The 1900s: The Century in Comics

[There wasn’t a Top 10 News Stories of 1999 done at the time; instead, the staff (plus Ron Goulart) generated the 10 most important comics events of the 20th century for CBG #1365, dated Jan. 14, 2000. They weren’t ranked, but rather placed in sequential order as seen below. It’s a nice little refresher history…

John Drury again provided the cover.]

The 1900s: 10 biggest events from 100 years in comics

It was, thank heaven, a boring year in comics — that is to say, without too many buyouts, bankruptcies, and goodbyes. So instead, at this time, we’ll cast our gaze back on the really big comics moments of the 1900s!

Famous firsts clear the way for funnybooks to follow
by Ron Goulart

American comic books and newspaper comics were born at about the same time. By the end of the 19th century, newspaper funnies were going strong, at least on Sundays. Books of various sizes and shapes containing comics, all of them reprinting newspaper strips, showed up soon after.

During the first decade of the 20th century, an assortment of them arrived. Among the earliest titles were The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Buster Brown. Comics featuring these characters were successful, but the strip most often seen in comic books during the years between the turn of the century and the advent of World War I was Carl Schultze’s Foxy Grandpa. From 1901 to 1916, more than two dozen books reprinted his rather bland pages about a clever old duffer who was continually outfoxing his two prankish nephews. “Bunny” Schultze’s feature had begun in 1900 in the New York Herald, one of the newspapers involved in the earliest reprint publications. Their books, some of which were hardcovers, were colorful and ranged from 24 to 52 pages. Some measured as big as 10″x15″; others were as small as 6 1/2″ x 7 1/4″.

Nearly as popular as Foxy Grandpa was Buster Brown. The creation of Richard F. Outcault, Buster had the mind of a prankish Katzenjammer Kid inhabiting the body of a Little Lord Fauntleroy. Between 1903 and 1917, Buster appeared in nearly two dozen reprint comic books of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Winsor McCay’s handsomely drawn Little Nemo made its appearance in just two comic books during these years. One was an 11″x16-1/2″ color reprint of Sunday pages issued in 1906, and the other, 10″x14″, came forth in 1909.

Collecting the strips. Late in 1902, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal introduced five titles, described as “the best comic books that have ever been published.” Each book had cardboard covers, reprinted Sunday pages in full color, and sold for 50¢. The titles, available from Hearst newspaper dealers across the nation, included Rudolph Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids and F.B. Opper’s Happy Hooligan. A book of Jimmy Swinnerton’s kid strip Jimmy was released in 1905.

Much of the color went out of comic books in the second decade of the century, when the black-and-white format became the standard. The daily comic strip, with Bud Fisher’s pioneering Mutt & Jeff as the role model, was becoming increasingly popular. Ball Publishing, in collaboration with Fisher, published its first Mutt and Jeff Cartoons book in 1910. Selling for 50¢, the book measured approximately 5×15ý and reprinted one daily strip per page. In his joking preface, Fisher, one of the first cartoonists to benefit greatly from merchandising, admitted that the only excuse for publishing the book was “to get the money.” Get it he did, since sales figures on that first book prompted Bell to publish four more books over the next six years.

The coming of Cupples & Leon. The largest and most successful publisher of strip reprints during the first three decades of the century was the now nearly forgotten Cupples & Leon. Based in Manhattan, the firm published more than 100 different issues of a variety of titles between 1906 and 1934. They issued the majority of their output in the ’20s. Like most of its competitors in the then-uncrowded field, Cupples & Leon reprinted newspaper comics and offered no original material. Among its titles were Buster Brown, Little Nemo, Mutt & Jeff, The Gumps, Bringing up Father, Smitty, Little Orphan Annie, and Reg’lar Fellers. Toward the end of the company’s involvement with the funnies, C&L reprinted three of the strips that would become staples of the modern-format, full-color comic books of the ’30s: Tailspin Tommy, Joe Palooka, and Dick Tracy. In 1934, after publishing final issues of Little Orphan Annie and Bringing up Father, the company took its leave of comics to concentrate on its many boys’ and girls’ fiction titles.

High adventure. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous jungle lord made both his comic-strip and his strip-reprint debuts in 1929. The daily strip adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, drawn by Hal Foster, started in newspapers in January. Later that year Grosset & Dunlap issued The Illustrated Tarzan Book, which reprinted the first 78 strips. While the cover of the 50¢ book said No. 1, there was never a second one. When the book was reissued in the Depression year of 1934, the price was dropped to 25¢. Mickey Mouse, cinema star since the late 1920s, first appeared in reprint books in 1931. These, published by the David McKay Co. of Philadelphia, reprinted the Mickey Mouse newspaper strips that were drawn by Floyd Gottfredson. The books appeared annually through 1934; three of them offered dailies in black and white, the other Sunday pages in full color.

Comics’ forerunner. About the only thing that came close to resembling a contemporary comic book in the years from 1900 to 1930 was an experimental magazine called Comic Monthly. It first hit the newsstands in January 1922, with each issue devoted to a different comic strip. The magazine sold for a dime, gave the reader 24 pages with a black-and-white daily on each page, and measured 8 1/2″x10″. It had a soft paper cover and was distributed by the Embee Distributing Co. of New York City. The format owed a great deal to Cupples & Leon’s two-bit reprint books. But because of the 10¢ price, the cheaper paper, and, most importantly, the fact that it appeared on a regular monthly schedule, Comic Monthly was much closer to the comic books that would emerge in the 1930s.

The first title in the 12-issue series was Cliff Sterrett’s Polly & Her Pals. Next came Rube Goldberg’s Mike & Ike, followed by C.M. Payne’s S’Matter, Pop? Subsequent reprints included Barney Google, Little Jimmy, Tillie the Toiler, and Toots & Casper. The “Em” in the company name stood for cartoonist George McManus, creator of Bringing up Father. His strip had been one of Cupples & Leon’s best-selling titles since 1919, which probably accounts for the similarity of appearance between the two lines. The “bee” in Embee was Rudolph Block Jr. His father had joined the Hearst organization in 1896 and became the comics editor of the Journal and the American.

Early in 1929 George Delacorte, founder of the Dell Publishing Company, also tried his hand at inventing a co
mic book. What he actually produced, though, looked more like a tabloid funny-paper section. Delacorte had concluded that the best part of the Sunday newspaper was the comics section and so set out to produce one of his own. The Funnies was a 24-page tabloid with a third of its pages in color. It came out each week and sold for 10¢. In its pages could be found such original features as Frosty Ayre by Joe Archibald, My Big Brudder by Tack Knight, Deadwood Gulch by Boody Rogers, and Clancy the Cop by Vic E. Pazmino, who usually signed himself VEP. Pazmino also provided most of the covers. The Funnies struggled along for 36 issues before expiring.

The first comic book. The first regularly published comic book in the standard format was Famous Funnies. Though it got off to a shaky start and didn’t climb out of the red until it had been in business for more than six months, it served as the cornerstone of what was to become one of the most lucrative branches of magazine publishing. For any one who had a dime in the Depression year of 1934, Famous Funnies offered dozens of characters, all of them from the newspapers. The lineup included Joe Palooka, Dixie Dugan, Hairbreadth Harry, Connie, and the perennially popular Mutt & Jeff. Buck Rogers was added in the third issue. The covers, usually drawn by the ubiquitous VEP, showed gatherings of the various characters and promised “100 comics and games.”

The success of Famous Funnies inspired a great many other publishers to jump into the comic-book business.

The faithful spread the word in fanzines
Maggie Thompson

As long as there have been comics, people have collected them. Scrapbooks have been filled with pasted-in strips, cartoons, and articles about favorites. Fan Edgar Church carefully stored his Golden Age comics away after he bought them – keeping them in such gorgeous condition that they carry a mystique to this day.

And comics in specific genres were treasured by fans of those genres through the years. The long-time science-fiction fan and historian David Kyle, for example, was so impressed in 1936 by such comics as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon that he did his own amateur publication about SF comics, circulated to fellow SF fans. Betsy and Ed Curtis (my mother and father) did an amateur magazine called The Cricket in the 1940s in which they discussed comics (and named their fanzine after a line from a Walt Kelly “Pogo” story in Animal Comics). In the 1950s, many devotees of the E.C. line of comic books corresponded, and some circulated their own publications devoted to E.C.

But it was in the 1960s that scattered comics collectors and readers contacted each other with the determination to produce an ongoing field in which old comics could be bought, sold, and discussed. The initial focus of some of these amateur publishers and dealers tended to be characters with masks and capes.

The smell of purple ditto fluid wafted through the basements and home offices of several dozen fanzine producers and the fluid stained the fingers of those same “publishers” during the 1960s. While some were short-lived one-shots, memorable fanzines of the time included Comic Art by Don and Maggie Thompson, Alter-Ego by Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas (the series of issues was collected in a trade paperback by Hamster Press in 1998), Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector by G.B. Love, and Fantasy Illustrated by Bill Spicer.

Amateur publishing associations had been going for years in the world of science fiction. October 1964 saw the first mailing of the Comics Amateur Press Association’s CAPA-alpha #1, with fannish pioneer Jerry Bails as the Central Mailer.

Super-heroes hit the scene, hard
by Brent Frankenhoff

While comics themselves had been around for a few years when Superman came on the scene in Action Comics #1 (Jun 38), his debut heralded a change in comics, the age of the super-hero. Those earlier comics, for the most part, had consisted of newspaper strip reprints and an occasional page of new humorous cartoons.

Despite what would appear to be his overnight success, The Man of Steel was not an instant hit. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland teen-agers, for a mimeographed fanzine, Superman was initially marketed as a newspaper strip for several years, meeting with rejection after rejection. Finally, when Action Comics #1 was scheduled to begin, a cover feature was sought and, as fate would have it, Sheldon Mayer, a young editor at McClure Syndicate, had Siegel and Shuster’s proposal on his desk when DC’s Jack Liebowitz called searching for material. The strip was sent to DC editor Vince Sullivan who ordered the daily newspaper strip laid out in comic-book format.

During the final years of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, DC, and virtually every other comics publisher, introduced scads of super-heroes, or “mystery men” as they were also called. Many of the earliest had trappings of science-fiction, including secret laboratories, rocket ships, and fantastic gadgets to help them in their fight against crime, while others, such as Batman, relied more on their wits and physical prowess to win the day.

A number of Superman imitators with similar powers popped up as well, with the best-known being the original Captain Marvel, who gained his powers from a pantheon of ancient gods invoked by crying the name of the ancient wizard Shazam. An entire family of Marvels eventually joined the pack.

Other super-hero innovations of the early days of what would later be termed “The Golden Age” included the teaming of DC’s most successful heroes as The Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3, a feat duplicated by Timely (later Marvel) a few years later with the short-lived All-Winners Squad. Crossovers other than these teamings were rare; however, several characters would appear together on the covers of some of the anthology titles such as All-Winners, Comic Cavalcade, and World’s Finest.

In an effort to give younger readers someone to identify with in the adventures of their favorite hero, the youthful sidekick was introduced with the advent of Robin in Detective Comics #38 (Apr 40). More children were placed in harm’s way by their super-heroic mentors over the next few years, including Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes, The Human Torch’s Toro, and The Sandman’s Sandy the Golden Boy.

While many adventures of early super-heroes were grim (Batman, for example carried a gun in his early adventures and didn’t hesitate to use it), there were also humorous aspects such as The Flash’s “helpful” trio of Winky, Blinky, and Noddy.

The adventures of many of the lesser super-heroes began to fade away as the 1940s ended, but DC’s big guns of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman would continue to have adventures throughout the 1950s, with no fewer than nine titles devoted to the trio’s adventures, and were in the forefront when The Silver Age began.

Bad comic books! Baa-aad comic books!
by Maggie Thompson

When Chicago Daily News Literary Editor Sterling North denounced comic books on May 8, 1940, it was only the opening salvo on the industry. Coming two years after the introduction of Superman, the attack said comic books were “a poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years.” North said comic-book publishers were “guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents.”

Ever since, comic books have bounced along a bumpy path on their trip to recognition as an art form. Attacks have far outstripped public honors, and for every “legitimization” of sequential art as worth attention (here, a Pulitzer Prize, there, a World Fantasy Award), there seem to be five lawsuits against comics and the shops that sell them.

It was at its worst in the 1950s. World War II had put comics in the hands of American servicemen around the globe – and by the early ’50s there were several titles aimed at an audience long out of the nursery. As more and more series were aimed at older readers, alarmed critics complained that newsstands were carrying comics that weren’t fit for toddlers.

In 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had told parents, “Crime books, comics, and newspaper stories crammed with anti-social and criminal acts, the glorification of un-American vigilante action, and the deification of the criminal are extremely dangerous in the hands of the unstable child.” And some censors did not want even stable adults to see comic books that might be unsuitable for youngest readers. (Chicago officials, for example, halted distribution of Charles Biro’s Crime Does Not Pay in that city.)

In a March 1948 Town Meeting of the Air radio broadcast, Saturday Review of Literature drama critic John Mason Brown described comic books as “the marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house; the curse of the kids; and a threat to the future.”

It’s no wonder that by 1954 there were comic-book burnings, other anti-comics demonstrations, Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, and, finally, the Comics Magazine Association of America’s introduction of the Comics Code. In one stroke, comics were sent back to the nursery, and many comic-book publishers were put out of business.

In 1989, in Illinois v. Correa (familiarly known in the comics community as the “Friendly Frank’s case”), a comics-shop manager was charged for having in his shop material for adults. Out of the case was born the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to help fight legal problems for comics creators and retailers. Cases continue to this day. Within the last 12 months, for example, a 35-year-old West Virginia social worker was taken into custody for selling a copy of Elfquest to a minor: his son.

Pastor Martin Niemoeller said years ago, “In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Information is available from Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 693, Northampton, MA 01061,

Unfortunately, it led to comics with apes.
by Brent Frankenhoff

The “official” beginning of The Silver Age has been almost as hot a debate topic as, “Who’s faster, Superman or The Flash?”
In CBG #1360, appropriately enough, Mr. Silver Age weighed in with his opinion on the subject. His verdict was, “The Silver Age started with Showcase #4 (Sep-Oct 56). It ended with Fantastic Four #102 (Sep 70), Jack Kirby’s last regular-run Marvel issue (#108 was published well after Kirby left), and with Superman #232 (Dec 70), Mort Weisinger’s last issue before he retired and the title shifted to Julius Schwartz

There was a dearth of super-hero adventures in the early 1950s. With the exception of the introduction of The Martian Manhunter in Detective Comics #225 (Nov 55), it wouldn’t be until 1956 that DC Editor Julius Schwartz felt the time was right to test the waters for the return of the super-hero. His first pick was The Flash and he reintroduced the character with a jargon-filled “scientific” origin in Showcase #4 (Sep-Oct 56). A few more adventures of The Scarlet Speedster followed – as did a gradual reintroduction of such costumed folk as Green Lantern.

The Silver Age really picked up steam with the beginning of The Marvel Age of Comics and the publication of Fantastic Four #1 (Nov 61). The Fantastic Four, as most fans know, was Marvel’s answer to DC’s highly successful Justice League of America. Other Marvel heroes, whose adventures dealt with both world-shattering menaces and common criminals, quickly followed. Like DC, Marvel also returned several of its Golden Age characters, including the Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four #4 (May 62) and Captain America in The Avengers #4 (Mar 64).

While many fans consider Marvel and DC’s output to be the be-all and end-all of The Silver Age, other companies also produced super-hero adventures that are fondly remembered by their fans.

The American Comics Group, for example, jumped on the bandwagon with Magicman, Nemesis, and the strange hero Herbie. (It would take eight issues of the latter’s title before he would don a super-hero costume — long johns, a plunger, and a cape – and become The Fat Fury.) While none of their adventures had real historical impact, they were light-hearted fun hearkening back to The Golden Age.

Charlton produced its own line of super-heroes, including The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Nightshade, and Peacemaker. When DC acquired the properties in the early 1980s, they introduced the heroes to the DC universe in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and later published new, revamped adventures of the heroes.

Archie also didn’t let the Silver Age super-hero bandwagon go by. Several of its Golden Age super-heroes (Steel Sterling, The Fly, and The Jaguar) got a new lease on life in the 1960s, while the Archie gang dressed in tights and fought crime in a series of goofy adventures.
The beginning and end of The Silver Age may be up for debate, but there is no doubt that the era produced a number of exceptional stories and seminal characters, many of whom continue to this day.

First conventions prove therapeutic
by Maggie Thompson

In the earliest days of comic-book collecting, almost all the activities came in the privacy of home. Maybe you had a buddy at school who read some of the same comics you read. Maybe you came across another newsstand visitor who bought what you were buying. But it was a solitary hobby – and some adults pretended it wasn’t even theirs. “I’m just picking this up for my little brother.”

Once fans started writing to each other and contributing to amateur magazines, though, it was natural for them to want to meet their correspondents – and the professionals they admired – in person. It started with small groups of like-minded people, and in 1964, Bernie Bubnis put together a Monday-afternoo
n event July 27 in New York City that was promoted to fans.

Following a successful mini-con the year before, Detroit-area fans, including Shel Dorf, put on the Detroit Triple Fan Fair in 1965. Dorf would later take the lessons learned and start the San Diego Comic-Con with other California fans.

By 1966, conventions were proliferating, with John Benson’s two-day event in July following much the same format as conventions today – minus a dealers’ room. Most of the adults in attendance were professionals, and there were only four females: Western novelist Lee Hoffman, SF fanzine Xero Co-Editor Pat Lupoff, Marvel Secretary Flo Steinberg, and me. Program items included a debate between Don Thompson and the Comics Code’s Len Darvin — and a speech by Jack Kirby. Stan Lee didn’t attend, but Roy Thomas and Jim Steranko did – as did Gil Kane, Otto Binder, Wally Wood, Klaus Nordling, Jerry Robinson, and Archie Goodwin — and a report of the convention by Paul Krassner appeared in Cavalier. The majority of the attendees came about to shoulder height of the adults, as kids flocked to events and covered the hall floors, trading comics and talking about their favorites.

Before the end of the year, Dave Kaler put on another NYC show — and he did get Stan Lee. Eventually, cities with large enough fan groups picked dates and put on shows around the nation.

Conventions have served to not only unite fans, but have brought together comics pros in an atmosphere of creativity. Pros who labored in anonymity for years have discovered how much the fans appreciated and admired their work. And the conventions have grown to include material for fans of not only comics, but also its science-fiction roots, and ancillary genres.

What price, comics? What’ll you give?
by Maggie Thompson

During almost three decades of publication of periodical color pamphlets of cartoon stories (comic books, to you), the only way to get issues you missed was to plow through stock at thrift shops and the like. A very few dealers in back-stock magazines made comics available, but there were few standards.

In 1961, comics fans started contacting each other in earnest, and the number of dealers began to increase. Moreover, collectors began trading with and selling to each other. Slowly, steadily, comics prices began to go up. In 1965, Michael Cohen and Tom Horsky produced the digest one-shot The Argosy Price Guide for the Argosy Book Shop in Hollywood.

By 1970, though, it seemed that back-issue prices had stabilized, and collector Bob Overstreet went through dealer listings and Jerry Bails’ Collector’s Guide to the First Heroic Age and was supported by other researchers to release in November 1970 The Comic Book Price Guide. There were 218 pages of listings in the saddle-stitched digest – and for the first time comics buffs had an incredible resource tool.

Until then, fans collected in a hobby which had no inventory list — and no way to work out what they might need to spend to get what they needed. Overstreet estimated his print run at 1,800 and doubled that in the next edition. A copy of the eight-year-old Amazing Fantasy #15 in Mint condition was listed at $16, more than 100 times its original price of 12¢. No wonder some fans were hostile to its very existence!
Yet it was an incredible research tool from the very beginning — and it provided an information base which continued to expand every year. By the mid-1980s, other price guides — many of them specializing in specific aspects of the field- – had proliferated. And some of those prices had reached heights undreamed of only 15 years before. (That Amazing Fantasy #15 in Mint condition 15 years later was listed at $1,100. And in 2000? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000.)

In addition to their value as a research and pricing tool, price guide can also identify multiple printings of a given issue, or counterfeit comics as in the case of Cerebus #1 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1.

First comics shops meant no more snide comments from the 7-11 clerk
by Maggie Thompson

In the late 1960s, underground comix were distributed to “head shops,” which added that reading matter to an eclectic mix of stock which included drug paraphernalia. Some of these establishments began to branch out and offer customers a selection of other comics, including back-issue stock.

It’s estimated that, when the Berkeley, Calif., comic-book shop Comics & Comix was founded Sept. 5, 1972, there were fewer than a couple dozen comics shops in the country. In 1975, Phil Seuling — who also was a pioneer in New York City comics conventions – began direct distribution of Marvel and DC comics to such comics specialty shops.

The carrot Seuling offered the publishers was that the stock he ordered was ordered on a non-returnable basis. Unlike the arrangement in the newsstand market — which took comics at random and could return unsold copies — Seuling’s plan meant that the publisher knew (even in advance of setting the print run) exactly how many copies it had sold.

In addition to comics from those mainstream publishers, Seuling provided a venue for comics from small publishers aiming at the new direct market, including such series as Cerebus (1977), Elfquest (1978), and Sabre (1978).

It took five more years after these smaller projects for DC to release the first issue of Camelot 3000: a 12-issue maxi-series produced exclusively for the direct-sales market. A year and a half later (Spring 1984), Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman released 3,000 copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, and the impact of the direct market could be felt into the general entertainment industry.

April 1992 was the cover date of the first issue of Comics Retailer from Krause Publications. It was the first controlled-circulation trade journal for the comic-book specialty field — a trade journal which celebrated its 100th issue in May 2000.

The number of comics shops approached 10,000 during the speculative boom of the early 1990s, but quickly contracted. In 2000, there are approximately 3,600 comics shops in North America. Most do not carry comics solely, but a wide range of comics-related products including games, videos, and action figures.

Publishing becomes a populist movement
by John Jackson Miller

As stores and mail-order services developed in the 1970s, the instant collector’s item comic book became more of a possibility, with demand spiking — and, often, dissipating — for newer titles of the times such as Conan the Barbarian, Howard the Duck, Red Sonja, Uncanny X-Men, Warlord, New Teen Titans, and G.I. Joe.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that interest by collectors interested in acquiring multiple copies of titles for their short-term resale value grew strong enough to cause publishers to respond. The direct-market distribution system made it possible for independent publishers to reach a majority of existing stores, and it had already genera
ted a number of cult hits such as Cerebus and Elfquest. In 1984, the appearance of another independent black-and-white title first advertised in the Apr. 6, 1984 CBG, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (with a print run of only 3,000) combined with a PR campaign to create a collector’s item of then-unimagined proportions. The title went to five printings, and consumers caused runs on other contemporary independent titles.

The real boom — and subsequent crisis — took hold when comics publishers, traditionally slow to respond to trends, took advantage of the simplicity of the distribution system and the affordability of producing comics in black-and-white to produce dozens of new titles claiming to be the next “hot collector’s item.” From late 1985 to early 1987, every other comic book seemed to be a play on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title: Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Cold-Blooded Chameleon Commandos, Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos, etc. But, while first issues of several series shot to $10 or thereabouts, the steadily growing volume of titles available made for few buyers for recent back issues — and, eventually, for new titles, as well. Once the hit and miss of investing in black-and-white titles became mostly miss, collectors returned their attentions to color titles from traditional publishers. By the time the dust settled, many independent publishers, retailers, and one major distributor were out of business.

Comics take over the world, then give it back
by John Jackson Miller

Comics has always been a cyclical business, but the trebling of the business from 1991-1993 — and the subsequent return to 1990 levels — were like nothing ever seen. Those who understood how the market reached the top of the cliff weren’t surprised when it went in the ditch. Newer players weren’t so lucky.

As in the mid-1980s, the consumer base had swelled with adolescent males, and the distribution system made it easy for new companies to reach a mass audience.

However, the differences were profound and had a major effect. First, computer separation processes made it easier for anyone to produce a color comic-book, and a plentiful, low-price paper supply made it cheaper to publish them. Second, an additional half-decade had caused the number of potential creators, publishers, and retailers to explode. And, most important, whereas the wave of speculation in the mid-1980s had come from within the comics-collecting community thanks to media attention focused on comics, the new, larger wave of speculators came in from outside the hobby. Speculators who had already collapsed the sports-card market were seeking new items to invest in, and comic books were already present as sidelines in many sportscard stores. As they began investing in comic books, many publishers, old and new, targeted products to them, and several price guides went to monthly publishing schedules.

Because of the magnifying effects of the speculators, fan interest in the launches of Marvel’s “adjectiveless” Spider-Man title in 1990 and the “adjectiveless” X-Men title in 1991 exploded into sales sensations – by some reports, selling 1 million and 7 million copies respectively. But, unhindered by sentimental allegiances to Marvel or DC, these new customers sought out products of new, non-traditional publishers. Valiant Comics titles appreciated in value quickly, as did those from the upstart Image Comics in mid-1992.

But it was “The Death of Superman,” a storyline in DC Comics titles, that was the watershed. Promoted heavily by the publisher as a major news event, it evidently caught many networks on a slow news day. On Nov. 17, 1992, DC shipped between 2.5 million and 3 million copies of Superman #75. They vanished from stores, as the issue brought more new customers into comics stores than ever before. In Detroit alone, more than 175,000 copies sold in one day. Retailers couldn’t keep up with demand, and some hiked prices that day as high as $30 on the copies they had left. Price resistance was nowhere to be found, and customers unable to buy copies bought whatever else they could find. The few thousand retailers shared in what may well have been a $30 million day for the comics industry.

Understandably, perspective became difficult to come by.

Such gimmicks as signed-and-numbered comics, “zero issues,” comics with premiums, and comics with special-effect covers were introduced by publishers to meet this new demand for specialty items, the net effect really only being an increase in price that lingered long after the gimmicks were gone. Meanwhile, such cable shopping channels as the Home Shopping Network and QVC began selling these “enhanced” comics at high prices to a consumer base that really didn’t know much about the products.

Speculators turned their attention to new products as quickly as they could hit the market — turning their attentions from Image to DC to Marvel to Valiant to Defiant and back again so quickly that retailers couldn’t keep up. New companies hit the market with little information, and many were talked of by speculators as “the next big thing” even before they went to press. At least one price guide was found to be printing after-market prices on comic books that hadn’t even been published yet.

As before, the glut of new comic books – more than 700 per month by mid-1993 — eventually strangled the life out of the speculator boom. “Next big things” Majestic, Dagger, Triumphant, and others failed to capture the same lightning, and speculators began to leave the hobby in droves, often leaving retailers with heaps of unsold material. Other non-speculators — long-time fans — left for other reasons. The quality of comics in general had suffered during the glut, and the perceived entertainment value declined as the price of paper skyrocketed in 1994.

Whatever the causes, the effect on retailers was a disaster. Reports said that close to 1,000 of the stores which had appeared to meet the additional demand had closed in the first quarter of 1994. Survivors tightened orders considerably, and by 1995 little remained of the speculator market for new comic books.

Now that the demands of the remaining consumer base have redirected publishers toward producing and retailers toward buying works of quality, some stabilization is occuring at last. Retailers, who had cut orders to the bone, have reported stronger sales and have been reordering comics that they were initially too conservative on. Problems remain in 2000 — some players remain are too cash-poor to take full advantage of a healthier market — but the wild ups and downs of speculation seem to be a thing of the past.

For now…

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