The Story of The Great Comic Book Crash
How speculators and publishers caused the comic book industry to implode.
Every industry, particularly in entertainment, goes through its ups and downs. Motion pictures faced a slump when television became a staple in every home, and the coming of video games similarly affected television. Streaming services such as Netflix have all but destroyed video/ DVD rental stores and had a pretty big impact on sales of those items as well. Print media has been suffering for years due to the demand for people’s attention being pulled in so many different directions. However, not all forms of entertainment have suffered purely due to the introduction of new technology. Some did it to themselves.
In order for the story of the Great Comic Book Crash (™) of the 90’s to be told, some context of the industry at the time must be given. From their earliest beginnings in the 1930’s comics were bought for a dime, read, passed around to friends and then, eventually, discarded. It was never considered that they might have some kind of future value. So, landmark issues such as Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15 were thrown away, or sold at boot sales, or given away to younger siblings. They were, in essence, lost.
Jump to the 1980s and comic books were experiencing something of a rejuvenation with releases such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, DC’s epic Crisis on Infinite Earth, Marvel’s multi-media-spanning Secret Wars and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. These titles were different, mature and had long-running creative teams that were able to tell deep, mythos-defining stories. All of this made not only comic fans take notice, but also those who may have not picked up a comic for years, if at all. Suddenly, comics were seen as a legitimate art form, with Watchmen and Dark Knight in particular being prime examples of how comics did not have to be “just for kids.” Even the mainstream media was talking about comics.
This all amounted to a new interest in comics and those readers who had moved away from the hobby but retained fond memories of it became interested again. Due to a healthy economy, these ex-readers came back into the fold and rather than just buy new comics, they also wished to revisit the memories of past years. At this time there was no such thing as collected editions of comics so the only viable way to read old stories was to purchase back issues. Comic stores then — and still in many cases — did not return unsold stock and thus stores would have an amount of older issues for these returned customers to pursue, and the back issue market was born.
In 1991, the New York Times published an article entitled “Holy Record Breaker!” (because no newspaper story about comics can be printed without a play on the mediums’ infamous use of hyperbole and/or onomatopoeia) which told of the sale of Detective Comics #27 (first appearance of Batman) and Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) at auction for $US55,000 and $US82,500 respectively (roughly the equivalent of $US103,608 and $US155,412 today).
The result of this is that there was suddenly a huge interest in the value of older comics. Price guides were produced that created a — some might argue false — baseline of what back issues were worth. Comic stores began to look at their back issues as another way of making money rather than just being stock that would hopefully someday be shifted. Many marked their issues a bit higher than guide value to ensure a decent profit which artificially increased the perceived value of issues. As collectors began to buy up back issues certain key issues and runs became more sought after and thus demanded higher prices. Comic books had officially gone from a media that was discarded to one that was desired and collectible.
Amongst all of this, speculators started to take note. Speculators are those who buy an item with the hope that they will, at some point in the future, see a huge return in their investment as the value of that item rises. Seeing the values fetched by Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1 these speculators saw comic books as the next goldmine. The problem was, the sale of those two comics was all they based their assessments on. Those two comics were released at a time when, as mentioned earlier, comics were considered throwaway entertainment. As such, there were comparatively very few copies left. Add to this that they featured debuts of two of the most famous heroes in comic book history, with Action Comics #1 also considered the launch pad for the Golden Age of comics, and you can see why these two issues were so highly valued. However, not every comic is going to reach those lofty heights. This was a seemingly obvious point that was lost on speculators.
Instead, speculators began to buy up multiple copies of single issues that they felt would have some great value in the future. Number #1’s, first appearances of characters, issues by popular artists or writers; there were many reasons why speculators might think an issue could be valuable. Rather than just let issues sell out, publishers printed more and more.
Of course, the publishers were not ignorant to the sudden boom in sales. Whether they realised their sales numbers were artificially raised by people buying 10, 20, 30 or more copies of a single issue or not, they took the opportunity to take speculators and collectors alike for all they could. Established publishers such as Marvel and DC ended series only for them to return soon after with a brand new #1. New publishers such as Valiant and Image Comics entered the market with a host of new characters and, thus, new #1s. Speculators believed that all of these new #1 issues would someday fetch the same price as Action Comics #1 and bought them in bulk. Image Comics’ first issue of Spawn alone sold 1.7 million copies when the top-tier books from other publishers were selling 50,000.
And it just kept coming. Variant covers, issues in polybags, issues with holofoil covers, black and white covers, “virgin” covers (covers with just the art and no text, not even the book’s title), and more. All in smaller numbers, all marketed as “collectible.” Whatever the publishers could do to entice collectors and speculators to buy more copies of their issues, the publishers did. Of course, it could not last.
Eventually, the speculators realised that the reason that Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1 were so valuable was that so few copies still existed. Also, by the 1990’s Batman and Superman were both solidly ingrained into not only the popular culture of America, but of almost the whole Western world. However, no one outside of comics knew what an ‘Avengaline’ was, or even a ‘Scarlet Spider’. In many cases, their investment was now not worth as much as the paper on which it had been printed.
The market was oversaturated. Publishers, both old and new ones that had started up to take advantage of the boom, had produced so much content that no one could possibly purchase it all, let alone read it. Buyers were burnt out, collectors felt overwhelmed and the speculators looked at their piles of worthless comics and despaired. Stores were buckling under the weight of the amount of product, many of it now no longer shifting. Publisher’s books were no longer selling. It all backfired with many publishers and stores alike closing their doors forever. Even the mighty Marvel almost fell, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996, only to be saved by ToyBiz in 1997 when they bought the company.
While, as we all know, the comics industry survived this blow, it was a very close call. If it was not for ToyBiz’s acquisition of Marvel, and DC having the clout of owner Warner Brothers behind them to pull them through, the comic landscape could have been incredibly different. Comic book sales have never quite reached the levels of the pre-boom era — the best selling single issue in 2019 was Detective Comics#1000 which, with 83 (!) variant covers, sold 526, 941 copies — however it has stabilized. With more and more ways to read comics, including collected editions and digitally, the medium is more accessible than ever. With increased interest brought to comic characters and their stories via the films inspired by them the crash of the 90’s is, hopefully, something the industry will not experience again.
Originally written for a personal blog (no longer online) in 2019. This version has been updated and edited for clarity.