When did the early 1990s comics boom peak?

Spider-Man #1. X-Men #1. Spawn #1. Superman #75. All were rungs on a ladder taking the comics industry to its most dizzying heights ever during the industry’s early 1990s boom. But when did the market peak? When did the bubble start to lose air?

There are several possible answers. When it comes to simple unit sales, April 1993 takes the prize. It’s estimated that in excess of 45 million comic books were shipped to comics shops in that “Superman Returns” month — the most before or since. (They weren’t all bought — and they weren’t all paid for. But they were printed and shipped.)

Another possibility could be July 27, 1993, the ad deadline for the largest issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide in newspaper form to that point.

As the only weekly barometer then going back 20 years of publisher, distributor, and retailer investment in promoting comics to consumers, advertising in CBG generally gave a good snapshot of the condition of the market. The high-water mark came with issue #1031, cover-dated Aug. 20, 1993 — right before the San Diego Comic-Con. The single-section paper ran 176 pages, almost four times as long as average-sized issues from the early 1980s.

The pages of #1031 provide a snapshot of the commerce taking place in the field:

• Kingpin Comics offered comics to consumers by the case lot. (The firm, whose later ads guided consumers to comics with speculative potential, folded in 1994.)

• Lightning Comics promised to hold printings below 250,000 in order to enhance its comics’ collectibility.

• Harvey, an ancient kiddie-comics publisher, announced Nemesis, its own action-comics line.

• Special limited-edition, chromium, and/or premium-filled premiere issues were announced in full-page ads from a host of new publishers, including Majestic and GalaxiNovels; other full pages announced the launch of publishers Axis Comics and Tyranus.

The cover feature of #1031 spotlighted “Knightfall,” in which DC planned to take the Batman titles to the same sales success as the Superman titles a year earlier by replacing Batman. The keystone issue, Batman #500, sold amazingly well — more than 1 million copies — but nowhere near as well as Superman #75.

The editorial of issue #1031 provided a warning to publishers of the market’s precarious position. Don and Maggie Thompson wrote that 762 titles were solicited by Capital City Distribution for July, costing anybody ordering one of everything $1928.69, then an all-time high. Warning of what happened during the black-and-white glut, they wrote:

There are more stores, more comic-book purchasers (there is a question of whether there are more readers). But the audience has not grown enough to support this much material.

And do you know what? Some comic books last heard of during the black-and-white glut are back, adding to this new, larger glut.

After every glut comes a collapse and, with every collapse, there are casualties, including a lot of good titles and a lot of good publishers.

So, if you’re thinking about getting into comic-book publishing, our advice remains:


Don’t do it.

Not now.

Good advice, preceding a seven-year recession that took down many retailers, publishers, and distributors before ending in 2000.

But whenever the market actually peaked, it wasn’t entirely clear to many until January 1994, when, faced with the potential of staying open into another tax year, at least 1,000 shops shut their doors.

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7 Responses to When did the early 1990s comics boom peak?

  1. Michael Tierney says:

    Hey John,

    Superman’s Death in #75. I had a good feeling about it, but got a little paranoid before it shipped. Thought I’d gone crazy. Ordered more copies than I ever have of any comic ever! On release day, I limited people to no more than 2 copies each, and still sold out by Noon. That night, I went home to watch myself on the news, because TV crews had been on the parking lot fliming the crowd gathering outside my doors. Saw myself trying to repress a smile as I flipped the open sign.

    That was the peak. But it wasn’t the start of the decline.

    The fall came with Adventures of Superman #500. Everybody was certain that this would be a repeat of Superman #75, and customer reserve counts were crazy. I didn’t feel the same confidence, and ordered only enough to cover reserves. When the book didn’t immediately go up in demand, customers stiffed me on their reserves. And not just for that one issue. It’s like the bottom fell out of the fevered comic investment interest all at once. It was the start a full-fledged crash. My losses in the months that followed were staggering, and negatively countered any gains I’d made with Superman #75’s sales. I have a bunch of unsold copies of Adventures of Superman #500 still today.

    After that, the domino effect began. Valiants lost all appeal, as well as Image. Late shipping books stuck retailers with huge quantities ordered during the heyday months. The domino effect quickly turned into the Hindenberg effect.

  2. Don Butler says:

    Michael, just curious … Do you remember during Death of Superman if your regular customers ordered multiple copies or if you had new customers coming in to place reserves?

    I was on Comics Retailer at the time and vividly remember the number of new speculators opening accounts with Capital, Diamond, Frank’s, and any other distributor that would take their calls just to get access to comics. It seemed to me that just a small percentage of long-time comics readers were carried away in multiple copy/variant frenzy.

  3. Michael Tierney says:

    Hey Don,

    For Superman #75, I didn’t see a lot of speculation, until the day of release. Then I had people clammoring to buy my entire stock so they could mark them up and sell them at outrageous profits. That’s why I implemented the 2 copy per person restriction. Of course, some people would come in with their co-workers, their cousin’s wife’s sister’s kids, and anybody they could lasso off a street corner to buy another 2 copies for them.

    I probably had a few customers who’d reserved more than 2 copies in advance, but not many. 5 was probably the maximum. I did have a lot of new customers sign up for that issue, as the story had been going on for a while with Superman’s knocked out and dragged out fight to the (literal) death.

    But for Adventures of Superman #500, touted as the rebirth of Superman, I had tons of people all wanting mutliple copies. This was a lot of what scared me with the advance orders. Plus, the basis of the story had a built in flaw. If Superman was coming back, then that meant the #75 was no longer as meaningful. We’d had months of comics mourning the Death of Superman, and now he was going to start feeling better. So, in effect, the Death had really meant nothing of permanence, and so why should the #500 issue be important? Answer: it wasn’t.

    The reserve customer crash of Adventures of Superman #500 was also a huge revenue crash. Buying on a non-returnable basis, I was stuck with all the deadbeat orders. I learned from this, and changed how I handled reserve customers. Used to be that I’d set anybody up for free. After that debacle, I implimented a $10 set-up fee. And that policy has saved me a fortune. You wouldn’t believe how many former deadbeat customers have come back in, after having stuck me with hundreds of dollars of unpurchased books, and wanted to start their reserves back up again. For the deadbeats, I also impose a deposit (which can be used on their last purchase). They almost always change their mind at this point. And the $10 setup has stopped the people from frivolously opening reserves accounts that they have no real intention of honoring. $10 ain’t much. But when a person isn’t serious about returning, it stops a lot of problems before they start.

    One other point about Superman #75: I sold every single copy that I had at regular price. Didn’t even save a copy for myself. So the next day I had people trying all sorts of outrageous tricks to try an force me to sell copies that they were certain I had ‘stashed somewhere.’ Mothers with demanding kids can be even more demanding themselves when they want something. Some got pretty rude and obnoixous. And they just couldn’t seem to accept the words; “Sorry, sold out.”

    When I started buying back copies at increased prices, was the only time that I sold any above cover price.

  4. Phatok says:

    I think the 1990’s boom peaked when Marvel published Spider-Man # 1 with all the various covers. Once that happened it was like an ‘official’ had declared collecting comics for the comics themselves was no longer necessary. From that point foward, the comics took a back seat to the ‘collectability’ of the comic. Did the comic have a die-cut cover? A chromium cover? Was it packed in a plastic bag? What special “enhancement” was the publisher going to do to make that comic special and collectable?
    That’s what became the driving force for the industry, not the comics themselves or the creators of the comics.

    There is this mistaken belief that the bust which accompanied the boom was brought about by the normal cycle of “market correction” (glut). The truth is, the boom might have lasted a bit longer than it did, and the bust might not have been as bad as it was, had not Marvel, DC, Image and all the other publishers of the time messed with the distribution system.

    The major publishers attempted to corner the market, by messing with comics well established distribution system. All they saw was more and more publishers entering the field, and draining away sales from them. So they started the “Exclusive” Distribution” War that nearly destroyed the entire industry, and which is severely hampering it’s recovery today.

    Marvel’s recent announcement that it’s comics will soon be available in 7-11’s all across the country might have meant something 20 years ago, but today it’s really meaningless. It doesn’t really mean much because (A) 7-11’s USED to carry comics once upon a time (prior to the ‘Exclusive Distribution’ War) and Marvel is just attempting to get their comics back into a store that once sold their comics years ago and (B) most importantly, 7-11 is a shrinking operation whose stores are slowly fading into the sunset. Two decades ago there were five 7-11’s within a 10 minute drive of my house, now there is ONE.
    7-11 has been having financial problems for several years now, and many of their franchises are either closing or converting into mom & pop stores no longer affiliated with 7-11. This trend isn’t just exclusive to 7-11 either, it’s happening to other convience store chains as well, which means getting comics in these stores won’t help much if all the stores are closing. Well, I seemed to have gotten off topic here so I’ll just quit now.

    Dave Harszlak

  5. John Jackson Miller says:

    I don’t doubt the importance of Spider-Man #1’s implications, which I wrote about in CBG #1605 — and I pegged it as my choice for when the Bronze Age ended in CBG #1608.

    By the numbers, though, the dollar value of comics shipped to stores would triple between its release and 1993. I figure it as one detonator for the explosion — but not the point where the explosion began to fizzle out. (Have I stretched the metaphor enough?)

    The timing of Marvel’s initial steps to move into distribution — around the time of the Heroes World Distribution trade show in the spring of 1994 — does definitely fall in the period in which sales had already been collapsing (and stores going under) for some months. These early months of dropping sales, while probably not the only reason Marvel made the move it did when it did (the company was on an acquisition binge at the time), probably made tinkering with distribution look more attractive than it might have.
    –John Jackson Miller

  6. brettw says:

    >>The fall came with Adventures of Superman #500. < < Turok #1 was also a big downer. The issue was over ordered big time and was therefore worthless in terms of after market value, taking much of the glint off the Valiant shine.

  7. Nathan Melby says:

    The best is now talking to people who collected back then and still think the comics are worth something. A few months ago I talked to one of my best friends growing up and he still had all his “Death of Superman,” “Knightfall,” and other comics from that time period. I told him I would be interested in ourchasing them to fill some holes in my collection and when I offered him $20 for the whole box his jaw dropped. I then got the pleasure of explaining everything that has happened since he stopped collecting. Still got the box for $20 though!

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