down with 2.5 million copies. In June of 1991, Rob Liefeld’s X-Force #1 broke McFarlane’s record, with five million copies sold. And just two months after that, Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 trounced all previous numbers, selling 8.1 million. These weren’t just some hot-headed hotshot creators — these were the people behind the three biggest comics ever, at the top of their game. In the world of comics, this was like the Olympic Dream Team, The Highwaymen, and United Artists, all rolled into one.
And it wasn’t just a big deal to comic readers, but also to the market in general. Marvel Entertainment Group was a publicly traded company, and comics were becoming big business. Barron’s was the first mainstream outlet to note that many of Marvel’s top talents were leaving, in an article focused on the company’s unsustainable business practices, and once CNN’s Moneyline ran a story on the formation of Image, it was official — the rules of the game had changed.
Of course, as happens with any ambitious new undertaking, there were bumps that had to be ironed out. The Image founders had plenty of ideas, but they were suddenly faced with the realities of producing titles from scratch, handling their own scheduling, and operating without editors keeping things on track.
The company was founded on the tenets that each creator would own their own work, each partner would operate with total creative autonomy, and the only IP that the umbrella company itself would control was the Image name and logo — and while this was noble and idealistic, it meant that the company’s launch was a bit disorganized, and everything ran late right from the get-go.
Liefeld’s Youngblood was the first title out of the gate, but issue #1 didn’t go on sale ’til April, a month or so after it was expected. McFarlane’s Spawn #1 was the second Image issue to hit stores, and while it was cover-dated May 1992, it wasn’t actually released until the first week of June. Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #1 arrived the last week of June (actually beating its cover date of July), but #2 was delayed until October. Jim Valentino’s Shadowhawk #1 and Jim Lee’s WildCATS #1 didn’t arrive until August. Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce #1 finally showed up in October.
But late or not, each of these books became a smash, topping sales charts and establishing new benchmarks for the success of independent comics. And while the “collective democracy” approach of the founders meant that some questionable titles ended up getting released over the first few years of the company — case in point: Image Plus #1, a book that consisted entirely of creator bios and Q&As, and contained no comic material whatsoever — the founders also quickly opened their doors to other writers and artists who wanted to create their own properties.
Some company founders also actively expanded their own corners of the Imageverse — Lee and Liefeld’s respective studios recruited young talent and produced a number of titles that spun off from their core franchises. And the company grew and matured quickly enough that by early 1993, they were able to establish their own central publishing office and cut ties with Malibu.
The effects of Image’s success were immediate and far-reaching. Creator-owned comics weren’t just relegated to niche markets any longer, and publishers began to realize that they needed to offer better deals.
Within a couple years, other groups of creators banded together to launch Image-esque imprints of their own, most notably Bravura (published through Malibu), and Legend (published through Dark Horse). For a new generation of comic readers, creators’ rights became a natural part of conversations about the industry, rather than a distant afterthought.
In the years since the company’s formation, Image has shifted, changed, and evolved. Rob Liefeld resigned (or was asked to leave) in 1996, and returned in 2007. Jim Lee left in 1998, bringing his Wildstorm imprint and all associated trademarks and characters to DC Comics, where he continued to oversee his family of titles until he was named co-publisher of DC in 2010. Robert Kirkman, who got his start at Image writing Superpatriot for Erik Larsen in 2002, and went to create Invincible and The Walking Dead, was made a partner in the company in 2008.
Image’s slate of titles has been in a constant state of flux, as befits a publisher where all rights reside with the creators — at various times, Mike Allred’s Madman, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City, and Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming’s Powers have all appeared under the Image banner.
The publisher has also given a home to some of the medium’s most distinctive voices; provided a home for many of the craziest, coolest, strangest, silliest, and smartest titles one could hope to read; and established the most brilliantly diverse slate of any publisher. And under the guidance of publisher (and former Liefeld employee) Eric Stephenson, the company has gone to new strengths.
There are three core causes to the comic book market crash of the 90’s whose roots began around this time. 1) Collectors and speculators 2) The Retailers and Distributors and 3) Executive Boardroom battles within the Publisher’s, specifically Marvel. Let’s look at each of these individually.
Collectors and speculators misjudged the market and just what made those newsworthy collectibles like the Wagner and the first appearance of Batman so valuable. In short: They are extremely rare. These things were made at a time when they weren’t considered collectible, when the paper was recycled for the war effort, when kids rolled them up and stuck them in their back pocket. To be read, traded and most likely discarded. Not many survived. But companies like Marvel and Upper Deck started to manufacture collectibles and rarities in the form of new first issues and rookie cards with gimmick covers and slick card stock. They featured deaths and major events within their pages. People ate them up en-masse, stuck the collectibles in their white boxes in the basement, bagged and boarded, with the promise that in 20 years they could put their kid in college or they’d be able to pay cash for that new Mercedes they keep seeing in the neighbor’s driveway. Superman is dead! That issue will be as important as Action Comics #1 (so they were promised). Batman’s back broke and there’s a new X-Men #1! Buy buy buy. The problem here is that everyone got the message.
Another contributor to the crash was the publishers and corporate greed. This one might be complicated but I’ll do my best to break it down for you. A year after New World Entertainment began their 3-year ownership (they bought Marvel in ’86 for $46M during the Cadence Industries liquidation) stint at Marvel, Jim Shooter (the man who helped the boom of the mid-80s) was fired. The roots of the crash start here. It was not long after this – 1989 actually – that Ron Perelman (via Andrews Grp.) bought Marvel for $82.5 Million dollars. Perelman’s goal was to create something much larger than a comic book company. He wanted an Entertainment company and, in the short term, was successful. To appease shareholders his mandate was to increase prices (they’d gone from 0.65 cents in 1986 to $1.25 by 1993 (… $2.17 in today’s #s, adjusted for inflation). The title line itself ballooned massively during this time but so did profits. This massive push was a strain on the bullpen and ideas started to form in the minds of a few to leave and start their own venture. By 1991 Tom DeFalco (Shooter’s replacement as EIC) and Ron Perelman took the Marvel public which caused stocks to shoot up even higher. Perelman’s strategy at this time was to issue “junk bonds”, backed by Marvel Entertainment Group’s rapidly rising stock value. Perelman purchased other companies like Fleet in 1992 for $340 million dollars and 46% of ToyBiz in ’93. This is where two important players entered the arena: Avi Arad and Ike Perlmutter, both joined the Marvel Board of Directors. Perelman was also opening holding companies like Marvel Holdings and Marvel Parent Holdings to spread out operating losses and reduce tax payment requirements. These new holding companies also became collateral upon which he issued additional junk bonds. Money was good at the top.
In the middle of this period there was a controversial speech delivered by Neil Gaiman about Tulips.
During the very late 80’s and early 1990s there was Diamond Distributors and Capital City who shared the burden of delivering comic books to all of the comic book shops across America. During the height of the boom, that number of shops reached somewhere around 10,000. With the promise of big returns and a very healthy market of consumers to sell to, people unfamiliar with the particulars of how to run a shop and manage inventory were getting in on the boom. Collectors and even Wall Street investors were opening shops, drawn by the promise of better ROI’s than some bonds after reading about those big auction sales in the paper. To feed to proverbial hunger of all those collectors and speculators at the peak of the boom in ’92/’93, the distributors lowered the “entrance fee” to become a retailer. Just $300 could set you up with an account in good standing and – boom- just like that you’ve gone from collector to retailer. But that doesn’t mean you have the experience, and the additional cash-flow to continue beyond that. And, just like the collectors, shops misjudged ordering. Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics estimates that 30% of new stock ordered from 1990-1994 ended up as over stock. These inexperienced store owners, cannibalized sales from more established stores. Publishers only saw sales figures at the retailer level (not what shops actually sold in store). Distributors knew shops were over ordering but were making money so they let it happen. What comic stores were left with is entire boxes and rooms and basements of unsold comic books and cards. And those unsold books led to the closing of nearly 6,000 Comic shops. We’ll talk about the bottom falling out and the burst in a moment.
So what happened? While most say that 1993 Valiant/Image inter-company crossover event DEATHMATE was the nail in the coffin, one could portend that the exodus of creative from Marvel to the newly minted Image Comics in 1992 was the start. Why? They were creative and when it came to running their own publishing company, they didn’t fully understand the business side. So when it came to their titles and, eventually, the Deathmate crossover, they were plagued with delays – called Schedule Slip – and issues with not understanding the other company’s characters and what people like about them. The delays were so bad that peoples’ demand for the book and interest in them waned. Part of the problem is that stores had already pre-ordered the $4.95 book based on initial demand 2 months before hitting shelves. All those promises of permanence, namely with DC Comics’ “Death of Superman”, an event that made the evening news, proved to be empty promises. Less than a year after Superman died, DC decided to bring him back. When they did, collectors went to sell their Superman 75s and found that everyone else already had multiple mint copies stored away. That thing they didn’t understand about the Detective Comics #27 or the 1909 Honus Wagner was that they were truly rare because they just weren’t around. Just print “Collectible Issue” on the cover does not make it collectible or rare. Some estimates have the print run on Superman #75 in the 3-4 million copy range.
And the bottom dropped out.
By 1994, Marvel was reporting losses of $48.5 million dollars range. Alan Greenspan, fearing an inflation spike, had instituted a rate hike which dumped the Dow causing stock to fall sharply. Capital City Distributors, in response in part to the massive delays of Deathmate, instituted penalties for “schedule slip”. This propelled Marvel to buy their own distributor and distribute in-house via Heroes World. Capital City’s competitor Diamond Distributors did not want to lose a third of their business to Marvel’s in-house distributor so they bid aggressively for exclusivity on Dark Horse, image and the DC titles. Comic book shops didn’t like having to put in 2 orders, pay for double shipping and – frankly – couldn’t afford it in a large number of cases. Smaller publishers were going out of business like Defiant and Eclipse and Malibu. Eventually even Capital City, after clients like TSR shut down, went out of business themselves …. Leaving Diamond as the sole distributor for the entire country and an infrastructure that was far from support shops on that scale.
The Major League Baseball strike of 1994 and the NBA lockout in 94/95 killed demand on collectible cards and demand fell drastically on Fleer and Skybox cards which Marvel scooped up in 95 for $150 million. As money slowed and Perelman kept buying, Marvel’s debt soared to $700 million even after taking ToyBiz public. Perelman had convinced investors to buy $900 million in junk bonds but these were only backed by Perelman’s own shares.
Both retailers and publishers misjudged the market. ”We couldn’t get a handle on how much of the market was driven by speculators,” Perelman said; “the people buying 20 copies and reading one and keeping 19 for their nest egg…” At the worst of the bubble, in 1996 there were just 4K shops nationwide. Buyers had left, disillusioned, which meant less orders, cut titles and less product for store shelves.
Around the Christmas of 1996, Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and thus began a corporate boardroom and courtroom war between Ron Perelman (an owner of 80% of marvel but whose value was all but pledged to all those issued bonds), corporate raider Carl Icahn (an investor who was buying up Marvel bonds at 20% of their value) and the ToyBiz team of Avi Arad and Ike Perlmutter. The Chapter 11 filing was partially to save Marvel, since a collapse of Marvel might’ve meant the collapse of the entire industry, and partially to block Carl Icahn from getting a majority ownership of Marvel. But in the end, Chase Manhattan made their choice so Ike Perlmutter and ToyBiz won out. In 1997 they bought the rest of Marvel and formed a new company, bringing them out of bankruptcy however the industry truly hit a nadir around the year 2000 and has been slowly evolving since then.
Sandman, Starman, and the independent scene.
Quickly, there were notable, literary comics that arose in this period of the early 1990s. Some were driven by corporate comics. Others were independent.
Here are some important titles and a sentence about why they were important:
- Hellboy – an independent series created by Milke Mignola. It was wildly successful because of smart writing and smarter art work that leans toward graphic design rather than traditional comic art.
- Bone – An independent comic. Often referred to as the “Lord of the Rings” for adolescents in the 90s. Jeff Smith created an interestingly odd pairing of cartoonish characters and naturalistic characters in a story that featured cow races and mystical forces. One of the most truly unique mash-ups of all time.
- Sandman – a metatextual story about storytelling by Neil Gaiman and a host of inventive artists including cover artist, Dave McKean, and the most celebrated of his interior artists: P Craig Russell
- Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and the Authority, all written by Warren Ellis who became one of the most interestingly prolific writers of the 21st century (so far). You probably know him as the main writer for the Netflix series: Castelvania.
- Starman – By James Robinson and Tony Harris is a generational tale of a black sheep learning to become a hero, which sounds really normal, but it was one of the most centered, personal stories to come out ofd super-hero comics in an age dominated by Image.
Here is a link to Marvel’s explanation of how they rebounded.
Essentially, a couple of dedicated writer/artists named Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were given the reigns to produce 4 Marvel titles as Marvel was trying to recover from Chapter 11. The main thing they did to change the industry and Marvel’s situation in particular, was they took chances, valued artistry and story over “flashy” images, refused to use “tricks” to get people to buy the books, and concentrated on trying to make stories that were re-readable and didn’t require an audience to know the backstory or continuity of what preceded their stories.
The level of success they achieved is a story for when we discuss the 00s in media history.